In Defense of the Use of Military Imagery in the Church

Last week in the blog I penned what was intended as a humorous post based on a video which asked: Is the Church a Cruise Ship or a Battleship?  The video rather humorously depicts how many people want their parish to be like a cruise ship: comfortable, pleasant, with a popular captain and crew, fundamentally existing to please me and serve my needs. The video, and I as well, tweaked this point of view by going to the other end of the spectrum insofar as ocean-going vessels are concerned and suggested that the image of battleship might be more appropriate. In such a ship, my comfort and good pleasure is less the focus. Mission, noble purpose, being well equipped, and effectively engaging the spiritual battle against the world, the flesh and the devil  are more the focus in a battleship image.

Now, as is often the case when any military imagery is used, some of the commenters took offense, or were alarmed at what the use of such imagery might lead to. I want to address some of the concerns in this regard and make something of a defense for the long tradition of military metaphors for the Christian life and by extension the Church.

To begin, lets be clear, the primary Biblical images of the Church are the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Every other image is subordinate to these. But that said the Church can be compared to many things, all of which convey some truth. To say that the Church is like a battleship does not deny the principle images of Body and Bride any more than saying the Church is like a ship, an ark, a family, or a garden, or colony of bees for that matter. All of these images might capture some aspect of the Church worth consideration. A few of the comments from last week suggested that the metaphor of a battleship somehow precluded other images such as Bride and Body. It  does not. One metaphor does not preclude another. “King Jesus has a garden full of diverse flowers”  and each of them has something to say, something to teach that does not cancel the others.

But the specific concern for some seems to be military images per se. Back in January when I wrote of priests as soldiers and more recently last week, commenters had some of the following concerns:

  • I find your militaristic and pugilistic imagery not only off-putting, but bordering on un-Christian.
  • The church should have nothing to do with the military. War and all that comes with it are evil and unnecessary. The church a living body, not a machine like the military would want to treat it. The analogy is insufficient…..
  • Boats figure frequently in the Gospels in the ministry of Jesus–but none of them are battleships. Jesus rode in the fishing boats….Jesus was also pretty clearly opposed to the occasionally militant ideas of his (often obtuse) disciples…..peoples’ desire to make Jesus or His Church into a militaristic organization are hard pressed to find their justification in anything but the weak human desire to impose violence as a supposed solution to evil…..

Now, to be clear, the use of the image of a battleship is not to make the Church a militaristic organization. She is not, she is the Bride of Christ and also his body. But the Church and the Christian can and do have qualities LIKE a soldier or instrument of Battle. Paul for example refers to the Word of God as a sword and says that the Christian should be equipped like a soldier:

Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything, to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all (the) flaming arrows of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)

Now Paul, while using military images is not calling for violent action. Rather he is saying that,  like a soldier equipped for battle,  a Christian should realize that he too is in a spiritual battle which requires the weaponry of the truth, righteousness, faith, serenity, confidence of salvation, and the Word of God for his sword.

To me military imagery evokes things like discipline, honor, duty, self-sacrifice, laying down ones life for one’s friends, obedience, authority, chain of command, and the like. Christian tradition is rich with military themes. One of the great hymns for the martyrs is “Deus Tuorum Militum” (Oh God of thy soldiers). The beautiful hymn “For all the saints has this line: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear a distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong! Alleluia.” Another line says “The golden evening brightens in the west, soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest….” The Protestant tradition also features songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “I am On the Battlefield for my Lord.” When Pope Benedict visited the White House the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was sung and that hymn is in almost every Catholic Hymnal. The hymn bespeaks the necessity of engaging the great struggle for justice and freedom and links it to the great battle described in the Book of Revelation between Christ and Satan:  He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on….

The Church Militant – Then too, one of the most traditional references in the Church’s lexicon of herself  on earth is the “Church Militant.”  The Church in heaven is the Church Triumphant. The Church in Purgatory is the Church suffering.  But the Church here on earth is the Church Militant. In other words the Church here on earth is engaged in a great battle,  still. She battles against error and sin, she shed the light of the truth to a world that prefers the darkness and snatches souls from Satan’s grasp in a great battle. In the Easter Sequence Hymn the battle waged by Christ and continued through his mystical Body is described in this way: Mors et vita duello. Conflixere mirando, dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus (Death and life have clashed in a wondrous battle, The king of life dies, yet reigns (now) alive). The Church militant continues to experience the unfolding of this great paschal mystery as she, by God’s grace makes daring raids into Satan’s stronghold and leads souls to freedom and victory. Her weapons are the truth of God’s Word, the healing and powerful sacraments and intrepid evangelical souls who witness to the truth and proclaim it to the world. Yes, the Church is surely in a great battle. The Hymn “The Church’s One Foundation”  describes this battle as thus:

Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation,of peace forevermore;
till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious, shall be the church at rest.

