Onward, Christian Soldier (Not)

When I was confirmed in 1963 as a 12-year-old seventh grader, then-Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Manning bestowed a gentle slap on my face as a sign of my induction as a soldier of Christ. His homily, preached to a pimply gang of barely pubescent Hollywood kids, was a lot less gentle. “You are growing up in a moral cesspool,” he told us. “You are in a war for your immortal souls.” Welcome to the Church Militant.

On that spring day, the President of the United States was a Catholic, and presumed to be a fellow enlistee in that war, though when it came to morals, we would learn later, he might have been fighting on the other side of the cesspool. The nation was already wading into the Big Muddy that was Vietnam; when we were waste-deep, in 1971, my cousin Army 1st Lieutenant Gerald Francis Kinsman (famous in childhood legend for eating baloney strings nobody else wanted) would be listed as MIA and later presumed KIA. His name on Panel 5W Row 45 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the closest I’ve ever come to real war, outside of my father’s tall tales of his WWII exploits that always sounded more like a party on the high seas than being in harm’s way.

In spite of that slap, I am no soldier. Other than a particular fondness for St Joan in Shining Armor, I’ve never felt much of a call to enlist in battles temporal or spiritual. I’m not a pacifist; I recognize that in this broken world defense and delivery from untenable oppression often require–or appear to require–violent response. I am grateful for the service of men and women who take up that responsibility for the rest of us, even when they do it in causes I don’t think would meet even the loosest definition of just war, and I pray that God will keep them safe both from physical harm and from the hardening of the heart that is a necessary weapon on the battlefield but can be an IED back home. And because I am human and vulnerable to the sweet toxic cocktail of pride and rage, I can be as suckered by the lowest patriotic jingoism and the stir of a martial tune as any of those faceless devotees in a Leni Riefenstahl propaganda flick, eyes tearing up with the vision of a Thousand Year Reprieve From Being a Loser, the thought of Going All Apocalyptic on the Asses of Those Who Piss Me Off.

So I can (just barely) understand the appeal to some Catholics of the militaristic tack that Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky took last week in preaching a homily to a men’s retreat. Whipping up the troops for a moral assault on the voting booth in the fall, with the goal of reclaiming the Holy Land of religious freedom from the infidel horde of Sultan Barack Obama, Bishop Jenky threw down the gauntlet.

As Christians we must love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, but as Christians we must also stand up for what we believe and always be ready to fight for the Faith. The days in which we live now require heroic Catholicism, not casual Catholicism. We can no longer be Catholics by accident, but instead be Catholics by conviction. . . . We must be a fearless army of Catholic men, ready to give everything we have for the Lord, who gave everything for our salvation.

Not since Bernard of Clairvaux tore off a piece of his white Cistercian robe, splashed a cross on it with red dye, and waved the flag for all Europe to go a-Crusadin’ has there been such a stump speech. Like Bishop Manning at my Confirmation, Bishop Jenky reminded his listeners that they are living in an era of unparalleled moral cesspooliness. Unlike Bishop Manning, though, Bishop Jenky named names. To a litany of enemies of the Church that includes-but-is-not-limited-to the world, the flesh, and the devil; Judas Iscariot; Roman persecutors; assorted barbarians; Clemenceau the Priest Eater; Bismarck, Hitler, and Stalin, Bishop Jenky added “the entrenched corruption and sheer incompetence of our Illinois state government” and “the calculated disdain of the President of the United States, his appointed bureaucrats in HHS, and . . . the current majority of the federal Senate,” particularly “those politicians who pretend to be Catholic in church.”

There’s lots more in that vein, and a real stemwinder of a conclusion that invokes St Michael the Archangel and his heavenly host of demon-butt kickers. Bishop Jenky signs off with the ancient Christian oorah Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! (Christ wins! Christ reigns! Christ commands!)–oddly enough, the motto of French kings and the Jesuits (though Bishop Jenky himself is a member of the Holy Cross order), and shouted at sundry other times to kick off the French slaughter of the Knights Templar, by Calvin to spur on the massacre of Catholics by Protestants in the Huguenot wars, and as a coronation anthem at the elevation of Pope Pius XII.

