The Beginning and Spread of the Catholic Culture
How was the Faith was established and spread with such astonishing success throughout a vast society which had begun by knowing it ill, had proceeded to hate it, and had at last accepted it for a universal religion.
But what was the internal force? How were men convinced? Why did they join this society in spite of the terrible risks communion with it involved? Often it meant ruin of fortune and thrusting out from the society of one’s fellows and sometimes torture and death. What drove men to it? The answer is that the Church was a person which men came to trust as they come to trust it today. A man became a Christian because he found that the Church affirmed things which he recognized to be true in experience and holy in character.
The Holy Catholic Church and Christian Culture
We must begin by laying down as a historical fact not to be removed by affection one way or the other, that the conversion of the Roman Empire was a conversion to what was called by all our ancestry and what is still called by those with any historical sense The Catholic Church.
The Empire was not ‘converted’ to what modern men mean when they used the word ‘Christianity’.
The phrase is continually used and as continually corrupts the historical judgement of those who use it and those who hear it.
In the ears of modern youth, especially in societies which have lost the Catholic Culture, the word ‘Christianity’ means vaguely, “That which is common in various sects, opinions and moods inherited in diluted form from the Reformation”.
In England today, for instance ‘Christianity’ means a general feeling of kindliness, particularly to animals.
To some more precise in mind it may mean an appreciation of and even an attempt at copying, a Character which seems to them portrayed in the four Gospels (four out of the certainly more than fifty, which four they happened to inherited from the Catholic Church, although they do not know it).
To a much smaller number, with greater powers of definition and better historical instruction, the word ‘Christianity’ may have even so precise a meaning as ‘the acceptance of the doctrine that an historical Figure appeared in Palestine about two thousand years ago, and was in some way the Incarnation of God and that the main precepts, at least, of an original society calling itself after His name should be our guide for moral conduct
But all these uses of the word ‘Christianity’ from the vaguest to the most precise, do not apply the tremendous business with which we are here concerned.
The society of the ancient world was not changed from its antique attitude to that which it finally adopted in the 4th century (and continued thenceforward to spread throughout Europe) by any mod or opinion; it was transformed by adherence to the doctrine and discipline as well as the spirit and character of a certain institution; and that institution is historically known; it is a Personality which can be tested by certain indisputable attributes, practices and definitions.
It claimed and claims Divine authority to teach, to include in its membership by specific form of initiation those who approached it and were found worthy; to exclude those who would not accept that unity and supremacy.
It performed throughout the society of the Empire and even beyond its boundaries a certain liturgical act of sacrifice, the Eucharist, it affirmed its foundation by a Divine figure who was also a man, and a manifestation of God.
It further affirmed that its officers held their authority through appointment originally by this Founder, who gathered a small group for that purpose, it affirmed that from the members of this small original group, in unbroken succession, descended the spiritual powers which could be claimed by officers and by them alone, in particular manner, over the whole body of Christians, and in general fashion over the world at large.
In order to understand this very great thing which captured and transformed the old pagan world, we must grasp its nature. We must be able to answer the question, “what was it that spread so rapidly and so triumphantly throughout the Graeco-Roman world?’
Secondly, we must appreciate the “method’ by which this revolution was accomplished; lastly in order to understand both the nature and the method of the ‘thing’ we must discover why it met with so ‘intense a resistance’, for that resistance explains both its character and its ways of propagation and it was victory over that resistance which established the Catholic Faith and practice so firmly over our race for so many centuries and generations.
First then, as to the nature of the conquest. The great change did not come because ‘it met a need’; it did indeed meet needs that were universal. It filled up that aching void in the soul which was the prime malady of the dying ancient society; also it relieved and dissipated despair, the capital burden imposed by that void.
Yet the meeting of the need was not the essential character of the new ‘thing’; it was not the driving power behind the great change; it was only a result incidental thereof.
It was not merely in order to assuage such needs of the spirit that men turned towards the Catholic Church: had that been so, we should have been able to trace the steps whereby from vague groping and half-satisfied longings there should have crystallized this and that myth, this and that fulfillment of desire by imagination, until the system should have come into being long after the inception of the first influences.
