The canonical assessment of sanctity and the concept of heroic virtue: Historical development and fundamental questions

Bijdragen 66 (1):65-87 (2005)
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For many centuries, heroic virtue has been for the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints the golden rule to assess sanctity. It was Prospero Lambertini who developed the criteria, setting an extremely high standard that at the same time fitted the various types and stages of human life. With the shift from admiration to imitation of the saints, new methods of studying their life became necessary. From the 20th century onwards, heroicity of virtue was defined by the Congregation in terms not of unusual and extraordinary actions, but the constant and exact fulfilment of the duties of one’s state of life. Sanctity in the canonical sense, according to the Second Vatican Council, differs in degree and does not constitute a different species in the genus “good Catholic”. The new laws for beatification employ no longer the courtroom model, investigating separate virtues, but the academic model of researching and writing a doctoral dissertation, with the accent on a person’s spiritual growth. What makes the saints different from other Christians is their particularly focused passion; the real significance of their life, however, only becomes clear when it is over. It is then, too, that we can understand their specific mission and their meaning for the life of the Church, as tradition at its most living and models of holiness for their particular age. The study of the live of the saints , necessary to assess sanctity, needs its own method. Belonging as they do to a tradition that is essentially religious, the true image of the saints is best perceived by the light of faith. Hagiology cannot, however, ignore modern science. Not only does it depend on the material gathered by historians, it also needs history and psychology for its interpretation. The final judgment pertains to the Pope, or to be more precise, to the Spirit



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