The Politics Of Matrydom Within The Context Of Vatican ‘Politics’

By Greg Alexander Mashaba

“Let me become the food of the beasts, through whom it would be given me to reach God.” St Ignatius of Antioch.

The papacy of Pope Francis has been marked by what can largely be described as a general shift to the left in the approach of the Vatican to a wide array of issues which confront the Catholic church. The progressive views of Pope Francis must be welcomed by Catholics and progressive formations as a long-overdue breath of fresh air in an institution which has been regarded elsewhere as being resistant to change. The fact that the Catholic Church exercises a lot of influence in international relations, the internal politics of many countries , and extends its influence over one and a half billion active members , underscores the importance of this strategic shift to the left.

As I reflected on the manner in which Pope Francis has led the Church through a number of pre-existing challenges , including the child sex abuse scandal , proximity to right-wing governments , and financial mismanagement of financial and other scarce Church resources , I found myself being drawn back to an issue which has always been close to my heart , namely the lack of recognition for , and official elevation to martyrdom and sainthood of those who were killed for standing up against right-wing regimes. My previous articles on Helder Camara (1) and my reference to the Archbishop Oscar Ramero (2) ( who was elevated to sainthood by Pope Francis I on 23 May 2015 ) ought to give context to my views on the topic at hand. The common thread which runs through these articles is the argument that Catholic Church is by its very nature and its size, not a neutral party in the ideological struggle between capitalism and imperialism on one side, and socialism on the other. In this regard, I proceed from the standpoint that prior to the papacy of Francis I, the Catholic Church could be correctly have been seen to have been biased in favour of the faithful who had been killed under left-wing regimes while it had ignored the martyrdom of those killed by their right-wing counterparts.

In terms of traditional Catholic teaching, certain factors must be present at the time of death in order to automatically present a case for martyrdom. The Dominican priest, Fr Benedict Ashley OP gives a useful summary for the requirements for Catholic martyrdom :

“True martyrdom requires three conditions: (1) that the victim actually die, (2) that he or she dies in witness of faith in Christ, which is expressed in words or implicitly in acts done or sins refused because of faith, and (3) that the victim accepts death voluntarily.” (3)

One might add that a fourth condition is the apparent readiness of the martyr, at the point of death, to plead to God that he grants forgiveness to their persecutors for, in the words of St Stephen, “Lord do not hold this sin against them .“ (4)

In order to avoid unnecessary confusion and debate, I wish to state from the onset that my presentation is based on a Catholic approach to the concept of martyrdom. It is not my intention to venture into the doctrines of other faith formations, even though I personally recognise the heroic displays of martyrdom which emanates from these great religions. The most prominent Protestant martyr is in my view Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant intellectual and philosopher who was involved in plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and was eventually killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp. The Anglican Communion also presents us with the case of Manche Masemola, a young girl from kgaMarishane in present day Limpopo Province ( South Africa ) who converted to the Anglican faith at a very early age, much against instructions of her parents not to do so. Manche was killed by her parents on 4 February 1924 at the tender age of 14 for refusing to denounce her Christian faith. Her beautiful statute stands in a place of honour, together with that of Oscar Ramero, Maximilian Kolbe and eight other great martyrs at Westminster Cathedral in London. It is significant to note that the latter Cathedral is Catholic and not Anglican. (5)

At his General Audience of 11 August 2011, Pope Benedict XVI highlighted one of the most distinguishing characters of a martyr: “If we read the lives of the martyrs, we are amazed at their calmness and courage in confronting suffering and death.” (6)

However, the presence of such factors shall not in itself be sufficient to lead to canonisation (ie. elevation to sainthood). The process leading to sainthood requires, over and above dying in witness of the faith, certain other processes including proof of at least two miracles which defy scientific logic. In the Catholic Church, the Pope delegates the function of carrying out the necessary investigations to the Congregation For Causes.

The first Christian martyr was St Stephen whose account of martyrdom appears in sacred scripture, namely in the ‘Acts of The Apostles’. (7). St Stephen’s defence of his Christian faith before the rabbinic court enraged his Jewish audience so much so that they dragged him to the edge of the city and stoned him to death.

Some of the greatest martyrs in the early Church came from Africa. Perhaps the most prominent of these were Saints Perpetua and Felicitas . Though not originating in sacred scripture, the account of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is to be found in some of the earliest Christian texts. Their suffering and death is detailed in ‘The Passion of Saint Perpetua, Saint Felicitas and Their Companions’ (8) , original text of which is in Latin and Greek. The most prominent African martyrs of the modern era are St Charles Lwanga and companions ( commonly referred to as the ‘Ugandan martyrs’.)

