The Catholic Thing
The New Martyrs Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 13 January 2011

A car bomb just killed seven Coptic Orthodox in Egypt. There are almost daily attacks against Christians from the Philippines across the Muslim world to Nigeria. And in India, with a population almost equal to China’s, Hindu Fundamentalists have harassed Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity and native villagers have assaulted Catholic missionaries. These religious conflicts are regrettable and Benedict XVI eloquently regretted them and several others earlier in the week (Egypt promptly recalled its ambassador to the Holy See). But there’s a whole other category of violence against religious people that is far worse and largely overlooked.

As someone who knew well the large forces of the modern world, John Paul II made a point of organizing an act of remembrance at the start of the new millennium for those he termed the “new martyrs.”“New” in this context does not mean simply “recent.” John Paul intended to call attention to a whole class of victims of various nefarious forces in the twentieth century and beyond – victims whose absence from our consciousness gives a false picture even of the secular history of modern times.

Many people, especially in the developed world, find it hard to take seriously that there has been systematic Christian persecution in modern times, especially of the Catholic Church as the largest and most cohesive Christian body. When my book The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century appeared in 2000, the Washington Post assigned the review to a young woman who instructed me that I didn’t understand that “Catholics just happened to be living in the wrong countries” in the past century.

        Coptic Christians mourn loved ones killed in the January 1, 2011 bombing in Egypt

Forget that Hitler threatened in his table talk that he would “crush the Church like a toad” or that the Soviets brutally suppressed the Ukrainian Catholic Church, making it the largest underground religious body in the world. During the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans slaughtered whole monasteries, seminaries, and convents of religious, and all but a couple of bishops – who happened to be out of the country. For the first time in Europe since ancient Rome, defenseless Christians (in this case, priests) were once again killed by wild animals, in Spanish bull rings and, after they died, in a perversion of the customs of the corrida, the Christians’ ears were cut off and passed around as souvenirs. Anti-Christian brainwashing experiments on seminarians occurred in Communist Romania.The governments of Vietnam, North Korea, and China abused and continue to abuse independent believers well into the twenty-first century.In China, a Communist government, determined to avoid what happened to the old Soviet Union, makes sure there are no religiously inspired solidarity movements or outspoken bishops that it does not control.  

Secular journalists, the large majority of whom have little interest in religion themselves, usually chalk up violence against religious people to the kind of thing that they assume always happens between different faiths. But almost everything mentioned above – save a few religious fundamentalists – involved secular forces attacking religious believers. When journalists notice this fact, they tend to slip into interpreting such conflicts as a confirmation that the “real” conflicts are over tangible things like economics or politics. The idea that a murderous anti-religious ideology per se is abroad in the world, even perhaps in a lesser form in our bourgeois democracies, just doesn’t seem possible. Secular, rational states are what free us from religious and other irrational passions, aren’t they?

The whole question of what counts as “rational” in the public square needs to be re-visited, and soon. Nazism was rooted in mad biology, Communism in something more difficult to specify. Marx thought he was developing “scientific socialism,” a kind of social science that drew on philosophy and economic data (though Marx flubbed the latter and missed the great rise in workers’ wages that got started as he was fulminating against capitalism). Are we as wary about the ways that biology and social science can be misused as we are about misuses of religion?

For a certain kind of naif, religion – even in the modern West – is always on the verge of crusades, inquisitions, sectarian warfare. Religion, specifically Christianity, always seems to be living in the twelfth – or is it the seventeenth? – centuries, and in the worst possible neighborhoods. Meanwhile, churches today – the Catholic Church prominently because of its size and scope – care for more AIDS patients worldwide than any other institution does; educate poor children in many places where otherwise virtually no schools would exist; and work for the material and spiritual welfare of people in sad places like Haiti before, during, and after big charismatic events like the earthquake, without much fanfare.

There’s always an asymmetry between the churches and the critics because the good people in the churches don’t do PR campaigns, don’t arrogate credit to themselves, don’t do what they do to make a partisan point. Christopher Hitchens is getting a lot of sympathy these days from Christians as he battles throat cancer. Few remember that he wrote a nasty book, The Missionary Position, attacking Mother Theresa for her supposed authoritarian streak (personally, I’ve decided not to read it until Hitchens picks up at least a few dying beggars from the gutters of Calcutta in exemplary non-authoritarian fashion). Richard Dawkins has castigated the mere fact of a religious upbringing as child abuse. But other than teaching Cambridge students to be even more supercilious towards the benighted believing classes, what has Dawkins done for children?   

Since the Tucson shootings, there has been a lot of discussion, most of it inflated for political purposes, about inflammatory rhetoric. The New Martyrs are there to remind us that it’s not only those “clinging to guns and religion” and shunning “science and facts” who threaten violence. Indeed, we have ample, painful experience in the modern world that the truth can often be exactly the opposite.

