The Church Militant or the Church Belligerent?

How Fighting for the Faith Can Destroy Charity


Every nation needs to defend itself. Yet many nations (including our own at its founding) have been wary of standing armies. The prophet Samuel, in warning Israel against a king, touched on this fear (cf. 1 Sam. 8:11-12). The same suspicion inspired the Roman law that forbade Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The danger of a standing army is simple: It can be used against its own people. Generals can use it against the government and the government can use it against the citizens. Thus, a tension: A nation at once both needs and fears an army.

The Church, like a nation, must defend herself and her faith. She must fight for the truth and for the salvation of souls. This demands doing battle, for which reason we call ourselves the Church Militant. Like a nation, however, the Church also encounters a danger: that the fighting spirit of the Church Militant turn against her. The danger is not of fighting—but of only fighting, and fighting in the wrong way. The danger is that the Church become not the New Jerusalem, but the New Sparta. And Sparta was known for only one thing: fighting. Ruthlessly, effectively, heroically at times, but only fighting. Sparta produced no great artwork, poetry, plays, or philosophy. It produced only war.

In short, the risk is to cease being the Church Militant and to become instead the "Church Belligerent." This term describes not so much a specific group of people as a certain attitude, mindset, or approach. It indicates the necessary fighting spirit of the Church Militant severed from the principle of charity. And it constitutes a hazard—not for those who think that the past forty years have been a catechetical and liturgical success, not for those who see no need to evangelize, not for those waiting for the Church to be updated. Rather, it poses a threat precisely to those—to us—who take the demands of the Church Militant seriously, who see the crisis in society and within the Church, who recognize the catechetical and liturgical fallout of almost four decades, and who desire to enter into the battle for souls.

The Pitfalls

Since we must do battle, we must also be on our guard, lest our fighting sense become the only sense we have. Perhaps by considering certain characteristics of the Church Belligerent, we can better guard ourselves against it.

First, prizing principles over persons.
Evangelization and apologetics try to unite two things: God’s truth and the human heart. Let us keep in mind these two things are meant for each other. To effect this union we must possess a love for both the truth and the person. The goal is not just to prove our point or, worse, to prove ourselves correct. Rather, the purpose is to bring people to Christ and to establish his truth in their hearts. To do that we must possess the truth. But we must also keep hearts intact. We depart from the right path when we prize a certain principle or truth and run roughshod over the person in our delivery.

In short, the Church Belligerent succumbs to the temptation to win arguments instead of hearts—to break the bruised reed and quench the smoldering wick. A friend, once having acted less than charitably when arguing with someone about Eucharistic adoration, confessed, "It was as though I had taken the monstrance and smashed it over his head." A shocking image, perhaps. But it describes the danger well. The human heart desires the truth. We ought not wield the truth as a weapon, a club for beating people into love for Christ and his Church. If we do, the truth may remain intact, but the heart will be crushed or—worse—hardened.

Second, losing the supernatural outlook.
Few of us knowingly fall into this error. After all, it is precisely the supernatural character of the Church and her mission that inspires us. Nonetheless, our behavior can at times betray and exacerbate a merely worldly view about divine things. Consider the constant scouring of blogs and Web sites, the incessant speculation about this prelate and that, the wondering about who’s doing what, who will be appointed where (and why), the parsing of statements, the gauging of each "group’s" gains and losses, and so on. All this is not merely staying informed. It is keeping score in the Church. And it displays a view of the Church as a purely human institution—a view that, if not corrected, leads to those merely human means of reform that always prove disastrous.

Worldly elements and factions exist in the Church and always have. We need to negotiate them with the wisdom of serpents. But they are not the only, nor even the most important,.aspect of the Church. So we must not allow them to obscure the truth that the Church, ultimately, is Christ’s—indeed, is Christ himself. Getting carried away by the human intrigue and politicking that loiters in the Church slowly wears away at our supernatural outlook. As it festers it leads us to fight no longer for Christ’s bride, but for our position, our group. We begin to grieve more that our side has suffered a setback than that Christ’s Body has been assailed.

