Featured image: Jean Léon Gérôme, The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer, 1863-1883. Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.
Paper delivered at the 2021 Veritas Amoris Conference “The Truth of Love: A Paradigm Shift for Moral Theology,” at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, USA, on June 25, 2021.
I. Martyrdom as the Form of Christian Life
Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle, was not eager to die. When required by the Roman proconsul of Asia Minor to say publicly “Away with the atheists,” Polycarp was willing to oblige: “Away with the atheists,” he shouted in the presence of the proconsul and the crowd in the Smyrnean arena. By “atheists,” to be sure, the polytheistic pagans intended the Christians, who on their part, however, did not think that this description fitted them. By cursing the class of all “atheists,” Polycarp cursed a class without members, which was as far as he would go. However, the proconsul was still not content, insisting that Polycarp swear by the fortunes of Cesar and explicitly curse the name of Christ. This the old bishop could not do and preferred to die: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Polycarp’s contemporary Ignatius of Antioch expressed one fundamental concern. He tried to dissuade his brothers and sisters in the Capital from interceding with the authorities on his behalf lest they snatch away from him the crown of martyrdom laid out for him. At the same time, he, like Polycarp, had no desire to die simply to die. What appealed to him about martyrdom was not its death-aspect, as if he were scorning the gift of life. What attracted him was instead the fact that by dying for Christ, he would imitate his Lord in a most perfect manner: “Then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple,” at the moment that is, when there is no more trace left of his body, and he has come to be the grain of God, ground by the lions’ teeth to become the bread of Christ. Ignatius confesses that his love has been crucified: his every earthly desire is ever marked and transformed by the sign of Jesus crucified: his one true love.
There is no greater glory, no greater honor for a Christian than to surrender his or her life for the love of Christ. No hint of hatred of one’s life or the world is implied here. Rather, as Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it, Christian martyrdom is the highest form of “world affirmation,” inasmuch as the disciple seeks to imitate Christ, who surrendered his life precisely for the love of the world. Martyrdom means the perfect imitation of Christ. According to Vatican II, “it makes the disciple like his master, who willingly accepted death for the salvation of the world, and through it he is conformed to him by the shedding of blood.” Even though only a few are called to receive this “highest gift” and undergo the “supreme test of love,” all “must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the cross amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.”
Although not all Christians will in fact be martyrs, nonetheless, “martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence,” as Benedict XVI formulates it. It concerns all. If one has died for all, then all have died (cf. 2 Cor 5:14). Christian believers are those who have died with Christ in baptism and now walk in newness of life with him (cf. Rm 6:4), in a way that now they no longer live for themselves but for him who has died for them (cf. 2 Cor 5:15). This is why Christ’s call to discipleship can be so radical: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26). He himself was the first to give up everything for the world he has come to save. He himself has loved us to the end, in the most radical way possible. Christ’s complete gift of himself on the cross asks for a response. The response can be nothing less: the Christian’s love has been crucified. To say it with von Balthasar’s words, every single Christian should consider martyrdom “as the external manifestation of the inner reality from which he or she lives. Martyrdom is the horizon of the Christian life.” His or her whole existence is existence from the serious case of martyrdom.
II. The Existence of Intrinsically Evil Acts: A Touchstone of the True Faith?
In one of his last articles, published just one year before his death, Franz Böckle posed the question of whether Paul VI’s Encyclical Letter Humanae Vitae could serve as a touchstone of the true faith. His answer was emphatically in the negative. His objection to Humanae Vitae regarded one particular point. He declared to have no intention to promote the contraceptive pill or to deny the need for self-mastery and mutual loving consideration on the part of the spouses. What Böckle put in doubt was rather whether “sufficient reasons have been given for a prohibition that forbids preventing conception in the context of a free sexual self-giving in every thinkable case.” In other words, had the encyclical only taught that it is generally not recommendable for the spouses deliberately to render themselves sterile prior, during, or after a conjugal act, Böckle might not have objected. What encounters his opposition is the teaching that the contraceptive act is intrinsece inhonestum, always and everywhere wrong without exception. This idea he cannot accept. Moreover, the way he argues that contraceptive practice, though perhaps often ill-advised, could not possibly be intrinsically evil without exception is thorough enough to exclude the existence of any exceptionless moral norms whatsoever. Böckle’s touchstone of the true faith has become the stumbling block of the new morality, and it is not the specific issue of contraception but rather the general question of exceptionless moral norms prohibiting acts that are always and everywhere evil, independent of their circumstances and foreseeable consequences.
