Douglas Roche


August 29, 2016

Immediately after Father Jacques Hamel, an 86-year-old priest in France, was killed while offering Mass, his throat slit by two Muslim men who pledged allegiance to ISIL, calls went out for his canonization. He was called a martyr to the faith, and the hashtag #santosubito ("saint now") trended on Twitter.

But contrary arguments soon surfaced. Paul Vallely, one of Pope Francis's biographers, wrote in The New York Times that making Hamel an official martyr would be a political response and feed the idea that a war of religions is taking place.

Unlike Oscar Romero, also murdered at his altar, Hamel was not a defiant political activist but a simple priest living out his last years in humble piety.

"The impulse to canonize Father Hamel, however sincere and well intentioned, feeds the idea of retaliation - our martyr for yours - that gives the jihadists the war of religions they seek," Vallely wrote.

For myself, I don't feel competent to judge whether a person should be formally canonized, although I do think all those today being brutally killed by extremists, who may or may not think they are acting in the name of religion, should get a high place in heaven. We dare not forget the multiple persecutions of Christians in several parts of the world.

I do not diminish martyrdom, but I want to probe deeper questions. What is the core reason for terrorism? Is it religion? Is it economic and social deprivation and discrimination? Is it cultural divides that cannot be bridged? Is it the isolation felt by young men (and a few women), who claim the modern world has rejected them? There is no consensus answer.

I read a lot on this subject, which, of course, is closely related to the overall question of whether we are living in a state of perpetual warfare, never knowing whether a bomb-thrower is around the corner or we can safely go to Mass on Sunday.

The more I read - a distinction from watching inflammatory television reports - the more I am convinced the world is passing through a jolting transformation unprecedented in human history.

While there are still acts of warfare that affect us in startling ways, a new humanism is actually spreading in the world.

Society used to take war for granted and thus it was "normal" to cope with the millions upon millions of war deaths in the last century. Terrorism was a part of life. Today, society as a whole rejects war as a means of resolving conflict and is appalled at the acts of carnage we see in some parts of the world. Humanity is actually maturing.


"Education, science, culture and communications are the pillars in constructing a united human community and the foundation of sustainable development," says Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO and a leading candidate to become secretary-general of the UN.

Understanding this new humanism is strengthening international cooperation, dialogue, respect for human dignity, and the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms worldwide.

Recently, the Human Rights Council, an arm of the UN, adopted a Declaration on the Right to Peace, which says in its principal operating paragraph: "Everyone has the right to enjoy peace such that all human rights are promoted and protected and development is fully realized."

Several Western states, holding that international law does not guarantee peace, voted against the declaration, which is now headed for a final vote in the General Assembly. With such a divided world community, it will be hard to activate the declaration soon.


But the formulation of the right to peace is a big advance for the world, even if there are still states rejecting the concept. Look at the development and extension of human rights in many forms that followed the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Pioneers continue to show the way forward.

We need to build our confidence that, despite acts of warfare and barbarism that still scar some regions, the world is not at war. The jihadists would like us to think we are at war. Certainly our security must be protected against madness. But look wider.

Great numbers of people are rejecting violence, eradicating poverty, strengthening the United Nations, keeping the peace in conflict areas, protecting the environment, extending human rights, and laying the groundwork for a new generation of leaders with an instinctive understanding of the human right to peace.

The painstaking building of the conditions for peace is at the core of the new humanism.