I wrote about ninety percent of the following essay more than half a year ago and then left it unfinished for some reason, which I don’t remember. I thought it worthwhile to finish and publish at this time.
The age of chivalry was characterized—at least according to its ideals—by courtesy in warfare, that is, by a standard of fair play. Prowess was not pure aggression, and courtesy was not mere manners. Both were informed by fidelity and honesty, that is, by religious faith, human justice and sincerity. That was the Christian ideal anyway, not always realized, but as an ideal it created positive peer pressure that served to both perfect the arts of the warrior and check his ferocity.
Anyone who has heard or read anything I have to say on chivalry knows I say this often. It is fundamental.
In the last decade or so there has been a very happy resurgence of interest in that character of the Church we call “militant.” However, the peculiar keynote of Christian militancy is not the violent death of our earthly enemy, but the violent death and resurrection of our King, which puts death itself to death, and conquers our real enemy, the Prince of this World. Thus, the methods of alinskian secularism or of jihadist religion cannot be our methods. To put it another way, the belligerence of the pirate cannot be reconciled with the chivalry of the knight.
Knight vs. Pirate
If chivalry in the west developed out of Catholic and specifically Marian culture, which is certainly true—though there were pagan and less savory influences as well—one might say that the antithesis of chivalry is piracy, which developed out of the disintegration of Christendom. Certainly, there have always been seafaring pirates of one sort or another, as there are today, for instance, in Somalia. But most of us associate piracy with that (not so) “golden age” of post-reformation Europe. Masculine individualism and grossly anti-social behavior grew in parallel to the national and military expansions of the time—mostly Protestant following the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England.
If the world of the knight was characterized by feudal loyalties and the mutual obligations of the patronage of lord and soldier, the life of the pirate was the rejection of loyalty to the growing absolutism of the nation state. Pirates scorned the monopoly the state had over both wealth and military power, and took the opportunity to form themselves into independent bands of a non-conformist resistance, where the promise of booty and the threat of violence, not loyalty and honor, were the operating motivators. However, this did not preclude opportunistic alliances with the state. For example, both English and French pirates were licensed by the state itself as privateers “to get back some of the wealth of the Americas that the papacy reserved for the Spanish.”
And so, though piracy could appear to be sheer thuggery and mayhem, its growth manifested deeper social and moral changes, and not all pirates were uneducated, though most were. As a disestablishmentarian movement it could attract both “disgruntled aristocrats” as well as “social radicals.” And though deeply individualistic and utilitarian, its roots were not wholly condemnable. The development of the absolute monarchy and the all-powerful nation state were not characteristics of Christendom, but of its disintegration. Unfortunately, as we witness throughout history, unscrupulous opportunists use legitimate concerns to foist their lies, their projects of social engineering, or just plain mayhem, on the unsuspecting public. The following is the rather salty manner in which “Black” Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood of the Sea,” explained himself in this matter:
Damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage; had you not better make one of us, than sneak after the arses of those villains for employment?
More often than not piracy was just thuggery on the sea, but it was capable of being romanticized as it has been in literature and film because the pirate, like Robin Hood, was committed to “sticking it to the man.”
And “sticking to the man,” as well as to non-combatant, the pirate did. The Jolly Roger, the ensign of the pirate says it all: “No quarter given or taken. Death follows in our wake.” The black flag is the diametric opposite of the white flag of surrender, and the scull and crossbones means the same thing they do on a bottle of poison. It is interesting how with the death of chivalry modern military technology and strategy developed more and more along asymmetrical lines: piracy; victory by superior firepower; guerilla warfare; urban warfare; terrorism; torture; robotic warfare. Fair play and the respect for the human dignity of the enemy (let alone that of the non-combatant) have lost their importance in the consideration of ultimate victory. The iconic phrase apropos here is that of Robert Duvall’s character, Lt. Col. Kilgore, in the movie “Apocalypse Now”: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning . . . . It smells like victory.” Francis Ford Coppola used this to great effect. Kilgore calls in the napalm drop in order to clear a beach so his men can surf it safely. The asymmetry lies not only along the lines of the inequality of means between the two forces, but also the lack of proportion between the violence and its purpose. Both these problems are present in piracy. The black banner of the pirate blazes the rogue motto of devil’s brethren: “To hell with chivalry.”
