"A lay Catholic perspective"

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A Historical Perspective — II

by Neil MacDonald


THE EARTH'S CRUST is made up of continent-sized plates of bedrock that creep against or away from each other at a rate of centimetres per year. Yet these tectonic plates are responsible for earthquakes, volcanoes, and all other seismic disturbances at the point where they push together.

Culturally, humankind rests on tectonic plates as well, huge social pressures of subconscious opinion formed over thousands of years. These 'substrata' of conviction are direct or indirect responses to God's interventions in human history. Overlaying the substrata are 'superstrata' which strongly influence a culture and endure for centuries, but are not as persuasive as the cultural forces underneath.

Two convictions (the ideals of civilization and rationalism) formed such a cultural 'tectonic plate' in the ancient Greco-Roman Empires over a period of at least one thousand years, and welded into a cultural force of such unconscious power that it ruptured the Church all along the Empire's borders a millennium after the western Roman Empire fell apart. Part One in this series (Olive Leaf Sept-Oct/97) outlined the formation of these two ideals.1

Government in the Middle Ages

Three forms of government ruled Europe during the thousand years following the destruction of the western Roman Empire. In the east, Caesar reigned over a Christianized empire, although with institutionalized resistance from the Church. In the west, vigorous tribal governments headed by a king predominated, a pattern of effective tribal rule not seen in southern Europe for centuries. The Norse and German tribes from north of the Rhine had never endured Roman rule for any length of time, and remained untouched by civilization and rationalism. Those tribes that invaded the Empire destroyed much of the Roman civilization, but in the process were themselves profoundly influenced by the same subconscious compulsions.

Other areas

Oriental nations (Egypt, Syria, Palestine, present-day Turkey), before they fell within the Roman Empire, had already fashioned sophisticated societies. Four thousand years of despotic rule left oriental peoples with a strong persuasion for absolute government. In the distant northeast, the territories dominated by the Kingdoms of Kiev and later by Muscovy, suffered constant conquest by waves of invaders from eastern Asia, never enjoying a settled and common culture, except for the archetypal element of almost continuous isolation. Invasions by the Mongols during the thirteenth century reinforced the image of despotism and the necessity for a despotic ruler. Small wonder that the king of Kiev was attracted to Byzantine Christianity, so influenced by the despotic east.

Each invasion superimposed an important influence on the bedrock cultures of every area. All geographical areas were subject to the usual political ebbs and flows of government, and border areas experienced a certain influence from the cultures next to them.

The cultural impact on religion

Oriental areas, with their despotic past, viewed God as One. The Trinitarian God was difficult for them to accept. The Byzantine Empire, immersed in civilization and rationalism,a had meanwhile experienced a great development in theology, religious art, and metaphysical mysticism.

Southwestern Europe, overrun by German and Scandinavian tribes, were a complicated cultural patchwork of northern and southern influences, aggravated by a breakdown in communications and markets. Areas of Northern Europe which never knew Roman occupation, rested on a cultural plate of their own, the collective mind of the tribe rather than the legalistic mind of the Empire. Stresses gradually increased along the frontier between them that demanded release. The only question left: Would the stresses be released slowly or abruptly?

The middle-east received an important superstratum of rationalism and civilization after the Greek and Roman invasions; but far more forceful was four thousand years of despotism previous to the Greek and Roman jurisdictions. People in these lands could conceive of rule by the One, whether human or divine, but had difficulty conceiving a God who is three in One. Such a revelation was too much for many of them, and the bargaining began, either to minimize Jesus' divine nature or his human nature. Many Christians in middle eastern countries finally found an accommodation through Monophysitism which erroneously acknowledged Christ human and divine in one nature. The Church may have been able to hold the middle east in orthodoxy if she could have preserved her Jewish roots; her Jewish religious culture may have communicated with the oriental spirit. However, the Church's need to evangelize the pagans made maintaining her roots impossible.

The Byzantine Empire — the Roman Empire of the east — continued to rest on the substratum of civilization and rationalism. "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."2

By the eleventh century, western Europe's social decline stood in sharp contrast to the sophisticated, refined life of Byzantium. Although both areas rested on the bedrock of rationalism and civilization, at that time these cultural forces found little expression in the west. In general, the conquering tribes in these areas still had not absorbed very much of the rationalizing and civilizing spirit. The Byzantines could accommodate the tension between Greek and Roman cultures, but not the much greater tension between Greek and Barbarian. Although the actual separation began with Charlemagne's coronation as emperor — there could only be one emperor — the eastern Church formally broke with Rome in 1054. The Empire "had split into two halves which in language, culture, politics and religion were poles apart."3

The Church in the Kingdom of Kiev followed Constantinople in breaking with the pope. The upheavals in the Kievan Kingdom prevented the Church there from exerting any great influence beyond her borders. To the contrary, the constant invasions and domination from Asian tribes created a deep collective sense of isolation and suffering. This sense of isolation and suffering went so deep into their cultural soul that it formed a 'tectonic plate' in the minds of Russians and their neighbours. Civilization and rationalism left only a dull impression in their culture. Dostoyevsky treated civilization with contempt. He wondered, "Is it possible to have faith when one has become civilized...?"4 Berdyaev identified culture with Christianity and civilization with paganism.5

After Constantinople fell to Islam in 1453 the Church in Muscovy considered herself the true heir to the primacy of the whole Church. Especially after the Romanovs secured the throne in the seventeenth century, the Russian Orthodox Church exerted a brooding influence on affairs in western Europe — a presence far more powerful than the Orthodox Churches to the south.

