In the week since Fr. Jacques Hamel was murdered, much has been written concerning how we should understand and speak about his death. Herewith, a rundown of what seem to me the five comments most likely to provoke thought, or fruitful discussion, or (as the case may be) apoplexy.
1. Paul Vallely penned an opinion for last Thursday’s New York Times, titled “Leave ‘Martyrdom’ to the Jihadists”:
Father Hamel may be a martyr in the eyes of the church, but his attackers are also martyrs in the eyes of jihadists. … Reciprocal talk of martyrdom is unhelpful. The impulse to canonize Father Hamel, however sincere and well intentioned, feeds the idea of retaliation—our martyr for yours—that gives the jihadists the war of religions they seek.
One might object that to declare Hamel a martyr is not, indeed, to declare a “war of religions,” but rather to venerate peaceable and humble witness. Elsewhere in the piece, Vallely concedes a distinction between the two kinds of martyr: “One man is a pure victim, while the others were killers.” It may be more illuminating, then, to say that the santo subito crowd, by calling for Hamel’s canonization, is trying to take martyrdom back from the jihadists.
2. Austen Ivereigh is a British journalist, a chronicler of the life of Pope Francis, and a confident expositor of the papal mind. Last week he found himself much occupied on Twitter, defending the pope’s early characterization of Fr. Hamel’s murder as an act of “absurd violence.” On Thursday he composed a lengthier defense, of the pope and of himself (#scapegoat), for the Australian site ABC Religion and Ethics.
Ivereigh contends that the murder of Fr. Hamel is no more “meaningful” than the murder of anyone else:
[T]he slaying of a priest—for all the B-movie horror of it, the pseudo-sacrificial ritualism of it—by an ISIS militant is no more meaningful an act than the one that destroyed the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the nicois children on the Promenade des Anglais. It is the same act, an act of pointless hatred—banal, as evil is always banal.
One might object that when an attack targets a specific community—as Fr. Hamel was targeted in odium fidei, in his capacity as a priest of the Church—it is not wrong for that community to call the attack what it is. One would hardly have said to the LGBT community, in the wake of Orlando: “Calm down! Mass shootings in nightclubs are always banal.”
Further, from a Catholic perspective, Hamel’s murder is indeed more “meaningful” than other murders, even other murders of priests and religious. The murder of a priest during Mass is an act of sacrilege—which is a lesser crime than murder, to be sure, but one that offends Catholics in a special way. “Banal” it ain’t.
3. Austen Ivereigh again. We observe a certain sarcasm in Ivereigh’s descriptions of Fr. Hamel and the circumstances of his death. The scene is staged as a tacky pageant: Witness “the B-movie horror of it, the pseudo-sacrificial ritualism of it,” “the grotesque pseudo-service conducted in Arabic.” Regarding “the supposedly sacrificial nature of Father Hamel’s death,” Ivereigh paraphrases his Twitter critics: “How dare I … downplay the heroic martyrdom of this great priest?”
Ivereigh’s ostensible intention here is to deride, not Fr. Hamel himself, but the propagandizers who would sensationalize Fr. Hamel’s death for sectarian purposes. He can hardly do this, however, without also belittling the would-be saint whose cause the sectarians have taken up, and the “supposedly sacrificial” scene of his would-be martyrdom. The zest with which he does so suggests that a more attitudinal motive lies behind his polemic than the high-minded one he claims.
4. Pope Francis gave an interview during his Wednesday flight to Poland for World Youth Day. The world is at war, but not in the way you might think:
Not a war of religion. There is a war of interests. There is a war for money. There is a war for natural resources. There is a war for domination of peoples. This is the war. All religions want peace. Others want war. Do you understand?
On the pope’s reading, ISIS’s stated intention—to establish itself as a caliphate and kill or conquer all infidels until the truth and justice of Islam reign uncontested over all the eastern and western extents of the earth—is disingenuous. ISIS deceives the young militants who enlist in this program. Its real “interests” are secular, presumably economic.
Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, writing in the Catholic Herald, suggests that the pope has brought a very Italian, facts-behind-the-facts paradigm to bear on this matter. Fr. Lucie-Smith invokes dietrologia, a cool Italian word that I had almost forgotten about since reading The Monster of Florence last summer. (Perhaps ISIS is also covering up for the satanic cult that murdered all those amorous couples in the hills of Tuscany in the 1970s … )
5. Pope Francis gave another interview during his Sunday flight from Poland after World Youth Day:
In almost every religion there is always a small group of fundamentalists. We have them too. If I have to talk about Islamic violence I have to talk about Christian violence. Every day in the newspapers I see violence in Italy, someone kills his girlfriend, another kills his mother-in-law, and these are baptized Catholics. … You can kill with the tongue as well as the knife.
Catholic fundamentalists may not kill you with a knife, but they will say killing things, such as “Divorced and remarried couples must not receive communion unless they recceive absolution and resolve to live together as brother and sister.” And baptized Catholics may certainly commit acts of physical violence—to which their baptism and that of their victims is, admittedly, quite incidental.
We understand why the pope, when he speaks of Islamic violence, must speak of Christian violence. He is concerned about “the idea of retaliation,” as Vallely put it. He must refrain from exacerbating the jihadist idea of retaliation, and take care that he does not inspire a Catholic idea of retaliation. One wishes, however, that he could manage all this without imputing—not for the first time—the bad faith of faithful members of his own Church.
6. UPDATE: And here comes ISIS, in its magazine Dabiq, with its own special take:
The gist of the matter is that there is indeed a rhyme to our terrorism, warfare, ruthlessness, and brutality.
I don’t care to reproduce more than a snippet. The rest, of course, is quite banal.
Julia Yost is associate editor of First Things.
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