On Martyrdom

In 197 AD, Tertullian wrote: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” We usually take this principle for granted. One might wonder, however, if Tertullian would still conclude the same way today. It begins to look more like: “The blood of martyrs ends Christianity.” The systematic destruction of Middle-Eastern Christians along with their buildings is a step 1) to inner Muslim unity, and 2) to a Realpolitik pacification project (religion causes war). Two different “theories” justify the same act. The one involves active persecution; the other involves doing nothing.

Thinking about martyrdom once seemed like a no-brainer. People were killed for refusing to worship false gods. In the early Church, this bloody end was the primary way to recognize sanctity. It was some time before other titles to sanctity were admitted. Martyrdom was the primary test of the truth of the faith.

We see young Coptic men beheaded on the spot for refusing to convert to Islam. We recognize our helplessness. No one is going to “do” anything about it. We hear the pope and Middle-Eastern bishops plea for help, but, they add, help without violence, without war. Qui vult finem, vult media ad finem. You cannot have it both ways. If you command no armies of your own, you depend on those of someone else. They have their own agenda.

Into this mix, something different arises. Throughout history, the concept of martyrdom was relatively clear. Writing of the 17th Century Christian martyrs in Japan, Shusaku Endo, in his novel Silence, described authorities who only wanted to torture Christians so they would apostatize. Killing them gave too much status. Recent Chinese dealings with Christians seem to follow the same policy. Martyrdom was counterproductive. It caused more trouble to its perpetrators than it was worth. Still, it happened.

Formally, the ones who did the killing usually thought that they were carrying out state policy. Martyrdom was not homicide. There were martyrs of virtue, to be sure, women killed for their virtue.

The new reality that we have today is the Muslim who kills anyone who is not Muslim on the grounds that he is guilty for not being Muslim. If a Muslim is killed while killing an infidel, he, not the one killed, is the “martyr.” Such a concept is mind-boggling. The Muslim who is killed while killing is the martyr, not the one whom he kills.

"St. Stephen, First Martyr" by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1870
“St. Stephen, First Martyr” by Dom Prosper Gueranger, 1870

In Shakespeare, we have the murder of a man while he is in the act of committing adultery. This indicates a level of hatred that gives the man killed no chance to repent. In the Muslim concept, the man who kills goes to heaven; the man who is killed does not.

In Chapter 12 of Romans, we read: “Bless your persecutors; bless and do not curse them.” This is, no doubt, a difficult teaching. We are to hate acts of injustice because they are worthy of hatred. When we love the enemy or sinner, we do not love or approve his evil deeds or intentions. What do we do?

Josef Pieper remarked that the Christian martyr does not deny that the world is good even in his martyrdom. Christ and Stephen forgive their enemies. The liturgical celebrations of martyrs are considered occasions for rejoicing. The martyr does not fail in his death to achieve the end for which he was created. Rather he achieves it. Further, the one who kills him has the opportunity to repent, even if he does not do so.

I recall reading about the Canadian Jesuit martyrs. The recent rhetoric about Junipero Serra and Pierre-Jean de Smet (who were not martyrs) is that such missionaries were but exploiters from colonial powers. Some of these French Jesuits made a vow to accept martyrdom. They even prayed for it as part of Ignatius’ third degree of humility. We have to think of them not wanting to damn the Indians, but, at the same time, of accepting martyrdom.

What about the Muslim who thinks that, in killing a Christian, it is he, not the Christian, that is saved? Can we use St. Thomas’ teaching on obedience to an erroneous conscience to excuse him?

“But when the Son of Man comes again, will He find faith on earth.” (Luke, 18:8) Whether the present age is the time of His coming, we know not. What we do know is that, if He comes right now, He won’t find many places in which His teachings are allowed or practiced, when they are allowed.

Isn’t this a pessimistic conclusion? The question is not: Is it pessimistic, but is it accurate? Some “signs of the times” we hesitate to read. In the end, an abundance of martyrs does not suggest that the world is not good. Nor does it suggest that the plan of God for our salvation is not being carried out among us.


James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J.

James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, and Catholicism and Intelligence.

  • veritasetgratia

    As I commented to our Evangelical Chaplain in the local government high school last week, one thing is for sure, no Islamist is going to ask us whether we believe in justification by faith alone, they will simply ask “are you Christian?” and that will be enough. Whilst. Father, that does not mean we can all gather as one and deny the unique gifts in our Sacramental life, it does hint at some good news – that for some, the Truth at every stage of its expression is simple and presents us with a choice – Yes or No. And if we seize the grace of Courage to answer Yes, we die with joy. We may even have to justify in public discourse our right to use words like “good” and “evil”, without which we cannot identify the things of God.

  • Manfred

    With all due respect, Father Schall, Islam is an easy and popular target. For example, are you aware that the Church of the Multiplication, which marks the place where Christ multiplied the barley loaves and fishes and fed five thousand, was just attacked and burned in Israel? Have you any idea what it has been to live as a trained practicing Catholic in the American Church,for the last fifty years? The religious textbooks in the “catholic” schools where I sent my seven children were all progressive and pro contraception. After two years of fighting with the school and the archdiocese, I sent their textbooks to Rome The response I received was: “Due to the principle of subsidiarity, you must bring this concern to your Ordinary.” The same ordinary who had allowed the books.
    Now the American bishops are admitting that the Catholic Faith has not been taught, deliberately, for the past fifty years!!!
    They say that the teachings of the Church would have presented a burden so the laity was deliberately kept in ignorance so their consciences would be clear when they stood before Christ.
    I see this world, Father, as an extremely dangerous place for one’s spiritual welfare as the secular world and the Church itself are set to destroy the Faith of millions.

