Time to Rediscover the Idea of the Soldier of Christ

Blessed be the Lord, my rock
who trains my arms for battle,
who prepares my hands for war (Psalm 144).

During the 1970s, the United States Army descended into chaos. Discipline, tradition, morale—all were lost during, after, or because of the Vietnam War. I do not mean to argue here for or against the justice and strategic prudence of that war. I do not mean to argue here to support or to oppose the Army’s leadership during the morally and politically frenetic challenges of the late 1960s and the 1970s. I do mean to argue here, however, that there is, or may be, a remarkable consistency between the remedies chosen by good and dedicated Army officers in the 1980s, as they sought to save the Army from the depredations of ignorant and evil officers, and the remedies which might be employed by good and holy bishops in the 2020s, as they seek to save Christ’s Church from the depredations of ignorant and evil bishops (and their minions).


When Rick Gabriel and Paul Savage wrote Crisis in Command (1979), they described an Army which could hardly function as a reliable military force. So much had happened (massacres, theft, lies, deceit, mismanagement of all kinds, officer careerism, failures in education and training, and many other betrayals of military honor) that no one could be certain that the Army could discharge its primary duty—to provide our country’s safety and security (along with its sister services). Any military force which lacks integrity becomes an armed mob, not a professional armed service—and a Church governed, “taught,” and “sanctified” (cf. CCC #873) by “godless people who … distort the message about the grace of our God in order to excuse their immoral ways” (Jude 4), becomes a whited sepulcher, full of everything unclean (Matt. 23:27).

Courageous and clear-sighted military officers often put their hearts and minds (and careers) on the line, understandably desperate to reform the Army they loved and deeply believed that their country needed. At the center of the battle for military reform was the need to eliminate the Courtney Massengales of the time. This refers to a fictional character (contrasted with the Sam Damon character) in Anton Myrer’s superb novel Once an Eagle (1968). Massengale is portrayed as a self-centered careerist, intent principally, or only, upon power, prestige, and rank. Damon, by contrast, is the epitome of the competent, honest, and diligent professional soldier.

Some disparage the Myrer novel as outdated because, as retired Major General Robert Scales suggests, we “need more officers with [Massengale’s] skill as strategists, officers with the ability to think in time, who are able to express themselves with elegance, clarity, conviction, and intellect, and yes, navigate through the swamp of political-military policymaking.”

Although one tips his hat to Scales’s honorable service and customary good sense, the general is emphatically wrong here. The question is not whether the Army needs good staff officers, but whether the Army’s officers must always be leaders of character. Massengale’s character was hopelessly compromised and corrupted. We need leaders who will “choose the harder right instead of the  easier wrong,” as the West Point Cadet Prayer teaches. That was Anton Myrer’s chief point in writing the novel.

And mine here. The Church will never be reformed until we have Church leaders who are holy, orthodox, and wise. (One wishes that Sam Damon might be resurrected as a contemporary bishop; we already have far too many contemporary Bishop Massengales.) As the Bible admonishes us, though: “Wisdom will never be at home with anyone who is deceitful or a slave of sin” (Wisdom 1:4). For nearly twenty years, I taught ethics to senior officers at a war college. The gist of what I tried to teach can be compressed into a single sentence: Good character is a force multiplier.

Translated from “the military,” that means that integrity inspires success on the battlefield and in the bureaucracy. Good officers have the mental stamina to find the right thing to do, and they have the moral stamina to do it. An officer without such “stamina” is a catastrophe seeking a place to happen. There was a severe shortage of officers in the late 1960s and 1970s, and standards were sometimes (not always) compromised to give commissions to incompetents. The My Lai massacre in Vietnam was, in part, a result of that badly mistaken policy.

Our Lord adjures us: “Follow Me.” We follow Christ as we follow those who imitate him and teach properly in his name (1 Cor 11:1). The motto of the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning is “Follow Me.” We follow leaders, divine or human, because, ultimately, we trust in them. We expect them to be worthy of their call, of their commission (Eph. 4:1). When our political or military or human religious leaders fail, they leave tragedy, turmoil, and tyranny in their wake. In many ways, the Old Testament is a record of repeated instances of failed leadership, ordinarily stemming from corroded character. The modern record of religious leadership is similarly pockmarked, with the Borgias of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as primary, but hardly sole, examples.

The first requirement of genuine leadership, then, is integrity. Virtue does not arise from vice, and what is wrong cannot spawn what is right. The Army’s reform was rooted in the effort to infuse its core values into its leadership practices. (This is never an easy effort for a secular enterprise.) The Church’s “core values” are grounded in Scripture, in Tradition, and in the settled Magisterium, all of which can be (and certainly have been) ignored or betrayed. For example, Father Thomas Rosica recently said approvingly that Pope Francis “breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants” and that he rules by his own personal authority, rather than the authority of the Scripture and Tradition of the Catholic Church.

“Our Church has indeed entered a new phase,” said Rosica. “With the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture. It’s hard to predict what will come next,” the priest said. Father Rosica maintained that Pope Francis is “shrewd” and imbued with the trait of “holy cunning.”

The first error is Rosica’s thinking that the Church is “ours.” It isn’t; it’s Christ’s Church. The second error is Rosica’s applause for anyone who violates the Church’s—that is, Christ’s—Scripture, Tradition, and settled Magisterium, for the Holy Father and, for that matter, all Catholics are custodians of the deposit of faith, not innovators of it (see 1 Tim. 6:20-21). The third error is the celebration of “holy cunning” (if Rosica is right in his assessment). Cunning means “having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion.” To call that holy is a travesty. If the first requirement of genuine leadership is integrity, then the first hallmark of tyranny is the chicanery of lies, which, Rosica ought to know, leads to Hell.

