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Dear Father Angelo, my name is Giuseppe. I ask you this because, in the centuries after the birth of Jesus, there have been facts and events within the Church that I cannot reconcile with the Gospel (e.g., the enormous economic and political power of the Vatican State, the period of the Crusades, and the Inquisition). 

Thank you in advance for your answer. 



Priest’s answer

Dear Giuseppe,

1. I omit the statement about the enormous economic and political power of the Vatican. It would seem that the Vatican economy conditions the world economy or at least that of Italy. It would also seem that from a political point of view, the Vatican governs Italy. In reality, the Church, not the Vatican, which is in Italy, must undergo many unfair laws such as those of divorce, abortion, assisted procreation… If it had such great power, why are these laws so contrary to the law of God? It would also be interesting to know who the great strategists of this economic and political power are. Is it the Pope perhaps? But, with all due respect to the Holy Father, Benedict XVI is certainly not an expert in economics and politics, having done quite the opposite all his life! And he is continuing to do something else… The same can be said of his predecessors.

2. Now I come to the story of the crusades. I do not intend to settle the question, but simply propose a page by two well-known and accredited scholars of Church history, K. Bihlmayer and H. Tuecle, History of the Church, II, n.109. I propose it simply so that we know what Church historians say about the Crusades. It is an authoritative voice. It is a voice to be compared with the so-called clichés in which people talk about the crusades without knowing what they are about, why people were called, what the objectives were, and why these objectives were not achieved.

3. I state that I am omitting the very abundant bibliography and the notes to the text. Some statements have been highlighted in bold by me. Here is what these two historians write in their second volume of History of the Church from Fr. 211 on p. 219, which is summarized as follows: 1. The crusades were grandiose military enterprises conducted by the Christian West for the reconquest of Palestine. In some respects they derive from pilgrimages to the Holy Land, practiced since ancient times, and in other respects from the idea of ​​the holy war against the ‘infidels’, which arose in the 10th and 11th centuries, and was already implemented in Spain. The fact that in the West was now formed a real class of warriors, the cavalry, whose fighting ardor was from the Church directed towards religious ends. Even after the Mohammedans had occupied the Holy Land (637) the pilgrimages were able to continue, albeit with many difficulties. However, the situation became much more serious when in the 10th century, the Arab-Persian dynasty of the Fatimids acquired the dominion of Egypt and Palestine and, when in 1070-71, Syria and Palestine fell entirely into the hands of the rough Seljuk Turks. Christians natives suffered oppression and ill treatment and pilgrims put their lives at risk. The West felt this situation as a disgrace to the Christian name. In Byzantium and in the West, therefore, the project of taking back the Holy Land from the Saracens, in order to reconstitute Christian dominion, was increasingly taken into consideration. The combative Pope Gregory VII already, in 1074, raised a call for a crusade; but due to the investiture controversy, the crusade could not be realized. The pope’s appeal was all the more successful twenty years later by Cluniac Urban II, whom the emperor Alexius I Commenus (1081-1118) of Constantinople in 1094 had called for help, since the Greeks were increasingly suffering the threat of the Saracens settled in Asia Minor. The inspired word of the Pope, supported and spread by the ascetic inclination of the souls of that time, aroused an ardent echo in the synod of Clermont in the Auvergne in November 1095. From each side answered him the shout, ‘Deus lo volt’, and thousands of willing people had a red cross applied to their right shoulder as a sign of their decision.

Even larger crowds of crusaders gathered in the following months at the word of ardent preachers. Among these, the pilgrims occupied a place of capital importance in the Holy Land and then also the hermit Peter of Amiens, who legend has described as the true promoter of the enterprise. The Crusaders who convened for this armed pilgrimage were almost entirely French and Normans of southern Italy. French-speaking Lorraines had come from the Germanic Empire, under the command of the noble Count Goffredo of Buglione, Duke of Lower Lorraine, and his brothers Baldwin and Eustace. Religious enthusiasm certainly represented the main impetus for most of the crusaders, even if, at the same time, they contributed pure profane reasons, such as the desire for action, the pleasure of adventure, typical of chivalry, economic hardships and the hope of rich loot and purchases.

