Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Origins of "Church Militant"

Recently while reading the discourses of P. Gregory the Great with Peter the Deacon concerning the immortality of the soul, I came across this interesting passage recounting how the death of multiple monks in Gregory's old monastery was foretold by an angelic visitor:
That those also, which lie a dying, do oftentimes by divine revelation foretell what shall happen afterward, we may learn by such things as have fallen out amongst us in divers Abbeys. For ten years since, there was a monk in my Monastery, called Gerontius, who, lying sore sick, saw by vision in the night time, certain white men beautifully apparelled to descend from above into the Monastery, and standing by his bed-side, one of them said: "The cause of our coming hither is to choose out certain of Gregory's monks, to send them abroad unto the wars": and forthwith he commanded another to write in a bill the names of Marcellus, Valentinian, Agnellus, and divers others, whose names I have now forgotten: that being done, he said further: "Put down also the name of him that now beholdeth us." By which vision he being assured of that which would come to pass, the next morning he told the monks, who they were that should shortly die out of the Monastery, adding also that himself was to follow them. The next day the foresaid monks fell more dangerously sick, and so died all in that very order which they were named in the bill. Last of all, himself also departed this life, who had foretold the departure of the other monks before him. (IV.xxvi)
What interested me especially was the phrase used by the angel of death, that these monks were being recruited to be "sent abroad unto the wars." This imagery of the saints in Heaven engaged in warfare is not, to my knowledge, found elsewhere. It makes sense that the souls of holy men war against the Devil just as the holy angels do, but still the appellation Ecclesia Militans is applied to us here on earth, and Ecclesia Triumphans describes those safe in the harbor of Heaven.

The imagery in the Militant-Triumphant metaphor is clear: the soul of a man on Earth is in constant warfare against sin, the world, the flesh, and the Devil; while the soul of a man in Heaven has triumphed over all these enemies and is established forever in grace. St. Thomas Aquinas used the Militant-Triumphant dichotomy in his Summa (II-I.102.4), but I cannot otherwise trace the origins of this terminology.

I have to wonder why the Gregorian imagery of the holy dead being sent off to war did not gain purchase in popular piety. Was it because of a increasing consciousness of the middle state, the Ecclesia Dolens? Did Purgatory conquer so much of the imagination that theologians desired to emphasize the rest and triumph of the state of blessedness? The ecclesial phrases suggest a transition from activity to passivity, but if the holy angels truly rest in the Beatific Vision and yet are perpetually active on our behalf, why should not the great "cloud of witnesses" do the same? We might we not go from one sort of militancy to another?

Mind you, I am not being critical or especially skeptical of the popular terminology of Militant-Suffering-Triumphant. I am merely curious about its origins. If any of our good readers have knowledge of this aspect of Catholic piety, I would love to hear it.


  1. Don't the saints intercede for us? If so, would it be so out of line that instead of them waiting until we ask them to intercede that God might assign them to intercede for certain people(s)? Or they might have their own they wish to intercede for. It may be a benefit of having successfully won here on earth. Similar to Christ assuming His power once He ascended to heaven. Not all battles are physical fights.

    1. Here's an excerpt from the Catholic Encyclopedia on the Church: The doctrine of the visibility in no way excludes from the Church those who have already attained to bliss. These are united with the members of the Church Militant in one communion of saints. They watch her struggles; their prayers are offered on her behalf. Similarly, those who are still in the cleansing fires of purgatory belong to the Church. There are not, as has been said, two Churches; there is but one Church, and of it all the souls of the just, whether in heaven, on earth, or in purgatory, are members (Catech. Rom., I, x, 6). But it is to the Church only in so far as militant here below — to the Church among men — that the property of visibility belongs.

      In 'A Call to Arms' by Douglas Kniebert the terms were firmed up by the Council of Trent: "It was in this context that the Council introduced a new term, ecclesia militons, the "Church militant," which it defined as follows: "The Church militant is the society of all the faithful still dwelling on earth. It is called militant because it wages eternal war with those implacable enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil."

      However, we know Thomas Aquinas lived before the Council of Trent. If he uses those terms, then they came into existence prior to the Council of Trent.

      In the Idea of Reform by Ladner: "Instead of speaking of the civitas Dei eaelestis and peregrinans, Augustine might quite conceivably have used at all times and everywhere the terminology of the ecclesia in gloria et pace and the ecclesia in via, which corresponds to the later terms ecclesia triumphans and ecclesia mihlitans."