Priests without the mental brain and the moral brawn to “put all things to the test [and to] keep what is good and avoid every kind of evil” (1 Thess. 5:21-22) are also catastrophes seeking places to happen. I don’t care if we have only ten holy priests in this entire country if that means that men with rotten characters (such as those who laud oxymorons like “holy cunning”) never receive holy orders. What has happened in Pennsylvania (and, tragically, in almost every other place) comes from the stupidity and recklessness of ordaining mental and moral misfits. An example of that is the fatuous notion that “clericalism,” not homosexuality, is at the root of this on-going crisis.

Listen. Can we speak plainly? The Church of Christ is in the greatest and gravest crisis we have ever known. A great question of political science is this: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard those who are themselves the guardians? When many of our bishops are misfits, who will guard the deposit of faith (2 Tim. 1:14), which is under challenge today from people and places we could hardly have imagined only a decade ago? The reform of the U.S. Army may help us as we seek, as did St. Francis, to re-build the foundations of Christ’s Church (see Psalm 11:3).

The reform of the Army in the 1980s rediscovered enduring military core values and sought to inculcate them. The careerism and coverups of the 1970s were denounced. Similarly, when Nehemiah helped to rebuild Jerusalem after the return from exile, he denounced evil leaders and practices, boldly proclaiming: “What you are doing is wrong! You ought to have reverence for God and do what is right” (Nehemiah 5:9). Where are the Bishop Nehemiahs we need today? Of what new Nehemiah will it be said, in time, that “the memory of [the newer] Nehemiah is also lasting; he raised for us the walls that had fallen, and [he] set up the gates and bars and rebuilt our ruined houses” (Sir. 49:13). All without “holy cunning.”


In 1969, the Army was proclaiming that “Today’s Army wants to join you!” That was, of course, exactly wrong. When the reformers of the 1980s sought to re-establish military order and discipline, professionalism and pride, and—above all—integrity and efficiency, they turned to the proven ways, to the reliable standards, and to the certain trumpet of military honor. The goal was no longer to be just like secular society, but to be a military force truly capable of protecting that society, which required being different from it.

“The Lord said to his people, ‘Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask for the ancient paths and where the best road is. Walk in it, and you will live in peace’” (Jer. 6:16). Do you want to reform the Church? Then stop imitating secular society, and return to the proven ways and forms which help ensure the Church’s ability to protect us all from worldly, lustful, and diabolical passions. The Church exists, principally, to do three things: to praise God, to save souls, and to help us become saints—and not to be a social security agency or a political interest group or faction.

Given the nature and extent of this massive crisis, we must:

  • Restore the ancient, but ever-new, liturgy of the ages, the Traditional Latin Mass. This will require an intensive and extensive catechetical campaign through the entire Church. Thanks be to God! With the Extraordinary Form as the preferred liturgy of the Western rite, we will once again learn to become, and to be, Catholics.
  • Reform Catholic education from grade school through graduate school. So-called Catholic schools and colleges that reject Catholic teaching are politically free to do so, but they have no right to declare themselves “Catholic.” If the Land O’ Lakes Statement could so effectively deracinate education from its classical roots, then we may hope that a substantially revised declaration (based upon Ex Corde Ecclesiae [1990]) might correct the evils brought about by the first statement in, and after, 1967.
  • Reconstitute Catholic seminary training, beginning with an end to widespread and often poorly supervised quasi-independent seminaries and the establishment of a regional system of a few closely supervised seminaries, requiring the highest standards in personal integrity, orthodoxy in doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 1:3), and substantial academic success.
  • Revivify and revise the Oath of Modernism, to be required of all who receive Holy Orders. (One is reminded, in sorrow, that every bishop at Vatican II had sworn that oath. It is, therefore, not a moral inoculation in itself, but it is at least an anamnesis against conflating the sacred and the profane.)

One understands that such proposals would be greeted with the jeers and contempt of the modern, secular world—including not a few who wear mitres. So what? How much more, and how much longer, shall we expect our bishops supinely to please the relativists and hedonists of our day (cf. John 12:43, 1 Thess. 2:4, Gal. 1:10)? Will we forever want Christ’s Church to join them? Or will we, at long last, come to the bold conviction that our commission is to serve as faithful witnesses and, with God’s grace, to lead them to join us? Will we, like Nuns on the Bus, parade ourselves as self-proclaimed experts about politics and finance, or will we pray, as poor sinners, for the salvation of immortal souls? Will we persist in being cunning managers and administrators and directors, or will we, once more, imitate St. Paul in fearlessly proclaiming to the world: “You do not belong to yourselves but to God; he bought you for a price. So use your bodies for God’s glory” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

In the 1980s, and beyond, the Army re-discovered the noble idea of the soldier (cf. CCC #2310). Maybe now this grave crisis can lead us Catholics to a similar re-discovery: the idea of the soldier of Christ, in the Church Militant (cf. CCC #2087): “No soldier [in] service gets entangled in civilian pursuits [in the way of the world], since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him.” So, as Confirmation used to teach us, in being “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:3-4), we are prepared to “defend the faith by word and action as true witnesses of Christ, to confess the name of Christ boldly, and never to be ashamed of the Cross” (CCC #1303).

Again, please God: Onward, Christian soldiers!

Editor’s note: Pictured above is the statue of Saint John of Capistrano (June 24, 1386 – October 23, 1456) erected in Budapest in 1921. He was a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest from the Italian town of Capestrano, Abruzzo, who became famous as a preacher, theologian, and inquisitor. Saint John earned the nickname “the Soldier Saint” when, in 1456 at age 70, he led a crusade against the invading Ottoman Empire at the siege of Belgrade with the Hungarian military commander John Hunyadi.

Deacon James H. Toner


Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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