The Rise of Historical Absolutism

The New York Times recently profiled Susanna Ceccardi, the new right-wing populist mayor of a previously left-wing town in central Italy, as part of a series on the rise of populist politics in Europe. Much of Ceccardi’s political playbook—scapegoating of immigrants, anti-establishment rhetoric, a genuine concern for people facing precarious work situations, and so forth—is well-known to anybody following the news today. However, one aspect of it, Ceccardi’s rhetorical focus on medieval and early modern battles between Catholic and Muslim countries, might confuse people who are not used to thinking of premodern history as relevant to modern problems. Ceccardi brings this up often in public speeches and it also seems to be personally important to her; she is currently pregnant with her first daughter and is considering naming her after Kinzica de’ Sismondi, a legendary figure who is supposed to have saved Pisa from a Saracen incursion during the Middle Ages.

In fact, the battles that she evokes, from the Frankish victory over the Umayyad Caliphate at Tours in 732 to the Polish victory over the Ottoman Empire at the Siege of Vienna in 1683, are foundational motifs in the understanding of history current on the Catholic far right. Their entry into the mainstream suggests that at least some Italian Catholics, despite their generally high levels of support for a Pope who shows next to no interest in this sort of thing, are eager to adopt a stylized and indeed somewhat violent view of their own faith history. What I think is going on here is a particular case in point of a current tendency away from thinking about history, society, or public morality complexly and back towards the perennially recurrent habit of understanding them in terms of either raw zero-sum power relationships or morally simplistic just-so stories.

There are at least three keys to understanding this phenomenon; unfortunately, all three can be difficult to comprehend. First of all, it seems inherently absurd to overlook the manifest, pervasive legacies of Western victories in recent conflicts like the World Wars in favor of dredging up wars like the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Second of all, this fixation has emerged from Catholicism-as-culture almost entirely without any encouragement or support from Church leadership. Third and most worryingly of all, this interest in “Western civilization” and hyperfocus on once nearly forgotten narratives like those surrounding Tours and Vienna is proving to be a powerful political and cultural motivator for people who do not have far-right views in almost any other issue area. What causes this?

I cannot begin to guess what initially gave this way of looking at it history the appeal that it currently has, but it shows up across the spectrum of young-person politics. On the right it takes the form of fixedly pursuing victory in a “clash of civilizations,” the infamous post-Cold War theory of international relations first developed by Samuel Huntington, which Huntington himself at least had the decency not to be enthusiastic about. (Full article is paywalled.) There are left-wing versions of this tendency as well, involving an intense focus on historical injustice that (like an interest in medieval and early modern history!) is often reasonable in itself but can serve as a distraction from present-day issues and lead to an understanding of politics as basically revenge-focused.

It goes without saying that this is not the only possible way of looking at society or at history. Furthermore, it is not even the only possible way to maintain a generally positive impression of one’s own faith. The book that first got me interested in medieval history, the Age of Faith volume of Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization series, is a perfect example of another way of looking at it. The Story of Civilization has an overarching narrative typical of the way mid-twentieth-century liberals understood human history. For the Durants, history is the story of struggle after struggle between the forces of religious sectarianism or racial supremacy and the forces of universal values and individual rights. This is not an especially Catholic view of history, but it does lead them to come to positive conclusions about Catholicism as having fostered some sense of unity and higher moral aspirations amidst the constant infighting of the European Middle Ages. At the same time, the Durants feel no need to claim that medieval Catholicism—or medieval Islam, which also takes up significant parts of The Age of Faithwas a beacon of moral perfection or that the papacy and Christendom as a whole were justified in everything they did. They are horrified by medieval antisemitism, sickened by the massacre of the population of Jerusalem at the end of the First Crusade, and even fault the apparent schadenfreude in much of the Divine Comedy. They see history as driven by a wide variety of processes and human motivations despite their desire to impose a certain moral uniformity and overall purpose upon it.

Moral complexity in history is inescapable. It is one of the central facts of attempting to understand history morally at all in a fallen world. To name just one example involving somebody who lived much more recently than the protagonists of Tours or Vienna, Helen Keller is a giant in the history of American activism for the rights and wellbeing of disabled people. She also once wrote in favor of euthanasia of cognitively impaired infants because her experiences as somebody who was physically disabled but mentally very acute led her to consider mental disability a fate worse than death. Personal histories (and what history is more personal than salvation history?) contain serious moral ambiguities and lapses as well; all of us have the experience of having to be humble about members of our families, even ones we love very much.

Pope Francis has said that when we study natural families we need to look at them “in their lights and shadows”; the same can be said for the spiritual family that is the human element of the Church. Thus, I’ll discuss applications of this principle to Christian salvation history and the history of Catholicism’s relationships to other religions, especially Islam, in the second part of this essay.


