Europe and the Faith
"Sine auctoritate nulla vita"
INTRODUCTION. THE CATHOLIC CONSCIENCE OF HISTORY
I. WHAT WAS THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
II. WHAT WAS THE CHURCH IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
III. WHAT WAS THE "FALL" OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
IV. THE BEGINNING OF THE NATIONS
V. WHAT HAPPENED IN BRITAIN?
VI. THE DARK AGES
VII. THE MIDDLE AGES
VIII. WHAT WAS THE REFORMATION?
IX. THE DEFECTION OF BRITAIN
THE CATHOLIC CONSCIENCE OF HISTORY
I say the Catholic "conscience" of history—I say "conscience"—that is, an intimate knowledge through identity: the intuition of a thing which is one with the knower—I do not say "The Catholic Aspect of History." This talk of "aspects" is modern and therefore part of a decline: it is false, and therefore ephemeral: I will not stoop to it. I will rather do homage to truth and say that there is no such thing as a Catholic "aspect" of European history. There is a Protestant aspect, a Jewish aspect, a Mohammedan aspect, a Japanese aspect, and so forth. For all of these look on Europe from without. The Catholic sees Europe from within. There is no more a Catholic "aspect" of European history than there is a man's "aspect" of himself.
Sophistry does indeed pretend that there is even a man's "aspect" of himself. In nothing does false philosophy prove itself more false. For a man's way of perceiving himself (when he does so honestly and after a cleansing examination of his mind) is in line with his Creator's, and therefore with reality: he sees from within.
Let me pursue this metaphor. Man has in him conscience, which is the voice of God. Not only does he know by this that the outer world is real, but also that his own personality is real.
When a man, although flattered by the voice of another, yet says within himself, "I am a mean fellow," he has hold of reality. When a man, though maligned of the world, says to himself of himself, "My purpose was just," he has hold of reality. He knows himself, for he is himself. A man does not know an infinite amount about himself. But the finite amount he does know is all in the map; it is all part of what is really there. What he does not know about himself would, did he know it, fit in with what he does know about himself. There are indeed "aspects" of a man for all others except these two, himself and God Who made him. These two, when they regard him, see him as he is; all other minds have their several views of him; and these indeed are "aspects," each of which is false, while all differ. But a man's view of himself is not an "aspect:" it is a comprehension.
Now then, so it is with us who are of the Faith and the great story of Europe. A Catholic as he reads that story does not grope at it from without, he understands it from within. He cannot understand it altogether because he is a finite being; but he is also that which he has to understand. The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith.
The Catholic brings to history (when I say "history" in these pages I mean the history of Christendom) self-knowledge. As a man in the confessional accuses himself of what he knows to be true and what other people cannot judge, so a Catholic, talking of the united European civilization, when he blames it, blames it for motives and for acts which are his own. He himself could have done those things in person. He is not relatively right in his blame, he is absolutely right. As a man can testify to his own motive so can the Catholic testify to unjust, irrelevant, or ignorant conceptions of the European story; for he knows why and how it proceeded. Others, not Catholic, look upon the story of Europe externally as strangers. They have to deal with something which presents itself to them partially and disconnectedly, by its phenomena alone: he sees it all from its centre in its essence, and together.
I say again, renewing the terms, The Church is Europe: and Europe is The Church.
The Catholic conscience of history is not a conscience which begins with the development of the Church in the basin of the Mediterranean. It goes back much further than that. The Catholic understands the soil in which that plant of the Faith arose. In a way that no other man can, he understands the Roman military effort; why that effort clashed with the gross Asiatic and merchant empire of Carthage; what we derived from the light of Athens; what food we found in the Irish and the British, the Gallic tribes, their dim but awful memories of immortality; what cousinship we claim with the ritual of false but profound religions, and even how ancient Israel (the little violent people, before they got poisoned, while they were yet National in the mountains of Judea) was, in the old dispensation at least, central and (as we Catholics say) sacred: devoted to a peculiar mission.
For the Catholic the whole perspective falls into its proper order. The picture is normal. Nothing is distorted to him. The procession of our great story is easy, natural, and full. It is also final.
But the modern Catholic, especially if he is confined to the use of the English tongue, suffers from a deplorable (and it is to be hoped), a passing accident. No modern book in the English tongue gives him a conspectus of the past; he is compelled to study violently hostile authorities, North German (or English copying North German), whose knowledge is never that of the true and balanced European.
He comes perpetually across phrases which he sees at once to be absurd, either in their limitations or in the contradictions they connote. But unless he has the leisure for an extended study, he cannot put his finger upon the precise mark of the absurdity. In the books he reads—if they are in the English language at least—he finds things lacking which his instinct for Europe tells him should be there; but he cannot supply their place because the man who wrote those books was himself ignorant of such things, or rather could not conceive them.
I will take two examples to show what I mean. The one is the present battlefield of Europe: a large affair not yet cleared, concerning all nations and concerning them apparently upon matters quite indifferent to the Faith. It is a thing which any stranger might analyze (one would think) and which yet no historian explains.
The second I deliberately choose as an example particular and narrow: an especially doctrinal story. I mean the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury, of which the modern historian makes nothing but an incomprehensible contradiction; but which is to a Catholic a sharp revelation of the half-way house between the Empire and modern nationalities.
As to the first of these two examples: Here is at last the Great War in Europe: clearly an issue—things come to a head. How came it? Why these two camps? What was this curious grouping of the West holding out in desperate Alliance against the hordes that Prussia drove to a victory apparently inevitable after the breakdown of the Orthodox Russian shell? Where lay the roots of so singular a contempt for our old order, chivalry and morals, as Berlin then displayed? Who shall explain the position of the Papacy, the question of Ireland, the aloofness of old Spain?
It is all a welter if we try to order it by modern, external—especially by any materialist or even skeptical—analysis. It was not climate against climate—that facile materialist contrast of "environment," which is the crudest and stupidest explanation of human affairs. It was not race—if indeed any races can still be distinguished in European blood save broad and confused appearances, such as Easterner and Westerner, short and tall, dark and fair. It was not—as another foolish academic theory (popular some years ago) would pretend—an economic affair. There was here no revolt of rich against poor, no pressure of undeveloped barbarians against developed lands, no plan of exploitation, nor of men organized, attempting to seize the soil of less fruitful owners.
How came these two opponents into being, the potential antagonism of which was so strong that millions willingly suffered their utmost for the sake of a decision?
That man who would explain the tremendous judgment on the superficial test of religious differences among modern "sects" must be bewildered indeed! I have seen the attempt made in more than one journal and book, enemy and Allied. The results are lamentable!
Prussia indeed, the protagonist, was atheist. But her subject provinces supported her exultantly, Catholic Cologne and the Rhine and tamely Catholic Bavaria. Her main support—without which she could not have challenged Europe—was that very power whose sole reason for being was Catholicism: the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine which, from Vienna, controlled and consolidated the Catholic against the Orthodox Slav: the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine was the champion of Catholic organization in Eastern Europe.
The Catholic Irish largely stood apart.
Spain, not devout at all, but hating things not Catholic because those things are foreign, was more than apart. Britain had long forgotten the unity of Europe. France, a protagonist, was notoriously divided within herself over the religious principle of that unity. No modern religious analysis such as men draw up who think of religion as Opinion will make anything of all this. Then why was there a fight? People who talk of "Democracy" as the issue of the Great War may be neglected: Democracy—one noble, ideal, but rare and perilous, form of human government—was not at stake. No historian can talk thus. The essentially aristocratic policy of England now turned to a plutocracy, the despotism of Russia and Prussia, the immense complex of all other great modern states gives such nonsense the lie.
People who talk of "A struggle for supremacy between the two Teutonic champions Germany and England" are less respectable still. England is not Teutonic, and was not protagonist. The English Cabinet decided by but the smallest possible majority (a majority of one) to enter the war. The Prussian Government never dreamt it would have to meet England at all. There is no question of so single an issue. The world was at war. Why? No man is an historian who cannot answer from the past. All who can answer from the past, and are historians, see that it is the historical depth of the European faith, not its present surface, which explains all.
The struggle was against Prussia.
