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The Crusades and the ‘Evil’ of Christianity

The president of Catholic Answers shares insights into the reality of the Crusades to help the Christian who is confronted with that apologetics conversation-stopper: “What about the Crusades?”


Cy Kellett:
How to handle the challenge of the Crusades with Chris Check right now. Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. Opponents of the Catholic Church often use the Crusades as evidence for the corruption of Catholicism and for the violence of religion in general. Their point is that Christian claims to be a religion of love and peace are debunked by the reality of the Crusades. Not only that, religion itself is revealed to be violent and tribal. How can a person engaged in apologetics respond to the use of the Crusades as evidence against the faith? To help us answer that question, we welcome the President of Catholic Answers, Chris Check. Hi, Chris.

Chris Check:
Cy, thanks for having me on.

Cy Kellett:
There’s three things, maybe four things that always get thrown up. The Crusades, the Inquisition, and I’m probably forgetting one, but-

Chris Check:
Galileo.

Cy Kellett:
Galileo. Those are the three. Yeah, those are the three big-

Chris Check:
And Pope Pius and the Jews, is another one, but that has been so thoroughly debunked.

Cy Kellett:
However, these things are in many ways, especially not just the facts of the matter, but the impression that they’re meant to generate are bunked all over the place. They are bunked. We need to debunk them, because everywhere in modern society they are bunked.

Chris Check:
They are neuralgic topics in Church history that enemies of the church used to discredit her.

Cy Kellett:
All right, so let’s help the apologist who confronts this, “Yeah, what about the Crusades?” Because that’s basically the entirety of the argument, what about the Crusades? So tell me, what about the Crusades?

Chris Check:
Yeah. I wish that it were like one of those theological questions that we could point to a few passages in Scripture or a chapter in the Catechism or a section in the Catechism or just the natural light of human reason, as our friend Karlo Broussard likes to say. Unfortunately, events in history are complex. As you have heard me say, events in history take place at certain times in history, so there is … I know, right?

Cy Kellett:
History goes in order.

Chris Check:
Right. There is no way to have intelligent conversation about events in history unless both sides are willing, insofar as possible, to put themselves in that moment and understand themselves as, or understand those events, as men of that age did. So it does require a certain amount of background, if you will, to get our imaginations around.

Cy Kellett:
What’s the difference between that? In order to be a fair, even to put myself in the place of a fair judge of history, I have to actually know the history in the sense of knowing what those times are and having some sympathy for the people of that time and not just imposing my anachronistic values on that. What’s the difference between that and just making excuses for people?

Chris Check:
Yeah, exactly. Because so few people who are desirous of discrediting the church really want to take the time to understand the event. Instead, they’re just interested in and it really doesn’t take a lot of effort. I can flip on something on the History Channel or go back to Edward Gibbon, for example, both of whom have motives. And it’s the same one, discredit this institution, not-

Cy Kellett:
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by the way. Gibbon’s main work.

Chris Check:
Sure. Right, right.

Cy Kellett:
Christians did it.

Chris Check:
Exactly. Or more recent, Sir Steven Runciman, whose multi volume set of the Crusades, by the way, is a wonderful work of history and fun to read. And in many ways, a good work of scholarship but so thoroughly informed by hatred of the church. So let’s do this, Cy. Why don’t we say what they were.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Chris Check:
Okay. What were the Crusades? Although really when we want to get to this question, the proper question is why. Why were the Crusades or why did the Crusades happen? But we can start by saying what they were. They were expeditions to the Holy Land, beginning with the Council of Clermont in 1095, ending with the fall of Acre in 1291. Now, historians number these Nine Crusades, Eight Crusades, Seven Crusades. There’s some debate there but that’s what they were. They were expeditions mostly by French knights, some Germans. In addition, they had a component of pilgrimage and attached to that pilgrimage, indulgence. Now, of course, that sets off the flags right there.

Cy Kellett:
That’s another thing. Yeah, right. It has an emotional content that’s devoid of any intellectual grasp of what that meant.

