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The Church Militant or the Church Belligerent?


Every nation needs to defend itself. Yet many nations (including our own at its founding) have been wary of standing armies. The prophet Samuel, in warning Israel against a king, touched on this fear (cf. 1 Sam. 8:11-12). The same suspicion inspired the Roman law that forbade Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The danger of a standing army is simple: It can be used against its own people. Generals can use it against the government and the government can use it against the citizens. Thus, a tension: A nation at once both needs and fears an army.

The Church, like a nation, must defend herself and her faith. She must fight for the truth and for the salvation of souls. This demands doing battle, for which reason we call ourselves the Church Militant. Like a nation, however, the Church also encounters a danger: that the fighting spirit of the Church Militant turn against her. The danger is not of fighting—but of only fighting, and fighting in the wrong way. The danger is that the Church become not the New Jerusalem, but the New Sparta. And Sparta was known for only one thing: fighting. Ruthlessly, effectively, heroically at times, but only fighting. Sparta produced no great artwork, poetry, plays, or philosophy. It produced only war.

In short, the risk is to cease being the Church Militant and to become instead the “Church Belligerent.” This term describes not so much a specific group of people as a certain attitude, mindset, or approach. It indicates the necessary fighting spirit of the Church Militant severed from the principle of charity. And it constitutes a hazard—not for those who think that the past forty years have been a catechetical and liturgical success, not for those who see no need to evangelize, not for those waiting for the Church to be updated. Rather, it poses a threat precisely to those—to us—who take the demands of the Church Militant seriously, who see the crisis in society and within the Church, who recognize the catechetical and liturgical fallout of almost four decades, and who desire to enter into the battle for souls.

The Pitfalls

Since we must do battle, we must also be on our guard, lest our fighting sense become the only sense we have. Perhaps by considering certain characteristics of the Church Belligerent, we can better guard ourselves against it.

First, prizing principles over persons.
Evangelization and apologetics try to unite two things: God’s truth and the human heart. Let us keep in mind these two things are meant for each other. To effect this union we must possess a love for both the truth and the person. The goal is not just to prove our point or, worse, to prove ourselves correct. Rather, the purpose is to bring people to Christ and to establish his truth in their hearts. To do that we must possess the truth. But we must also keep hearts intact. We depart from the right path when we prize a certain principle or truth and run roughshod over the person in our delivery.

In short, the Church Belligerent succumbs to the temptation to win arguments instead of hearts—to break the bruised reed and quench the smoldering wick. A friend, once having acted less than charitably when arguing with someone about Eucharistic adoration, confessed, “It was as though I had taken the monstrance and smashed it over his head.” A shocking image, perhaps. But it describes the danger well. The human heart desires the truth. We ought not wield the truth as a weapon, a club for beating people into love for Christ and his Church. If we do, the truth may remain intact, but the heart will be crushed or—worse—hardened.

Second, losing the supernatural outlook.
Few of us knowingly fall into this error. After all, it is precisely the supernatural character of the Church and her mission that inspires us. Nonetheless, our behavior can at times betray and exacerbate a merely worldly view about divine things. Consider the constant scouring of blogs and Web sites, the incessant speculation about this prelate and that, the wondering about who’s doing what, who will be appointed where (and why), the parsing of statements, the gauging of each “group’s” gains and losses, and so on. All this is not merely staying informed. It is keeping score in the Church. And it displays a view of the Church as a purely human institution—a view that, if not corrected, leads to those merely human means of reform that always prove disastrous.

Worldly elements and factions exist in the Church and always have. We need to negotiate them with the wisdom of serpents. But they are not the only, nor even the most important,.aspect of the Church. So we must not allow them to obscure the truth that the Church, ultimately, is Christ’s—indeed, is Christ himself. Getting carried away by the human intrigue and politicking that loiters in the Church slowly wears away at our supernatural outlook. As it festers it leads us to fight no longer for Christ’s bride, but for our position, our group. We begin to grieve more that our side has suffered a setback than that Christ’s Body has been assailed.

How we respond to scandals is a good barometer of our supernatural outlook. We should react to scandals (past, present…future) first with sorrow for the offense against our Lord and the damage to his Mystical Body. We should grieve more that he is betrayed than that our counsel or advice was not heeded. Sin’s horror comes not from any harm done to my convictions but from the offense against our Lord and the damage (perhaps eternal) to souls.

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