Saint Martin of Tours and the Mythos of Militarism

Saint Martin of Tours and the Mythos of Militarism November 12, 2013

Attending daily Mass this morning, I was reminded of two observances taking place today, in an ironic intersection of liturgical and national calendars.  For the Catholic Church, it is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a 4th-century convert who experienced an irreconcilable tension between his Christian faith and his career as a soldier.  Meanwhile, in the United States, Veterans’ Day is being celebrated, and along with it the broader mythos that is a formative part of the culture – and cultus – of any major world military power.

The irony of this juxtaposition would not have been evident from this morning’s Mass had I not been looking for it.  The priest (who, to compound the irony, is Ugandan) began his homily with a biography of St. Martin, mentioning his departure from the Roman army by telling us simply that he was “discharged” and told his former commander that he would now be serving him in a different way.  The priest then transitioned into a list he had taken from the internet of 10 ways to observe Veterans’ Day – which, need we be reminded, is not a liturgical holiday and is of course not observed by the universal Church.  It took me until number two, “display the American flag”, to decide I could not listen anymore.  Not all this.  Not in church.  I am generally not in favor of walking out of Mass in protest, believing instead that the catholic thing to do is to give precedence to my devotion to the Church over my personal complaints.  But as catholicity was already being drowned out by more nationalistic priorities, I recognized that this was one of those rare cases in which it would have been dishonest of me to continue to participate.  So I went out.

By the time I had prayed a couple decades of the rosary to calm myself down, the Mass was over, so I went back inside and spoke to the priest, asking him why he had devoted all that time during Mass to the observance of a military holiday.  He asked me for further explanation and listened kindly and attentively.  We talked for awhile, prayed together, and wished each other peace.  But something in our conversation, some aim at understanding one another, was missed.

When he spoke of the people he sometimes visits at the VA hospital, their sufferings in body and mind, and their need for compassion rather than condemnation, I told him I completely agree.  And I do.  The difference I tried inadequately to articulate is between the Church’s ministry of compassion to those who have been wounded by war and other violence (including by actively participating in it, which can leave the deepest wounds of all), and the sacralization of a nationalistic narrative that glorifies the beast that wounded them.

That difference exists precisely because the Church professes the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of every human being, even – or perhaps especially – if they have known profoundly dehumanizing experiences.  I would no sooner deny military veterans (a few of whom I count as friends) the respect owed to that human dignity than I would anyone else.  I can even see some good intentions in the mythic stories repeated on days like this, as we want so badly to derive some meaning from their woundedness that we dress it in vaguely heroic language and tell ourselves they have sacrificed for some nobler cause.  But is romanticizing the altar of militarism on which so many of our fellow citizens have been sacrificed really the best way to honor their humanity?

St. Martin represents a different kind of sacrifice: following his conscience at the cost of his career, giving the needy (literally) the shirt off his back, living in humble simplicity – in short, the life-giving sacrifice of service to Christ and his presence in others.  It is this example that the universal Church, across all nations, exalts today.

St. Martin of Tours, pray for us.  Oh, pray for us.

"I knew a painter who said that Titian was the greatest painter of all time. ..."

Scattering Blossoms, Fallen Leaves: Titian in ..."
"How jaded must I be to feel the words of bishops against any atrocity today ..."

US Bishops Speak on Gun Violence
"I was also thinking of a song I heard, and in fact misheard, in childhood, ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."
"I can actually see this text being read in two very opposite ways. Unfortunately it ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • frjohn81506

    My comment for today’s homily:

    St Martin would say the best way to honor our veterans is to stop making more.

  • Conservative Catholics have long seen in our military a bulwark against undesirable trends in society. It’s the “God, country and Notre Dame” mindset writ large. In the background is the old “just war” theory, even though few of the actual wars we have fought could conceivably be classified as just.

    The aggressive political correctness that is becoming institutionalized in our military these days may give its Catholic cheerleaders occasion to rethink their uncritical support. Perhaps it will even occur that while Jesus said nothing at all about the hot-button causes high on their agenda, he did express some reservations about violence, and–as St. Martin realized–there is no evidence he made an exception for violence carried out in the name of the state.

    • Julia Smucker

      Ron, I agree with everything you say here except the first word. Militaristic cheerleading may be a favorite pastime of the far right, but that doesn’t make it “conservative” except in the most superficial sense.

      More to the point, though, I think the phenomenon you’re describing is largely rooted in the history of Catholics in America struggling to come to terms with finding themselves a despised minority – or rather to get out of that situation as quickly as possible by trying desperately to prove how American we are. That’s been the big mistake all along.

  • Roger

    Some people seem to think that by honouring veterans, we are glorifying war. That is never the case – we honour those who gave their time and those who gave their lives to preserve our freedom and/or the freedom of our allies.

    Granted, while some wars may not have been warranted, there are exceptions that warrant going to war (it is always a last resort). To say you’re always against war, is as foolish as wanting to go to war at the drop of a hat.