Chris Check:
It is important. In fact, that is an example of why, if you can’t put yourself in the heart and mind of the medieval Christian, probably best that you don’t try to talk about this, if you really want to get to the bottom of it. So I recommend the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, a simple little book called, What Were the Crusades? I steal largely from him when I talk about this. Also, Thomas Madden at St. Louis University, another excellent Crusades scholar. Rodney Stark, a non Catholic, his book, God’s Battalions. I would recommend those. All three of these put ourselves, help put the reader in the mind of the medieval man. I think if we want to try to inform our listeners, that’s maybe the direction we want to take this conversation. You’re the host.

Cy Kellett:
No. I would like to that, but let’s start at the beginning then.

Chris Check:
Okay. Well, let me give you an example. I gave a talk on the Crusades one time and a fellow said … I actually kind of went through what I hope we’re going to go through here today. Or what we can take a stab at today, explaining what they were, why they happened, when they happened.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Chris Check:
And then at the end of it, a fellow who really meant well said, “Well, couldn’t we just say that the Crusades were basically like America in World War II going over to save Western Europe from Nazi aggression?” And I said, “No, that’s really a very poor analogy.” And one reason is because at the heart of the Crusade is this spiritual element of pilgrimage and indulgence. Why don’t we start with that? Understanding the state of religion, the state of Christianity at this time.

Cy Kellett:
Okay, fair enough. Let me just get this from you, however, first.

Chris Check:
Okay. Am I being incoherent?

Cy Kellett:
No, no. You’re being completely coherent. The Crusades happened primarily in what we might call the Holy Land, the Levant.

Chris Check:
The Levant.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Chris Check:
I think that word Levant comes into usage after the Crusades, but Holy land.

Cy Kellett:
Right. So why did it happen that the Christian communities that were there in the Levant were peacefully converted by Muslims to Islam and now all that area was under the control of Islam? Why is that?

Chris Check:
Islam is an invented religion in the middle or early part of the 7th century, 630’s or thereabouts. Muhammad isn’t a fool. He takes some heathen Araby here, some Jewish mythology here, some bits and pieces of the gospel, and cobbles it all together, and he creates this religion that in the main is spread by the sword. In fact, his parting speech as recorded by one of the earliest historians is, “Go and fight all men until they say there is no God but Allah.” This is what his followers do because they’re promised a paradise of carnal pleasure, if they die in the service of the religion.

The Holy Land falls to Islam in the early part of the 8th century and then good bits of North Africa. In fact, it’s important to think of this. I know we’re going to talk about religion, but let’s just think about the geography. The Mediterranean world in the mind of the medieval Christian … So even a couple of centuries later after the conquest of Islam and we get all the way up into Tours in the Eighth Century-

Cy Kellett:
Coming up through Spain.

Chris Check:
Up through Spain, right. But in the heart, the memory of a whole and entire Christian world, the whole Mediterranean world being Christian exists in the imagination of the medieval knight or the Frankish night or the common man of France, right. So, that image of a whole Mediterranean Christian world is alive in his imagination. This is the first anachronism that we impose because we think of the Islamic East and the Christian West. But that is not what was existing in the imagination. So, that’s helpful right there.

Now, to the religion specifically, we have a period now in the 11th century … Of course, Rome in the West has fallen for some centuries now. The church is making her way up into France and has been for some time, Clovis, Charlemagne. And yet, the church doesn’t convert, whole and entire, and suddenly the warrior class of France. So we have a man who rides a large horse and kills for his living, the Frankish Knight or the Norman Knight. Norman’s come a little bit later into this story. And the church’s arrival doesn’t suddenly change that but there are things that happen in the 11th century, particularly under the reign of Pope Gregory VII, where slowly that energy is being converted into the service of Jesus Christ.

Cy Kellett:
Chivalry.

Chris Check:
Yes.

Cy Kellett:
Is that the idea?

Chris Check:
Precisely, is starting to come into focus, right? But these things, they develop organically. And then devotions, indulgences being one. And let’s just set that aside for a second, we’ll come to it. But also relics. So the use of relics in devotion, especially under Gregory VII, is starting to come into the practice of the medieval Frenchman. Now, the Relic, par exsalonce, is the Holy land. Because this is where Jesus Christ walked and taught and worked miracles and died and rose from the dead. So now you have the idea of the notion forming in the hearts, cultivated by the church, forming the hearts of Christians cultivated by the church, of graces obtained by contact with relics. And the relic par exsalonce attained in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So now pilgrimages are starting to come into practice.

