Ulma family beatification: Can an unborn baby really be a martyr? – LifeSite

(LifeSiteNews) — The recent beatification of the Ulma family has given rise to a number of questions about martyrdom.

In general, even many Catholic sources have repeated the bare facts of the case, with little discussion of the Ulma family’s motives, faith, or how their deeds related to their religion. Even those that have discussed the family’s religious life have been quite superficial in their treatment – not to mention naturalistic in their focus.

In short, we’ve been presented with quite sparse accounts of the heroic deeds of the Ulma parents – but they have been presented in terms that are more naturalistic than religious. As a result – and leaving aside the controversy about the validity of post-Vatican II canonizations – the following questions have arisen:

  • What is martyrdom?
  • Can any kind of heroic death be called a martyrdom?
  • Isn’t it necessary to die specifically for Christ, and to be killed in hatred of the faith?
  • Can an infant or pre-rational child really be a martyr?

Similar questions might also arise from the case of Maximilian Kolbe, who also died in the same period. Some have also asked whether his heroic and self-sacrificial death should properly be called a martyrdom.

But such questions are not limited to those beatified or canonized since Vatican II: we could also think about St. Maria Goretti, who died from wounds which she received whilst resisting an assault on her purity. She was canonized by Pope Pius XII, and is also considered to be a martyr.

In this piece, we’re going to address the questions mentioned above. For the sake of focusing on the principles, I am going to presume the truth of all the accounts given, without entering into questions of facts of history.

In some ways this article can be seen as following on from my recent series on preparing for persecution and tyranny.

What is martyrdom?

The pre-Vatican II moral theologians John A. McHugh and Charles J. Calllan, following St. Thomas Aquinas, call martyrdom as “the chief act of fortitude, and in a sense the most perfect of all acts.” McHugh and Callan define it as follows:

[T]he voluntary acceptance for the sake of God of a violent death inflicted out of hatred of virtue.[1]

St. Thomas Aquinas gives another perspective:

Martyrdom consists essentially in standing firmly to truth and justice against the assaults of persecution. (Summa Theologiae, IIa IIae Q.124 A.1)

Martyrdom necessarily involves the willing death of the martyr, whether it be instant or delayed – whether it be dying several days after sustaining a mortal wound, or by gradual starvation, imprisonment, or other hardships.[2]

By contrast, someone who suffers horrible torments for Christ without actually dying is classed as a confessor.

What of the part of the persecutor? McHugh and Callan tell us:

The persecutor must act from hatred of virtue, but it is not necessary that he be an unbeliever, or that he avow his hatred of virtue as the motive of persecution, or that he pronounce or execute the sentence of death himself.[3]

Martyrdom is not only an act fortitude (bravery), but also of charity (love of God). This is why St. Paul wrote:

[I]f I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor. 13.3)

However, the theological virtue of charity cannot exist without the theological virtue of faith:

[W]ithout faith it is impossible to please God. For he that cometh to God must believe that he is: and is a rewarder to them that seek him. (Heb. 11.6)

This is why the cause of martyrdom must be related to the Faith itself – e.g., persecution arising from the fact that the martyr is a Catholic. This is also why it is improper to refer to non-Catholic martyrs. As Pope Eugene IV taught in Cantate Domino, 1441:

No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church. [Emphasis added]

But if martyrdom must be a death suffered for the sake of the Faith, then what about St. Maria Goretti, and St. John the Baptist – both of whom died for aspects of the virtue of chastity?

Other virtues

Our Lord stated:

Blessed are they that suffer for justice’ sake. (Matt. 5:10)

St. Thomas explicitly links this beatitude to martyrdom, and concludes that this means that the other virtues can also be the cause of martyrdom.

However, these “two causes” for martyrdom are not really distinct, as he explains:

The cause of all martyrdom is the truth of faith.

But the truth of faith includes not only inward belief, but also outward profession, which is expressed not only by words, whereby one confesses the faith, but also by deeds, whereby a person shows that he has faith, according to James 2:18, “I will show thee, by works, my faith.” Hence it is written of certain people (Titus 1:16): “They profess that they know God but in their works they deny Him.”

