‘Affettata santità’. When holiness becomes a crime

by Leonardo Rossi


Among more than 12,000 Catholic saints, blessed, venerable, and servants of God there are several that we could consider to be pretty bizarre (Martyrologium Romanum, 2004). Saints who live on columns in the desert, saints without skin or being ‘cooked’ on the grill, saints who speak to animals, saints who do not eat or sleep, saints experiencing hallucinations and altered states of consciousness. Nothing embarrassing or wrong in the eyes of the Church. According to Rome illness, whether physical or mental, and holiness are not incompatible. The Lord grants to all his creatures the possibility of sanctity; it is up to them, by practicing heroic virtues, to deserve a place on the Catholic Olympus.


Catholic saints

The Holy See accepts everyone as potential saints: men and women, young – even children as Andrea Oxner (1459-62) or the ex-saint Simonino (1472-75) – and old, of every language, nation, and eventually even when coming from other faiths (see the famous case of Edith Stein (1891-1942). However, it definitively does not accept but instead condemns the criminals of the faith, the simulators of sanctity. Who are, according to ecclesiastical law, the false saints? Basically, they are those who have been found guilty of the crime of ‘affettata santità’ (aspiring sanctity): to simulate holiness by demonstrating divine gifts that are the outcome of fraud for obtaining personal benefits. This crime has ancient origins and has been defined in parallel with the codification of its virtuous opposite, canonized sanctity.

‘False’ and ‘true’ holiness have a common denominator: the fama sanctitatis, a ‘spontaneous, genuine, continuing and lasting reputation for holiness with which the majority of the community’s members defines a person rich of Catholic heroic virtues’ (Canon 2050 § 2, Codex Iuris Canonici, 1917). When the rules had not yet been rigidly established and the people and local clergy had full power in the election of the saints, there was not a clear distinction. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ holiness became subjects of discussion during the conciliar works of Trent (1545-63), when the Catholic Church dogmatically decreed the legitimacy of the cult of the saints and sanctioned the norms for the canonical process, claiming the competence for the Vatican congregations. With rules becoming rigid and an increasing Vatican intervention in the sanctity issue, the cases of aspiring holiness increased. The 18th century marked an important turning point in this sense. In De servorum dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione (1734-38), Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (future Pope Benedict XIV) set out the criteria and steps necessary to achieve the ecclesiastical titles of venerable, servant of God, blessed, and saint. As a consequence, we see a marked increase in cases investigated and condemned for false sanctity in the Vatican archives. In fact, from the 18th century their number increased, reaching its peak especially in the second half of the 19th century and in the first part of the following century (please note that the material preserved in the Vatican archives is available until the end of the pontificate of Pius XI, February 1939).

vs saints

Saint Catherine of Siena vs witch/aspiring saint

Who are true saints and who are fake? We can answer this question by simply saying that the true saints are dead, silent and therefore ‘speak’ through the – predominantly posthumous – hagiographies. Their heroic virtues have been decreed by designed processes, first at the diocesan level and subsequently at the central level (since the reform of 1983 the beatification can be reached by an officially approved miracle, one more is required for the canonization). During this process, the profile of sanctity of the candidate is written, rewritten, and adapted to fit into a specific and approved model. In contrast, the false saints are ‘living saints’. Their ‘title’ has no official recognition: they gave it to themselves or, most of the time, it was the local community that spontaneously approved their charisms by acknowledging respect and veneration. ‘Living saints’, therefore, could speak and publicly show their paranormal phenomena, attract believers and create devotional practices, claim religious leadership and sometimes challenge the legitimate holders of power. Although they claimed to be good Catholics, and in most cases their goal was to live a life of pure and intransigent Catholicism (several ‘living saints’ have in fact later been recognized as official saints by the Church), the reasons for which they can be potentially dangerous for the Holy See appear quite evident. In fact, they represent a sort of popular counter-power to the bureaucratic and formal organization of the Roman Church and its standardized way of choosing champions of the faith.


Vatican City

Who decides what/who is sacred and what/who is not? The pope. The pontiff is at the head of both congregations called to judge aspiring candidates for sanctity. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (even today still better known with the ancient, although not exactly correct, name of Sant’Uffizio) has the task of judging the living cases of alleged mystics, charismatics, prophets, and stigmatics. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints, on the other hand, deals with the next phase, namely in verifying, controlling and establishing their heroic virtues after their death and in decreeing their sanctity. Both recognize the pope as the highest authority. He signs decrees of condemnation as well as canonization. Clearly, his is a symbolic function rather than a directive; a large team of experts (both ecclesiastics and laics) is called to carry out the practical work. Besides the Vatican congregations, it is also necessary to remember the role of the provincial clergy (religious orders, bishops and archbishops), who also have power and responsibility, especially in the local phase of the investigations.

