In the old liturgical calendar this past Monday, April 25, was the “Greater Litany Day.” On this day Catholics prayed a long litany and various other special prayers. One invocation during the litany is particularly striking:
That it may please thee to overthrow the enemies of thy Holy Church, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.
Two things stand out about this prayer. First, that the Church has “enemies”—when do we hear this term used in our modern prayers? How often do our priests and bishops mention our enemies in their homilies?
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Second, Our Lord commanded us to “love our enemies” (cf. Matthew 5:44), yet this formerly-official liturgical prayer of the Church prays that we “overthrow” them (another translation could be to “humble” them). So which is it: should we love our enemies or overthrow them?
Let’s look at that first question: Does the Church still have any enemies? To be sure, we don’t act like it anymore. Instead of trying to “overthrow [our] enemies” we now engage in “dialogue” with those who have been our traditional enemies.
Catholics in the 16th century would likely be scandalized by the idea of having ecumenical cocktail parties with Lutherans or Anglicans—groups they would consider mortal enemies of the Catholic Faith.
Even more so would Middle Eastern Christians of the 7th and 8th century be aghast at the idea of dialogue with Muslims, who were systematically eliminating all traces of Christianity by any means necessary during this time. Surely they were enemies of the Church.
And first century Christians likely would have considered their pagan persecuting rulers to be enemies, not allies from whom to receive government grants.
So is the concept of the Church having enemies outdated? Isn’t it better to engage in dialogue with non-Catholics than to treat them as enemies?
Yet Christ’s command to “love our enemies” presumes that we have enemies. How can we love someone who doesn’t exist? Christ didn’t say, “Do everything you can to avoid having enemies.” No, he knew that his followers would have enemies, and he was giving us directions on how to treat them.
Our greatest enemy, Satan, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Peter 5:8) has earthly helpers. Anyone who works against Christ’s mission is an adversary (which is what “Satan” means); this is why Jesus calls Peter “Satan” when the chief apostle tries to prevent Christ’s saving passion (Matthew 16:22-23).
Who exactly, then, are the enemies of the Church? Simply put, they are anyone who, in league with Satan, hinders the work of the Church in her mission to save souls.
The Church, then, has enemies, both external and internal.
Historically, the Church’s external enemies were rulers who tried to obliterate the Church. Diocletian, Henry VIII, the leaders of the French Revolution: these were clear enemies of the Church.
Few today are so explicit in their desire to destroy the Church, but that doesn’t mean the Church no longer has enemies. They include politicians who advocate for anti-Catholic legislation, such as legalized abortion and same-sex marriage. Also included would be those who work to spread a false religion like Islam, which desires to overthrow the One Truth Faith of Catholicism.
Today internal enemies can be called heirs of Judas and Arius. They include all those Catholics who ostensibly follow Christ but actually reject him or his teachings. Those like the German bishops who want to change her teaching on the sinfulness of homosexual activity, or Church leaders who diminish the sacredness and permanence of marriage are enemies of the Faith, no matter their baptismal (or ordinational) status—these are enemies of the Church and her mission.
If we pretend that these groups and people are not enemies of the Church, then we essentially hand them victory. We’ve seen this time and time again in the way Church leaders deal with pro-abortion politicians. While we talk about dialogue and working together, millions of babies are being slaughtered. While our bishops consider Nancy Pelosi as an ally with which we might have a few minor disagreements, she gives legal protection to mass murderers.
So the Church has always had—and still has—enemies. How should we then treat them? Should we love them, as Christ commands, or overthrow them, as Christ’s Church prayed for centuries?
The answer is the classically Catholic “both/and:” we are both to love and overthrow our enemies.
Imagine a father whose home is invaded yet pretends the attacker isn’t an enemy. He tries to engage in dialogue with the assailant…while the man is stabbing his children. The father tells the attacker, “I don’t think killing my daughter is the right thing to do, let’s instead discuss how we can work together for our common good.” Meanwhile, the attack continues.
While this sounds ludicrous, it’s what many Church leaders and lay Catholics are doing right now. This approach isn’t loving—to either the father’s family or the attacker. Stopping the attacker in his grave sin—overthrowing him, in other words—is actually the most loving thing to do. It saves the family and it also stops the sin from continuing.
We Catholics here on earth have traditionally been called the “Church Militant.” Such a term is embarrassing to many modern ears due to its militaristic, even violent, connotations, but that is what we are: an army for Christ. Our Lord said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). To pretend we have no enemies is to deny our role as Christ’s army.
This is not a call for Islam-like physical violence to spread the Gospel, but it is a call to directly confront and even overthrow our enemies. We don’t do this by acting as if we have no enemies and endlessly dialoguing with all non-Catholics. Instead, we recognize who our enemies are—both external and internal—and then oppose them with unwavering fortitude when they work against the mission of the Church.
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