      According to this last verse the terminology may have changed over the centuries. As it may still be changing. According to another article that is being changed to "pilgrims on earth."

      In the "Benedict Option" Dreher says there are few reasons for the loss of Christian religion: faith: "[1] In the fourteenth century, the loss of belief in the integral connection between God and Creation—or in philosophic terms, transcendent reality and material reality [2] The collapse of religious unity and religious authority in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century [3] The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, which displaced the Christian religion with the cult of Reason, privatized religious life, and inaugurated the age of democracy."

      Perhaps, it's us that changed. Perhaps, we don't see it as a battle as much as they used to. Christianity has been watered down to being a nice person. Perhaps, we no longer see calling on the saints as helping us in the spiritual battle.

      Here's a question for you. Understanding that there is still a fight raging in the heavens, why is it that Christ was considered victorious in His death, begun His reign, and, yet, no mention made of Him fighting in Heaven?

    2. The point from St. Augustine is an interesting one. There does seem to be an alternate formulation of the Church on Earth and Heaven as "Church Pilgrim" and "Church Glorious," none of which uses militant terminology. "Ecclesia in Via" could also be a reference back to the description of the Catholic religion in the Acts of the Apostles as the "Way of the Lord," which I believe predates the word "Christian" (originally an insult).

      There is no Scripture reference to Christ fighting in Heaven, even in Apoc. 12's War in Heaven. He is portrayed as a militant force in Milton's "Paradise Lost," for whatever that's worth. Christ does lead the armies of Heaven descending on the Earth at the end of The Apocalypse.

    3. J., Don't you find it incredibly interesting that neither Christ nor the saints seem to be taking part in that heavenly fight? Especially, as it is their home ground now. I do. What this tells me is the fight is here on earth. Once we die, game over, as far as fighting personal battles are concerned. Whatever state we die in determines whose ranks we join, I suppose. Now, those who are added to the ranks in heaven help us (here on earth), which Christ does very powerfully.
      Why helps us here on earth, if there is this huge battle being waged in heaven? It's my firm belief that God created everything to represent other things. The heavens, while very real, represent the kosmos: that space where ideas and such kinda float around; those things that exist and we understand, but only takes form when they're actualized. What did Lord Jesus do while He was here on earth? He fought with the Pharisees over their teachings. He taught people another way. He lived the scriptures in the truest sense of them, so they could be fulfilled. What do we need to win this battle? Faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in His teachings. What was Our Lady of Fatima all about? Returning to Christ, so Russia's errors (Communism: an idea) would not be spread throughout the world. What is the fight over abortion all about? About the belief whether an unborn child is a person and the belief whether a woman has complete sovereignty over her body. Those are the fights going on in the kosmos. Those are our battles. What will people believe? What way will they follow? Christ's or the world's? That is how the Way and the Church militant can be one and the same.
      Christ won a huge battle at Golgotha by never giving into the temptation to stop following God even when it meant His sure death. Remember, He could lay down His life and pick it up again at any time. Much like what we do at Lent when we choose to give up something that is in our power to pick up again anytime we want. The people yelling for Him to save Himself must have been a terrible temptation because it was in His power to do it. Our main battle is adhering to the way when there are so many competing way's vying for our loyalty. Quite frankly, as a Church we are failing badly in that area. Our secondary battle is applying that Way to the world we live in: how to do we apply that Way to the abortion question, Communism, etc. Then we fight to live it and make it a reality.

  2. I wish I had special information on the exact origins of this terminology for you. However, your interesting post did immediately conjure up certain examples of the Saints engaged in warfare. This past Wednesday was the (traditional) feast of St. Isidore the Farmer; according to the legenda, he appeared long after his death to Alfonso III to show him a secret route through the mountains so that he could land a decisive blow against the Moors. And of course--as is pretty well-known--St. James is said to have appeared in full panoply alongside the Spanish forces centuries earlier at the battle of Clavijo, physically slaying Moors. Later, in the 15th century, St. George is said to have appeared at the battle of Vaslui, fighting against the Turk. At the battle of the White Mountain, in the first phase of the 30 Years' War, the (defaced) image of the Holy Family routed the Calvinist forces.

    I'm not sure any of these examples represent "spiritual warfare" in the immediate sense but certainly in the greater sense. Perhaps, though they are, if nothing else, instances of "militant" Saints who captured the popular imagination of Christendom.

    1. Don't forget about the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Our Lady of Guadalupe converted approx. 9 million people to Christ. That's one heck of a victory in spiritual warfare.