Cy Kellett:
So as a Christian, say I’m in Italy somewhere. So it wouldn’t have been called Italy at the time, but say I’m somewhere-

Chris Check:
On the Italian peninsula.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. And I decided to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Chris Check:
Right.

Cy Kellett:
What’s that like, say in the 10th Century?

Chris Check:
In the middle of the 10th or 11th Century. It’s a precarious thing because sure there are Christians there with their shrines in the Holy Land, but it is under Islamic rule. And sometimes Islamic rule is tolerant and sometimes it is a tyrannical. But nonetheless, pilgrimages at great risk to their well being and continue to make these pilgrimages. And it may simply not just be Muslim tyranny. It could just simply be bandits by the side of the road preying on pilgrims. So the notion of relics, the notion of pilgrimage is coming into focus. And the church is using these things to bring into restraint, to bring under control, that energetic heart of the medieval knight now.

So, that’s kind of the religious situation there. And frankly, if I’m in conversation with someone about the Crusades and he isn’t prepared to admit this … And by the way, this is established Jonathan Riley-Smith and other historians since him, using source based history, demonstrate this from wills and bequests and correspondence that crusaders wrote. So we know this, we know this exists. So now what’s happening? Okay. So let’s go to the political history. We’ve talked about the geography of the Mediterranean world, the religious sense of the people at the time. Now there’s one more key element and that’s the political history. 1071, sorry to have a specific date in there, but we got to know this. Battle of Manzikert. Rome in the East or what we call Constantinople-

Cy Kellett:
Or Byzantium, sometimes.

Chris Check:
Byzantium, which is a word that they would not like to have heard. They lose big at the Battle of Manzikert to the forces of what become the Turks, the Seljuk Turks. The forces of Islam will say for the sake of this very broad brush outline. And large portions of Anatolia that were used for agriculture and for the growing of livestock and cattle and horses are now lost to Islam.

Cy Kellett:
Right. They’re lost from Christian Europe to Islam, right?

Chris Check:
Yeah. And see, here’s another part of that problem. This is why I keep coming back with geography because we think of Christian West Islamic East to the person sitting in 2020 right now, Turkey is Islamic, right?

Cy Kellett:
No, no.

Chris Check:
It was not. It was Roman and it was Christian.

Cy Kellett:
The greatest church in Christendom is there.

Chris Check:
Hagia Sophia.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Chris Check:
Yes. So, and this is alive in the imaginations of those Frankish nights. So now you have, Alexis the emperor. His empire now is largely confined to the walls of what is inside the walls of Constantinople. The greatest walls in history. By the way, you can see ruins of them if you go to Constantinople or what they call Istanbul today. He looks out across those fertile plains of Anatolia and he sees Islam. Who does he call? Well, at this time in history who is ascendant politically, Pope, the papacy. Yes.

Cy Kellett:
If you need help, call the Pope.

Chris Check:
Now, it hasn’t always been this way and it won’t always be this way. It certainly isn’t that way today, but in political history, in ascendancy is the Pope. So I’m sorry to-

Cy Kellett:
No, no. So you get a sense of the entire Mediterranean was once Rome. Rome becomes Christian. You have this very powerful Christianity of deeply intellectual and beautiful Christianity of North Africa is overrun. The Christianity of the Levant is overrun and then we’re coming right into what has been the heart of Christendom. Turkey.

Chris Check:
Yes, yes.

Cy Kellett:
This is the heart of Christendom. This is where St Paul preached. This is where the Hagia Sophia is and now it’s gone.

Chris Check:
As you have said, Christianity’s origins are in Asia.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, right.

Chris Check:
So and by the way, Cy, now we are also coming in the middle of the 11th century to the CISM, right?

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Chris Check:
The final CISM between East and West, I mean it’s so hard to mark this today. There are dozens that precede this and this is a marker 1050 or 1051, whatever the date is, that historians use now as a matter of convenience. But it wasn’t as if Alexis and Urban by the time the conversation gets started or Hildebrand before Gregory VII. But by the time that conversation could even have a clear idea, the Pope and the emperor in the East, they don’t even have a clear idea of what the relationship is. Do your priests mention me at Mass, for example, is one of the questions in their correspondence that comes up? Well, no they don’t but does that mean we’re in CISM and the Pope’s answering, “Well, I’m not actually sure.”

