Conservative media were in an uproar last week over the President’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. He said that we see “faith being twisted and distorted … sometimes used as a weapon” and “lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ."
Nearly everyone took the statement to mean “Catholic pot, don’t call the Muslim kettle black.” And they were quick to point out that the “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” were committed 600 to 1000 years ago when everyone was kind of “medieval” anyway. End of story. Only it’s not.
Were the Crusaders plunderers and butchers, distorting Christianity, as the popular view claims? No. Scholar Thomas F. Madden — historian of the Crusades and director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of St. Louis — has waged his own one-man crusade since 9/11 to debunk the popular myths about Catholic Church-sponsored “atrocities” of the 12th to 16th centuries.
That is what gave birth to the Crusades. They were not the brainchild of an ambitious pope or rapacious knights but a response to more than four centuries of conquests in which Muslims had already captured two-thirds of the old Christian world. At some point, Christianity as a faith and a culture had to defend itself or be subsumed by Islam. The Crusades were that defense.
Madden describes the two goals set by Pope Urban II for the Crusades: to rescue fellow Christians in the Middle East who were living in slavery and servitude under Muslim rule and to liberate “Jerusalem and other places made holy by the life of Christ.” Far from being a distortion of Catholicism, the Crusades went to the very heart of the faith, he explains. Quoting a letter from Pope Innocent III to the Knights Templar: “You carry out in deeds the words of the Gospel, ‘Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.’”
Pretty much everything we know about “the Inquisition” is also bunk. In 1998, Pope St. John Paul II, Madden explains, “opened up the archives of the Holy Office … to a team of 30 scholars from around the world.” Their 800-page report was released in 2004. It confirmed the discoveries of many historians from their earlier research in other European archives: “the popular view of the Inquisition is a myth.”
In the Middle Ages, heresy was a crime against the state, punishable by death. It wasn’t the Church who put heretics to death; Pope Lucius III established the Inquisition precisely so that state claims of heresy would not be tried by civil judges who were ignorant of doctrine and indiscriminately found people guilty. Through the Inquisition, accused heretics could be evaluated by competent theologians and in almost all cases be spared a death sentence. While kings, according to Madden, saw heretics as traitors who questioned their authority by divine right, the Church saw them as “lost sheep who had strayed from the fold.”