A popular misconception among right-wing catholics is that the identification of the church on earth as “Church Militant” is somehow a justification for violence and aggression – or, at least, as fellow Patheos writer Angry Staff Officer describes, as a justification for militarist cosplay:
So what is it about these men – many of them priests – who have such an obsession with the military? Or rather, with aspects of the military but not the military itself? Because one thinks they could have just joined; where they would have found that the military is more rules and paperwork than chest-thumping, as the rest of us found. Incidentally, the same goes for the Catholic Church.
No, they like the militant overtones, the trappings of war without the fear of imminent and horrific violence. It makes them feel empowered by the perceived virtue of their cause.
Aside from the fact that they are making fools of themselves, these militarist catholics are also advancing an ethos that is not Christian.
For instance, take right-wing media personality Patrick Coffin. Coffin is already a problematic figure due to his platforming of professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos (whom I would designate as “alt right” except that apparently the mainstream alt right considers him a has-been, and has abandoned him to be collected by catholic right-wing wannabes breathless to keep up with the other ethno-nationalists. This, as they say, is why we can’t have nice things). A few days ago, Coffin Tweeted:
Thanks but pacifism is a satanic belief system designed to hurt innocent people and neuter male courage. Jesus himself told his followers to carry a weapon in Luke 22:13. David slew Goliath with the concealed carry of his day. Etc etc etc.
I don’t want to waste valuable time unpacking everything that is inane in this statement; let’s just focus on this entirely heterodox statement that pacifism is Satanic. Feel free to oppose pacifism, if you like. Feel free to argue about nuances within the church, or even to disagree with the church. But this level of hysterical opposition to pacifism is simply not supported by church teaching. Presenting it as such is gravely dishonest dissent, as well as dangerous, since it’s no light matter to go running around slapping the label “satanic” on anything you don’t like.
Non-violence has its place in our tradition.
The Gospel is clear about Jesus’ call to reject violence. We are admonished to love our enemy,to turn the other cheek. Non-violence is essential to the hagiographies of the martyrs from the early church until today. The early church prior to Constantine tended to regard any kind of force or violence as un-Christian.
Later, the church developed Just War Doctrine to allow for legitimate self-defense and protection of the innocent. And while the teaching as it has developed today emphasizes just war and the right and even duty of authorities to act in defense if all rigorous conditions for moral legitimacy have been met, it also makes provisions for those who choose non-violence:
Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity, provided they do so without harming the rights and obligations of other men and societies. They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.
The church is clear that violence can only be justified as a last resort under very particular conditions, and that non-violence is also morally acceptable. So this obsession with militarism is not only tacky, it is contrary to the moral teachings and traditions of Catholicism.
Today, with new technologies of killing, and imperialist actions on the part of massively powerful nation-states, radical pacifism seems all the more justified. And we have our Catholic pacifist heroes such as Fr. Daniel Berrigan and Dorothy Day. Not everyone may be called to follow in Day’s footsteps, but to call her “satanic” is to spit upon the image of one who, whether she liked it or not, is probably a saint.
But…what about St. Michael and his sword? What about “Church Militant”?
First, an angelic entity is understood in our theology to be spiritual non-corporeal, so if they are depicted as bearing a sword, this is intended to be a metaphor for a very different kind of fight than earthly war. The people who honestly think an angel goes around whacking people with a sword, and who imagine that “church militant” means we’re all supposed to be armed and ready, are falling prey to the kind of literalism that has often stewed in the less-educated backwaters of religious culture.
“Militant” is not intended to mean “actually violent and aggressive.” It has nothing to do with material violence, physical defense, or literal warmongering. Also, by the way, it has nothing to do with manliness, given that in Christ differences of ethnicity and gender are erased.
Rather, “militant” is a metaphor to designate our struggle here on earth against sin and temptation. The Latin word from which it derives, militans, can mean military or belligerent but it can also refer to laboring, serving and struggling. But whether we fight or whether we struggle, our “adversary” is not other human beings, fellow children of God. We are called to struggle against sin and temptation in our own lives.
This includes the temptation to do violence – one which is especially rampant in contemporary American media and entertainment. And which, unfortunately, is being pushed energetically by many in religious media who seem to have made a new industry of trying to convince the faithful that that good is evil, and evil is good.
My own view happens to coincide with the church’s teaching, on this one. Non-violence should, as often as possible, be our go-to, in imitation of Christ and his saints. Violence is not glorious. It is not good. However, in recent months, as I see movements of white supremacy rising again in the US and Europe, I am open to the possibility that there is room for legitimate acts of defense against those who seek only to destroy the innocent.
It’s unfortunate that today so many right wing catholics are siding with these same white supremacists while mocking the ideals that inspired the radical witness of martyrs like Maximilian Kolbe, or activists like Dorothy Day.
image credit: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Dorothy_Day_1916.jpg