That such a gradual process did take place is commonly affirmed by those who have not a sufficient acquaintance, even on the largest lines with the ‘thing’ historically but in fact nothing of the kind took place. You discover not a vague frame of mind, but a definite society from the first; no criticism of documents or of tradition can prevent any other conclusion.
A man appeared, gathered together a certain company and taught.
And not only so soon ass that company begins to act, but at the root of all memory with regard to its action, you have the specific claim of Divine revelation in the Teacher, of His Human and Divine nature; of His resurrection from the dead; of His establishing a central rite of Sacrifice, which was called the Eucharist (the Act of Gratitude); the claim to authority; the Apostolic organization of the tradition; the presence of a hierarchy and all the rest.
The Catholic Church visible was not an influence that spread; it was a ‘Thing’. It was a fixed Corporation, a Club, if you will; it was an organization with a form and members, a defined outline, and a discipline. Disputes arose within it, certain of its members would overemphasize this or that among the doctrines for which it stood and so warp the proportion of the whole.
But no innovator, even during the first enthusiasm when so many debates surrounded so intellectually vigorous a ‘thing’, would ever pretend that there was not one body to be preserved. He might claim to be the true continuator of that body, and protest (when he was excluded from it for dissent); but never did any of those at the origin propose that discord upon essentials could be permanent
This new and strict corporation had a name, a name associated in the minds of its contemporaries with the idea of a secret society possessed of mysteries; it called itself the Ekklesia. Now it is all-important to grasp this further fact, that the new Ekklesia with its mysteries, its initiation ceremonies (instruction in doctrine, solemn affirmation thereof, called “confession”, what we call a creed, and Baptism) was not one of many religions which happened to prove the winner in a sort of race. That is an error which one finds in many of the textbooks and which has almost passed into popular acceptance. Any number of our general outlines of history and the rest talk of the Early Church in this fashion.
They say, for instance, that the earlier mysteries such as the mysteries of Eleusis, the latter mysteries of Mithras, and the Egyptian mysteries of Isis, etc. were of this sort and what they call “Christianity” (for they usually avoid the word “Catholic Church”) was but one of many.
This is not true, and the test that it is not true is simple and should be conclusive. The Catholic Church alone and from its origins proclaimed the Divinity of a real historical man and the objective truth of the doctrines which it affirmed. It proclaimed from the beginning the Resurrection of that real historic man from the dead; and the popular nickname “Christian” (which became, like so many nicknames, the general term) arose from that fact.
All the other popular worships with their mysteries and initiations and the rest of it were admittedly ‘myths’. They did not say, “This happened”; what they said was, “This is a parable, a symbol to explain to you the nature and the possible fate of the human soul and its relation to the Divine.
Not one of them said, “I was founded by a real man whom other men met and knew, who lived in a particular place and time, one to whom there a ‘ a cloud of witnesses’”; not one of them said that they held revealed truth and that their officials held a Divine commission to explain that truth throughout the world.
In all this there was a violent contrast between the Catholic Church and the whole of the pagan world around; neither the intellectuals following Greek traditions nor the Roman Empire with its administrative sense of unity persecuted the other associations. It was not the doctrine of the Resurrection, still less the doctrine of Immortality which was found repulsive; it was the affirmation that the criminal who had been put to death in a known place and time at Jerusalem, under the Emperor Tiberius, condemned to scourging and ignominious capital punishment of Crucifixion, where to no Roman citizen was liable, was Divine, spoke with Divine authority, founded a Divine Society, rose from the dead, and could promise to his faithful followers eternal beatitude. This was what shocked the intellectuals, but this also was what gave stuff and substance to that new society and so led, as we shall see in a moment to persecution.
Now, as to its method of expansion, how did it propagate itself? What was the machinery which proved so successful that in less than four long lifetimes the whole of that hostile society was officially Catholic and that within another two long lifetimes the whole of the population, West and East, of the known world between the Channel, the Rhine, the Danube and the desert followed its creed and accepted its doctrines?
It worked by the method which we have come to call “Cells,” a word rendered familiar today through the universal Communist agitation. If, as some think, that Communist movement is the final assault upon Catholic tradition and the Faith, if it be, as many think, the modern anti-Christ, the parallel is indeed striking. All over the Graeco-Roman Empire there were founded rapidly a number of these small organizations, first connected with and later separated from local Jewish synagogues; fixed in the greater towns, but later scattered like seed also in the provincial centers, and then by missionary effort throughout the country sides.