The expression "the new morality" was used by Pope Pius XII in 1953 (Radiomessage on the occasion of "Family Day", March 23, 1952) with negative and critical connotations. It later gained currency also thanks to Joseph Fletcher’s very influential Situation Ethics. The New Morality, first published in 1966. In this book, the expression has entirely positive connotations and is understood in opposition to an “old morality” that is seen as rigid and dogmatic. However, what is specific to the “new morality” as presented by Fletcher and others is that it excludes the possibility of intrinsically evil actions and makes the moral evaluation of any action utterly dependent on the action’s situational context, i.e., its circumstances and underlying motivations. This is the sense in which the term is used here.
It is crucial to be aware of what is at stake in the denial of intrinsically evil acts. It will no longer be possible for a person, confronted with a practical proposal of any kind whatsoever, to dispense him- or herself from the need of discernment and simply to say, “I cannot.” There will also no longer be the need for martyrdom; in fact, martyrdom as “the high point of the witness to moral truth” will be abolished. The reason is the following. If an act cannot be defined and morally evaluated just in itself, independent of the circumstances and likely consequences, then the moral evaluation of the act will always remain hypothetical. How sure can one be that this act, which is usually ill-advised, which usually has bad consequences and which usually does much harm is truly bad in one’s particular situation right now? As one cannot foresee all the consequences and cannot grasp all the circumstances, one’s conviction and certainty can never be absolute. A person’s conviction may even be of a high degree, but never to the point of allowing him or her simply to say, “I cannot.”
Now while the experience of the “I cannot” does not exhaust all of morality, it is nonetheless one of its indispensable elements. One of the fundamental issues with which Hannah Arendt grappled in her work was why Hitler and his Nazi-movement encountered so little resistance among the German population and in much of continental Europe. However, this enormous moral collapse notwithstanding, she did come across a few who had refused to lend a helping hand to what at the time was declared the scientifically verifiable and utterly necessary course of biological evolution. According to Arendt’s moral considerations, confronted with the request to speed up the evolutionary process by eliminating entire peoples from the face of the earth, these truly reliable people never had a crisis of conscience. To them, their refusal to participate in barbarous acts was never a matter for deliberation, even if it meant putting themselves and their families in deadly danger. Their response was a simple “I can’t.” For her, “this ‘I can’t’ … corresponds to the self-evidence of the moral proposition; it means: I can’t murder innocent people just as I can’t say: ‘two and two equal five.’ You can always counter the ‘thou shalt’ or the ‘you ought’ by talking back: I will not or I cannot for whatever reasons. Morally the only reliable people when the chips are down are those who say ‘I can’t.’” Those, on the other hand, who experienced a conflict of conscience, weighing the good of their own lives and that of their family’s safety against the evil of the acts asked of them, were lost from the start. Their giving in was decided upon the very moment that they began a calculating reasoning process.
The moral “I cannot” has its self-evidence, and as such it is of absolute certainty, higher than any certainty that one can have as the result of any moral discernment and reasoning process. I cannot kill innocent people or collaborate with such actions, and I do not need arguments to convince me. My inability to do so is on an entirely different level than conclusions of deliberations. This “I cannot” is part of my character, of my very being. If anyone should present me with a kind of moral reasoning that concludes that “I can,” I will then know with certainty that this reasoning is faulty. Any reasoning that arrives at such conclusions must be wrong. As Aristotle still knew, there are questions even to pose them, making them the object of moral discernment, is immoral, and those who do ask them merit correction rather than instruction. To him, as to Arendt and the entire Hebrew-Christian and Greco-Roman tradition, there are practical proposals to which one must not respond by discerning in one’s conscience but to which the only morally upright response is “I can’t.”
