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Martyrdom, Theology of


From μαρτύριον (testimony, proof), the condition of being a martyr, of enduring suffering or having undergone death for a cause, and, in theology and in this article, of having been put to death as a witness to Christ. Classically, three conditions were required: (1) that physical life has been laid down and real death undergone; (2) that death has been inflicted in hatred of Christian life and truth; and (3) that death has been voluntarily accepted in defense of these. Hence, on the first count those who ardently desire to die for Christ, or who accept or choose a life of suffering for His sake, are not technically martyrs; nor, on the second count, those who die from disease or in consequence of the accepted risks attendant on the way of life they have chosen for Christ, or from devotion to the cause of scientific research, or for their country, or, however exalted their motives, for error or by suicide; nor, on the third count, those who have not reached the age of reason or who are slain without making a choice. Such is the general teaching of theologians, although the final point is not beyond question if it is taken to mean that there must be a conscious act of deliberate choice. Cajetan, characteristically, allows that a man might be martyred in his sleep, and for the same underlying reason he holds that unbaptized babies can be saved in the faith of their parents; thus also is explained why the Church enrolls the Holy Innocents among the martyrs without crediting them with a miraculous precocity, and by common teaching that the blood that is shed takes the place of the water that flows in Baptism.

The second condition calls for some comment. Many of the martyrs in the calendar have been killed in odium fidei, that is, in direct witness to the truths of faith, but others, such as SS. john the baptist and Maria goret ti, have offered their lives in defense of Christian virtue, and some, such as St. thomas of canterbury and john of nepomuc (long popularly credited with martyrdom), for the sake of Church order and discipline. What is required is that the cause is the living truth of Christ. How transcendent this is, and consequently how wide are the fields in which martyrdom can be found, will vary according to the reading of theologians on the interpenetration of grace and nature. Some will tend to reserve it to orthodox confessional formularies, and of course liturgical celebration and the process of canonization will observe this restriction, while others, taking to heart the Ambrosian saying that all truth whatever it is and whoever utters it is from the Holy Spirit, will be quicker to recognize all heroic witness to the extremity of death as Christian martyrdom. Those who die for infidelity, or heresy, or schism, are in a special case. It may be doubted whether error as such ever evokes heroism: what happens is that men such as huss and cranmer at the end die with dignity, not for such an abstraction, but in a concrete situation of mixed causes where they are prepared to affirm a value with their lives. The personal respect and admiration they deserve cannot amount to public and official recognition within the system of the Church's worship; and the same, it seems, should be said about non-Catholic missionaries who have been killed for preaching the gospel.

The rule of thumb for the martyr was stipulated by St. Augustine: martyrdom derives, not from the punishment inflicted, but the reasons for the punishment (non poena sed causa). Although such a rule seems straightforward, it is not always so in actual practice. Thomas Aquinas, for example, points out that John the Baptist was a martyr because he denounced adultery; hence he was a martyr for the sake of the "truth of faith" (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae, q.124 art. 5). Pope Paul VI extended this further in beatifying Maximilian kolbe (1971) as a "martyr of charity." Kolbe witnessed in the ultimate gesture of love or charity. In that sense, he died for the "defense of the faith" as Aquinas described it. In the canonizations of Kolbe (1982) and Edith stein (1998), Pope John Paul II manifested an even more nuanced view of martyrdom. Martyrdom may be a public witness even unto the death for the truth of the Gospel, even when the explicit reason for the martyr's death is not a refusal to apostasize by denying the faith. Neither the sacrifice of a life for the sake of another (Kolbe) nor the death of one out of racial hatred (Stein) is what makes them martyrs. The reason (s) why the pope sees them as martyrs is that their lives stood in direct and dramatic counterpoint to forces of evil and untruth.

Martyrdom is treated by moral theologians as the chief act of the virtue of fortitude. The inclusion of such an ultimate and final confession of love for Christ under the heading of a moral virtue can be partly explained for methodological reasons. Yet its heroism is elicited from man's emotional organism, and it is there that the pain and terror is mastered by the commanding virtues of religion, faith, and above all, charity. It is the constant teaching of the Church that such an intensity of love is expressed as to justify the sinner, baptized or unbaptized, and bring to him the forgiveness of all his sins, removing all guilt and stain, pardoning all debt of temporal punishment, and adorning him with a special crown, or aureole. He who prays for a martyr does him an injury, said Innocent III.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2a2ae, 124. r. hedde, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 190350) 10.1:220254. b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis (8th ed. Paris 1949) 2:859862.

[t. gilby/

l. s. cunningham]

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