Thursday, April 17, 2014

The frappé of human kindness

Marco d’Aviano was a Capuchin priest and friar from Venice, “famed as a preacher of crusades against the Islamic armies of the Ottoman Turks”—including direct preaching to help inspire the Christians to defeat the infamous Islamic siege against Vienna in 1683—the last time that Islam was able to muster a major military invasion of the West.

On April 27, 2003, the Pope at the time, John Paul II, initiated a process of beatification of
d’Avian—effectively making him a Saint of the Church. This act by the Pope created some handwringing at the time, mostly from politically correct Catholics, such as Father Justus Lacunza, Missionary of Africa who heads the Pontifical Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies (I wonder if they are studying the same Islam whose believers attacked and beseiged and raped and enslaved and pillaged Christendom for a good millennium from the 7th to the 17th centuries...?). Father Lacunza was quoted as worrying whether the beatification of d’Aviano might be “adding fuel to the fire”—even though it was apparently clear that the reasoning of the Pope for the beatification had little to do with d’Aviano’s anti-Islamic crusades, but rather to do with the rather more nebulous laudation of him as an apostle of Europe’s Christian identity” (Heaven forbid the Pope should have thought to propose him as an apostle of resistance to Islam!); for, as the Pope said, with perhaps overly diplomatic imprecision, d’Aviano’s memorialization symbolizes the conviction that Europe’s unity will be more stable if it is based on its common Christian roots.

Less hackneyed and more subtle was the response of Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Austria, who tried to explain away the admirable martial spirit of
d’Aviano with the deceptively anodyne phrase that the spirited monk was a “child of the times”. I.e., his errors—as a Christian helping to rally the Christian troops against Muslim invaders—can be chalked up to a bygone era when Christianity had not yet evolved into a more pacifist and politically correct culture. One one level, I agree essentially with Cardinal Schoenborn’s rudimentary historical view: Christianity indeed has evolved and become less martial. But to Cardinal Schoenborn, this is a simplistically good thing. To me, it is more complex: it is both good and bad: good in that corporal punishments for anti-Christian expressions; a general climate of censorship and intellectual oppression for anti-religious expressions; and lynchings, pogroms and internecine warfare all to a great degree religiously motivated should be consigned to the dustbin of history. But bad when the martial fortitude of Christians of old—in defense of their civilization against physically violent invaders—is thrown out with the bathwater. 

Lest the modern secularist worry that a revival of the Christian martial spirit would threaten the successful evolution of Christianity into the maturely docile partner of secularism she has become in modern times, I am of course not calling for a revival of such a martial spirit in terms of any politico-legal institutions; but only in terms of a lucid willingness and readiness to fight and kill in self-defense, without hamstringing that self-defense in ahistorical calls for us to comport ourselves, in the face of an Islam Redivivus, more mercifully and in a manner “more Christian”.

Outside the Vatican, there were signs of common sense in Italian society, somewhat less encumbered with PC MC, perhaps, than many other Western nations: Italian director Renzo Martinelli, who was reported to have been working on a film based on the life of Marco d’Aviano (possibly his 2012 film The Day of the Siege about the 1683 siege of Vienna), asserted that “without him Italian women would today be wearing the burqa.”  Martinelli, incidentally, is the director who made one of the only films to deal with Islamic terrorism in a way even approaching verisimilitude, his 2006 movie The Stone Merchant, which someday I will review here.  Also, Italy has a political party containing politicians and analysts wiser than any seen in many other Western countriesthe so-called "far-right" Northern League party.  A Northern League member of Italian parliament, Edouard Ballaman, stated publicly (and with a boldness nearly unmatched anywhere else in the free world in similar contexts) that the beatification of d'Aviano “...will make Christianity wake up, posing de facto the basis for a second crusade, this one in defense against an Islamic assault, after the first...”  Indeed, Ballaman led a delegation from the Northern League to the beatification ceremony.

Good old
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, of course, hastened to put a damper on such an interpretation.  D’Aviano “should not be instrumentalized for today’s political purposes,” he reminded us, anxiously.
Indeed, it seems that Saint d’Aviano could be hailed as a child of our time as well as of his time, for he was able to embody and understand the complexity of a Christianity at once sufficiently martial to marshal effective defense against Muslim attack, and sufficiently merciful to distinguish it from the very enemy it had to fight.

As a 2003 story in the National Catholic Reporter described:

When the imperial armies defeated the Ottomans at Belgrade in 1688, for example, d’Aviano interceded to save the lives of the surrendering Muslim troops.

It is difficult to imagine a Muslim cleric—of the 17th or the 21st century—rushing in to a city that had just been successfully overrun by Muslim jihadists, pleading to spare the lives and limbs of the vanquished. But it is not difficult to imagine Christian clerics doing so. That is the telling difference. And, if any point can be salvaged from this footnote to history, it is that we, as modern Westerners, surely have the intellectual capacity to hold in our heads and respect, at one and the same time, both the Christian mercy of Saint d’Aviano, and his Christian martialism.  

For, on the other side of the coin, a biography records that during the fighting that led to the Western victory five years earlier at the siege of Vienna, d’Aviano had brandished a crucifix at the Turks, shouting, “Behold the cross of the Lord: Flee, enemy bands!”

The milk of human kindness, so carefully and wonderfully cultivated by the West over its difficult career of centuries, not without bouts of imperfection now and then, need not be timid nor insipid.  It can help to build (or rebuild) the strong bones of the Body Politic now assailed by a global revival of that seige of 1683.


In a footnote to this footnote, we learn that aside from his military and spiritual legacy, d’Aviano left one other trace in history. When the Viennese decided to use milk to lighten the thick coffee left behind by the Ottoman invaders, they named the resulting drink for d’Aviano’s Capuchin religious order: cappuccino.

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