Veritatis splendor – Christ, the martyrs and the moral life

The complexity and weight of the moral law contrasted with the increase of power and the allurement of freedom sets up a tough challenge for the Christian approach to morality. Its educative power, according to Pope John Paul II, is neither doctrinal statements nor appeals to pastoral vigilance. §85 The “secret” of its educational power is “looking to the Lord Jesus.” As he said in Redemptor hominis, Christians look to the redeemer of man — “Each day the Church looks to Christ with unfailing love, fully aware that the true and final answer to the problem of morality lies in him alone.” Indeed, he reiterates the main thesis of Redemptor hominis — “The Crucified Christ reveals the authentic meaning of freedom; he lives it fully in the total gift of himself and calls his disciples to share in his freedom.”

Living a moral life is essential to faith, “walking in the light.” Faith must not be separated from life, from moral life. The Fathers at Vatican II said that the separation of faith from life is the grave error of our day. The enemy is not them (secularists or pagans or Marxists or liberals) — the enemy is us. For faith demands “a decision involving ones whole existence.” It entails “an act of trusting abandonment to Christ, which enables us to live as he lived (Gal. 2:20), in profound love of God and of our brothers and sisters.” (§88) Which of us is willing to pay the price? Can you drink the cup . . .

The martyrs did so. They show the possibility of “living according to the radical demands of the gospel.” Their witness is not that of some Stoic endurance, nor the revelation of who is really the ultimate gladiator. They witness to the splendor of truth. The truth about God and man. “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom 8:19)

Their deaths often turned upon the challenge of the moral order —  “Martyrdom, accepted as an affirmation of the inviolability of the moral order, bears splendid witness both to the holiness of God’s law and to 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). 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.” (§92)

This could still sound too far off — too heroic. Indeed, I sometimes think of great martyrs, such as those martyred by Roman emperors, such as St Cyprian. He stood up to the emperor and was beheaded in a field in front of his flock.  Must we then call up the set for Sparticus and re-imagine this martyr’s sacrifice Hollywood style? No, they serve a more important function than distant admiration or unreal imaginings. They help us to “ward off . . . [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.” (§93) John the Baptist would not allow evil to be called good; so too, St Thomas More; and St Cyprian; and St Maximilian Kolbe. They are beacons of faith so needed in this age of confusion and compromise.

So the martyrs are not distant, they are close. They may be few, but . . . there is a connection between them and us because there is . . .

“a consistent witness which all Christians must daily be ready to make, even at the cost of suffering and grave sacrifice. Indeed, faced with the many difficulties which fidelity to the moral order can demand, even in the most ordinary circumstances, the Christian is called, with the grace of God invoked in prayer, to a sometimes heroic commitment. In this he or she is sustained by the virtue of fortitude, whereby — as Gregory the Great teaches — one can actually ‘love the difficulties of this world for the sake of eternal rewards’.” (§93)

The image is of a painting by Caravaggio, John the Baptist. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.

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