The Crusades are one of the most misunderstand topics in Church history. Movies and TV present as established fact an outdated anti-Catholic narrative about them that stays alive by sheer repetition. Not only do secular critics of the Church use this narrative to attack Catholicism (and religion in general), but many Catholics uwittingly accept it as true.
The negative “spin” on the Crusades began in the sixteenth century with the Protestant revolutionary Martin Luther, who saw them as an outgrowth of papal authority and power. Later Enlightenment authors such as Voltaire and Edward Gibbon shaped modernity’s negative view of the Crusades by portraying them as barbaric projects undertaken by greedy and savage warriors at the behest of a corrupt papacy. Modern-day Crusade historians, thankfully, eschew the anti-religious prejudices behind this view, and are bringing to light an authentic understanding of these Catholic events from the perspective of those who participated in them. But such scholarship has not eradicated the popular myths.
In order to properly understand the Crusades, we must recognize them as authentically Catholic events in an age of faith. This does not mean that everyone in the Middle Ages was a saint, or that society was perfect; but it was an era in which people made radical life decisions, such as going on Crusade, because of their faith in Jesus Christ and his Church. The modern secular-humanist world, lacking faith, struggles to understand the authentic religious worldview of the medieval period and so is handicapped when trying to understand the Crusades..
The Crusading movement was a Catholic movement. Popes called for Crusades, clerics (and saints) preached them, ecumenical councils planned and discussed them, and Catholic warriors fought them for spiritual benefits. The Crusades cannot be properly understood apart from this Catholic reality. The modern world’s historical amnesia on this point is curable, and the cure begins with Catholics learning the authentic history of their Church and the culture it created. Like the Benedictine monks of old, we modern Catholics can maintain the inheritance of Western Civilization, and correct the errors and biases of our age, through a commitment to learn our history and take pride (where appropriate) for the actions of the men and women who came before us in the Faith.
Many Catholics cringe at the mention of the Crusades, either because they know an anti-Catholic attack is coming, or because they feel embarrassed. But I propose that rather than trying to change the subject or dodge the criticism, we should recognize the “glory” of the Crusades.
What does that mean?
After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they sinned against God by worshipping the golden calf. God wanted to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry, but Moses interceded for the people and the Lord relented. Moses’ special relationship with God included the gift of being in the presence of the Lord in the meeting tent, where he spoke to God face to face. Moses pleaded with God for his presence to remain with the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land so that the other nations would see their uniqueness.
Moses also begged the Lord to show him his glory (Ex. 33:18). The Hebrew word for glory used most often in the Old Testament is kabod, which means “heavy in weight” or something of great importance. In this sense, the Crusading movement—which occupied 600 years of Catholic history—cannot be seen as anything but glorious. That does not mean we whitewash or ignore their bad parts, but simply that we give due attention to their import in the life of the Church.
We live in a time ripe for a reinvigorated sense of Catholic identity, and a thorough knowledge of the Crusades helps us build it. Catholics need to know the authentic history of the Church in order to defend it from its many critics in the modern world; however, for a truly vibrant Catholic identity to take root and flourish, defending the Church is not enough. We must go on the attack, and present the story of our Catholic family with vigor, courage, and resolve.
In the words of Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, president emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for the Historical Sciences:
[W]e should finally stop being like the frightened rabbit that stares at the snake before it is swallowed by it. This defeatist attitude, this whining self-pity that has gained so much ground… in Catholic circles, is an insult to God. What is needed is a new, forceful consciousness of being Catholic.
Recognizing the “glory” of the Crusades is one way that we can take pride in our Catholic identity and contribute to a forceful and positive resurgence of the Faith in the Western world.