Then too is one of the principle prayers of the Church which invokes the great leader of the Host (a word which means “army”) of Angels:

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.
Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;
and do Thou, O Prince of the Heavenly Host –
by the Divine Power of God –
cast into hell, satan and all the evil spirits,
who roam throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls.

In all these images and expressions it is clear that they do not mean that the Church should buy jeeps and tanks or any worldly weaponry. But the images of battle are invoked to remind the Christian to have the virtues of the solider and to be aware that a battle is taking place all around us that requires sober vigilance and properly discerned action.

The Church for her part has a a key role in summoning Christians to enter the battle (the conflixere mirando) by defining clearly the crucial battles that much be waged on a multi-front war. As St. Paul warns, If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor 14:8). He exhorts Timothy to “Fight the Good fight” (1 Tim 6:12).  He also distinguishes our warfare in these words:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (1 Cor 10:3-6)

Hence, In defense of military imagery I invoke long Christian Tradition, the witness of Scripture and the fittingness of the imagery to describe the life of the Christian and also the  Church. While distinctions are important as have been made above, it remains a true fact that we are in a great battle and as such, a spiritualized understanding of the soldier, weapons and battle are both fitting and essential. As with any imagery, one is free to make use of it as it suits them. There may be some who find such imagery less helpful. But there are many who find it encouraging and truthful. It ought not be excluded as a category, image or metaphor  in the Church’s self understanding.

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him….When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child..from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus(Rev 12, selectae)

Thanks to Cynthia BC  for pointing me to this video: Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before. Christ, the royal Master, Leads against the Foe; Forward into battle See His banners go! Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war, With the cross of Jesus Going on before!

43 Replies to “In Defense of the Use of Military Imagery in the Church”

  1. To object to military imagery is not only to misunderstand the Church, as you have explained here, but it is also to misunderstand the military, which is a good and honorable profession.

  2. ………..and priests are right at the forefront of this battle. in the sacrament of confession the priest snatches a soul out of the very hands of satan. no wonder the priests are the subject of intense mudslinging by the agents of satan,ie the world especially worldly media houses.
    may the Good Shepherd give you priests strength to continue the fight.
    as you pointed out in the previous post the greatest threat is “being nice”. may we remember one purpose of the Gospel is to make all comfortable persons uncomfortable while simultaneously making uncomfortable persons very comfortable.

  3. Obviously your opponents have not only never read the Old Testament (specifically, the conquest of Canaan), they are also obviously unfamiliar with Ephesians 6.

  4. It’s my understanding that strict pacifism is inconsistent with Catholic teaching. There is both a right to self-defense and an obligation to defend others.

    1. Yes, I think the Catechism is clear that under certain circumstances we are obliged to come the help of victims of unjust aggression, we are also obliged to defend our own life under certain circumstances as well even when it is necessary to deal a lethal blow:

      the legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. This is because love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow (Catechism 2263-2264) Therefore, legitimate self defense should not be seen as an exception to the fifth commandment but as a fulfillment of it. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the state (Catechism 2265).

      That said, the Church has usually accomdated the pascifist view to some extent permitting it to act as a kind sed contra to those who might propose aggressive solutions

  5. One main thing the military requires is obedience – obedience to a superior. Is it possible that obedience and humility is where the true resistance is found? In our spirituality courses we learned of the Benedictine thought of obedience to the Abbot whose obedience is to God. In all things I must make my will the will of God. Is it that we find it too difficult to bend our will and obey the Master? Just a thought from a worm and no man.


      1. You are of course aware that following the end of WW2 at the trials in Nuernberg, the defense of ‘I was following orders’ was refuted by the court ? Obedience is a fine thing but the individual is responsible for his/her own actions.

        1. Agreed but why do you imply that anyone here would not agree to this proper distinction. I don’t recall seeing the word “blind” in front of the word obedience, nor do I recall seeing described as absolute.

