The following talk was given to young men at the Voice of the Family conference Created for heaven: the mission of Catholic young adults in today’s world that was held in Rome on 20 October 2018.
By Varro Vooglaid
“How much worse are things to get before men of good will finally decide to take action?” – Jean Ousset
The purpose of this talk is to emphasise the importance of the militant spirit in the life of Catholic men, to explain its meaning and to call for its restoration by cultivating the virtue of militancy. No virtue among Catholic men has declined more than that of militancy. Today, militancy is not regarded as a virtue, but a vice. This attitude is un-Catholic and should be rejected. In fact, militancy correctly understood and practised is central to the life of Catholic men. We are always called to fight, although we need to understand the nature of our battles. Before looking at the virtue of militancy, let us examine some important lessons from history.
Three crucial battles
Three of the most remarkable events in history were not just battles on an epic scale: crucially they saved Christendom – not figuratively, but literally.
The first was fought on 19 September 732 between the cities of Tours and Poitiers when Charles Martel led Catholic knights of the Frankish and Burgundian army to victory over the Umayyad Caliphate. By 711, Muslim forces had overrun Iberia and were raiding Frankish territory, looting villages, towns and monasteries, killing men and enslaving women and children. In the previous century, Muslims had shown extreme brutality in conquering vast territories in the Middle East (including the Holy Land) and Northern Africa. Already by the 9th-century victory in the Battle of Tours was regarded as the outcome of divine intervention and it is easy to see why – the army of the Caliphate was at least twice the size of that of the Catholics. Later historians praised Charles Martel as the champion of Christianity, characterising the battle as the decisive turning point in the struggle against Islam and the preservation of Christianity as the religion of Europe.
The Battle Tours helped lay the foundations of the Carolingian Empire and Frankish domination of Europe for the next century. The grandson of Charles Martel, Charlemagne, was crowned Imperator Romanorum by Leo III on Christmas Day, in 800, is considered the “Father of Europe”. Charlemagne began the Spanish Reconquista and his victories formed a protective zone against Islam across the Pyrenees, preserving the Catholic Church in that area. Although clashes continued, Islamic forces were not strong enough to attempt another invasion against Europe for 700 years, when they came across the Balkans. Most historians agree that without a victory at the Battle of Tours, it is likely that there would have been no Charlemagne, no Holy Roman Empire, and no Papal States.1
The second battle is probably the most glorious battle in the history of Christendom and the greatest naval battle ever fought. The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October 1571 and proved to be another major turning point in the conflict between Christendom and Islam. With the emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the late 13th century, this struggle became extremely serious. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Turkish sultan called a jihad against Christians. Soon after, in 1444, Turkish forces gained a major victory at Varna, an important town on the Black Sea. Ten years later Christians lost Constantinople. During the second half of the 16th century, the Ottomans brutally conquered the islands of Cyprus and Crete.
Fighting at Lepanto was so fierce that it is said that by the end of the battle the sea was red with blood for miles around. Christian forces were victorious, but at a great cost: about 8,000 men were lost and even more injured. When news from the fleet reached Europe, there was much rejoicing, and Pius V gave credit to the Blessed Virgin Mary declaring 7 October the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. Lepanto did not bring an end to the Ottoman Empire, but it proved to be a turning point in the Ottoman advance on Europe. The Turks never again made a major attack on the Mediterranean – Christendom’s southern borders were now safe and one of the two main pathways to conquering Europe was cut off.2
The third battle was fought on 12 September 1683, at the gates of Vienna. Once again the Turks returned to conquer Christendom with an army of over a hundred thousand men. It is said that they could easily have taken the city but wanting to do so with as little destruction as possible they laid siege to it instead. By 11 September the siege had lasted several months and hopes of saving Vienna were fading. Having undermined the city walls large fissures had appeared even before they could be blown up. One final explosion was all that was needed for the Sultan’s army to march into the city.
As the mines were about to be placed, a red and white flag was spotted on top of the Kahlenberg hill overlooking Vienna. The Polish King, Jan III Sobieski, had arrived with 30,000 Polish, 18,500, Austrian and almost 28,000 German knights who answered the call of Innocent XI to fight the Turks. The enormous battle raged all day but as night drew closer, Sobieski sent in all four of his cavalry units, about 20,000 horsemen. Charging down the Kahlenberg at the head of 3,000 heavily armed “winged” Polish hussars Sobieski stormed into the battle with a deafening noise. Recognising that the final stage of the battle was at hand, the garrison of Vienna opened the city gates and attacked the Turks from the rear. The triumph of the Christians was complete.