We have come to romanticize the pirate the same way we have come to romanticize the knight. Courtesy becomes manners, which in turn becomes the spirit of adultery and impurity. Outrage over injustice becomes a pretext for tactics that would otherwise be flatly rejected by the Christian as dishonest, brutal and contrary to basic notions of fair play. What matters to many is the shining armor of the hansom young prince or the dapper grittiness of the swashbuckler. But they are whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. One should not consider this a tirade against pirate movies or tales of courtly love. We should all understand the function of story. Indeed, H. L. Menken was onto something when he wrote: “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” But the operative words here are “normal” and “temptation.” It is a normal temptation of normal men, but good men ought to resist it.
The Big Stick
If a fundamental difference between knight and pirate was a question of loyalty and honor, then one defect that they held in common was the temptation of domination over others linked to the military character of their trades. The whole point of chivalry, however, was to keep this in check, while the whole point of piracy was to exploit it. The wealth generally associated with nobility made sure that the function of the mounted and armored soldier was reserved to the upper classes, but the code of chivalry, expressed aptly in the axiom noblesse oblige, served to foster the virtues of chivalry (fidelity [loyalty], honor [honesty], courtesy, prowess [courage] and largess [generosity]). The code was necessary for the security and order of Christendom, and developed from Catholic principles, largely because the monks who had great influence over the people preached against the excesses of the nobility and demanded that those who ruled respect the rights of the peasantry. Thus, while both knight and pirate were subject to the same “vocational” temptations, it was precisely the lack of loyalty, honor and courtesy—and one might say, the principled contempt for these virtues—that defined the life of the pirate. Among the knights, as with all soldiers throughout the ages, when the code broke down chivalry came to look more and more like piracy. For instance, in principle and many times in practice the crusades were legitimate projects of chivalry, but episodes like the Sack of Constantinople, was in fact carried out by men who had descended into something like piracy.
In all this it is the common man who suffers most. The “man” in “sticking it to the man” is not the only man who gets stuck. Today we euphemistically call it “collateral damage,” which is meant to indicate that non-combatant casualties cannot be avoided. And so the common man, caught in the crossfire, is supposed to choose sides and accept his lot as canon fodder. Today, for example, we are expected to choose between the crooks in the government and those in business as the ones who are really looking out for us and protecting us against the other side. And then there are the radicals more or less at loggerheads with the establishment, but also willing to play footsie with it when necessary. And so we have a skirmish between the various advocates of domination on one side and the sophistry of piracy on the other, and worse still, today’s pirate is tomorrow’s “the man.”
It is all quite logical. If one is able to overpower others, and if one’s culture itself justifies asymmetry tilted against the common good of common men, then “sticking it to the man” becomes an excuse to stick it to anyone who has something I want or to anyone who represents something I detest. But the inverse is also true. If I am the one dominated and ripped off, the common man who has been disenfranchised of the common good, then asymmetric warfare seems to be the specially justified means for sticking it to the man and to anyone else associated with him.
Pillage and Plunder
And so there are also the elements of greed and envy in the spirit of piracy, of which both temporal and spiritual goods may be the objects. For instance, the Internet is the seven seas of the modern voyager, and it has attached to it a world-wide underworld of Robin Hoods and Blackbeards. Intellectual and Internet piracy is something specific, to be distinguished from the work of the hacker, leaker, spammer and the slightly more—but not entirely—respectable blogger. But there is also a sense in which for our purposes the spirit of piracy is operative in all. I don’t want to be too hard on the blogger, that is, on people like myself; however, the blogger’s domain does sit on a precipice. It is, so to speak, at the end of the virtual world, where the blogger’s schooner lists over the edge of the abyss. The blogger, along with others, has broken the monopoly that the once elite media had on discourse in the public square, and this is a good thing. And in so doing has carved out a territory for himself—a hidden cove from which he can sortie and rain cannon fire on his foes and then slip back into hiding. “And of course,” says Blogger Blackbeard, “this is necessary, because otherwise, I would be caught and imprisoned by ‘the man.’” But in reality, how much more influence and honor does the blogger deserve than a hacker, leaker or spammer? That all depends, I would suggest, on the existence or lack thereof of a code of warfare.