Why did Prussia arise? Because the imperfect Byzantine evangelization of the Eastern Slavonic Plains just failed to meet, there in Prussia, the western flood of living tradition welling up from Rome. Prussia was an hiatus. In that small neglected area neither half cultivated from the Byzantine East nor fully from the Roman West rose a strong garden of weeds. And weeds sow themselves. Prussia, that is, this patch of weeds, could not extend until the West weakened through schism. It had to wait till the battle of the Reformation died down. But it waited. And at last, when there was opportunity, it grew prodigiously. The weed patch over-ran first Poland and the Germanies, then half Europe. When it challenged all civilization at last it was master of a hundred and fifty million souls.
What are the tests of this war? In their vastly different fashions they are Poland and Ireland—the extreme islands of tenacious tradition: the conservators of the Past through a national passion for the Faith.
The Great War was a clash between an uneasy New Thing which desired to live its own distorted life anew and separate from Europe, and the old Christian rock. This New Thing is, in its morals, in the morals spread upon it by Prussia, the effect of that great storm wherein three hundred years ago Europe made shipwreck and was split into two. This war was the largest, yet no more than the recurrent, example of that unceasing wrestle: the outer, the unstable, the untraditional—which is barbarism—pressing blindly upon the inner, the traditional, the strong—which is Ourselves: which is Christendom: which is Europe.
Small wonder that the Cabinet at Westminster hesitated!
We used to say during the war that if Prussia conquered civilization failed, but that if the Allies conquered civilization was reestablished—What did we mean? We meant, not that the New Barbarians could not handle a machine: They can. But we meant that they had learnt all from us. We meant that they cannot continue of themselves; and that we can. We meant that they have no roots.
When we say that Vienna was the tool of Berlin, that Madrid should be ashamed, what do we mean? It has no meaning save that civilization is one and we its family: That which challenged us, though it controlled so much which should have aided us and was really our own, was external to civilization and did not lose that character by the momentary use of civilized Allies.
When we said that "the Slav" failed us, what did we mean? It was not a statement of race. Poland is Slav, so is Serbia: they were two vastly differing states and yet both with us. It meant that the Byzantine influence was never sufficient to inform a true European state or to teach Russia a national discipline; because the Byzantine Empire, the tutor of Russia, was cut off from us, the Europeans, the Catholics, the heirs, who are the conservators of the world.
The Catholic Conscience of Europe grasped this war—with apologies where it was in the train of Prussia, with affirmation where it was free. It saw what was toward. It weighed, judged, decided upon the future—the two alternative futures which lie before the world.
All other judgments of the war made nonsense: You had, on the Allied side, the most vulgar professional politicians and their rich paymasters shouting for "Democracy;" pedants mumbling about "Race." On the side of Prussia (the negation of nationality) you have the use of some vague national mission of conquest divinely given to the very various Germans and the least competent to govern. You would come at last (if you listened to such varied cries) to see the Great War as a mere folly, a thing without motive, such as the emptiest internationals conceive the thing to have been.
So much for the example of the war. It is explicable as a challenge to the tradition of Europe. It is inexplicable on any other ground. The Catholic alone is in possession of the tradition of Europe: he alone can see and judge in this matter.
From so recent and universal an example I turn to one local, distant, precise, in which this same Catholic Conscience of European history may be tested.
Consider the particular (and clerical) example of Thomas Becket: the story of St. Thomas of Canterbury. I defy any man to read the story of Thomas a Becket in Stubbs, or in Green, or in Bright, or in any other of our provincial Protestant handbooks, and to make head or tail of it.
Here is a well-defined and limited subject of study. It concerns only a few years. A great deal is known about it, for there are many contemporary accounts. Its comprehension is of vast interest to history. The Catholic may well ask: "How it is I cannot understand the story as told by these Protestant writers? Why does it not make sense?"
The story is briefly this: A certain prelate, the Primate of England at the time, was asked to admit certain changes in the status of the clergy. The chief of these changes was that men attached to the Church in any way even by minor orders (not necessarily priests) should, if they committed a crime amenable to temporal jurisdiction, be brought before the ordinary courts of the country instead of left, as they had been for centuries, to their own courts. The claim was, at the time, a novel one. The Primate of England resisted that claim. In connection with his resistance he was subjected to many indignities, many things outrageous to custom were done against him; but the Pope doubted whether his resistance was justified, and he was finally reconciled with the civil authority. On returning to his See at Canterbury he became at once the author of further action and the subject of further outrage, and within a short time he was murdered by his exasperated enemies.
His death raised a vast public outcry. His monarch did penance for it. But all the points on which he had resisted were in practice waived by the Church at last. The civil state's original claim was in practice recognized at last. Today it appears to be plain justice. The chief of St. Thomas' contentions, for instance, that men in orders should be exempt from the ordinary courts, seems as remote as chain armors.
So far, so good. The opponent of the Faith will say, and has said in a hundred studies—that this resistance was nothing more than that always offered by an old organization to a new development.
Of course it was! It is equally true to say of a man who objects to an aroplane smashing in the top of his studio that it is the resistance of an old organization to a new development. But such a phrase in no way explains the business; and when the Catholic begins to examine the particular case of St. Thomas, he finds a great many things to wonder at and to think about, upon which his less European opponents are helpless and silent.
I say "helpless" because in their attitude they give up trying to explain. They record these things, but they are bewildered by them. They can explain St. Thomas' particular action simply enough: too simply. He was (they say) a man living in the past. But when they are asked to explain the vast consequences that followed his martyrdom, they have to fall back upon the most inhuman and impossible hypotheses; that "the masses were ignorant"—that is as compared with other periods in human history (what, more ignorant than today?) that "the Papacy engineered an outburst of popular enthusiasm." As though the Papacy were a secret society like modern Freemasonry, with some hidden machinery for "engineering" such things. As though the type of enthusiasm produced by the martyrdom was the wretched mechanical thing produced now by caucus or newspaper "engineering!" As though nothing besides such interferences was there to arouse the whole populace of Europe to such a pitch!
As to the miracles which undoubtedly took place at St. Thomas' tomb, the historian who hates or ignores the Faith had (and has) three ways of denying them. The first is to say nothing about them. It is the easiest way of telling a lie. The second is to say that they were the result of a vast conspiracy which the priests directed and the feeble acquiescence of the maim, the halt and the blind supported. The third (and for the moment most popular) is to give them modern journalistic names, sham Latin and Greek confused, which, it is hoped, will get rid of the miraculous character; notably do such people talk of "auto-suggestion."
Now the Catholic approaching this wonderful story, when he has read all the original documents, understands it easily enough from within.
He sees that the stand made by St. Thomas was not very important in its special claims, and was probably (taken as an isolated action) unreasonable. But he soon gets to see, as he reads and as he notes the rapid and profound transformation of all civilization which was taking place in that generation, that St. Thomas was standing out for a principle, ill clothed in his particular plea, but absolute in its general appreciation: the freedom of the Church. He stood out in particular for what had been the concrete symbols of the Church's liberty in the past. The direction of his actions was everything, whether his symbol was well or ill chosen. The particular customs might go. But to challenge the new claims of civil power at that moment was to save the Church. A movement was afoot which might have then everywhere accomplished what was only accomplished in parts of Europe four hundred years later, to wit, a dissolution of the unity and the discipline of Christendom.
St. Thomas had to fight on ground chosen by the enemy; he fought and he resisted in the spirit dictated by the Church. He fought for no dogmatic point, he fought for no point to which the Church of five hundred years earlier or five hundred years later would have attached importance. He fought for things which were purely temporal arrangements; which had indeed until quite recently been the guarantee of the Church's liberty, but which were in his time upon the turn of becoming negligible. But the spirit in which he fought was a determination that the Church should never be controlled by the civil power, and the spirit against which he fought was the spirit which either openly or secretly believes the Church to be an institution merely human, and therefore naturally subjected, as an inferior, to the processes of the monarch's (or, worse, the politician's) law.
A Catholic sees, as he reads the story, that St. Thomas was obviously and necessarily to lose, in the long run, every concrete point on which he had stood out, and yet he saved throughout Europe the ideal thing for which he was standing out. A Catholic perceives clearly why the enthusiasm of the populace rose: the guarantee of the plain man's healthy and moral existence against the threat of the wealthy, and the power of the State—the self-government of the general Church, had been defended by a champion up to the point of death. For the morals enforced by the Church are the guarantee of freedom.
Further the Catholic reader is not content, as is the non-Catholic, with a blind, irrational assertion that the miracles could not take place. He is not wholly possessed of a firm, and lasting faith that no marvelous events ever take place. He reads the evidence. He cannot believe that there was a conspiracy of falsehood (in the lack of all proof of such conspiracy). He is moved to a conviction that events so minutely recorded and so amply testified, happened. Here again is the European, the chiefly reasonable man, the Catholic, pitted against the barbarian skeptic with his empty, unproved, mechanical dogmas of material sequence.