I don’t know whether there was an equal-time response provided after Bernard’s speech, or after any of those other orders to Christian soldiers to mount up, but there’s certainly been blowback to Bishop Jenky. There have been calls for the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of the Diocese of Peoria on the grounds that the speech, in naming names, violates IRS rules against politicking by churches. The Jewish Anti-Defamation League issued a statement accusing Bishop Jenky of trivializing the Holocaust by comparing Obama to Hitler. And most recently, a group of faculty and staff from the University of Notre Dame, on whose board of trustees Bishop Jenky sits, has published an open letter calling for the university to cut all ties with him. And, as always these days at the intersection of Church & State, fistfights have broken out in comboxes everywhere.

Me, I think Bishop Jenky should be able to say whatever he wants, and grown-ups should be able to determine whether they want to paint a cross on their Tshirts and enlist, or head on back to the farm because this is not the crusade they are looking for. I’m more and more convinced that tax-exempt status is more trouble than it’s worth for the Church and its related organizations and institutions, and we should either shut up and play by the rules or take the huge financial risk of really separating church from state so we can say and do what we please, but that’s another post. And I think the Notre Dame letter writers have knees as jerky as Jenky’s; they should just be left to cancel each other out, without spilling more umbrage than we’ve already had to mop up this week.

But I have my own answer to Bishop Jenky’s altar call, which he states in the form of conscription, not enlistment:

Now things have come to such a pass in America that this is a battle that we could lose, but before the awesome judgment seat of Almighty God this is not a war where any believing Catholic may remain neutral. This fall, every practicing Catholic must vote, and must vote their Catholic consciences . . .

I say Hell, no, Bishop, I won’t go. I don’t like the c-word, except when it’s Crusader Rabbit. And I reserve the right to be a conscientious objector, a right guaranteed me by millennia of Church teaching. No one can tell me I have to vote, much less whose conscience I have to vote. That doesn’t make me neutral, or casual. It makes me someone who chooses to support a different kind of heroism. The kind demonstrated by Francis of Assisi and his companion Friar Illuminatus when they walked to the Holy Land to engage the Sultan in conversation. The kind demonstrated by Blessed Franz Jagerstatter when he refused to fight in a war his Church told him was just and mandatory, and died rather than compromise his conscience. The kind demonstrated by the peacemakers Jesus blessed, who recognized that it is both far more difficult and far better to love your enemy than to curse him, even though the latter gets you lots of news coverage and the former gets you dead. The kind advocated by Pope Benedict XV, who worked tirelessly for reconciliation among combatants during and after World War I, and whose 1920 pastoral letter Peace, the Beautiful Gift of God contains what I would like to say to all concerned in response to Bishop Jenky’s word war:

Therefore, Venerable Brethren, We pray you and exhort you in the mercy and charity of Jesus Christ, strive with all zeal and diligence not only to urge the faithful entrusted to your care to abandon hatred and to pardon offences; but, and what is more immediately practical, to promote all those works of Christian benevolence which bring aid to the needy, comfort to the afflicted and protection to the weak, and to give opportune and appropriate assistance of every kind to all who have suffered from the war. It is Our especial wish that you should exhort your priests, as the ministers of peace, to be assiduous in urging this love of one’s neighbor and even of enemies which is the essence of the Christian life, and by “being all things to all men” and giving an example to others, wage war everywhere on enmity and hatred, thus doing a thing most agreeable to the loving Heart of Jesus and to him who, however unworthy, holds His place on earth. In this connection Catholic writers and journalists should be invited to clothe themselves “as elect of God, holy and beloved, with pity and kindness.” Let them show this charity in their writings by abstaining not only from false and groundless accusations but also from all intemperance and bitterness of language, all of which is contrary to the law of Christ.

“Wage war everywhere on enmity and hatred”–now there’s a crusade I’ll enlist in, for life.

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