We know this was the method, through ample documentary evidence; we have also a vast mass of tradition, largely legendary, of course, after such length of time, but containing its nucleus of truth, which tells us how in this place and in that these “Cells” were founded and established. Each was called individually a Church, just as the general organization was known as the Church as a whole. They were governed by a Hierarchy. At the head of one church would be one presiding officer, the Episkopos, a word of which we have made the English word “Bishop.”
He was nominated sometimes, apparently by the local clergy, sometimes by the acclamation of the community; but he held his title not from these, but from the Apostolical succession. This and that ancient local Church boasted that it had been founded by an Apostle, and soon in drawing up lists of Bishops the chain was traced to that Apostle who had first begun it by the laying on of hands. Those thus ordained would lay on hands in their turn, and so the hierarchy or body of the clergy was formed. After some indeterminate time not the Bishop alone (who was the full priest), but subordinates bearing the titles of “elders,” in the Greek “presbuteros,” could function at the Holy Mysteries, having been ordained in their turn by the Bishops. These consecrated the elements of the Eucharist, and from them would commonly be drawn the Episcopate. Such was the original form of the Church. The Ekklesia
The Ekklesia had a body of writing which it preserved for the instruction of its members and the continuity of its doctrine; but it took a long time before these documents were sifted and before a certain proportion of them, a small portion of the whole, were affirmed to have special value as Scripture, that is, inspired and therefore authoritative. There were for instance in the way of records or pretended records of Our Lord’s life and teaching certainly more than fifty such documents, for we have fragments of at least that number.
Only four were admitted to the Canon that is the “regular” or “official” collection. In the same way letters were written by the missionaries of the Early Church, but in the same way only a certain number, under the name of “Epistles,” were admitted to the Canon, and one record of early Apostolic action, the Acts of the Apostles; one apocalyptical work, which we know as the Apocalypse.
This being the sequence whereby the Canon of what we call today the New Testament was gradually formed (by selection over a long space of time); it is exceedingly bad history to pretend that this collection of documents was the authority for the Faith. The authority for the Faith was the tradition of the Apostles; the living agreement of the faithful, especially as represented by their heads in the Apostolic succession. The Bishops.
Apart from this fundamental institution of the hierarchy, the sacred caste which alone had spiritual authority over the Church, there were four other elements which strengthened the new society and helped it to grow. There was the function of intercommunication by travel and by correspondence, along the Imperial roads. All these Churches kept in touch and maintained a common doctrine alive. Councils of Bishops were held (at least, after the Emperors had accepted the Catholic Church and it had become the official religion). They would be summoned to represent the Church throughout the whole world, whence they derived their title, “ecumenical.”
The first of these, under the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, was summoned at Nicea near Constantinople because Constantinople had become the capital of the Empire. It met to discuss and define the full doctrine of Our Lord’s Divinity, and to reject the heretical theses connected with it.
The function of getting into communication by travel and by letter supported and was called into being by the supreme principle of Unity; The idea that the Church was one, its doctrine one, its authority one, stood out vividly in the minds of all its members. From the beginning, dissent was not tolerated; unity was of the essence of the thing, and in connection with this there was present at first more vaguely, later with greater definition, the conception of primacy. One of Our Lord’s Apostles, Peter, was the head of the Apostolic College; his See had a special, if at first less defined, position in Christendom; and Rome, where Peter was last settled, where he and Paul were martyred, became the permanent seat of this primacy as it developed.
The third activity which made for the growing strength of the Church was the use of what we now call Creeds (from the Latin word, “Credo,” “I believe”). They were called in the East where Greek was spoken “symbols,” from the Greek “symbolae,” which means things put together. They were originally called in the Latin-speaking West, “Confessiones.” They arose in order to make sure a new candidate for admission to the Ekklesia was not tainted with heresy. He or she was required before admission to recite truths which had been defined in order that such definition might combat false ideas. These brief recitals did not pretend to cover the Faith; they were not a summary of all, nor even of the principal, belief; for instance, the great creed of the 4th century made no mention of the most important and fundamental mystery of the new society, the Eucharist and the Real presence of Christ therein. Of that doctrine there was ample evidence, going back to the beginning, but as it was not questioned its definition had never entered into these rebutting affirmations which the candidate was required to make.