This was one of the most decisive military charges in history and marked the end of the Ottoman conquest of Europe. Thereafter, the Turks were gradually pushed out not to return. Jan III Sobieski is rightfully remembered as the king who saved Europe from the Muslim invasion.
Militant Spirit as the Fruit of Love
Recalling these battles should help us understand the importance of the militant spirit. Without this spirit, Christendom would have disappeared long ago. It was only through the self-sacrifice of brave and determined men that Christendom has survived. We should be grateful to the men who suffered and died for the Church and for Christendom. Their sacrifice has allowed us to inherit the world we live in.
We must also realise the error of pacifism, the mindset of so many Christians today. It is not un-Christian to fight, on the contrary, Christians are called to fight the good fight, to be defenders of the Church and of Christendom. But how can the militant spirit be compatible with the commandment to love? Everything a Christian does should be motivated by love, but this does not conflict with the militant spirit. Rather the militant spirit should be a fruit of love.
Love presupposes sacrifice for the one who is loved. Without sacrifice, there is no true love – only sentimentalism. If a man loves his wife and children, he is ready to defend them. If he loves a friend, he is ready to fight alongside him. If he loves his country, he must be ready to fight against all attacks. True love is proven in times of difficulty, as the Romans observed, amicus certus in re incertus cernitur – sure friends are discerned in unsure circumstances. Love is ultimately determined when self-sacrifice is called for. Our Lord said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) And He, who sacrificed Himself on the cross is the greatest example of the militant spirit as the fruit of love.
The battles of the past deserve more than our admiration, they should become a source of inspiration, a model to emulate. Their true value is made clear when we realise that we too are called upon to make sacrifices.
We are not called to fight at Tours, Lepanto and Vienna but in a sense, they are not unlike the battles of our day. If we love the Church, we must be ready to fight her enemies. If she is attacked and we do nothing to defend her, then we have no real love for her.
When we consider the dominant social and political tendencies of the cultural revolution in the West, we have every reason to believe that faithful Christians will soon face persecution and may well be gaoled for refusing to abandon what we know to be true.
Laws in both the US and France already threaten with imprisonment pro-life demonstrators who try to convince women to keep their children or come too close to abortion facilities. In a growing number of nations, homosexual activists say Catholic teaching on homosexual relations should be regarded as hate speech. Likewise any discrimination on the grounds of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity”, is outlawed and business owners can be prosecuted if they refuse to offer their services in a way that violates Christian convictions.
We can expect the scope and intensity of this ideological dictatorship to increase dramatically in the coming years. Similar concerns surround the Islamisation of Europe. As Catholics in the West, we must be prepared to face imprisonment and even martyrdom as Christians already do in Muslim lands. All of this points to the same conclusion: we must be willing to fight, ready to suffer, to sacrifice ourselves – even our lives. Only then can we call ourselves Catholics. Be gentle, kind and contemplative but prepared to fight. Either we are imbued with fighting spirit or we will become frustrated and end by losing our faith.
Nor can we overlook the importance of a militant spirit in defence of orthodox doctrine. Within the Church, this is the most important fight we face today. If the teachings of the Church are corrupted everything will become corrupt. Fighting her enemies means never compromising with anything that will corrupt true doctrine – not only rejecting errors but fighting against them. This makes life far from comfortable. Being portrayed as rigid and intolerant results in conflict not just with society but with many inside the Church. Yet, carrying this cross is one of the most valuable acts of love we can perform for the Church. This is impossible without a militant spirit.
From the militant spirit to the virtue of militancy
For the Church Militant, the militant spirit is essential and must be rooted in the virtue of militancy (also called combativity). Recognising the need to fight is not enough we also need the ability to fight. We must, therefore, consider the virtue of militancy.
Virtue is a stable and good habit of the intellect, the heart and the will. Being virtuous means possessing as one’s second nature such a character that allows one to know the goods worth pursuing in life and then to pursue them regardless of difficulties faced along the way. The virtue of militancy also to fight them even in the most difficult circumstances. For any virtue to be mastered, it must be trained. Militancy is no exception and must be trained to grow stronger, to become our second nature – that is, the moral character we build through our choices and actions.
Defining the virtue of militancy is not easy, but it gives us the habitual capability of sacrificing ourselves for the ideals we believe to be true. It goes hand in hand with magnanimity and nobility, which are about the longing of the soul for great things and living at the service of high moral ideals. The virtue of militancy should not be seen in isolation, but rather it is closely linked to many other important virtues. Prudence, for example, allows us to understand the nature of our battles and choose the right strategy, tactics and means of fighting. Faith helps us not to doubt the cause of our fight. Honour allows us to see our fight as the source of our personal dignity and means of sanctification. Charity enables us to fight against the object of our struggle – that is sin, not the sinner – and prevents militancy from turning into resentment, hatred and brutality. Humility and service allow us to fight not for our own glory, but for the glory of God. Courage and perseverance enable us not only to enter into battles but also to stay engaged regardless of hardships and suffering. Temperance leads us to focus on the fight by detaching ourselves from material and sensual attractions. Hope saves us from despair.