    Yours truly,
    A “conservative” Catholic

    • I have no problem honoring those who thought they were doing the right thing by serving in America’s wars, but for the most part at least, it is demonstrably false that they “gave their time and . . . their lives to preserve our freedom and/or the freedom of our allies.”

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thank you Ron: my feelings exactly.

  • I suggest, Julia, that you mull over the words of John Ruskin

    Philosophically, it does not, at first sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavored to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honor than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier . . . For the soldier’s trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honors it for. A bravo’s trade is slaying, but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honors the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless as he may be . . . our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact — of which we are well assured — that put him in a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may be put to him at any moment — and has beforehand taken his part — virtually takes such part continually — does, in reality, die daily.
    –John Ruskin, Unto This Last

    Ruskin is clearly suggesting that, in the context of a JUST WAR, the honourable soldier is a CHRIST FIGURE—that he IMAGES CHRIST TO US.

    And if that doesn’t convince you of how simplistic your reflexively negative attitude to the ancient Christian tradition of “just war” is, I suggest that you read this article very, very carefully:

    Your priest was perfectly justified in honouring brave American soldiers in his homily; he could—and should—have easily coupled it, though, with a forthright attack on the Republican Party’s cheapening of it by their cheerleading for war in Iraq, and, now, for rejection of demarche with Iran. But I guess the “Republican Party on its knees” under Dolan wouldn’t cotton to that, now would it?

  • Chris Sullivan

    I think Julia has identified one of the key questions facing the Church, and one very much at the heart of Pope Francis: how to preach the truth of the gospel in a social climate which is not always open to hearing it while also presenting the necessary face of mercy, compassion, acceptance, tolerance, humility, and dialogue ?

    I guess that’s something we all struggle with at times.

    God Bless

  • Chris Sullivan

    The Just War is not in the gospel, but is contrary to it. Cardinal Ratzinger publicly stated that:

    given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a “just war.”

    The Church has never defined the so-called “Just War” nor found any wars to be “Just Wars”.

    If the essence of being a solider is the supposed claim to give up one’s life, then today that “honour” would have to fall to the civilian causalities of war who far exceed those of soldiers. What is the essence of the military is to use violence, to maim, destroy, and kill – many other professions sacrifice life eg firemen without any involvement in killing.

    God Bless

    • The Just War is not in the gospel, but is contrary to it.

      Then why did Christ heal the centurion’s servant? If there were no possibility of the centurion’s profession being honorable or just, surely the Lord would have refused.

      Christ also said, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” The leaders of any state have a right to call upon its able-bodied and capable members to help to defend it against aggression. Also, those who are thus called upon should not be blamed for the bad or mendacious leadership that dictates to them; they may only question what is clearly, to common understanding, a “war crime” or a murder.

      The Church has never defined the so-called “Just War” nor found any wars to be “Just Wars”.

      But several doctors of the Church have theorized that a war COULD possibly be “just.” And Ratzinger’s opinion is just that–an opinion, and not a teaching of the Magisterium–and cannot be held to supercede two thousand years of moral theology regarding “just” and “unjust” wars. We have only an obligation to LISTEN to ecclesiastical hierarchs in forming our consciences, unless they are proclaiming dogma. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were clearly wrong about “just war,” and a lot of other things.

      • Julia Smucker

        3 questions here:

        1. Jesus also brought physical and spiritual healing to prostitutes and to tax collectors known for cheating. Must every act of mercy he showed to people be read as an endorsement of their occupations? And who ever said that if a war (or war in general, either way) is unjust, then every soldier is hopelessly reprobate?

        These questions are two sides of the same coin: what I contest is the assumption that mercy equals condoning, or that deeming something immoral requires total condemnation of whole categories of human beings.

        2. What IS Caesar’s, and what is God’s? That’s the perennial question. Caesar can have his money, but what he has no right to demand is our worship.

        This gets back to the point of this post, which, again, was not actually about JWT but about crossing lines into the patriolatry of Caesar-worship. Ascribing to JWT is no excuse for giving the State the glory that belongs to God alone.

        3. You are free to disagree with what the popes have said, but what are you suggesting about them by setting their statements (which, by the way, cover many degrees of magisterial weight between personal opinion and ex cathedra dogmatic pronouncement) against the entire moral tradition of the Church? That they were ignorant of that tradition? That they willfully disregarded it?

        That’s assuming, of course, that Catholic moral tradition is as univocal as you make it out to be. I would bet that the popes’ knowledge and reading of the tradition is a tad more nuanced than that.