The forth function making for unity and strength and permanence and growth was, of course that very Eucharist just mentioned. Bread and wine were consecrated after a method, and with words handed down traditionally as those of Our Lord Himself at the Last Supper. The mystic ceremony was performed by the celebrant hierarch, or hierarchs; on its performance the bread and wine over which the mystical formulae had been uttered were belived to be no longer bread and wine but the Body and Blood of Christ Himself.
As St. Justin himself wrote, at a time which was to the Crucifixion as our time is to the Declaration of Independence, and writing as on a matter accepted and long established, writing moreover for the instruction of readers who were not Christian, the bread was no longer “common bread” but “the flesh of Christ.”
All this gives us the external method and machinery whereby the Faith was established and spread with such astonishing success throughout a vast society which had begun by knowing it ill, had proceeded to hate it, and had at last accepted it for a universal religion.
But what was the internal force? How were men convinced? Why did they join this society in spite of the terrible risks communion with it involved? Often it meant ruin of fortune and thrusting out from the society of one’s fellows and sometimes torture and death. What drove men to it? The answer is that the Church was a person which men came to trust as they come to trust it today. A man became a Christian because he found that the Church affirmed things which he recognized to be true in experience and holy in character. It was loved, witnessed to and defended to the death by those who thus felt it to be, when in contact with it, divine, and the only fixed and certain authority of their experience. As for doctrine, they took it from this society of which they had thus become enamored upon such firm grounds. It was not the society which proceeded from the doctrine, but the doctrine that came from the society.
To understand this point, which is fundamental to all comprehension of the Church’s triumph over and penetration throughout the old Roman world, we must also understand the character of the violent resistance which it excited.
As that resistance is too often presented, it seems incomprehensible, because it is represented wrongly. People would not have been thrown to wild beasts, tortured to death, condemned to imprisonment with hard labor in the mines, simply because they preached a general spirit of kindliness, or worshipped a particular ideal Character.
Nothing could have been more tolerant to opinion than the old Graeco-Roman Empire. It is not true that the Empire persecuted the Church because it was a secret society. Mystery societies of various sorts flourished among the citizens; why then did angry instinct for killing this particular one arise?
In some degree, no doubt, for that reason we find hundreds of years before suggested by a Greek philosopher filled with vision. He wrote that if humanity should come across a perfectly good man, his fellowmen would tear him to pieces. Holiness is a reproach. It was also persecuted perhaps because its claims and affirmations upon itself were novel. It said, as nothing else had yet said, “I am the voice of God. You must accept what I say as truth. My code of morals is the path to eternal beatitude, and neglect or denial of them is the path to eternal despair.” That was challenge to all human custom, a sort of challenge not easily to be borne.
Allied to this was the hard, the angular quality of the new thing, with its strict definitions, is Hierarchy, its highly disciplined organization, standing thus as an alien body in the midst of a society that was dissolving. It was an alien thing, and, as it were, indigestible; or rather it was something which had to be accepted altogether or crushed altogether, if there were to be any peace.
But there was a last political reason, and a strong one, for the resistance. As this highly organized definite, enthusiastic body spread, it became more and more a state within a State; it was a society with its own authorities, its own discipline and spirit in the midst of that Imperial World which was inspired by a political desire for peace and unity. The government of the Empire reacted inevitably and violently against the presence of such an opponent and challenger. It has been noted by many that the Emperors best at government were often the worst persecutors.
This resistance to the spread of the Faith, this compulsion laid upon the Catholic body to fight for its life, was a chief element in its final triumph. Permanent work is done in hard material, “Greek sculpture is not fashioned in butter,” as a just critic said of a minor poet’s verses. The best carving is done in the closest grained wood, and against the grain.
This great united state, which included the whole of the known civilized world. The Graeco-Roman Empire, fell at first gradually then more rapidly into a material decline.
