“But the Crusades… Christians in the Crusades did such-and-such… Terrorists? Well, if the Crusades hadn’t happened… The Catholic Church is hypocritical—just look at the Crusades… Your Church started the holy war first…” Doesn’t it feel like you’re being attacked sometimes?
There was a time when knights with red crosses were revered and people praised them. The knights were upheld as virtuous examples, tapestries were woven about them, and ballads were sung. Now, people blame the Catholic Church for problems they root in some idea about the Crusades and often demand explanations from Christians for the actions of our forefathers.
Fortunately, some people ask calmly, just wanting to know what you as a Catholic think about the Crusades. Unfortunately, many others appear to want to start their own version of a crusade against the Church to force Her to atone for Her perceived sins.
Using facts (and skewing them), you can create any version of history you want with anyone as the hero and anyone as the villain. When people approach you with negative views of the Church, remember Venerable Fulton Sheen’s words: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” You are a representative of the Catholic faith, so how you respond to questions is important.
If you don’t know an answer, say so and offer to research it and ask your parish priest or a trusted friend. Don’t start your own “holy war” against someone else for their perhaps rude and bias curiosity. Be strong in your faith and charitable.
There are three main points that you should know about the Crusades, if nothing else.
1. Just War is NOT conversion by the sword
There is no such thing in our faith as a call to convert people to Christianity by force. We don’t wage wars to convert others; we fight to defend people. Jesus would not tell us to love our neighbor and then hypocritically say to fight until everyone converts. Christians know conversion is a choice to follow Christ made by each person, often inspired by love and never able to stick if forced with a sword.
Yet, just as Jesus flipped tables at the temple in defense of His Father, we are also allowed to defend each other against harm when possible.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church was not written before the Crusades, but it was written to accurately record the faith of our Church. This is what it says (and what the Church has always held, holds now, and always will believe) about a just war:
“(2265) Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
(2309) The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”
As a whole, it was just for the soldiers to take up the cross and fight. Individually, it is between themselves and God whether they did it for self-glory or God’s glory, for worldly wealth or Heavenly life, with virtue or with vice. After hundreds of years avoiding war while offenses were made against pilgrims and people in Christendom, the Church obviously looked at the situation and saw it just to finally fight back. So while some may blame the Church for fighting, others may blame the Church for not defending Christendom sooner.
God doesn’t see any one person as a winner, loser, or enemy; He sees all as His children. You and the person who may bombard you with questions were not present at the time of the Crusades, so you both need to attempt to see it with understanding for all peoples involved. We should make that effort to understand each other as Christ does instead of pointing fingers in blame, and we should seek justice and love mercy in all our actions. Sometimes those actions require you to fight in order to establish peace, and looking at history, you will be able to see the need to take up a sword from the Church’s perspective.
2. The Catholic Faith as distinguished from imperfect Catholics
That being said, let’s focus on those who fought justly, virtuously, and mercifully. They are the examples that we applaud as Catholics. Perhaps they made mistakes along the way, but they came out saints. The Christian faith challenges followers to do the most difficult things in the world, such as accept suffering with joy and love your neighbor, which Christian people cannot always perfectly live out. That people fail does not discredit the perfect faith in Christ for which imperfect people strive.
Just a few examples of people who fought the good fight for Christ:
– St. Louis IX
– St. Nicasius of Jerusalem
– St. Matthew of Beauvais
– Bl. Charles the Good
– St. Peter Nolasco
Many of these saints founded religious orders, were martyred after refusing to deny Christ, and did amazing things with God’s help, such as freeing hundreds of Christians from capture, fighting heresy, and helping the poor, even if it led to the wealthy conspiring against him. (See more about them here or here). You can also read about St. Francis of Assisi and why he supported the Crusades, telling a sultan, “It is just that Christians invade the land you inhabit, for you blaspheme the name of Christ and alienate everyone you can from His worship.” Instead of being on the defensive when someone questions you on this topic, be proud of those saints and grateful for their defense of our shared faith.
We seek to imitate those who imitate Christ, and we pray for those who failed to do so. We practice our Catholic faith while on earth. Don’t let others’ failure to follow Christ cause you to stop practicing. The world needs more sinners humbly aspiring to be saints; not more sinners parading themselves as saints. Maybe then, more people will turn to the Church with genuine interest in Christ’s salvation instead of pointing fingers.
The Crusades inspire me to be a better follower of Christ so that those around me hopefully will see what a Catholic should be doing to practice their faith even at the most difficult times, see that it is good, and choose to follow Christ as well.
3. Our forefathers’ robust faith compared to our own
Speaking of being good Catholics, look at our forefathers’ faith! They fought for the Holy Land, for Christ, for each other’s lives to be safe. They came out with saints and sinners and won and lost battles. Their enthusiasm appears much greater than our own:
Now, look at yourself… Would you cower and mumble if someone oppressed your faith or proclaim God’s glory and chant songs of His praise loudly? Are you willing to help those persecuted across the world or do you just hope the problems stay away from you? Do you answer the Holy Spirit when called or do you avoid being enthusiastic about your faith?
Our ancestors were spectacularly devout in Christendom, but we aren’t in a very Christian world anymore. That is no reason to make your faith less of a priority—God should always be first priority. Being surrounded by people who need Christ is a reason to be even more vibrantly a Christian! Wear a cross. Carry a Bible. Pray before and after meals. Tell others about God. And, if necessary and just, put on your armor and defend yourself and others. Don’t be ashamed of your faith because other people misunderstand the Church!
It’s okay to be a Crusader for Christ as long as you’re appropriately serving God. Furthermore, it is absolutely wonderful to be Catholic, despite what people mistakenly think about our Church. Know that you are part of a strong and loving faith community.
Educate yourself by asking knowledgeable people in your life questions and reading informative books on the real history of the Crusades. This benefits you and anyone who may seek an answer from you about the Crusades.
Here a short suggestion list:
St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims by Frank M. Rega
The Real Story of the Crusades by Steve Weidenkopf
The Glory of the Crusades by Steven Weidenkopf
The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam by Johnathan Riley-Smith
Crash Course ion the Crusades (Crisis Magazine) By Steven Weidenkopf
Handout: “Myths about the Crusades”