Confessions of a Crusader

Catholics should be able to understand the Crusades and defend them appropriately.

Crusades don't just head eastward; this 1882 painting by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz depicts the capitulation of Granada.
Crusades don't just head eastward; this 1882 painting by Francisco Pradilla Ortiz depicts the capitulation of Granada. (photo: Register Files)

As an alumna of a Catholic high school with the Crusader mascot, I have grave misgivings about Holy Cross College’s recent decision—and their reasoning for the decision—to eliminate the image of the Knight from their logo while keeping the Crusader mascot name. As their most recent announcement states in part:

". . . the visual depiction of a knight, in conjunction with the moniker Crusader, inevitably ties us directly to the reality of the religious wars and the violence of the Crusades. This imagery stands in contrast to our stated values.

"Over the coming months, the College will gradually phase out the use of all knight-related imagery."

In a previous statement announcing the results of study and discussion regarding the Crusader mascot, the College averred that “While we acknowledge that the Crusades were among the darkest periods in Church history . . .” they were proposing a more positive image for a Holy Cross Crusader as a defender of “human rights, social justice and care for the environment; for respect for different perspectives, cultures, traditions and identities; and for service in the world, especially to the underserved and vulnerable.”

Both the comments about the Crusades and knighthood reflect simplistic and reductionist thinking unworthy of an institution of higher learning. Not all Crusaders were knights and not all knights were Crusaders. Even though Holy Cross does not clearly state which Crusades they are referring to—the Crusades in the Holy Land? Those against Cathars in the south of France? Or those against the pagans along the Baltic Sea in northern Europe?—I presume they mean the Crusades in the Holy Land.

If Holy Cross is thinking about the medieval Crusades in the Holy Land, that period of the Crusades is not as dark as Holy Cross says it is, indicating a misunderstanding of the Crusades as religious wars and adopting an unhistorical view of these complex events. If we define a religious war as a war fought by adherents of one religion to force those in another religion to convert, the Crusades were not religious wars. Even the wars of religion in France or the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries were fought for other motivations, like power and territory. The Crusades were not wars fought to force Arabs to become Christians; they were wars fought to allow Christians to be Christians in the Holy Land, and for Christians to be able to travel freely on pilgrimage to visit the places where Jesus taught and healed and walked.

The Crusades of the Middle Ages, as Thomas F. Madden stated in a June 2009 review of a book by the great scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith, all met the requirements of a Just War because they were organized in response to attacks on Christians. There were three Crusades promoted by the Church, marked with the badge of a pilgrimage, undertaken as penitence, and rewarded by indulgences for the remission of temporal punishments for confessed and forgiven sins:

"The First Crusade was called in 1095 in response to the recent Turkish conquest of Christian Asia Minor, as well as the much earlier Arab conquest of the Christian-held Holy Land. The second was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Edessa in 1144. The third was called in response to the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem and most other Christian lands in the Levant in 1187."

In each Crusade, the kings and knights and others who went to defend Catholics in those lands risked their lives and fortunes, rarely if ever benefiting from any booty or riches. As Madden points out, if we don’t understand that the Crusades were not only Just Wars but were also Holy Wars, Catholics and others will not understand them at all. Catholics should be able to understand the Crusades in the Holy Land and defend them appropriately.


Justice and Respect for the Past

As anyone who studies any period of human history knows, the story of any event, any cause, any movement, and the attempt to explain it is complicated, complex and difficult. That’s why historians and biographers write so many books about monumental subjects through the ages. In the history of the United States, we will continue to debate the American Revolution, the founding of our country’s federal government, our Civil War and the Reconstruction, our involvement in World War I, the Great Depression, our entry into and strategies in World War II, the Vietnam War, etc., etc. We find heroes with feet of clay and villains we might even sympathize with. No one is completely perfect and no one is completely corrupt. When we pretend that they were, we are not reflecting on history correctly at all. When we pretend that one side was always right and the other was always wrong, we are oversimplifying our interpretation of history.

It is justice to see the past in its own context, to understand the motivations of men and women of the past according to their milieu, their beliefs and circumstances. We may disagree with them and argue that they were wrong, that their cultural beliefs about the human person and religion, for example, were misguided: future generations may disagree with us and argue that our cultural beliefs about the human person and religion are wrong too. Perhaps we believe that Christians in the Middle Ages erred on the side of being too strict and too certain about their ability to discern and defend the truth; if they could see us they might believe that we err on the side of being too lax and too uncertain about our ability to discern and defend the truth.

Perhaps we don’t understand that people who believed that the Holy Land, which is holy because Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose from the dead there, would be willing to travel thousands of miles and fight to defend that territory. But in the cause of understanding the past, we should try. Perhaps even in the cause of “respect for different perspectives, cultures, traditions and identities” we should try to look at the Crusades as the knights and kings and popes in that time did.

Individual Crusaders committed atrocities but that does not mean that the Crusades were acts of atrocity as a whole. All wars, including Just Wars, inflict damage and violence. If we reject the image of the medieval knight because he represents the violence of the Crusades, then we should reject the image of the American revolutionary era Patriot soldier (Holy Cross’s athletic programs are in the Patriot League) or the U.S. Marine because they represent acts of violence and horror, which certainly occurred in the War for Independence and other wars.

Having read Thomas F. Madden and Jonathan Riley-Smith’s books, I am proud to call myself a Crusader. I hope my high school alma mater never changes our mascot, and I hope that Holy Cross teaches a better history lesson in the classroom than they do in their media releases.