Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 32--The Witness of Martyrs

CHRISTIAN MARTYRS HAVE ALWAYS been venerated by the Christian Church. Indeed, so central was martyrdom to the early Christians that it is well-nigh impossible to understand them without also recognizing martyrdom's role. The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church, sanguis martyrum semen christianorum, a commonplace phrase attributed to Tertullian.* What jihad was (and is) for the Muslim, martyrdom--a radically different concept than the martyrdom of jihad--was for the Church.**

It is clear that the Pope wishes us to focus on Christian martyrdom and its significance to the Christian who confronts a world that is as equally hostile towards him as the pagan Roman Empire, with its cult of emperor and cult of State. We perhaps have not become yet "enemies of State," but in the eyes of the world's liberal democracies we have become what John Paul II characterized in the encyclical Centesimus annus as unreliable citizens.*** Worse yet than confronting a hostile secular West, though unmentioned by the Pope in this encyclical, is the rising threat of radical and intolerant Islam whose problem is not a morally relativistic tyranny, but rather a morally positivistic tyranny. One is tyranny in the name of man, the other tyranny in the name of Allah. In either event, the Christian witness of martyrdom is paramount.

In the light of the prevalent and prevailing consequentialist or utilitarian morality in the West, and in light of the compromise to it by certain Catholic theologians in proportionalist ethical theories, Christian martyrdom may help clean out the cobwebs in our thinking, and may shake us from our complacency.

The unacceptability of "teleological", "consequentialist" and "proportionalist" ethical theories, which deny the existence of negative moral norms regarding specific kinds of behavior, norms which are valid without exception, is confirmed in a particularly eloquent way by Christian martyrdom, which has always accompanied and continues to accompany the life of the Church even today.

VS, 90.

The root of martyrdom runs deep in the Christian ethos, the Christian consciousness. It is part of radical Christianity in the sense of radix, root, since it is part of its foundational roots. The tree of the Church will die if the root of martyrdom is severed. One sees even in the Old Testament the example of brave men and women, for whom fidelity to God is preeminent to any worldly accommodation. The Pope points to the story of Susanna as an example where fidelity to truth, to moral truth, exceeds any compromise even if it means the loss of her life.

Susanna and the Lecherous Elders, by Annibale Carraci (1560-1609)

Susanna, one may recall, was a fair and comely Hebrew wife. Two lecherous elders quietly approached her as she was bathing in her garden. Voyeurs both, they looked at her nakedness and then, eaten by the lust that grew in their leering, followed her into her house and accosted her. They threatened that, unless she yielded to their demands, they would accuse her of an adulterous union with some young man. She knew that if she did not give in, that she would be tried, likely found guilty by the practically unimpeachable testimony of the influential elders, and would suffer death.
I am hemmed in on every side. For if I do this thing, it is death for me; and if I do not, I shall not escape your hands. I choose not to do it and to fall into your hands, rather than to sin in the sight of the Lord!
Dan 13:22-23. Susanna prefers to be "handed over" to the authorities than trespass that exceptionless norm that prohibits adultery. She would not trespass into evil, even if it meant to suffer an unjust death. Susanna is a witness to an exceptionless norm.

John the Baptist is that watershed prophet, the last of the Old Testament and the first of the New. Straddling the two dispensations, St. John the Baptist fearlessly witnessed to the true teaching regarding marriage. In his zeal for God, St. John the Baptist was "unable to refrain from speaking the law of the Lord," and he rejected "any compromise with evil," despite the knowledge that it would offend the ruling, albeit decadent, powers. For this reason, John Paul II points to him as an exemplar of the Christian fidelity to moral norms in the face of hostile authority.

Salome with the Head of St. John the Baptist, by Caravaggio (1557-1610)

The situation confronting the historical St. John, in particular the family situation of the Herodian family, is hopelessly complicated, not unlike some of the modern blended families that neglect and trespass the "law of the Lord" on marriage and family life.*** Herodias had married Herod II, the son of Herod the Great and his third wife Mariamne II. Herodias herself was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, as she was the daughter of Aristobulus IV and Herod's second wife, Mariamne I. After Herod II fell from grace, Herodias divorced him, and, following the path of power, married Herod Antipas, another son of Herod the Great though from his fourth wife, Malthace. Herod Antipas had himself divorced his prior wife Phasaelis. It was from her former marriage with Herod II that Herodias had her famous daughter Salome, a daughter who apparently had the eye of Herod Antipas.