At the conception of the project, the papacy had a preeminent part in its implementation. Urban gave the various armies that were forming a valiant common leader in the person of the knightly bishop Ademar of Puy, who promised the crusaders a plenary indulgence from all spiritual pains and protected their persons, their families, and their property left at home with a three-year ‘truce from God.’ In the summer of 1096, the main ranks of warriors, under the guidance of their leaders and following the course of the Danube, headed towards Constantinople. They were preceded by secondary hordes of peasants and horsemen in the spring, and were known for their cruel slaughter of jews along the Rhine. In fact, during the march through Hungary and Bulgaria, the jews were largely the victims of the peasants’ recklessness.

The survivors, led by Peter d’Amiens, arrived in Asia Minor, but around Nicaea, their numbers were reduced by the fights with the Saracens. Also, the main body of the army, 2-300,000 men strong, after Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperor had wanted the Crusader princes to give the feudal oath, had to endure hard struggles through Asia Minor and Syria, (victories of Dorileo, July 1097 and of Antioch, June 1098). In Edessa and in Antioch western principalities were founded. The first was given to Count Baldwin of Bouillon, brother of Goffredo. The second was given to the valiant Norman prince Bohemond of Taranto, son of Robert of Guiscard. After unspeakable hardships and dangers in which thousands and thousands of combatants lost their lives, the Crusader army, on July 15, 1099, managed to conquer Jerusalem after a siege of four and a half weeks after carrying out a terrible massacre in the Holy City. The dominion of the place was assumed by Goffredo of Buglione as «Protector of the Holy Sepulchre». He defeated an Egyptian reserve army at Ashkelon, but died in July of 1100. He was succeeded by his brother Baldwin of Edessa, with the title of King of Jerusalem (1100-1118). As previously in Antioch, a Latin patriarchate was established in the Holy City with numerous bishoprics subordinate to it. 

II. The fall of Edessa caused great consternation everywhere in the West. In 1147 a new grandiose enterprise was already underway, the second crusade, above all thanks to the pope Eugene III and of St. Bernard, to whom the preaching had been entrusted. His inflammatory oratory, which was accompanied by miraculous healings, brought innumerable participants in the crusade. The most eminent sovereigns of the West took part with strong representatives of their peoples: King Louis VII of France, accompanied by his wife Eleonora, and King Conrad III of Germany. After a long resistance, the political conditions in Germany and Italy were such as to seriously dissuade departure, but King Conrad III had been convinced by St. Bernard in the Cathedral of Spira, at Christmas of 1146 to depart. Also, the young duke Frederick (Redbeard) of Swabia, nephew of Conrad, took part in the enterprise together with many lords of southern Germany. 

The grandiose designs of the crusaders failed completely, partially due to the fault of the Byzantines, who kept a very ambiguous attitude. The armies of the Germans and the French, who had again marched towards Constantinople following the course of the Danube, for the most part succumbed to attacks of the Turks in Asia Minor, or fell victim to hardship and disease. With the help of warriors who had arrived in Syria by sea, the Pilgrim kings undertook an expedition against Damascus in 1148. This expedition did not lead to any results due to the disunity of the Crusaders and the treachery of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. The only notable success of the second crusade was the conquest of the Moorish city of Lisbon, for which German and English crusaders lent their aid to King Alfonso I of Portugal in October, 1147. 

III. The news of the defeat again generated great excitement in the West. In several countries, preparations were immediately made for a new expedition. Pope Gregory VIII (1187) made an energetic appeal to the Christian world. Clement III (1187-91) was also in favor of the crusade. In France and England, a special ‘tithe against Saladin’ was collected. A gigantic enterprise was set up led by the three most powerful monarchs of the West, which was the last crusade of a universal character and at the same time represented the summit of the whole movement. The crusade was headed by the now sixty-five-year-old Emperor Frederick Redeard, who in May of 1189 left Regensburg with an excellently equipped army of around 20,000 fighters. In spite of all the hostilities of the Bulgarians and the Greeks, the army arrived in Asia Minor in good condition and was victorious at the gates of Iconium (May 1190), but in that impassable region suffered heavy losses from the privations and assaults of the enemy. When, to crown his misfortune, the same emperor who led the crusade drowned in the swirling mountain river Salef (Calicadno) in Cilicia (June 10, 1190). The Germanic enterprise threatened to founder completely. 

