American Catholics and the mixed martial messages of May

Only with the rise of atheistic communism did the modern world present Catholics in the U.S. with an enemy who could play a role comparable to the infidel of the Crusade tradition.

Worshippers hold candles May 12, 2022, at the Marian shrine of Fatima in central Portugal. (CNS photo/Pedro Nunes, Reuters)

The month of May presents American Catholics with mixed martial messages. On May 12, we celebrated the Saints Nereus and Achilleus, Roman soldiers who left the army after their conversion to Christianity and ultimately gave their lives in martyrdom during the persecutions of the pagan Roman emperor Diocletian. On May 30, Catholics will join with other Americans in celebrating Memorial Day, which honors those who gave their lives defending a country with no established church and no official religion.

In between, on May 13th, Catholics celebrated the 1917 apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, in Portugal: though Our Lady spoke a message of peace in the midst of World War I, American Catholics would transform Fatima devotion into an anticommunist battle cry during the Cold War.

These mixed messages reflect tensions present in the Church from its beginning. Jesus said His kingdom is not of this world, but then commanded his followers to spread the Gospel in the world. How were Christians to be in, but not of, a world such as the Roman Empire, which valued martial valor above all other virtues? The leaders of the early Church never forbade Christians from serving in the Roman army, though they hardly encouraged it. They permitted military service short of participating in the pagan rites associated with that service, though some had a very broad understanding of what constituted participation. The historical information on Nereus and Achilleus is sketchy at best, but the tradition suggests that they resigned from military service not in protest against pagan rites but simply out of love for the Gospel.

The Christianization of the empire opened the possibility of some ideal of a Christian soldier, but it remained mostly just a possibility until the era of the Crusades, some eight hundred years after Constantine. Even here, churchmen tended to define the Christian soldier narrowly. St. Bernard judged the knight who died on Crusade as the equivalent of a martyr; he judged all others as little better than murderers. Like Nereus and Achilleus, most of the soldiers who appear on the liturgical calendar achieved sainthood by their actions after leaving—in most cases, renouncing—military service.

The American experience of war further complicates matters for Catholics. Protestant ministers were quick to baptize the American Revolution as a holy war for the “sacred cause of liberty,” yet these same ministers also saw the Catholic Church as the root of all tyranny. Church leaders justified Catholic support for this and subsequent U.S. wars on the general principle of patriotism rather than by any distinctly Catholic tradition such as the Crusades or just war theory.

Only with the rise of atheistic communism did the modern world present American Catholics with an enemy who could play a role comparable to the infidel of the Crusade tradition. The outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 suggests a natural link between Fatima devotion and anticommunism, yet history shows no such initial link. Catholics in America remained staunchly anticommunist in the face of the triumph of Bolshevism, but today’s devotees of Fatima might be surprised to learn that before 1942, few American Catholics had even heard of Our Lady of Fatima.

In her insightful 2004 article, “The Queen of Peace in the Shadow of War,” the historian Una M. Cadegan tells the curious story of the development of the link between anticommunism and devotion to Our Lady of Fatima in America. The few accounts of Fatima in American Catholic periodicals prior to the 1940s are, by comparison with later understandings of Our Lady’s message, strikingly apolitical. Most journalists writing on Fatima during this period simply stress its links to the broader tradition of Marian piety, most especially devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes. In one representative article, published in Ave Maria in 1934, the author notes Our Lady instructed the peasant children Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia “to pray unceasingly for the speedy termination of the World War.” According to the author, Our Lady’s final message in October of 1917 “spoke of the sins of the world” and called on people to “do penance and ask pardon for their sins in the past,” but nowhere in this account is there any mention of Russia.

All this is not to suggest that American Catholics were unconcerned about the dangers of communism in the 1930s. The collapse of the Western economies during the Great Depression seemed to bear out Marx’s analysis of the internal contradictions of capitalism. Catholics struggled with communists for control of the American labor movement, yet Catholic anticommunism found its sharpest focus in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Catholics stood nearly alone in America in their support for General Francisco Franco in his war against the so-called Loyalists, a coalition of liberals, socialists and communists that shared a common hostility to the Church.