But prior to this, East and West had been united. And Cy, if you go to Sicily, as all of the Focus listeners must do before they die. And look at the Monreale, which is a Norman Cathedral outside of Palermo, on the mountain north of Palermo. I think it’s north and or South, whichever. But anyway, outside the city. And you see this magnificent Norman, if you will, Gothic Cathedral. The interior of it is completely decorated with Greek mosaics, by Greeks. And when you go in there, you see East and West perfectly united in this structure. So, I can’t even talk for three or four hours to properly give what someone who would just go and see this Cathedral or at least look up Monreale and see the union of East and West. And so, that’s what existed. So now Alexis is calling the Pope, who is in political ascendancy at this time. And he said, “I need help, I need help.”

Cy Kellett:
And if you don’t help me, you’re going to need help pretty soon, too.

Chris Check:
Okay, very well.

Cy Kellett:
If I fall, you have nothing between you and this massive military culture that’s coming for you.

Chris Check:
Now, Urban II has a problem on his hands. He understands it’s a political problem, Pope Urban II, that he needs to help Constantinople or Rome in the East, Byzantium, whatever you want to call it. How is he going to get these Frankish Knights to go and help? Because there is tension here between East and West, between France and-

Cy Kellett:
Latinate and Greek Christianity.

Chris Check:
Yeah, yeah. So what does he do? Well, it culminates his strategy. Culminates in the Council of Claremont in 1095. Look it up if I get the date wrong, I’m sorry, I think it’s 1095. And he goes there and he reads accounts of what is going on in the Holy Land and the accounts describe the treatment of Christians. And one of them says, they take the Christians, they perforate the navel, they spill out the intestines, they tie the intestines to a stake and then they drive the man around the stake until all of his intestines are spilled out and wound around the stake. And they forcibly circumcised the Christians and put the blood in the Holy Water fonts. And they’re desecrating the altars. And these are reports that he was hearing.

I mean some people say, is this really what was going on? I will say this, they really were the reports that Urban was hearing. So some kind of violence against Christians. Some of it probably quite brutal, was taking place. Now he goes to Clermont and France, and this is the account that he gets these French Knights. Now these men, as I said, these were not namby pamby men. They’re only recently out of the woods themselves. They basically had been killing for a living. So the Pope is making a strategic decision here or a morally strategic decision. And he’s saying, “Listen, I know the kind of lives that you guys lead and you are going to have to atone for your lives of violence and brutality. And here’s a way that you can put your trade of war fighting in the service of the church. Because they’re going to have to go through Constantinople to get there. And so he calls the First Crusade.

Cy Kellett:
And what year is that? The First Crusade?

Chris Check:
Well, by the time they get to Jerusalem, what is it, 1091 or something like that. But he calls that First Crusade. And there are marks of the Crusade, right? So the soldiers, the Knights, take a vow. That is ecclesiastically binding, right? It is called by the Pope. The Pope is the one who calls it. So its Papal approval. There’s another one of the signs. There are special privileges and protections that the church says, “Your property will be safe. You are absolved from your debts until you can return to pay them.” Things of this nature, right?

But most important of all, the fourth mark is as an indulgence that attaches to this pilgrimage. So it is an armed pilgrimage. Now, I know we took a long time to get there and probably even here we’re truncating things a bit.

Cy Kellett:
But to answer the question, this is what a Crusade was.

Chris Check:
This is what it was, it was an armed pilgrimage. Well, it isn’t like American’s going to protect or free Western Europe from is Nazi tyranny. Okay, very well. There’s a political element to this to be sure, but it is informed by a spiritual exercise.

Cy Kellett:
And it’s not just an outbreak of violence that’s rooted in affluence in Europe. Like, now we can do this. It’s related to actual historical events that are going on. A real belief that pilgrims are facing persecution and oppression and danger in going to the Holy Land. And an actual taking by Islamic armies of what has always … The place where Christianity was first called Christianity.

