Monday, February 23, 2015

James Foley and the North American Martyrs of the 17th Century: Surely All These Good Christians Are Safe in the Arms of God

The New York Times recently carried a story about the murder of Catholic journalist James Foley, who was captured and beheaded by Islamic extremists in Syria last August. Mr.Foley had been captured once before.  In 2011, he and three other journalists were ambushed and imprisoned by forces loyal to Col. Muammar al-Quaddafi in Libya.

Mr. Foley was released from his first captivity after 44 days, and he said later that  he was sustained during this ordeal by his Catholic faith. While a prisoner, he prayed the Rosary in order to make a connection with his mother.

In 2014, James Foley was captured a second time. This time his captors were ISIS, a far more sinister group than Col. Quaddafi's people. ISIS orders its prisoners to convert or be killed--and not just killed. ISIS murders its victims in horrific ways: crucifixion, beheading, and being burned alive.

James Foley
The Times reported that Foley did indeed to convert to Islam, although he was murdered anyway.  What are we to make of this?

Father James Martin, one of the New York Times' go-to Catholic experts, was quoted as saying, "How do we assess [Foley's conversion to Islam]?" Answering his own question, Father Martin  said, "The answer is we can't assess it. We cannot look at what is in someone's soul."

Well, I disagree with Father Martin. If Mr. Foley did indeed convert to Islam while a prisoner of the most brutal people of the 21st century, the state of his soul was not imperiled. As a Catholic, I say with all conviction that the soul of James Foley is at peace in the arms of God. In fact, I am more certain of the state of Mr. Foley's soul than I am of my own.

We know a lot about the trauma that prisoners of war endure. Judith Herman, in her classic work on psychological trauma, expanded the types of experiences that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to people who experience the horrors of combat, Herman wrote, people in captivity and children who are the victims of long-term physical and psychological abuse may also experience PTSD.

Indeed, some medical researchers have theorized that the victims of severe PTSD undergo physiological changes in their nervous systems from being exposed to severe, long-term trauma, changes that are physiologically  irreversible.

Without question, James Foley was under almost unimaginable stress while a prisoner of ISIS. At some point during his captivity he surely realized that ISIS was going to kill him and that he would die an excruciatingly painful death. And surely he also knew that his murder would be performed in such a way that his killers could demonstrate their contempt for his humanity.

Did James Foley suffer from PTSD at the time of his death? Probably. Did he convert to Islam while under duress? Perhaps. Nevertheless, I am certain God was with James Foley in the last moments of his life.

As it happens, I an reading John O'Brien's book on the North American Martyrs, the eight Jesuit missionaries who died for their faith in Canada or upstate New York during the 17th century. One of these Jesuits, Father Isaac Jogues, lived a life somewhat similar to James Foley. Like Foley, Jogues was educated by Jesuits.Like Foley, Jogues was captured twice and was murdered during his second captivity. And like Foley, Jogues was beheaded.

The story of the North American martyrs is astonishing. During his first captivity, Joques' Mohawk captors tortured him with fire, gnawed off or mutilated his fingers, and sawed off his left thumb with a shell. Jogues lived in constant dread of being burned alive, and he witnessed other prisoners who were burned to death or fiendishly tortured. In fact, Jogues baptized a woman into the Catholic faith while she was being burned to death.

Through all this, Father Jogues never lost his Catholic faith, and he never lost an opportunity to convert and baptize the Native Americans who were his captors and torturers. After escaping captivity almost miraculously, Father Joques agreed to join a peace expedition to the Mohawks that led him to be captured a second time.  He was hatcheted to death by his Mohawk captors and his head was displayed on a pole.

Very few people could maintain their faith under the torture that the eight North American martyrs experienced. I shamefully confess that I would convert to Islam to save myself from being burned alive.

But God does not ask all Catholics to be martyrs. Most of us do not have the courage to give ourselves over to be drawn and quartered or roasted to death. Most of us would succumb to the stress of prolonged torture. Only a few Catholics have the courage to be martyrs; and perhaps a few are enough. We are strengthened in our faith by the witnesses of Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe, who were killed by the Nazis, by the North American Martyrs, and by the 40 sainted martyrs of Elizabethan England--Margaret Clitherow, Edward Campion and the rest.