Still, despite the Catholic understanding of the war as a crusade against communism, Fatima appears nowhere in the general Catholic response to the war. Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical, Ingravescentibus Malis, explicitly invokes the rosary as a spiritual weapon against communism and invokes the historic precedents of the role of the rosary in defeating the Albigensian heresy in the thirteenth century and securing victory over the Muslims at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, but again, makes no mention of Fatima.

The political moment of the Spanish Civil War also opens a window into the pre-Cold War world of American anti-communism. Amidst the economic collapse of the Great Depression, Catholics were freer to be as critical of capitalism as of communism. Paul Kiniery, writing for Columbia, a magazine published by the impeccably anticommunist Knights of Columbus, offered this explanation of the roots of the war against the Church in Spain:

The great tragedy of Spain was that in the nineteenth century the working masses apostasized from the Church, as Pope Pius X once remarked. And, it is well to remember, it was poverty, destitution, and injustice which made them apostasize. They got to hate the Church because they hated the friends of the Church, who exploited them and whom the Church did nothing to rebuke or correct.

Kiniery’s clear-eyed view of the fate of the Church in Spain reflected—or better, refracted—the alternative experience of Catholics in America, where the Church won the support of the poor by standing with them against oppressive, overwhelmingly Protestant, elites. During the Great Depression, the Church in America moved from defending the poor to offering a new vision of social harmony and justice, rooted in the papal social encyclicals. Catholicism, not capitalism, stood as the true alternative to communism.

The subsequent decade of World War and Cold War would mute this distinctly Catholic critique of capitalism and the distinctly Catholic aspects of the Church’s alternative vision. This same period would also solidify the link between Fatima devotion and anticommunism. The turning point came with the radio broadcast of Pius XII’s sermon commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions in 1942. In this sermon, Pope Pius revealed to a world audience the secrets and prophecies now inextricably identified with the message of Fatima: the vision of hell, the call for the consecration of Russia, the prediction of a future war.

These aspects of the message had only recently been revealed by the last surviving Fatima child, Lucia, at the time living as a nun in the Sisters of St. Dorothy. No documents exist that can clearly explain Lucia’s long silence on these matters; the skeptical and the pious are free to believe what they wish about the timing of Lucia’s revelations. What is clear is that after 1942 the Catholic press in America tied Fatima devotion to concern over developments in the Soviet Union. In Una Cadegan’s words: “Mary was no longer solely the Queen of Peace, though she remained that —she was now the warrior or the weapon by which communism would be defeated.”

Spanish Catholics were ideally suited to see this new anticommunist clarity as vindication of their war against the Loyalists. American Catholics were in a more difficult position. No sooner did they learn of Our Lady’s marching orders against Soviet communism than they found their country aligned with the Soviet Union in Second World War. Could a Catholic in good conscience support an alliance with communists? Needless to say, without entertaining any illusions about the nature of the Soviet Union, American Catholics did what their country told them to do. When, after World War II, the time came to see the Soviets as the enemy, Catholics once again did what their country told them to do.

Still, as Cadegan has noted, something had changed from the prewar period. The distinctly Catholic social vision that informed the anticommunism of the thirties gave way to a Catholic celebration of something called “the American Way of Life” as the alternative to communism. In private, American Catholics may have understood the Cold War as a battle between the Church and atheistic materialism; in public, they affirmed the American rendering of the conflict as one of “freedom” vs. “tyranny.” American Catholics had finally come to embrace the foundational, American Protestant notion of “the sacred cause of liberty.”

It is possible to disentangle devotion to Our Lady of Fatima from the messy contingencies of Cold War nationalism. A return to a different understanding of the significance of 1917 would be one place to start. Aside from the Russian Revolution, that year also saw Pope Benedict XV try to bring peace to a Europe ravaged by the Great War. In August of 1917, Benedict circulated a peace proposal to all the combatants. In addition to calling for an immediate ceasefire, Benedict proposed permanent arms reduction, self-determination for national groups, open communication, and a general vision of a world in which nations would settle conflicts through arbitration based on respect for the rule of law rather than through armed conflict. Woodrow Wilson would gain lasting fame as a man of peace for his efforts in World War I, but his Fourteen Points, issued in January of 1918, added nothing of significance to Benedict’s earlier proposal.

