Religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular have a historical reputation for inspiring wars and violence. Critics incessantly cite the Crusades as an example of this bellicose sentiment even though they were not led by the church nor initiated by the church. The Crusades began when the Byzantine Emperor asked for western help in fighting a defensive war against Islamic armies threatening his state. The Fourth Crusade, when western knights attacked the Byzantines, is a good example of the many excesses of the movement and how it went astray over time.
Detractors are hard pressed to find another aggressive war fought by the church, besides the Crusades. The church, however, has played the role of peacemaker numerous times. One of the most famous examples is when Pope Leo the Great rode out to meet Attila the Hun and convinced him to spare Rome, which he did. In modern times, St. John Paul II protested the ill-fated invasion of Iraq. A few weeks ago, I provided some historical examples on how the church promoted human rights, and then, I gave some instances of how the church supported education and science.
This blog post will focus on illustrating the church as peacemaker and how individual Catholics embodied the principles of peace and love of neighbor.
A 19th-century painting by Emile Signol depicts the taking of Jerusalem by the Crusaders. (Public Domain)
The peace and truce of God
Feudalism was the political system of medieval Europe, and if you remember your history lesson on feudalism, a whole class of people known as knights existed to fight, thus ensuring a violent society. The task of curtaining violence during this period was taken up by the church. After the collapse of Charlemagne’s kingdom and in the wake of the Viking attacks, the church pushed for a system known as the peace and truce of God.
The peace and truce of God was a popular religious movement to guarantee the safety of the vulnerable. Priests, women, children, peasants and pilgrims were granted protection during wars, and religious authorities dictated that harming or robbing them a punishable offense. The law also granted immunity to individuals when on church property. In other words, churches and monasteries and the land they owned were safe havens. It also restricted the days permitted for warfare, beginning with Sunday and feast days, but later, fighting was prohibited during Lent, Advent and other holy weekdays.
The enforcement of these religious and pacifist traditions was difficult. The only true guarantee of peace is a strong army to enforce it, not a church. That said, knighthood took on a strong Christian element in the Late Middle Ages, and the code of chivalry placed a premium on honor and loyalty. As the peace and truce of God grew, knights took an oath to uphold it, and the church would excommunicate knights who broke the oath, a serious repercussion for the Middle Ages.
Italy was hit hard by wars during the Late Middle Ages because it was not unified and the numerous small states were constantly fighting. Out of this context came a popular movement that was both religious and pacifist called the Bianchi of 1399. It was inspired by a vision of the Blessed Mother, who informed a peasant that Jesus was dismayed over the violence. She instructed the peasant to preach and pray for nine days and nine nights. Beginning with this one lowly individual, the movement grew like wildfire.
The penitents dressed in white robes marked with a red cross, and because of the white robes, they were known as the Bianchi (Italian for white). They travelled for nine days, moving from city to city, preaching their message of peace. One scholar of the Bianchi wrote: “They insisted that everyone forgive their enemies and make peace with them before joining the processions. And they tried to convince individuals in the cities they visited to lay down their weapons and make peace, while urging the governments to repatriate exiles and release prisoners.”
The movement did not have a lasting national impact, but many individual relationships were healed, and numerous friendships were renewed due to the Bianchi. On a side note, many people are named Bianchi in northern Italy, and there are a few in Owings Mills, too.
Number of religious wars
A standard claim of the New Atheism is that religion is the main cause of war. Really!
The numbers completely debunk this proposition. Christian apologists point to Philip and Axelrod’s three-volume Encyclopedia of Wars, which chronicles some 1,763 wars. Of those wars, only 123 are considered religious in nature by the authors, which is a surprisingly low 6.98 percent. If Islamic wars are subtracted (66 wars) from the total, then a minuscule 3.23 percent of all wars are related to all other religions.
Even atheists have dropped the idea that religion is the primary cause of war. As one prominent atheist conceded: “Moreover, the chief complaint against religion — that it is history’s prime instigator of intergroup conflict — does not withstand scrutiny… A BBC-sponsored “God and War” audit, which evaluated major conflicts over 3,500 years and rated them on a 0-to-5 scale for religious motivation (Punic Wars = 0, Crusades = 5), found that more than 60 percent had no religious motivation. Less than 7 percent earned a rating greater than 3. There was little religious motivation for the internal Russian and Chinese conflicts or the world wars responsible for history’s most lethal century of international bloodshed.”
The greatest love
I would be remiss to end my argument here. Over the past few weeks, I have cited some examples from church history and quite a few statistics demonstrating that the church has been a leader in human rights, promoting education and science, and advocating for peace. This depiction of the church runs counter to the standard narrative delivered to us in schools and the media, but it makes the church appear as a super-awesome NGO. Something is missing. For me, the most important aspect of church history is that for 2,000 years the church has provided meaning, purpose, and a path to salvation to people, which makes it wholly different and far more important than an NGO.
It’s hard to prove this claim with specific examples, especially with regard to salvation, but the greatest image of meaning, purpose, and love is the cross. God came down to earth and died for each of us. Many Catholics have emulated Jesus in this radical fashion, laying down their life for another person
St. Alban, the first British martyr, was killed because he was sheltering a priest, but the details of story provide a moving account. When the local authorities became aware of the priest, St. Alban switched clothes with the priest and offered himself up, saving the priest and taking the on punishment and death reserved for the priest.
St. Maximillian Kolbe switched places with another prisoner at Auschwitz, who was sentenced to death. St. Kolbe was moved when the prisoner cried out about never seeing his wife and children. It was a long and painful death as the prisoners were locked in an underground bunker and slowly starved to death.
St. Gianna Molla refused an abortion when she was pregnant with her fourth child despite knowing that continuing with the pregnancy could result in her own death. She died from the complications, but her daughter survived. In effect, she gave her life so that her child could live.
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy, or Mercedarian Fathers, was founded in the thirteenth century to help free slaves captured by Muslims in Spain. They would travel to North Africa, and attempt to negotiate the release of Christian slaves. They took a fourth vow to give their life, as Christ did, if necessitated by their work. Today, they would be similar to an individual traveling to Iraq to negotiate with ISIS. They are far more brave and selfless than I.
St. Serapion of Algiers carried out several redemptions. In the last one, he remained a hostage for some captives, and his companion traveled quickly to Spain to look for additional money. When the money for the ransom did not arrive in time, the Moors nailed him on an X-shaped cross, like Saint Andrew’s cross, and then, dismembered him.
St. Peter Paschasius was captured in Granada, and several times, redeemers sent ransom money but Peter preferred to have other captives recover their freedom instead of him. In 1300, while he was still wearing the vestments he had used to celebrate Mass, he was beheaded in his dungeon.
People often ask why I study history. In part, I enjoy gaining new historical knowledge. It’s important for Catholic, for example, to know church history, and to be able to share that information.
On a deeper level, I love history because it inspires me. In the past few weeks, I covered a lot of historical information, and sought to correct the perception of the church. More significantly, I hope the historical examples made you proud to be a Catholic, and will help you to live your life as a better Catholic.