And these miracles, for a Catholic reader, are but the extreme points fitting in with the whole scheme. He knows what European civilization was before the twelfth century. He knows what it was to become after the sixteenth. He knows why and how the Church would stand out against a certain itch for change. He appreciates why and how a character like that of St. Thomas would resist. He is in no way perplexed to find that the resistance failed on its technical side. He sees that it succeeded so thoroughly in its spirit as to prevent, in a moment when its occurrence would have been far more dangerous and general than in the sixteenth century, the overturning of the connection between Church and State.
The enthusiasm of the populace he particularly comprehends. He grasps the connection between that enthusiasm and the miracles which attended St. Thomas' intercession; not because the miracles were fantasies, but because a popular recognition of deserved sanctity is the later accompaniment and the recipient of miraculous power.
It is the details of history which require the closest analysis. I have, therefore, chosen a significant detail with which to exemplify my case.
Just as a man who thoroughly understands the character of the English squires and of their position in the English countrysides would have to explain at some length (and with difficulty) to a foreigner how and why the evils of the English large estates were, though evils, national; just as a particular landlord case of peculiar complexity or violent might afford him a special test; so the martyrdom of St. Thomas makes, for the Catholic who is viewing Europe, a very good example whereby he can show how well he understands what is to other men not understandable, and how simple is to him, and how human, a process which, to men not Catholic, can only be explained by the most grotesque assumptions; as that universal contemporary testimony must be ignored; that men are ready to die for things in which they do not believe; that the philosophy of a society does not permeate that society; or that a popular enthusiasm ubiquitous and unchallenged, is mechanically produced to the order of some centre of government! All these absurdities are connoted in the non-Catholic view of the great quarrel, nor is there any but the Catholic conscience of Europe that explains it.
The Catholic sees that the whole of the Becket business was like the struggle of a man who is fighting for his liberty and is compelled to maintain it (such being the battleground chosen by his opponents) upon a privilege inherited from the past. The non-Catholic simply cannot understand it and does not pretend to understand it.
Now let us turn from this second example, highly definite and limited, to a third quite different from either of the other two and the widest of all. Let us turn to the general aspect of all European history. We can here make a list of the great lines on which the Catholic can appreciate what other men only puzzle at, and can determine and know those things upon which other men make no more than a guess.
The Catholic Faith spreads over the Roman world, not because the Jews were widely dispersed, but because the intellect of antiquity, and especially the Roman intellect, accepted it in its maturity.
The material decline of the Empire is not co-relative with, nor parallel to, the growth of the Catholic Church; it is the counterpart of that growth. You have been told "Christianity (a word, by the way, quite unhistorical) crept into Rome as she declined, and hastened that decline." That is bad history. Rather accept this phrase and retain it: "The Faith is that which Rome accepted in her maturity; nor was the Faith the cause of her decline, but rather the conservator of all that could be conserved."
There was no strengthening of us by the advent of barbaric blood; there was a serious imperilling of civilization in its old age by some small (and mainly servile) infiltration of barbaric blood; if civilization so attacked did not permanently fail through old age we owe that happy rescue to the Catholic Faith.
In the next period—the Dark Ages—the Catholic proceeds to see Europe saved against a universal attack of the Mohammedan, the Hun, the Scandinavian: he notes that the fierceness of the attack was such that anything save something divinely instituted would have broken down. The Mohammedan came within three days' march of Tours, the Mongol was seen from the walls of Tournus on the Sone: right in France. The Scandinavian savage poured into the mouths of all the rivers of Gaul, and almost overwhelmed the whole island of Britain. There was nothing left of Europe but a central core.
Nevertheless Europe survived. In the refloresence which followed that dark time—in the Middle Ages—the Catholic notes not hypotheses but documents and facts; he sees the Parliaments arising not from some imaginary "Teutonic" root—a figment of the academies—but from the very real and present great monastic orders, in Spain, in Britain, in Gaul—never outside the old limits of Christendom. He sees the Gothic architecture spring high, spontaneous and autochthonic, first in the territory of Paris and thence spread outwards in a ring to the Scotch Highlands and to the Rhine. He sees the new Universities, a product of the soul of Europe, re-awakened—he sees the marvelous new civilization of the Middle Ages rising as a transformation of the old Roman society, a transformation wholly from within, and motived by the Faith.
The trouble, the religious terror, the madnesses of the fifteenth century, are to him the diseases of one body—Europe—in need of medicine.
The medicine was too long delayed. There comes the disruption of the European body at the Reformation.
It ought to be death; but since the Church is not subject to mortal law it is not death. Of those populations which break away from religion and from civilization none (he perceives) were of the ancient Roman stock—save Britain. The Catholic, reading his history, watches in that struggle England: not the effect of the struggle on the fringes of Europe, on Holland, North Germany and the rest. He is anxious to see whether Britain will fail the mass of civilization in its ordeal.
He notes the keenness of the fight in England and its long endurance; how all the forces of wealth—especially the old families such as the Howards and the merchants of the City of London—are enlisted upon the treasonable side; how in spite of this a tenacious tradition prevents any sudden transformation of the British polity or its sharp severance from the continuity of Europe. He sees the whole of North England rising, cities in the South standing siege. Ultimately he sees the great nobles and merchants victorious, and the people cut off, apparently forever, from the life by which they had lived, the food upon which they had fed.
Side by side with all this he notes that, next to Britain, one land only that was never Roman land, by an accident inexplicable or miraculous, preserves the Faith, and, as Britain is lost, he sees side by side with that loss the preservation of Ireland.
To the Catholic reader of history (though he has no Catholic history to read) there is no danger of the foolish bias against civilization which has haunted so many contemporary writers, and which has led them to frame fantastic origins for institutions the growth of which are as plain as an historical fact can be. He does not see in the pirate raids which desolated the eastern and southeastern coasts of England in the sixth century the origin of the English people. He perceives that the success of these small eastern settlements upon the eastern shores, and the spread of their language westward over the island dated from their acceptance of Roman discipline, organization and law, from which the majority, the Welsh to the West, were cut off. He sees that the ultimate hegemony of Winchester over Britain all grew from this early picking up of communications with the Continent and the cutting off of everything in this island save the South and East from the common life of Europe. He knows that Christian parliaments are not dimly and possibly barbaric, but certainly and plainly monastic in their origin; he is not surprised to learn that they arose first in the Pyrenean valleys during the struggle against the Mohammedans; he sees how probable or necessary was such an origin just when the chief effort of Europe was at work in the Reconquista.
In general, the history of Europe and of England develops naturally before the Catholic reader; he is not tempted to that succession of theories, self-contradicting and often put forward for the sake of novelty, which has confused and warped modern reconstructions of the past. Above all, he does not commit the prime historical error of "reading history backwards." He does not think of the past as a groping towards our own perfection of today. He has in his own nature the nature of its career: he feels the fall and the rise: the rhythm of a life which is his own.
The Europeans are of his flesh. He can converse with the first century or the fifteenth; shrines are not odd to him nor oracles; and if he is the supplanter, he is also the heir of the gods.
EUROPE AND THE FAITH
WHAT WAS THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
The history of European civilization is the history of a certain political institution which united and expressed Europe, and was governed from Rome. This institution was informed at its very origin by the growing influence of a certain definite and organized religion: this religion it ultimately accepted and, finally, was merged in.
The institution—having accepted the religion, having made of that religion its official expression, and having breathed that religion in through every part until it became the spirit of the whole—was slowly modified, spiritually illumined and physically degraded by age. But it did not die. It was revived by the religion which had become its new soul. It re-arose and still lives.
This institution was first known among men as Republica; we call it today "The Roman Empire." The Religion which informed and saved it was then called, still is called, and will always be called "The Catholic Church."
Europe is the Church, and the Church is Europe.
It is immaterial to the historical value of this historical truth whether it be presented to a man who utterly rejects Catholic dogma or to a man who believes everything the Church may teach. A man remote in distance, in time, or in mental state from the thing we are about to examine would perceive the reality of this truth just as clearly as would a man who was steeped in its spirit from within and who formed an intimate part of Christian Europe. The Oriental pagan, the contemporary atheist, some supposed student in some remote future, reading history in some place from which the Catholic Faith shall have utterly departed, and to which the habits and traditions of our civilization will therefore be wholly alien, would each, in proportion to his science, grasp as clearly as it is grasped today by the Catholic student who is of European birth, the truth that Europe and the Catholic Church were and are one thing. The only people who do not grasp it (or do not admit it) are those writers of history whose special, local, and temporary business it is to oppose the Catholic Church, or who have a traditional bias against it.