  6. As for the commenter who mentioned Jesus’ disdain for the military (which is untrue), he seems to forget that Roman Centurians are named in the Gospels, and Jesus blessed them with tremendous grace.

    Like it or not, we are at war here on earth, and the battle is a life and death struggle with the forces of evil. That is the way it is.

  7. I think you’re biggest critics in this regard will end up being the Pax Christi people. I almost joined them at one point, but got turned off by the sheer volume of the looniness I encountered: (Did you know that eating meat is violating the principles of the Non-Violent Jesus and going against Gospel principles? Did you know that if you say that you would defend your family and home with violence if necessary it means you’re full of hate and have secret desires to murder people? Yeah, neither did I… But that’s what I was told).

    In point of fact, the Church, described very well in the 1980s document put out by the USCCB, has room for both those who are committed to pacifism as well as those that act in the defense of others. That’s why we have saints like St. Francis of Assisi as well as St Joan of Arc. (BTW, did you know that lots of the Pax Christi folks tried to tell me that Joan of Arc was actually a committed pacifist? Who knew?)

    1. Yes, there is room in the Church for the pacifist voice in that they raise necessary questions we should all ask before there is recourse to any aggressive solution.

  8. The Devil would like nothing more than for the Christian to disavow trappings of spiritual war.

    He would like nothing more than for man to disbelieve in the war the devil is waging against man’s soul.

  9. I sometimes think that the general absence of men from parish life and liturgy has as much to do with the general de-masculinization of the practice of the faith as anything else. I often long for songs like Battle Hymn of the Republic and the like, when our congregation is singing some ditty about dancing through the wildflowers with Jesus.

    Stir my soul, call me to duty, inspire me to action. Men and women are different and we need different kinds of motivation. For that matter, some men won’t like the masculine imagery of a great battle. That’s fine. But don’t forget the rest of us.

    1. I had to LOL at “…some ditty about dancing through the wildflowers…”

      If I’ve time this evening I’ll dig up some nice he-men hymns. 😉

    2. Yes. I once heard some of the music you describe as dancing through the wildflowers, also described as “Jesus is my boyfirend music”

      Some good hymns with a military cadence would please more than a few men.

  10. Monsignor,

    Excellent article, as usual. I’m not sure how anyone could overlook the militaristic imagery of the Church in tradition; as you’ve pointed out, we’re even called the “Church Militant!”

    In all honesty, I’d have to say that anyone who thinks that militaristic imagery is a contradiction in terms to the spiritual life probably doesn’t have very much experience in spirituality. When one begins in earnest to cultivate an interior life, the component of “spiritual warfare” quite literally must rise to the front. We are assaulted by our own concupiscence, temptations and whisperings by the adversary, and even the hostility of the world. We must suppress vice, many times through fasting and mortifications; we must do penance for our own sins, and reparation for the sins of others; and we must cultivate virtue, all of which requires struggle, battle, and conflict. As it is said, without the conflict, there is no crown; those who can’t see the spiritual warfare aspect of spirituality are probably either new to the interior life, or haven’t even begun.

    1. I think I largely agree with you but I will personally refrain from saying they don’t have much expereince in spirituality. However, to your point I will note that just about every spiritual manual of old had a Chapter entitled “Pugna Spiritalis” (Spiritual Battle).

  11. I agree with you all! Escpecially D’s point about men not being more involved in parish life. Again, great article Msgr Pope. Preach on!

  12. Good Apologia Msgr.
    A few years back I attended my first Solemn High Mass in the EF. The Mass was offered in the Crypt Chapel of the National Shrine by priests of the FSSP. One of the many things that impressed me was the seriousness and dignity that the sacred ministers had in saying Mass. The only other ocassions I have witnessed anything remotely similar was in watching military ceremonies.

    1. True.

      I am reminded of watching the folding of the flag at my friend’s funeral at Arlington Cemetery a few years ago. I remember being struck by what the flag *was*, as I watched them handle it, for the first time in my life.

      Seeing each other handle things in a certain way is the only way to touch a reality against which all of the senses militate. So I wouldn’t believe a stick to be a sword unless the actors treat it so, *and* the audience believes together.

      The individual’s will is simply not that strong, and it is very helpful to the demons to suppose that it is.

  13. I recall a speaker at a JustFaith class (in our parish hall) a couple of years ago expressing his disdain for Church involvement with the military in any capacity – based on his understanding of Jesus’ non-violent message and methods. To this speaker, a Catholic, the Church should not have chaplains to serve members of the armed forces, as it bestowed some legitimacy on the military as an institution and, by extension, the use of violence.