In fact, we bloggers sometimes reveal ourselves to be too much the eager beavers to be bothered with the code of chivalry. The asymmetry is just too tempting. Of course, there are reasons—very good reasons—why we choose anonymity, or virtual anonymity though fictitious screen names. There are also very good reasons why we cannot moderate effectively every comment of the one who says what we are thinking but are afraid to say. And there are exceptionally excellent reasons why we let our hoards of Twitter followers do our dirty work for us. After all we have no control (conveniently) over them. There are also undeniably good reasons why we should not and cannot be held accountable for our speculation, gossip, ad hominems and innuendo. Since, after all, we are committed to sticking it to the man. And of course, some of us have other dirty little secrets, perfectly justified in our own minds, like the sock puppets we keep conveniently at hand for times when we are loosing an argument or a wholly biased and dishonest systems of comment moderation. As long as the visits, links, hits, likes, follows and subscriptions increase, the veritable booty of the blogger, we are simply the romantic adventurers of the digital age.
The Internet is just one manifestation of this phenomenon, but a singular one because the virtual world, in a remarkable way, has provided a space where it is socially acceptable to claim “Yo, ho, yo ho, a pirates life for me.” Furthermore, with the pervasiveness of social media and the ubiquitous handheld device, more and more of our life is and will be infected by the “viral.” We are sure to be hit at some point by the blogger’s, hacker’s, spammer’s or leaker’s canon shot as much as we would like to avoid it. The fact is all you have to do to rack up a million views on YouTube is to have no shame. And that, boys and girls, is sufficient to get you on the nightly news and to subject people around the world to the bilge of the under-deck. This is a cultural change that affects even those who do not surf the web. The web itself has become the news. Mind you, I am not bewailing this cultural change—at least not altogether. It just proves that chivalry is more necessary today than ever.
Pirates and Revolutionaries
All of this is relevant to an examination of the yearned for return of the Church Militant. It is fair to say that everyone, no matter where they stand along the spectrum of Catholicity would admit that the post-conciliar Church has suffered from a kind of identity crisis, a sort of teenage self-preoccupation producing delayed adolescence. Incapable of fighting for anything meaningful many Catholics have fought, like Peter Pan, for the right not to grow up.
Traditionalists cannot be faulted for identifying revolutionary forces at work with the Church over the last fifty years. In fact, the wreckage looks a great deal like work of pirates (or teenagers), right down to the contempt shown for our artistic and architectural heritage. Some of our Churches, the great patrimony of past generations now have more the look and feel of port of call taverns than of places of worship. And the manner in which this was accomplished has all the signs of piracy: no quarter; (spiritual) death; asymmetry in the force used against the faithful and in the proportion between the violence used and the ends achieved; the all consuming obsession with sticking to the man, that is, to the Roman Institution, and especially to the pope.
However, one can argue pretty convincingly that that what we have witnessed in the postconciliar period is distinct from piracy precisely as a revolutionary movement that has intended to replace one establishment with another. The goal was never really to stick to the man and liberate the masses from an “unjust authority,” but to replace the old man with a new man. For all the liberal cant about democracy and intellectual freedom, there is nothing more illiberal than liberalism. Any one who has had a classically liberal postconciliar pastor knows this. In fact, there is strange irony in the transposition of roles of priest and laity that has occurred in a very widespread way. It did not just happen because emasculated priests stood by and watched it happen. On the contrary, much of it was forced on the faithful by authoritarian priests. Some of the old school clericalism that existed before the Council came into the service of the new liberalism and the laity were going to take their “rightful place” in the sanctuary and pulpit whether they liked it or not. And the postconciliar wreckers seem to love bureaucracy and red tape—not very pirate-like I would say. No one has perfected legalistic and bureaucratic stonewalling like the liberal cleric.
