Monday, August 8, 2016

Is Douthat a better theologian than the Pope? Spoiler: No.

"Mosque in mourning" in St-Étienne-du-Vouvray, Normandy, photo by François Mori/AP, via San Angelo Standard-Time.
Monsignor Ross Douthat, apostolic nuncio to 42nd Street, is putting out another request for some magic words; not only does President Obama have to say the words "radical Islamic terrorism" in order to win the war against radical Salafi terrorism, Pope Francis has to refer to the horrible murder of Abbé Jacques Hamel at the end of last month as a "martyrdom" ("The Meaning of a Martyrdom"):

In theory, it should be possible (for a pope, especially!) to plainly call Father Hamel’s death a martyrdom while also rejecting sweeping narratives about Islamic violence or religious war.
"In theory"! What theory is that?

As a matter of fact, I think a theoretical standpoint requires you to say that Abbé Hamel was not a martyr, however much respectful attention you might want his sacrifice and suffering to be given, because it isn't, just like Father Damien or Padre Pio, in line with the classic three-point definition:
1. put to death, 2. for Christ: for the Faith, for refusing to apostasize and offer false worship, etc., and 3. further, Christian joy and gladness to die for Christ's sake (virtuous model).... Blessed Damien of Molokai is a hero (of charity), but not a martyr. St Pio of Pietrelcina suffered enormously over 50 years with the stigmata, but is not a martyr. In the Missal, a saint who is a martyr is always named such. M. is placed next to their name for Martyr.
You can't call Abbé Hamel a martyr because there is no evidence that he accepted his death in the name of his faith—that he refused to abjure the faith to save his life, or that he rejoiced at the opportunity to witness to his faith in his death. Not that he wouldn't gladly have gone to martyrdom, for all we know, but that he didn't in fact do that thing, because he went down fighting; he was trying to defend himself as they forced him to his knees, and his last words, according to various sources (though not as far as I can tell any newspapers) were not to welcome his death but to protest: "Va-t'en, Satan!".

Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's the death of a hero, if you like, like Father Damien's, and you can make him a saint if you want, but whether he was a martyr or not is a technical issue, and he wasn't.

There's another issue that isn't generally addressed in defining martyrdom but is relevant nevertheless, which is that of the power relations between the person who suffers martyrdom and the person who inflicts it, the oppressor. From the early Christian struggle against the imperial Roman authority through the missionaries in foreign lands of more or less modern times to the victims of tyrannical governments from Hitler's Germany to El Salvador in the 1979 dictatorship that murdered Archbishop Óscar Romero (declared a martyr by Pope Francis in February 2015 and beatified that May), martyrs are always in opposition to a secular authority that commands them—not a couple of despised outlaw thugs.

That's the subtext of Monsignor Douthat's insistence on calling Abbé Hamel a martyr, and Pope Francis's insistence on not calling him one: Douthat and his kind want to reinforce the idea of a holy war between Christianity and Islam even as he denies he's doing it; through the development of an imagery that depicts it—not even a war between equals but one in which the Cross is tiny, diminished, moribund, while the Crescent is huge and overwhelming:

The come-of-age church is, in the West, literally a dying church: As the French philosopher Pierre Manent noted, the scene of Father Hamel’s murder — “an almost empty church, two parishioners, three nuns, a very old priest” — vividly illustrates the condition of the faith in Western Europe.
The broader liberal order is also showing signs of strain. The European Union, a great dream when Father Hamel was ordained a priest in 1958, is now a creaking and unpopular bureaucracy, threatened by nationalism from within and struggling to assimilate immigrants from cultures that never made the liberal leap.
The Islam of many of these immigrants is likely to be Europe’s most potent religious force across the next generation, bringing with it an “Islamic exceptionalism” (to borrow the title of Shadi Hamid’s fine new book) that may not fit the existing secular-liberal experiment at all.
"I'm not saying it's a war," says Ross, in other words, "I'm just saying they're winning." Just saying.

He tries to make you think he's demanding respect for the dead priest, but he's really demanding respect for the Da'esh, churning up hatred and fear, as he does.

Ironically, Abbé Hamel may have died in exactly the opposite cause; he was an especially ardent worker for interfaith communication in St-Étienne-du-Rouvray, we're told, and a key figure in the construction of the town's mosque on church-owned land sold to the Muslim community for the symbolic price of one euro:
"I've lost a friend. This is someone who gave his life for others," said Mohammed Karabila, imam of the St-Étienne-du-Rouvray mosque, yesterday. It was in this same mosque that Abbé Hamel participated in the funeral service for Imad Ibn Ziaten, the 30-year-old paratrooper from the nearby town of Sotteville-lès-Rouen who was killed in Toulouse on March 11 2012 by Mohamed Merah." [«J'ai perdu un ami. C'est quelqu'un qui a donné sa vie aux autres. On est abasourdis», a déclaré, hier, Mohammed Karabila, l'imam de la mosquée de Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. C'est dans cette même mosquée qu'avait eu lieu, avec l'abbé Hamel, une cérémonie funèbre en mémoire d'Imad Ibn Ziaten, le parachutiste de 30 ans tué le 11 mars 2012 à Toulouse par Mohamed Merah et originaire de la commune toute proche de Sotteville-lès-Rouen.] (La Dépêche du Midi)
Douthat and the killer (a local kid who knew very well who he was attacking) are working together to craft a narrative of ineluctable conflict, to the death, in opposition to the reality of integration and love that Hamel worked so hard to create and for which he did in effect die.

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