Roberto De Mattei and the First Crusade

WorldNetDaily cites a Times article from a few days ago about a conference on the Crusades:

The conference, held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, brought together scholars from around the world who were anything but apologetic for the series of wars fought by European Christendom over 750 years ago.

Italian historian Roberto De Mattei told the attendees the Crusades were “a response to the Muslim invasion of Christian lands and the Muslim devastation of the holy places,” noting the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by Muslim forces in 1009 that preceded the First Crusade called by Pope Urban II in 1095.

Well, that’s somewhat less than groundbreaking; and scholars involved in studying the Crusades have been appreciating the greater shades of grey involved for some time. Unfortunately, neither the Times nor WND actually tell us very much about the conference, and few details are available online. However, we can get some flavour of it from this:

Crusaders, argued De Mattei, were “martyrs” who had “sacrificed their lives for the faith.”

There then follows a long triumphalist quote from Robert Spencer, who the Times incorrectly claimed had been at the conference:

…While the capture of Jerusalem is often portrayed as the beginning of Muslims’ mistrust of the West, Spencer said it would be more accurate to see it as the “start of a millennium of anti-Western grievance mongering and propaganda.”

…”Westerners should not be embarrassed by the Crusades,” Spencer concluded. “It’s time to say, ‘enough,’ and teach our children to take pride in their own heritage. They should know that they have a culture and a history of which they can and should be grateful; that they are not the children and grandchildren of oppressors and villains; and that their homes and families are worth defending against those who want to take them away, and are willing to kill to do so.”

No doubt medieval historians will be next on the list of academics needing special attention from the likes of David Horowitz and co…

Also quoted (again, following the Times) is Jonathan Riley-Smith, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Cambridge University. Apparently he

took issue with the portrayal of the Crusaders in the recent film, “Kingdom of Heaven,” calling it “utter nonsense” and accusing director Sir Ridley Scott of fueling Islamic fundamentalism by propagating “Osama bin Laden’s version of history.”

But again, this is an old quote from 2004 making a very general (and somewhat overblown) point about a (somewhat overblown) movie. Apparently the Times hack and WND couldn’t find out anything much about the conference, so decided that recycling Spencer and Riley-Smith would do instead.

Although De Mattei is a historian based at Cassino University, he is not a medievalist; he is best known for a biography of Pius IX described in The Spectator as “unambiguously hagiographical”. Just after the death of John Paul II he was quoted in an article that appeared in Views from Rome, which describes him as a “traditional Catholic leader”:

…de Mattei respectfully called for the yet-to-be-elected Pope to re-affirm his universal authority and make full use of his power of government, in the face of what appears to be the main enemy of the Church and human society: a relativism disrupting any law and moral rule, with its ensuing cultural and moral nihilism.

“We are living in a time similar to the epoch when the Roman Empire was crumbling”, de Mattei further noted, “but from whose ruins the great, medieval Christian civilisation started to take shape”. In that stormy period, the Papacy represented the only factor of social cohesion, the only bond which kept society united, saving it from chaos. “Amid contemporary chaos”, de Mattei said, “the Vicar of Christ might be called to play the same providential role”.

De Mattei also runs the Centro Culturale Lepanto. In a 2002 essay, he explained the significance of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto – and the Crusades – for today:

[Pope Pius V] appreciated the seriousness of the danger and understood that only a preemptive war would save the West.

…Some might ask if Pius V, instead of promoting and undertaking a war, would not have done better to stretch out the hand of friendship to Islam, seeking peaceful coexistence through dialogue and toleration. For those who favor this option, Lepanto becomes an historical memory to eliminate, an episode to forget. They believe that the choice before us today is between fanaticism, which finds its expression in terrorism, and the relativism—modern and postmodern—that deceives us into thinking that we can avoid war by not speaking its name.

…In praising [the] heroism [of those who fought at Lepanto], we are not launching a holy war, only recalling that we have a right to legitimate defense.

…Today, however, an internal enemy threatens us. This enemy is first and foremost a mental attitude that surrounds us, even in Catholic circles—if not especially in Catholic circles. Radical Islam is not wrong because it professes truth; it is wrong because it professes error. If, in opposing error, we uphold relativism—a vision of the world in which there is room for every error, because the whole idea of truth is to be jettisoned—then we are committing an error even greater than that of the radical Islamicists.

This is the error of those who claim that the age of Lepanto and the Crusades is over and, with them, the spirit of Christian combat that presupposes a vision of the world based on the primacy of the absolute truth that is worth living and dying for: the truth of the Gospel. In its place, they offer a vision of the world that tells us that nothing exists that is either absolute or true, that everything is relative to the time, the place, and the circumstances.

De Mattei’s railings against “relativism” and his apocalyptic view of Europe call to mind Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian “theocon” intellectual; back in December 2004 I noted an address Buttiglione gave to the American Enterprise Institute, where he thrilled his credulous audience with his description of a virulently anti-Christian and anti-Semitic Europe in thrall to Jacques Derrida.

From a short bio in Italian on his personal website, we are told that De Mattei is also a Vice President of the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, and is a member of various international conservative groups, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Euro-sceptic European Foundation. He is also close to the conservative Catholic organisation Tradizione Famiglia Proprietà (TFP), having written a biography of its Brazilian founder, Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira. This site accuses TFP and De Mattei of extremism; however, it is written in Italian and I can’t make much of it. De Mattei is also involved in politics, and he serves as an advisor on International Affairs to Italian Deputy Prime Minister (and far-righist) Gianfranco Fini. In this picture he and Fini are at the Pentagon, discussing the war on terror and Iraq with Donald Rumsfeld.

The Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University, where the Crusades conference was held, is run by the conservative (and, some say, militaristic) Legionaries of Christ. A year ago the university got some international attention when it announced a course on Satanism and exorcism; I discussed that here.

UPDATE (4 August): A reader sends me a couple of links to the conference outline. They can be seen here and here.