And yet, if the Church will prevail against the gates of hell—and she will—then anti-ecclesial revolutionary movements have issued from those gates and are directed satanically toward a final conflagration—not just whitewashed murals and frescoes, ripped out high altars and altar rails—but Churches lit on fire and the walls pulled down by brigands, as was done in England. The real enemies of the Church have this goal in mind and none other. The voice of the Church must be silenced. And it cannot be silenced unless the Church is killed. Big Red, Old Scratch, Old Harry, Old Nick are all pirate names for the Prince of Darkness who rides the poop deck of Hell’s Revenge with unsheathed sabre clutched in his skeletal hand.
The common man has a certain sympathy with the idea of sticking it to the man. He knows it is true that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And his view of the supernatural authority of the Church has been naturalized by the naturalism of many of those in authority. The vast majority of the simple faithful have gone along with the revolution like the rabble they have been formed to be, hanging on catch phrases mouthed over and over by poorly educated preachers unsure of what they believe, but confident that Rome has it wrong. And of course, we were all told exactly what we wanted to hear. They will no longer endure sound doctrine because having itching ears they have heaped to themselves teachers after their own liking (cf., 2 Tim 4:3). And so they say: “If we can’t have our contraception we will not have this man to rule over us” (cf., Lk 19:14).
Reenter the Church Militant. The faithful remnant has had enough. We want our Church back. And we will take it back. These are noble sentiments, the fruit of true and noble convictions. But it is what happens after this that becomes problematic. None of us cease to be children of our own age. As much as we want to revolt against its spirit we are never entirely free of its influence. Devout Catholics today teeter between a kind of hyper-supernaturalized view of authority, which is simply human respect and hero worship (one needs only thing of the fallen priest/angels of our digital age) and a very naturalized view of authority that sees almost no divine providence in the concrete mystery of the obedience of the Cross. The new Church Militant has declared a counter-revolution, not against the enemies of the Church as conceived of as an anti-ecclesial movement, but against the living magisterium itself. The man has got to go.
The Church Belligerent?
Is this counter-revolution or piracy? Can it be reconciled with chivalry?
I have been critical of the counter-revolutionary movement on this blog over the last few years, largely because of those representatives of the movement who see the modern magisterium itself as the Revolution against which the Counter-Revolution must be launched. One reader, who is an expert in these matters, has made it plain that Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira is misrepresented by many of his followers. In his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution, de Oliviera was not originating a movement but creating “a digest of 200 years of counter-revolutionary thinking,” which began with Edmond Burke and brought in line with Catholic thought through others. So my criticisms are not against counter-revolution as such, but of a very specific kind.
The forces unleashed on the world by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment have had disastrous effects in the Church, and I am not going to pretend—or have I ever—that non-binding magisterial teaching is guaranteed immunity from this poison. Nor do I—or have I ever—denied that higher cultural forms ought to take their rightful place in the Church. What I have questioned—and still do—is the cultural engineering, especially when it proceeds from an elitist mentality that is conjoined to superficial metaphysics and most especially when it finds itself embroiled in a public propaganda war against the magisterium. I am not talking about the doubts people have, but of the anti-ecclesial ministries that arise out of those doubts.
It seems to me that in reaction to revolutionary forces certain individuals and movements have attempted to “produce” Christendom in much the same way that the revolutionary forces have attempted to social engineer a new world order. The similarities between the Rules for Radicals of Saul Alinsky and the methods of many restorationists are striking in this regard.
And so to answer the questions above, I must say it seems clear to me that much of the effort among Catholics has all the markings of piracy, regardless of whether it prides itself as revolutionary or counter-revolutionary, though I acknowledge in principle that counter-revolutionary ideas can and have been brought in line with the magisterium.