John the Baptist, of course, found the entire intermarriage and divorce and remarriage among the established powers as unsavory and immoral. And he publicly preached against it. Power does not excuse from morality, just like celebrity does not excuse from morality. Herodias could not countenance being reminded of her decadent behavior, and she arranged, through her and her daughter's feminine wiles, for John the Baptist to be arrested. She then finagled his martyrdom by decapitation, the result of a rash promise made by her the King to her seductive daughter. Quoting one of the Venerable Bede's homilies, Pope John Paul II observes:
The one who came to bear witness to the light and who deserved to be called by that same light, which is Christ, a burning and shining lamp, was cast into the darkness of prison. . . . The one to whom it was granted to baptize the Redeemer of the world was thus baptized in his own blood.
VS, 91.

Icon depicting martyrdom of the Deacon Stephen,
proto-martyr of the Christian Church

The Lord, of course, was a constant model of fidelity to God, the filial love for the Father drove him to accept his passion, the carrying of the cross, and his brutal, if redemptive, death. And his followers soon found themselves on similar paths, dying first at the hands of Jewish and Roman authorities, and later by authorities of all kinds, Islamic, Asian, African, American Indian, Nazi, Communist, and on and on. Thousands of these may be seen on the Catholic altars and depicted on icons. There are millions more whose names will never be known. It is they who are calling us to be more like them.

The list of martyrs begins with the first martyr, the proto-martyr, St. Stephen, deacon of the Church, and St. James the Great, the first apostle who would suffer martyrdom and in whose coat tails all but the Apostle John, captive in the Island of Patmos, would follow.

Martyrdom of St. James the Great
by Giovanni David (1743–1790) after Andrea Mantegna

[These] died as martyrs in order to profess their faith and their love for Christ, unwilling to deny him. In this they followed the Lord Jesus who "made the good confession" (1 Tim 6:13) before Caiaphas and Pilate, confirming the truth of his message at the cost of his life. Countless other martyrs accepted persecution and death rather than perform the idolatrous act of burning incense before the statue of the Emperor (cf.Rev 13:7-10). They even refused to feign such worship, thereby giving an example of the duty to refrain from performing even a single concrete act contrary to God's love and the witness of faith. Like Christ himself, they obediently trusted and handed over their lives to the Father, the one who could free them from death (cf. Heb 5:7).
VS, 91.

The Church glorifies the names of these martyrs, and she "proposes the examples of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin." VS, 91. The Church "has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one's life." VS, 91.

But martyrdom is not a celebration of death for death's sake. Martyrdom is a celebration of death because there are some things more important than life, as precious as life is. Some things--truth, moral integrity, justice, fidelity, love, obedience to God--are more important than life because they are what life is for.††† Life, at least in its authentic form, is life according to truth, to moral integrity, where justice, fidelity, love, and obedience to God are reflected as we fulfill our purpose to live with God, in whom we move, and breath, and have our being.

How important is the witness of the martyrs! Against all those who would compromise the Gospel truth, the truth that is found in kernel in the natural moral law, the Church's martyrs witness to three unalterable truths.

First, they witness to the "inviolability of the moral order," which is a witness "both to the holiness of God's law and to the inviolability of the personal dignity of man." VS, 92. These, God's holy law and man's dignity, have been conjoined in Christ, who was both God and man, and they are part and parcel of man's moral life, from which God and man can no more be separated, having been hypostatically united in the person of the Son of God.

Second, martyrs witness to the falseness and illusory aspect found in "whatever 'human meaning' one might claim to attribute, even in 'exceptional' conditions, to an act morally evil in itself." They witness against answers that "seem right," but in fact are not. How many times are the exceptionless norms called harsh, mean, inhumane, inefficient, unreasonable, or otherwise insupportable? It is these excuses that men use to justify divorce, birth control, homosexuality, euthanasia, and a multitude of evils.

The martyr is then a witness to the truth found in Proverbs 16:25: "There is a way that seemeth to a man right: and the ends thereof lead to death." Martyrdom "unmasks the true face" of such acts, and uncovers them for what they are, and not what they seem, a "violation of man's 'humanity', in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it." VS, 92.