How we respond to scandals is a good barometer of our supernatural outlook. We should react to scandals (past, present…future) first with sorrow for the offense against our Lord and the damage to his Mystical Body. We should grieve more that he is betrayed than that our counsel or advice was not heeded. Sin’s horror comes not from any harm done to my convictions but from the offense against our Lord and the damage (perhaps eternal) to souls.

Third, making our preferences mandatory for others, or requiring more than the Church requires.
In various areas the Church grants certain options and leaves the choice to our prudential judgment. We may find certain practices preferable. Yet we cannot insist on them, because the Church does not. On the other hand, we may dislike certain practices. Yet, again, we cannot fault others for doing what the Church permits. We stray from militant to belligerent when we mandate what the Church does not, or forbid what the Church permits.

Take, for example, Natural Family Planning. Since the Church permits it, we cannot forbid or disparage it (as some do). Conversely, the Church does not require chapel veils (mantillas). Hence we ought not require them or denigrate those who do not wear them. Likewise Communion in the hand, although not the universal norm, is still permitted in every American diocese. On this last issue, a priest once explained to me his refusal to distribute Communion in the hand even though it is permitted: "Everyone else does whatever the [heck] he pleases, so I’m going to do whatever the [heck] I please." Behold, The Church Belligerent. The issue here is not the priest’s preference for Communion on the tongue. Rather, it is the obstinate disobedience to legitimate Church authority because of his laudable preference.

Fourth, giving free rein to the critical faculty.
Here we need the proper measure. We should possess a critical faculty. We should be able to analyze and determine how words and actions square with the truth. We must do the very thing our culture hates most: make judgments. At the same time, however, we need to be taught. At some point we must set aside or turn down the critical faculty and allow ourselves to be formed and instructed. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis describes well the attitude we should adopt:

What [God] wants of the laymen in the [Church] is an attitude which may, indeed, be critical in the sense of rejecting what is false or unhelpful, but which is wholly uncritical in the sense that is does not appraise—does not waste time in thinking about what it rejects, but lays itself open in uncommenting humble receptivity to any nourishment going on.

Those who constantly challenge and criticize cannot be taught. They may be able to pick apart goofy catechesis and spot liturgical abuse from a mile away. But they cannot learn, because they never stop questioning, criticizing, picking things apart. The criticism results in a cynicism borne (ironically) of a zeal for truth. If we refuse to trust anyone, then we set ourselves up as our own personal magisterium. And we have a name for that: Protestantism.

Further, the constant criticizing quickly becomes just complaining. And there is plenty to complain about. So we sit around and swap anecdotes about how bad Mass is at that parish, and how bad that school is, and what bishop so-and-so did or didn’t do…and so on. We may be dead right on every point. But so what? At the end of the complaining, have we become holier? Have we grown in the interior life? And what attitude have we fostered in those around us?

Some of our greatest saints saw similar, and worse, crises. Yet they did not leave us an example of complaining. The hallmark of Christians is charity, not churlishness. The pagans were moved by the Christians: "See how they love one another"—not "See how they complain to one another."

The Casualties

These habits of the Church Belligerent have a deadly effect on the soul of the soldier himself. He becomes the casualty of his own battles. The constant war footing makes him resemble poor Ishmael: "a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him" (Gen. 16:12). From this comes a certain hardening of the heart. The ceaseless complaining and griping is the spiritual equivalent of cholesterol. And the refusal to extend charity to others results in an inability to receive love from God.

A related casualty is one’s own spiritual life. "All politics is local," House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said. Likewise, all salvation is local. It happens in our souls. The belligerent spirit distracts us from the immediacy of our own sanctification. The never-ending discussion about the latest liturgical abuse, or catechetical disaster, or transfer, or suspension, etc.—all of the stuff out there—has very little to do with my own soul. My concern is first for my soul, and only secondarily for those matters that come within my sphere of influence. The devil delights for a man to put the smackdown on the pastor for rotten catechesis if he can get his soul in the process. He laughs himself silly when a pro-life activist neglects his own family—in defense of life.

