"A lay Catholic perspective"

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A Historical Perspective — III

by Neil MacDonald

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Article 3 is the last in the series. A Historical Perspective portrays the Church's continuing victory over the world, culminating in the Year 2000 and the advent of the New Springtime.


AN ATTITUDE OF PASSIVITY crept into the ancient Church. It could not be avoided, because the Church needed to escape the quagmire of a Jewish culture over-encumbered with legalistic safeguards to the faith. The Church also needed the freedom to embrace gentile cultures who found Jewish customs impossible. Non-Christian Jews co-operated in the Christian escape from Judaic culture by expelling Christian Jews from the synagogues after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The Church earned her independence from Judaism at a high price: she lost a sense of assembly, of equal participation by all members of the congregation, a sense of equality in her mission.

There was another reason that the diminished freedom of individual Christians could not be avoided — the hierarchy needed to protect a generally illiterate Church from the divisions of heresy and argument. To further strengthen the Church, Saint Ignatius of Antioch and other reformers promoted the bishop's role as representative of the local Church. Through the first one thousand years, Jesus methodically established his body around the episcopal anchor. This establishment of episcopal authority in the minds of the faithful required almost a millennium to accomplish.

In the fifth century, some of the western European clergy proposed a method of evangelizing more of the common people, many of whom were not being reached, especially outside urban areas. They proposed that priests' faculties be increased, allowing them to preach and to prepare young men for Holy Orders. Saint Caesarius of Arles used his considerable reputation to promote this increase in priestly powers. The strong opposition he encountered from among his closest episcopal associates illustrated the great difficulties the Church faced carrying out the most elementary mission in the countryside.[1] In the ninth and tenth centuries, reformers renewed efforts to expand presbyter faculties, setting the stage for another adventure in God's kingdom.

The parish system

During the first millennium Church life centred on the urban basilica (under the direct authority of the bishop) and on the nobleman's chapel, attached to his villa for its support and protection. The social climate changed around 1000 A.D. The dawn of the second millennium did not bring the end of the world as many feared and the need for prompt military protection had diminished, leaving grateful commoners free to distance themselves to some extent from the local noble. The lower classes moved the church away from the castle and created the parish. The French monk Raoul Glaber exulted in the year 1003, "It was as if the earth had shaken itself, and everywhere dressed itself in a white garment of churches."[2] With their increased faculties, local clergy had sufficient authority to shepherd their flocks in the new setting.[3]

Local people made the parish church centre of village life, a social-religious system that persevered during the upheavals and movements of the last one thousand years. The parish organization remained in place through all the schisms, and in various forms was taken for granted by all church denominations. It is easy to forget that the parish scarcely existed before the year 1000. Now, with the increased faculties and responsibilities of the priest, the Church had an institution in place to evangelize and disciple rural (and urban) areas much more intensely.

The Church needed nearly one thousand years to define the central role of the bishop in each diocese. Similarly, she needed another thousand years to define the priest's central role in each parish. Some writers say the Reformation exaggerated the authority of the priesthood, that "the pendulum swung in the opposite direction" from a time when clergy were despised and ignored for moral laxity.[4] They overlooked the fact that the priests' authority in the parish increasing from before the Reformation. The increased faculties assured their authority regardless of lifestyles. (And by no means were all priests were given over to immorality and politics — far from it.) Protestantism provided an unacknowledged balance, with the pastors of Protestant denominations never quite acquiring the same authority as Catholic priests. Authentic Protestant traditions concerning pastorship gradually permeated Catholic minds and added a greater emphasis to the laity's mission. Pius XII's encyclical letter On The Mystical Body Of Christ revealed that the seeds of the lay mission were already sprouting.[5]

Contrary forces — the modern culture

The world, meanwhile, continued to strive through the second millennium for enlargement of its independence from the Church's authority. As early as the thirteenth century, business leaders sought ways around usury laws and any other 'unprofitable' restraints to the conduct of trade. Although Calvinism did not open the door to the capitalist system, a certain (convenient) interpretation of Calvinism helped many capitalists achieve their goals of great wealth.[6]

Capitalism reflected a new view of the world, a view so powerful that it created a stable, unconscious way of thinking throughout Europe. This worldview evolved into huge social pressures of subconscious opinion that eventually formed one 'coherent' whole.[7] It was made up of three complementary assumptions: (1) that we are separate from nature (instead of placing ourselves in the same creation under God,) leading to (2), subjective understanding of ourselves, and (3), the demand for personal autonomy from authority.[8]

Objectifying nature encouraged its study by the empirical method. Only those facets of nature that could be observed and mathematically analyzed were considered 'real'. Making nature 'other' also gave it a cult status and led to the nineteenth century Romantic's infatuation with nature. Man's subjective understanding of himself on a ground other than his relationship with God generated the individualism of the modern age and a greatly diminished sense of corporate society, of being responsible for others. In demanding unrestricted liberty, "freedom has been restricted to psychological advantage or social privilege...."[9]

Modern culture gave something of worth to the Church. "The modern age did further the intrinsic worth of personality, of individual freedom, of responsibility and dignity, of man's inherent potentiality and dignity, of man's inherent potentiality for mutual respect and help."[10] We should not be surprised that the modern world's genuine values had been implicit in Christianity from earliest times.

For the secular world these benefits ultimately proved insufficient. By the twentieth century secular man had lost his cultural security, which had been derived from nature and knowledge of himself. The interaction of nature and the individual proved destructive. Man lost both a secure place to live in and secure relationships with those around him.

As the twentieth century rolled by, the world has maintained little more than a pretence of morality, demonstrating that it could justify any behaviour it found pleasurable or convenient. We entered an era of doublespeak; George Orwell's predictions in his novel 1984 proved true. The late twentieth century faces "a moral and cognitive crises that shows few signs of letting up, though more voices are raised in protest each year...."[11]


[1] William Klingshirn, Caesarius of Arles: the making of a Christian community in late antique Gaul, Cambridge University Press, 1994, p.144

[2] Claudia Sommers, "Scanning the X-Files for God", Catholic Insight, April/97, p.13

[3] L Genicot, Rural Communities in the Medieval West, Baltimore, 1990 p.60

[4] Carter, p.48

[5] "In a natural body the principle of unity unites the parts in such a manner that each lacks its own individual subsistence; on the contrary, in the mystical Body the mutual union, though intrinsic, links the members by a bond which leaves to each the complete enjoyment of his own personality." (Pius XII, On The Mystical Body Of Christ, 61)

[6] R.H. Tawney, Forward to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1958, pp.6-11

[7] In Article 2, I compared this cultural formation to the geological tectonic plates.

[8] See Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1956, Trans. J. Therman and H. Burke, pp.8-50

[9] Guardini, p.122

[10] Guardini, p.120

[11] David Lehman, Signs Of The Times, Deconstruction And The Fall Of Paul De Man, Poseidon Press, New York, 1991, p.267