Unwilling Martyrs?

The Church has long celebrated the Holy Innocents as martrys slain for the sake of Christ. The Collect of the Missa "Ex Ore Infantium" on their Feast Day is sufficient to show the Church's position in this regard:

O God, whose praise the martyred Innocents on this day confessed, not by speaking, but by dying: destroy in us all the evils of sin, that our life also may proclaim in deeds Thy faith which our tongues profess. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost . . .
But how can infants, who are too young to use their wills, be considered martyrs? For not everyone who dies violently is considered a martyr. Even if someone were to die at the hands of an enemy of Christ, it seems they would not be martyrs unless they WILLINGLY suffered death. For example, imagine a citizen of a predominantly Catholic country who is killed by terrorists. The terrorists may have killed him out of hatred for Christ and His Church, but they could be mistaken in their assumption that killing the man was an attack on the Church. The man could be a non-Christian or even an anti-Christian. Our imaginary victim would have died because of the Faith, but he would not be celebrated as a martyr because he did not suffer death willingly for the sake of Christ. Similarly, granting that the Holy Innocents suffered death because Herod hated Christ, they did not suffer their deaths willingly since they were not old enough to exercise reason. How, then, can they be martyrs?

The kind of thinking that gives rise to this objection is, at the root, Pelagian (or semi-Pelagian at best). Most martyrs do willingly suffer death, but this act of the will is not a natural movement - it proceeds from charity infused by God. If the martyrs' act of will is a gift of God, cannot God also give the reward of the act of will, namely the crown of martyrdom, to whomever He pleases?

Why, then, should we celebrate the Holy Innocents as martyrs but not our hypothetical anti-Christian slain for the Faith? Cannot God also give that man the grace of martyrdom? Surely God can, but it seems that God did not if the man had an IMPEDIMENT in his will against dying for such a cause. We can assume an anti-Christian would consciously resist dying for the sake of the Faith if he were sufficiently warned of imminent danger; the infants would have no such willful resistance.1 We should distinguish, then, between "unwilling," such as is the anti-Christian who chooses against dying for Christ, and "non-willing," such as are the babes who do not choose one way or the other.2

The case is similar with Baptism. A baby can receive the grace of Baptism without willing it. A grown man, however, must desire Baptism; for, if he does not desire it, since he has use of his will and is presented with the choice, he desires NOT to have it. Whether it be the salvific grace conferred at Baptism, or the glorious palm of martyrdom, he who denies that a baby can receive it denies the graciousness of God's gift. Hence Augustine says, addressing the Holy Innocents:
A man that does not believe that children are benefited by the baptism of Christ will doubt of your being crowned in suffering for Christ. You were not old enough to believe in Christ's future sufferings, but you had a body wherein you could endure suffering of Christ Who was to suffer.3
1. We can say that the anti-Christian has an impediment in his will even if he isn't reflecting on the decision at the time of his death, e.g. if he is attacked by surprise. For he has willfully formed an habitual inclination to choose against dying for Christ.
2. c.f. a similar distinction made by Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. III
3. De Diversis lxvi, as quoted by St. Thomas in II-II Q.124 a.1.


  1. Frater Asinus said...
    It seems important that a martyr witness to Christ with the shedding of their blood. Perhaps you could expound a little more on how the death of the Holy Innocents is indeed a witness to Christ.

    Also, you might want to use this link for your paragraph on Pelagianism http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11604a.htm
    Vincentius said...
    Thanks for the comment, frater.

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