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Why European Christendom Was So Important for the Faith

Why European Christendom Was So Important for the Faith Andreas Akre Solberg

Andreas Akre Solberg

Thomas Storck - Ethika Politika - published on 01/30/14

The flowering of an authentically Christian culture didn't happen by accident.

Hilaire Belloc is famous, and in some quarters infamous, for the statement, in his book Europe and the Faith, that “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.” [1]

Of course Belloc, like any intelligent man, knew well that this statement was not literally true, at least not in any statistical sense.  That is, there were millions of Catholics outside Europe, and millions of non-Catholics within Europe.  This is even more the case today than when Belloc wrote.  But there is a sense in which this statement is true, for Europe is that place in which, under God’s providence, the Faith was given both time and space to develop itself intellectually and culturally, to form Christendom, the outward and visible sign of God’s internal and invisible work in human souls.  Although originally the Church’s cultural orbit had included parts of both Africa and Asia, and many important early Fathers and other theologians were north African or Middle Eastern, after the Muhammadan invasions these areas were to some degree cut off from contact with the rest of the Catholic world—and, in the case of Latin north Africa, the Church dwindled away into nothingness.  Thus Europe was left as the only place where, although amid difficulties certainly, Catholic life could develop in a more or less natural or proper manner.  In this way it is true to say that the Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith, since it was only there that Catholic social and cultural life had the chance to attain to any degree of maturity, and in turn, this gave to the European continent a cultural unity it otherwise would probably have lacked.

Such an outward social and cultural manifestation of Catholic faith has always been characteristic of the Church.  Except in cases of persecution, it is normal for a Catholic social order to arise, and we take for granted the immense number of intellectual, literary, artistic, musical, architectural, and other expressions of Catholic faith that were produced within Christendom.  But there is one additional and almost always necessary element in this outward expression of the Faith.  That is the political aspect.  Ever since the Emperor Constantine’s initial recognition of the Church through the Edict of Milan, the Catholic Church has enjoyed a complex relationship with the various political powers of this world.  Before Constantine, of course, the Church was generally an object of persecution by the Roman government.

But after Constantine all this changed.  Now the government became, in a sense, the patron and protector of the Church.  That this patronage had a negative side, no one can deny.  But that in general it was the providentially appointed means for protecting the Church and allowing a Christian civilization to develop also seems to me beyond denial.  Because of this complex relationship with the powers of the world, a relationship often both positive and negative at the same time, it can be perplexing to evaluate any particular instance of this relationship, and thus it seems to me that we should be careful about either condemning it wholesale, or on the other hand, failing to acknowledge or downplaying its negative aspects.

In evaluating the pros and cons of the political patronage that various rulers have bestowed on the Church over the centuries, we should remember that without such patronage only rarely would Catholic cultures have been able to develop.  I will address the contemporary situation below; but speaking of the past, up to a few hundred years ago, the military or political triumph of an anti-Catholic power usually brought with it persecution of the Church, the destruction of any outward manifestations of Catholic life, and often even the slow death of the Faith on the part of individuals in their private lives.

Tertullian’s dictum, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, has certainly proven true at times, but it can hardly be regarded as an axiom to be applied uncritically to all times and places.  In the lands conquered by Moslems or in those parts of Europe that embraced Protestantism, the Church was subjected to varying degrees and kinds of persecution, and in some cases the Catholic body was reduced to nothingness.  All this is simply to point out that, whatever harm state protection and patronage of the Church has brought with it, it also provided needed space for the Church and Catholic life to exist and develop.  The sad state of the Church in Catholic Europe is often taken as proof that ultimately such official protection does more harm than good, but when we compare Latin Europe today with such once-Catholic lands as Scandinavia or Asia Minor, we might conclude that more than one opinion is possible.

In Christian Europe there existed a succession of political powers that provided this patronage even into the 19th century, albeit less consistently as the centuries progressed:  the Roman Empire in both east and west; Charlemagne’s Frankish empire; during the Middle Ages most European kingdoms; thereafter Habsburg Spain together with the Holy Roman Empire; and lastly France.  During this time, of course, large sections of Europe were lost to the Church in the Protestant revolt, about the same time as there began a Catholic expansion into the New World and into parts of Asia and Africa.  Necessarily Catholic life in these regions was derivative of European Catholic life.  In one region, though, there was enough time and resources to permit the creation of a genuinely new province of Christendom.  This was Latin America, where a Baroque Catholic culture was created, in its main lines certainly a European transplant, but in a new environment and among new peoples.  As Christopher Dawson wrote:

"Nowhere are the vitality and fecundity of the Baroque culture better displayed than in Mexico and South America, where there was a rich flowering of regional types of art and architecture, some of which show considerable indigenous Indian influence. This power of Baroque culture to assimilate alien influences is one of its characteristic features, and distinguishes it sharply from the culture and artistic style of the Anglo-American area." [2]

This assimilating power of the Spanish Baroque was so great that, as one scholar put it with reference to music:

"It is very difficult in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador to separate the musical elements of Indian origin from those of the European tradition…. The elements of the two cultures combined to form inseparable units." [3]

But although Latin America did offer fresh space for Catholic cultural development, it, like all the newly-discovered or colonized lands, continued to depend upon Europe both politically and intellectually.

In Europe, as I noted, important and increasingly powerful states had already loosed themselves from Catholic unity.  Protestant England together with Holland and for a time Sweden became the chief loci within Europe aiming at the destruction of Catholic civilization.  These became not only political and military rivals to Catholic powers, but erected an alternative model of Western cultural life, a model which has exerted a powerful intellectual appeal on many.