If, on the other hand, there are no acts that are bad in themselves, then everything must be put up for discernment. One will always have to start a reasoning process; there will be no practical proposals to be excluded from the start. It will not ever be possible simply to say, “I cannot.” Let us imagine a Christian father of a family at the time of the Diocletian Persecution, the most destructive and most systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Just as in the case of Polycarp, Roman civil authorities demand of him that he offer incense to Cesar and curse the name of Christ. In the case of his noncompliance, he will die; his wife will become a widow and his children orphans. Besides, very many Christians have already died. If he, too, dies, the Church may soon bleed out. Soon all Christians will be gone, and the Emperor will have had his way. If he had been taught by proponents of the new morality, our Christian husband and father might well say that Saint Polycarp and Saint Ignatius did right in laying down their lives when they did, but that his case is different. They were bishops, while he holds responsibility for a family; they died at a time when the persecutions were still more or less occasional, while he confronts death at a time when the Great Persecution threatens to eliminate God’s Church altogether. What is the problem with performing an innocent external act and saying out loud a few meaningless words that do not express what is in one’s heart? Isn’t charity the striving for what is the best one can do? Doesn’t it lie in the very attempt to love God and neighbor to the best of one’s abilities? The Christian father of a family may ask himself: “By offering incense and by cursing the name of Christ, am I not promoting the cause of Christianity? If I survive this difficult moment, I will be able to provide a Christian education for my children and make the Church grow. I want to build God’s Kingdom: this is my fundamental motivation in doing what is necessary to survive here and now. Therefore, for Christ’s sake, I will curse his name; to honor the one God, I will render divine homage to Cesar.” Could this not be a valid perspective on things? Now for martyrdom to be possible, this very kind of questioning must be excluded from the start. No one will ever die for a hypothesis. If, in the face of hungry lions, we are told to curse the name of Christ but cannot be entirely sure whether by doing so we offend God or rather please him, then we will most certainly do everything necessary to make sure the lions are fed in some other way.
If there are no intrinsically evil acts, i.e., if there is no action whatsoever that can definitely be ruled out as being immoral and displeasing to God, prior to any kind of conscientious discernment process, then the martyr becomes a fanatic who claims to know more than he or she can actually know. Martyrdom is abolished. These considerations do not speak against martyrdom, but against any moral theory that denies the existence of moral absolutes. As Benedict XVI puts it, “The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.” Confronted with the demand to curse Christ’s name, Polycarp did not engage in any reasoning of the kind advocated by the new morality. To cite him again: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” I cannot.
III. Willing the Good vs. Willing the Best
The discernment to which the new morality subjects all practical proposals is twofold. It concerns the goodness of the will that intends to bring about the best results possible and the rightness of the act in effectively doing so. Responsible for discerning the will’s goodness is the agent’s conscience that asks itself about the motivation: Am I doing what I am about to be doing because I genuinely want the best, or do I do it from egoistic motives? The question of an action’s rightness is ultimately contingent on circumstances and the complex socio-historical context in which the action takes place. Discerning the deed’s rightness will thus become the responsibility of experts in the human sciences, such as sociologists or psychologists. Since the action’s rightness is an empirical question and since, as both Hume and Kant noticed, experience does not yield necessity, the agent can never be entirely certain about whether what he or she is doing is right or wrong. Relative, subjective certainty can at most be had about his or her motivations, i.e., about his or her motivation to want the best, i.e., to love, although, apart from God, the agent is the only person qualified to make this judgment.
In the context of the new morality, the concept of love has undergone a decisive change. While, following Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas still defined love as willing the good for the beloved, the new morality ultimately turned love into willing the best for the world as such. The seemingly small difference between willing the good and willing the best is of enormous significance. If to love means to will the good for the beloved, then loving has an objective criterion of truth. The truth of love consists in the correspondence between the good willed for the beloved and the person of the beloved. Is the good that the lover wills for the beloved a true good for him or her? If so, the love is true. If not, the love is false, not authentic, hurtful. A mother loves her son. Her son has financial difficulties and asks her for a certain amount of money in cash. Now it turns out that the son is a drug addict. If the mother truly loves her son, she will ask herself whether cash is an adequate good that she can will for him here and now. Most likely, she will not give him cash but pay his rent or cook a meal for him.
