The Crusading heritage

The Crusades constitute one of the most striking and thought-provoking features of the history of Christianity. While in spirit many of the wars of the Eastern Empire were closely akin to them, they were primarily an outgrowth of the Latin or Western wing of the Catholic Church. They may be regarded as a phase of the activist temper of much of Western Christianity. Here was an effort to achieve the kingdom of God on earth by the methods of that world which the New Testament declares to be at enmity with the Gospel. To put it in Augustinian terms, it was the employment of the instruments of the earthly city to further the City of God. Arising from a mixture of motives, they enlisted much devotion. Here and there were Christians who questioned whether basically they were true to the Gospel and many more deplored the cruelty, immorality, and pride which went with them. However, the great majority of the Christians of Western Europe accepted them and endorsed them. In this the Papacy, the head of the Western Church, led.

The Crusades constituted a complete reversal of the attitude of the early Christians towards war. As we have seen, that was predominantly one of condemnation. By the majority, participation in it as a soldier was deemed inconsistent with the Christian ideal. Later the theory was developed that wars could be just. Now some wars were regarded as holy and in fulfilment of the purposes of God. Deus vult ("God wills it") was the cry.

The Crusades had important consequences. They stimulated the growth, already beginning, of the commerce of the Italian cities. They brought Western Europe into intimate contact with the high civilizations of the Near East. Yet they failed in their primary objectives. They did not put the Holy Places permanently into the possession of Christians. They weakened rather than strengthened the Greek Church and the Eastern Empire in their resistance to aggressive Islam. Minorities from the Eastern Churches were won to fellowship with Rome, but the Crusades deepened rather than bridged the widening rift between the Western and Eastern wings of the Catholic Church. Probably they intensified the hatred and the scorn of Moslems for the Christian name. The Crusades aided somewhat in the geographic spread of Christianity, principally along the south and east shores of the Baltic and to a lesser extent in the ephemeral Franciscan and Dominican missions in Central Asia and the Far East. However, they may actually have retarded the understanding of the Gospel. They were an aspect of the partial capture of the Church by the warrior tradition and habits of the barbarian peoples who had mastered Western Europe and had given their professed allegiance to the Christian faith.

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