In the Heart of the Church: Archbishop Charles Chaput
"Thoughts on a new knighthood"
Archbishop of Denver Charles Chaput
Address to US Air Force Cadets
Colorado Springs, Colorado
October 25, 2010
of you wants to sit through another classroom lecture. So my
comments will be brief. Then we can get to some questions and
answers. I'm also going to skip telling you how talented you are.
You already know that. You wouldn't be here if you weren't. What
you'll discover as you get older is that the world has plenty of
very talented failures – people who either didn't live up to their
abilities; or who did, but did it in a way that diminished their
humanity and their character.
God made you to be better than that. And your nation and your Church
need you to be better than that. Scripture tells us that the fear of
the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps 111:10). Wisdom – not merely
the knowledge of facts or a mastery of skills, but wisdom about
ourselves, other people and the terrain of human life – this is the
mark of a whole person. We already have too many clever leaders. We
need wise leaders. And the wisest leaders ground themselves in
humility before God and the demands of God’s justice.
I want to offer you just four quick points tonight. Here's the
first. Military service is a vocation, not simply a profession.
The word “vocation” comes from the Latin word vocare, which means to
call. In Christian belief, God created each of us for a purpose. He
calls each of us by name to some form of service. No higher purpose
exists than protecting other people, especially the weak and
defenseless. This is why the Church, despite her historic resistance
to war and armed violence, has held for many centuries that military
service is not just “acceptable.” It can also be much more than
that. When lived with a spirit of integrity, restraint and justice,
military service is virtuous. It's ennobling because – at its best –
military service expresses the greatest of all virtues: charity; a
sacrificial love for people and things outside and more important
than oneself. It flows from something unique in the human heart: a
willingness to place one's own life in harm's way for the sake of
The great Russian Christian writer Vladimir Solovyov once said that
to defend peaceful men, “the guardian angels of humanity mixed the
clay [of the earth] with copper and iron and created the soldier.”
And until the spirit of malice brought into the world by Cain
disappears from human hearts, the soldier “will be a good and not an
evil.” (i) He expressed in a poetic way what the Church teaches and
believes. And you should strive to embody this vision in your own
Here's my second point. Protect the moral character you build here,
and remember the leadership you learn here. You’ll need both when
the day comes to return to civilian life.
I think it's unwise for people my age to judge the world too
critically. The reason is pretty simple. The older we get, the more
clearly we see – or think we see -- what's wrong with the world. It
also gets harder to admit our own role in making it that way. Over
my lifetime I've had the privilege of working with many good
religious men and women, and many good lay Christian friends. Many
of them have been heroic in their generosity, faith and service.
Many have helped to make our country a better place.
And yet I think it's true – I know it's true – that my generation
has, in some ways, been among the most foolish in American history.
We’ve been absorbed in our appetites, naïve about the consequences
of our actions, overconfident in our power, and unwilling to submit
ourselves to the obligations that come with the greatest ideals of
our own heritage.
Most generations of Americans have inherited a nation different in
degree from the generations that preceded them. You will inherit an
America that is different in kind – a nation different from anything
in our past in its attitudes toward sexuality, family, religion, law
and the nature of the human person; in other words, different and
more troubling in the basic things that define a society. My
generation created this new kind of America. Soon we will leave the
consequences to you.
And this brings us back to my second point: Where the leadership and
moral character of my generation failed, you need to succeed. The
task of Christian moral leadership that will occupy much of your
lives in the future will not be easy. It will place heavy demands on
people like you who learned discipline and integrity in places like
Here's my third point. Guarantees of religious freedom are only as
strong as the social consensus that supports them.
Americans have always taken their religious freedom for granted.
Religious faith has always played a major role in our public life,
including debate about public policy and law. The First Amendment to
the U.S. Constitution explicitly guarantees this freedom. But that
guarantee and its application are subject to lawmakers and the
interpretation of courts. And lawmakers and courts increasingly
attack religious liberty, undermine rights of conscience, and force
references to God out of our public square. This shift in our
culture is made worse by mass media that, in general, have little
understanding of religious faith and are often openly hostile. As
religious practice softens in the United States over the next few
decades, the consensus for religious freedom may easily decline. And
that has very big implications for the life of faithful Catholics in
Here's my fourth and final point. Given everything I've just said,
how do we live faithfully as Catholics going forward in a culture
that’s skeptical, and even hostile, toward what we believe?