        • bill bannon

          Benedict was and is a nice man but he was as he aged unbalanced in his comments on violence even in Verbum Domini section 42 where he writes: “In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual..”
          He errs as is possible with Popes outside the charism of infallibility. Elijah killed 552 men minimum; Eliseus was mandated by God to kill in 1 Kings 19:17: “And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall escape the sword of Hazael, shall be slain by Jehu: and whosoever shall escape the sword of Jehu, shall be slain by Eliseus.” The prophet Samuel killed Agag precisely because Saul failed to as ordered by God for which Saul was removed from the kingship. The later prophets oppose private violence period…e.g. that of the wealthy Jews against poor Jews often over the seizing of land by the wealthier from the poorer. Isaiah’s passage of turning of swords into pruning hooks unfortunately is really about the resurrected world after history and ergo Jeremiah 48:10 demands perfect war by the Chaldeans over the Moabites: “Cursed are they who do the LORD’s work carelessly, cursed those who keep their sword from shedding blood.”
          Apparently the sinful private violence in Juda was often rich against poor and that same warlike Jeremiah denounces that type of violence as in
          Jer 22:3
          “Thus saith the LORD; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”
          “But your eyes and heart are set on nothing
          except your own gain,
          On shedding innocent blood
          and practicing oppression and extortion.”
          Eze 18:7
          And hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge, hath spoiled none by violence, hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment;
          Micah 6:12
          “For the rich men thereof are full of violence, and the inhabitants thereof have spoken lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their mouth.”
          The child sacrifice of e.g. Baal worship was another form of violence denounced by prophets:
          Jer. 19:5
          “They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind.”
          But Benedict’s contention that the prophets opposed “every kind…of violence, whether
          collective or individual” is simply an error that gets uncriticized because the Bishops no longer feel close to any government’s military.

          • Julia Smucker

            OT violence must be contended with, and that statement of Benedict’s may indeed be overgeneralized. Be that as it may, I find your conclusion troubling. Do you mean to suggest as a “corrective” that national bishops’ conferences equate their countries’ military with the biblical prophets?

        • bill bannon

          No…wars vary in worth. WWII saved Europe from Hitler ruling it and saved China from being enslaved by Japan. It was just in the macro sense though there are sinful incidents within just wars. Once in the military, you notice humans who are brutal and others who are among the best humans you ever met. Both are there. John the Baptist did not tell soldiers to quit when they asked him what to do to be saved. He said… “brutalize no one, accuse no one falsely, and be content with your pay.” Christ said of the centurion… “I have not seen such faith in all Israel.” Mt.8:10.

          • Julia Smucker

            Once in the military, you notice humans who are brutal and others who are among the best humans you ever met. Both are there.

            I have seen this to be true, as well as the normal range in between, and I have no interest in making any generalizations to the contrary.

            This is somewhat related to my point about the oft-mentioned example of Jesus not condemning the centurion. It was simply not his way to condemn anybody, except perhaps for those who went around condemning everyone else. Whether the centurion’s son could be healed and whether the wars he may have fought in could be just are completely separate questions. The nature of mercy, after all, is that it is unearned.

        • bill bannon

          Christ having Mercy and Christ affirming the faith of the centurion as superior to all Israel are separate. The brutal soldier does not have mustard seed faith let alone incredible faith.

          • Julia Smucker

            Sure, I’m just saying that Christ’s praise of the centurion’s faith is not equivalent to an endorsement of the Roman army.

        • Actually, Julia, I DO think that, in some instances, the last two popes HAVE “ignored” the entire moral tradition of the Catholic Church. John Paul II’s too-peremptory way of canonizing so many dubious saints comes to mind immediately. And then there’s Ratzinger’s declaration that all who are “same-sex-attracted” are “intrinsically disordered,” which would have prevented such as Gerard Hopkins from becoming priests. What we’ve had, ever since Vatican II, is an attempt to restore the absolutist papal monarchy of Pio Nono, in favour of a retraction of Vatican II. It’s been called, by certain Church historians, “Restorationism.”

  • Julia Smucker

    In response to Roger and Dismas, I wasn’t really talking about just war theory but about what in reality has been a much more potent force for bellicosity, namely a popular narrative that romanticizes both national interests and the “vocation” of the soldier. It is understandably comforting to speak in noble abstractions like “defending freedom”, but it’s naïve to assume that as a neat summary of any and every casus belli. Take away that veneer covering a tangled web of interests that most of us can only guess at, and the soldier-as-Christ-figure image can be seen for the blasphemy that it is, not to mention the glaring logical inconsistency that if the business of soldiers were simply to be killed and not to kill, their business would never get done.

    I won’t dignify the potshot at Dolan except to remind you of the USCCB’s recent stance on invading Syria, which, by the admission of some of them, was partly due to lessons learned from their more tentative caution on invading Iraq a decade earlier.

    I could quote back Hauerwas and Solzhenitsyn, but I doubt that would be any more effective than your Ruskin and Biggar, and it would only distract from the main point here: whatever position one takes regarding JWT and nonviolence, it is not the business of the universal Church to promote the national holidays of a particular State, nor the nationalistic mythos they contain. As soon as we begin to do that, we lose sight of catholicity by ignoring the fact that the Church transcends national borders.

