"A lay Catholic perspective"

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A Historical Perspective — I

by Neil MacDonald


Many Catholics are puzzled by the Reformation and subsequent events in the life of the Church. In this series of three articles, Neil looks at the work of the Holy Spirit forming the Church in the midst of worldly adversity. The series provides a general survey of the reconciliation of the Cross through 2000 years of Church history.

GOD THE FATHER had prepared the world for the advent of his Son, working out the mystery of his purpose through the ages before Christ's birth that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth.[1]

From the moment the soldier opened Jesus' side with a lance, his death on the cross began the world's reconciliation; in his own person he killed the hostility.[2] Through his cross, the Lord conciliated races and cultures, economic classes, and men and women.[3] Christ's work of reconciliation continued relentlessly through the next two millennia, and the cross is drawing the Church together again at the dawn of the third millennium.


How can mankind encounter God with indifference? His infinite presence demands either submission or resistance from each person, and from every culture. Submission leads to true religion and further revelation while misunderstanding leads to worldly inspirations (personal and cultural). Worldly inspirations contain elements of reality, which is not surprising considering their ultimate origin in awareness of God's presence. Worldly ideals contain elements which confuse and distract from the Church's life and mission. However, God himself protects and disciples his Church and the gates of Hell will never prevail against her.

Worldly inspirations lead from one to another in continual rejection of the Lord's sovereignty. They do not 'pile up' in cultural layers, one inspiration 'buried' under another. The later inspiration enfolds the preceding one, the earlier one becomes the standard cultural assumptions, the status quo thinking, and gradually loses its power to inspire. We will examine, in this article and the two following, the worldly inspirations in the order that they arose and study their effects on the Church.

Wherever God revealed himself peoples often responded with consternation. The witness of Abraham and his descendants upset the local rulers in Canaan; they preferred the control that worship of many gods gave them over their subjects. After the Israelites conquered Canaan, monotheism imperceptibly spread its influence throughout the Greek world. In Athens during the fifth century B.C., the continuing stimulation of monotheistic worship in Israel gave birth to the famous schools of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Cultures could not dismiss God, but neither did they surrender to him.

The first movement: Civilization

Through the agency of Alexander the Great, the pagans' reaction to the one God found expression in the all-encompassing notion of civilizing the earth. Civilization would once for all silence the difficulties presented by monotheism.

More than two thousand years later, we find any objection to the ideal of civilization difficult to understand. Civilization proclaims that, by using our intellectual and artistic resources, we may create truth, beauty, adventure, art, and peace in every country that completely embraces it.[4] Our language reveals just how totally we take civilization for granted. If an individual conducts himself in a uncouth or abnormal fashion, we describe him as "uncivilized". We also label illiterate societies without a centralized government as 'uncivilized'. So, what could be wrong with that?

The answer: civilization borrowed from true religion the shell of reverence for the human person without accepting the heart as well.[5] Societies lacked the capacity to grasp that people were important because God considered them precious, the apple of his eye.[6] If God merely regarded them with distant objectivity, they were worse than dust. Without God, immortality became a curse to pagans of all classes and races, and relationships in this life subject to strife and misunderstanding.

The civilizing world managed to ghettoize Judaism; Christianity could not be similarly contained, no matter how strenuous civilization attempted its suppression. The Roman Empire, which boasted of its tolerance, just could not live with a healthy Church. Roman officials would accept the smallest compromise of faith as sufficient, but the faithful refused them even that. It mystified educated Romans that Christians would not throw a few grains of incense to the emperor's statue, when they themselves did not believe in his divinity. Actually, Romans believed in nothing with much fervour — except civilization.

When we recognize the conflict between Church and state in the Roman Empire as a struggle between the civilizers and the followers of Christ, then the persecutions by 'enlightened' thinkers like the Emperor Marcus Aurelius are more understandable. He correctly identified Christianity as a destabilizing force in Roman society, a way of life which abhorred the world view of civilization as hollow and sterile.

Not everything about civilization was corrupt. From civilization, the Church gained a more coherent organization and sense of universality. She enhanced her creativity in literature, art, and natural law. Civilization encouraged the 'primitive' Church to mature.

A profound schism

At the same time, the civilizers generated a profoundly negative prejudice in the Church. Under the pressure of civilization, the gentile Church pulled away from the synagogue's influence between 70 and 100 A.D., especially when the non-Christian Jews threw Christians out of the synagogues after the Temple's destruction. This event was very important for the spreading of the Gospel, but the Jewish understanding of the Church as a congregation or assembly of God's people — always so fundamental to St. Paul and St. Peter[7] — began to fade from ecclesial life by the end of the first century.