The great cultural divide

Historians have identified many forces leading to the sixteenth century schism of the Church in western Europe. These are important and will be touched on below. Unconscious cultural forces, however, were the fundamental causes — the southern civilized/rationalist mind opposed to the tribal mind of the north.

Richard Winston observed the cultural 'fault line' along the ancient Roman border:

A great fault cut across the kingdom of the Franks and Lombards from the North Sea to the Alps, following the linguistic frontier that divided the lingua romana from the lingua teudisca, or, as we would say today, the French tongue from the German. At any time the earth might slip and the frontier buckle along the fault, and sooner or later a deep quake was bound to occur.6

K.S. Latourette, Yale professor of divinity and one-time president of the American Baptist Convention noted in his history of Christianity:

[T]he geographic line of demarcation between those who adhered respectively to the Protestant and Catholic Reformation in part coincided with the boundaries of the Roman Empire. In the main, with important exceptions... those lands which had assimilated to Latin culture before the sixth century remained loyal to the Church of Rome.... In regions which had been on the borders of the Roman Empire, as in the Low Countries, the Rhine Valley, Switzerland, and the upper reaches of the Danube, and where conformity to Latin culture had not proceeded as far in these lands, both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were represented.7

The sound of Martin Luther's hammer nailing his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door set off an earthquake that divided north from south within thirty years. The Church separated into 'Roman' and 'tribal' lands. Northern Germany and Scandinavia turned Lutheran; the south remained Catholic. Latourette observed that Churches of the Reformed tradition established themselves along the old Roman border, eg. along the lower Rhine and the Netherlands, Bohemia, and parts of Transylvania. The Alpine terrain of Switzerland minimized the Roman influence during their occupation and much of the country went Reformed, although valleys easily accessible to the Romans stayed Catholic.

Rome occupied Britain for less than 400 years. The limited Roman influence left the Anglican tradition ambivalent; adherents quickly separated into the High Anglican, 'mainstream', and Low Anglican forms of worship. The geography of Wales isolated much of that country from intense Roman occupation. Urban areas continued a hierarchical Church as mainstream Anglicans while much of the rural areas gradually moved towards Methodism. A Reformed tradition established itself along Hadrian's Wall in Scotland, a well-defended border of the Roman Empire. For reasons of national integrity, Ireland, Poland and Highland Scotland clung to the old Catholic faith against their aggressors.

Other factors

Other forces contributed to the schism in Europe: economic oppression (always creating a tendency toward schism), the invention of the printing press, and tension between the nobility and upper middle classes. Immorality and lack of religious fervour at all levels of the Church also contributed to the split. These additional forces prevented a gradual reconciliation of the northern and southern cultures.

We may illustrate the negative additional forces' impact upon the schism, once again using tectonic plates as a model. In the early 1970s, many seismic geologists detected great stresses along the San Andreas Fault and predicted that a huge earthquake was inevitable within a decade. When the earthquake did not materialize, these scientist reviewed their accumulated data, and discovered that the two plates forming the fault had slipped against each other many times, but so slightly that people rarely noticed the tremors. The tectonic stresses were relieved without a natural disaster.

Since we must accept history as it occurred, the questions asked by Pope John Paul II are more to the point. "Wasn't it perhaps even necessary... in accordance with God's unfathomable wisdom, for religious schism and religious wars to occur in order to lead the Church to reflect on and renew its original values?"8 And again,

Could it not be that these divisions have also been a path continually leading the Church to discover the untold wealth contained in Christ's Gospel and in the redemption accomplished by Christ? Perhaps all this wealth would not have come to light otherwise. (his emphasis)9

The three articles in this series will introduce a study of the Church's triumphs and vicissitudes now in preparation for publication. The study includes a more detailed examination of the Reformation's causes and will be available in manuscript form upon publication of the third article.


a Rationalism is better termed religious rationalism, for rationalism had a religious framework after the second century A.D., whether pagan, Christian, or ideological atheist.

1 A copy of July's OLIVE LEAF will be sent free of charge upon request if no copies remain in your parish.

2 Ernst Gerland, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911), Vol. III, p. 106

3 George Ostrogorsy, History of The Bysantine State, p. 186

4 Geir Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer's Life, p. 260

5 Nicolas Berdyaev, The Meaning of History, p. 207; Dostoyevsky, p. 175

6 Richard Winston, Charlemagne, Random House, p. 210

7 J.S. Latourette, A History of Christianity, Harper & Row, 1954, p. 699

8 John Paul II at an ecumenical service in Augsburg Cathedral, Winnipeg Free Press, May 4, 1987, p.24

9 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Alfred A. Knopf, p. 153