One of the fascinating discussions prompted by last Sunday’s Oscars fiasco (when actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about Smith’s wife) involves whether and how a man ought to defend his wife’s honor. For many Catholics discouraged by the state of the modern world, and in particular the way in which the two sexes no longer seem to know how to behave toward one another (assuming that moderns will even acknowledge that there are two sexes), it can be easy to look back nostalgically to the days of chivalry—when men weren’t afraid to fight for a woman’s affection in a jousting tournament, or to defend her honor in a duel. Where some saw in Smith’s actions an entitled A-list celebrity getting away with assault on national television, others saw an echo of a golden yesteryear.
But lest we pine too longingly for this medieval notion of chivalry, it’s important to recognize that these values weren’t particularly Catholic. More specifically, inasmuch as the Church spoke on matters like jousting and dueling, it was not to praise the men involved for their bravery, but to condemn these practices as contrary to the gospel. For instance, the Second Lateran Council decreed in 1139:
We entirely forbid, moreover, those abominable jousts and tournaments in which knights come together by agreement and rashly engage in showing off their physical prowess and daring, and which often result in human deaths and danger to souls. If any of them dies on these occasions, although penance and viaticum are not to be denied him when he requests them, he is to be deprived of a church burial.
Less than a century later, in canon 18 of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Church’s condemnation of dueling is likewise reaffirmed. In terms of Church teaching, it was no great mystery whether dueling or jousting tournament was acceptable.
Why, then, are these the images so closely associated with our idea of the knighthood and the medieval world? In part because Church teaching was then, as today, often ignored . . . even by bishops. Take, for instance, the life of William Marshal, First Earl of Pembroke (1146-1219), the loose basis for the Hollywood movie A Knight’s Tale. By his own count, William participated in over 500 tournaments (of the sort expressly forbidden by the Church). At his death, not only did he receive a Church funeral, but the archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Stephen Langton, eulogized him by declaring him “the greatest knight that ever lived.”
Nor did dueling disappear. If anything, it became more of a social institution. At least two sitting British prime ministers (Pitt the Younger in 1798 and Wellington in 1829) were personally involved in duels, the latter of which occurred after England (finally) outlawed dueling. Meanwhile, in America, Alexander Hamilton, whose face appears on the ten-dollar bill, was killed in a duel only three years after his son was killed in a duel. Andrew Jackson, whose face appears on the twenty-dollar bill, killed a man in a duel. Abraham Lincoln, whose face appears on the five-dollar bill, was challenged to a duel (choosing broadswords as his weapons) before his opponent chose to resolve the matter peacefully. As late as 1891, “the vicious custom of dueling,” Pope Leo XIII wrote in Pastoralis Officii, was “being encouraged with greatest forgetfulness of Christian precepts.”
Jousting and (perhaps more obviously) dueling seem clearly impossible to reconcile with Christianity and turning the other cheek. Yet they persisted for centuries. Why? Msgr. Ronald Knox, in his delightful book The Belief of Catholics, points to dueling as a quintessential case of an “erroneous conscience in society at large”—that is, an area in which society not only permits an evil, but proclaims it as good, to such a degree that individual consciences are led astray. Here’s how Knox explains it:
Most of us, in this humanitarian age, would agree that dueling is wrong. We have perhaps forgotten how much the duelist had to say for himself. . . . Society in general had, for many centuries, a false conscience on the subject. And occasionally a speculative theologian would advance the opinion that the duel was not murderous. So challenged, from the sixth century to the nineteenth, the Church has always replied with a condemnation. It is with no pride that a Catholic recalls these facts; it is a melancholy reflection that public opinion can set conscience so long at defiance.
In contrast, Knox points out that some Protestant countries have treated gambling as an intrinsic evil, and it has fallen to the Church to point out that “subject to the claims of his family and other similar claims, a man has a right to venture his money in support of his opinion, though he has not a right to venture his life.”
There are three major lessons to draw from this. The first is that the Church’s critics are right when they say the Catholic Church is not “up to date.” The Church doesn’t neatly fit into the morality of the twenty-first century. But neither did it neatly fit into the morality of the eleventh century, or the first. Whether it’s abortion and contraception, or dueling and jousting, or crucifixion and exposing infants to the elements, there will continually be practices that society accepts (or even praises as morally good!) that are abhorrent to the gospel. As the author of Hebrews points out, after listing the greatest saints in Israel’s history:
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (11:13-16).
We can be comfortably at home in twenty-first-century society or in heaven, but not both. And this leads to the second point: none of us has escaped unscathed the culture in which he was raised. Just as we can look with astonishment at Christians who failed to see the incompatibility of jousting and dueling (and slavery, etc.) with Scripture, it would be prideful to assume that we lack similar blind spots today. It is precisely the role of the Magisterium of the Church, as Knox points out, to point us beyond the comforts of our own parties and prejudices and societies.
The third and final point is simple: as Christians, we should avoid the temptation of idealizing either the past or the future. That’s true both on a societal level and a personal one. What we are called to is the present moment. St. Faustina said it best:
When I look into the future, I am frightened, but why plunge into the future? Only the present moment is precious to me, as the future may never enter my soul at all. It is no longer in my power to change, correct or add to the past; for neither sages nor prophets could do that. And so what the past has embraced I must entrust to God.
O present moment, you belong to me, whole and entire. I desire to use you as best I can.