Heretic Martyrs?

Is it appropriate to call heretics put to death as “martyrs”? If not martyrs of the Faith, martyrs of religious liberty? If one insists on not calling heretics martyrs, does that imply that they must defend the executions of said individuals?

I don’t see how the term “martyr” (i.e., “witness”) can be limited to Catholics. Was not Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the famous Lutheran pastor killed by the Nazis, clearly a martyr for the Christian faith?

I think defining “martyr” is important here. There were a lot of martyrs for the Protestant faith that would have been labeled “heretics” on the Roman Catholic side. Patrick Hamilton in Scotland is a good example–he was burnt at the stake for preaching Protestant doctrine. I would call him a “martyr of the Protestant faith.” So putting into context what they died for is important.

I think the above example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a good example of someone who was, not just a Martyr for the “Protestant faith,” but for the Christian faith as a whole. This could be applied to a lot of Catholic martyrs as well.

Does the RCC officially announce someone as a martyr? Just a curious question.

Two of the first things that comes to mind are the following passages:

1 Corinthians 13:3 – “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Ecumenical Council of Florence - “[N]obody can be saved, no matter how much he has given away in alms and even if he has shed his blood in the name of Christ, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Session 11)

I think these passages indicate that it is possible to be “martyred” and still go to hell.

A second thing that comes to mind is invincible ignorance. If I understand invincible ignorance correctly, people who do not know the truth of the Church cannot be held guilty for not joining it. For these people, I think they could die as true martyrs and go to heaven, because I think the invincibly ignorant are included in the Church’s definition of “Church,” so long as they are free of any mortal sin at the moment of death.

In my previous post I forgot to answer this part of your question.

If we insist on not calling heretics martyrs, I do Not think it follows that we must defend their executions. Instead, I think we could hold that executing heretics is ordinarily Not justified, but that not every unjust execution makes someone a martyr.

Please let me know if that explanation makes sense.

Well I was listening to our local Catholic radio one day and they spoke of the early Christians who went about Rome knocking down pagan statues and were later executed for it. The Church did not consider them committing acts of martyrdom, but suicide.


I don’t know how others truly feel about the era when everything was in turmoil over the Reformation but I think we can look at that time as an example of how badly people can act even if they consider themselves Christian. I’m horrified by both sides in what they did to others in the name of God, or should we say, religion.

…it’s a very sad time in Christian history.



A few words from Pope Paul VI at the canonization of the Ugandan martys,

“Who could have predicted to the famous African confessors and martyrs such as Cyprian, Felicity, Perpetua and – the greatest of all – Augustine, that we would one day add names so dear to us as Charles Lwanga and Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their 20 companions? Nor must we forget those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.”

As for the Reformation martyrs in the UK, it is all too easy to see things in black and white - it really is a huge subject which requires some serious studying.

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