Subsequently the United States became the foundation of this Protestant culture worldwide.  Speaking of this, Belloc wrote, “The strength of the Protestant culture now lies out of Europe, in the United States.”[4]  These various Protestant powers worked by seizing bits of Catholic territory all around the world, by sending out Protestant missionaries into Latin America and other Catholic lands where they have contributed to the destruction of Catholic faith and culture, but perhaps most importantly by offering an alternative model of Western culture that appeals strongly to modern materialist man.  The increasing industrial might and wealth of this model offered a kind of spurious argument in its favor, an argument summarized by Belloc as follows:

"The Catholic Church is false because nations of Catholic culture have declined steadily in temporal wealth and power as compared with the nations of an anti-Catholic culture, which, in this particular instance, means the Protestant culture." [5]

Although today neither Great Britain nor the United States as nations has any interest in Protestant theology, both of them continue to reflexively oppose Catholic interests, or any remnants of Catholic culture existing in the world today.  In fact, part of the anti-Hispanic feeling that animates so many Anglo-Americans, even Catholics, has its roots in this feeling of the cultural superiority of Protestant civilization.

Although in general Protestant civilization still exists as a power supporting (I do not say Protestantism as a religion, but Protestant culture), today there is no Catholic power.  In fact, with the partial and weak exception of a few Latin American nations,[6] the Church and Catholic culture have no true political props today.  In the late 19th century Pope Leo XIII and other far-sighted Catholic thinkers saw that the Church could no longer depend for her external support upon Catholic princes.  In both the political and the cultural realms it was now the mass of the Catholic people, more and more living in democratic regimes and possessing some voice in their governments, who would be the external support for the Church, if anyone would be.  And at first this new arrangement seemed to work tolerably well.  The last third of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries was one of the most brilliant periods in Catholic thought and letters, in philosophy, in the efforts of popes from Pius X to Pius XII to realize the liturgy’s potential as a school for Christian living.  Despite the interruptions of two world wars, Catholic thought exerted an influence on politics in more than one country; a number of official or unofficial Catholic political parties existed; and some few regimes were more or less consciously devoted to carrying out a Catholic program in their public policy, while even in Protestant countries popular Catholic life flourished in a great variety of associations and institutions, and Catholics exercised sometimes considerable influence on the political process.

Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century the Church deliberately, if uncomprehendingly, inflicted a grave wound on herself.  Although apart from a few ambiguities the conciliar documents themselves are unproblematic, it does not seem to admit of reasonable disagreement that the conduct of the Second Vatican Council, and much more its aftermath and application, by and large have been a disaster for the Church, a disaster at once pastoral, intellectual and institutional.  As a result of this disaster the popular Catholic life that had existed was in large part destroyed.  Although Catholic culture is much broader than simply the reception of the sacraments and catechesis, it depends upon such formal elements of Catholic life. Without them it cannot last.

It is thus hard to envisage any ready way out of our present situation, since both the formal and the popular sides of Catholic life have been affected.  So how can we respond to that situation, in which the Church neither enjoys the patronage of any powerful government nor commands widespread enthusiasm and loyalty on the part of the Catholic people at-large?  In such circumstances how can the Church and Catholic life be maintained, nourished, and extended?

Sadly, the measures that can be suggested to achieve this end seem woefully inadequate.  Attention to a beautiful and historically rooted liturgy, deliberate cultivation of a consciousness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, including am emphatic stress on the Church’s social teaching, new or restored Catholic schools at all levels, constant popular education through the media—these seem to me to be the chief means that are possible and that have some hope of success.  None of them is easy to establish and of those that have been initiated many are already more than tainted by alien influences: e.g., in the United States, by fatal compromises with the worldview of classical liberalism on the part of uncomprehending Catholics unable to distinguish between a Catholic view of the social order and that of classical liberalism, simply because the latter seems to be at odds with the trajectory of more recent and obviously harmful liberalism.  That both forms of liberalism are rooted in the same errors is seemingly impossible for many to grasp.

I am not hopeful for the immediate future.  About the long term there is no doubt and there should be no fear, for it is Jesus Christ who is head of the Church, his Mystical Body.  How long this long term may be is hardly our concern—short or long it is not in our hands.  Meanwhile, success should not the norm of our activity, but simply faithfulness: faithfulness to the mandate given to the Church by her Founder to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.

[1].  (Rockford : TAN, [1920] 1992) p. 2.

[2].  The Dividing of Christendom (Garden City : Image, 1967), p. 162.

[3].  Bruno Nettl, Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice-Hall, 2d ed. 1973) p. 191.

[4].  “The Two Cultures of the West,” in Essays of a Catholic (Rockford : TAN, [1931] 1992), p. 244.

[5].  Survivals and New Arrivals (London : Sheed & Ward, 1939), p. 80.

[6].  When Argentina observed March 25 as the Day of the Unborn Child for the first time, to symbolize its rejection of abortion, her President, Carlos Menem, wrote to the heads of state of all the Latin American countries, and of Spain, Portugal and the Philippines, inviting them to join in this observance.  He noted that “the common historical roots of our nations bind us together not only on matters of language but also in an understanding of man and society based on the fundamental dignity of the human person” (Catholic World News feature, 3/25/1999).  This is an echo of the Hispanic world’s former status as the geopolitical bulwark of Catholicism.

Courtesy of Ethika Politka

CatholicismChristians in the Middle EastFaithPolitics
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