Many people wonder how we Catholics can still believe given some of the more infamous events in Church History; the classic duo of the Crusades and the Inquisition spring to mind. First, yes, the human members of the Church have made mistakes and lots of them. (See last article on hypocrites in the Church). One only needs to think of the Renaissance Popes who, despite all their misdeeds, never attempted to change Catholic teaching to justify it. Regardless, the Church’s members, today and yesterday, have hurt and turned away many well-meaning people, and that is tragic. The Church is meant to be a haven for all humankind, the mustard seed that grows into a tree large enough for all the birds of the air to nest in.
When approaching historical matters in the Church, particularly controversial ones, two extremes must be avoided: the first is a Catholic triumphalism that seeks to gloss over any real error a member of the Church may have made. We have no reason to do this because we understand that Church members can and do sin while on the path to eternal glory. Second, we have to avoid the opposite extreme of demonizing everything the Church has ever done and leaping on the bandwagon of criticism before giving an honest investigation. For most of these events, hundreds of years have passed, and the history that we learned from a few paragraphs of a high school textbook is woefully over-simplified (not without a few decent reasons) and can tend to distort our view of what actually happened.
To understand history honestly is to try to see through the eyes of the people who experienced it back before it was called “history”, when it was simply their day-to-day lives. The Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc wrote “the most difficult thing in the world in connection with history, and the rarest of achievements, is the seeing of events as contemporaries saw them, instead of seeing them through the distorted medium of our later knowing.”
I’ll start with the Crusades, perhaps the biggest bogeyman in the anti-Catholic rhetorical camp. The commonly received narrative of the Crusades is that they were despicable unprovoked wars of religious aggression, publicly endorsed for the sake of “converting” the Muslims, but actually meant to seize all their territory through colonization.
It is not the place of this essay to take on all of these one by one and separate fact from fiction, but I will throw out a few relevant points:
“The crusaders did not insist on converting those living under their control; rather they fought to defend the Christians already living in the Holy Land and those making pilgrimages there. And as for the colonization or imperialism myth, it is debunked by the reality that the crusaders held only a few cities at any one time and left hardly enough troops to maintain the garrisons let alone expand an empire. The vast majority of the survivors returned home, battered and poorer for their efforts.” (More on the Crusades here)
So how do we approach the Church or any other group while aware of historical difficulties or mistakes?