These men are numerous, they have formed, in the Protestant and other anti-Catholic universities, a whole school of hypothetical and unreal history in which, though the original workers are few, their copyists are innumerable: and that school of unreal history is still dogmatically taught in the anti-Catholic centres of Europe and of the world.
Now our quarrel with this school should be, not that it is anti-Catholic—that concerns another sphere of thought—but that it is unhistorical.
To neglect the truth that the Roman Empire with its institutions and its spirit was the sole origin of European civilization; to forget or to diminish the truth that the Empire accepted in its maturity a certain religion; to conceal the fact that this religion was not a vague mood, but a determinate and highly organized corporation; to present in the first centuries some non-existant "Christianity" in place of the existant Church; to suggest that the Faith was a vague agreement among individual holders of opinions instead of what it historically was, the doctrine of a fixed authoritative institution; to fail to identify that institution with the institution still here today and still called the Catholic Church; to exaggerate the insignificant barbaric influences which came from outside the Empire and did nothing to modify its spirit; to pretend that the Empire or its religion have at any time ceased to be—that is, to pretend that there has ever been a solution of continuity between the past and the present of Europe—all these pretensions are parts of one historical falsehood.
In all by which we Europeans differ from the rest of mankind there is nothing which was not originally peculiar to the Roman Empire, or is not demonstrably derived from something peculiar to it.
In material objects the whole of our wheeled traffic, our building materials, brick, glass, mortar, cut-stone, our cooking, our staple food and drink; in forms, the arch, the column, the bridge, the tower, the well, the road, the canal; in expression, the alphabet, the very words of most of our numerous dialects and polite languages, the order of still more, the logical sequence of our thought—all spring from that one source. So with implements: the saw, the hammer, the plane, the chisel, the file, the spade, the plough, the rake, the sickle, the ladder; all these we have from that same origin. Of our institutions it is the same story. The divisions and the sub-divisions of Europe, the parish, the county, the province, the fixed national traditions with their boundaries, the emplacement of the great European cities, the routes of communication between them, the universities, the Parliaments, the Courts of Law, and their jurisprudence, all these derive entirely from the old Roman Empire, our well-spring.
It may here be objected that to connect so closely the worldly foundations of our civilization with the Catholic or universal religion of it, is to limit the latter and to make of it a merely human thing.
The accusation would be historically valueless in any case, for in history we are not concerned with the claims of the supernatural, but with a sequence of proved events in the natural order. But if we leave the province of history and consider that of theology, the argument is equally baseless. Every manifestation of divine influence among men must have its human circumstance of place and time. The Church might have risen under Divine Providence in any spot: it did, as a fact, spring up in the high Greek tide of the Levant and carries to this day the noble Hellenic garb. It might have risen at any time: it did, as a fact, rise just at the inception of that united Imperial Roman system which we are about to examine. It might have carried for its ornaments and have had for its sacred language the accoutrements and the speech of any one of the other great civilizations, living or dead: of Assyria, of Egypt, of Persia, of China, of the Indies. As a matter of historical fact, the Church was so circumstanced in its origin and development that its external accoutrement and its language were those of the Mediterranean, that is, of Greece and Rome: of the Empire.
Now those who would falsify history from a conscious or unconscious bias against the Catholic Church, will do so in many ways, some of which will always prove contradictory of some others. For truth is one, error disparate and many.
The attack upon the Catholic Church may be compared to the violent, continual, but inchoate attack of barbarians upon some civilized fortress; such an attack will proceed now from this direction, now from that, along any one of the infinite number of directions from which a single point may be approached. Today there is attack from the North, tomorrow an attack from the South. Their directions are flatly contradictory, but the contradiction is explained by the fact that each is directed against a central and fixed opponent.
Thus, some will exaggerate the power of the Roman Empire as a pagan institution; they will pretend that the Catholic Church was something alien to that pagan thing; that the Empire was great and admirable before Catholicism came, weak and despicable upon its acceptation of the Creed. They will represent the Faith as creeping like an Oriental disease into the body of a firm Western society which it did not so much transform as liquefy and dissolve.
Others will take the clean contrary line and make out a despicable Roman Empire to have fallen before the advent of numerous and vigorous barbarians (Germans, of course) possessing all manner of splendid pagan qualities—which usually turn out to be nineteenth century Protestant qualities. These are contrasted against the diseased Catholic body of the Roman Empire which they are pictured as attacking.
Others adopt a simpler manner. They treat the Empire and its institutions as dead after a certain date, and discuss the rise of a new society without considering its Catholic and Imperial origins. Nothing is commoner, for instance (in English schools), than for boys to be taught that the pirate raids and settlements of the fifth century in this Island were the "coming of the English," and the complicated history of Britain is simplified for them into a story of how certain bold seafaring pagans (full of all the virtues we ascribe to ourselves today) first devastated, then occupied, and at last, of their sole genius, developed a land which Roman civilization had proved inadequate to hold.
There is, again, a conscious or unconscious error (conscious or unconscious, pedantic or ignorant, according to the degree of learning in him who propagates it) which treats of the religious life of Europe as though it were something quite apart from the general development of our civilization.
There are innumerable text-books in which a man may read the whole history of his own, a European, country, from, say, the fifth to the sixteenth century, and never hear of the Blessed Sacrament: which is as though a man were to write of England in the nineteenth century without daring to speak of newspapers and limited companies. Warped by such historical enormities, the reader is at a loss to understand the ordinary motives of his ancestors. Not only do the great crises in the history of the Church obviously escape him, but much more do the great crises in civil history escape him.
To set right, then, our general view of history it is necessary to be ready with a sound answer to the prime question of all, which is this: "What was the Roman Empire?"
If you took an immigrant coming fresh into the United States today and let him have a full knowledge of all that had happened since the Civil War: if you gave him of the Civil War itself a partial, confused and very summary account: if of all that went before it, right away back to the first colonists, you were to leave him either wholly ignorant or ludicrously misinformed (and slightly informed at that), what then could he make of the problems in American Society, or how would he be equipped to understand the nation of which he was to be a citizen? To give such a man the elements of civic training you must let him know what the Colonies were, what the War of Independence, and what the main institutions preceding that event and created by it. He would have further to know soundly the struggle between North and South, and the principles underlying that struggle. Lastly, and most important of all, he would have to see all this in a correct perspective.
So it is with us in the larger question of that general civilization which is common to both Americans and Europeans, and which in its vigor has extended garrisons, as it were, into Asia and Africa. We cannot understand it today unless we understand what it developed from. What was the origin from which we sprang? What was the Roman Empire?
The Roman Empire was a united civilization, the prime characteristic of which was the acceptation, absolute and unconditional, of one common mode of life by all those who dwelt within its boundaries. It is an idea very difficult for the modern man to seize, accustomed as he is to a number of sovereign countries more or less sharply differentiated, and each separately colored, as it were, by different customs, a different language, and often a different religion. Thus the modern man sees France, French speaking, with an architecture, manners, laws of its own, etc.; he saw (till yesterday) North Germany under the Prussian hegemony, German speaking, with yet another set of institutions, and so forth. When he thinks, therefore, of any great conflict of opinion, such as the discussion between aristocracy and democracy today, he thinks in terms of different countries. Ireland, for instance, is Democratic, England is Aristocratic—and so forth.
Again, the modern man thinks of a community, however united, as something bounded by, and in contrast with, other communities. When he writes or thinks of France he does not think of France only, but of the points in which France contrasts with England, North Germany, South Germany, Italy, etc.
Now the men living in the Roman Empire regarded civic life in a totally different way. All conceivable antagonisms (and they were violent) were antagonisms within one State. No differentiation of State against State was conceivable or was attempted.
From the Euphrates to the Scottish Highlands, from the North Sea to the Sahara and the Middle Nile, all was one State.
The world outside the Roman Empire was, in the eyes of the Imperial citizen, a sort of waste. It was not thickly populated, it had no appreciable arts or sciences, it was barbaric. That outside waste of sparse and very inferior tribes was something of a menace upon the frontiers, or, to speak more accurately, something of an irritation. But that menace or irritation was never conceived of as we conceive of the menace of a foreign power. It was merely the trouble of preventing a fringe of imperfect, predatory, and small barbaric communities outside the boundaries from doing harm to a vast, rich, thickly populated, and highly organized State within.