In referring to the great martyrs of Africa, I wish to draw the attention of the reader to the fact that the Catholic church has never been averse to the recognition of the heroic role of African men and women who proclaimed their faith at the pain of death. Consequently, a great number of African’s have throughout the centuries been proclaimed saints and martyrs of the universal Church. Race and country of origin has never served as a factor to dissuade the prelates in the Vatican from bestowing sainthood. However, the situation differs radically in the case of perceived ideological orientation of those who would under normal circumstances be bestowed with the title of martyr and saint.

In my above mentioned article on the Vatican, politics and international relations (9) , I noted that Pope John Paul II was apparently reluctant to bestow sainthood on Archbishop Oscar Ramero, who had been assassinated by a US-backed right-wing death squad, as that would have antagonised his traditional Cold War era allies in Washington and London. Having been assassinated in 1980 for his opposition to the brutal US-backed regime, Oscar Ramero was only elevated to sainthood 35 years later in 2015 following the installation of Pope Francis. In similar vein, the ‘nihil obstat’ , or clearance, for preparation of the beatification for the openly socialist Brazilian archbishop Helder Camara seemingly only became possible after the elevation of Pope Francis to the most senior position within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

The reluctance to bestow sainthood on those who were considered left-wing is in stark contrast with the readiness to bestow the same to those who were killed under socialist regimes. One of the most topical examples in this regard is the mass canonisation of those who were killed by the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. On 26 October 2007 Pope Benedict XVI beatified 498 Spanish martyrs, in what became the single biggest mass beatification ceremony . All of those canonised had been killed by Republican forces in areas held by General Franco’s nationalists. The fact that brutal killings of the clergy, nuns and thousands of ordinary members of the Catholic church was carried out by both of the warring parties is not in dispute. What has been of concern to Vatican observers has been the apparent reluctance of the Vatican to note in similar measure the atrocities which were visited on the clergy and the destruction of churches by Franco’s troops and his allies in Republican areas. Some observers have noted that far from uniting the Spanish people ( an argument which had been advanced by the Vatican ) the unbalanced approach has in fact resulted in causing deep divisions within the deeply Catholic nation.

In his book on the Spanish Civil War (10), Paul Preston gives an account of the atrocities which were carried out by Franco’s troops against the clergy and civilian population in Republican-held areas. Apart from the brutal murders and mass rapes which were carried out by the Moroccan mercenaries who fought on the side of Franco, numerous acts of brutality, including executions of Catholic clergy were carried out by Catholic priests who were allied to the fascists. The author of the article, ‘The Killer Priests of The Spanish Civil War’ present the dilemma and painful contradiction which confronted the Catholic Church in Spain :

“Surprisingly, the Spanish Civil War turned Catholic laymen and priests into executioners and the executed. They cheered on the Nationalist rebels and were killed by Republican forces. The hands of priests were covered with blood – either their own or that of their enemy.

The religious people of Spain were in a terrible position during the Spanish Civil War. They were often supportive of and targeted by executions and persecutions. The Spanish Civil War was a crusade of passions on both sides of the war, with conflicting philosophies and lifestyles leading to overzealous , fanatical fighters. As in every crusade, the Spanish Civil War left religion unnaturally tainted with blood.” (11)

Paul Preston, whose book on the atrocities committed by both sides is arguably the best exposition of the extra-ordinarily violent participation of Catholic clergy in mass killings and persecution in the modern era, gives a detailed account of their ferocious and barbaric rampage on the side of the fascists. He lists a number of priests who openly collaborated with the fascists including Fr Laorden who earned notoriety for urging Franco’s forces to kill Republicans and their supporters following the burning down of his chapel by Republican forces. Having witnessed the fascist massacre of over sixty Republicans over a three-month period, Laorden, standing atop the balcony of the town hall urged the fascists to be more thorough in their persecution of Republicans:

“You all no doubt believe that, because I am a priest, I have come with words of forgiveness and repentance. Not at all! War against them until the last trace has been eliminated!” (12)

The clergy , including bishops, in the Republic of Ireland were complicit in openly soliciting support, including recruitment of volunteers, for the fascists. Given their anti-communism, they could only view the situation playing out in Spain as a struggle against Christianity and communism. Eoin Duffy, the leader of the fascist movement, the ‘Blue Shirts’, who recruited and led Irish volunteers on the side of the fascists, justified the involvement of Irish Catholics on the grounds that the war was against the anti-Christ: “It is not a conflict between fascism and anti-fascism but between Christ and anti-Christ” (13)

The observer of the contemporary view of the Spanish Civil War and the participation of the Irish therein might find solace in the fact that the current generation of the Irish people find the support of their predecessors to be a source of embarrassment. (14)