    • As soon as we begin to do that, we lose sight of catholicity by ignoring the fact that the Church transcends national borders.

      Well, the Catholic Church darn well better learn to start objeying such national and local laws as those regarding the reporting of paedophile abuse. That is one example–and I can think of several others–in which the Catholic Church has attempted to circumvent civic order in ways that have absolutely NOTHING to do with proclaiming the sense of the Gospel.

      • Julia Smucker

        A bit of a non sequitur, but a valid point: any failure to protect the vulnerable is a counter-witness. You won’t hear any disagreement from me on that.

  • Ronald King

    Julia, As you have written earlier, “We are all to blame.”

  • Ronald King

    In Genesis 9: 5-6 “…I will demand an accounting…from man in regard to his fellow man I will demand an accounting for human life. If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; For in the image of God has man been made.” It appears that what is being stated here is that the natural consequences of violence is violence regardless of its justification. If I remember correctly the kings who engaged in violence in the OT were not permitted to build the temples. The path of nonviolence is counter intuitive to ending violence but it is the only way.

    • bill bannon

      Ronald King,
      Actually Gen.9:6 is a death penalty which Christ affirms to Pilate (“you would have no power over me at all were it not given you from above”) a death penalty because the victim is made in the image of God and from God to gentiles and Jews outside Jewish law… not parallel to Christ saying “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword” which itself is not simple since David was “a man of blood” (murdered Uriah and possibly killed unnecessarily in war contexts and thus could not build the temple)….but David died peacefully not by the sword at all because he repented not of just wars which were God’s will but of his excesses. I Chronicles 29:28
      “He died at a ripe old age, rich in years..”

      • Ronald King

        Bill Bannon, I don’t see Gen 9:6 as a death penalty as you do. Each person who kills another will be held accountable. 1Chronicles 28:3 states, “But God said to me, ‘You may not build a house in my honor, for you are a man who fought wars and shed blood.’ ” There are consequences for violence whatever they may be.

  • trellis smith

    I would like to address the definition of catholicity in your argument here as it simply isn’t mine. The Roman Catholic Church may have been the first supra or multinational organization but the catholicity of the Church reveals itself when but two or more are gathered in Christ’s name and it is this pervasiveness that is at the heart of catholicity.

    The polity of the Church whether that of Constantine or Apple Computers is merely one pale reflection of catholicity and in much the same way that all politics is local and because the Church is multicultural and cannot escape into the post nationalism so favored by the elites, I believe the priest while not escaping the parochialism of the local church understands that she is more truly embodied closer there and in the nation than in the construct you seem to prefer.

    • Julia Smucker

      I agree that the local and universal dimensions of the Church need to be balanced together, if that’s what you’re saying. To me it’s not a matter of “post” anything, but nationalism does distort that balance. If the Church is embodied locally (which you and I both believe), then she must be embodied equally in all peoples, rather than in one nation above others. In this way catholicity is quite the opposite of elitism.

  • Magdalena

    We can always count on the sour-faced saints of the Catholic Church to look for a secular parade to pee on.

    Whether it is Veteran’s Day, when Catholics might be too patriotic, or Halloween, when they might treat witchcraft too lightly.

    There’s never a shortage of scolds in the Church to shake their fingers and remind people they should be thinking about their sins instead of celebrating.

    Do you even know what Veteran’s Day IS? Veteran’s Day marks the onset of peace after World War I, a particularly bloody and miserable conflict. It is marked in different ways by many different countries around the world. In America we use the day to honor people who have spent time in uniformed public service. It has nothing to do with combat or war-mongering or building up the defense budget. It’s about SERVICE.

    I encourage you to actually leave the United States and spend some time at liturgies in other countries. Whether it’s Poland, or Ireland or… anywhere else. At the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, do you know what you’ll see, besides the tilma? A big fat Mexican flag in the sanctuary, that’s what. OH THE HORROR!

    That’s because Catholics are human beings, and humans cherish their community, even if some of that community is non-Catholic, non-Christian or has no faith at all. Even if it’s a bad place filled with awful leaders and bad policies. That doesn’t prevent people from loving their home. The urge to remember those who sacrifice for the community is a deep part of being human. In fact scholars point out that holidays like Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are found in cultures around the world, over thousands of years.

    The list the priest went over in his homily probably included outreach to veterans in hospitals and nursing homes, or to homeless shelters or the ranks of the unemployed, where vets are over-represented. Or perhaps he suggested visiting a cemetery to perform one of the works of mercy (prayer for the dead). But you didn’t get to hear that list, did you, because you allowed a knee-jerk reaction to take over. This sounds like a homily you NEEDED to hear.

    You allowed what you thought you already knew, to get in the way of what you could have learnt.

    Perhaps in the future you can spiritually prepare for patriotic holidays (they are on the calendar at the same time every year, you know) by thinking about what POSITIVE action you can take to deepen the authentic gospel spirit at your parish, without coming off like such a crabby, negative grouch.