Of course, most of us will succumb to the terror and fear that can break us down physically and psychologically. Under duress, we may even renounce our faith.

 But God knows our hearts and he knows our terror. Regardless of what happens on the scaffold, He will welcome us home to live forever within the tender embrace of His own loving and powerful arms.

October 19 is the Feast Day of the North American Martyrs. This would be a good day to pray for the repose of James Foley's soul and for the consolation of his Catholic family.

St. Isaac Jogues


Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

John A. O'Brien. Saints of the American Wilderness. Manchester, NH. Sophia Institute Press, 2004.

Jim Yardley. "Keeping the Faith in Brutal Captivity: Catholics Mull Foley's Conversion to Islam as a Hostage in Syria." New York Times, February 22, 2015, p. 6.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Don't get on your "high horse": Professor Obama lectures Americans on moral relativism and the Crusades

President Obama raised a storm of controversy for remarks he made at the National Prayer Breakfast.  After talking broadly about radical extremism in the Middle East, he cautioned listeners not consider themselves as being morally superior. "[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."

Fox News commentators (many of whom are Catholics) responded angrily to the President's remarks, and I will try not to reiterate what has already been said in their condemnations.  I offer just two observations.

First, what is President Obama doing at a prayer breakfast anyway? To paraphrase an observation from my Oklahoma childhood, Barack Obama knows as much about religion as a hog knows about Sunday. 

Second, to compare the present-day barbarism of radical Islam to the Inquisition and the Crusades is not very useful. Of course, the Crusades and the Inquisitions were terrible episodes of religious intolerance and cruelty (although I doubt President Obama knows much about those events). President Obama could have spent all morning recounting the dark episodes of Western Civilization: The Thirty Years War, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the brutal execution of Catholics by Queen Elizabeth, Thomas Cromwell's murderous conquest of the Irish in the seventeenth century, British and American firebombing of German cities during World War II, Nagasaki, etc.

But what good would that do?

Americans are waking to the realization that radical Islam wants to destroy Western Civilization, a phrase President Obama probably disdains to use.  We are in a battle to preserve the world's basic humanity and decency against forces of unfathomable evil. We will not win this battle by reminding ourselves we are no better than our enemies.

Can you imagine President Roosevelt telling Americans on December 7, 1941 not to get on our high horse against the Japanese. Yes, the Japanese did a bad thing when they bombed Pearl Harbor, but let's not forget about Jim Crow.

Ross Douthat offered a half-hearted defense of President Obama's remarks in the Times when he proffered that President Obama sees the world from a Niebuhrian perspective. Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian of the first half of the twentieth century, was something of a moral relativist.

But you don't have to read Niebuhr to be a moral relativist. You can pick up that world perspective just by hanging around Columbia and Harvard (where Obama went to school) without reading anything. And I am skeptical of the proposition that Obama has read Niebuhr.

In my view, President Obama's unfortunate remarks at the prayer breakfast were not inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr. Rather they are the remarks of a man who is arrogant, supercilious, and a bit lazy. After all, if he can play down the mortal threat of ISIS in the Middle East,  maybe he won't have to do something about it.

Susan Rice, President Obama's disengaged National Security Advisor, assures us that ISIS and the other radical Islamic groups--Boko Haram, the Taliban, etc--do not pose an "existential threat" to the United States--certainly nothing serious enough to distract President Obama from his golf game.

But of course Ms. Rice is wrong. Islamic extremists are not enemies at our gates in the sense that the Nazis surrounded Stalingrad. But surely everyone understands that some of these mad men would incinerate our major cities if only they had the capacity to do so. And some day, they may have that capacity.

Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale guy)


Ross Douthat. Obama the Theologian. New York Times, February 8, 2015, Sunday Review Section, p. 11.

Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan Rice on the 2015 National Security Strategy. White House press release, February 6, 2015. Accessible at: