By the last decade of the 11th century, Muslim armies had conquered two-thirds of the formerly Christian world–Palestine, Egypt, Asia Minor—all now were under their control. And the Turks were pushing westward toward Constantinople, the center of Byzantine Christianity. The Byzantine emperor appealed to the pope in Rome for assistance; and it seemed clear that Western Christians either would join the battle then, or would face the prospect of being conquered themselves later on. Thus in the year 1095 Pope Urban II called upon the noblemen of Europe to organize a great Crusade.
The venture came to have two goals: first, to defend the innocent and vulnerable—that is, to keep the Eastern Church (and ultimately Christianity as a whole) from being destroyed at the hands of advancing armies; and second, to re-conquer areas seized by Muslim forces—especially ones leading to the Holy Land—and thus to provide a secure passage for Christians to visit sites associated with their Divine Savior.
Other crusades would follow, including dozens of smaller, less centralized efforts. However, unlike the first Crusade, none of these later ventures were very successful. In fact, within two centuries, by 1291, the united forces of Islam had dismantled Crusader strongholds and captured the ancient cities once again.
The Crusades came at great cost, in both money and blood, to the knights who responded to the call. They paid this price willingly for the sake of the vital ends in view; in this regard they merit our continuing admiration.
However, as acknowledged by Bl. John Paul II in the Jubilee year of 2000, participants in the Crusades also engaged in some very bad acts: plundering, the defiling of others’ houses of worship, and cruel treatment of enemy populations.
Important lessons can be learned from these stalwarts of the past millennium, who with sword and shield valiantly—although imperfectly—defended Christianity and Western culture. Symbols of the Crusades in fact inspire a range of contemporary activities, from schools’ athletic efforts to men’s leadership training programs.
Symbols by their nature are immensely fertile: they can be applied in ever new and varied ways. In this essay, I wish to explore a deeper set of meanings in the Crusader imagery, in light of a reading of conditions in contemporary America and the responses to them that seem required.
Let us first ask: Is it not the case that once again the innocent and vulnerable are threatened? Not by foreign armies bent on religious conquest, but by powerful cultural and political forces. Think, for example, of individuals not yet born, in their mothers’ wombs—a very dangerous place to be in this country, given our regime of virtually open abortion, and powerful entities such as Planned Parenthood supporting it.
Consider as well persons who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in impossibly difficult and demeaning living conditions—ones that effectively preclude all hope of enjoying a decent life. Often it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign responsibility for such depersonalizing conditions; but those of us able to respond with aid should do so, whatever the conditions’ causes.
Think too of institutions promoting works of religion, including schools, hospitals and social service agencies. Such institutions themselves are today vulnerable to external threat. For, in defiance of all claims about freedom of religion and conscience, certain state and now federal agencies seek to overreach their proper powers and use employment at these institutions as a vehicle for dispensing services judged by our religious tradition to be immoral.
Finally, consider persons facing terminal illness and death: in Oregon and more recently Washington, law and public policy in effect encourage these most vulnerable citizens to be the agents of their own demise.
Secondly, in addition to such threats to the innocent and vulnerable, can we not also see that people again are bereft of secure passage? Not to some far-away destination such as Jerusalem, but to cultural conditions that promote the free discernment of and living in the truth: the truth, that is, about ourselves as human persons, both as individuals and as members of civil society.
Ours is an age of lazy and confused thinking, not least in the public sphere. Assumptions and beliefs, sometimes born of prejudice, are presented as if they were scientific certitudes. Individual desires are taken by those who experience them as adequate grounds for claims to positive rights. Moreover, increasingly, procedural rules alone bind people together; skeptical of reasoned reflection, in which the truth can be brought to light, we tend to answer fundamental questions through sheer political or social force. We thus find ourselves with a prescription for a republic that cannot long stand.
In all of this, I want to suggest, we have the occasion of a new Crusade—one calling for the best efforts of educated persons. Unlike the Crusades of a millennium ago, its battles will not be over land and possessions and routes of travel; rather, they will be over the ideas that shape how this and future generations will live.
We cannot avoid these battles: given recent events and our present cultural trajectory, they inevitably are coming toward us. Indeed, they are already here. Thus we either will be Crusaders or will be swept up in the tide that now threatens to engulf Western society.
In light of these observations, how should we understand the Crusader images of sword and shield?
As our swords, let us take critical intelligence—the native ability, enjoyed by most persons but needing to be honed via rigorous education, to think questions through; to weigh relevant data and consider various aspects of issues; to be open to others’ opinions, but at the same time alert to unfounded assumptions and unspoken implications; and, in the end, to come to appropriate conclusions.
As our shields, let us take confidence in the truth, trusting that people can come to know it and live in it, if allowed to do so. Surely the human mind, unencumbered by skeptical and relativist trends of the day, naturally recognizes that it is made for truth; it is painfully aware when it seeks but does not yet have truth; and sometimes it finds truth in which it can securely rest.
As surely was the case with the Crusaders of old, we shall need to keep our swords sharp and our shields broad and sturdy: they will be severely tested.
The motivations and goals of our efforts are interrelated: if we are to be successful in defending the innocent and vulnerable, we also must be successful in promoting a climate of reasoned discussion about public issues. This means, among other things, that we must take care in formulating our own views, as well as in critiquing contrary ones.
The current debate over the HHS mandate concerning facilitation of access to contraception and related procedures provides a perfect example. It requires of us as much critical intelligence (and also patience) as we can muster. We must cogently articulate the true basis of human rights in things necessary to freely pursue our genuine fulfillment; we must show that these needs, and associated rights, include in a fundamental way religious ones; and we must demonstrate that the freedoms in question should be respected by the broader society unless, in their actual exercise, they threaten innocent parties, our basic institutions, or other aspects of the common good.
If we address relevant issues forthrightly and fairly, we have a genuine chance of success in the public square. After all, the above ideas about rights and freedoms are not, by any means, narrowly Catholic ones; rather, they are rooted in what can be recognized as common human wisdom—truths of the sort the founders of this republic, in the Declaration of Independence, declared to be “self-evident.”
I would emphasize the need to be scrupulous about treating issues fairly. As was the case in the historical Crusades, there will be temptations to wayward action. One such temptation is to make statements that are unfounded or oversimplified, concerning either the relevant facts or the motivations of those who disagree with us. Another temptation is to disparage well-intentioned fellow citizens—for example, persons who experience strong and apparently fixed same-sex attraction; or women who cannot imagine their lives without ready access to contraception and abortion. Few if any persons choose to be in such conditions; they deserve understanding and respect—and, if possible, appropriate assistance. To denigrate them is a violation of justice—not to mention Christian charity.
All such acts constitute wrongs toward our fellow human beings. If tendencies toward them are not held in check, they surely will leave an ugly blot on whatever success we may achieve—just as plundering and indiscriminate violence left a blot on the record of the first Crusade.
Of course, even if we reason in public with skill and care, and do not compromise our efforts by demeaning other persons, there is no guarantee that we will persuade the majority of citizens—or public officials—of our positions. That is, as in the case of the later historical Crusades, we may fail. Given society’s current confused thinking, it may turn out that at least in the short run we are unable to turn the cultural tide.
Moreover, like the original Crusaders, we may well incur significant costs (material and social) in abiding by our well-considered but counter-cultural views. Through negative outcomes in current federal court cases, or through future executive, legislative and judicial actions, we may be told that we must recognize unions between gay and lesbian partners as marriages—and even facilitate the celebration of these marriages (supposing, for example, we are renters of reception halls or professional photographers or caterers)—or else face significant legal penalties.
Again, we may be told that Catholic educational and social service institutions, via health care plans made available to employees, indeed must facilitate access to procedures the Church deems morally unacceptable—or else face financial penalties that will make it doubtful in some cases whether the institutions can survive. If such things should happen, Catholics in this country—especially those in leadership positions—will be faced with truly terrible choices. Let no one say, “It could never happen here.”
It is worth noting that Crusader losses in the 12th and 13th centuries stimulated a period of sober reflection, as well as of renewed piety—somewhat as occurred among the ancient Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. For all we now know, circumstances calling for such a period of reflection and renewal could be upon us rather soon. That is, events may induce us to consider how we ourselves have contributed to cultural conditions in which so many fail to grasp, for example, basic truths about human sexuality; as well as to consider how we might contribute to this situation’s reversal.
“We are the Crusaders!” my high school alma mater would chant. “Yes!” should be our common response. Let us resolve that, whatever cultural forces we face in the years ahead, we will keep our swords sharp and our shields broad and sturdy, and we will act in accord with the highest ideals of our calling. While respecting all persons, let us work tirelessly and fearlessly to protect those innocently threatened and to promote cultural conditions that offer secure passage to discovering and living in the truth.
This essay is adapted from a high school commencement address given at Saint Bernard’s Catholic School, Eureka, Calif. in June, 2012. The event marked the completion of the school’s 100th year.