Thus all virtuous deeds, inasmuch as they are referred to God, are professions of the faith whereby we come to know that God requires these works of us, and rewards us for them: and in this way they can be the cause of martyrdom. For this reason the Church celebrates the martyrdom of Blessed John the Baptist, who suffered death, not for refusing to deny the faith, but for reproving adultery. (IIa IIae, Q124, A5)

Whatever the virtue or virtuous deed in question, it is crucial that the act of martyrdom be referred to God, at least “virtually” (or perhaps “habitually”), as a profession of true and supernatural faith. It must be (in the words of McHugh and Callan) an external “profession of faith in the superiority of the invisible and future to the visible and present goods,” which is internally motivated by love of God as its internal end.[4])

Not every brave and sacrificial death of a Catholic will necessarily be a martyrdom – nor should we presume that any Catholic who dies under such circumstances necessarily suffered with reference to the faith.

However, St. Thomas gives several causes which may indeed be an occasion of martyrdom, if referred to God, if suffered for his sake with a supernatural motive – and concludes “that any human good in so far as it is referred to God, may be the cause of martyrdom.” (IIa IIae Q124 A5).

Maximilian Kolbe

Leaving aside the controversy over the validity of post-Vatican II canonizations, we could think about Maximilian Kolbe – who said that he had received a vision as a child, in which Our Lady promised him the crown of martyrdom. Fr Kolbe famously took the place of one of ten men sentenced to starve to death by the Nazis. He survived for longer than most of the others, and they ultimately killed him by lethal injection.

It might be asked whether this was truly a martyrdom, rather than a “mere” act of heroic virtue. However, we are told that when he offered himself in place of the condemned man, he was asked who he was – and that he replied “I am a Catholic priest.” This would seem sufficient to indicate that his death was a martyrdom in the sense defined above: a death suffered for the sake of virtue, as an open profession of faith and made out of love for God.

Whatever anyone thinks about post-conciliar canonizations, we are surely able to accept that this was a martyrdom, at least on the face of things.

But where does this leave infants who are killed before reaching the age of reason? Do they have the virtue of faith? Can they be said to have voluntarily suffered for Christ’s truth? Are they really martyrs?


With regards to salvation, a baptized infant has the theological virtues infused into its soul, and immediately enters heaven after death. But can such an infant truly be called a martyr, if killed under certain circumstances?

St. Bernard preached a sermon on the Holy Innocents, (quoted by St. Thomas) distinguishing three kinds of martyr:

  • Martyrs in will, but not in death – such as St John the Evangelist
  • Martyrs in both will and death  – such as St Stephen
  • Martyrs in not in will, but in death – such as the Holy Innocents (Suppl., Q96 A6)

Referring to this sermon, St. Thomas writes that while the Holy Innocents might not fulfill all the conditions of martyrdom, they “yet are martyrs in a sense, in that they died for Christ.”

McHugh and Callan also address the question:

[T]rue and proper martyrdom, which is not the virtue but the crown of martyrdom, is death inflicted on an infant out of hatred for Christ, as in the case of the Holy Innocents. This is baptism of blood for infants, as the virtue is for adults, supplying the place of baptism of water (Matt., x. 39).

There does not seem to be a solid ground for limiting this to the Holy Innocents, who are merely given as an example. Thomas Slater, another moral theologian, makes this explicit:

Martyrdom also, or death patiently endured for the sake of Christ or for some Christian virtue, has the same effect as the Baptism of desire. ‘Greater love than this,’ said our blessed Lord, ‘no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’

Still martyrdom does not produce its effect simply as an act of love, but in a manner ex opera operato, by a special privilege, as being an imitation of the passion and death of Christ.

Thus the Church honors as saints in heaven the Holy Innocents and other children who have been put to death for the sake of Christ.[5](Emphasis added).

Therefore, to paraphrase St. Thomas, it does seem possible for infants to be martyred, at least “in a sense,” if they are killed for Christ. This would seem to be very clear when an infant is killed directly in hatred of the faith – e.g., because it is a Catholic infant, or because its parents were Catholic.