The members of these communities (principally the Dutch, Frisian, Rhenish and other Germanic peoples, but also on the other frontiers, the nomads of the desert, and in the West, islanders and mountaineers, Irish and Caledonian) were all tinged with the great Empire on which they bordered. Its trade permeated them. We find its coins everywhere. Its names for most things became part of their speech. They thought in terms of it. They had a sort of grievance when they were not admitted to it. They perpetually begged for admittance.
They wanted to deal with the Empire, to enjoy its luxury, now and then to raid little portions of its frontier wealth.
They never dreamt of "conquest." On the other hand the Roman administrator was concerned with getting barbarians to settle in an orderly manner on the frontier fields, so that he could exploit their labor, with coaxing them to serve as mercenaries in the Roman armies, or (when there was any local conflict) with defeating them in local battles, taking them prisoners and making them slaves.
I have said that the mere number of these exterior men (German, Caledonian, Irish, Slav, Moorish, Arab, etc.) was small compared with the numbers of civilization, and, I repeat, in the eyes of the citizens of the Empire, their lack of culture made them more insignificant still.
At only one place did the Roman Empire have a common frontier with another civilization, properly so called. It was a very short frontier, not one-twentieth of the total boundaries of the Empire. It was the Eastern or Persian frontier, guarded by spaces largely desert. And though a true civilization lay beyond, that civilization was never of great extent nor really powerful. This frontier was variously drawn at various times, but corresponded roughly to the Plains of Mesopotamia. The Mediterranean peoples of the Levant, from Antioch to Judea, were always within that frontier. They were Roman. The mountain peoples of Persia were always beyond it. Nowhere else was there any real rivalry or contact with the foreigner, and even this rivalry and contact (though "The Persian War" is the only serious foreign or equal war in the eyes of all the rulers from Julius Csar to the sixth century) counted for little in the general life of Rome.
The point cannot be too much insisted upon, nor too often repeated, so strange is it to our modern modes of thought, and so essentially characteristic of the first centuries of the Christian era and the formative period during which Christian civilization took its shape. Men lived as citizens of one State which they took for granted and which they even regarded as eternal. There would be much grumbling against the taxes and here and there revolts against them, but never a suggestion that the taxes should be levied by any other than imperial authority, or imposed in any other than the imperial manner. There was plenty of conflict between armies and individuals as to who should have the advantage of ruling, but never any doubt as to the type of function which the "Emperor" filled, nor as to the type of universally despotic action which he exercised. There were any number of little local liberties and customs which were the pride of the separate places to which they attached, but there was no conception of such local differences being antagonistic to the one life of the one State. That State was, for the men of that time, the World.
The complete unity of this social system was the more striking from the fact that it underlay not only such innumerable local customs and liberties, but an almost equal number of philosophic opinions, of religious practices, and of dialects. There was not even one current official language for the educated thought of the Empire: there were two, Greek and Latin. And in every department of human life there co-existed this very large liberty of individual and local expression, coupled with a complete, and, as it were, necessary unity, binding the whole vast body together. Emperor might succeed Emperor, in a series of civil wars. Several Emperors might be reigning together. The office of Emperor might even be officially and consciously held in commission among four or more men. But the power of the Emperor was always one power, his office one office, and the system of the Empire one system.
It is not the purpose of these few pages to attempt a full answer to the question of how such a civic state of mind came to be, but the reader must have some sketch of its development if he is to grasp its nature.
The old Mediterranean world out of which the Empire grew had consisted (before that Empire was complete—say, from an unknown most distant past to 50 B.C.) in two types of society: there stood in it as rare exceptions States, or nations in our modern sense, governed by a central Government, which controlled a large area, and were peopled by the inhabitants of many towns and villages. Of this sort was ancient Egypt. But there were also, surrounding that inland sea, in such great numbers as to form the predominant type of society, a series of Cities, some of them commercial ports, most of them controlling a small area from which they drew their agricultural subsistence, but all of them remarkable for this, that their citizens drew their civic life from, felt patriotism for, were the soldiers of, and paid their taxes to, not a nation in our sense but a municipality.
These cities and the small surrounding territories which they controlled (which, I repeat, were often no more than local agricultural areas necessary for the sustenance of the town) were essentially the sovereign Powers of the time. Community of language, culture, and religion might, indeed, bind them in associations more or less strict. One could talk of the Phoenician cities, of the Greek cities, and so forth. But the individual City was always the unit. City made war on City. The City decided its own customs, and was the nucleus of religion. The God was the God of the city. A rim of such points encircled the eastern and central Mediterranean wherever it was habitable by man. Even the little oasis of the Cyrenan land with sand on every side, but habitable, developed its city formations. Even on the western coasts of the inland ocean, which received their culture by sea from the East, such City States, though more rare, dotted the littoral of Algeria, Provence and Spain.
Three hundred years before Our Lord was born this moral equilibrium was disturbed by the huge and successful adventure of the Macedonian Alexander.
The Greek City States had just been swept under the hegemony of Macedon, when, in the shape of small but invincible armies, the common Greek culture under Alexander overwhelmed the East. Egypt, the Levant littoral and much more, were turned into one Hellenized (that is, "Greecified") civilization. The separate cities, of course, survived, and after Alexander's death unity of control was lost in various and fluctuating dynasties derived from the arrangements and quarrels of his generals. But the old moral equilibrium was gone and the conception of a general civilization had appeared. Henceforward the Syrian, the Jew, the Egyptian saw with Greek eyes and the Greek tongue was the medium of all the East for a thousand years. Hence are the very earliest names of Christian things, Bishop, Church, Priest, Baptism, Christ, Greek names. Hence all our original documents and prayers are Greek and shine with a Greek light: nor are any so essentially Greek in idea as the four Catholic Gospels.
Meanwhile in Italy one city, by a series of accidents very difficult to follow (since we have only later accounts—and they are drawn from the city's point of view only), became the chief of the City States in the Peninsula. Some few it had conquered in war and had subjected to taxation and to the acceptation of its own laws; many it protected by a sort of superior alliance; with many more its position was ill defined and perhaps in origin had been a position of allied equality. But at any rate, a little after the Alexandrian Hellenization of the East this city had in a slower and less universal way begun to break down the moral equilibrium of the City States in Italy, and had produced between the Apennines and the sea (and in some places beyond the Apennines) a society in which the City State, though of coarse surviving, was no longer isolated or sovereign, but formed part of a larger and already definite scheme. The city which had arrived at such a position, and which was now the manifest capital of the Italian scheme, was ROME.
Contemporary with the last successes of this development in Italy went a rival development very different in its nature, but bound to come into conflict with the Roman because it also was extending. This was the commercial development of Carthage. Carthage, a Phoenician, that is, a Levantine and Semitic, colony, had its city life like all the rest. It had shown neither the aptitude nor the desire that Rome had shown for conquest, for alliances, and in general for a spread of its spirit and for the domination of its laws and modes of thought. The business of Carthage was to enrich itself: not indirectly as do soldiers (who achieve riches as but one consequence of the pursuit of arms), but directly, as do merchants, by using men indirectly, by commerce, and by the exploitation of contracts.
The Carthaginian occupied mining centres in Spain, and harbors wherever he could find them, especially in the Western Mediterranean. He employed mercenary troops. He made no attempt to radiate outward slowly step by step, as does the military type, but true to the type of every commercial empire, from his own time to our own, the Carthaginian built up a scattered hotchpotch of dominion, bound together by what is today called the "Command of the Sea."
That command was long absolute and Carthaginian power depended on it wholly. But such a power could not co-exist with the growing strength of martial Italy. Rome challenged Carthage; and after a prodigious struggle, which lasted to within two hundred years of the birth of Our Lord, ruined the Carthaginian power. Fifty years later the town itself was destroyed by the Romans, and its territory turned into a Roman province. So perished for many hundred years the dangerous illusion that the merchant can master the soldier. But never had that illusion seemed nearer to the truth than at certain moments in the duel between Carthage and Rome.
