by Rev. Frank Julian Gelli \
‘We need the crusaders back’ a French fellow announced peremptorily in Rennes, Brittany’s capital. ‘Christians must fight again. St Louis will lead us!’
I was in the city’s Musee des Beaux Arts. Examining a painting showing crusaders on the march. My interlocutor (I learnt his name was Didier) looked the part: young, sported a crew cut and a battle jacket. But…did he know much about St Louis? I think not…
Louis IX was a pious King of France (1214-70). In 1248 he resolved to take the Cross. After initial success in capturing Damietta the crusaders were routed and Louis taken prisoner. The Saracens treated him well and, after payment of a huge ransom and the surrender of Damietta, released him. Louis returned to France but he still yearned to free the Holy Sepulchre. Despite being very ill, in 1267 he embarked again for the Levant but caught dysentery at Tunis and died. Boniface VIII – Dante’s detested pontiff - canonised him a few years later.
St Louis was a model sovereign. Just, prayerful and austere. As a holy warrior, however, he was a failure. Which wraps up pretty well the whole crusading business. Only the First Crusade succeeded in taking Jerusalem and establishing Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land. All the subsequent nine or ten ended in disaster, more or less. No less an unbelieving authority than Karl Marx admired their energy, yet the crusader’s military activities were not blessed with war’s ultimate end and justification – victory.
My deluded Didier is not the only one to rave about rekindling what Arabs call al-Harb as-Salibiya – the war of the Cross. Online voices allude to young Western Christians going to fight with the Kurds against the Caliphate gents. Crusade ahoy then? Clash of civilisation, Huntington…all that?
Not really. Even if, per impossibile, fanatical millions headed to the Middle East waving guns and crosses, that would still not make it a crusade. If Obama – sorry, I mean Obumble - went nuts and summoned the Marines to fight for Christ against ISIS – still no way. Because one crucial (!) factor would be missing: the Pope’s mandate.
What is a crusade? It is a war of religion, a sacred armed expedition undertaken at the behest of the Pope. So Pope Urban II solemnly proclaimed the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont. All the other holy wars also received papal sanction. And shunning the Pope’s call was sinful. When a ruler would refuse departing on crusade, like Emperor Frederick II did, the Pope excommunicated him. Indeed, Frederick sinned even more grievously when he later went on the crusade while being an excommunicate. While in Palestine Frederick made a deal with the Sultan and got Jerusalem back without fighting – a smart one!
In the days of Christendom the Pope of course wielded supreme spiritual-political power. Christian nations were united worldwide as a self-conscious, single, collective body. But no such Christendom exists today. First the Reformation broke up the unity of Europe. Christian nations split into Catholics and Protestants, mutually hostile, at loggerheads with each other. Then after the French revolution the weeds and brambles of nationalism, secularism and atheism gradually choked all residual Christian identity in European states. Today the likes of Cameron, Hollande and Merkel are infidel ‘cochons’. They preside over squalid, irreligious governments hell-bent on repressing Christian values. As to Pope Francis, some would say - unfairly - that he seems busy welcoming gays into the Church and deconstructing the Christian family. True or false, a long way from medieval Popes like Urban II and Boniface VIII.
That is not to say that you have to be a secularist to believe that the idea of a war of religion is morally and theologically wrong. In fact, the notion goes back to key Catholic thinkers of Christendom. Men like the Spanish Francisco de Vitoria, the father of international law and morality. Vitoria taught that religion is not among the conditions for a just war. That is so because he, a believer in free will, held that faith is a matter of the will and the will, being free, should not be coerced. Defending your religion when attacked is a moral right OK but that is very different from warring to impose your religion on unwilling others. Thus Vitoria nobly defended the rights of New World natives from rapacious Spaniards who claimed religion as an excuse to conquer and enslave them.
No such rational and ethical considerations are likely to sway the Caliphate warriors and their fans. That is not to accuse them of simple irrationalism. (After all the Qur’an, which they much quote and rely on, is not an irrational book – quite the opposite. And the same applies to Sharia’ texts whom they cite and laud.) Deeply steeped into jihadist dimensions of the sacred history of Islam, they see their struggle as based on a sharp, ruthless confrontation between faith and unbelief. As Issam Eido writes in a perceptive paper, despite its apparent ‘nihilism’ ISIS is ‘full of meaning’. ISIS was born ‘with a fringe nature…shaped in crisis and apocalypse’. All such extreme narratives import an ‘Other’, an alien enemy or fiend. Hardly surprising that the imaginary ‘crusader’ fits the bill.
A shame. Because it is the priest’s ministry to teach and preach that good Muslims and good Christians must not fight each other but together combat the fearful, devouring unbelief of our time. Those of us who think otherwise are like my poor young Didier in Rennes: mistaken.