Who are the false saints? They are a heterogeneous category of people characterized by a popular reputation for holiness spread on local and/or (inter-)national level, based on public acceptance and belief in their alleged mystical gifts. Among the 129 folders preserved in the archive of the Holy Office concerning the crime of ‘affettata santità’, a considerable number of cases involve alleged stigmatics, living in the 19th and 20th centuries. The close correlation between ‘fake’ saints and stigmata can be explained by considering the strong visual-emotional impact of the stigmata. The exhibition of the sacred wounds of Christ on their martyred body convinced groups of people and entire communities to see in them the divine approval of the holiness of the bearer. In addition to the stigmata many cases display other gifts as ecstasies, prophecies, visions. The majority of stigmatics, and consequently also false stigmatized saints, are women. Regarding their status, we can see in the modern age up to the first half of the 19th century a dominance of religious, while in the second part of the century and in the 20th century they are mainly lay, young women who became incredibly famous public personae and living saints.


Affliche: ‘Notificazione di affettata santità’

Among the oldest and most interesting cases kept in the archive of the Doctrine of the Faith there is the one of Lucrezia Gambara (1704-1737), a young peasant from Alfianello (in the province of Brescia, in northern Italy) who was convicted by both diocesan and Holy Office courts of the crime of aspiring holiness. In December 1728, while awaiting Mass, she fell into an ecstatic state and showed the stigmata on her body. In a few days the news of the prodigy went far beyond the boundaries of the small community, reaching Rome and spreading to the rest of the peninsula. Before the religious authorities could take action against Lucrezia, it was necessary to calm the people who had stood in defence of the ‘saint’. Only through a denigrating campaign, in which she was portrayed as mad and obsessed by the devil, was it possible for the clergymen to break up the deviant cult.

About seventy years later, in Sardinia, another case of ‘affettata santità’ upset the balance in the local community. A young nun, Maria Rosa Serra (1766-after 1806), claimed her charisms by publicly showing her bodily wounds. Thousands of faithful and even the Savoy princes went to her monastery in Ozieri (in the province of Sassari), recognizing her spiritual (prophetic) and office powers: the title of abbess and the management of a rich patrimony. In this case, too, when she confessed to the local bishop her manipulation for obtaining a saintly reputation, the local population took up her defence, bursting into unrest and protests. Among the most remarkable examples of false holiness there is the case of Palma Mattarelli (1825-1888), who lived in a small village in Puglia at the time of the Italian Union. Her prophecies, levitations, miracles and stigmata made her an international celebrity, as demonstrated by the visit of the famous doctor of the stigmata, Antoine Imbert-Gourbeyre. Over ten years of examinations, sending an apostolic visitor and censorship were necessary to counter her popularity, which nonetheless ended only with her death.

Not all the people suspected of ‘affettata santità’ were censored or condemned by ecclesiastical trials. Only the most serious cases were in fact officially tried by the Holy Office, which was committed to spreading the news through the public circulation of affiches that revealed the discovered fraud. The Church generally adopted precautionary forms such as the replacement of the father confessor, isolation, persuasion. Other times, though only very rarely, the cardinals of the Vatican congregations changed their minds. This happened both for the famous stigmatic of Pietrelcina, Padre Pio (1887-1968), and for the Calabrian founder Elena Aiello (1895-1961). After years of suspicion, investigations, and preventive measures, official canonization processes were opened after their deaths: he is revered as a saint and she as blessed. Their re-appreciation was posthumous, evidently, because the Church no longer needed to fear their uncontrollable and popular charismatic power. Through the canonical processes their profiles were purified from the ‘uncomfortable’ elements and made uniform to that of other saints.

The distinction between holiness and false sanctity is often made on a razor’s edge, mixing political, social and economic reasons. Even the greatest experts often showed huge doubts, such as the lawyer of the Holy Office Angelo Bughoni: ‘Is the defendant a saint or an impostor? If she is a saint then all doubts about her fame will be a huge problem for religious authority to determine her answerability.’ (ACDF, St. St., B 5-a, Appendix II, 1). To this day, the fathers of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith struggle to establish the definition of the sacred and to take actions against the cases of ‘affettata santità’.



  • Pierre Adnès 1990), Stigmates, in Dictionnaire de Spiritualité ascétique et mystique doctrine et histoire fondé par M. Viller, F. Cavallera, J. De Guibert, et A. Rayez (Paris: Beauchesne), tome 14, coll.1211-1243
  • Anne Jacobson Schutte (2001), Aspiring Saints. Pretense of Holiness, Inquisition, and Gender in the Republic of Venice, 1618-1750 (Baltimore-London: The Johns Hopkins University Press)
  • John Tedeschi (1991), The Prosecution of Heresy. Collected studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies)
  • Gabriella Zarri (1990), Le sante vive. Profezie di corte e devozione femminile tra ‘400 e ‘500 (Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier).

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