The main consequence of this success was that, by the nature of the struggle, the Western Mediterranean, with all its City States, with its half-civilized Iberian peoples, lying on the plateau of Spain behind the cities of the littoral, the corresponding belt of Southern France, and the cultivated land of Northern Africa, fell into the Roman system, and became, but in a more united way, what Italy had already long before become. The Roman power, or, if the term be preferred, the Roman confederation, with its ideas of law and government, was supreme in the Western Mediterranean and was compelled by its geographical position to extend itself inland further and further into Spain, and even (what was to be of prodigious consequence to the world) into GAUL.
But before speaking of the Roman incorporation of Gaul we must notice that in the hundred years after the final fall of Carthage, the Eastern Mediterranean had also begun to come into line. This Western power, the Roman, thus finally established, occupied Corinth in the same decade as that which saw the final destruction of Carthage, and what had once been Greece became a Roman province. All the Alexandrian or Grecian East—Syria, Egypt—followed. The Macedonian power in its provinces came to depend upon the Roman system in a series of protectorates, annexations, and occupations, which two generations or so before the foundation of the Catholic Church had made Rome, though her system was not yet complete, the centre of the whole Mediterranean world. The men whose sons lived to be contemporary with the Nativity saw that the unity of that world was already achieved. The World was now one, and was built up of the islands, the peninsulas, and the littoral of the Inland Sea.
So the Empire might have remained, and so one would think it naturally would have remained, a Mediterranean thing, but for that capital experiment which has determined all future history—Julius Csar's conquest of Gaul—Gaul, the mass of which lay North, Continental, exterior to the Mediterranean: Gaul which linked up with the Atlantic and the North Sea: Gaul which lived by the tides: Gaul which was to be the foundation of things to come.
It was this experiment—the Roman Conquest of Gaul—and its success which opened the ancient and immemorial culture of the Mediterranean to the world. It was a revolution which for rapidity and completeness has no parallel. Something less than a hundred small Celtic States, partially civilized (but that in no degree comparable to the high life of the Mediterranean), were occupied, taught, and, as it were, "converted" into citizens of this now united Roman civilization.
It was all done, so to speak, within the lifetime of a man. The link and corner-stone of Western Europe, the quadrilateral which lies between the Pyrenees and the Rhine, between the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Channel, accepted civilization in a manner so final and so immediate that no historian has ever quite been able to explain the phenomenon. Gaul accepted almost at once the Roman language, the Roman food, the Roman dress, and it formed the first—and a gigantic—extension of European culture.
We shall later find Gaul providing the permanent and enduring example of that culture which survived when the Roman system fell into decay. Gaul led to Britain. The Iberian Peninsula, after the hardest struggle which any territory had presented, was also incorporated. By the close of the first century after the Incarnation, when the Catholic Church had already been obscurely founded in many a city, and the turn of the world's history had come, the Roman Empire was finally established in its entirety. By that time, from the Syrian Desert to the Atlantic, from the Sahara to the Irish Sea and to the Scotch hills, to the Rhine and the Danube, in one great ring fence, there lay a secure and unquestioned method of living incorporated as one great State.
This State was to be the soil in which the seed of the Church was to be sown. As the religion of this State the Catholic Church was to develop. This State is still present, underlying our apparently complex political arrangements, as the main rocks of a country underlie the drift of the surface. Its institutions of property and of marriage; its conceptions of law; its literary roots of Rhetoric, of Poetry, of Logic, are still the stuff of Europe. The religion which it made as universal as itself is still, and perhaps more notably than ever, apparent to all.
WHAT WAS THE CHURCH IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE?
So far I have attempted to answer the question, "What Was the Roman Empire?" We have seen that it was an institution of such and such a character, but to this we had to add that it was an institution affected from its origin, and at last permeated by, another institution. This other institution had (and has) for its name "The Catholic Church."
My next task must, therefore, be an attempt to answer the question, "What was the Church in the Roman Empire?" for that I have not yet touched.
In order to answer this question we shall do well to put ourselves in the place of a man living in a particular period, from whose standpoint the nature of the connection between the Church and the Empire can best be observed. And that standpoint in time is the generation which lived through the close of the second century and on into the latter half of the third century: say from A.D. 190 to A.D. 270. It is the first moment in which we can perceive the Church as a developed organism now apparent to all.
If we take an earlier date we find ourselves in a world where the growing Church was still but slightly known and by most people unheard of. We can get no earlier view of it as part of the society around it. It is from about this time also that many documents survive. I shall show that the appearance of the Church at this time, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and forty years after the Crucifixion, is ample evidence of her original constitution.
A man born shortly after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, living through the violent civil wars that succeeded the peace of the Antonines, surviving to witness the Decian persecution of the Church and in extreme old age to perceive the promise, though not the establishment, of an untrammelled Catholicism (it had yet to pass through the last and most terrible of the persecutions), would have been able to answer our question well. He would have lived at the turn of the tide: a witness to the emergence, apparent to all Society, of the Catholic Church.
Let us suppose him the head of a Senatorial family in some great provincial town such as Lyons. He would then find himself one of a comparatively small class of very wealthy men to whom was confined the municipal government of the city. Beneath him he would be accustomed to a large class of citizens, free men but not senatorial; beneath these again his society reposed upon a very large body of slaves.
In what proportion these three classes of society would have been found in a town like Lyons in the second century we have no exact documents to tell us, but we may infer from what we know of that society that the majority would certainly have been of the servile class, free men less numerous, while senators were certainly a very small body (they were the great landowners of the neighborhood); and we must add to these three main divisions two other classes which complicate our view of that society. The first was that of the freed men, the second was made up of perpetual tenants, nominally free, but economically (and already partly in legal theory) bound to the wealthier classes.
The freed men had risen from the servile class by the sole act of their masters. They were bound to these masters very strongly so far as social atmosphere went, and to no small extent in legal theory as well. This preponderance of a small wealthy class we must not look upon as a stationary phenomenon: it was increasing. In another half-dozen generations it was destined to form the outstanding feature of all imperial society. In the fourth and fifth centuries when the Roman Empire became from Pagan, Christian, the mark of the world was the possession of nearly all its soil and capital (apart from public land) by one small body of immensely wealthy men: the product of the pagan Empire.
It is next important to remember that such a man as we are conceiving would never have regarded the legal distinctions between slave and free as a line of cleavage between different kinds of men. It was a social arrangement and no more. Most of the slaves were, indeed, still chattel, bought and sold; many of them were incapable of any true family life. But there was nothing uncommon in a slave being treated as a friend, in his being a member of the liberal professions, in his acting as a tutor, as an administrator of his master's fortune, or a doctor. Certain official things he could not be; he could not hold any public office, of course; he could never plead; and he could not be a soldier.
This last point is essential; because the Roman Empire, though it required no large armed force in comparison with the total numbers of its vast population (for it was not a system of mere repression—no such system has ever endured), yet could only draw that armed force from a restricted portion of the population. In the absence of foreign adventure or Civil Wars, the armies were mainly used as frontier police. Yet, small as they were, it was not easy to obtain the recruitment required. The wealthy citizen we are considering would have been expected to "find" a certain number of recruits for the service of the army. He found them among his bound free tenants and enfranchised slaves; he was increasingly reluctant to find them; and they were increasingly reluctant to serve. Later recruitment was found more and more from the barbarians outside the Empire; and we shall see on a subsequent page how this affected the transition from the ancient world to that of the Dark Ages.
Let us imagine such a man going through the streets of Lyons of a morning to attend a meeting of the Curia. He would salute, and be saluted, as he passed, by many men of the various classes I have described. Some, though slaves, he would greet familiarly; others, though nominally free and belonging to his own following or to that of some friend, he would regard with less attention. He would be accompanied, it may be presumed, by a small retinue, some of whom might be freed men of his own, some slaves, some of the tenant class, some in legal theory quite independent of him, and yet by the economic necessities of the moment practically his dependents.
As he passes through the streets he notes the temples dedicated to a variety of services. No creed dominated the city; even the local gods were now but a confused memory; a religious ritual of the official type was to greet him upon his entry to the Assembly, but in the public life of the city no fixed philosophy, no general faith, appeared.
Among the many buildings so dedicated, two perhaps would have struck his attention: the one the great and showy synagogue where the local Jews met upon their Sabbath, the other a small Christian Church. The first of these he would look on as one looks today upon the mark of an alien colony in some great modern city. He knew it to be the symbol of a small, reserved, unsympathetic but wealthy race scattered throughout the Empire. The Empire had had trouble with it in the past, but that trouble was long forgotten; the little colonies of Jews had become negotiators, highly separate from their fellow citizens, already unpopular, but nothing more.