St. Francis in Egypt, Pope Francis in Dubai

In the year 1219, Francis of Assisi, then in his late thirties, traveled to Egypt in an attempt to peacefully convert the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil to Christianity to bring an end to the Fifth Crusade. Contemporary Christian sources say that Francis crossed the Muslim lines, was received graciously by Al-Kamil and his court, preached unsuccessfully, and was allowed to return to Europe unharmed (though probably carrying the malaria that he died of seven years later). Contemporary Islamic sources do not mention Francis’s visit; however, by the end of the Crusades and the fall of the Catholic kingdoms in the Levant a few generations later, Francis was seen positively enough in the Muslim world that the Franciscan Order was allowed to remain in the Holy Land to minister to Christian pilgrims there.

Eight hundred years after St. Francis’s attempt at reaching détente with the Sultan, Pope Francis is once again dealing with tensions with the Muslim world in the form of the final effort being made by Islamists in a number of countries to eradicate Christianity in the Middle East entirely. To be sure, the conditions that have incubated present-day Islamic extremism have next to nothing to do with the conditions in which the Crusades took place. However, both the extremists themselves and Muslim-baiters in the West act and speak as if there is a connection, and this is harmful to people’s ability and willingness to seek nonviolent solutions.

We live in an age in which military recruitment ads make being in the military look like a video game (as opposed to the ads of twenty or thirty years ago that made it look like an action movie). Especially online, the ethos of a player-vs.-player video game is combining with the moral absolutism that I mentioned in the first part of this essay to teach subcultures of disaffected young white men, often Catholics, to think of today’s issues much as a Crusader knight would have thought of the war in which he was fighting. Meanwhile, a “woke” progressive who, like the video game-obsessed alt-righter, understands current affairs solely in terms of the past (i.e. solely as a process of rectifying or failing to rectify past wrongs, rather than proactively attempting to do good for its own sake in the here and now), might think of the current tribulations of Middle Eastern Christians as “tit for tat” or deserved retaliation.

To their credit, left-leaning Catholics are, on this particular issue, broadly in sympathy with Pope Francis’s focus on finding common political, theological, and moral ground with the Muslim world. Meanwhile, more conservative Catholics often seem to feel that their only options are doubling down on the Crusader mindset or conceding an indifferentist understanding of other religions in which no religion is truer or falser than any other. The “Open Letter” by an array of conservative theologians accusing Pope Francis of heresy specifically accuses him of indifferentism in his joint declaration with prominent Sunni cleric Ahmed el-Tayeb, which states that God wills the existence of more than one religion. This declaration is fast becoming something of a touchstone for Muslim-baiting Catholics who believe that Pope Francis is not sufficiently holding the line against Catholicism’s longtime “rival” religion.

In fact, there is a way of reading this assertion that is perfectly consistent with even the most conservative possible outlook on other religions (i.e. that God wills the existence of other religions permissively as an unavoidable side effect of human free will). Moreover, to accuse Pope Francis of “heresy” on this is to call into question the whole process by which modern Catholicism has developed away from the impulse to render all other religions politically subordinate to it. What the joint declaration might tell us about Church history is that the freedom to practice a non-Christian religion stands or falls with the freedom to choose for Christ. If this freedom is to mean anything, God must provide for the existence of other options, and for means of progressing, if need be, from one option to another.

One of the core moral complexities in the history of the Catholic Church, if not the core moral complexity, is the fact that the Church historically did not always recognize this, and indeed long supported political coercion in matters of religion. Many other examples of this “shadow” in Christian history come to mind. Such examples might range from the “teaching of contempt,” in which the Jewish people were long signaled out for unique opprobrium for their non-Christianity, to the fact that in the Early Modern period Catholicism was being brutally persecuted in countries like Japan and (intermittently) England while at the same time engaging in persecution of non-Catholics in its own areas of dominance. To be sure, the Catholic Church of 2019 is in continuity with the Catholic Churches of 732, 1219, and 1683. However, not every political victory is a moral victory, not every moral defeat is a political defeat, and a history worthy of celebration is not a history that lacks any element of human failing. In order to recognize this and to fully respect human freedom, one must refrain from idealizing moments in Christian history in which the Church violently imposed itself on the world, and from views of history in which non-Christians acting within history invited or deserved punishment for being non-Christian at Christian hands.

Edit: A commenter correctly observes that Tours and Vienna were defensive battles and that celebrating victory in them is thus not morally equivalent to advocating aggression or coercion. However, this article is meant to discuss a general tendency of treating military victory as a keystone for understanding the proper relationship of the Catholic Church and Catholic societies to other religions, rather than to discuss the specifics of the battles that Mayor Ceccardi invokes.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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