Meanwhile the Church was growing. The framework of the Empire stood; its laws, all its life moved on without a break.
There was no “fall of the Roman Empire”- the phrase is rhetorical and false; but there was a profound change proceeding in the texture of Society. The half-civilized tribes on the fringes of the Empire filtered in more and more into Graeco-Roman society acquired more power and introduced elements of disorder; the ruling class changed and largely lost its culture.
On the material side of life all seemed to be sinking slowly, even while on the spiritual side there was rising to triumph the mighty force of the Catholic Church.
Now since the rise of the one spiritual thing and the fall of the other material thing were coincident, may not they be related as cause and effect?
This is the capital question which we have to deal with on approaching the decline of the Roman Empire in material things. The Empire declined and The Church expanded.
The dates are sufficient proof in this natter. The old pagan civilization was in active decay long before the new small and struggling obscure group of Catholic congregations began to have any appreciable effect. The golden age of literature was passed; letters had become sterile, architecture coarsened, long before the Ekklesia was felt to be a menacing force to the natural Paganism of the Old World. Already old age, corruption, greed, the preponderance of slaves and “Freed-men” side by side with the growth of vast fortunes overshadowing society and throwing it out of balance, had already been at work when the Catholic Church was still so insignificant that it is hardly mentioned by the mass of contemporary writers. There are one or two allusions here and there which have reference to this body, but no more. Only when the Empire was already almost broken down, in the third century, does the Church begin to make strong appeal; and even then its members were as yet but a small minority, even in the East. They were a still smaller minority in the West.
Nor were Christians found in any of the principal palaces of authority; nor possessing power through wealth, still less through office. Tertullian had said at the beginning of the grave social crisis that all might be well if the Caesars could be Christian—but took it for granted that the Caesars could not be Christian.
It is more than a coincidence that the triumph of the Catholic Church came at last coincidently with the restoration of order. The reestablishment of Imperial administration, arms and general obedience in the later part of the third century, with the growing appeal of the Catholic lucidity and discipline, is not fortuitous. The fact that when one man at last became the monarch of the world, Constantine, he also recognized and promoted what was to be the world-religion is not by accident; the two things were the fruit of one spirit running through Society. The Graeco-Roman world not only needed inspiration and vision which had died within it but needed also unity and the principle of certitude without which unity cannot be.
I repeat that central phrase, for it is fundamental to the whole story; so far from the Church causing the decline of Society under which the old Empire slipped into the Dark Ages, the Church saved all that could be saved
The old Roman State, be it remembered, was based on the Army; the Army was its cement, and, one might say, its principle of being.
Lastly, let it be remembered that though we must for the purposes of right history admit the continual material decline going on through those first five centuries during which the Empire turned from Pagan to Christian, the new religion brought with it invaluable compensations for evils which it had not caused, but at the advance of which it had been present.
The Catholic Church brought to the old ruined, dying, despairing Graeco-Roman world the quality of vision. It brought a motive for living and thence there came to it, sustaining all that could be sustained of that grievously weakened world, saner and more stable social arrangements.
The Catholic Church, having become the religion of the Graeco-Roman society, did among other things two capital things for the settlement of Europe on its political side, and for arresting the descent into chaos. It humanized slavery and it strengthened permanent marriage. Very slowly through the centuries, those two influences were to produce the stable civilization of the Middle Ages, wherein the slave was no longer a slave but a peasant; and everywhere the family was the well-rooted and established unit of Society
To sum up then, by the end of that great period, the first five centuries, extending from the Incarnation to the conversion of Clovis and the establishment of Catholic Gaul, the end of the five centuries during which all our ancestry turned from Paganism to Catholicism and during which the Empire was baptized, were centuries in which we suffered great damage: disorder, barbarism threatening our race, the fall of the arts, of great verse and of high unified administration, the worsening of roads, much loss of the knowledge inherited from the past (Greek, for instance, was dying out in the West, and legend was more and more intermixed with real history). But Europe at that time was spiritually consolidated so that it proved able to meet and overcome the strain to which it was about to be subjected.
That strain would have come anyhow, the violent attack under which Europe nearly broke down, “The Siege of Christendom,” was inevitable. But we survived it. Had it not been for the conversion of the world, we should have gone under.