Swimming the Tiber 32: Some Damn Fool Idealistic Crusade

I’m not planning on delving into the Crusades very much. I’ve studied ecclesiastical history, but I’m not a historian, and certainly not with a focus on the Crusades. I think just war theory is important to be aware of, but I’m not an expert. Even if I were, I couldn’t make you an expert in a single blog post. And the more you read my posts about the scandals of the Church, the more you are likely to find the same explanation for each of them (<clickbait>it may surprise you, but it’s actually obvious!</clickbait>).

The Crusades

First, a glimpse at the history of the Crusades. You may recall that the Roman Empire, once covering about four-fifths of Alexander the Great’s empire, was by the end of the first millennium AD split into two empires (one centered in Rome, the other in Constantinople). In Rome, the Pope led the Latin-based western Church (the Roman Catholic Church). In the East, a final schism in 1054 separated out the patriarchs of that region from Rome’s authority. By 1095, both the Church and the Roman Empire had been split in twain, but both were threatened by the expansions of Islamic power. The Islamic empire had, under the Umayyad Caliphate two hundred years earlier, grown from Arabia to stretch to twice the size of Alexander’s empire. By the late 11th century, it was pressing on the borders of a weakened Rome.

In 1095, the Byzantine Empire was struggling with the expansion of the Turks and requested military aid from the West. Pope Urban II preached (especially in the Council of Clermont) on the importance of reacquiring pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land and supporting Constantinople against Islamic invasion. The first response was a crusade of impoverished people, probably eager to serve the Church and get remission for their sins; these people, unfortunately, lacked leadership and massacred Jewish communities en route to the Holy Land. In time, there was more organization, and the First Crusade began in earnest. By 1099, the Crusaders had sacked Jerusalem, where they slaughtered at least 3000 people, which was quickly exaggerated both by proud Latin sources and aghast Muslim ones. At any rate, the holy city was drenched in blood and littered with corpses, but the Crusade had been a success–Christians once again controlled the Holy Land.

Fortunately for the Crusaders, the Islamic empire had fractured. Sunnis of the east and Shia of the west were at odds, and there was no organized counterattack for the moment. Eventually, though, Muslim forces began to take back the “Crusader states” and by the mid-12th century, the Second Crusade had begun as an effort to retake the area. Of course, this resulted in more massacres of innocent Jewish bystanders in the Rhineland (which St. Bernard of Clairvaux, at least, disapproved of vehemently). The Second Crusade was ultimately unsuccessful.

Shortly after, Saladin (the sultan of Egypt and Syria) led the caliph of Baghdad and Sunni Islam in a campaign that eventually saw Jerusalem fall. Pope Gregory VIII initiated the Third Crusade in 1187 to take it back–but the Crusaders never did. Despite advances under King Richard of England especially, the Crusaders ultimately came up short of their goal. A truce was negotiated to allow access for pilgrimages. A few more half-hearted attempts were made, but also failed.

It did not take long for Pope Innocent III to begin preaching the Fourth Crusade in 1200. This was, by far, the most disastrous crusade of all. The Crusaders quickly realized they lacked the manpower and funds to travel to Jerusalem, so they went to Constantinople instead. They conquered it–twice. The second time, they sacked it, pillaged it, and slaughtered its people. (You may recall that the First Crusade was ostensibly to support Constantinople against Turkish invaders. See how far we have fallen.) They never even tried to go to Jerusalem. Pope Innocent, for his part, excommunicated all of them.

There were more Crusades, but they’re usually skipped (for good reason). The Fifth did little. The Sixth only accomplished an unpopular treaty. The Seventh and Eighth were both led by King Louis IX–the Seventh targeted Egypt and failed; the Eighth targeted Tunis and failed. The Ninth Crusade was led by Prince Edward of England and resulted in a ten-year truce only. Thus, in 1272, the Crusades came to a close.

Some important things to note: (1) Lots of bad things happened during the Crusades. No one disputes this. (2) The religious fervor for the Crusades was accompanied by promises of forgiveness (via plenary indulgences, among other things) and the prospect of financial and political gain (a great general could gain a princedom in the Crusader states, for example). These provided further impetus, and the non-religious reasons often took precedence (especially, for example, in the Fourth Crusade).

Just War Theory

Just war theory is the examination of what constitutes (you guessed it!) a just war. The just war doctrine lays out the detailed results of that examination in practice by the Catholic Church. Just war theory predates Christianity, finding its roots in Roman politics (and the casus belli or cause of war), but most of its history lies with Christian theologians and ethicists. The phrase is first used in a Christian context in St. Augustine’s tome, De Civitate Dei (On the City of God), but Augustine does not lay out a set of regulations for determining whether a war is just. That takes another 900 years.

St. Thomas Aquinas writes three requirements for a just war in his Summa Theologiae:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says: “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says: “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says:1 “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says: “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
Second Part of the Second Part, Question 40, Article 1

Since then, the doctrine has been refined by the Church. The relevant paragraph of the Catechism reads as follows:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Catechism of the Catholic Church,
Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 2, Article 5, Paragraph 2309

Now, we are free to evaluate retrospectively whether any of the Crusades met these measurements, but we must remember that (for the most part) these measurements did not exist during the Crusades. Aquinas lived in the 13th century, and his writings would not have been widespread early enough in his lifetime to judge any of the Fourth through the Ninth crusades on these merits. The just war doctrine proper, from the Catechism, is an even more recent delineation (20th century for its current wording). These measurements are much more appropriately applied to modern militaristic action and war. (The astute reader will have difficulty calling some recent wars “just” under these circumstances.)

So how does this apply to the Crusades? Well, it doesn’t quite. The First Crusade is probably the best candidate for passing the test, but many of the rest certainly do not. There is one important thing to consider alongside the Crusades, and I’ve already touched on it a few times: As I’ve mentioned before, the Church contains both saints and sinners, both the wheat and the chaff. Whether we should hold the wheat responsible for the chaff is up to you, but most of us do not condemn the holy angels for the actions of Satan.

I could also talk about intention (no one leading the charge wanted innocents to be slaughtered, but greed took precedence over piety in many cases) or the surge in vocations and holy orders that accompanied the Crusades (holy wars reinvigorated the interest of the laity in serving the Church), but that doesn’t change what happened. Some good things did come from the Crusades, but so did bad–but throughout all the wickedness done by people, we trust the Church never to falter. The gates of hell will not overpower her.

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1 Technically not to be found in St. Augustine’s writings.

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