The embarrassment of the Irish stands in stark contrast to the conservative views which remain deeply ingrained in the national psyche of the Spanish people. Guy Hedgecoe’s article in the Irish online platform, presents a useful articulation of the right-wing extremist views which persist in Spain, forty years after the death of the fascist dictator, Franco. The article details the resistance of sections of the population, including the local archbishop, to the exhumation of two of the chief conspirators of the right-wing military coup which propelled Franco to power, namely General Emilio Mola and Jose Sanjuro. The exhumation was carried out pursuant to the provisions of the Historical Memory Law. The mayor of Pamplona, Joseba Asiron, in an interview which was posted in the newspaper ‘Publico’ expressed dismay at the outpouring of right-wing, fascist sentiment: “It is inconceivable that in a city like Pamplona, which suffered so much during the civil war and under the subsequent regime, the remains of those soldiers should remain buried there 80 years after the civil war and 40 years after Franco’s death, in a public place and with military honours.” (15)

The decision by the socialist government of Spain to exhume the remains of the dictator from the Valley of The Fallen (a memorial to fallen soldiers of the Spanish Civil War) also drew the ire of the dictators family while it gained the support of the left-wing. Franco’s family sought to have the remains re-located to La Almudena Cathedral in central Madrid where the dictator’s daughter Carmen lies buried in a crypt. In an interview with the conservative Spanish newspaper ‘La Razon’, the great grandson of Franco, Luis Alfonso de Borbon is quoted as having said: “When you attack Franco, you attack my family, over half of Spain, and the Church which protected him.” (16)

The attempt to re-locate Franco’s remains to La Almudena Cathedral was vigorously opposed by the socialist government of Pedro Sanchez.

The former socialist prime minister of Spain, Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has praised the decision to exhume Franco’s remains as being “extra ordinary and positive.” He argued that the move to relocate Franco’s remains “consolidates the democratic roots of Spanish society…..( having the remains of a dictator buried alongside his victims )… incompatible with a democratic legacy…..A dictator cannot be buried in a place of honour.” (17)

While there have been muted attempts by some senior clerics in the Vatican to justify its hitherto biased stance regarding the selection of candidates for beatification, and that of the Spanish Catholic bishops to address its complicity in the crimes of the Franco regime, these have been largely seen as being half-hearted and unconvincing . In this regard the utterances of Archbishop Edward Nowak of the Congregation For Causes at the Vatican, in response to the view that victims of atrocities perpetrated by Franco’s troops are ignored in the process of selecting candidates for martyrdom and sainthood, are instructive of crude attempts to distort history :

“Ideologies such as Nazism and communism serve as a context for martyrdom, but in the foreground the person stands out with his conduct, and case by case, it is important that the people among whom the person lived should affirm and recognise his fame as a martyr and then pray for him , obtaining graces . It is not so much ideologies that that concern us, as the sense of faith of the People of God, who judge the persons behaviour. “ (18)

Archbishop Nowak’s utterances fly in the face of historical evidence which shows a bias against those who were perceived to be leftist. Again, the case of St Oscar Ramero and that of Archbishop Helder Camara are a clear indication that moves to grant them recognition for the virtues they displayed could only become possible after the elevation to the papacy of Francis I . The fact that Pope Francis has remained under constant attack by ultra-conservative Catholics is testimony to the attempts by the right-wing both inside and outside of the Catholic church to thwart the shift to the left of the Vatican.

In an lecture presented in Belgium on 2 February 1980, Oscar Ramero himself implicitly identified the class nature of the persecution of the church: “It is important to note why (the Church) has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the Church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the peoples defence. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church : the poor. “ (19)

As I draw towards the end of this presentation, I feel that it is important to note that while the Catholic Church has historically displayed a bias in terms of those killed under socialist / left-wing regimes, martyrdom and sainthood was bestowed on opponents and victims of the Nazi regime. This could be attributed to the fact that the Nazis, unlike their fascist allies, were openly hostile to Christians. The fascists on the other hand a strong support base within the Catholic church. In this regard I would encourage the readers of this article to familiarise themselves with the biographies of Saints Maxmilian Kolbe and Edith Stein (also known as St Theresa Benedicta of The Cross), both of whom were executed in Nazi concentration camps.

The Catholic Church has got a very rich body literature, encompassing sacred scripture, the Catechism of The Catholic Church, the writings of the Church Fathers and the writings of the great Doctors of The Church, which are a source of inspiration to all those who seek justice and those who suffer persecution be it under right-wing or left-wing regimes. The clerics who selectively apply this rich body of knowledge in pursuit of right-wing, capitalist and imperialist goals do a lot of disservice to the Church. Far from helping the Church to secure its historical claim to promoting the gospel of justice and of liberation of the faithful people of God, its biased stance, if left unchecked, can only lead to its implosion and demise. Fortunately, the papacy of Francis I presents us all with a window to rid the Church of this cancer of selective application of the progressive doctrine and teachings of the Church. The recent decision by Pope Francis to have the Vatican Secret Archives release documents relating to the papacy of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to protect Jews from Nazi persecution point to the Church as potentially moving in a progressive direction wherein it seeks to come to terms with its past failures.


