Image: The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, 1599-1600
In 1993 Pope John Paul II released the tenth encyclical of his pontificate, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). Specifically written to address the error of moral relativism, which had even found its way into the post-conciliar Church, the encyclical presented fundamental Catholic moral teaching. To this day it is considered to be one of the most comprehensive presentations of moral theology ever promulgated by a pope.
Although Veritatis Splendor was written over twenty years ago, it’s message is even more relevant now than when it was released. Near the end of the encyclical St. John Paul II offers a beautiful reflection on the meaning of martyrdom, specifically as the “high point of the witness to moral truth.” In today’s culture which devalues human life, seeks to promote and fund contraception for all and which no longer understands the true meaning of marriage, an authentic Catholic witness can indeed result in martyrdom.
Saint John Paul II on Martyrdom (excerpt from Veritatis Splendor)
“The Church proposes the example of numerous Saints who bore witness to and defended moral truth even to the point of enduring martyrdom, or who preferred death to a single mortal sin. In raising them to the honour of the altars, the Church has canonized their witness and declared the truth of their judgment, according to which the love of God entails the obligation to respect his commandments, even in the most dire of circumstances, and the refusal to betray those commandments, even for the sake of saving one’s own life.
“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. Indeed, it even more clearly unmasks the true face of such an act: it is a violation of man’s “humanity”, in the one perpetrating it even before the one enduring it. Hence martyrdom is also the exaltation of a person’s perfect “humanity” and of true “life”, as is attested by Saint Ignatius of Antioch, addressing the Christians of Rome, the place of his own martyrdom: “Have mercy on me, brethren: do not hold me back from living; do not wish that I die… Let me arrive at the pure light; once there I will be truly a man. Let me imitate the passion of my God.”
“Finally, martyrdom is an outstanding sign of the holiness of the Church. Fidelity to God’s holy law, witnessed to by death, is a solemn proclamation and missionary commitment usque ad sanguinem, so that the splendour of moral truth may be undimmed in the behaviour and thinking of individuals and society. This witness makes an extraordinarily 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: the confusion between good and evil, which makes it impossible to build up and to preserve the moral order of individuals and communities. By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendour of moral truth, the martyrs and, in general, all the Church’s Saints, light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense. By witnessing fully to the good, they are a living reproof to those who transgress the law (cf. Wis 2:12), and they make the words of the Prophet echo ever afresh: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!” (Is 5:20).
“Although martyrdom represents the high point of the witness to moral truth, and one to which relatively few people are called, there is nonetheless 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.” (Veritatis Splendor, 91-93)