Chris Check:
Yes.

Cy Kellett:
That’s what’s gone. So this is not some distant recollection. As you said, “It’s a few hundred years, but these men can remember because they’ve been taught that all of this Mediterranean was a Christian place at one point.” And it didn’t fall because they got the Internet, it fell because men with swords came and destroyed that Christendom.

Chris Check:
Yes, yes. Well, to your point about affluence to be sure. France, Europe, Western Europe, is coming into the medieval system that will make a noble class wealthy. But it took an extraordinary amount of money and resources to be able to go on Crusade. So a Frankish Knight or a Norman Knight, who would sometimes effectively have to mortgage vast portions of his wealth. So one of the theories that Sir Stephen Runciman is argued this, that basically, these men were going to the Holy Land to get extremely wealthy and live lives in Oriental splendor. No, you went bankrupt going on these things and there was a chance that you were going to die. And by the way, once you had fulfilled the obligation of the pilgrimage, what did you want to do?

You wanted to go home. You wanted to go back to France, right? This is why the military religious orders get started because the church begins to see … Bernard of Clairvaux, of course, is instrumental here in calling for a new Knighthood. You need men who aren’t married. You need men who, by the way, in their lives make manifest this union of the spiritual life and the political action. And so they become the Templars, The Knights of Saint John, who are now the Knights of Malta and then the Teutonic Knights. There was a German order, as well.

But they become the standing army, if you will, to continue to protect pilgrims going to the Holy Land and to try to prop up or hold up what became known as the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, though that was always a close run thing and it didn’t last.

Cy Kellett:
So are you arguing then that the Christians are really blameless when it comes to what I mean … You’ll hear about certain massacres, those things certainly happened there. Does the motive, especially the original motive early in the Crusades, does it maybe blanket or cover over what looks to the modern crimes that happened?

Chris Check:
Well, in Christian morality, Cy, we judge motives, right? And in fact, or God does. Shall we say cover, I think that sounds like making excuses. We’re there atrocities or excesses of brutality that were perpetrated by Christians during the Crusades. The answer to this question is, absolutely yes, there were.

Cy Kellett:
Right. But at least to address that, what about the Crusades challenge?

Chris Check:
The one French Monarch who is a saint-

Cy Kellett:
Louis.

Chris Check:
Yeah, was a great Crusader and he died on Crusade in Tunis, taking the North African route. And he wrote the most beautiful letter to his son. It is the great letter of fathers to sons.

Cy Kellett:
So, find it. You can-

Chris Check:
Yeah. Dig up St Louis’ letter to his son that he wrote on Crusade as he was dying there.

Cy Kellett:
St Louis, King of France.

Chris Check:
Right.

Cy Kellett:
They should name a mission after him.

Chris Check:
I think so. How about one close to us?

Cy Kellett:
There’s one in my town.

Chris Check:
I know. Jonathon Riley Smith. What were the Crusades? It’ll take you two days to get through. You can read it in any evening. It’s a slender little book. I think our friends at Ignatius press publish it. If you want to go a little deeper, Thomas Madden from St Louis University or Rodney Stark. Read these books, turn the arguments into your own language. Don’t be perplexed or put off by people who come to you with the motive to discredit the church and not to learn something.

Cy Kellett:
All right, and sometime we’ll talk then about some of the others, the inquisitions, Galileo, that kind of stuff.

Chris Check:
Anything. Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
All right. Chris Check is President of Catholic Answers. Thank you very much, Chris.

Chris Check:
Cy, thank you.

Cy Kellett:
And thank you to all of our listeners. Thank you for joining us on Catholic Answers Focus. It really helps us if you go over to Apple podcasts and give us a five star rating or a good review or both and you can do that wherever you get your podcasts. Let your friends know about Focus. We are trying to grow this podcast and we can’t do it without your help. We’ll see you-

Chris Check:
I’m going to go do that right now. Can I give us a five star review? Is that permitted? We’ll take that up on another Focus.

Cy Kellett:
That is a moral conundrum, right there.

Chris Check:
Can you review your own podcast? What does the catechism say about that?

Cy Kellett:
We’ll see you next time, God willing on Catholic Answers Focus.

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