Friday, August 29, 2014

Martyrs Old and New

Today the Church commemorates the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Today's liturgy treats John the Baptist as a martyr - even though he obviously was killed before Saint Stephen, who has the honor of being titled the first Martyr, even though he died before Jesus himself did, and he died not because of either his explicit faith in Christ or Herod's hatred of Christ. According to the Collect, "he died a Martyr for truth and justice." How did that make him a martyr in the precise sense the Church usually intends when it uses that title? As the Venerable Bede (672-735) eventually explained it: "His persecutors demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. ... Therefore, because John shed his blood for the truth, he surely died for Christ." 

In the modern Church's official canonization process, the governing standard for martyrdom has been a voluntarily accepted death for the sake on account of the faith or another virtue related to God (propter fidem vel alium virtutis actum in Deum relatum). The 20th century witnessed many martyrs - more, perhaps, than in all previous centuries. Three fairly famous 20th-century martyrs - Maria Goretti, Maximilian Kolbe, and Edith Stein - crowned their lives of saintly witness of Christ with a martyr's death under somewhat unique circumstances that also seemed to stretch the traditional understanding of martyrdom. Of Maria Goretti, whom Pope Pius XII called a "martyr of chastity," Kenneth Woodward wrote that "she is also an important figure in the history of making saints. Technically she did not die for her faith. Rather she died in defense of Christian virtue - a significant though by now routine expansion of the grounds on which a candidate can be declared a martyr." (Making Saints: How the Catholic church Determines Who becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why, 1990, p.123.) Woodward also acknowledges, however, that this "door has been there for a very long time, waiting to be opened" (p. 150), and he cites Saint Thomas Aquinas (apparently Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q. 124, article 5, reply to objection 3), "Human good can become divine good if it is referred to God; therefore, any human good can be a cause if martyrdom, in so far as it is referred to God.

After the "martyr of chastity" came the "martyr of charity," Saint Maximilian Kolbe. His story is familiar enough to need no repetition here. What is intriguing about his case is that, after beatifying Kolbe in 1971, Pope Paul Vi did refer to him in an address to a visiting Polish delegation as a "martyr of charity," but he did not actually beatify him as a martyr. That change occurred 11 years later at Kolbe's canonization by Pope Saint John Paul II. On that occasion the Pope declared," in virtue of my apostolic authority I have decreed that Maximilian Maria Kolbe, who after his beatification was venerated as a confessor, shall henceforth be venerated also as a martyr." By doing so, Woodward suggests, John Paul II further opened "the possibility of bestowing the title of martyr on a wider range of candidates" (p. 147).

The Edith Stein case was perhaps the most complicated, since it concerned the Holocaust and the reasonable suggestion that, regardless of her Catholic faith, she died essentially because of her Jewishness. Despite some significant Jewish opposition, she was indeed beatified as a martyr by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1987.

The election of a Pope from latin America has revived hopes in certain quarters for the canonization of Oscar Romero, regarded by many as a martyr since his assassination in 1980. Personally, I have always found convincing the argument that his was a political assassination, motivated less by hatred of Christ, the Church, or the Catholic faith than by hatred of a political ideology correctly or incorrectly associated with Romero in the minds of his assassins. But history also shows how hard it can be to separate out religion and politics in any decisive way. (Think of Saint Thomas Becket!) So perhaps Romero's case may advance and with it further ground broken in the applicability of the concept of martyrdom.

All of which brings us to James Foley, the Catholic journalist who was murdered last week by Muslim terrorists on behalf of the so-called "Islamic State" (known variously as ISIS or ISIL or just IS). Some (including it is claimed even the Pope in a private conversation) have informally referred to his as a martyr. Based on what we already know about his life and his spirituality, certainly a plausible argument could be made in his case for heroic sanctity. Martyrdom is another story. But it will be interesting to see how this discussion develops and where it leads.

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