Question: At a recent meeting, my men’s club discussed why Catholics are the only religion that uses a crucifix. Is it true? Is the cross used by Protestants to highlight the risen Christ; and do Catholics use a crucifix to celebrate the suffering of Christ?
— Kevin BrehmerToledo, Ohio
To respond: The crucifix displays the crucified Christ, while a cross is empty, just bare wood. The Catholic Church, dating back to antiquity, has used the crucifix; just like the Orthodox and Eastern Churches. The naked cross appeared in the 16th century, first among the Calvinists, who emphasized simplicity in both liturgy and architecture. The Lutherans and Anglicans of that time still used the crucifix, and they had more ornate churches than the Calvinists, but not as ornate as the Catholic churches. Over time, descendants and dissenters of Calvinists and Anglicans—such as Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians—adopted the simple cross, while many Anglicans and Lutherans still used a crucifix. Even among them, some have gone to the simple cross. Catholics just continued to use the crucifix as we always have.
What probably started with Protestants as a simple preference for simplicity evolved into a certain theological stance with some who used the simple cross to emphasize that Jesus had risen and was “no longer nailed to a cross”. For many of them the cross was now empty and our interpretations should look like this. Some have gone so far as to say that Catholics believe Jesus was still on the cross. This, of course, is not true. We are fully aware and solemnly confess each Sunday in the Creed that Jesus has risen from the dead and is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father. The crucifix is a representation of the event of the Passion of our Saviour, Jesus, a once and for all and perfect sacrifice (cf. Heb 10:14) which passes through time but which is fulfilled.
The use of a crucifix (and not just a cross) is obligatory in the Catholic liturgy and of processional and altar crucifixes. It is because the Holy Mass makes present the crucifixion of Jesus. We do not “re-crucify” Jesus. On the contrary, that once and for all, the perfect and completed sacrifice be made present to us. The use of the crucifix recalls this. And, while Catholics are allowed to have a simple cross in their homes, the widespread tradition among Catholics is to have a crucifix. Nothing like a crucifix telling visitors: “We are a Catholic household; we are a catholic parish.
Question: Although the crusades did not go according to the plans of the popes, shouldn’t the western world be grateful to them? And, I wonder why we never hear about the atrocities of Islam when the crusades are mentioned?
— Armel Audetby email
To respond: The crusades cover a long period from 1095-1291 if we only think of the campaigns to liberate the Holy Land and protect the Christians there. However, if one considers the larger struggle to resist the Muslim conquests of Europe (sometimes called the Reconquista), the Crusades extend into the 15th century. As with any long period of history, there is a lot of good and bad to do. The simple demonization of the crusades that is so common is simplistic. There are times when nations and cultures must defend themselves and their citizens against destruction and even annihilation. Consider that all of North Africa was conquered by the Moors and other Muslims, and the Church there was virtually wiped out. There were once over 500 bishops with the faithful and the Church had flourished there since apostolic times. The conquest continued as Muslim forces crossed Gibraltar and entered Spain and Portugal. To the east, the Muslim advances reached the gates of Vienna. Christendom faced an existential threat, and popes and other national leaders sought to confront this threat that unfolded over decades and centuries.
As for the atrocities on both sides, they existed; war is a terrible thing and should be a last resort. This is not limited to the Crusades; it has always been so in all places and at all times, as it is today.
The world, surely, should be grateful that Christendom has sought to preserve itself. Western civilization, as we know it today, is largely the product of Judeo-Christian faith and worldview. Many advances in science, politics, art and law, medicine, and learning in general have taken place in the Christian West.