Joe Lieberman tossed off a couple of lines about God in a speech the
other day. He said that the framers guaranteed freedom of religion, not
freedom from religion. Seems true enough, but from the press fallout,
you’d think he’d called for a new Inquisition. Yes, after more than 100
million deaths by government in our own century, after Hitler and Stalin
and Mao, we are still to be constantly worried about events Pope Sixtus
IV authorized many centuries ago that killed several thousand over
This is one of a thousand examples of the wholly unjustified
anti-religious bias of our time. The assumption of most intellectuals
and their media echo chamber is that believers, particularly Christians,
are a danger to society and to liberty. Sure, people should have freedom
of religion, so long as their religion is private, invisible,
politically ineffectual, and culturally irrelevant. The Church is to be
hounded as a menace, and the State heralded as liberator of mankind.
Do believers represent a danger to society? Are they the would-be
oppressors of our time, to be constantly watched, feared, and thwarted?
Look at the sweep of the century and you see that Christians,
particularly Catholics, have in fact been the main victims of
state violence in
our century. For full documentation of these claims, I commend to you
Robert Royal’s remarkable new book, The Catholic Martyrs of the
Twentieth Century: A Comprehensive World History (New York:
Crossroad Publishing, 2000).
“In absolute numbers, the century’s martyrs far surpass those of any
previous century,” he writes. And why? Royal blames “the appearance of
virulent anti-Christian ideologies and brutally repressive regimes
seeking to impose them, which led directly to the widespread suffering
and slaughter of religious believers.”
“In a century that rightly prided itself on its scientific and
technological advances on the one hand and its commitment to human
rights on the other, refined methods of torture and control, physical
and mental, also emerged with a vengeance all around the globe. As one
of the deepest sources of opposition to oppressive tendencies, religion
was a logical target for tyrants. The twentieth century, by any measure,
presents a brutal spectacle that may be remembered historically as one
of the darkest periods of martyrdom.”
When Royal refers to martyrs, he is speaking not just of people who
have been killed, but people killed specifically for their faith. The
main victims fell to Communism, which was called “godless Communism” in
the West for good reason. It was the most virulently anti-Christian
political ideology ever invented. Royal reminds us of Vladimir
Bukovsky’s observation that Communism typically killed as many people in
a day as the Inquisition killed in all the centuries of its existence.
Most of its victims were believers.
The Royal book begins with a detailed study of the Mexican socialist
revolution of 1917 — the first in the history of the world, predating
the Bolshevik revolution, but forgotten today. “Churches were destroyed,
desecrated, confiscated, and turned into army barracks; religious items
were profaned by soldiers drinking from chalices, chopping up statues
for firewood, and using religious art for target practice; orders of
priests and nuns were outlawed, and teaching about religion prohibited;
religious buildings or private homes where religious activities occurred
might be subject for forfeit.” Priests had to seek government licenses
and there were strict quotas.
The governor of the Mexican territory Tabasco named his children
Lenin, Lucifer, and Satan, expelled any priest who would not marry, and
set out to destroy all churches. And today, is there any sensitivity in
Mexico about attacking Christians? Any warnings that anti-Catholicism
might open old
wounds? Actually, it’s the reverse: the Western press warned of a new
intolerance when the new president-elect was filmed receiving communion.
And the Soviet Union? What can we say? Here was a regime that
attempted to stamp out all religion in an incredible wave of violence
though this religious society. Schools were shut, priests were murdered,
and Bishops jailed and tortured. Churches were surrounded by troops and
taken to Moscow to be killed. The institution of the family was targeted
mainly because it was here, Soviet authorities were convinced, that
faith was taught.
How many martyrs? Royal says we can’t know for sure. But millions
were slaughtered. The chapter on the Ukrainian liquidation of believers
makes for very difficult reading. Imagine this: the Ukrainian Catholic
Church had 2,772 parishes, 8 bishops, 4,119 churches and chapels, 142
convents, 2,628 priests, 164 monks, 773 nuns and 4 million laypeople. By
the end of the largest suppression of believers in world history, the
entire apparatus was reduced to: zero.
The list goes on: the mountains of carnage in France, Albania,
Lithuania, Vietnam, Poland, Germany, Latin America, Romania, Korea,
Africa, Spain (at the end of the Spanish Civil War, lasting three years,
seven thousand names of martyrs for the faith were turned over to the
Holy See). And only most recently, the murderous Indonesian regime
killed dozens of priests and nuns in East Timor. These were all deaths
by government, and the governments doing the killing were mostly states
that professed hatred of Christianity.
Much of Royal’s research is new. The project began with a sentence in
one of John Paul II’s encyclicals. He said that the martyrs of our
century “should not be forgotten.” A group of parishioners at Saint
Aloysius Parish in New Canaan, Conn., took the words seriously, and
began to accumulate materials. The word spread and materials started
coming in from around the world. What began as a simple list became an
amazing archive. With the help of his brother who is a priest, Royal
began the work of putting the results in book form.
Royal has done a masterful job, not only of documenting hundreds of
examples along with the stories of some of the most heroic; he has also
given us an account of why martyrdom should matter to us. Royal reminds
us that Christianity is a faith in which martyrdom, not conquest, is the
driving theme. All the Apostles except possibly one (John the
Evangelist) died violent deaths.
St. Paul was beheaded, but likely expected it: just as in Israel of
old, he wrote in Galatians, “he that was born after the flesh persecuted
him that was born of the Spirit, even so it is now.” St. Peter was
crucified upside down and set on fire, and foreshadowed his suffering by
writing in his Epistle, “Beloved, do not be startled at the trial by
fire now taking place among you … but rejoice, in so far as you are
partakers of the sufferings of Christ.”
Our Lord Himself warned his followers that “I am sending you out like
sheep among wolves.” Saint Ignatius, the second bishop of Antioch, was
torn apart by wild beasts. Under the reign of Diocletian in the third
century, old men, women, and children were slaughtered for their faith.
Tertullian observed that the Roman state blamed all problems, even
natural disasters, on the Christians: no matter what happens a shout
went up, “The Christians to the lions! Death to the Christians!”
So it seems sometimes in our own time. In many ways, Christianity’s
teaching of the dignity of human life, and its recognition that every
individual has a soul of infinite worth, gave birth to the modern idea
of freedom. In many ways, Christianity has sustained freedom because it
refuses to recognize the final authority of the state. The loyalty of
the Christian will always be to transcend authority, and hence will
be inclined to resist. That is why they were killed in this century, and
why they continue to be persecuted today.
The miracle (the word chosen carefully here) is that Christianity has
survived despite everything. So far, it has outlasted every government
that has tried to kill it off. Indeed, the promise from Galilee was that
the Gates of Hell will never prevail.