Be Joyful Warriors

Of course, we do not want to throw out the baby (Church Militant) with the bathwater (Church Belligerent). Because we do have to fight. But how should we fight? How do we wield the sword without impaling our souls on it?

First (and last), we must be willing to suffer. It is not our job to correct everything. And trying to do so will only bring unrest. Yes, this means that at times we will have to bear wrongs and allow errors to go uncorrected. There are many rotten things in the Church, but none of them are of the Church. We must suffer to see the weeds among the wheat.

Second, holiness of life is essential. Again, the true battle is not out there, but within. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides a good image of true and false battles. In that trilogy the big, exciting scenes are of enormous armies arrayed for battle. But the more important storyline is that of the two hobbits quietly making their hidden way to destroy the ring. Their inconspicuous, unseen mission is the real battle, without which the armies of light are destroyed. So also for us. The most intense battle, the most difficult mission territory, the first place to be reformed, is hidden and unseen: the heart. And unless we tend to that first, all else is for naught.

Third, we should draw inspiration from and follow the example of the warriors who have gone before us. First among these, of course, is our Lord himself. He certainly fought—with the devil, with the scribes and Pharisees, with death itself. And he was capable of severity. Yet he directed his harshest words and actions not at prostitutes and tax collectors, but at religious hypocrites. He commands us to learn from him not because of his severity but because he is meek and humble of heart (cf. Matt. 11:29). Yes, he cleansed the temple, but he also wept over Jerusalem.

Likewise let us look to the saints, to imitate not only their fighting spirit but also—and primarily—their holiness. Some point to Sts. Athanasius and Catherine of Siena as examples of those who spoke forcefully to the hierarchy. In acknowledging that truth, we must not forget that they were not defined by such directness, nor did they do it without reserve. They suffered profoundly for the Church. We cannot follow their example of directness unless we imitate also their holiness and suffering.

Follow King David’s Example

King David demonstrates well how to unite the fighting spirit with a true love for God’s people. Review the account of his battles with Saul (cf. 1 Sam. 24, 26). The King sought to kill him. And David fought. He gathered an army about him and took up arms to defend himself. Twice he could have killed Saul but did not. He would fight to defend himself, but he would not, as he put it, lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed. Further, he mourned Saul’s death and executed the man who killed him.

After his example, then, we should fight. But we should find no joy in opposing a priest or a bishop on some point of doctrine, liturgy, etc. Indeed, it should bring us great sadness and regret. Nor should we rejoice in the least at the downfall of a priest or bishop, as if it vindicates our position. Rather, we should mourn the fall of one of the Lord’s anointed, as David did.

An.aspect of the saints that might surprise us is their joy in the midst of battle. Indeed, many of the saints resemble the Maccabees, who "carried on Israel's war joyfully" (1 Macc. 3:2). Consider St. Ambrose in his confrontations with the Arian emperor. To keep one of his churches from being seized, the bishop and his congregation staged what amounted to the first sit-in. For over a week they occupied the building. During that time—so ripe for bitterness and acrimony—Ambrose taught his people songs, some of which we still have in the Liturgy today. They all knew the desperate situation. They knew the battle. But instead of griping, they sang.

Look to the Saints

Saints of the Catholic Reformation provide a particularly good example. Consider the gentleness of St. Francis de Sales. He fought difficult battles for the Church and won back large parts of Switzerland. But we do not find in him any harshness. On the contrary, we know him for his gentleness. This is especially interesting given that, as Pius XI observed, gentleness was not de Sales’ given temperament. He worked hard to restrain his temper. Perhaps he knew the pitfalls of the Church Belligerent.