In 1917, Benedict XV offered a new model for a pope speaking to the modern world. His outreach to wartime belligerents assumed the legitimacy of political institutions so often declared anathema by many of his nineteenth-century predecessors. The leaders of Europe set aside old grudges against the Church but turned a deaf ear to Benedict’s peace proposal because he refused to take sides and ascribe moral blame for the war. Like Our Lady of Fatima, Benedict spoke a message of peace from a perspective above the nations. We Catholics live in both the world of nations and the Body of Christ: we may be patriots, but we must be peacemakers.


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About Dr. Christopher Shannon 21 Articles
Dr. Christopher Shannon is a member of the History Department at Christendom College, where he interprets the narrative of Christian history from its foundations in the Old Testament and its heroic beginnings in the Church of the Martyrs, down through the ages to the challenges of the post-modern world. His books include Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual, and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins, 1996), Bowery to Broadway: The American Irish in Classic Hollywood Cinema (University of Scranton Press, 2010), and with Christopher O. Blum, The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014). His book American Pilgrimage: A Historical Journey through Catholic Life in a New World will be published in 2022 by Ignatius Press.

4 Comments

  1. The teaching by the church on a Just War is nothing more than a minefield with regards to its application of justified murder. Can there be anything more perverse than giving the Holy Eucharist to opposing Christian soldiers just before going into battle against each other?

    From Donum Vitae “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”

    Abortion is an act of violence upon the innocent, but even today as Christians, do we not still condone violence? The term ‘Just War’ (Theory) continually shatters the reality of this teaching given by the Church. Please consider continuing via the link.

    https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2022/03/29/pope-francis-and-pacifism-a-perspective-from-poland/#comment-305055

    Quote A mad-man with nukes or a huge army is not nearly on the same level as a schoolyard bully

    It was meant as an analogy LJ. Bully- one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable and this trait is often manifest in tyrants and worldly ambitious men, men without consciences who often possess the manipulative power of evil who are then able to influence others to do (Whatever it takes as in the means justifies the end) evil. These men are not madmen but rather corrupt men many of whom are world leaders in politics, commerce, religion, etc with their own agendas ..V.. And yes, no one cannot help but feel outraged at the atrocities committed by the Japanese and the German extermination of the Jews with others, etc. While many atrocities emanating from War can be attributed to many nations.

    Quote “Peace at any price is not really peace. It is simply a cowardly capitulation to evil”

    As a Christian, this capitulation should be understood as a cowardly capitulation to the evil values of the Prince of this world who gives mankind a false peace, as it is a peace that realizes upon the ever-increasing capacity of weaponry held in the hands of worldly men (Many without consciences) aided and abetted by ‘Christians’ ..V.. As His true peace is given to us in our faithfulness to Him via the light of the Holy Spirit which cannot be taken from us”

    This ongoing collusion with the evil of war will eventually lead us into the Apocalypse.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

    • Your position ultimately leads to the idea that nations, and people, should just roll over and die when they are attacked, and never attempt to defend themselves. It is YOU who hold the perverse position, and no amount of pretentious piety can change that.

  2. “The subsequent decade of World War and Cold War would mute this distinctly Catholic critique of capitalism and the distinctly Catholic aspects of the Church’s alternative vision.”

    How so?

    The critique of capitalism by the Catholic Church doesn’t fundamentally deplore it, but it does deplore its implementation. It is the “free” aspects (e.g. “free” market) that are immoral. When a business can “legally” refuse to do lawful business with a customer, and an employer can “legally” turn a blind eye to the circumstances of his employees – and potential employees – then there is definitely “room” for immorality.

    “This same period would also solidify the link between Fatima devotion and anticommunism.”

    I thought that the phrase “the errors of Russia” was the basis for this. Russia was the first nation to be destroyed by communism.

    “The turning point came with the radio broadcast of Pius XII’s sermon commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fatima apparitions in 1942. In this sermon, Pope Pius revealed to a world audience the secrets and prophecies now inextricably identified with the message of Fatima: the vision of hell, the call for the consecration of Russia, the prediction of a future war.”

    While this is likely correct, the (first and second) secrets had been revealed in the memoirs of Sister Lucia on or before 1941.

  3. “The Christianization of the empire opened the possibility of some ideal of a Christian soldier, but it remained mostly just a possibility until the era of the Crusades, some eight hundred years after Constantine.”

    The (Eastern) Roman Empire would disagree.

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