Resistance among gentile Christians to the civilizing inspiration greatly diminished with the destruction of the Temple, and their subsequent expulsion from the synagogues. The need for a greater hierarchical authority to protect the Church from false teaching and division tended to aggravate the movement away from an assembly mentality. Very quickly, a view of the clergy as the 'teaching Church' and the laity as the 'learning Church' gained ascendancy. In this setting, the laity lost any sense of their place in the Church's mission. The laity almost universally failed to develop spiritual maturity; they accepted passive, even apathetic attitudes, assumed roles undifferentiated from other members of the laity, and seldom took responsibility for the overall welfare of the Church. St. John rejected this non-Jewish attitude as late as the end of the first century,[8] but the vision of Church life that he preached did not long survive his death.[9]

The second movement: Rationalism

Long before Christ was born, the pagan world grappled with the incredible revelation, coming out of Israel, that God is One God. While cultures responded by attempting a worldly utopia called civilization, great minds also wrestled with the reality of existence from a human viewpoint. Permenides and Hereclitus formulated two entirely different theories to explain existence. Socrates and Plato followed Permenides, trying to make his theory of Being an acceptable explanation of reality. Aristotle realized the inadequacy of their work, taking on himself the monumental task of formulating an entirely new system.

For half a millennium these schools of thought were confined to the discussions of philosophers; during that time, teachers and the laity desired more 'practical' systems, suitable to the ideal of civilization. During the third century A.D. a reaction set in among those parents able to afford a good education for their children. They demanded systems of thought able to challenge Christian teaching, and to create at least a temporary justification for the eastern mystery religions flooding the Roman Empire. Neoplatonic and Scholastic (Aristotelian) schools gained prominence, not only in Athens and Alexandria, but also in Africa, Syria, and Italy.

Civilization no longer offered the world a sufficient defence against God. The world's rebellion now expressed itself in a new ideal — rationalism. A rationalist accepted reason as the only authority in determining one's opinions or practice.

The philosophical systems of Greece, augmented and synthesized by centuries of thought, so overwhelmed the empire that many in the Church fell under their spell. A dedicated Christian named Origen rewrote theology from a philosophical perspective. "Origen's name was so highly esteemed [in the Church] that when there was question of putting an end to a schism or rooting out a heresy, appeal was made to it."[10]

So stubbornly did philosophers cling to rationalism in opposition to Christianity that the pious Emperor Justinian finally closed down their schools in 529. His action proved unsuccessful in removing rationalism from the minds of the educated; Justinian himself was no doubt unaware of the rationalist influence on his own mind. Movements like rationalism were so insidious they could influence people's whole approach to life without their so much as being aware of them.

"In spite of the Christianization of Byzantium, there remained a residue of ancient pagan Roman ideas. The Byzantines of this school often appear so modern to us precisely because they were permeated with rationalistic anti-ecclesiastical sentiments. Such men were found most frequently among the cultured classes, the high dignitaries of Church and State."[11]

The Church gained considerably from the impact of rationalism. Her theologians argued more effectively against heresy, and offered more systematic explanations of doctrine and morality. The Church demonstrated more completely how her teachings could be understood with the mind, subject to faith.

Nevertheless, the Church suffered damage from rationalism. Where rationalism penetrated, it diminished her sense of the mystery in Christianity. Concepts like 'emotion', 'intuition', and 'revelation' caused growing discomfort, especially in educated circles. The idea of 'irrational' became practically synonymous with 'insane'. Unfathomable doctrines were dissected and 'understood', and truths of the faith could be sifted through and jettisoned if they failed to fit the desired theological scheme.

By 600 A.D. the historical stage was set for the terrible schisms dividing the Church through the next thousand years. The next article in this series will examine these schisms and their effects. Accidents of history did not cause the schisms; the blame must be found in the resistance in men's hearts. But however much sin increased, grace was always greater...[12] The Church remained and prospered through everything.

The background research and sources for the three articles in this series is under revision and will be available free of charge after the third article is published.

[1] Eph 1:9a,10

[2] Eph 2:16

[3] Gal 3:28

[4] The definition of civilization used by Alfred North Whitehead (d.1947)

[5] M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled and Beyond, p. 175

[6] Dt 32:10; Zec 2:8 (RSV) 2:13 (NJB)

[7] See Acts 20:28 and footnote (NJB)

[8] 1 Jn 2:27

[9] From reflections of The Integrated Community, first called together in Munich, Germany

[10] F. Prat "Origen and Origenism", The Catholic Encyclopaedia (1911), Vol. XI., p. 308

[11] Ernst Gerland, The Catholic Encyclopaedia, p. 106-107, par.5

[12] Rm 5:20