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What value have martyrs in a secular society?

Prof. Julian Porteous


In any consideration of Christian themes in the current climate, we must contend with the fact of the secularisation of thought and world view that permeates contemporary culture. Cardinal Walter Kasper has pointed out the contribution of the Judeo-Christian faith in "distinguishing clearly and unambiguously between God the creator and the world as his creation."

The secular nature of creation is a good involving human persons and so the human society. The first chapters of Genesis reveal the sublime dignity of human persons to whom "God grants his creatures not only their existence, but also the dignity of acting on their own, of being causes and principles for each other, and thus of cooperating in the accomplishment of his plan." Genesis goes on to relate the thanksgiving that spontaneously arises in the human heart as man participates in the building up of human society. Abel, the just man, takes the fruit of his toil and offers it in thanksgiving to his Creator. His work and life is full of meaning because it is oriented towards the Creator.

While it is essential to begin by acknowledging the goodness of the secular nature of creation, a healthy anthropology also demands that we temper this affirmation with the acknowledgment of the mystery of sin. Cain offers his sacrifice with a different heart. He has taken his eyes off the centre of his life, his Creator. Loosing sight of his Creator Cain, fallen humanity, looses sight of himself. There is the drama of the rupture between faith and morality. Many live today "as if God did not exist."

In 1882 Fredrick Nietzche in The Gay Science prophetically raises the questions of how is society to live this faithless morality of the secular world in which ‘God is dead’:

      What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

Having killed the mystery of God within him, man unsuspecting discovers that he has in so doing killed also the mystery of his own humanity. He is confronted with meaninglessness, nihilism, not only of the world but of his very self. However, man has been created with immortality written into his very flesh. This is the great cry of Irenaeus in answer to the gnostics: Caro capax dei; flesh with the capacity for God! Man abhors a vacuum. Even if faith and morality have been ruptured man searches to build a new morality to live meaningfully in his secular world; but without a system of faith he is continually faced with the above questions of Nietzche. Morality without the substratum of faith is doomed to slide into pragmatism, relativism and an inevitable nihilism.

This is the pastoral problem that Pope John Paul sees confronting today’s Church: "This separation [of faith and morality] represents one of the most acute pastoral concerns of the Church, amid today’s growing secularism, wherein many, indeed too many, people think and live "as if God did not exist." We are speaking of a mentality which affects, often in profound, extensive and all-embracing way, even the attitudes and behaviour of Christians, whose faith is weakened and loses its character as a new and original criterion for thinking and acting in personal, family and social life."

In Veritatis Splendor the Pope outlines the consequence of this tragic separation of faith from morality: the relationship between freedom and truth become ruptured in the very depth of the human person. Once "this essential bond between Truth, the Good and Freedom" is destroyed man discovers himself standing in the dramatic position of Pilate and asking "What is truth" and acting as if there were none; he plunges himself into a culture of death, no longer knowing "who he is, whence he comes and where he is going." It is precisely in this experience that the Pope situates the Church’s mission for today, for the salvation of the world. There is no other way than Christ. It is the mission of the Church to lead humanity back to Christ and so bring humanity to a rediscovery of the splendour of humanity.

It is in this situation of the secular society today that value of the martyrs is discovered. The martyrs stand as witnesses to the beauty of a life lived in faith and moral goodness, and hence in freedom and truth.

There have been some very positive signs of humanity’s longing for a life’s journey of faith, goodness, freedom and truth coming particularly from the young. One clear example of this has been through film. In the English speaking world (and beyond from all accounts) these eternal values have been reignited over the past four years through the yearly released trilogy of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien writes out of a thoroughly catholic anthropology and theology. The fictional world he creates is a history of salvation. The supreme sacrifice of the likes of Gandalf and the repentant Boromir ignite the sentiments that the young in the past would experience with the recounting of the lives of the saints and martyrs. It was encouraging to see so many of the young, even those not disposed to reading in the age of the computer game taking up the 1000+ pages of the book with relish. This longing of humanity, and particularly the young, for these spiritual values was confirmed by the unexpected response this year to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ. The time seems right for the revitalisation of the ancient tradition of the Church in preserving and recounting the Acts of the Martyrs.