Central to the virtue of militancy is the sense of duty – the understanding that fighting is not an option, but a responsibility. This is fundamental to the morale of army officers. It is this that obliges military men to service and self-sacrifice, not the commands of their superiors.
Catholics have been far too passive for far too long
The militant spirit and the virtue of militancy cannot merely be intellectual they must also be practical – that is, about our own lives. It is wrong to fall into the error of activism, seeing action as the sole means of our fight, it is just as wrong to adopt pietism or intellectualism, refusing to engage in action and hoping that prayer or endless discussions will solve our problems. As Pius X said in 1903, “[t]he subtle raising of multiple questions and the most eloquent dissertation of rights and duties matters little, if all this does not end in action.” Or as St Augustine has said: “Pray as though everything depended on God, but work as though everything depended on you.”
The world tries to convince us not to enter into battle. “Do not waste your life fighting for abstract ideals, enjoy the pleasures life has to offer,” is its message. Yet the militant spirit of Catholics should be the exact opposite – “Do not waste your life on the pleasures of this world, fight for ideals that are worth living for.” It is due to the idleness and passivity of Catholics that the Revolution has wrought such destruction and inflicted such heavy wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Few passages have had such an impact on my own understanding of the militant spirit than Lenin words about the conditions that made the Communist Revolution possible. “If in 1917 there had existed in Petrograd only some thousands of men who knew what they really wanted, we should never have been able to take over power in Russia,” stated the man whose revolutionary ambitions brought down the Russian monarchy and subjected it along with many other nations to the menace of communism. The same idea was expressed by Cardinal Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office during the reign of Pius XII: “The frequency and power of crime have blunted Christian sensibility, even, alas[!], among Christians. Not only as men but as Christians, they do not react, do not leap to their feet. How can they feel themselves to be Christians if they are insensitive to the wounds which are being inflicted on Christianity? Life shows its existence by the sensation of pain, by the vivacity (an expressive word) by which it reacts to a wound, by the promptness and vigour of the reaction. In the midst of rottenness and decomposition there is no reaction.” If these words do not make us realise the critical importance of action as opposed to sterile deliberation, what will?
Jean Ousset wrote in his brilliant book Action (published in the 1960s) that “[t]here is no more subtle and heinous a perversion than a self-satisfied orthodoxy that is indifferent as to whether truth is fruitful or whether evil is triumphant. A wholly cerebral and speculative orthodoxy is not enough” and that “[t]o be really and vitally orthodox, one needs not only intellectual orthodoxy, but also what may be termed orthodoxy of the will.” That is the core argument presented in the book: if Christians wish to have any hope of stopping the Revolution and the destruction of the Christian moral and social order, then we must restore our militant spirit and engage in action. Ousset criticises the way Christians act, seeing in it fundamental flaws: “Professing concern for order and method, we act chaotically. Canonising zeal and labour, we do little or nothing. Desperately and blindly overcome by passion as soon as we take to action, we nevertheless proclaim that we always wish to be guided by reason. And while we never cease prattling about the forces of mind and spirit, in practice we have less confidence in these forces than self-confessed materialists.” Summing it up, he wrote: “We believe that it should be relatively easy to save society, but only on condition that a number of good folks should apply themselves to the action involved, in the necessary manner and with sufficient perseverance. Our worry is not that it is radically impossible to save society, our worry is that those members of society who are apparently most fitted to work for its salvation will not set about this task, or only half-heartedly.”
A common objection from those who do not want to dedicate themselves to the fight is the view that engaging in battles would not be rational, the overwhelming advantage of the Revolution means we have no hope. “If there is no hope of winning, then why fight?” they ask. This was said to Jeanne d’Arc in the 15th century before decisive battles in the Hundred Years’ War. Her response exposes the fundamental error behind this question. “In the name of God, the men at arms will give battle and God will grant them victory.” she said. This is the spirit that triumphed at Lepanto and Vienna. Having gained victory in Lepanto, Don Juan of Austria sent a message to the Senate of Venice, declaring: “Non virtus, non arma, non duces, sed Maria Rosarii victores nos fecit”– “Not power, not arms, not commanders, but Our Lady of the Rosary gave us victory”. Likewise, after the Battle of Vienna, Jan III Sobieski, paraphrasing Julius Caesar, declared: “Veni, vidi, Deus vicit!”– “I came, I saw, God won!”