    • Julia Smucker

      Magdalena, you seem to be assuming a lot here. Without wanting to get too personally defensive, I feel I should clarify a few things that hopefully will better illustrate the broader point I was trying to make.

      I have indeed experienced liturgy in several countries and in fact first came to love the Mass within a cross-cultural living experience, in a way that I could not have encountered it in the US. When I returned and continued attending Mass stateside, I frequently remarked on the beautiful balance of liturgical familiarity and stylistic variety. In other words, there is nothing wrong with the particular cultural flavors in which the sacrament of Christ’s presence is incarnated; indeed, I find this to be one of the great beauties of the Novus Ordo. And that’s really the point: a nationalism that does not allow for this multiplicity has no place in the Church. A healthy and humble love of one’s homeland – one that leaves room for others to say the same things about their homeland – is all well and good, but giving national flags and state holidays a place of honor within the context of our worship raises the question of who or what we are really worshipping.

      I did ask the priest about the rest of the list during our conversation, and I agreed with roughly half of it, as it was very mixed between works of mercy and nationalistic cheerleading. What troubled me was the lack of distinction between the two. This critique has nothing to do with any desire to be dour and puritanical. It’s not a question of whether we are to celebrate, but what. The Church’s liturgy is indeed a celebration – not of our own greatness, but of the Christ event.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I encourage you to actually leave the United States and spend some time at liturgies in other countries. Whether it’s Poland, or Ireland or… anywhere else. At the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, do you know what you’ll see, besides the tilma? A big fat Mexican flag in the sanctuary, that’s what. OH THE HORROR! ”

      Magdalena, I have spent considerable time overseas and have been to Church in a number of countries. And with one exception I do not recall ever seeing a national flag in a church anywhere except in the United States. (The one exception was that I was in a small church in Normandy on November 11, and there was a patriotic tinged ceremony in the cemetery next to the Church after mass. Given French attitudes about laicite, I was actually quite surprised by this mixture of piety and patriotism.) Both Spaniards and Italians, except on the fascist right, would have real objections to seeing a flag in Church, precisely because of the problems that mixing patriotism and faith has caused them in the past.

      I do not recall seeing a Mexican flag next to Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, but it has been 35 years since I was there. And the presence of the flag there is less surprising since she is the patroness of Mexico. This is striking a somewhat different balance between Church and State (with the state placed in a inferior position to the Virgin) than the issues that Julia is discussing in her post.

  • David, the lack of national flags in European Catholic churches is a result of the unnatural events of Twentieth Century European history. I assure you that French and Italian Catholic churches sported national flags all throughout the Nineteenth Century. In India and Sri Lanka, places outside of Europe where I have lived, the Catholic churches of Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Colombo and Kandy are FESTOONED with national flags on their national holidays. And didn’t you notice all the Indian flags flying in Kolkotta when Mother Teresa was accorded a state funeral there.
    What Magdalena has written above makes a great deal of sense to me, and I don’t believe that Julia has given a sufficient response to what she has said.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I assure you that French and Italian Catholic churches sported national flags all throughout the Nineteenth Century.”

      Evidence? I mean this sincerely and not as snark.

      • I’d have to scan old photographs of a book I bought in a second-hand shop in Blois about the Dreyfus Affair, and I haven’t the time to answer your disingenuousness. However, I’ll just remind you that those various flags of the French nation and of other nations the French have fought have been hanging in the Chapel of Les Invalides since the SEVENTEENTH CENTURY.

        • Julia Smucker

          That’s an interesting practice, to have the French flag hanging alongside those “of other nations the French have fought”. That sounds markedly different from the kind of nationalistic exceptionalism that, when given a liturgical context, is blatantly idolatrous.

          But that’s not to say that the French, Spanish, Italians, etc. have not bowed to the idol of civil religion in the past. That idol can wrap itself in any nation’s flag. It’s been around since the Roman cult of emperor-worship – or rather, for that matter, since ancient Babylon.

  • DungeonHamster

    Kinda coming late to the party here, sorry. But regardless…

    Allow to me to start off by saying I agree with pretty much everything in the article. The Church is bigger and more important than the Nation and ought not to be subordinated to it. Even before I became Catholic, the replacement on military holidays of hymns and songs of praise to God with songs of praise to the nation always bugged me. I don’t terribly mind songs or prayers which ask for blessing on the nation, but songs and prayers about how wonderful she is have always rankled.

    It is worth noting, perhaps, that the official policy of the United States Navy is in fact in agreement with us in at least one small way; during worship services on a ship, the Church pennant is flown over the American flag, and is the only flag to ever do so.

    Furthermore, I freely grant that war is a terrible thing, that it allows many opportunities for vice, and that even carried out as virtuously as possible has costs. Live by the sword, die by the sword, etc.