It might seem less clear, when the infant is killed along with parents who were truly martyred for some other truth, referred to God (as mentioned above).

However, once we accept that an infant was killed with its parents, who were indeed martyred (even for “some Christian virtue”) it does not seem obvious that such infants cannot also be called martyrs too.

Applications to the Ulma family

Having considered the nature of martyrdom and the factors that distinguish a heroic death from a martyrdom properly speaking, let’s conclude by thinking about the Ulma family.

Once again, let’s be clear that we’re discussing questions around martyrdom, and leaving all debates about modern canonizations to one side. We are quite obviously entitled to conclude that someone was a martyr before they are canonized – the questions are separate.

First, “the seventh child.” Some have been surprised at the idea of calling an unborn baby a martyr. This is a red herring, because it seems that the child died after having been delivered, and so was not really “unborn.” The intention to kill the child also seems to have been present on the part of the persecutors, as the mother, Wiktoria Ulma, was reportedly in “an advanced state of pregnancy.” It seems improbable that her executioners could have been unaware that she was pregnant, and thus they would have known that they were killing her child too.

As such, it seems reasonable to conclude that if Wiktoria Ulma was a martyr, then so were her children, including “the seventh.”

However, it is noteworthy that there is not much talk of this matter with relation to the unborn child of the English martyr, Margaret Clitherow, who was executed for harboring priests during the English Reformation – nor for other pregnant martyrs. The reasoning leading to calling “the seventh child” a martyr appears sound, but it is normal that a Catholic be unsettled in the face of any new thing like this – especially when it is specifically trumpeted as an innovation.

Second, beatifying a whole family. We’re told that this is the first time that a family has been beatified en masse, and this has caused concern for some. Such concerns might be legitimate if it was a beatification of a holy family who had not been martyred. But the Church’s martyrology has several instances of groups of martyrs who were killed together, such as the 40 Roman martyrs of Sebaste, the 42 martyrs of Amorium – and even the 20,000 martyrs of Nicomedia. This does not seem to be a problem.

Next, the parents’ motives. The case of Maximilian Kolbe seems to manifest supernatural motives of faith and charity very clearly, due to his profession of being a Catholic priest at the decisive moment. But were the Ulma parents engaged in their brave endeavor for supernatural motives, or for naturally good ones?

If the Ulma parents’ motives were indeed by supernatural faith and charity, then it does seem reasonable to consider them martyrs, as well as their children by extension.

But while the Ulma family may have lived a fervent Catholic life, and lost their lives for the sake of truly supernatural faith and charity, those responsible for presenting their story to the world do not seem very concerned to show us that.

For example, the official communications about the Ulma family have been superficial, and lacking discussion of the parents’ motives or faith. Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki of Poland gave somewhat vague statements, saying that their actions “were rooted in their Christian love and upbringing in the Catholic faith, which is deeply rooted in Polish tradition.”

He somewhat anachronistically refers to their “respect of life from conception to natural death” as a particular truth for which they risked their lives.[6]

Similarly, in the National Catholic Register’s September 8 interview, Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, prefect of the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints, returns again and again to the idea of communality and community, as well as fraternal charity and hospitality.

The few vague comments reported are not at all comparable to the accounts we have of the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, for example – or of other holy families in modern times.


The sanctity of life, fraternal charity and hospitality are certainly all good things – but they are not intrinsically ordered towards the faith in the way necessary for a true martyrdom. An upright pagan or a heretic could heroically die for others as natural goods, and would by no means be a martyr.

These natural goods could well be the “matter” of a true martyrdom, if the Ulmas stood for it for supernatural motive. But again – those presenting their story do not seem concerned to tell us this.

This is by no means to suggest that the Ulmas were not in fact animated by supernatural faith and charity – not at all.

But while the naturalistic and political focus certainly does not touch the Ulmas themselves, it illustrates something disturbing about the modern conceptions of canonization, beatification, martyrdom, sanctity and the Christian life itself.