With the Christian Church it would be otherwise. He would know as an administrator (we will suppose him a pagan) that this Church was endowed; that it was possessed of property more or less legally guaranteed. It had a very definite position of its own among the congregations and corporations of the city, peculiar, and yet well secured. He would further know as an administrator (and this would more concern him—for the possession of property by so important a body would seem natural enough), that to this building and the corporation of which it was a symbol were attached an appreciable number of his fellow citizens; a small minority, of course, in any town of such a date (the first generation of the third century), but a minority most appreciable and most worthy of his concern from three very definite characteristics. In the first place it was certainly growing; in the second place it was certainly, even after so many generations of growth, a phenomenon perpetually novel; in the third place (and this was the capital point) it represented a true political organism—the only subsidiary organism which had risen within the general body of the Empire.
If the reader will retain no other one of the points I am making in this description, let him retain this point: it is, from the historical point of view, the explanation of all that was to follow. The Catholic Church in Lyons would have been for that Senator a distinct organism; with its own officers, its own peculiar spirit, its own type of vitality, which, if he were a wise man, he would know was certain to endure and to grow, and which even if he were but a superficial and unintelligent spectator, he would recognize as unique.
Like a sort of little State the Catholic Church included all classes and kinds of men, and like the Empire itself, within which it was growing, it regarded all classes of its own members as subject to it within its own sphere. The senator, the tenant, the freed man, the slave, the soldier, in so far as they were members of this corporation, were equally bound to certain observances. Did they neglect these observances, the corporation would expel them or subject them to penalties of its own. He knew that though misunderstandings and fables existed with regard to this body, there was no social class in which its members had not propagated a knowledge of its customs. He knew (and it would disturb him to know) that its organization, though in no way admitted by law, and purely what we should call "voluntary," was strict and very formidable.
Here in Lyons as elsewhere, it was under a monarchical head called by the Greek name of Episcopos. Greek was a language which the cultured knew and used throughout the western or Latin part of the Empire to which he belonged; the title would not, therefore, seem to him alien any more than would be the Greek title of Presbyter—the name of the official priests acting under this monarchical head of the organization—or than would the Greek title Diaconos, which title was attached to an order, just below the priests, which was comprised of the inferior officials of the clerical body.
He knew that this particular cult, like the innumerable others that were represented by the various sacred buildings of the city, had its mysteries, its solemn ritual, and so forth, in which these, the officials of its body, might alone engage, and which the mass of the local "Christians"—for such was their popular name—attended as a congregation. But he would further know that this scheme of worship differed wholly from any other of the many observances round it by a certain fixity of definition. The Catholic Church was not an opinion, nor a fashion, nor a philosophy; it was not a theory nor a habit; it was a clearly delineated body corporate based on numerous exact doctrines, extremely jealous of its unity and of its precise definitions, and filled, as was no other body of men at that time, with passionate conviction.
By this I do not mean that the Senator so walking to his official duties could not have recalled from among his own friends more than one who was attached to the Christian body in a negligent sort of way, perhaps by the influence of his wife, perhaps by a tradition inherited from his father: he would guess, and justly guess, that this rapidly growing body counted very many members who were indifferent and some, perhaps, who were ignorant of its full doctrine. But the body as a whole, in its general spirit, and especially in the disciplined organization of its hierarchy, did differ from everything round it in this double character of precision and conviction. There was no certitude left and no definite spirit or mental aim, no "dogma" (as we should say today) taken for granted in the Lyons of his time, save among the Christians.
The pagan masses were attached, without definite religion, to a number of customs. In social morals they were guided by certain institutions, at the foundation of which were the Roman ideas of property in men, land and goods; patriotism, the bond of smaller societies, had long ago merged in the conception of a universal empire. This Christian Church alone represented a complete theory of life, to which men were attached, as they had hundreds of years before been attached to their local city, with its local gods and intense corporate local life.
Without any doubt the presence of that Church and of what it stood for would have concerned our Senator. It was no longer negligible nor a thing to be only occasionally observed. It was a permanent force and, what is more, a State within the State.
If he were like most of his kind in that generation the Catholic Church would have affected him as an irritant; its existence interfered with the general routine of public affairs. If he were, as a small minority even of the rich already were, in sympathy with it though not of it, it would still have concerned him. It was the only exceptional organism of his uniform time: and it was growing.
This Senator goes into the Curia. He deals with the business of the day. It includes complaints upon certain assessments of the Imperial taxes. He consults the lists and sees there (it was the fundamental conception of the whole of that society) men drawn up in grades of importance exactly corresponding to the amount of freehold land which each possessed. He has to vote, perhaps, upon some question of local repairs, the making of some new street, or the establishment of some monument. Probably he hears of some local quarrel provoked (he is told) by the small, segregated Christian body, and he follows the police report upon it.
He leaves the Curia for his own business and hears at home the accounts of his many farms, what deaths of slaves there have been, what has been the result of the harvest, what purchases of slaves or goods have been made, what difficulty there has been in recruiting among his tenantry for the army, and so forth. Such a man was concerned one way or another with perhaps a dozen large farming centres or villages, and had some thousands of human beings dependent upon him. In this domestic business he hardly comes across the Church at all. It was still in the towns. It was not yet rooted in the countryside.
There might possibly, even at that distance from the frontiers, be rumors of some little incursion or other of barbarians; perhaps a few hundred fighting men, come from the outer Germanies, had taken refuge with a Roman garrison after suffering defeat at the hands of neighboring barbarians; or perhaps they were attempting to live by pillage in the neighborhood of the garrison and the soldiers had been called out against them. He might have, from the hands of a friend in that garrison, a letter brought to him officially by the imperial post, which was organized along all the great highways, telling him what had been done to the marauders or the suppliants; how, too, some had, after capture, been allotted land to till under conditions nearly servile, others, perhaps, forcibly recruited for the army. The news would never for a moment have suggested to him any coming danger to the society in which he lived.
He would have passed from such affairs to recreations probably literary, and there would have been an end of his day.
In such a day what we note as most exceptional is the aspect of the small Catholic body in a then pagan city, and we should remember, if we are to understand history, that by this time it was already the phenomenon which contemporaries were also beginning to note most carefully.
That is a fair presentment of the manner in which a number of local affairs (including the Catholic Church in his city) would have struck such a man at such a time.
If we use our knowledge to consider the Empire as a whole, we must observe certain other things in the landscape, touching the Church and the society around it, which a local view cannot give us. In the first place there had been in that society from time to time acute spasmodic friction breaking out between the Imperial power and this separate voluntary organism, the Catholic Church. The Church's partial secrecy, its high vitality, its claim to independent administration, were the superficial causes of this. Speaking as Catholics, we know that the ultimate causes were more profound. The conflict was a conflict between Jesus Christ with His great foundation on the one hand, and what Jesus Christ Himself had called "the world." But it is unhistorical to think of a "Pagan" world opposed to a "Christian" world at that time. The very conception of "a Pagan world" requires some external manifest Christian civilization against which to contrast it. There was none such, of course, for Rome in the first generation of the third century. The Church had around her a society in which education was very widely spread, intellectual curiosity very lively, a society largely skeptical, but interested to discover the right conduct of human life, and tasting now this opinion, now that, to see if it could discover a final solution.
It was a society of such individual freedom that it is difficult to speak of its "luxury" or its "cruelty." A cruel man could be cruel in it without suffering the punishment which centuries of Christian training would render natural to our ideas. But a merciful man could be, and would be, merciful and would preach mercy, and would be generally applauded. It was a society in which there were many ascetics—whole schools of thought contemptuous of sensual pleasure—but a society distinguished from the Christian particularly in this, that at bottom it believed man to be sufficient to himself and all belief to be mere opinions.
Here was the great antithesis between the Church and her surroundings. It is an antithesis which has been revived today. Today, outside the Catholic Church, there is no distinction between opinion and faith nor any idea that man is other than sufficient to himself.
The Church did not, and does not, believe man to be sufficient to himself, nor naturally in possession of those keys which would open the doors to full knowledge or full social content. It proposed (and proposes) its doctrines to be held not as opinions but as a body of faith.
It differed from—or was more solid than—all around it in this: that it proposed statement instead of hypothesis, affirmed concrete historical facts instead of suggesting myths, and treated its ritual of "mysteries" as realities instead of symbols.