The problem is that the romanticized version of militancy has drawn chivalry and piracy together in a close alliance. What is done in the name of a victory for God’s cause seems to be justified by the very fact that it is done in His service. Whether it is the idea that marriage should not get in the way of true love, or that the establishment ought to be opposed by any means possible, or that a godly brotherhood in arms sets the warrior in a class above other men, so many people seem to canonize personal conscience and excuse every behavior that proceeds from it as a right and duty to fight for one’s cause. Progressives do this in the name of personal liberty and tolerance; traditionalists do it in the name of tradition and the social reign of Christ the King. The ends are radically different, but the means adopted to attain them are not. And it is the problem with the means, often overlooked or excused, that needs to become more often the subject of an examination of conscience.
Piracy or Papolotry?
Are those really our options?
Loyalty to Peter need not be capitulation to “the man,” human respect for an absolute monarch, worship of the nation state, or as some say ultramontanism. It is need not be a response of fear or servility. Not when it is rooted in the mystery of divine providence. It is not the worker bee mentality or the mindless codependence of the sect. It is not some kind of overextended idea of papal infallibility or false notion of impeccability. It is faith and hope in Christ himself, in the Person of Christ—not in the person of Francis or Benedict, but Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, who is Lord of History.
I don’t deny that there are some ultramontane tendencies among Catholics today, but that is squeezed between two extremes—diametrically opposed currents who both maintain the same justifications for dissent. Not everyone who pushes back against the extremes is an ultramontane.
The Catholic Church is not a police state, as has been so eloquently exemplified by the popes of the last century who have resisted absolutism is all its forms. Neither Benedict nor Francis has shown any allergy to criticism. And this is as it should be. But it is one thing for a faithful son to cry out to his father against what he perceives to be injustice. It is another to take on the life of a pirate, and still another to euphemize piracy under the title of revolution or counter-revolution, especially when the one who is the principle target of this movement, the one who allegedly has aligned himself with the powers of darkness is the Pope himself. Nor should we consider such an aberration the simple cry of the poor—not when every Machiavellian deception and manipulation is enlisted in the service of “the truth.” No, the opposite of this kind of naturalism is not papalotry. The opposite of this is chivalry.
There has been criticism of this blog on the grounds that it is too idealistic—not in touch with the reality as it is in the Church today. But the problem with chivalry is not that it is too idealistic, but that it is easily switched out for a counterfeit: mere manners, slick social manipulation and prowess with women. There always have been two currents in the chivalrous movement, one Marian and the other gnostic; one supernatural and pure, the other merely natural and lustful. Any Catholic who says the supernatural ideal of chivalry is too idealistic will have no place in their lives for the Cross.
There has also been criticism that I cover all the wrong topics—that I am tilting at windmills while Rome burns. No doubt what concerns me most proceeds from the experience of a minority. But the problem today is not merely naturalism, or secularism as we apply it to modern society. The problem is also the inability to discern between the natural and supernatural, between nature and grace, and the tendency to completely deny the one or the other. So supernatural militancy is reduced to a twisted monstrosity of belligerence and piracy.
And this is a problem common to everyone along the Catholic spectrum. As one who has lived within a traditional milieu for over a quarter century, it is also problem of the household, and one that is not seen for what it is, precisely because it is covered with the silk of piety, sacredness and presumed doctrinal purity. But naturalism will not save the Church, no matter how pious and pure it is, because it leads to the same old rebellion and the same old reduction of the Cross of Christ to something we profess but do not live.
They used to hang pirates. We don’t do that kind of thing anymore. The Internet is so much more civilized. Christians, though they still hang. And the true followers of Christ still willingly die for Him because they choose Him not just as their final end but as the only way, truth and life. They choose His cross because salvation is from God and not from man.
Those who are consecrated to the Immaculate, Queen of Martyrs and Coredemptrix, ought to understand all this because it is a wholly supernatural life. We either belong to Her or we don’t. There is the promise and then there is daily life. And certainly, in this regard there can be no fellowship between chivalry and piracy.