Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
Greetings, at what point does the church consider someone a martyr . The holy innocent the were executed in the hunt for the baby Messiah are referred to as martyrs. Are those children in new town Connecticut martyrs as well? If not technically, why not? If so, how is it?
"Martyr" means "witness", not "somebody who has died" in Greek. It came to have the connotation of "death" in the early years of Christianity because it was the supreme instance of somebody bearing witness to their faith in Jesus to be willing to suffer and die for it while staunchly maintaining their fidelity to him. Of course, not everybody who suffered for their faith died from their sufferings. Therefore, as time rolled on, Christians distinguished between "confessors" (those who suffered, sometimes under torture, for their faith in Jesus) and "martyrs" (those who actually died).
Over the centuries (and especially in the past century) "martyr" got expanded in popular parlance to mean "anybody who dies for a cause" (so a Nazi bullyboy name "Horst Wessel" was called a "martyr" by Hitler because some thug offed him). He was not, in the Christian sense, a martyr obviously, since the thing he "bore witness" to was Hitler and the Nazis. In Radical Islamic circles, suicide bombers, who murder others for the sake of jihad, are likewise called "martyrs". This too, is a radical misuse of the term from a Christian perspective since true martyrs die for, not murder for, their faith in Jesus.
Other folk, of course, have died for much nobler causes, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who really did die directly for the cause of racial justice and for the sake of the gospel (since his vision of racial justice was completely rooted in his Christian faith). Elsewhere in the West, "martyr" has taken on a watered-down connotation that can mean any suffering for anything, and can even mean merely being a victim of some sort of injustice or sadness ("He was a martyr to cancer").
In the Church, however, a martyr remains what he always was: somebody who dies for Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith. This doesn't mean that the martyrdom of, say, Protestant missionaries or civil rights advocates, or the myriad other people who have gone down fighting for the right side "doesn't count". And it certainly doesn't mean that the children of Sandy Hook will not be welcomed into heaven by Jesus. It simply means that their deaths were not *martyrdom* in the Catholic sense. The children of Sandy Hook are murder victims, but they were not murdered for their faith in Jesus, nor were they (like the Holy Innocents) murdered by somebody (like Herod) who was trying to murder Jesus.
Of course, in a sense, all innocents who are deliberately murdered by somebody are joined to the martyrdom of Jesus on the cross since Jesus is present in "the least of these". So we can think of them as sort of lower-case "martyrs" in that sense just as every anonymous nobody who has died in a state of grace is a saint whether or not they ever get canonized. But when the Church hails somebody as a martyr or a saint she does so for a public reason: to hold that person up as a model for the edification of the faithful and say "Here is one way in which Catholic discipleship to Jesus is lived out." There are lots of noble models among people who are not Catholic, of course, and the Church honors such people as well, but not as Catholic martyrs. So from Socrates to Gandhi, to Vicky Soto, who sacrificed her life to protect the children of Newtown, the Church honors such witnesses to courage, truth and goodness. But they are not, properly speaking, Christian or Catholic martyrs, because their deaths, noble and honorable as they are, were not for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Some may say it is mean and stingy to deny the honorific "martyr" to the victims of Sandy Hook. C.S. Lewis remarks on a similar attitude in his own day to the insistence of not changing the meaning of the word "Christian":
People ask: "Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?": or "May not many a man who cannot believe these doctrines be far more truly a Christian, far closer to the spirit of Christ, than some who do?" Now this objection is in one sense very right, very charitable, very spiritual, very sensitive. It has every available quality except that of being useful. We simply cannot, without disaster, use language as these objectors want us to use it. I will try to make this clear by the history of another, and very much less important, word.
The word gentleman originally meant something recognisable; one who had a coat of arms and some landed property. When you called someone "a gentleman" you were not paying him a compliment, but merely stating a fact. If you said he was not "a gentleman" you were not insulting him, but giving information. There was no contradiction in saying that John was a liar and a gentleman; any more than there now is in saying that James is a fool and an M.A. But then there came people who said - so rightly, charitably, spiritually, sensitively, so anything but usefully - "Ah but surely the important thing about a gentleman is not the coat of arms and the land, but the behaviour? Surely he is the true gentleman who behaves as a gentleman should? Surely in that sense Edward is far more truly a gentleman than John?" They meant well. To be honourable and courteous and brave is of course a far better thing than to have a coat of arms. But it is not the same thing. Worse still, it is not a thing everyone will agree about. To call a man "a gentleman" in this new, refined sense, becomes, in fact, not a way of giving information about him, but a way of praising him: to deny that he is "a gentleman" becomes simply a way of insulting him. When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker's attitude to that object. (A 'nice' meal only means a meal the speaker likes.) A gentleman, once it has been spiritualised and refined out of its old coarse, objective sense, means hardly more than a man whom the speaker likes. As a result, gentleman is now a useless word. We had lots of terms of approval already, so it was not needed for that use; on the other hand if anyone (say, in a historical work) wants to use it in its old sense, he cannot do so without explanations. It has been spoiled for that purpose.
Now if once we allow people to start spiritualising and refining, or as they might say 'deepening', the sense of the word Christian, it too will speedily become a useless word. In the first place, Christians themselves will never be able to apply it to anyone. It is not for us to say who, in the deepest sense, is or is not close to the spirit of Christ. We do not see into men's hearts. We cannot judge, and are indeed forbidden to judge. It would be wicked arrogance for us to say that any man is, or is not, a Christian in this refined sense. And obviously a word which we can never apply is not going to he a very useful word. As for the unbelievers, they will no doubt cheerfully use the word in the refined sense. It will become in their mouths simply a term of praise. In calling anyone a Christian they will mean that they think him a good man. But that way of using the word will be no enrichment of the language, for we already have the word good. Meanwhile, the word Christian will have been spoiled for any really useful purpose it might have served.
"Martyr" is, if you will, a technical term. It means "somebody killed because of their witness to Jesus Christ". The children of Sandy Hook were not killed for that. We might call them martyrs to the culture of death, martyrs to our mad gun culture, martyrs to the destructive effects of broken families, martyrs to all sorts of pathologies at work in the soul of Adam Lanza. But they are not martyrs for the gospel. That said, we can have confidence in the mercy of Jesus who loves the little ones, that they were safe with him and that there will be no more tears or weeping where they are.