A word as to the constitution of the Church. All men with an historical training know that the Church of the years 200-250 was what I have described it, an organized society under bishops, and, what is more, it is evident that there was a central primacy at Rome as well as local primacies in various other great cities. But what is not so generally emphasized is the way in which Christian society appears to have looked at itself at that time.
The conception which the Catholic Church had of itself in the early third century can, perhaps, best be approached by pointing out that if we use the word "Christianity" we are unhistorical. "Christianity" is a term in the mouth and upon the pen of the post-Reformation writer; it connotes an opinion or a theory; a point of view; an idea. The Christians of the time of which I speak had no such conception. Upon the contrary, they were attached to its very antithesis. They were attached to the conception of a thing: of an organized body instituted for a definite end, disciplined in a definite way, and remarkable for the possession of definite and concrete doctrine. One can talk, in speaking of the first three centuries, of stoicism, or epicureanism, or neoplatonism; but one cannot talk of "Christianism" or "Christism." Indeed, no one has been so ignorant or unhistorical as to attempt those phrases. But the current phrase "Christianity," used by moderns as identical with the Christian body in the third century, is intellectually the equivalent of "Christianism" or "Christism;" and, I repeat, it connotes a grossly unhistorical idea; it connotes something historically false; something that never existed.
Let me give an example of what I mean:
Four men will be sitting as guests of a fifth in a private house in Carthage in the year 225. They are all men of culture; all possessed of the two languages, Greek and Latin, well-read and interested in the problems and half-solutions of their skeptical time. One will profess himself Materialist, and will find another to agree with him; there is no personal God, certain moral duties must be recognized by men for such and such utilitarian reasons, and so forth. He finds support.
The host is not of that opinion; he has been profoundly influenced by certain "mysteries" into which he has been "initiated:" That is, symbolical plays showing the fate of the soul and performed in high seclusion before members of a society sworn to secrecy. He has come to feel a spiritual life as the natural life round him. He has curiously followed, and often paid at high expense, the services of necromancers; he believes that in an "initiation" which he experienced in his youth, and during the secret and most vivid drama or "mystery" in which he then took part, he actually came in contact with the spiritual world. Such men were not uncommon. The declining society of the time was already turning to influences of that type.
The host's conviction, his awed and reticent attitude towards such things, impress his guests. One of the guests, however, a simple, solid kind of man, not drawn to such vagaries, says that he has been reading with great interest the literature of the Christians. He is in admiration of the traditional figure of the Founder of their Church. He quotes certain phrases, especially from the four orthodox Gospels. They move him to eloquence, and their poignancy and illuminative power have an effect upon his friends. He ends by saying: "For my part, I have come to make it a sort of rule to act as this Man Christ would have had me act. He seems to me to have led the most perfect life I ever read of, and the practical maxims which are attached to His Name seem to me a sufficient guide to life. That," he will conclude simply, "is the groove into which I have fallen, and I do not think I shall ever leave it."
Let us call the man who has so spoken, Ferreolus. Would Ferreolus have been a Christian? Would the officials of the Roman Empire have called him a Christian? Would he have been in danger of unpopularity where Christians were unpopular? Would Christians have received him among themselves as part of their strict and still somewhat secret society? Would he have counted with any single man of the whole Empire as one of the Christian body?
The answer is most emphatically No.
No Christian in the first three centuries would have held such a man as coming within his view. No imperial officer in the most violent crisis of one of those spasmodic persecutions which the Church had to undergo would have troubled him with a single question. No Christian congregation would have regarded him as in any way connected with their body. Opinion of that sort, "Christism," had no relation to the Church. How far it existed we cannot tell, for it was unimportant. In so far as it existed it would have been on all fours with any one of the vague opinions which floated about the cultured Roman world.
Now it is evident that the term "Christianity" used as a point of view, a mere mental attitude, would include such a man, and it is equally evident that we have only to imagine him to see that he had nothing to do with the Christian religion of that day. For the Christian religion (then as now) was a thing, not a theory. It was expressed in what I have called an organism, and that organism was the Catholic Church.
The reader may here object: "But surely there was heresy after heresy and thousands of men were at any moment claiming the name of Christian whom the orthodox Church rejected. Nay, some suffered martyrdom rather than relinquish the name."
True; but the very existence of such sects should be enough to prove the point at issue.
These sects arose precisely because within the Catholic Church (1) exact doctrine, (2) unbroken tradition, and (3) absolute unity, were, all three, regarded as the necessary marks of the institution. The heresies arose one after another, from the action of men who were prepared to define yet more punctiliously what the truth might be, and to claim with yet more particular insistence the possession of living tradition and the right to be regarded as the centre of unity. No heresy pretended that the truth was vague and indefinite. The whole gist and meaning of a heresy was that it, the heresy, or he, the heresiarch, was prepared to make doctrine yet more sharp, and to assert his own definition.
What you find in these foundational times is not the Catholic Church asserting and defining a thing and then, some time after, the heresiarch denying this definition; no heresy comes within a hundred miles of such a procedure. What happens in the early Church is that some doctrine not yet fully defined is laid down by such and such a man, that his final settlement clashes with the opinion of others, that after debate and counsel, and also authoritative statement on the part of the bishops, this man's solution is rejected and an orthodox solution is defined. From that moment the heresiarch, if he will not fall into line with defined opinion, ceases to be in communion; and his rejection, no less than his own original insistence upon his doctrine, are in themselves proofs that both he and his judges postulate unity and definition as the two necessary marks of Catholic truth.
No early heretic or no early orthodox authority dreams of saying to his opponent: "You may be right! Let us agree to differ. Let us each form his part of 'Christian society' and look at things from his own point of view." The moment a question is raised it must of its nature, the early Church being what it was, be defined one way or the other.
Well, then, what was this body of doctrine held by common tradition and present everywhere in the first years of the third century?
Let me briefly set down what we know, as a matter of historical and documentary evidence, the Church of this period to have held. What we know is a very different matter from what we can guess. We may amplify it from our conceptions of the probable according to our knowledge of that society—as, for instance, when we say that there was probably a bishop at Marseilles before the middle of the second century. Or we may amplify it by guesswork, and suppose, in the absence of evidence, some just possible but exceedingly improbable thing: as, that an important canonical Gospel has been lost. There is an infinite range for guesswork, both orthodox and heretical. But the plain and known facts which repose upon historical and documentary evidence, and which have no corresponding documentary evidence against them, are both few and certain.
Let us take such a writer as Tertullian and set down what was certainly true of his time.
Tertullian was a man of about forty in the year 200. The Church then taught as an unbroken tradition that a Man who had been put to death about 170 years before in Palestine—only 130 years before Tertullian's birth—had risen again on the third day. This Man was a known and real person with whom numbers had conversed. In Tertullian's childhood men still lived who had met eye witnesses of the thing asserted.
This Man (the Church said) was also the supreme Creator God. There you have an apparent contradiction in terms, at any rate a mystery, fruitful in opportunities for theory, and as a fact destined to lead to three centuries of more and more particular definition.
This Man, Who also was God Himself, had, through chosen companions called Apostles, founded a strict and disciplined society called the Church. The doctrines the Church taught professed to be His doctrines. They included the immortality of the human soul, its redemption, its alternative of salvation and damnation.
Initiation into the Church was by way of baptism with water in the name of The Trinity; Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Before His death this Man Who was also God had instituted a certain rite and Mystery called the Eucharist. He took bread and wine and changed them into His Body and Blood. He ordered this rite to be continued. The central act of worship of the Christian Church was therefore a consecration of bread and wine by priests in the presence of the initiated and baptized Christian body of the locality. The bread and wine so consecrated were certainly called (universally) the Body of the Lord.
The faithful also certainly communicated, that is, eat the Bread and drank the Wine thus changed in the Mystery.
It was the central rite of the Church thus to take the Body of the Lord.
There was certainly at the head of each Christian community a bishop: regarded as directly the successor of the Apostles, the chief agent of the ritual and the guardian of doctrine.
The whole increasing body of local communities kept in touch through their bishops, held one doctrine and practiced what was substantially one ritual.
All that is plain history.
The numerical proportion of the Church in the city of Carthage, where Tertullian wrote, was certainly large enough for its general suppression to be impossible. One might argue from one of his phrases that it was a tenth of the population. Equally certainly did the unity of the Christian Church and its bishops teach the institution of the Eucharist, the Resurrection, the authority of the Apostles, and their power of tradition through the bishops. A very large number of converts were to be noted and (to go back to Tertullian) the majority of his time, by his testimony, were recruited by conversion, and were not born Christians.