Duke Frederick of Swabia, son of the dead emperor, gathered a few thousand men in the camp in front of Accon (Ptolemais), which King Guido of Jerusalem was besieging. Frederick died at this place at the beginning of 1191. In April and June of the same year, King Philip II Augustus of France and Richard I the Lionheart of England, who had wintered in Sicily, arrived by sea. The joint efforts of the crusaders finally led in July 1191, to the purchase of Accon after a siege of almost two years and with enormous sacrifices. This victory and the purchase of the important island of Cyprus, which King Richard had already accomplished on his outward journey, were the only notable successes of the crusade.

Discord between the Pilgrim kings and the princes of Jerusalem and Tire hampered further undertakings of any magnitude. The king of France and duke Leopold of Austria undertook the return journey irritated, the latter with a seriously offended soul because the haughty Englishman had snatched the banner from them. Richard the Lionheart remained in Syria until the autumn of 1192. He also obtained some victories over the Saracens, but failed to carry out the planned expedition against Jerusalem. His inconstancy, his cruelty, and his inclination towards adventures were as harmful as his valor was beneficial. The Holy City remained in the hands of the infidels. Upon his departure (September ’92), Richard stipulated a treaty with Saladin by which the Christians were granted possession of the coastal strip from Jaffa (Joppe) to Tyre, the free possibility of unarmed pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and an armistice of three years, a very poor result of this which had been the greatest crusade. In 1193, Saladin, the terrible but not unworthy adversary of the Christians, died, and his power was weakened by the division of the kingdom, at least the purchases made could be maintained for longer. The German crusader army, which the emperor Henry VI had sent in 1197 from Puglia to Syria (German crusade), albeit more for the reasons of his Mediterranean policy than for religious reasons, enabled the purchases to expand towards the north with the conquest of Beirut and the conjunction of the kingdom of Jerusalem with Tripoli and Antioch was restored. However, the untimely death of the emperor (September 1197) made the crusaders return to their homeland.

IV. The first three crusades already made possible a critical assessment of the nature and importance of the whole movement. Even if their main purpose, the lasting restoration of Christian rule in the Holy Land, was not achieved, the crusades were nevertheless not a mere fantastic bewilderment and a senseless waste of goods and human lives, as certain rationalistic historiography of the 18th and 19th centuries wanted to support. Certainly, during the crusades pure religious enthusiasm often gave way to considerations and interests of a material and political nature. But taken together, they remain a splendid manifestation of the religious spirit and of the still intact ecclesiastical and cultural unity of the West.

A very important outcome was breaking the naval domination of the Saracens in the Mediterranean Sea and reducing attacks and the imminent danger on the West by Islam for centuries. Another outcome was the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors. Even more significant in the West were the effects of the crusades in the spiritual and economic fields. Contact with Byzantine and Arab culture, in many respects more advanced, brought a very lively stimulus to the less evolved western regions and considerably broadened their horizons. This was revealed not only in the flourishing of commerce and industry of the chivalry and of the city bourgeoisie, but also in the fields of art, technology and science (e.g., geography, medicine, mathematics, philosophy), and state administration. The papacy, under whose leadership the Western nations gathered in the common enterprise (hierarchical idea of ​​the crusades), saw its prestige and its influence on European sovereigns and nations increase considerably. The ideal of the Christian knight was deepened from the religious side, popular piety was widely fertilized by it (indulgence, cult of relics, devotion of the Via Crucis, etc.), the missions in Africa and in Asia received new impulses from it and paved the way for it. An inevitable negative side of these prosperous results were certainly also some harmful consequences of the crusades, which they concealed within themselves. At the same time, the seeds of future upheavals, such as the penetration of certain oriental heresies into the West, the spread of oriental luxury and debauchery in and of a rationalistic-liberal mentality in philosophy, and the reawakening of a self-aware secularism tended to escape the guidance of the Church.

With these notes I hope I have contributed to making a different light available to many in order to form a more equitable judgment.

4. I spoke of the Inquisition in three replies. By looking for the word Inquisition in the list of all answers, you can easily find them.

I salute you, I remember you to the Lord and I bless you.

Father Angelo