    • Bro_Ed

      Manfred: Radical Islam is an easy and popular target because they make themselves so by their words, and worse yet, their deeds. I don’t understand why American Imams aren’t taking full page ads on social media, TV, radio, etc. Why aren’t they telling young people that this radicalization is wrong and forbidden by their Holy Book? Where are the Fatwas against radicalism, murder, and suicide? Where are the marches (how about a “Million Muslim” march against radicalism and terror? What are their religious leaders doing to turn the tide? We Catholics are demanding action to save our Church from our own hierarchy who have failed us in many ways. Are Muslims doing the same thing?

    • Howard Kainz

      Catholic textbooks that are pro-contraception?? Can you give an example?

    • James

      Manfred, I sympathise with your comments. I beseach you to clarify where I can find the admission you present that “Now the American bishops are admitting that the Catholic Faith has not been taught, deliberately, for the past fifty years!!! They say that the teachings of the Church would have presented a burden so the laity was deliberately kept in ignorance so their consciences would be clear when they stood before Christ.” Please give a reference for this information. It has always been my belief that this was quite intentional, but for reasons that go beyond what you state.

  • Michael Dowd

    If he were here today, Saint Pope Pius V would surely have known how to react to the Muslim killing fields in the Middle East today as he did by forming a Holy League for the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
    Other things he did was discipline and reform the clergy which had grown corrupt in many places and standardized the Holy Mass until it was changed by Paul VI after Vatican II. And to commemorate the victory at Lepanto he established a feast day for Our Lady of Victory which was later changed to Our Lady of the Rosary.

    Let us pray that Pope Francis will be inspired to emulate St. Pius V in all his actions and that we will pray to Our Lady of the Rosary that he will do so.

  • monica

    Thank you, Father Schall. You bring out some very interesting points here. Many people pray daily for the persecuted Christians throughout the world. How do you think God will answer these prayers?

  • SD

    Fr. Schall: Thank-you for writing. Bro_Ed makes good points but I also ask where are the full page ads etc. from our Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish leaders condemning the most corrupt, pro-abortion and anti-Christian Administration in the history of these great United States.
    It has been said: Goodness without courage is meaningless. So very true. GOD BLESS.

  • Manfred

    James: The first statemenmt that the Church had not taught Catholicism for decades comes from many sources .See Cardinal Dolan’s comments in August, 2012 where he admitted.the same.
    Also Bishop O’Connell who serves as the ordinary of the Diocese of Trenton, NJ, said the same in a letter he wrote to his faithful shortly after acceptring his office.
    The main one is an account which I have read and a priest corroborated. Pictuire the scene. Some American bishops are in Rome for their ad limina visit where they report the plusses and minuses occurring in their diocese. They rarely meet the Pope at this time. One day, as they enter the dining room, they notice a table and chair set up on a slightly raised platform.
    As they begin to eat, Pope John Paul, in his prime ,enters the toom and sits at the table off to one side. He then began to question them. They replied their dioceses, on balance, were doing quite well. The Pope mentioned that there were textbooks being used in Catholic Schools which priests and parents had mailed to the Vatican with letters of complaint in such volume that they filled rooms in the Vatican. The American bishops finally made the admission: That the difficulty of living in the secular U.S. was so difficult for a family with a single income and a stray-at-home Mom, that they made the decision to “relax” some of the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of reproduction.The Pope charged they were not teaching the fullness of Truth by deliberately not teaching the serious penalty (mortal sin) of contraception and abortion. The bishops countered trhat they would accept the penalties of keeping their flocks ignorant on these subjects in order for the flocks to be able to be saved. The Pope responded that while some of the laity may be saved by their ignorance, your role is to TEACH and those oi you who have kept your flocks ignorsnt will be punished in Hell for eternity.

    • Anthony Zarrella

      Indeed – Ezekiel 3:18-21.

    • James

      For some time – for a very long time – I have wondered if Almighty God, in His omnipotence knowing the cultural desert that lay ahead, for the sake of His mercy, has not allowed the eradication of catechesis,. Was it St. Augustine who offered that God allows evil in order to make way for a greater good? That is what happened – eradication. That some other course of deceptive indoctrination is being perpetrated under the label of catechesis no one can deny. That the bishops would knowingly and intentionally abandon catechism back in the late sixties never occurred to me. I assumed they (in well intentioned ignorance) just succumbed to some newly ignorant left-wing sister in her adopted expertise of religious pedagogy. I will do my best to ferret out the citations you offer. Thank you for responding.

  • Robert A Rowland

    Only salvation will bring peace.

  • Poor Sinner

    Thank you, Father, for shedding light on a troubling situation and seeing God’s Hand in the world’s events.

    I think the following Scripture is relevant here:

    “AND as he was going out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him: Master, behold what manner of stones and what buildings are here. 2And Jesus answering, said to him: Seest thou all these great buildings? There shall not be left a stone upon a stone, that shall not be thrown down.

    3And as he sat on the mount of Olivet over against the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew asked him apart: 4Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign when all these things shall begin to be fulfilled? 5And Jesus answering, began to say to them, Take heed lest any man deceive you. 6For many shall come in my name, saying, I am he; and they shall deceive many. 7And when you shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, fear ye not. For such things must needs be, but the end is not yet.8For nation shall rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and famines. These things are the beginning of sorrows.

    9But look to yourselves. For they shall deliver you up to councils, and in the synagogues you shall be beaten, and you shall stand before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony unto them.”