I recently was chastised as inhumane because I insisted in an argument that a victim of rape had no moral choice but to carry the child to term. This is a seeming reason, a false reason, in the sense that John Paul II speaks of. The victim of rape who bears the unwanted child instead of perpetrating an abortion, is more human, not less for her endurance. She has her models in such modern martyrs such as St. Maria Goretti who preferred to die than succumb to the rape of her neighbor, Alexander. She has as her models a man such as Franz Jägerstätter. This recent saint endured an unjust death because he refused conscription into the Nazi army, and this action was more human than that action of a man who perpetrated evil by materially participating in Hitler's plans. "Dieser Zug fährt in die Hölle!" "This train," Franz Jägerstätter recognized through his dream where National Socialism was going, "is being driven to Hell." Jump out," he says to us today when we are riding a secular, relativistic train, "before the train reaches its destination, even if it costs you your life." "Springet aus, ehe dieser Zug in deine Endstation einfährt, wenn es dabei auch das Leben kostet!"

Lastly, the Pope suggests that martyrdom "is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church."
Fidelity to God's holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem [even unto the shedding of blood], so that the splendor of moral truth may be undimmed in the behavior and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily valuable contribution to warding off, in civil society and within the ecclesial communities themselves, a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church's Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wis 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!" (Is 5:20).
VS, 93.

The martyrdom of "red martyrs" feeds the day-to-day life of the ordinary Christian disciple. They are the "high point of the witness to moral truth." But while there is a high point, there are also all the other times and places below, in which a consistent witness is required by Christians, if not by death, then often "at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice," sometimes even a "heroic commitment." The red martyrdom of martyrs feeds the "white martyrdom" of daily Christian living in "fidelity to the moral order" in a society where the moral order is denied. VS, 93. Fortitude is the virtue the Christian must have under these trying circumstances, and, as St. Gregory the Great teaches in his Moralia in Job (VII.21), when the world is topsy turvy this requires one to "love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards," huius mundi aspera pro aeternis praemiis amare, which might be translated as "tough up against this world in your love of the eternal prize." VS, 93.
*Tertullian actually said: "Plures efficimur, quoties metumur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum." (We multiply whenever we are mown down by you; the blood of Christians is seed). Tertullian, Apol., c.50. In one of his epistles, St. Jerome said "est sanguis martyrum seminarium Ecclesiarum." ("The blood of martyrs are the seeds of the Church"). St. Jerome, Ep., 27.2. St. Augustine said regarding martyers in his De civitate Dei (22:6): "Ligabantur, includebantur, caedebantur, torquebantur, urebantur, laniabantur, trudidabantur et--multiplicanbantur."(They [the martyrs] were bound, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, burned, torn in pieces, massacred, and yet they multiplied.")
**One must not forget that Islam rejects the crucifixion of Christ, both historically and theologically. The notion of the Cross is offensive to them. It is outside the framework of their reference to suggest that one ought to love his fellow man to the point of giving up his life for him, as a lamb to slaughter. The Cross to them is a failure, and God could not have allowed one of his authentic prophets to undergo such indignity, such infamy, such ignominy. The notion of
jihad does encompass sacrifice of self, but not for one's fellow man; rather, it is always for the extension of the rule of Allah and his claimed prophet Muhammad. One suffers violence; the other is violent. One allows itself to be handed over to the power of the sword; the other wields power of the sword.
***"Nowadays there is a tendency to claim that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life. Those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it are considered unreliable from a democratic point of view, since they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority, or that it is subject to variation according to different political trends. It must be observed in this regard that if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism."
Centesimus annus, 46.
Lex Christianorum has reflected on the meaning of Susanna within the context of natural law and devotion to truth and justice. See The Natural Law Between Two Trees: Susanna's Devotion to Natural Law.
For one effort at putting together the strands of this intricate familial web, see double click on the following chart to expand it for viewing:
†††This is not only a Christian concept. It is human concept. "In this witness to the absoluteness of the moral good Christians are not alone: they are supported by the moral sense present in peoples and by the great religious and sapiential traditions of East and West, from which the interior and mysterious workings of God's Spirit are not absent. The words of the Latin poet Juvenal apply to all: "Consider it the greatest of crimes to prefer survival to honor and, out of love of physical life, to lose the very reason for living". The voice of conscience has always clearly recalled that there are truths and moral values for which one must be prepared to give up one's life. In an individual's words and above all in the sacrifice of his life for a moral value, the Church sees a single testimony to that truth which, already present in creation, shines forth in its fullness on the face of Christ. As Saint Justin put it, "the Stoics, at least in their teachings on ethics, demonstrated wisdom, thanks to the seed of the Word present in all peoples, and we know that those who followed their doctrines met with hatred and were killed." VS,94.The quotations are from Juvenal's Satires, VIII, 83-84, and from St. Justin's Apologia II, 8: PG 6, 457-458.

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