In his treatise on fortitude and temperance in the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas says, “it belongs to the virtue of fortitude to guard the will against being withdrawn from the good of reason through fear of bodily evil.” S.T. IIa IIae, Q. 123, a. 3. Certainly, there is no greater evil the body can undergo than its separation from the soul, and so the virtue of fortitude comes to bear more perfectly in danger of death.
As a virtue, fortitude must tend towards a good, and it is for the accomplishment of that good that a man would resist the urge to flee in the face of death. For this reason, the perfection of fortitude comes not in meeting death from disease, old age, natural disaster, or even deliberate physical violence, for such deaths do not necessarily come in the pursuit of some good. Rather, “fortitude is properly about dangers of death occurring in battle.” S.T. IIa IIae, Q. 123, a. 5. When Aquinas speaks of “battle” he means more than armed conflict between armies, although the soldier who faces death in a just fight is an exemplar of fortitude. Battle could also mean “private combat” in which one exercises fortitude by doing the good at the risk of his own life.
The history of the Church is replete with heroic men and women who put their very lives on the line in the service of truth and justice. We recall the fortitude of an old soldier like Jean Parisot de Valette, Grand Master of the Order of St. John Hospitallers, who witnessed the surrender of Rhodes to the Ottoman Turks as a young knight, but resolved to defend the order’s new home on Malta to the last man when the justice of Allah threatened again.
And defend it he did, saving that linchpin of the Mediterranean from Ottoman control and setting the stage for the exploits of Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was named Supreme Commander of the Holy League by St. Pius V at the age of twenty four. Having distributed Rosaries to all the men under his command, Don John engaged the much larger Turkish fleet off the western coast of Greece in what came to be called the Battle of Lepanto. The fortitude of this young man in the face of dire odds led to the destruction of Ottoman naval power and the preservation of Christian Europe.
This brings us back to St. Thomas’ treatise. We have already seen how fortitude properly concerns guarding the will against being withdrawn from the good of reason by fear of bodily evil, the greatest being death, and the most virtuous death being in some form of battle. It is no surprise then that St. Thomas moves from his question on fortitude right into martyrdom, which is the greatest of private combats. “Now it is evident that in martyrdom man is firmly strengthened in the good of virtue, since he cleaves to faith and justice notwithstanding the threatening danger of death, the imminence of which is moreover due to a kind of particular contest with his persecutors.” S.T. IIa IIae, Q. 124, a. 2.
Not only is martyrdom an act of fortitude, but it is of the highest perfection. The martyr endures the greatest bodily evil for the greatest good of reason, charity. St. Thomas reminds us of the scriptural basis for this claim, “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).” S.T. IIa IIae, Q. 124, a. 3.
Today this truth is being lived out by Christians throughout the Islamic world. Just days ago, twenty one Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded on a beach in Libya by the Islamic State, the holy name of Jesus on their lips. The venue for their fortitudinous deaths was not chosen without purpose, as their blood purpled the waters of the Mediterranean on a coastline opposite the Eternal City across that expanse of water once defended by brave sons of the Church like Jean Parisot de Valette and John of Austria. May it please God to raise up more faithful sons to rally around the Cross, sons born of that blood of martyrs which is the seed of His Church.
“Almighty, everlasting God, in whose hand are the strength of man and the nation’s scepter, see what help we Christians need: that the heathen peoples who trust in their savagery may be crushed by the power of Thy right hand. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
– Collect from the Votive Mass for the Defence of the Church, 1962 Missale Romanum