Robert Royal says the ideological nature of politics during the last 100 years was the catalyst for an increase in religious persecution, which led to the deaths of tens of millions worldwide.
On May 7, Pope John Paul II spoke at an ecumenical commemoration of "Witnesses to the Faith in the Twentieth Century" at the Colosseum in Rome, where ancient martyrs paid the ultimate witness for their faith. Speaking to the multifaith gathering, the pontiff pointed out that during the just-completed century, "maybe more than in the first period of Christianity... [Christians] showed their love of Christ by the shedding of blood." These contemporary martyrs, the pope said, "stand as a vast panorama of Christian humanity in the 20th century."
Indeed, John Paul II himself was witness to parts of this panorama during the decades he lived under Nazi and Communist domination. All the branches of Christianity suffered under various regimes during the last 100 years; the largest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, was a particular target as revolutionary regimes from Mexico to Spain and entrenched despots from Vietnam to Albania attempted to repress priests, nuns and the laity. In Spain, Catholic priests became the first Christians since ancient Rome to be thrown to wild beasts when they were bound and placed in bullrings with wild bulls. (Afterward, like dead bulls after a bullfight, their ears were cut off.)
Now, the myriad martyrdoms of the 20th century have received serious analysis in a new book, The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century by Robert Royal, the president of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute. Amply documented, the book eschews pious sentimentality in favor of evenhanded scholarship. At the same time, the plethora of factual detail leaves even the most secular readers open to questions that involve matters of the spirit.
Through the years, Royal has been shown in his writings to be an erudite observer of the links between religion and culture. For many years a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, he was a veteran of inside-the-Washington-Beltway policy struggles involving Latin America and nuclear weapons during the Reagan years. More recently, he has dealt with the way churches and people of faith have approached environmental questions (see Symposium, May 8). A Catholic himself, Royal does not overlook the sufferings of other Christians but points out that the international organization of Catholicism stirred up brutal anxiety in many uneasy tyrants. And then there may be nonsecular explanations for paying particular attention to Catholics. "I always told my kids to remember that in horror movies when they have to kill the vampire, they never bring in a Unitarian minister," he says.
Insight: How many martyrs are we talking about?
Robert Royal: It will take decades to determine the number of martyrs in the 20th century. The full figure, even taking into consideration who was actually martyred and who was killed accidentally, was probably, at the minimum, somewhere in the hundreds of thousands.
Insight: Why did this century outpace others in terms of persecution?
RR: It's primarily because of the ideological nature of political movements in the 20th century. You get national socialism in Nazism, but you also get international socialism in the Soviet Union and China. In some ways, this division reflects the larger size of the populations. But there's no question it's the ideological nature of 20th-century politics which led to corpses in the millions and millions.
Insight: What was the caliber of the Vatican response over the last 100 years?
RR: I think much of it was mixed, unfortunately. For much of the century, the Vatican spoke out pretty boldly. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council -- which Pope John XXIII wanted to be a more positive event so he didn't issue a condemnation [of persecution] -- unfortunately the martyrs fell off the radar scope. …