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The Church Militant and the Battle of Lepanto, 1571-2021

“The Christian victory of Lepanto on October 7, 1571,” a “triumph…still today is a symbol of the militant spirit that should never leave the Christian,” writes Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Astana (Kazakhstan) Athanasius Schneider in a recent book preface. He thus thematically introduces the excellent new book by leading Italian Catholic historian Roberto de Mattei, Saint Pius V: The Legendary Pope Who Excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, Standardized the Mass, and Defeated the Ottoman Empire.

Schneider notes that 2021 is the 450th anniversary of this decisive defeat of the Turkish Ottoman Empire fleet off Greece’s western coast by the Holy League’s combined Christian naval force “closely tied to the name of St. Pius V.” Michele Ghislieri, whose brief but tumultuous papacy as Pius V lasted from 1566-1572, “was the true author of the Holy League” in 1571 among the Vatican, Spain’s King Phillip II, and the Venetian Repulic, notes Mattei. “It is not by chance that the Church on earth is called the Church Militant, inseparably united in the communion of saints with the Church Triumphant that rejoices eternally in Paradise,” thus observes Schneider. “St. Pius V offers us a luminous example of this militancy.”

Mattei examines in detail how the “defense of Christianity against the Turks constituted a dominant theme of the pontificate of Pius V.” “From its foundation to its fall,” the Ottoman Empire “was a state dedicated to expanding the Islamic faith by means of arms.” Particularly during the “second half of the sixteenth century, Islam had reached the apex of its expansion from the Red Sea to Gibraltar, from Baghdad to Budapest, reaching the gates of Vienna.”

No romantic illusions color Mattei’s descriptions of Ottoman rule’s brutal reality. “The Italian coasts were devastated by the raids of Barbary pirates, who sought women for the harems of the viziers and men to sell as slaves or to be enlisted in the Janissaries, the elite private army of the sultan,” Mattei writes. Thus the “pontiff knew that there would be no possible truce with Islam until the Ottoman Empire was definitely annihilated.”

Pope Pius V’s grand strategy was accordingly ambitious. The Holy League “constituted ‘a perpetual League, both offensive and defensive, against the Turks,’ in order to recover all the places usurped by them from the Christians,” Mattei writes. He notes how Pius V additionally sought alliances against the Ottomans as far away as with Persia’s Shiite Muslim shah, Ethiopia’s Coptic king, and Russia’s Orthodox czar.

Correspondingly, Pius V was not satisfied with resting on the Lepanto victory’s laurels. “For the first time in a century the Mediterranean was free. From that day forward the Ottoman Empire began its long decline,” Mattei writes. Yet in Pius V’s eyes, the “victory of Lepanto was not for him a point of arrival but the beginning of a possible reconquest of the Christian East.

By contrast, other European powers rejected Pius V’s vision in pursuit of their own practical political goals, Mattei repeatedly recounts. French king Charles IX, for example, dispatched the bishop of Dax, François de Noailles, to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople to negotiate between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The resulting “nefarious peace” of March 7, 1573, marked the Holy League’s end.

Nonetheless, Spain’s Philip II remained resolutely “Joined in Battle” with Pius V, as Mattei analyzes. He writes in description of the Spanish sovereign:

Philip II was certainly, along with St. Pius V, the dominant figure of his age, but while the pontificate of Pope Ghislieri lasted only six years, the kingdom of the Spanish sovereign lasted for the entire second half of the sixteenth century. During this half-century, no great political decision escaped his gaze and influence.

“Pius V saw in Philip II the political personification of the Counter-Reformation, the sword on which he could count to fight against heretics and the infidel Turks alike,” Mattei notes. The pair shared the “conviction that Catholic doctrine did not admit accommodations or compromises.” By example, Phillip II “personally attended five autos-da-fé” or burnings at the stake of Protestant dissidents from the Catholic Church. At one, Philip II notoriously said to the condemned, “I would carry the wood to burn my own son if he was as wicked as you.”

The Catholic Mattei does not shy away from the brutality in the wars of religion among Protestants and Catholics as a once united Christendom fractured, yet he also debunks myths surrounding the Catholic Church’s Inquisition. “Specialists have shown that the procedure of the Inquisition was in fact a step of progress in the history of law, because of the guarantees it granted to the accused and the seriousness with which the trial was carried out,” he writes. The Inquisition’s “guarantee of the right of defense, which was unusual for that time, went so far as to grant to the accused the right to freely choose a lawyer.” The defendant could also “have the court give him a copy of all the documentation gathered in his regard in order to set up a defense strategy.

Yet Pius V’s link to Lepanto is central for Mattei, as he places this battle in a cosmic context. Frescoes commissioned by Pius V in commemoration of Lepanto and completed on May 2, 1572, a day after his death, today adorn the Vatican’s Sala Regia, the reception area for sovereigns and ambassadors. Here the “battle is also shown taking place in Heaven, with Christ with a lightning bolt in hand, followed by St. Peter and St. Paul,” Mattei notes. “On the left side of Christ appear St. Mark, the patron of Venice, and St. James, the patron of Spain, and around them is a host of angels with darts and bolts of lightning.”

This celestial cloud of witnesses connects for Mattei Lepanto to modern times. “Today another battle is unfolding, more dramatic and uncertain, and it seems as if the enemies have conquered the flagship of Christ’s fleet. However, St. Pius V continues to assist the Church Militant from Heaven,” Mattei writes. Pius V’s “mission is not over, and he appears as a model of the Pastor of the Church that the Christian people urgently need.” To learn more about this model, Mattei’s biography is a good place to start.

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