    That said, there are many worse fates than dying by the sword. In addition, in Romans 13 Paul says that a ruler “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” That is to day, the power of the sword, the power to deal death, is right and proper to the prince or state. Keep in mind that the rulers he refers to would go on to execute him and many other Christians; and yet he still says that they have been given the sword by God.

    So, then, war, like the sword which represents it, is something to be very careful with. But, allowing that curse of Adam and the taint of sin lies on all human endeavors, peaceful as well as violent, a just war must be at least as possible as a just anything else broken and sinful men are involved with.

    Now, as regards, the disturbing tendency to romanticize the occupation of the soldier, while it may in many instances be regrettable (or at least have regrettable consequences), is also more or less inevitable, because fighting and loving are the essence of romance. I’m now stumbling into territory which I have just begun to explore and I suspect will never really learn the lay of, but I would refer you to G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, which I have just recently reread. He puts what I’m about to say better, and probably more truthfully, than I do, but in essence, virtue is a balancing act. The Straight and Narrow is a tightrope, and the Church a dancing gymnast. The crusader should be romanticized, along with the monk, because both are really very romantic things.

    Our society, it is true, glorifies the one while mocking the other, when it deigns to notice it at all. It is also true that the crusader in the modern narrative crusades for “Liberty,” which is a word so abused as to have almost lost all meaning, rather than God or his Church. And I’m sure I’m putting this very badly, as shown by taking so long to say a thing and even then still failing to really get at the heart of the matter, and I’m not at all sure what the solution might be beyond simply trying to do the Christian thing in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, but attempting to kill all romance just because what little romanticism this country has left is small, vague, not a little desperate, and, like all romanticism among sinners, occasionally idolatrous, doesn’t seem to be the right one.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thank you for your thoughtful contribution; no apology necessary. Just one question on your last point, especially given the distinction you raise between the legitimate authority of the state and the potentially idolatrous use of songs and prayers in praise of the nation: do you mean to suggest that when romanticism does become idolatrous, this should simply be given a pass?

      • DungeonHamster

        Not that it should be given a pass, but that the fact that sinful human beings will screw it up time and again doesn’t make it bad in and of itself. What I was trying to say there is essentially not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Or, if you prefer, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

        • Julia Smucker

          …the fact that sinful human beings will screw it up time and again doesn’t make it bad in and of itself.

          OK, but what is the “it” here? The tendency to romanticize? Love of one’s country? Idolatry? The former two are not bad in and of themselves, but the latter is, and Christians (and all monotheists for that matter) are commanded not to participate in it. Those other things are fine, as long as they do not lead us to give to things undeserving of our worship the reverence due to God alone.

        • DungeonHamster

          /To the best of my knowledge, the “it” in this discussion is militarism, or the idealization and romanticization of war. But you will have no disagreement from me on your previous comment. I do not dispute that idolatry is sinful.

          I suppose what I was trying to say is that men make idols of everything, and Ares does not seem to me uniquely more evil to idolize than most other gods, though he may perhaps be more popular than most. Take, for instance, the equally popular worship of Cupid and Aphrodite. That causes at least as much heartache and pain and evil, but almost no one seriously says therefore all mankind should give up marrying. A few are called to celibacy, just as a few are called to pacifism. But that makes neither a marriage oath nor a pledge of allegiance an evil thing, and to pledge allegiance to a flag is to pledge to a sword.

          In other words, I pretty much agree with you in principle, as far as I can tell, though we might differ on where exactly falls the line separating patriotic actions from idolatrous.

        • Julia Smucker

          The irony, especially when it comes to Veterans’ Day, is that most veterans will be the first to tell you there is nothing ideal or romantic about war.

        • DungeonHamster

          To the extent that that is true, I would argue that is primarily the result of two factors.

          The first, and most obvious, is that very few things seem romantic when they’re your job. Against this I would say there is something romantic in everything. There is something adventurous is a morning cup of coffee. Something mysterious in cars and computers. Something magical in yard work or plumbing. The fact that a thing requires long hours, monotonous toil, fortitude, patience, and judgement to do well makes a thing more romantic, not less. I doubt, for instance, that many ancient metalworkers found their trade romantic either, yet we have the stories of Weyland and the Sampo and Haephestus and many others besides. I doubt many farmers find their work terribly romantic either. Against every veteran who tells you there is NOTHING romantic in battle I will set Patton, Napoleon, Alexander, Washington, Sherman, the whole Norse Pantheon, Ghengis Khan, Charlemagne, Roland, El Cid, Richard the Lionhearted, Achilles, Hector, Arthur, Huon, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the long, slow Russian retreats in the winter, the French Resistance in the second World War, the battles of Salamis and of Thermopylae, of Gettysburg and Chickamauga and Alamo, and on and on unto the Last Days.

