Martyrs of the Century

Joe Leiberman 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, we are still to be constantly worried about events Pope Sixtus IV authorized many centuries ago that killed several thousand over centuries.

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 and thwarted? Are they perpetrators of violence? 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.

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 through an incredible wave of violence though this thoroughly religious society. Schools were shut, priests were murdered, and Bishops jailed and tortured. Churches were surrounded by troops and the priests 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 monasteries and 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, Connecticut, 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 aprt by wild bests. 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 goes 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 recognizes the distinction between Church and State. The loyalty of the Christian will always be to transcendent authority, and hence will usually be inclined to resist the ravenous authority of the state. 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.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He also edits a daily news site,

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