Willing the good for the beloved is, of course, just one aspect of loving. The second aspect is this: the lover wills a good for the beloved precisely because he or she wishes the good of the beloved, i.e., he or she wishes the beloved to flourish. Thus, in each act of love there is what we may call the choice of a good for the beloved (e.g., giving the beloved a glass of water) that is accomplished with the intention of making the beloved thrive (e.g., wishing that by drinking the water, the beloved will be well). The intention of willing the good of the beloved is verified by the choice of the goods the lover wills for him or her. The point of the present argument is that by asking us to want the best and not the good, the new morality has forgotten about the goods for the person (object of choice) and thus eliminated the moment of choice. In addition, although the new morality maintains the moment of love’s intention, it has significantly altered it, asking us not to love persons but states of affairs in the world. Hence, it has also forgotten about the good of the person (object of intention). The concept of love has fundamentally changed.
According to the classical notion of love, there is thus a truth about the good that the lover wills for his or her beloved. At the same time, the intentionality of love, i.e., the question to whom one wills the good, is unambiguously settled. In the above example, the mother wills the good for her son. She evaluates which good to will for her son in the light of who he is. The one she loves is a concrete person. Here, the new morality introduces a tremendous change. The only reason it may go unnoticed is that the same word, “to love,” is used. The meaning, however, is fundamentally altered. In its final consequence, this new approach to morality no longer asks about the good of the other in the concrete. Strictly speaking, it does not bid us love concrete people but abstract situations. We are not called upon to ask whether by our concrete acts we make individual persons flourish (or instead do them injustice), but rather whether or not by these acts we build a better world. In such a framework, then, it cannot a priori be excluded that an act of killing an innocent victim could be morally commanded, since it may be, under given circumstances, the action that most likely leads to a better world. Supposing that what has traditionally been called adultery could lead to an imprisoned wife’s happy reunification with her husband, and assuming that the act is engaged in precisely for this reason, then, for the new morality, this act must not be called immoral. It is not merely to be excused on account of extreme circumstances, either. Instead, it must be praised as an archetypal act of virtue.
This story, of a certain Mrs. Bergmeier kept prisoner in a Ukrainian camp during the Second World War, was given by Joseph Fletcher as a test of what he called “ethical method.” Fletcher purportedly did not want to indicate any solution, even though the section’s heading (“Sacrificial Adultery”) strongly suggests a leaning. In Fletcher’s book, the account is presented as historical, although to Keenan this question is quite evidently not essential. Keenan tells some of the details, such as the actual country of imprisonment, in a way different than Fletcher’s, treating her example simply as a case that “has undergone several incarnations.” Nevertheless, the issue of the story’s historicity is not entirely indifferent. The account’s turns seem entirely unlikely. It would be interesting, to say the least, to know whether it was life itself that bore out such events (which evidently cannot be excluded a priori), or whether these happenings were birthed solely in the mind of a speculative thinker who needed a suitable “case” to substantiate his theory. The use of this example would then qualify as an instance of a morality devised at the writing desk, rightly denounced by Pope Francis.
Now the love adduced to justify the woman’s action is ultimately not a love of a concrete person but of a state of affairs. It is the best state of affairs that she can somehow produce through her deeds, and that is her being reunited with her husband and children. One may, of course, say that it is the love for her husband and children that motivates her action. However, one will also have to admit that what she proposes to do in the concrete has no immediate bearing on her husband and children. What she chooses in the concrete is having sexual relations with the prison guard. Therefore, what one needs to ask is not whether being reunited with her family is a good. The reunion with her family is certainly a good, but not a possible object of choice, inasmuch as it is a future state of affairs and not a present action. We choose actions that are at present possible; we only hope for future states of affairs. What she needs to ask is rather whether having sexual relations with the guard can be willed as a good for all persons involved: the guard, herself, her husband, her children. Having these relations is something she can choose, to do or not to do. Now in choosing an intimate union with the guard, can she really be said to will the guard’s good? Is she not instrumentalizing him for the end of getting pregnant so as to be released from jail? No matter how eager an instrument he is, does she not merely use him? Will she not later deprive him of his child? Is her performing a sexual act with another man and her being pregnant with that other man’s child truly a good she can appropriately will for her husband?
A further difficulty is that one also needs to ask by which criteria to judge the state of affairs one hopes to bring about. Who says that a state of affairs in which a wife endures the separation from her husband and perhaps even endures death to remain faithful to him in the flesh is worse than a state of affairs in which she positively seeks out relations with another man and returns home with that man’s child? Who, after all, can tell how the story will end in the long run? Jealousy may yet win the upper hand in the husband who files for divorce or takes to the bottle to drown his pain and commits suicide.