Engaging in battle is meaningful not only if we calculate that victory is more probable than defeat. The duty of soldiers is not to calculate, but to fight. This is also true for us as members of the Church Militant. Each of us has a specific vocation so we are called to fight in different ways and settings but we are all called to fight for truth, goodness and beauty, and against the evil one. Either we follow God’s call to fight or turn a deaf ear to Him. We must understand our vocation, that is, the specific form in which we are called to fight, and then engage in that fight, by preparing ourselves and then grow in holiness through fighting. One thing is certain: there is no dignity, honour or holiness without a readiness to suffer by serving God. Ultimately it is about who we as men want to be. There is no higher mission for a Catholic man than to be a soldier in the army of Christ. So, let us resolve to fight. Let us prepare for the fight in our spirit, in our intellect and in our will. Finally, let us engage in the good fight!
In many ways, the battles we face today are more complicated than the military conflicts of the past. Every man knows what he is called to do when a hostile army invades his country. But what do when it is difficult even to understand the nature of the battles – inside the Church, and outside in the realm of philosophy, morals, culture, law, politics and the economy – let alone our role in them? It requires prayer, contemplation and doctrinal formation to understand the sly and insidious Revolution that does not show itself openly yet seeks to corrupt everything true, beautiful and good.
Our battles are predominantly spiritual. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said, “the battle line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” This is where our most important battle is fought because it profits us nothing to win the whole world but lose our soul. We must bear in mind that when we fight the forces of evil we cannot succeed if we rely on our own strength. Our only hope is that God works in and through us. However, we must prepare ourselves properly to make this possible. If sin lives in us, we cannot fight sin outside us. This is why the sacraments, prayer and proper spiritual direction are so important.
There is a lot we can learn from the words of the Greek statesman, Demosthenes. When difficulties caused his fellow citizens to lose hope he told them: “Athenians! Certainly, things are going badly and you are in despair. But in this you are wrong! If, after having done all that was necessary to ensure that things should go well, you had still seen them turn out badly, you might have reason to despair. Yet hitherto things have gone badly only because you have not done what was necessary so that they should do otherwise. It is still open to you to do what you have so far not done. Then things will go well. Why, then, should you despair so soon?” Let us bear these words in mind and think about what we can do, firstly to understand the battle, secondly, to prepare ourselves for it, and finally, to engage in fighting for the values, principles and ideals that form our Catholic faith.
We are told by the modern world that the problem with society is excessive masculinity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The meaning of masculinity has been distorted and it is our task to restore it – first of all in ourselves and then in society at large. This restoration begins in the understanding that masculinity is about militancy in the broadest sense. Men, by their nature, are called to be defenders of truth, justice, goodness and other high ideals. To fight against the enemies of the Church in the spirit of love, dedication, perseverance and sacrifice is a vocation we are called to for the greater glory of God, for the salvation of souls and for the sanctification of our own soul. This fight must begin in our soul but it extends to every aspect of our spiritual and social life, with kindness and love, but without sentimentalism, false piety and softness. If we are to be the light of the world we must let the light of God shine, without fear or compromise, without counting the cost, trusting in God and relying on His grace. Fighting goes hand in hand with sacrifice and suffering and this provides us with a simple, but effective test: if we do not suffer, then we are not fighting any serious battles.
The words of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó provide us with an excellent example of the militant spirit in action. Under enormous pressure for speaking out against the corruption in the Church that has caused huge damage, he turned to his fellow bishops asking them to engage in fighting:
“You too are faced with a choice. You can choose to withdraw from the battle, to prop up the conspiracy of silence and avert your eyes from the spreading of corruption. You can make excuses, compromises and justification that put off the day of reckoning. You can console yourselves with the falsehood and the delusion that it will be easier to tell the truth tomorrow, and then the following day, and so on. On the other hand, you can choose to speak. You can trust Him who told us, ‘the truth will set you free.’ I do not say it will be easy to decide between silence and speaking. I urge you to consider which choice – on your deathbed, and then before the just Judge – you will not regret having made.”
Varro Vooglaid is a founding member and the chairman of the board of the Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition, an independent organization based in Tallinn, Estonia which defends Christian moral principles in contemporary society. He is a lawyer and a former lecturer of the philosophy of law at the University of Tartu. He is married with seven children.
1. See more at https://www.aquinasandmore.com/catholic-articles/12-things-you-should-know-about-the-battle-of-tours/article/395
2. See more at http://www.aquinasandmore.com/blog/our-ladys-victory-at-the-battle-of-lepanto/