End Notes: Martyrum Candidatus Laudat Exercitus

In her theological thriller, A Corner of the Veil, the French author Laurence Cossé explores the consequences of the discovery of a new proof for the existence of God. Of such simplicity and cogency is this proof that to read it is to be rid immediately of any doubt as to God’s existence.

Of course, there are many proofs for the existence of God, among them the famous quinque viae laid out by Aquinas. These proofs argue for the necessity of a prime mover, of a first efficient cause, of an ultimate final cause, and so forth. Beginning from truths about the things around us, they derive a truth that is equivalent to “God exists.” In the 12th century, St. Anselm, having formulated other proofs, was importuned by his monks to find a short and cogent formula. We can imagine him struck one day in choir by the psalm he was singing: “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” It literally makes no sense to say that God does not exist! This epiphany led Anselm to formulate what, since Kant, is known as the Ontological Argument for God’s Existence. Anselm thought it had the ineluctable force that Cossé attributes to the proof in her novel. But his Argument continues to be discussed, pro and con.

In Cossé’s novel, the imagined fool-proof proof is seen to have unwelcome political consequences. The modern state is predicated on the conviction that theological claims cannot be settled one way or the other. The aim of politics is to devise a framework that accommodates this difference and gives no more weight to one side than to the other. This foundational assumption is threatened by the unanswerable proof.

The standoff between belief and unbelief in modern society is, of course, a secularist myth. The supposed solution actually entails the privatization of religious belief; it asks the believer to regard the central truth of his existence as an idiosyncratic quirk, akin to believing in the Great Pumpkin. Further, he is expected to act, in the political and social realm, as if he were an atheist. No such deprivation is required of the opposite position, of course; the supposed neutrality of the arrangement is actually the victory of disbelief.

Even more alarming, moral judgments have been rendered similarly subjective. You like coffee, I like tea. I oppose abortion, you favor it. Theoretically, neither of us is right; neither of us can be right. Moral conviction is at bottom emotive. But here again, the public solution turns out to be a victory for one side. The opponent of abortion is forced into a de facto acceptance of murder. His opponent has effectively won the public debate.

The secularist mentality no longer regards religious believers as having equal status in society. Religious belief is seen as a menace; it is at the source of everything the secularist fears. The current defense of the indefensible Bill Clinton finds its preferred foe in what is commodiously called the “religious right.” Whackos: People who think that certain acts are as such wrong.

It is because the believer is not a moral relativist that he is a threat. The neopagan knows that believers regard murder as wrong, not just for believers, but for anyone at any time. So too with lying, intimidation, and the other standard weapons of contemporary tyranny. Politically, publicly, we are required to regard the negative estimate of such behavior as a private view, as subjective and incapable of proof. Meanwhile, the opposite view has become the public dogma. So much for their moral equivalence.

The Holy Father, in several recent encyclicals—The Splendor of Truth, Faith and Reason—has turned our attention to martyrdom. The martyr is one for whom death is preferable to the denial of certain truths. In the impending future it is unlikely that the truths to which the believer is called to witness will be specifically theological. Because it is his moral absolutism that turns the believer into an enemy of the state, when he is trundled off to the guillotine, his tormentors will doubtless shout religious slogans at him. One of the most farcical byproducts of our age is the politician-turned-theologian, who instructs us in our Christian obligations. Jesus, we are told, would wave aside the deeds of tyrants.

If we follow the pope’s suggestion and reflect upon martyrdom, we will doubtless find that political falsehoods have often been invoked to judge the martyr: The idols of the state, the supremacy of the king, the right of the regime to decide when human life is or is not precious. The heroic witnesses of God have died for truths that might appear to be valueless—except that God has demanded that we value them. Despite Cossé’s intriguing novel, the ultimate bone of contention is less likely to be a proof for the existence of God than the assertion of the moral law—a moral law derived from the fact that God exists and we are His creatures.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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