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Saddle-Up your High Horse! Time to Shoot Down Myths about the Crusades, the Inquisition & the War on Women

Crusades – Siege of Constantinople


Susan E. Wills - published on 02/08/15

What you need to know to refute these canards against the Church

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.

The Crusades

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.  

With enormous energy, the warriors of Islam struck out against the Christians shortly after Mohammed’s death. They were extremely successful. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt — once the most heavily Christian areas in the world — quickly succumbed. By the eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered all of Christian North Africa and Spain. In the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), which had been Christian since the time of St. Paul. The old Roman Empire, known to modern historians as the Byzantine Empire, was reduced to little more than Greece. In desperation, the emperor in Constantinople sent word to the Christians of western Europe asking them to aid their brothers and sisters in the East.

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.’”

The Inquisition

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.”

Most people accused of heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentences suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. … Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to secular authorities. … Despite popular myth, the Inquisition did not burn heretics. … The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.

Much later, however, when Inquisitions were taken over by civil authorities, the forgiveness and mercy shown by the Church no longer prevailed.

“The War on Women” Redux

The “War on Women” is included here as the latest baseless canard against the Church. Because Catholic teaching opposes abortion and contraception, the Church has become the prime target of radical feminists, progressives, libertines, academia, the media, the Administration and others.

When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated that condoms were not the solution to the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, he was called “horrifically ignorant” and was blamed for the continent’s AIDS deaths (as if all AIDS deaths were occurring among observant Catholics who rejected condoms in obedience to Church teaching — the very group at lowest risk of AIDS as they’d be likely to abstain from sex before marriage and remain faithful to their spouse).

By opposing Obamacare’s assault on religious freedom by forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives in their employees’ health coverage, the Church is accused of waging a “war on women.” By opposing taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood — the country’s most prolific killer — the Church is accused of conducting a “war on women.”

In the last election cycle, candidates who defended the religious freedom of Catholic institutions and individuals to not be forced to provide “benefits” they considered immoral, on First Amendment grounds, were also part of the “war on women,” a false narrative that some believe will be resurrected in the next election cycle.

Obamacare, and not the Church, is in many ways the real villain in the “war on women.” Contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilization all serve to disrupt the healthy functioning of a woman’s reproductive system and carry numerous risks, not the least of which is this: A  2011 survey looking into “work/life balance,” found that the unhappiest profile among white-collar workers is “a 42 year old, unmarried woman with a household income under $100 thousand, working in a professional position (i.e. as a doctor or a lawyer).” Yet, the sterile career woman — unencumbered by husband and kids — is precisely the model to which that the National Organization for Women and the Fund for a Feminist Majority think women should aspire.

There’s another obvious reason why critics of the Catholic Church should find a different target for their vitriol. The Church is arguably the single largest charitable organization on planet Earth — feeding, clothing, sheltering, healing, educating, and ministering to the needy of the world for almost two millennia.

So is it too much to expect that the President and media would do a little fact-checking from time to time?

Susan Wills is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

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