On April 23 at a university public debate in Belgium entitled “Blasphemy: Offense or Freedom of Self-Expression,” four topless protesters from the FEMEN movement attacked Archbishop Andre Leonard of Mechelen-Brussels for his alleged homophobia. Not only did the women disrupt the event, but they also soaked the archbishop with water. In a Facebook message, FEMEN members demanded the dismissal of the archbishop for “spreading hatred and intolerance in our media and universities.” The archbishop did not resist the attacks, but seemed to be silently praying throughout.
In a democratic society, the position of these women has a place at the table and must be heard, but the use of violence in presenting that message is totally undemocratic. They attacked a 72-year old man who did not even attempt to defend himself. A professor of the university claimed that the archbishop had gained the audience’s sympathy for his “enormous calm.”
1 Peter tells us to always be able to provide a reason for our hope, and in this year of faith particularly, it is important that Catholics catechize themselves to know why the Church believes and practices what she does so that those beliefs and practices can be defended in the public square. But Archbishop Leonard also shows us that defending the faith sometimes requires no argument at all, but a radical witnessing, which is the literal meaning of martyrdom.
By choosing not to resist the inappropriate attacks of these women, the archbishop won the debate. In choosing to remain loving toward those who called him hateful and intolerant, the archbishop revealed the hypocrisy of his attackers.
As important as rational arguments are, they often fail to persuade (or dissuade) our interlocutors. An appeal to the emotions can be significantly more powerful than any argument. In the Church today, we need both sound rational arguments that can be brought forward in a highly contentious and pluralistic public square, and silent martyrs who are willing to be vilified and attacked for their beliefs without resistance. An argument without witness is just rhetoric. The archbishop makes a compelling case in his actions that his position is not as hateful as his critics made it out to be. And by his witnessing, the archbishop may have opened the hearts of at least a few people in the audience to the reasoned defense of his moral positions.