Abortion And Martyrdom, edited by Aidan Nichols

Abortion And Martyrdom, edited by Aidan Nichols

Tracey Rowland

edited by Aidan Nichols
(Gracewing, 2002, $34.95. Available from AD Books)

This work is a collection of papers delivered at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Pierre de Solesmes in 1999. They address the issue of whether the Magisterium of the Church should acknowledge children killed by abortion as "martyr companions of the Holy Innocents." The issue has arisen because a woman who lives in London, Patricia de Menezes, claims to have received private revelations from Our Lady calling for such a declaration. The work presents arguments for and against the proposition.

John F. McCarthy from the Congregation for the Eastern Churches in Rome notes that for a declaration of martyrdom there are two necessary elements: the fact of having been baptised, and the fact of having been killed as a witness to Christ. In relation to the first element, a number of contributors acknowledge that it is a common place of Catholic theology that infants in the womb, who are killed from odium fidei, "hatred of the faith", may be regarded as having undergone a "baptism of blood". The more difficult to establish of the two elements is the second. How is it possible to construe the act of abortion as motivated by "hatred of the faith"?

At the level of efficient causality abortion is most frequently motivated by poverty, despair, financial considerations, peer group pressure and pressure from the father of the infant. It would be rare to find a mother who has had an abortion to make a theological statement, although there is some evidence that having had at least one abortion is a rite of passage in the more ideologically intense feminist networks.

Nonetheless, McCarthy suggests that a primary cause of the abortion industry may be found in the activities of demonic powers for whom the personal sinlessness of the unborn and their ordering by God to grace and glory renders them an especially desirable and vulnerable target. McCarthy argues that "odium fidei is at work not only in human intentions originated so as deliberately to express such hatred, but at the transcendent level of angelic causality (the 'Dragon' of the Apocalypse)". In such a context, aborted infants are brought to their deaths by the same "rulers of this age" (1 Cor:2-8) who crucified Jesus, and thereby constitute icons of his "crucified innocence".

However, Fr Brian Harrison OS thinks that Satan's hatred of unborn infants is a weak reed to lean upon. Second-guessing the devil as to which persons he hates more than others is a risky venture - devils are capricious and unpredicatable. Even if the devil is behind the promotion of abortion he can never force anyone to use his/her will in a particular way. He and his angelic cohorts do not therefore stand in the same position as the executioners of Bethlehem stood in relation to King Herod.

Divine law

Fr Harrison concludes that if aborted children are to be claimed as martyrs, it will have to be because the human beings responsible for their slaughter render them witnesses to Christ in some way. He suggests that the act of abortion not only betrays rejection of or scorn for the divine law which forbids killing of the innocent; it also involves an objective (though perhaps unconscious) rejection or scorn for the divine Person in whose image the innocent victim is made, precisely insofar as the assailant does not and cannot deny the total innocence of the victim.

In short, in despising an avowedly innocent life, the one who aborts implicitly despises Innocence itself, the divine Innocence and Life itself. This is consistent with the statement of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae that the rejection of human life in its various forms is really the rejection of Christ, and with the judgement of Philippe Jobert OSB that because Christ is a martyr in them [the aborted infants], assuming their deaths as his own, they are really martyrs in Christ.

In a similar manner, relying on themes found in the writings of Péguy, St Thérèse and Chesterton, John Saward argues that the myriad children slaughtered each year by abortion die as victims of a deliberately anti-Christian, anti-Christ culture of death, killed by the spiritual successors of Herod.

McCarthy also notes that St John the Baptist sets a precedent for acknowledging as martyrs those who died, not because of Christianity as such, but because of some moral principle, in this instance an opposition to adultery, which is a moral principle not specific to the Catholic faith.

Building upon this precedent, Peter Kwasniewski of Gaming suggests that there are two kinds of martyrs - those who are killed on account of professing a Gospel which their persecutors hate, and those, like John the Baptist, who are killed because their presence prevents someone else from living as he or she pleases. The latter kind of martyr, though not giving an explicitly Christian witness, is at least implicitly related to Christ.

Specifically Kwasniewski argues: "The murder of an innocent child is a crime directed at the very essence of God in the most profound way, striking against two incommunicable prerogatives of the Creator: the gratuitous gift of being (esse), and the creation of intelligent life, the being of a new person or rational creature."

Lamb of God

Without denying martyrdom, Michele M. Schumacher of the University of Fribourg argues that it is reasonable to hold that the aborted child shares in Christ's witness as a sign, or "sacrament" of the spotless Lamb of God led to the slaughter. In the innocent suffering of the aborted infant, the crucifixion of the unblemished Lamb is powerfully imaged. However, Schumacher suggests that more than this is implied in granting to this child a real share in Christ's passion whereby he, like St Paul, might be said to bear on his or her tiny body the "marks of Jesus".

The strongest case against a declaration is presented in the paper of Denis Biju-Duval from the Lateran University. He concludes that the current state of Church teaching does not permit us to envisage the making of the declaration, since the Church would have to (1) make a prior commitment of her teaching authority on the personal status of the embryo from conception, (2) clarify the question of children who have died without Baptism, and because (3) the notion of martyrdom should not be watered down to mean the general fact of being the innocent victim of unjust violence.

Biju-Duval further suggests that the features of implicit and invisible witness found in the arguments of the contributors mentioned above conflict with the general understanding of a martyr as someone who explicitly (self-consciously) and visibly bears witness. He recommends a distinction between martyrdom and "eternal glorification". The latter makes it possible for members of the Church to invoke the victims of abortion as intercessors, without contending with the theological problems associated with the concept of "martyrdom".

Hugh Barbour OP concurs with the observation of Denis Biju-Duval that the Church would first need to define the precise point of the infusion of the spiritual, rational soul. Given that some abortions occur almost immediately upon conception and that others do not occur until much later in the pregnancy, as a matter of logic the Church would need to define some point beyond which one could definitely say that there is a soul.

The lowest common denominator position is represented in the following resolution of the symposium: "Given the morally unanimous opinion of the Fathers of the Church, of St Thomas Aquinas, of the teaching of the ordinary Magisterium and of the witness of the Sacred Liturgy that infants can be martyrs, and that the Baptism of blood avails for justification, the Church can declare in individual cases, based on reliable testimony, that infants, even unborn, who are killed on account of an explicit hatred of the Christian faith or of the other virtues of the Christian life, are in fact holy martyrs and may be invoked and venerated as such by all the faithful."

This work will not only be of interest to those involved in the work of defending the sanctity of human life, but will also be of interest to scholars of the principles behind the beatification and canonisation processes which have been overhauled and developed in the current pontificate.

Dr Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.

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