There are two ways to write history. One is to write as you are living it — the eyewitness account. The narrative poems of the Greeks and the Romans were precisely that. They could smell the battles, and they had met the people. Firsthand experience tells the truth, as much as we can tell the truth mingled with our own prejudices.
But the other way to tell the history is to wait to gain perspective from time and distance. As an artist steps back to survey the canvas, so must a few generations pass in order for one to be able to tell the story of an age more expansively. I suppose this is why figures of historical interest tend to fade away in the public eye for a period as soon as they die. The initial fascination is gone, and we have to digest who they were, what they did, and what they meant.
Whenever some telling analysis of the
twentieth century is written, whether of a political, economic, philosophical,
or, above all, theological nature, it would likely be written on a computer,
for the twentieth century gave us the computer. But it would be even more
appropriate, we must say, for it to be written in blood.
The twentieth century saw more bloodshed than all other ages combined. When we regard the record of accomplishments in that extraordinary hundred years, we can easily be dazzled by the gifts, the inventions, the insights, and how the age was able to communicate these things. At the same time, we must wonder how it was that so much good could have mingled with so much blood.
Just look at the statistics. In China alone, as far as can be estimated, some 60 million people were killed. In the Soviet Union, it was over 20 million. In Cambodia, 2 million, which in proportion to the population represented the worst genocide in human history. Another 2 million were killed in North Korea, at least a million in Eastern-Central Europe, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, and over 150,000 in Latin America. All these figures, by the way, are apart from the world wars. Rather, they refer to murders committed in the name of the most lurid denial of God, Marxism.
To deny God is to deny life. Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. To deny Christ, therefore, is to usher in the shedding of blood. Those statistics shocked the world when they were published by the French writer Stéphane Courtois, in The Black Book of Communism. How could we be shocked after having lived through it? By the end of the century, we were used to the shedding of blood — but large portions of our society denied the malignancy of institutionalized atheism. Marxism was looked upon as an experiment motivated by benign intention, and when it showed its evil hand, many pseudo-sophisticates looked the other way.
In the sixth chapter of Proverbs, among the things listed that are abominable to God is the shedding of innocent blood (Prov. 6:17). There is a distinction made there between the shedding of blood generally and the shedding of innocent blood. It is the distinction between killing and murder. There are times, for instance, in self-defense, or in noble wars fought with right intention that, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, one is morally derelict if one does not fight — and that fighting may involve the shedding of blood. But the shedding of innocent blood is another matter.
God is the Author of life. We cannot create; we can only procreate. As the stewards of creation, we pass on life biologically, and morally we cultivate the intellect and the will of the soul. Because the human being is made in the image of God, and capable by an act of the will of loving Him Who loves us, all human dignity rests in reverence for the innocence of life.
We have inherited the tendency to rebel against the Lord of life. St. Paul analyzes himself: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. . . . Wretched man that I am!” (Rom. 7:19, 24). But he doesn’t leave it at that. With a spirit of great joy, hope, and faith, St. Paul realizes and declares that Christ can get him out of that bind: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).
The ability to procreate life goes hand in hand with the ability to shed blood. The state is invested with a special responsibility to protect life and to promote the tranquility of order. And, on occasion, that involves the use of disciplines to deter and to punish those who do shed innocent blood. The authority of the state to make these difficult decisions, even sometimes to the point of life and death, is not given by any ecclesial power. It is given by God Himself.
Therefore, as Jesus says to Pontius Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Our Lord does not deny Pilate’s right to execute, but He tells him that power does not originate with him or even with Caesar in Rome. It comes from Heaven, from the same God Who gives us the gift of life. And therefore, when the state exercises its authority over life and death, it must be, above all, guided by the truth of the sacredness of life.
There was an interesting man, a Maestro Titto in the nineteenth century who lived into his eighties, as the official papal executioner. Very few people know about him today, but he was very well known in his day. He personally executed 516 people in the Papal States, in the exercise of justice. He largely did this during the pontificate of Pius IX, who is now being declared beatus, a Blessed. This should indicate to us that the exercise of capital punishment is not malum in se, as is the shedding of innocent blood. In other words, it is not evil by its very existence. But it can be twisted. It can be perverted. And the highest authorities in the Church remind us today that it is of such a solemn order and is exercised in a society so contemptuous of life that we must be very judicious indeed in its exercise.
But one muddies the water if one equates a legitimate exercise of this power with the shedding of innocent blood. How ironic it is that some of the voices most outspoken against executing murderers also promote contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. They are living a contradiction of God’s plan; they have defied holy innocence. And that’s why shedders of innocent blood have to use the language of deceit — that is, euphemisms. Abortionists are called “health-care providers.” Well, that’s like calling an ax murderer a cutlery specialist. And people who promote abortion say they are “pro-choice.” All that manifests, besides their own guilt, is bad grammar. “To choose” is a transitive verb; it needs an object. The “pro-choice” person must finish the sentence: choice of what?
The great twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said that “everywhere outside of Christianity, the child is automatically sacrificed.” That is not hyperbole: History shows it to be true. Whenever the dignity of the human person, founded in the redemptive power of Christ, is ignored, the selfish pride of man will find some excuse to attack innocence. With an indescribable sorrow from the Cross, Our Lord saw innocent life being shattered from the beginning to the very end of time. All the body parts of the fifty million babies who have been killed in the United States — those were before His eyes. And at the very beginning of the human race, Cain slew Abel. God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10). When the population of the world was one household, it was clearer that each one of us is a brother or a sister to one another. As time has moved on, though, it has become easier to reduce people to statistics. But God never looks upon us as a statistic.
There is a kind of schizophrenia that a world buys into when it has lost its reverence for innocence. The very so-called civilized people who speak about legalizing the shedding of innocent blood will speak of “child welfare.” In State of the Union addresses we are almost always told that the state of our country has never been better. I am not qualified to analyze that in detail, but I do know enough about history to know that when someone says that kind of thing, our ears should perk up. In 1912, the Titanic was declared an unsinkable ship. In the 1930s, we were guaranteed peace in our time. This is not the language of innocence; it is the language of naïveté.
Naïveté is the world’s substitute for innocence. True Innocence came into the world as Christ. True Innocence hung on the Cross. And by the shedding of His blood, He was able to bring innocence back into the world. That’s really what it means to be born again.
This article is from a chapter in Fr. Rutler’s Grace and Truth: Twenty Steps to Embracing Virtue and Saving Civilization. It is available from Sophia Institute Press or from your favorite bookstore.