Knighthood is an institution with very deep roots in the memory of
the Church. Nearly 900 years ago, one of the great monastic
reformers of the Church, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, described the
ideal Christian knights as Godly men who “shun every excess in
clothing and food. They live as brothers in joyful and sober company
(with) one heart and one soul. … There is no distinction of persons
among them, and deference is shown to merit rather than to noble
blood. They rival one another in mutual consideration, and they
carry one another’s burdens, thus fulfilling the law of Christ.”
Bernard had few illusions about human nature. And he was anything
but naïve. Writing at the dawn of the crusading era, in the early
12th century, he was well aware of the greed, vanity, ambition and
violence that too often motivated Europe’s warrior class, even in
the name of religious faith.
Most of the men who took up the cause of aiding eastern Christians
and liberating the Holy Land in the early decades of crusading did
so out of genuine zeal for the Cross. But Bernard also knew that
many others had mixed or even corrupt and evil motives. In his great
essay “In Praise of the New Knighthood” (c. 1136), he outlined the
virtues that should shape the vocation of every truly “Christian”
knight: humility, austerity, justice, obedience, unselfishness and a
single-minded zeal for Jesus Christ in defending the poor, the weak,
the Church and persecuted Christians. (iii)
Our life today may seem very different from life in the 12th
century. The Church today asks us to seek mutual respect with people
of other religious traditions, and to build common ground for
cooperation wherever possible.
But human nature -- our basic hopes, dreams, anxieties and
sufferings -- hasn’t really changed. The basic Christian vocation
remains the same: to follow Jesus Christ faithfully, and in
following Jesus, to defend Christ’s Church and to serve her people
zealously, unselfishly and with all our skill. As St. Ignatius
Loyola wrote in his “Spiritual Exercises” -- and remember that
Ignatius himself was a former soldier -- each of us must choose
between two battle standards: the standard of Jesus Christ,
humanity’s true King, or the standard of his impostor, the Prince of
There is no neutral ground. C.S. Lewis once said that Christianity
is a “fighting religion.” He meant that Christian discipleship has
always been -- and remains -- a struggle against the evil within and
outside ourselves. This is why the early Church Fathers described
Christian life as “spiritual combat.” It’s why they called faithful
Christians the “Church Militant” and “soldiers of Christ” in the
Sacrament of Confirmation.
The Church needs men and women of courage and Godliness today more
than at any time in her history. So does this extraordinary country
we call home in this world; a nation that still has an immense
reservoir of virtue, decency and people of good will. This is why
the Catholic ideal of knighthood, with its demands of radical
discipleship, is still alive and still needed. The essence of
Christian knighthood remains the same: sacrificial service rooted in
a living Catholic faith.
A new “spirit of knighthood” is what we need now -- unselfish,
tireless, devoted disciples willing to face derision and persecution
for Jesus Christ. We serve our nation best by serving God first, and
by proving our faith with the example of our lives.
Solovyov, The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral
Philosophy; translated by Nathalie Duddington; edited and annotated
by Boris Jakim (Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005) 349;
original Russian text published in 1897
(ii) Bernard of Clairvaux, “In Praise of the New Knighthood,” The
Works of Bernard of Clairvaux, V. 7 (Cistercian Publications,
Kalamazoo, MI, 1977) 127-167
(iii) Note that Bernard, who preached the Second Crusade, wrote his
essay specifically as an apologia for the founding of the first
military-religious order, the “knights of the Temple” or the Knights
Templar. The Templars took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience,
lived in common and dedicated themselves to the defense of
Christians in the Holy Land. But as R.J. Zwi Werblowsky writes in
his introduction to Bernard’s essay in The Works noted above,
Bernard was also concerned with “the theology of a reformed and
sanctified knighthood” in contrast to the frivolity and vanity of
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