In Praise of Triumphalism

“Triumphalism” is a bad word in some circles. That those circles have been influential in academic, ecclesiastical, and civil society in recent decades helps to explain our sad lot. I’ll not forget the perplexity that overcame me when I read a passage in the writings of Yves Congar, in which that great Dominican progressivist criticized those sentimentally pining away for another baptism of Clovis by another Saint Remigius. He was referring to traditionalists. Given Congar’s French nationality, and that the historic event he made light of constituted his nation “the eldest daughter of the Church,” I wondered at the iconoclasm of it all.

God is a triumphalist: “Now thanks be to God, who always maketh us to triumph in Christ Jesus” (2 Cor. 2:14). Christ is the greatest Victor: “Have confidence, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). What’s more, the faithful share in His triumph: “This is the victory which overcomes the world, our faith.” (1 John 5:4). And let’s not forget that the Blessed Virgin is rightly called Saint Mary of Victory.

So what’s wrong with triumphalism?

I have said before that the opposite of triumphalism is defeatism. Perhaps it’s better to call it anti-triumphalism, because the partisans I’m calling out do revel in something, but never in the Church’s triumphs. Read the progressivists themselves, who frequently engage in a macabre rejoicing in the fact that the Faith has been marginalized from the public square. I myself have heard priests say words to this effect: “Christendom is dead, and that’s a good thing.” Secularism, for them, is the ideal; the eradication of the Christian spirit from public life, a conquest — though they would not likely use that term.

Now, I can understand a reaction against toy-sword crusaders: those spiritual adolescents that beat their chests and consider mindless bellicosity a fine replacement for Christian virtue. We see this kind of thing occasionally among Catholics tainted with un-Christian neoconservative ideals, folks who never met a war they didn’t like, and who consider American interference in middle-eastern affairs to be the great work of God. But most traditionalists — on both sides of the pond — are more grown up than that, especially if they’ve actually studied the just war doctrine.

I suspect that the enemy of triumphalism has a deeper problem, though. Triumphalism presumes there is something to be triumphal about. That would be the immense treasures of our Faith and its attendants: the good, the true, and the beautiful, wherever they are to be found; for these come from the Author of nature, who authored the supernatural order, too. Triumphalism also presumes that there exist evils over which we ought to triumph: the bad, the false, the ugly; sin, death, Satan; and their attendants — namely, whatever in the created order refuses to conform to God’s holy will. These ought to be hated, opposed, and combated, while God and all that stands on the side of God ought to be loved. There is no middle position, no compromise: Love of God implies hatred of evil and the will to triumph over it.

Fundamentally then, the anti-triumphalist has a problem with love. To be sure, he has counterfeits, which may sometimes pass for love, but these are mere sentiments at best, and at worst, lusts.

Venerable Emmanuel D’Alzon said something about this that deserves to be relished: “We love Christ with the same kind of love as the early Christians because He still faces the same kind of enemies that He faced then. We love Him with the love that made the Apostles say ‘if anyone does not love Jesus Christ, let him be cursed.’ This may not be very tolerant, but you know that those who love much tolerate little. Properly speaking, true love is revealed in the power of a noble and frank intolerance. In these days with no energy left for either love or hate, men do not see that their tolerance is just another form of weakness. We are intolerant because we draw our strength from our love of Jesus Christ.”

Congar would choke.

There are different manifestations of triumphalism. The most evident, and probably the most offensive to the progressivist, is that of the Christian knight, or Christian king of old. St. Olaf and his battle-axe (revered as a relic and incorporated into Norway’s royal coat of arms), St. Louis and his Crusader’s sword, St. Vladimir and his Viking army reconquering Kiev, St. Ferdinand III reclaiming Granada from the Moors: all these make the “integrist” cheer, while the progressive Catholic (ever the “mature” one) shakes his head in sad disapproval. Did these people ever notice that generations of great artists depicted the Resurrected Christ bearing a banner with a Crusader’s Cross? The victory of Christian forces over the infidel foe stood as an allegory for Christ’s conquest of sin, Satan, and death — and that, mind you, in the most aesthetically attuned minds.

How unnatural it is to dismiss the thrill of triumph! It is specially damaging to omit it from the formation of boys and young men, who need to learn the masculine virtues, both to temper their rough edges (which chivalry did), and to acquire the physical, mental, and especially spiritual toughness that life will demand of them. To defend the weak was a sacred duty for a Christian Knight. What does this mean to a certain type of contemporary male, who might manage to defend only his fingernails if danger should arise?

If we want men to be men, let’s give them masculine and holy role models.

I said that there are different manifestations of triumphalism. If those associated with combat come most readily to mind, this does not mean they are exclusive. Triumphalism should run the full range of the virtues, which, after all, constitute what many spiritual writers call the “Christian combat” or the “Spiritual combat.” This man’s overcoming his gluttony, that woman’s conquest of anger, the teenage boy’s manful resistance to impurity, the housewife’s slaying of the demon of sloth, one soul’s vainglory routed, another’s drunkenness defeated: all these are triumphs of God’s grace and our cooperation; all these are victories that make the angels rejoice.

It may seem ironic, but even meekness triumphs. And why not? “The Lord lifteth up the meek, and bringeth the wicked down even to the ground” (Ps. 146:6). It is precisely on this point that we can put to rout the smug pseudo-maturity of the “thinking Catholic,” who derides triumphalism. One of the true signs of sanctity — of the canonizable sort — is the presence of seemingly opposed virtues in a very high degree. Without this, one will not be declared to have had “heroic virtue,” something established quite early in the process of canonization. Examples of these “seemingly opposed” virtues would be meekness and fortitude, humility and magnanimity, evangelical kindness and the cardinal virtue of justice — even to the point of severity if necessary.

Do not the Gospels testify that Our Lord as Man had all these?

St. Thomas says that, by magnanimity, one ought to do noble things worthy of honors — even while avoiding pride and vainglory, which are opposed to Christian humility. Indeed, to have both humility and magnanimity in copious measure is not easy. It takes a saint! On the other hand, the cowardly meekness and phony humility of the anti-triumphalist are, like their love, counterfeit.

As a remedy to vainglory, Christian fighting men used to sing the Non Nobis: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us; but to thy name give glory” (Ps. 113:9).The Knights Templar are said to have so done in the Crusades. In the words of the relevant WikiPedia article, “Shakespeare, in his play Henry V, has the king proclaim the singing of both the Non nobis and Te Deum after the victory at Agincourt. For the 1989 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Doyle composed (and sang) a choral version that adapted the words slightly.” (Thanks to YouTube, one can conveniently view that moving scene from the Branagh film.)

Much more can be said in praise of triumphalism, but I try not to make the Ad Rem too long. I fear that, this time, brevity has not exactly triumphed.