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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 04 Apr 2002

THE CRUSADES, A MISTAKE? QUESTION from Mr. Dustin Dreifuerst M.I. December 4, 1999 What is the chuches position on the crusades? Do they view it as a mistake?
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin on December 8, 1999 Dear Mr. Dreifuerst
As this question involves a purely historical issue, I think it's a mistake to expect the Church to issue a declaration. Although the Church is in the process of examining her conscience with regards to the evils of the past, I don't think it implies that the Church condemns the Crusades in toto. She merely condemns the individual evil acts which were committed, not the whole entreprise itself.
As this is not a theological matter, Catholics have a right to an opinion-- preferably an informed one. The right to an opinion does not excuse a Catholic, or anyone, from seeking the facts about which he has an opinion, especially a strongly held opinion.
At this point, I would like to address how many non-Catholics have come to believe that the Crusades are a mistake, so that the readers can have a better understanding of the historical process, and also be better able to defend the Church when confronted with these issues.
It is commonly held among non-Catholics that the Crusades were a mistake. They think it was a war to exterminate the Muslims, and even if know otherwise, they still think the Church was entirely motivated by power, greed, or religious extremism.
These conclusions are the result of value judgements. History cannot be produced without them. Philosophical presumptions, such as whether Truth exists, or whether God exists, etc will necessarily influence a historian's perception of an event. It is only natural that people who do not share our faith, or who do not understand it, will interpret history in a manner that denigrates our faith or our Church because their non-Catholic beliefs affect their perception. The more prejudiced they are towards Catholicism, the more predisposed they are to think the worst of the actions of Catholics.
The reason why I am bringing up the subject of value judgments is because it's a commonly held belief that in regards to the Crusades (or any other event) the facts speak for themselves. In other words, no value judgments are necessary to know the truth about an event. The proponents of this catch-phrase would have you believe that it is possible to know the motives of the popes merely by their external actions, without considering the logic of a decision or knowing the theological foundation behind the Church's actions.
Facts never speak for themselves. Facts must be interpreted. If you do not understand the theological reasoning behind the call for the Crusades, or the motives of the popes, you cannot have an adequate understanding of the events. You would understand the facts, but not the overall situation.
Obviously, when Anti-Catholics claim that facts speak for themselves there's more at stake here. They are making value judgments even if they believe themselves to be completely unbiased. (We all do). By drawing attention to the plain facts, Anti-Catholics unconsciously appeal to secular values and presumptions about history and the Church. For instance, it is presumed that denigrating the Catholic Church is a mark of historical neutrality. Anyone who would dare uphold the Faith and defend the undefendable is obviously brainwashed, no matter how well-researched his information. By making these appeals to the plain facts, Anti-Catholics hope their audience will draw hard and fast obvious conclusions that will create or intenstify resentment and moral indignation toward the Church.
Since Catholics reject purely secular ideas, they will tend to reject these obvious conclusion and will naturally share similar perceptions about the Crusades. I have selected an article from, a Catholic news website, which nicely summarizes a Catholic perspective on the Crusades.

CRUSADES CONTROVERSY UNRESOLVED Historian Franco Cardini Points Out Errors ROME, JUL 21 (ZENIT).- The controversy over the Crusades continues unabated. 1999 is the 900th anniversary of the First Crusade -- an event that has opened the gate to anti-Catholic publicity attempting to discredit the Church and her teachings.
In a number of recent articles, the Crusades have been described as Holy Wars, and the massacre of Jews at the time as the anti-chamber to the Holocaust. The Church has been accused of constantly trying to eliminate its opponents in the name of orthodoxy.
Even on the face of it, the numbers and facts cited do not always line up. For example, an article in La Repubblica, the second largest newspaper in Italy in terms of circulation, states that the Franks massacred 70,000 people in a mosque, which implies that the mosque was as large as a modern sports stadium.
In order to clear the air of misconceptions and errors, historian Franco Cardini, an expert in Medieval history, wrote an article in the Italian newspaper Avvenire, entitled Crusades -- Not Religious Wars.
In his article, Professor Cardini explains that the interpretation of the Crusades as antecedents of religious and ideological wars, was a thesis upheld by Enlightenment circles. It was used as a pretext and was a misunderstanding of the Crusades.
According to Dr. Cardini, the Crusades were never 'religious wars,' their purpose was not to force conversions or suppress the infidel. The excesses and violence committed in the course of the expeditions (which did occur and must not be forgotten) must be evaluated in the painful but usual context of the phenomenology of military events, keeping in mind that, undoubtedly, some theological reason always justified them.
The Crusade was an armed pilgrimage that developed slowly over time, between the 11th and 13th centuries, which must be understood by being inserted in the context of the extended relations between Christianity and Islam, which have produced positive cultural and economic results, clarified the scholar. If this was not the case, how could one explain the frequent friendships, including military alliances, between Christians and Moslems, in the history of the Crusades?
In order to confirm his thesis, Dr. Cardini referred to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) who opposed the lay knighthood, which in the 12th century was made up of avid, violent and amoral persons, with a new knighthood at the service of the poor and pilgrims. St. Bernard's proposal was revolutionary -- a new knighthood made up of monks who would renounce all forms of wealth and personal power, who understood that an enemy might have to be killed during war if there is no option, but must never be hated. Herein lies the teaching against hatred, including during times of battle.
To think of the Crusade as a Holy War against the Moslems would be exaggerated, Cardini said. In fact the real interest in these expeditions, in service of Christian brethren threatened by Moslems, was the restoration of peace in the East, and the early stirring of the idea of rescue for distant fellow-Christians. The Crusade posited reconciliation with the adversary before departure, renouncement of disputes and vengeance, acceptance of possible martyrdom, disposition of oneself and one's own property for the good of the community of believers, while pointing oneself to an experience in the light of which, for a certain number of months or perhaps years, one would follow Christ and the memory of the living Christ in the theater of his terrestrial existence at the height of one's own experience
Note that Catholics do not deny that there were grave mistakes committed during the Crusades. But these mistakes did not detract from the necessity of fighting the Muslims. Compare the Medieval Crusades to the crusade the Western World led against Communism. Was it necessary? I doubt anyone would deny it. Were there atrocities and violations of human rights in this fight? Absolutely. You only have to think of the War in Vietnam, which was so badly conducted. No one condemns the fight against Communism, in spite of the Vietnam War, the arms race, countless regional wars, support of dictatorial regimes, etc. We all realize that fighting communism was necessary because most of us lived through that period and understand that even though the USSR had no intention of militarily striking the United States or Canada, or any major Western country, it definitely had plans to spread the communist political system, which was quite evil, in spite of its advantages. Only in its historical context can the fight against Communism be understood. In the same way, only by examining the context of the Medieval period can the Crusades be understood. For more historical background on the Crusades, consult the Catholic Encyclopedia article, CRUSADES.
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