  1. Greg Alexander Mashaba, ‘Call Him a Saint. Call Him a Communist’, Uncensored Opinion, February 14, 2019.
  2. (a) Greg Alexander Mashaba, ‘The Vatican: Politics and International Relations’, Uncensored Opinion, March 7, 2018.

(b) Greg Alexander Mashaba, ‘His Grace Dances With The Devil’, Uncensored Opinion. May 19, 2017.

  1. Retrieved from : Fr Peter Joseph, ‘True and False Martyrdom ‘, /culture/library/
  2. Acts 7:54-60
  3. I have inserted a list of articles which give a more detailed account of the martyrdom and heroism of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer under the heading ‘Suggestions for Further Reading’ hereunder. Information on Manche Masemola is, sadly, very scant. I would be most grateful to receive the same, preferably from sources within the Anglican community.
  4. Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience , 11 August 2011, Vatican Library.
  5. Acts 7:54-60
  6. ‘The Passion of Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicitas and Their Companions’ ( in the public domain )
  7. Greg Alexander Mashaba ( Ibid )
  8. Paul Preston ‘The Spanish Holocaust: Inquisition and Extermination in Twentieth Century Spain.’ ( W.W Norton & Company ) I edition , August 26 ,2013. ISBN-10:0393345912; ISBN-13 978-0393345919.
  9. ‘The Killer Priests of The Spanish Civil War’, retrieved from / articles / the-killer-priests-of-the-spanish-civil-war/
  10. Paul Preston (Ibid) p 148
  11. T. Ryle Dweyer ‘Irish Examiner’, 31 November 2012, retrieved from John Dorney ‘God’s Battle: O’Duffy’s Irish Brigade in The Spanish Civil War’, The Irish Story, 24 October 2018, /2018/10/24/gods-battle-oduffys-irish-brigade-in-the-spanish-civil-war
  12. T.Ryle Dweyer (Ibid)
  13. Guy Hedgecoe ‘Spain exhumes conspirators whose coup sparked civil war’, /news/world/Europe/spain-exhumes-conspirators-whose-coup-sparked-civil-war/
  14. Retrieved from 20190315/franco-to-be-exhumed-on-june-15th-despite-family-opposition.
  15. ‘Franco’s family promises to exhaust all legal avenues to stop exhumation’, retrieved from /elpais/2018/08/27/inenglish/1535364095_219637.html
  16. ‘New Evangelization With The Saints’, L’ Osservatore Romano, 28 November 2001.
  17. Oscar Ramero, Speech at the Universite’ Catholique de Louvain ,2 February 1980.


  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer , ‘The Cost of Disclipeship’ Revised edition , (Macmillian Publishing Co Inc ) 1963 , New York
  2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘Prisoner of God: Letters And Papers From Prison’ ( The Macmillian Company ) 1959, New York
  3. ‘A Bonhoeffer Sermon’, Theology Today -Vol 38, No 4 , retrieved from /jan1982/v38-Article 3.htm
  4. Caldas, Carlos, ’70 Years later-what to learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Latin America today?’ Stellenbosch Theological Journal 2016, Vol2, No1, 27-42. Online ISSN 2413-9467. Print ISSN 2413-9459




On Easter Sunday, 21 April 2019 , Islamist extremists linked to the terrorist group ISIS blew embarked on a bombing campaign in Sri Lanka , targeting churches and hotels . 260 people were killed and at least 500 were seriously injured. A week later, a racist, right-wing and anti-Semitic young man opened fire on Jewish worshippers in a synagogue in Carlifornia, USA. In an almost unparalleled act of bravery , Lori Kaye placed herself between the gunman and her husband , Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. In her singular act of bravery , heroism and martyrdom , Lori Kaye was taken up to the bosom of Abraham , our common father in faith.


“I have loved you just as the Father has loved me. You must go on living in my love…….I have told you this so that you can share my joy…….This is my commandment: that you love each other as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this- that a man should lay down his life for his friend.”

John 15:9-13




Greg Alexander Mashaba is a regular contributor to Uncensored Opinion, a member of the African National Congress, Ellen Khuzwayo Branch, Ward 23, Ekurhuleni, and a parishioner at Our lady of Loreto Catholic Church, Kempton Park. He writes in his personal capacity.





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