The Crusades and Their Critics


While it has become customary to view the Crusades as a historical aberration, they can also be viewed as an important factor in the formation of the Christian West. Many of those who condemn the Crusades fully understand this and wish that the Muslims had conquered Europe and aborted the rise of Christendom.

The Crusades, perhaps more than any other event in history, manifest the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in religion itself, the fact that what is perfect and eternal must be incarnated among imperfect human beings, subjected to the limitations of a merely temporal perspective.

Modern liberal Christians blame the conversion of Constantine for almost everything of which they disapprove in later Christian history. Among other things the conversion presented the Church with an entirely new question of baffling perplexity — whether Christians could use force on behalf of spiritual goods. St. Augustine, the principal formulator of the doctrine of the just war, taught that it was impermissible to use force to impose religious orthodoxy. But he also justified force, notably in the case of the Donatists in North Africa, when religious heterodoxy was the cause of civil disorder.

The pacifist position, which finds little warrant in Christian history, in effect seeks to nullify the Constantinian conversion, in that pacifism would require the Church to remain on the margins of society, preaching a wholly other-worldly message, refusing to assume any relevant social leadership, allowing the political enterprise to function wholly according to secular principles. Such a position is itself a radical denial of the Incarnation.

Thus, paradoxes and contradictions have been present for 1700 years — the disorder of war for the sake of restoring order, acts of violence to establish peace. In a sense, every just war must include some motive of love towards the enemy, not only in the refusal to demonize the enemy but in the sense that defeating an unjust enemy is itself an act of love, thwarting his ability to persist in his wickedness. The German surrender in 1945 was essential to the moral recovery of the German people.

Discovering people’s “real” motives is always elusive, and the medieval Crusades were undoubtedly fought for a variety of contradictory motives — to free the holy places and once more make them available to Christian pilgrims, to free the Christians of the Near East from Muslim domination, from sheer hatred of “the other,” from ambition for territory, from the love of war for its own sake. As Thomas Madden characterizes the crusaders, “They were men of the sword: pious and idealistic, but also crude, arrogant, and, at times, savage.” Because they merely assumed the sinfulness of mankind, medieval people could perhaps understand these contradictions much better than modern people inclined to dismiss the entire crusading effort as either murderous religious fanaticism or a mere cloak for greed.

The Crusades satisfied the requirements of a just war in at least two ways. The Muslims had taken certain Christian territories by force and had thereby denied to Christians, east and west, the opportunity to engage in one of the most important of medieval religious exercises, namely, pilgrimages. The concept of the just war not only permits people to defend themselves when directly attacked, it also permits them to go to the aid of others who have been attacked. 

It is a major index of the arrogant anti-Christian bigotry now prevalent in “enlightened” Western circles that, while the Crusaders are treated as aggressive interlopers against the Muslims of the Near East, little attention is paid to the means by which Islam had come to dominate that region to begin with. (Following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in September, some Americans, including some orthodox Catholics, insist that we must ask ourselves “Why do they hate us so?” One answer, obviously, is the Crusades, an event that those same orthodox Catholics admire as a proud episode in world history.)

There appear to be comparable ambiguities in Islam itself. In places the Qu’ran seems to forbid coercion directed at the “people of the Book” — Jews and Christians — while in others it appears to extol it. It is further evidence of bigotry that “enlightened” opinion is quite ready to believe that murderous intolerance is endemic to Christianity, while primly insisting that those who kill in the name of Allah are distorting an essentially tolerant faith.

But if the Crusaders were in part engaged in defending Christians already threatened by the Muslims, the Fourth Crusade (1204), when the crusaders got only as far as Constantinople and satisfied themselves by overthrowing the Byzantine emperor and putting one of their own on his throne, illustrates the potentially treacherous nature of such an undertaking, the way in which the human lust for power and wealth can so easily corrupt the most idealistic of enterprises. So too, if the Crusades can be thought of as the highest example of the chivalric ideal, they also provide some of the worst examples of knightly power used to trample the weak without pity.

Attempting a moral judgment on this tangled and tragic story requires, as do all such judgments, some assessment of the long-term results of these events, a judgment which is always difficult and elusive. But it is certainly plausible to conclude that, without the Crusades, Islam would have been a serious threat to the Western world, and to Christianity itself, long before the fateful battles of Lepanto (1571) and Vienna (1683). All of Christendom came close to falling to the Muslims in the seventh century, when Spain in fact did fall; and the Crusades, if they did nothing else, allowed Western Christianity to grow in relative security.

While it has become customary to view the Crusades as a historical aberration, they can also be viewed as an important factor in the formation of the Christian West. Many of those who condemn the Crusades fully understand this and wish that the Muslims had conquered Europe and aborted the rise of Christendom.

In principle the Crusades are the story of the highest human idealism in the service of the divine will. In practice they provide also many sordid stories of blindness, corruption, and hatred. In this they are scarcely unique but serve as an exceptionally graphic paradigm of the nature of all human efforts on behalf of good.


James Hitchcock. "The Crusades and Their Critics." Catholic Dossier 8 no. 1 (January-February 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.


James Hitchcock, a regular columnist for Catholic Dossier, is Professor of History at Saint Louis University.

Copyright © 2002 Catholic Dossier