In 1571, the future of Christian Europe was very precarious. Once united in faith, “Christendom” had become splintered with heresy, dissent and a rising nationalism that placed country over religious duty. Luther’s seed had produced countless weeds sprouting up uncontrollably. Nothing was certain anymore, as everything — all the achievements of previous generations, from Thucydides to Heraclitus, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas — seemed ready to slip away into oblivion. What had changed? A people, a civilization, that carried the pride and tradition of the Roman Empire, a culture long since purified by the Gospel message, now faced annihilation at the hands of a new and aggressive world power. The threat posed by the new enemy was, to be sure, a political one but, deeper still, it represented a religious and cultural alternative. The onslaught of a young and seemingly invincible foe, an eastern tribal people that had united under the teaching of the Koran, was pressing harder than ever against the gates of an older divided and enfeebled Europe.
The Ottoman Turks had, within a relatively short period of time, swallowed up entire Christian civilizations in the east, culminating in the capture of Constantinople in 1453. The city, known throughout Europe as the “Queen of Cities” for its beauty, was the beating heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church and had stood since the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine as the “New Rome,” intended as an everlasting Christian rebuttal to the old empire’s pagan past. The city was a bulwark of Christian faith, learning and culture for over a millennium but, in the fifteenth century, its famed walls crumbled under relentless cannon barrage and gave way as the empire finally succumbed to the Turkish fury. Its countless churches were gradually converted into mosques and its native population was whittled down after waves of forced Turkish resettlement initiatives overwhelmed them.
It was the prized desideratum of every Sultan of the Ottoman Empire to march his vast army to Rome itself and repeat the same victory there. Were they to succeed, Saint Peter’s Basilica was sure to become a mosque, yet another trophy in the growing collection of great, fallen Christian churches, and Rome would be reduced to a satellite city of the triumphant Muslim power. Conquest of Rome would be the apotheosis of the triumph of Islam over Christendom. If this were to happen, the fate of the Western World would be doomed and life today would be very different.
To the Turkish Empire, capturing Constantinople represented the fifty-percent mark: one down, one to go. And the Turks were, by all accounts, invincible. The capture of Constantinople only added to their might and prestige. Europe was consumed with inner strife, pestilence, and rival rulers, some great and some perfidious. To make matters worse, and in stark contrast to the European powers, the Turks were united, fueled by the desire for conquest and were hyper-aggressive in their religious zeal to subjugate the entire world to Islam. How did Rome and the West overcome these bleak odds?
A beleaguered yet determined Pope Pius V summoned forth all his diplomatic skills and authority as Holy Father to call leaders of Europe together to make a last stand against the mighty Turkish power in the name of Christendom. When all was said and done, Spain, the Republic of Venice, Genoa, Savoy and the Knights of Malta formed a Holy League with the Papal States. For once, the powerful and headstrong seafaring power of Venice put aside its economic concerns and signed on with the Holy Father. Venetian aid in the endeavor was essential given their mastery of the seas. Commanding the Holy League was the brilliant and dashing Don Juan of Austria. Incredibly, he was only 24. On his shoulders rested the survival of the collected achievements of his ancestors, the hopes of a pope and the future of a civilization. Pius V requested that all Europe join in praying the rosary for success in the campaign. He led a procession around St. Peter’s Square for this intention, calling upon the Virgin Mary to deliver Christendom from the Turkish menace by granting victory at the Mediterranean naval outpost named Lepanto.
The Holy League’s fleet, at about two-hundred galleys, was large, but still outnumbered by the Turkish fleet having about 60 more ships. Both sides knew that the outcome of the encounter would have repercussions for centuries. Prior to the battle, Masses were offered on the ships and last-minute confessions heard. Silence reigned onboard as prayers, ancient chants and incense rose to the heavens. In stark contrast to the serenity of the Christian fleet, the approaching Turkish force was bellowing with battle cries and the deafening sound of war drums. Don Juan knelt on the deck, offered a brief prayer and took up his sword. Both sides engaged one another as the epic battle for the future of Europe commenced. The two forces clashed in fierce combat, some of it hand-to-hand, for four hours and losses on both sides were heavy but at the end of the day, victory resided with the Don Juan and the Christian forces. The Turks lost nearly their entire fleet and suffered over 30,000 dead or wounded, including the commanding general and many of their finest military men. The victory was made even sweeter with the release of thousands of enslaved Christians. For once the arrogant Turks, who afterward contemptuously referred to the debacle simply as “the rout,” demonstrated that they were not invincible and were not destined for inevitable global dominion. They learned the hard way that Christendom would not fold before Islam without a fight. Upon learning the news, Pope Pius was jubilant and dedicated the day, October 7, to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Victory. Now, her title is known as Our Lady of the Rosary and the feast is still commemorated today, while the particulars of the battle, or even knowledge of it all together, are sadly forgotten. The battle was a great accomplishment for the Church and Europe and must never be forgotten by Catholics.
At first glance, there does not seem to be any commonality between the 1571 Battle of Lepanto and the presidential election of 2008. But there is an unmistakable link rooted in our history, our culture and in our shared Western Civilization. Though we are separated by generations from our ancestors who fought in the Mediterranean, the ideals and core beliefs that inspired Don Juan of Austria should impel Catholics today to martial and spiritual battle.
Two vastly differing ideas and world views are represented by the two leading candidates. Senator John McCain represents the noble idea of American exceptionalism: the belief that America is the inheritor of the best pearls of Western Civilization. America stands today as the most virile representative of that tradition, Europe having long since been rendered weak and bewildered after devastating wars and poisonous ideologies led her astray. America, while tolerant of and welcoming to all law-abiding peoples of any creed or none at all, is nevertheless a Christian nation. Even a superficial familiarity with the writings and intentions of our founding fathers reveal this fact. Furthermore, most of the founders were well-versed and steeped in the wisdom of the classics — what is sometime called the “Canon of Western Civilization.” John McCain will defend this tradition against the onslaught of relativism brought on by Senator Barack Obama.
In Obama, we see a man who, for decades, marinated his mind in the angry screeds and tracks of numerous radicals hostile to Western Civilization. Obama is a paragon of the multi-culturalist apostle wrapped in deceptive “rhetorical flourishes.” As Michael Knox Beran recently observed in National Review: “In Berlin, [Obama] spoke of tearing down the walls that separate Western nations from the rest of the world…This wall-wrecking sentiment is in some ways admirable, but those with a heritage as unique as ours can consent to such a demolition only if we are certain that the culture that has made us what we are will afterwards be safe.” With his relentless dabbling in moral relativism (the answer to when life begins as being “above my pay grade,” etc.) and multi-culturalism, Obama offers us few assurances that he cares a wit about the fate of Western Civilization, a civilization that has some very clear, unequivocal things to say about Truth and real culture.
No, this is not a military battle we face in the days leading up to November 4. But that hard-fought sea battle of 1571 and the political battle of ideas we face today are, mutatis mutandis, one and the same because our way of life, our Western heritage of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London and yes, Philadelphia, are at stake, just as it was when Don Juan took up his charge centuries ago aboard a ship under the banner of the Holy League.