Crusaders: symbol or scandal?

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Photo by Hannah Green

Your school’s mascot is what? 

What had started as a light-hearted conversation with a coworker about our colleges quickly devolved into an awkward, cringe-worthy discussion. Somewhat stumblingly, I explained that my Catholic university was founded in the 1950s, and thus retained some rather unsavory and outdated elements of the Church’s history within its traditions. 

The University of Dallas represents a safe-haven of Catholic values, none of which remain rooted in the drive for a “holy war.” So, why is our mascot the controversial Crusader?

Although I appreciate a good “Deus Vult” joke as much as the next meme connoisseur, my amusement ends when the unjustified glorification of historical atrocities begins. In 1095, Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade, which resulted in the capture and subsequent loss of Jerusalem. For nearly 200 years, various church officials supported other crusades for numerous reasons and with mixed results. 

Despite the historical support of holy wars, Pope Saint John Paul II apologized for the “betrayal of the Gospel committed by some of our brothers, especially in the second millennium,” in a homily on March 13, 2000, according to the New York Times. A few days prior to the homily, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) explained that the Catholic Church had overcompensated for Enlightenment accusations of corruption–an attempt to undermine the Church’s authority–by emphasizing the apparent bravery and piety of the crusaders. 

The 1999 Vatican document “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past” quoted John Paul II, who encouraged the imitation of the people of Israel, who “ask[ed] forgiveness for the historical sins of her children.” While the document stated that believers should avoid “causing unwarranted self-recrimination,” it emphasized that “responsibility for past wrongs is a kind of sharing in the mystery of Christ, crucified and risen.” 

At the 2015 National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama reminded the audience that “during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” the Washington Post reported. Indeed, Benedict XVI acknowledged that “force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith” at the 2011 Meeting for Peace in Assisi. 

Debates over whether all, some or none of the crusades were justified remains a point of contention among Catholics and non-Catholics. In his magnum opus the “Summa Theologiae,” St. Thomas Aquinas delineated his just war theory. He wrote that a sovereign authority must commission the attack, that the enemy must deserve an attack “on account of some fault,” and that “the belligerents should … intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” 

While scholars may argue over the precise conditions of justification—the Washington Post mentioned historians’ estimates at a 1.7 million people died as a result of the Catholic crusades—most of the Church’s crusades failed to accomplish their goal. More conservative sources, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, insist that the citation of “soldiers… with blood running up to their knees,” attributed to Raymond of Aguilers, was mere hyperbole.  

Regardless of the historical minutiae, the Crusades cannot be characterized  as being completely free from corruption or purely motivated by selfish, hateful reasons. Despite the mistreatment of Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians, the popes could not control the actions of every participant in the crusades–that much should be obvious. Nevertheless, why would a university that stresses historical appreciation and preservation pride itself upon the historical events–especially the Fourth Crusade–that resulted in the destruction and pillaging of invaluable cultural artifacts?

So, why does UD retain the divisive figure of Crusader as its mascot? Perhaps our university should take into account the way in which such a mascot is—and will be—perceived. Perhaps the UD Bubble shields its members from understanding just how critically most non-Catholics view the Crusades. While some Catholics view the Crusades as a necessary venture with some unintended consequences, most of the world views them as shameless, malicious atrocities. 

Although I dare not advocate for the submission to secular opinion upon every issue, perhaps the slightest bit of historical sensitivity would act in favor of UD—at least for the sake of public relations if nothing else. Symbolizing the athletic and academic prowess of UD students with a crusader is incongruous; it implies the glorification of a regrettable and unrepeatable decision on the part of the Church. 

If not the Crusaders, then what should our mascot be? Already the notable Groundhog has gained prominence as a beloved unofficial mascot. The fun-loving, friendly face would worthily serve as a substitution for the Crusader. 

Some might ask, “Wouldn’t that portray UD as silly and unimposing?” Perhaps, but other pro and college sports teams have similarly strange mascots. Western Kentucky University’s mascot is the “Hilltoppers” and the University of California-Santa Cruz’s is, I kid you not, “Sammy the Banana Slug.” 

Contrary to cowering from our own shadows (pun intended), replacing the Crusader with the Groundhog would better reflect the identity and traditions that UD has developed since 1956. Rather than half-heartedly holding onto an inaccessible and arbitrary Crusader, we can fully embrace the Groundhog as a representative of our iconic Groundhog celebration and the unique nature of UD as a whole. 

Let’s shift the narrative, this time in our favor. Deus Vult!

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