A Hero When One Is Needed by David Montgomery

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Heroes need to be recognized and celebrated, and in the middle of a seemingly unending cacophony of disheartening news, one more has appeared.

As I hope everyone reading this is aware, an officer in the French National Police sacrificed his life by taking the place of a hostage being held by an Islamic terrorist. His example of heroic virtue was uplifting. In contrast to Florida police who ran away from the threat to the children they were there to protect, he went unarmed into almost certain death to save just one.

The reports of Lt Col Beltrame’s “gallantry,” a wildly out of fashion term for a man’s character, reminded me of the greatness that the French can rise to. But most important to me, in a Europe that has largely forsaken its Christian faith and heritage, he was motivated, sustained and quite open about his Catholic faith and his love for France.

None of the major news outlets that described Lt Col Beltrame’s life and career – including CBS, CNN, BBC and the Washington Post — mentioned this. It was not for lack of information, because a mémoire written by his priest has been circulating in Catholic media and websites since the day he died. The story of Arnaud Beltrame’s life and death as told by his priest depicts a man who died “a witness of heroic charity.”

In an article in the Catholic Register, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia provided a translation of a public notice from The French Diocese of the Armed Forces. [I quote it here in full because of the difficulty of finding it in publications that most Spy readers are likely to see]:

ARNAUD BELTRAME: A heroic Christian officer who gave his life to save others. Testimony of a canon of the Abbey of Lagrasse (Aude), the day of his death, March 24, 2018.

“It is through the coincidence of a meeting during a visit to our abbey … that I got to know Lieutenant-Colonel Arnaud Beltrame and Marielle, whom he married, on Aug. 2, 2016. We [became friends] very quickly, and they asked me to prepare them for their religious wedding, that I was to celebrate near Vannes this year on June 9. We spent many hours working on the basics of married life for almost two years. I had just blessed their home on Dec. 16, and we were finalizing their canonical marriage record. The very beautiful declaration of intention of Arnaud reached me four days before his heroic death.

“This young couple regularly came to the abbey to participate in Masses, the Office and teaching sessions, especially for groups of couples, Notre-Dame de Cana. They were part of the Narbonne team. They were there again last Sunday.

“Intelligent, sporty, voluble and lively, Arnaud spoke readily of his conversion. Born into a family with little religious practice, he lived a genuine conversion around 2008, at almost 33 years old. He received his first Communion and confirmation after two years of catechumenate, in 2010.

“After a pilgrimage to Sainte-Anne-d’Auray in 2015, where he asked the Virgin Mary to meet the woman of his life, he became friends with Marielle, whose faith is deep and discreet. Their engagement was celebrated at the Breton Abbey of Timadeuc at Easter 2016.

“Devoted to the gendarmerie, he always had a passion for France, its greatness, its history and its Christian roots that he rediscovered with his conversion.

“By taking the place of hostages, he was probably animated by his commitment to an officer’s heroism [translated in another account as “gallantry”], because, for him, being a policeman meant protecting others. But he knew the incredible risk he was taking.

“He also knew the promise of a religious marriage he had made to Marielle, who is already his wife and loves him tenderly, of which I am a witness. So: Was he allowed to take such a risk? It seems to me that only his faith can explain the madness of this sacrifice which is today the admiration of all. He understood, as Jesus told us, that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). He knew that if his life belonged to Marielle, it also belonged to God, to France and to his brothers in danger of death. I believe that only a Christian faith animated by charity could ask for this superhuman sacrifice.

“I was able to join him at the hospital in Carcassonne around 9pm last night [March 23]. The gendarmes and the doctors and nurses opened the way with remarkable delicacy. He was alive but unconscious. I was able to give him [last rites] and the apostolic blessing on the threshold of death. Marielle took part in these beautiful liturgical formulas.

“… I asked the [medical staff] if he could have a Marian medal, that of the Rue du Bac de Paris, near him. A nurse attached it to his shoulder.

“Arnaud will never have children in the flesh. But his astonishing heroism will, I believe, inspire many imitators, ready to give themselves for France and for her Christian joy.”

There are many worthwhile lessons to be learned from Arnaud Beltrame, not least of which is how he and his wife accepted the sacramental nature of marriage. They were willing to take two years of instruction so as to understand fully what their marriage vows in the presence of God and his Church meant.

Archbishop Chaput commented along these lines that Beltrame “was a man who deliberately shaped and disciplined his own life until it became a habit, a reflex, to place the well-being of others before his own.” This description of Beltrame as a classically virtuous man would have been familiar to Aristotle, St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, who saw that virtue is a habit of doing what is right that is gained through instruction and practice.

For most people today, “freedom” has come to mean the unconstrained ability make whatever choice they wish. Old conceptions of right and wrong and virtue, especially when asserted as moral absolutes, are condemned as limiting freedom and oppressing those who make contrary choices.

Lt Col Beltrame exercised the older concept of freedom. As George Weigl put it, paraphrasing the great moral theologian Servais Pinckaers, “Freedom … is a matter of gradually acquiring the capacity to choose the good and to do what we choose with perfection.” For example, one freedom that emerges from Catholic doctrine on marriage is that committing to a permanent condition of life with another makes it easier and easier to weather the episodes when every desire is to quit. But Lt Col. Beltrame cultivated virtues much greater than this homely one to which we can all aspire.

He chose the greatest love, to give up his life for another, and by all accounts that choice was no surprise to anyone who knew him.

The terrorist who killed Lt Col Beltrame had no such freedom. He chose to do what all great religions, with the exception of certain versions of Islam, and decent people condemn. He chose that which is always and everywhere wrong, to murder innocent victims. Not only was his action the evil opposite of Lt Col Beltrame’s, his “freedom” to choose that evil path was not true freedom, because it led only to harm for himself and others.

It is appropriate in this week when Christians remember the Passion of One who died that all might live, that we should honor not just Arnaud Beltrame but all those who have given their lives to protect another. The French gendarme exemplifies innumerable others — Saint Maximilian Kolbe, to whom he has been compared, the first responders who perished in the Twin Towers, the civilians on Flight 93, and all the soldiers, sailors, airmen, police and firefighters who have and will die to save others. It would be wonderful to know the stories of how each became able to choose to make that sacrifice, as we know that of Lt Col Beltrame. It is good to remember that those virtues still survive in our self-centered world.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

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