Editors Note: Thanks to all of you who were able to contribute to our end-of-year fund drive. We made our goal, in the very last days, thanks to one large and many smaller donations. I doubted we would, but shouldn’t have. This is a joint effort of writers and readers that I often feel enjoys special graces. We all enter 2011 now with renewed enthusiasm and hope. Thanks again, to you all. – Robert Royal  

Robert Royal
is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is
The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

© 2011 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to:  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing
is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Jacob Richard, January 13, 2011

For me this website is one of the few bright lights amongst the darkness.

It's been a blessing to have a place to come for reliably sane and often brilliant commentary. I also love the links to other academic level articles (which of course lead to other great news sources), as well as other prescient articles from more "average Joe" commentators and of course the "Notables"!

So if you couldn't tell I'm super happy with the whole website over here.

If at all possible hire more writers, make them write more articles! The people want more!
written by Ray Hunkins, January 13, 2011
That totalitarians, secular or religious, brook no competition for the obedience and loyalty of those under their yoke? Shocking!
written by John, January 13, 2011
Not to quibble but Hitchens has esophageal cancer; that would stifle the voice but not the virulent pen. One is tempted to say, "he'll get his," but many of us are still praying he sees the light as his Third Act is about done. Dawkins appears to be a lost cause. Ironic, isn't it, that both gained fame and fortune by using the word "God" in best-selling books while denying His existence.

As for your other observations, Dr. Royal, the suffering of Christians worldwide is rarely news, especially to the New York Times, which relishes publishing front-page stories on the alleged failings of the Church.

One longs for true justice in this world. More reason to pray, Come Lord Jesus, soon!
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, January 13, 2011
So pertinent. The responses to the Tucson shootings also show the 'psychologizing' - if I may put it that way - of violence as yet another attempt to transpose and sanitize the category of evil into something that we can fool ourselves that we can at least grasp. Yes some psychological experts did evaluate the shooter. That data does not replace the fact of evil in its worse form which is to cause the death of innocent.
written by Dennis Larkin, January 13, 2011
In the unnecessary wrestling between Faith and Science, Catholics should familiarize ourselves with writings like those of Paul Feyerabend, atheist philosopher of science who shows how Science is largely a sort of tribal perspective, reductionist in the extreme. He documents, among other things, that there is no such single thing as the Scientific Method. And he expertly defends the Church against Galileo. Hitting scientists between the metaphorical eyes with work like Feyerabend's will help demoralize them and encourage us.
written by Bill, January 13, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Royal. On Richard Dawkins: Please beg, borrow or steal a video called EXPELLED and watch Ben Stein interview Richard Dawkins. Stein repeats the question: "Where did life come from?" and finally Dawkins relents-I am not sure. Perhaps from aliens from another planet. Another interview in the video is with a Dr. Berlin. You would think he is an orthodox Catholic theologian, but, as yet, he is not Catholic.
written by Graham Combs, January 13, 2011
A few years ago on the TV series THE UNIT, special forces were sent to a country a lot like the Philipines to rescue American missionaries who were held hostage. The ostensibly American forces were openly contemptuous of the missionaries, blaming them for their own suffering. "Meddling" is the word I believe. (Meanwhile, Harpers Magazine published a cover article vilfiying the American military for being too Christian!) Where I work the slaughter of Chaldean Catholics was met with silence when mentioned -- this being an enlightened and pro-choice workplace. (A large bookstore chain by the way.) The Vatican has sent Cardinal Turkson to explain to "certain circles" of American Catholics as he put it at CNA just what the terms "social justice" and "gifts" mean. If Americans are wary of the rhetoric, perhaps the events of recent years, months, and weeks is one reason. Christophobia being pandemic in our media and international institutions, including the UN and EU, who use "social justice" and "civil rights" as often as "racist/sexist/homophobe hater." Alternatively, ordinary Americans, not their govt, send around $300 billion (with a "b") overseas every year in humanitarian aid. When I mentioned that fact, I was told "you shouldn't brag about it." Is it really "cultural chauvinism" to be grateful that Americans are the most generous people on earth -- and that includes our middle and working classes. Yet it seems that it is the Christian origins of that compassion that are suspect here and targeted abroad. Here in the Archdiocese of Detroit vandalism and theft at our parishes is becoming epidimic. Again why? We are an economically struggling Catholic community that still managed to send over one million dollars to Haiti last year through collections not appropriation (the AofD has laid off employees and consolidated parishes in the past three years). It isn't so much the contempt, but the fact that our civic culture is now obstructing the Church's Christ-given mission to help the sick and poor and those without homes or families. I don't see this trend changing for the better. Do you?

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author