          The second is that many people today seem to have this idea that romance is all sweetness and light, much like most folks seem to conceive of fairy tales. But it is precisely because war is a terrible thing, because it is difficult and grinds men down, because of the mud and the blood and the horror and the privation and loss and even the long hours standing watch at a post that is never attacked and wading through paperwork and bureaucracy to do what should or must be done despite your own side as much as because of it, because of the way it has of standing men on the edge of a knife, where to stray but a little is to fall, because it asks of those who would do it well, virtuously as well as merely competently, more than anything else, that it is romantic. Not all of the examples I just mentioned were GOOD examples. Roland died in a battle rather less significant than the Song of him would put it. Alexander declared himself a god. The charges of the Light Brigade or of Pickett served, so far as I can tell, no purpose other than to kill the men making them. the Russian retreats from Hitler and Napoleon cost countless lives and laid waste to half a continent. Though whether war is romantic because it is terrible, or terrible because it is romantic, I am not prepared to guess.

          And indeed we are all engaged in a war. The war of the Church Militant, in which our sword is the Word of God. And this war has battles and casualties, desperate last stands, and cavalry charges with the hooves rolling like thunder that are no less real because they are only rarely fought with bullets. All other wars are an image of this one, and inasmuch as they resemble it, so to do they have a share of it’s power, it’s romance, it’s glory, it’s tragedy. And as in that war, many veterans don’t seem to think the business terribly exciting most of the time.

          • Julia Smucker

            Insofar as the war metaphor holds for the Kingdom of God, it is the opposite of the wars fought against flesh and blood (which, as St. Paul said, is not our true enemy). To attribute a share in its nature to “all other wars” is both blasphemous and illogical. Does this apply to every side of every war? You seem to have abandoned your original disclaimer that “war is a terrible thing” for the proposition that it is a positive good, even in some grand eschatological sense, which not only goes far beyond any just war theory but ironically undermines it by making every soldier everywhere (or “insurgent”, or drone pilot perhaps, as conventional warfare becomes obsolete) an automatic hero – which presumably must include those fighting against each other on opposite sides.

      • DungeonHamster

        On the contrary. I said inasmuch as a war resembles the war of the church, it shares in its attributes. What about that says war is not terrible? But this can be demonstrated by analogy.

        Men are capable of reason only because we are made in the image of God. Yet the atomic bomb, for good or for evil, is a terrible and awesome thing.

        Words are eloquent and powerful only because they are an image of the Word of God. Yet it is truly said that the “best” lies are those closest to the truth.

        A man may write a book surpassingly beautiful, and yet write in the service of the Devil. Truths may be twisted to serve evil, beauty to rebel against the one who makes it so, and Original Sin can only exist because God made us a little like Himself. The greater the thing is before it falls, the more terrible it is when it does. The Prince of Darkness was named for his brightness.

        So, no, soldiers are not automatic heroes. They might all be called potential heroes, I suppose. But my point is not that evil things are good. Say rather that first, terrible is not the same as evil, for God himself is so terrible that for a sinful man to look unaided on His face would be death, so terrible that even the reflection of his back made Moses’ face too glorious to look at. Second, that even in the most evil things, there is something good, because else no evil could be done. Life, speech, being able to walk, jump, run, wrestle, throw, spit, sing, write, see, smell, taste, etc., these are all good things, for all they are turned so often to evil. That a strong man can murder a weak man does not make strength evil. Similarly, that war is so often an occasion for evil does not make it inherently evil. Rather, it is capable of being as evil as it is only because the thing of which it is by human nature corrupted from is so good.

        Of course I admit that the good in strength, or in sight, or in speech, or in beauty is nothing compared to moral good, to the pursuit of God in which all other goods find their fulfillment. Comparing a human war to the divine is a little like comparing the aforementioned atomic bomb to a supernova. And I freely admit that many wars could be averted with a bit more charity or patience on one side or other. And I confess that I am finding it increasingly difficult to give what I have sworn to a Caesar increasingly unstable and never as wise as I once thought him, which is why I will probably not reenlist (though, to be fair, I have only ever in the reserves) when my term is up. And of course, even as it better to lose a hand than to sin, so it is better to die a pacifist than to sin.

        Though even pacifism has its evils, every bit as dangerous to the soul and more. It cannot be used as a cop out. Much like the common interpretation of “poor in spirit” as meaning to live unattached to material wealth is actually a heavier obligation than simply being poor, much like contentment and celibacy must be lived as positive, active things rather than simply not being upset or not marrying, a man who does not fight with swords because he has more powerful weapons is different than a man who simply does not fight. But even escaping the trap of mere indifference, pacifism as a powerful tool is not always used in pursuit of righteousness. Ghandhi, for instance, is frequently set on a pedestal in an attempt to lower Jesus by making the two equivalent. Hippies used their pacifism to add a veneer of morality to a debauched lifestyle. No, war is ugly when sin corrupts it, but a corrupted pacifism is, I think, at least dangerous to the soul, albeit in a subtler way. I will confess the parallel had not before occurred to me, and so is even more undeveloped than most of my thoughts.