Are we indeed called to love states of affairs? Isn’t the moral life about actions as they bear not on future situations to be brought about but on persons who are already present? The classical idea that there are acts that must never be done depends on this understanding of love as willing the good for the other. This concept of love is the necessary condition for being able to identify specific objects of our choices that can never be authentic goods for those we love, ourselves included. The need to exclude certain choices has to do with the very conditions under which our existence is given to us. We are bodily, sexual, rational beings: our bodily life, our sexuality, and our relation to truth are inseparable from our personal existence. These realms touch us in our deepest being. Independent of one’s reasons and motivations, one cannot kill an innocent victim and ask him or her not to take it “personally.” One cannot instrumentalize another person sexually and say one willed this act as a good for that person. One cannot deceive a person about a critical fact touching his or her life and meaningfully declare to have done so out of love, if by love we understand the willing of the good for the other. A lie is not a good that corresponds to the beloved any more than is death or mutilation or sexual instrumentalization. The moral life is played out in the concrete willing of the good for the other, in the act of choice and not just in the intention, in choosing the good and not just in intending the best. This is why even a pagan thinker like Aristotle was able to conceive of some particularly shameful kind of acts that “we cannot be compelled to do, and rather than to do them we ought to die after the most terrible suffering.”
Here, then, is one of the fundamental problems of the new morality. As Livio Melina puts it, “the ethical dichotomy between good (evil) and right (wrong) ultimately depends on an anthropological dichotomy between intentionality and choices.” Proportionalism claims that the object of the will is not the good for the person (oneself or another), as something we can meaningfully choose. Instead, proportionalism holds that the object of the will is the best state of affairs possible. However, the best is nothing we can intelligibly be said to choose. We can only hope for it; we can intend it. The concrete action that we perform intending to bring about the best state of affairs possible will then receive its entire moral specificity from this intention. In itself, apart from this intention, the new morality considers actions as physical events and “not as choices of our freedom.” Now an ethical theory that is based on an idea of action that ignores the moment of choice encounters a profound, unsurmountable difficulty. By ignoring choice, it ignores the fundamental aspect of action theory and the centerpiece of morality as testified by the Greco-Roman and Hebrew-Christian tradition and by our own everyday experience.
In acting, we always experience ourselves as loving, i.e., we find that with every action, we will some good to someone, ourselves or others. In willing a good to someone, i.e., in choosing to act on his or her behalf, we testify to our love for him or her. Our actions are always symbolic. For good or ill, they are symbols of the love we bear. Through them, we either express or betray our love. Martyrs witness to this love to the end. They choose to die rather than to act in a way that would betray the one they love. Therefore, “in the martyrs’ offering shines forth the fullness of the love which they have encountered and by which they have allowed themselves to be transformed.”
Martyrdom is always a question of love, and as such inserted into an interpersonal relationship. It is always a question of loving a person, not of loving a situation, and if we are required to love situations and not persons, then martyrdom will be impossible. But Jesus, may we be reminded, did not say, “No one has greater love than this, to strive for the best possible state of affairs in the universe.” His words were different, more radical, and more concrete: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). This greater love is interpersonal. It is not a question of altruistic self-abnegation for its own sake – after all, as the Apostle Paul reminds us, one can very well give one’s body to be burnt and yet not have love (cf. 1Cor 13:3) – nor is it concern for the common good of the universe, which is a matter that human beings humbly need to leave to divine Providence. What makes of this giving of one’s life a greater love, and which alone renders this giving ultimately possible, is that it be a giving for one’s friends. Polycarp was not concerned with the future state of Christianity in the Roman Empire. He instead asked whether the choice demanded of him here and now was going to be compatible with his friendship with Christ. Cursing someone’s name is an identifiable, concrete action, and in Polycarp’s quite common-sensical judgment, it is no more compatible with being that person’s friend than betraying (Judas), denying (Peter), or killing (Pilate) that person would have been. By refusing to commit such an act even under the threat of death, Polycarp gave witness to his one true love: “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
This present paper has first been published in Italian as “Martirio in questioni morali: una vita che si gioca nell’agire concreto”, in: L. Melina – R. Rowland, a cura di, Chiesa sotto accusa. Un commento agli Appunti di Benedetto XVI, con prefazione di Georg Gänswein, Cantagalli, Siena 2020, 187-204.