On the third Sunday of Easter, 7 May 2000 the Pope and the Christian leaders and representatives of the other Christian communities prayed together in the place of witness of the early martyrs, the Colosseum in Rome commemorating the witnesses to the faith in the twentieth century. There the Pope stated: "In the century and the millennium just begun may the memory of these brothers and sisters of ours remain always vivid. Indeed, may it grow still stronger! Let it be passed on from generation to generation, so that from it there may blossom a profound Christian renewal! Let it be guarded as a treasure of consummate value for the Christians of the new millennium, and let it become the leaven for bringing all Christ’s disciples into full communion!" The time would appear ripe now for the telling to this generation of the witness given to Truth, the Good and Freedom by the martyrs of the twentieth, and already, twenty-first centuries. 

The value of the martyrs for the secular society is founded in the conviction of the necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation. Gaudium et Spes laid the foundation for the only authentic anthropology in Jesus Christ: "In reality it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of man becomes clear. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the Lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling." (n. 22) For the secular man and woman not to lose their way in the journey of life they need an authentic way of faith that continually reorientates them towards their source and goal, the Creator, revealed in Jesus Christ as their Father.

An authentic faith lived out in truth is the foundation to humanity overcoming the present day dichotomy between truth and freedom. The logic of faith leads to a life lived out in the unity of truth and freedom because faith possesses a moral content. It is here that the witness of the martyrs finds its sublime value, as the Pope states in Veritatis Splendor: "Through the moral life, faith becomes "confession", not only before God but also before men: it becomes witness." The greatest witness that can be given is the total gift of oneself. This is the gift that each martyr gives to humanity, in witness to the truth of Christ.

However, the word ‘martyr’ has suffered a distortion of meaning in the last few decades. Too often in the media it is associated with using the human body as a weapon through such things as explosives being strapped to the body or through steering a vehicle geared for explosion into a target. This is carried out by the person in an act of freedom and often in the name of God; but this freedom has been disconnected from Truth. The fundamental truth is that God is Creator and therefore essentially pro-life. The ten words of Life, the Decalogue, remain perennial and inviolable laws of the moral order. The weakening of the relationship between faith and morality leads to freedom being dislodged from its essential relationship with truth. While the so called modern ‘martyrs’ who use their bodies as weapons may carry out this supreme sacrifice in freedom, it is an inauthentic freedom. It is a type of freedom that in its finality enslaves the human person and envelope him in a fundamental attitude of hatred which contributes only to the building up of the culture of death; whereas, Pope John Paul states in Veritatis Splendori that "worship of God and a relationship with truth are revealed in Jesus Christ as the deepest foundation of freedom" (n.86).

The Christian martyr makes the truth of the human person acting in authentic freedom shine forth in its full mystery, giving witness to the nuptial meaning of the human body. Jesus Christ revealed this full meaning on the Cross. Instead of using his body as a weapon, he gave it as a gift. He allowed his body to become the end of all violence, hatred and sin. He allowed his body to become the sacrament of reconciliation for all of humanity. He offered his body to humanity out of an impulse of love and forgiveness towards the enemy. His bodily resurrection reveals the highest calling of humanity. "Christ’s witness is the source, model and means for the witness of his disciples, who are called to walk on the same road: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Lk 9:23)" (Veritatis Splendor n. 89).

Veritatis Splendor in article 92 sets forth three fundamental services that the martyrs do for our age.

Firstly, "martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and the inviolability of the personal dignity of man, created in God’s image and likeness. This dignity may never be disparaged or called into question, even with good intentions, whatever the difficulties involved. Jesus warns us most sternly: "What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Mk 8:36)."

Secondly, "martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning’ one might claim to attribute, even in ‘exceptional’ conditions, to an act morally evil in itself." It unmasks it as "a violation of man’s humanity" in both perpetrator and victim. Hence it gives witness to the truth that a person only achieves the fullness of humanity by transcending oneself. The martyrs carry in their body the death of Jesus so that others, even the perpetrators of the crime against them can have the possibility of the encounter with the grace of the resurrection that brings live out of situations of death.

Thirdly, "martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church…This witness makes an extraordinary 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: confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities."

Nearly thirty years ago Pope Paul VI noted that a characteristic of our age was that "modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." We have already noted that the young are attracted to stories that recount the beauty of the human spirit in struggling for truth and freedom, and conquering evil with good. We do not need to turn to creating fantasy to feed this longing in the human heart. God has raised up living witnesses to these transcendental and perennial values in our own time. The diverse situations, cultures and places in which the martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have given their witness are striking, as is the ecumenical witness of these martyrs forming a common inheritance of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant.

The challenge to the Church is to preserve and retell the accounts of these modern martyrs in the language and medium that will engage the people of today. This forms part of the new evangelisation which "also involves the proclamation and presentation of morality."



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved