The Church Militant

We’ve found our parish, our lovely on-post chapel, and I will fully admit that one of the things drawing us to it is one of the chaplains (there are three–three!–though one is currently deployed but will probably be coming back in a month or so), as he is an excellent homilist and I do so love a good homily.

So of course his homily today (the readings for your benefit) made, among others, the very real and salient point that Catholic liturgy is not centered around how it makes us feel or how we want it to make us feel or on ticking off a list of things that seem cool or relevant–it is ultimately centered around Christ, in the Eucharist, and our need to commune with him in order to receive the grace necessary to make it through this life[1]. In today’s Gospel, he pointed out, everyone goes to Peter’s house because that’s where Jesus is, and there, Jesus heals. And so we go to Mass, even when we are feeling like Job, because God wants us to keep talking to Him and to keep coming so that He may work his healing in us, even if we are having difficulty seeing it.

He compared it to going to school, where you might like recess but not the actual learning portions, or to being in the Army, where there is always something to complain about, despite the positive notes. But he also pointed out that these are all things we do in community, that we have classmates and spouses and battle buddies to uplift and support us (to be Paul in his second reading, as we are called to preach the Gospel to each other)–and then, this being a military chapel, he reminded us that we are engaged in spiritual warfare, that we are under attack and need the support of our battle buddies, the communication from our commander, and that also we need to be aware that the little it may feel like we’re accomplishing is part of the much bigger, longer fight that we will eventually win–though that victory, like Job’s reward, doesn’t come until the end, until we’ve passed through all the trials. And the Church is the Body of which we are all members, the army to which we all belong, and those rules and rituals she provides for us come from Him Who is her Head. And so we come to a Mass which was given to us on Christ’s terms, not perhaps the ones we would like for him to maybe set forth because they’d be easier or more accessible or entertaining or immediately emotionally gratifying.[2]

There was more to the homily than that, and my clumsy summations are no match for the joy of active listening and trying to keep it all in my head. But I had to laugh to myself a little as I listened, because of course I would be at Mass on a military base just after having posed a question about the Church Militant to my Facebook friends–specifically, my male Christian friends.

One of my priest friends came up with a very solid definition of the Church Militant:

“The term refers to all of us, men and women Catholics, struggling/battling against [S]atan. The term militant suggest a solider in battle and in particular it applies to us here, who are in a spiritual war for our souls against the legion of fallen angels who tempted Jesus and are tempting us to hate God and everything he created, including ourselves. Once we finish this battle, provided we stayed in God’s friendship, we will be part of the same Church in Heaven which will then be called the Church triumphant, for there will be no more evil to fight against. If we need purification, we will be in the same Church, called the Church suffering, before we enter God’s glory. It is important to note here that all salvation comes from Christ through his Church, and this is true [whether] one is Catholic here or not, so we can’t properly say there is a Church or body outside Heaven that is called something other than the Church triumphant. Essentially, everyone in Heaven is part of the Church Christ founded, His mystical body.”

What I like about this definition is that it keeps in mind the fact that “militant” is only one way of describing the Church–she is also suffering and also triumphant; all three terms are the same Church, just from different facets. Kind of like the Trinity. It also helps us remember that we are united with all those who have gone before and those who will come after, that those who are now Triumphant were once Miliant–that they’ve been in the trenches and know where we are (the struggles are the same, though their accidental properties have changed).

Another friend brought out Pope Benedict XVI:

“Today the phrase *ecclesia militans* is somewhat out of fashion but in fact we can understand ever more so that it is true, that it contains within it the truth. We see how evil wishes to dominate in the world and that it is necessary to fight against evil. We see that it does so in so many ways: cruelty, through the different forms of violence, but even disguised as good and thereby undermining the moral foundations of society.

“St. Augustine said that all history is a struggle between two loves: love of self to the point of despising God; and love of God to the point of despising oneself, in martyrdom. We are caught up in this struggle and in this struggle it is very important to have friends.”

You’ll notice that our Pope Emeritus points out that the term is not one we hear often these days, or least which has somewhat fallen out of general usage. It was this very fact of it that caused me to ask my gentlemen friends about it–why the gentlemen, you ask? Because there have been a couple of articles making the rounds recently, prompted by Cardinal Burke’s remarks about the “feminizing” of the Church, discussing ways the Church may counteract this and increase male participation (and, the line of reasoning follows, vocations to the priesthood[3]). There have been two by Anthony Esolen (a layman) over at Crisis magazine in particular that I’ve seen passed around. Most of these articles have struck me as genuinely motivated and somewhat thoughtful at best and actively hostile at their worst, but one thing Esolen in particular insists upon is a return to or reclamation of or something of the idea of the Church Militant for the sake of encouraging/interesting men to participate in and be active with their faith.

This puzzled me.  (One of my responders brought up the question of “what does it even mean to talk about a ‘feminized’ Church?” which is an excellent question and tragically beyond the scope of this post, but I will get back to it later.  So for now, we continue our focus on the Church Militant.)

Now, obviously, I’m a woman, so I can’t speak for what inspires/motivates men on a personal level (hence the asking of gentlemen). I will say that I do believe and know that spiritual attacks are a very real phenomenon, that sometimes when you’re trying to be good but find yourself full of frustration or anger or lust or greed or your mind pops up with the most horrible thoughts or when all your attempts at unity are constantly thwarted, or when you’ve recently had a deep, spiritually motivating experience and the next thing that happens to you prompts the kind of response that makes you despair of ever being able to really change, despite that God-in-your-heart that you just managed to grasp a moment ago–sometimes, the overwhelming temptation isn’t just your sinful nature, it’s an active attempt by Satan (or Screwtape, maybe) to keep you from achieving what God is willing for you. And I think it’s important for Christians to be able to lay claim to that experience, to recognize that it isn’t entirely their fault (although that doesn’t make them any less responsible for resisting it!), to acknowledge that it doesn’t have to be a fully external experience to be a fully external attack. It’s important because one of the main tools of spiritual attack, as I said up there, is Satan trying to convince you that it is all you, that you can’t break the cycle, that you’re just too hopeless–that turning to God is fruitless, that eventually God will get as tired of you as you are of yourself (thought again it may not even be yourself but Satan that you’re tired of!). Being able to differentiate between your own personal failings and those supernatural attacks can help you focus your prayer and fight off that despair that is the ultimate triumph of the devil. Being able to see through Satan’s attacks, to see what he doesn’t want you to be aiming at or getting, can also help you focus on precisely those things. Obviously, the best-case scenario here is that you have a spiritual director to help you figure these things out, but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least try on your own–I myself have only recently started making more of an effort to pay attention to when I’m being attacked (because if you don’t know you’re being attacked it’s easier to be lazy and assume it’s all your own fault, which just creates more footholds for future attacks). So, on that front, at least, the idea of spiritual warfare–or at least of being spiritually attacked–makes plenty of sense to me.

That being said, the idea of being part of a Church Militant–or a Christian Army–doesn’t really appeal to me at all. Firstly, I consider myself a person called to pacifism (another post), and so my reaction to being attacked isn’t to fight back directly so much as it is to fly to my Lord for protection and strength. On a more outward level, the idea of being a Church at war against the world contributes I think to a sort of bastion mentality that can make it very easy to wrap oneself up in the knowledge that one Has the Truth and thus Will Be Saved while the rest of the world goes to hell in a handbasket–or, worse than the staying-inside-during-the-seige mentality, it contributes towards a Matt-Walsh-esque hostility towards “the world” that expresses itself, however unintentionally, in a hostility towards people themselves. We can talk about loving the sinner and hating the sin but if our offensive thrusts in this spiritual battle are too blunt then we have failed. Paul made himself weak to win over the weak, after all. Not that there isn’t a time and a place for righteous anger or strong words–as Paul himself demonstrates elsewhere–but to act as though because we are marching in Christ’s army all our actions are justified is to, shall we say, forget our own imperfections as individuals, and to treat the world and the people in it as inherently evil and the enemy is to hypocritically forget that we are also part of the world and the people in it, and that while we are fallen, God made us–ALL of us–good.

But I will allow that it is very possible that my seek-shelter reaction to spiritual warfare is “feminine” and that perhaps those of the more masculine persuasion would find the idea of fighting-back more appealing. Now, while I will admit that my sample selection here was a bit small and mostly Catholic, I will also admit that I was taken aback by the responses given–in part because none of them saw the Church Militant as an inherently or even particularly “masculine” portrayal of Christian life. This could be because they all seemed to have a proper understanding of it as referring to the Church as a whole, male and female, and so for it to favor one or the other would make it a poor metaphor and an even less useful truth.  Those that did like the concept were not entirely forthcoming as to why they liked it, aside from one who identifies strongly with the idea of having a shared mission with comrades in arms and a King at the head of it all. The majority of responses ranged from lukewarm to unappealed-to-by, either due to the negative connotations the word “militant” has come to have or due to a preference for other conceptions of the Church. (Next question: what IS your favorite image of the Church?)

I will admit to feeling a little sense of satisfaction at knowing that Esolen’s assumption that men will be all over a return to the Christian soldier ideal doesn’t hold as much water as he perhaps thinks it does. (Though it is possible that he’s only interested in the kind of men it would attract, which seems as problematic to me as some of the more exclusionary changes he proposes regarding women.) (On a side note, for an I think more nuanced discussion of the subject of Church and masculinity as a whole, I highly recommend this article instead.)

I also think the whole discussion illustrates one of my favorite things about Catholicism in particular: that we have so many images and concepts and ways of looking at and understanding our faith; that just because we don’t identify with one image doesn’t mean that it isn’t a useful teaching tool for someone else; that there is space in our Church for people who identify with different images to still exist and serve side-by-side in communion; that as the world changes we can reclaim or release images as we need them, or approach them with a fresh understanding as our understanding has developed throughout time. The Crusaders had a very specific image of the Church Militant, one that we are eager to leave behind us, but that doesn’t make the spiritual battle we are waging any less real. At the same time, far fewer of us in the American Church are familiar, let alone engaged, with a military lifestyle; we can “get” Paul’s spiritual armor, but we’ve never donned a bulletproof vest or had to rely on a helmet to protect us from an actual lethal attack. We’ve heard of battle buddies, but that’s not necessarily the language we’d use to describe our closest friends, the ones on whom we rely to give it to us straight and watch our backs; but there are those of us who do live that lifestyle and can find deep meaning and understanding of their calling as a Christian, both to God and to their fellow man, in that kind of imagery.

Like I said, it doesn’t really appeal to me, and furthermore I think it is often used to or contributes to a sort of self-righteous mindset that I find at odds with our Lord bleeding out on the Cross even in the midst of the world’s jeers. (There’s perhaps an analogy here going back to that whole most-people-are-unfamiliar-with-actual-military-life thing; when you live and work among them, it’s a lot harder to hold to absolutes about the heroism of all soldiers but a lot easier to love them as individuals, even when they’re showing all their flaws.) And as my questioning found, while its appeal might be slightly gendered, it’s meant to be an inclusive, equalizing image, encouraging both men and women through our struggles and encouraging us to support one another as well. And of course, I’m probably going to hear more about it, living as I do among military people. If nothing else, remembering that you’re one very small, vital part of a much, much larger effort is good for all of us–it keeps us humble, reminds us that there are others who need our help, and focuses our attention on the ultimate goal of that effort: getting us all to heaven, where Triumphant we will be.


1. For more on this subject, see Meg’s great post about what actually makes a Mass invalid.[↩]
2. I’m using words here that are often used in a derogatory sense, especially by Catholics referring to certain forms of Protestant worship, and for that I do apologize inasmuch as I recognize that a lot of the things that the Catholic liturgy couldn’t care less about are integral to other services and furthermore that people can and do engage in worship on a deep level at those services. And obviously there are probably some things Catholics could take away from that engagement–but ultimately most evangelical Protestant services take a very, very different approach to worship than the Mass (as I’ve basically already explained) and so from a Catholic experience those services often feel…confused, at best. Another post, probably one that’s been made a million times over, but oh well.[↩]
3. While I’m totally down with praying for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, it does occur to me that while we want God to call lots and lots of people, we’re also called to consider that God is generally calling guys all the time. The other half of our prayer–because I think it is a distinct difference–is “increase willingness to consider discerning vocations to the priesthood,” and I think that’s what people are trying to address in these kinds of articles. Darn that pesky free will.[↩]

Categories: army life, theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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