White Martyrdom

Australian blogger David Timbs comments on the application (or redefinition) of martyrdom to apply to our two most recent popes. Read over the essay, if you would, please, and offer comments there or here. I’m interested to know what others think. Mr Timbs leaves off with a few questions:

Is the peculiar manner in which the current language of martyrdom expresses itself merely the product of a deep resentment at the failure of a thin-skinned and immature elite to engage with challenges outside the certainties and privilege of the institution, and rather than face such flaws to construct instead ‘the world’ as a persecuting body, martyrs to which cannot help but emerge?

Is it indicative of a mentality that betrays an inability to give a credible and adult account of itself before ‘the other’ and be confident in that?

Was it Flannery O’Connor who attributed to one of her fictional characters, “She could be a martyr if they killed her quick”? The context, if I recall, was that the person in question felt herself far from saintly material.

If the Catholic Right is intent on redefining martyrdom, it might be that many heroic people who never spilled a drop of blood are also martyrs. Or is it neo-martyr? Lay people care for dying parents, ailing spouses, children with disabilities or just plain bad luck. Lay people labor as social workers, hospital personnel, counselors, justice advocates, missioners, church volunteers, and such. In my eye these people are saints. But they are not martyrs.

The same goes for popes. And other heroes of celebrity. It may indeed be saintly to suffer as a direct result of one’s faith. But wouldn’t it be as saintly to suffer real privations–physical or emotional or spiritual–to maintain one’s marriage, one’s family, or the basic dignity of suffering people.

Perhaps the problem is that fewer people seem to listen to the pope these days. He has good things to say, his apologists remind us. Perhaps if he were a saint instead of a pope. Perhaps if he were a martyr instead of a saint…

Overstatement makes us feel good. (My team will win the Series/ the Cup this year!) It also cheers and emboldens one’s followers. We need look no further than the American political landscape (My opponents are socialists/Nazis!) for that, do we?

But such overstatement does no service to the truth. As far as John Paul II is concerned, he suffered physically in his life, to be sure. Like Kevin Castro. Our late pope was also ridiculed by commentators for his public positions on moral issues. Like President Obama. Was JPII a martyr? I think not. Pope Benedict? Likewise no. The closest thing we had to a martyred pope would have been Pius XII if he had died for standing up to fascism.

If you ask me, I’d rather stick to the traditional definition of martyrdom. Let the living be engaged and judged on the merits of their whole life–that’s a broader and more truthful perspective. Let the memory and veneration of real martyrs not be sullied with the political truthiness of the current generation. Let saints be saints. Let martyrs be venerated for their real blood. And let celebrities fade from view.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to White Martyrdom

  1. Liam says:

    What’s the need to re-invent the wheel? Early Christians faced this issue, and the category of “confessor” was the solution. What’s broke with it?

  2. Liam says:

    And, if you want to talk about repudiation by the world with no fan base to act as cheerleaders, let’s talk about Benedict XV. Even Pio Nono had a fan base, cultivated diligently, as did Pius XII.

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