St. Philip Neri provides another example. He had a great devotion to no less a firebrand than Savonarola. Yet as much as he shared that reformer’s zeal, he adopted much different—and ultimately much more effective—means. Songs, jokes, picnics, even pranks were his weapons. Today we know St. Philip as the Apostle of Rome and the Apostle of joy. St. Thomas More, who opposed Henry VIII’s usurpation of Church authority so staunchly, displayed a similar joy. Indeed, he was known for his sense of humor right to the end, joking with his executioner at the scaffold. We find no bitterness or rancor in these warriors. Now even if we cannot imitate their humor, we ought at least to strive for their joy.

Such examples indicate that difficult times not only can but indeed ought to produce saints of serenity and joy. We cannot obtain a dispensation from joy just because the times are tough. Indeed, difficulties increase the need for joy. For, as Blessed Teresa was fond of saying, "Joy is the net that catches souls."

Finally, in the midst of the battle we have an obligation to build. In his day St. Benedict saw a cultural collapse similar (as many have observed) to our own. He responded not with grumbling but with building. And his foundation saved Europe. Chesterton puts it this way:

A man building up an intellectual system has to build like Nehemiah, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other. The imagination, the constructive quality, is the trowel, and argument is the sword. A wide experience of actual intellectual affairs will lead most people to the conclusion that logic is mainly valuable as a weapon wherewith to exterminate logicians. (from his essay on Thomas Carlyle in Twelve Types: A Collection of Biographies)

The sword and the trowel. Not one without the other. If we put down the sword, we will be overcome. If we put down the trowel, we will leave behind nothing of value or beauty—like the Spartans.

Finally, we know that our Lady is the perfect image of the Church. We typically associate her, and rightly, with the Church Triumphant. But perhaps we can see in her also a model of the Church Militant. One line from the Gospels brings this out: Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart (Luke 2:19). She both guards and cultivates. She kept all these things—there is the defensive part, to guard what we have been given. But she also pondered them in her heart—that is, she built them up within her heart. May she, "terrible as an army in battle array," (Song. 6:10) teach us how to fight manfully and build joyfully.

SIDEBARS

So Should Your Lips be Sweetened with Your God

If you love God heartily, my child, you will often speak of him among your relations, household and familiar friends, and that because "the mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment" (Ps. 37:30). Even as the bee touches nought save honey with his tongue, so should your lips be ever sweetened with your God, knowing nothing more pleasant than to praise and bless his Holy Name,—as we are told that when St. Francis uttered the name of the Lord, he seemed to feel the sweetness lingering on his lips, and could not let it go. But always remember, when you speak of God, that he is God; and speak reverently and with devotion,—not affectedly or as if you were preaching, but with a spirit of meekness, love, and humility; dropping honey from your lips (like the bride in the Canticles) in devout and pious words, as you speak to one or another around, in your secret heart the while asking God to let this soft heavenly dew sink into their minds as they hearken. And remember very specially always to fulfill this angelic task meekly and lovingly, not as though you were reproving others, but rather winning them. It is wonderful how attractive a gentle, pleasant manner is, and how much it wins hearts.

Take care, then, never to speak of God, or those things which concern him, in a merely formal, conventional manner; but with earnestness and devotion, avoiding the affected way in which some professedly religious people are perpetually interlarding their conversation with pious words and sayings, after a most unseasonable and unthinking manner. Too often they imagine that they really are themselves as pious as their words, which probably is not the case.
—St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

Further Reading

  • Defenders of the Faith in Word and Deed by Fr. Charles Connor (Ignatius)
  • The Everyday Apostle: Commonsense Ways to Draw Others to Christ by Fr. Edward Garesché (Sophia Institute)
  • How Not to Share Your Faith: the Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic Apologetics by Mark Brumley (available at www.catholic.com)

Fr. Scalia, a native of Virginia, attended the College of the Holy Cross and the North American College. He is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington and is currently assigned as Parochial Vicar of St. Rita parish in Alexandria, Virginia.

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 5.