Bl. Isaac of Stella vs. St Bernard on the Crusades

Benet Oxon has posted a careful analysis of St Bernard’s theology of crusade at The Josias, showing how St Bernard applied St Augustine’s theology of just war. St Bernard’s position is sometimes dismissed with an appeal to the customary way of thinking of his time—‘everyone thought that way back then,’ it is said, ‘and so we needn’t take his arguments seriously.’ But this neglects the fact that St Bernard’s position was contested by other theologians at the time—even within the Cistercian order. Blessed Isaac of Stella, for example, mocks the ideals of the Knights Templar, in terms that sound very much like the anti-crusade clichés of our own time:

Similarly and at about the same time, a new and monstrous breed of military order emerged, whose rule—someone wittily described it as stemming from a fifth gospel—would force, with spears and clubs, unbelievers to embrace the Faith, while considering it right to despoil and devoutly kill those who do not have the name of Christian. And those of their order who are killed while at such pillaging they regard as martyrs for Christ. Surely it is obvious that these people give every excuse for antichristian cruelty to the champion of wickedness (Cf. 2 Th 2:3). How could they put before such a one the gentleness and patience of Christ (2 Co 10:1) and the pattern of his preaching? Why should the adversary not gladly do what he finds is done with a good conscience? Why should he not say, Do to the church as the church has done? (Third Sermon for the Nativity of St John the Baptist)

As the editor of an English collection of Bl. Isaac’s writings dryly notes, «neither proselytizing nor pillaging form part of the Templar vocation in Saint Bernard’s Praise of the New Knighthood.»

But why do I call Isaac of Stella Blessed Isaac? Has he ever been beatified? Not in the usual way, but attentive readers of Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium will have noted that the Holy Father refers to him in § 285 as ‘Blessed Isaac of Stella.’ As a good ultra-montane, I take that as an infallible sign that, whatever his disagreements with St Bernard, the Abbot of Stella is now enjoying the beatific vision with the Abbot of Clairvaux in Heaven.

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