    I had to disagree with him. There is legitimate use of force; and, even if politicians use force illegitimately, those tasked with military tasks are as in need of spiritual support as anyone else (probably more, I suspect). I don’t think we should equate chaplaincy with uncritical acceptance of the use of force or immediate recourse to military solutions.

  14. Monsignor,

    Both articles are excellent! As far as those people are concerned, who found fault around your first article, I can only say that they should get a life! Hence I enjoyed your response, and that of other contributors in favour of your analogies most satisfying. Sometimes I cannot help but observe the militant Marxist arm of Islam – whose violent actions and Jihads have put potential scoffers of that faith in fear of their lives…, wish our faith had a similar approach in some instances – like a Peter who cut off the soldier’s ear with a sword! Of course we also know how Jesus reacted to this. And clearly, your pen is mightier than a (my) sword! Ah, I still have a lot to learn!

    Regards and blessings.


  15. Christ’s Cross and battle are intertwined. Put on the Armor of God: Ephesians 6:11-17; together with Psalm 91 are the primary references used by us who have been in Combat. (Viet Nam – 101st Airborne, Screaming Eagles) Yes, military incongraphy is appropriate in Christ’s Church. Our Lord’s words: “Anyone who wishes to follow Me, must first deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Matt 16:24).” In the Church’s history regarding the military Crusades, many Kings such as Richard The Lionhearted, and King William II, King of England, Henry II of France, together with peaseants, military men, and mercenaries, in the name of Christ their savior, left their homes to conquer distant and far off lands, as well as those who had to defend their territory from invaders. Also, remember Spain was invaded by Muslim forces in the year 711, and was in a state of war for over 800 years until 1492 when Queen Isabella and King Fernando recaptured Granada. Onward Christian soldier. God walks point for me. The banner of Christ’s Cross must be flown and shown to all who are today engaged in the universal struggle against evil, both physical and spiritual. Especially for those who are far from home on traditional emotional holidays, those are the days when family, and faith mean the most in a soldier’s heart.

  16. MATTHEW 10:34 Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but the sword.

    (Sounds pretty militaristic to me.)

  17. This is a splendid post, Monignor. The “war with Satan” may be a metaphor (although I take the description quite literally); but as a metaphor it demands martial imagery.

  18. Here is one old-fashioned hymn for D (sorry Msgr P it’s just a regular organ)

    “Am I a Solder of the Cross”
    by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

    1. Am I a solder of the Cross,
    A foll’wer of the Lamb,
    And shall I fear to own
    His cause Or blush to speak His name?

    2. Must I be carried to the skies
    On flow’ry beds of ease
    While others fought to win the prize
    And sailed thro’ bloody seas?

    3. Are there no foes for me to face?
    Must I not stem the flood?
    Is this vile world a friend to grace
    To help me on to God?

    4. Sure I must fight if I would reign;
    Increase my courage, Lord!
    I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
    Supported by Thy Word.

    5. Thy saints in all this glorious war
    Shall conquer though they die;
    They see the triumph from afar
    With faith’s discerning eye.

    6. When that illustrious Day shall rise
    And all Thine armies shine
    In robes of victory through the skies,
    The glory shall be Thine.

    Text: 1 Cor. 16:13
    Author: Isaac Watts, 1721
    Composer: Thomas Ests, 1592
    Tune: “Winchester Old”

  19. “I find your militaristic and pugilistic imagery not only off-putting, but bordering on un-Christian.”

    I find your passivity and naivete disheartening. What ever happened to Onward Christian Soldiers, now we like to sit around the camp fire singing Kum-bi -ya. You are exactly the reason I constantly urge men to step up and start getting involved in their Religious Education programs; I’ve had enough of this feminised softening of our faith. The Lord is a warrior, Lord is his name Gen 3:15. Men need to get out of thier lazyboys and start getting involved! Go ask your priest how he can use you in the parish, get your Knights organized and get out in the streets getting involved in the community, and pray the rosary for the grace of leading young men into the Church. Young men aren’t going to follow a timid and soft spoken nancy, they need real men leading by example and caring about them through brotherly love and action. Peace be with you all.

  20. I had hoped to find a recording of this hymn played on a humongous organ, but was unsuccessful. Not a military theme but definitely not of the Dancing Through the Wildflowers genre.