        In the end though, I am forced to return to the metaphor of the tightrope. You may be, indeed probably are, right that I’m leaning to far to one side. My sense of balance has never been the best, and for your attempts to help me regain it I thank you. I also appreciate your patience with what are, looking back, several extremely long comments. This will, I think, be my last on this article. I’ve already said more than I knew I had in me, and it seems to me best to give matters further consideration before inflicting any more of my half-formed opinions and half-baked metaphors on those with the patience to read them. Who knows? Perhaps even if I come no closer to the truth I’ll at least find a way to put things a bit more concisely.

  • Yes, indeed, men make “idols” of anything, and some WOMEN make “idols” of the “teaching Magisterium” of the Roman Catholic Church, apparently believing that God is a Catholic.

    • Julia Smucker

      No, I do not believe the Magisterium is God, but as a Christian I will take the word of the Church over that of the State when they tell me where to direct my worship. Choose this day whom you will serve…

      • I will just remind you, Julia Smucker, once again, of the lesson of Joan of Arc: it is perfectly possible, in choosing to “serve” the Church, to choose to crucify both the Truth and God’s saints. Make sure that you are “choosing” that “inner voice” of your own conscience, which John Henry Newman called “the primal voice of God” in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk.

        And remember that Joan was a soldier, just as much as she is a saint.

        • Julia Smucker

          An examination of conscience is probably a good idea for all of us here.

        • frjohn81506

          Yet not a saint BECAUSE she was a soldier; rather because she let herself be led by that kindly light through the gauntlet of her trial, not her battles with the English.

        • She ALSO let herself be led by that “kindly light” to defend and save her country and her king, and to remain loyal and devoted to them “through the gauntlet of her trial,” too. The medieval ecclesiastics who vindicated her thought THAT was as much a reason to exonerate her as her steadfastness in devotion and piety during her trial–which, I will remind you, was NOT a thorough-going display of “humility” before the Church tribunal, as the transcript reveals. The Churchmen of the past thought a little differently from you, Father.

          • Julia Smucker

            Fr. John is in good company with St. Martin of Tours, among others (for example, my little litany here).

            I suppose this whole conversation underscores an uncomfortable paradox of catholicity: that the communion of saints includes both soldiers and conscientious objectors. As they say, “Here comes everybody.”

  • Mark VA

    Ms. Smucker:

    I think it takes a lot of spunk to walk out on a mass – you’ve got spunk. However, you also wrote that to re-compose yourself you prayed the rosary – that’s very commendable. Smoking a cigarette to calm oneself down, for example, would have been much more problematic.

    Now, to resolve this inner Sturm und Drang, I propose this:

    (a) Write a short paper on nationalism and patriotism, as seen from the Thomist perspective, accentuating the dichotomy between the two. Double spaced, referenced APA style, yadda yadda, etc;

    (b) We’ll then ask Dismas “Digby” Dolben to comment upon it from Jacques Maritain’s philosophical perspective, while highlighting the connection to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;

    Would this penance be satisfactory enough (for us all) to calm these dichotomously turbulent seas?

    By the way, if someone walks out on the mass, they may miss this:

    • I thoroughly appreciate MarkVa’s little joke.

      Also, I, too, would like to felicitate Julia on walking out of the mass, even if I don’t agree with her reason; it’s her conscience, and I’m glad she follows it.

      In the late 60s, my father once hauled himself and his whole brood out of mass, on account of a fire-breathing, pro-Civil Rights priests’s sermon, in the Southern city in which I grew up. Outside the Church, I scolded him–more for the embarrassment than anything else–saying, “But you AGREE with the Father!” To which my dad replied, “He has no business mixing politics into his sermon!”

      What do you think of THAT, Ms. Smucker?

      • Julia Smucker

        Since you ask, I usually have mixed thoughts about the complaint that politics should be kept out of the pulpit. Many tend to raise that complaint selectively when they disagree with the preacher’s commentary, so in that respect I commend your father for his consistency. But I always think of how the same admonition was given to people such as Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, who have (rightly, I believe) come to be regarded as modern prophets. I think I would make the distinction that partisan ideology, of any stripe, does not belong in the church, and yet we can and should expect the gospel to have social implications within any given social context, and so preaching should also not be reduced to merely spiritual matters divorced from earthly realities. In practice it may be hard to differentiate – the likes of King and Romero have certainly been accused of taking sides – but maybe a twofold test of homiletic orthodoxy (probably more effective over time than in reference to a single sermon) is 1) that the message fit within the manifold tradition of the church in all its breadth and depth, and 2) that it not fit neatly into a party platform.

        These thoughts have been germinating in my mind for awhile. Thank you for encouraging me to develop them.

        To clarify for the original context of this post, my concern on this occasion was not that the priest was being political or partisan, but that he was encouraging nationalism, which has no place in the church’s liturgy, and even conflating it with the works of mercy, which are central to the church’s mission.