Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Theology of Martyrdom by Ronald Knox

An excerpt:

Of course, all that kind of argument is really based on a complete disbelief in the existence of absolute truth. The religion of the modern world is, ‘Be good, and you will go to heaven, if there is such a place.’ A martyr, in the essential signification of the term, means a man who dies, not merely to bear testimony, but to bear testimony to the truth. Edmund Campion died because he believed in the Pope and the Mass. Thomas Cranmer died because he disbelieved in the Pope and the Mass. It is an intelligible attitude to say that Crammer was a martyr and Campion was not. It is an intelligible attitude to say that neither Cranmer was a martyr nor Campion. But to say that both Crammer and Campion were martyrs is to say good-bye to all reason and all common-sense. Each of them died in the belief that he was bearing witness to the truth; and if you accept both testimonies indiscriminately, then you are making nonsense of them both. The only point in common between the two men is that both died for their religious opinions. It is ridiculous to suppose that either of them accepted death as a protest against the theory of religious persecution. On the contrary, Cranmer persecuted with the best of them. Neither of them minded being put to death for the sake of religion; but either protested that the religion which he died for was the true one. It is a poor compliment to such heroism to conclude that after all it does not much matter one way or the other!

In a word, the state of mind in which a man dies for a false religion may be, substantially, the same as the state of mind in which a man dies for a true religion — at any rate, there is no need to emphasize the difference. But states of mind are not everything. For us Catholics, there is such a thing as absolute truth, which is quite unaffected by states of mind on the part of those who defend or those who attack it. If we were considering the psychology of martyrdom, we might perhaps be content to rule out the whole notion of absolute truth. The psychologists do talk, nowadays, I understand, about what they call the martyr-complex. I should very much like to have the persecuting of these modern psychologists. Either they would recant, or I would send them off to be psychoanalyzed until they could get rid of their martyr-complex. But we are not considering the psychology of martyrdom; we are considering the theology of martyrdom. And martyrdom, as a theological term, means dying to bear witness to the true religion — which is, as we happen to know, the Catholic religion.

And martyrdom, in this sense, is something very much more than a state of mind. It is something which determines, and determines suddenly, the eternal welfare of a human soul; it is a direct gate to heaven, independent of baptism. The importance of martyrdom, therefore, for us, is not a question of sentimental appreciation or of pulpit rhetoric. It is a matter of plain, supernatural fact. There is your corpse; and theology has to decide whether the soul which belonged to it can or cannot safely be pronounced already in heaven. I say, independently of baptism; because the Church has recognized, from her very earliest beginnings, that an unbaptized person who seals with his blood the faith that has begun to dawn in him, is justified no less effectively than one over whom the saving waters of baptism have flowed. That is a case which does not often arise nowadays, except in missionary countries; but it is equally certain that martyrdom, in a baptized Christian, can have the effect of sacramental absolution. Some kind of sorrow for sin is doubtless required; but it is difficult to imagine anybody dying for the faith unless he had sorrow for his sins of a kind which would justify him in the confessional. Supposing that the sin is mortal, and hitherto unconfessed; supposing that the sorrow falls short of perfect contrition — the man has been killed; has he been martyred? If so, he is in heaven; if not, he is in hell.

The difference, then, between martyrdom and non-martyrdom is not a difference of words; it is a difference of hard facts. And, in view of the important effects which (according to the most primitive Christian tradition) martyrdom involves, it is not surprising that theologians speak of martyrdom as a quasi-sacrament. It is not, of course, a true sacrament; it lacks that quality of signification which the wordimplies; nothing in martyrdom symbolizes the grace which martyrdom wins. But it can be called a quasi-sacrament because it is a transaction in the natural order which produces its direct effects in the supernatural order. Something which happens to a man’s body has made a difference to the status of his soul.

But the resemblance to a sacrament lies deeper than this. We are all accustomed to the distinction in the theology of the Sacraments between the opus operatum and the opus operands; between the grace which is conferred alike on all those who receive the Sacrament, unless they actually have dispositions which render it unfruitful, and the grace which is given to various recipients in various degrees, according to the dispositions which they bring with them. Now, if you take the modern view about martyrdom, which we have just been discussing and rejecting, the effect of martyrdom must fall entirely under the heading of opus operantis. If nothing is valuable about martyrdom except the heroic fortitude with which the martyr despises life, then the man who is hanged, drawn, and quartered is more of a martyr than the man who is merely hanged, because it requires a higher degree of fortitude to face the one prospect than the other. All that difference we recognize — the difference, I mean, between the dispositions shown in this instance of martyrdom and in that. But we also recognize that martyrdom can produce an effect ex opera operato, independently of the dispositions in which it is met. In a word, it has what Dr. Barnes of Birmingham would call a magical effect. Martyrdom is like Confession or Communion, in the sense that we get something out of it over and above what we put into it.

Read the rest: available for $3.50 + shipping at Requiem Press

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