    “Built on the Rock the Church doth Stand”
    by Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig, 1783-1872
    Translated by Carl Doving, 1867-1937

    1. Built on the Rock the Church doth stand,
    Even when steeples are falling;
    Crumbled have spires in every land,
    Bells still are chiming and calling,
    Calling the young and old to rest,
    But above all the soul distrest,
    Longing for rest everlasting.

    2. Surely in temples made with hands,
    God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
    High above earth His temple stands,
    All earthly temples excelling.
    Yet He whom heavens cannot contain
    Chose to abide on earth with men,
    Built in our bodies His temple.

    3. We are God’s house of living stones,
    Builded for His habitation;
    He through baptismal grace us owns
    Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
    Were we but two His name to tell,
    Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
    With all His grace and His favor.

    4. Now we may gather with our King
    E’en in the lowliest dwelling;
    Praises to Him we there may bring,
    His wondrous mercy forthtelling.
    Jesus His grace to us accords;
    Spirit and life are all His words;
    His truth doth hallow the temple.

    5. Still we our earthly temples rear
    That we may herald His praises;
    They are the homes where He draws near
    And little children embraces.
    Beautiful things in them are said;
    God there with us His covenant made,
    Making us heirs of His kingdom.

    6. Here stands the font before our eyes
    Telling how God did receive us;
    The altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice
    And what His table doth give us;
    Here sounds the Word that doth proclaim
    Christ yesterday, today, the same,
    Yea, and for aye our Redeemer.

    7. Grant then, O God, where’er men roam,
    That, when the church-bells are ringing,
    Many in saving faith may come
    Where Christ His message is bringing:
    “I know Mine own, Mine own know Me;
    Ye, not the world, My face shall see.
    My peace I leave with you.” Amen. Eph. 2: 19-22

    Author: Nicolai F.S. Grundtvig, 1837
    Translated by: Carl Doving, 1909, alt.
    Titled: “Kirken den er et gammelt Hus”
    Composer: Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1871
    Tune: “Kirken den er et”

  21. Our Saviour preached a gospel of peace but, not peace at any price.
    Consider Luke 12;49-53 49″I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed! 51Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
    I grow weary of people who tell us that it’s not nice to protect ourselves or to deprive other religions of access to cable networks which are funded by Christian donations. Some of these organizations have access to funds to create their own cable networks so what do they want? A ready made captive audience?
    All this reminds me of the famous Canadian politician; Tommy Douglas. He was a pacifist, a protestant minister, a champion boxer and; when the issues of World War II were revealed he supported Canada’s entry into the conflict by stating that he had the right to turn his own cheek but, not the cheeks of defenseless children.

  22. When I used to see messages in Holy Scripture which seemed; in my limited understanding; to contradict each other (such as a gospel of peace taught by One who overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple) I would conclude that it was beyond my understanding. Then, much later in Catechism the concept of the mysteries was taught to me and I had a clearer grasp since God’s ways are indeed a mystery to me. And, when involved in spiritual support groups which described “God as we understood Him,” I was uncomfortable with the concept even though it had been shown to bring agnostics and, even some atheists, to accept God in their life. As my “understanding” evolved I shared at these groups that my understanding was “God as I don’t understand Him” for, if a mere human such as myself could understand Him – how could He be God and manage all that He does. What others thought of this is unknown to me because of the concept “of putting it out and letting it go” which is in common usage in these groups.
    Now, however, I am looking again into a study of physics which I abandoned in my high school years. Not the vast and complex equations needed to operate a reactor, but more like how a crowbar works. Why can it multiply my strength five times over? Well the end my hand rests on moves five times (or more) as far as the end which has hooked the nail. hence five times the force. Nothing magic there.
    So, thanks to the page on the church as a battleship and this one a metaphor of a balance beam comes clear. Two seemingly opposite things are on opposing ends of the balance beam. They may even be of different weights – like 50 kilograms a metre off centre in one direction and 25 kilograms two metres off centre in the other direction. They do not contradict but, rather, compliment.
    This post is to thank Msgr. Pope and all those who posted for inspiring this clarity and to honestly acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers but that’s O.K. because God does and He guides us in His perfect timing – even if I, one, get a little impatient.

  23. I usually do not leave a ton of comments, however I looked at
    some of the responses on In Defense of the Use of Military
    Imagery in the Church

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