The Divine Character of the Church in History
As suggested in the last chapter, the Church of Christ is an institution and a united people established by God Himself, in time and therefore in history, for the salvation of souls. The Church is thus simultaneously Divine and human, eternal and temporal, holy and sinful, beleaguered and suffering yet indestructible. Because it is all these things the Church is necessarily a mystery and a paradox to the unbeliever—quite literally beyond his understanding. While the believer cannot understand the Church fully, at least he knows how to account for its unique characteristics which its history so clearly demonstrates.
The Church is not only a visible institution, but also and far more importantly, it is the Mystical Body of Christ, His presence in history. It is in the world but not of the world. It is wounded by the sins of its members, yet fired forever by inextinguishable light and life. It can err in everything but the solemn official teaching of the Pope on faith and morals and the unanimous or near-unanimous assent of the faithful over the centuries. It can be crucified and buried—and has been, over and over again, in many lands and civilizations. But ever and always it will rise again; the graves men dig for the Church cannot hold it, any more than they could hold its Founder. There is not a century in the Church's twenty that does not show us a new resurrection.
Like men themselves, all human constructions—governments, societies, cultures, civilizations—are mortal. Where are the armies of Assyria? Where are the god-kings of Egypt, the emperors of Rome? Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Does one institution, one recognizable pattern of living, one vocabulary and set of symbols, remain from the world of the year 110 A.D., when St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote and the Emperor Trajan reigned? One, and only one: the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Nothing else of all that world survives in any institutional form that anyone not an historical scholar could detect.
That is what it means for the Eternal to dwell in time.
The history of that Church is not simply an account of Popes, bishops, orders and rites. It is the record of the work of all whose faith in Christ has shaped their lives—and the tragedy of the failure and loss of those baptized in His name who choose not to worship or to follow Him. A devoted lay Catholic prince or government minister or writer or artist can sometimes do more to build up and sustain the Church in the world than a Pope neither holy nor dedicated. (It has always been Catholic teaching that even a Pope can go to Hell; the only sin God will not allow a Pope to commit is the formal teaching of heresy or sin from the Chair of St. Peter.) It is a serious distortion of the Catholic view of history to place the history of the “institutional church” and the work of Catholic laymen in separate compartments. The Church, after all, includes the laity as well as the clergy.
But it includes something more as well, for history viewed with the Incarnation of Christ, and the Church in its fullest sense, at the center, looks totally different from secular history. As we study it more deeply, if we are alive to the full implications of Catholic teaching, we soon become aware of a humbling and sometimes frightening truth: the history of the Church is not a history of men and their works alone (as every secular historian presupposes). Rather it is cosmic history; actors from Heaven and from Hell also enter the stage. The world and mankind are a battleground between Christ and Satan. When that supernatural truth is forgotten or disbelieved, many of the most important events of the last two thousand years become inexplicable without the suppression of vital facts. Whence came the French Revolution, and how did the Church survive it? Whence came the Communist revolution in Russia—and the Communist defeat in the Spanish Civil War? Why did Islam almost conquer the world—but not quite? Could it really have been pure coincidence that in the very same year Martin Luther proclaimed his rebellion against Christendom at Worms, St. Ignatius found his vocation at Loyola?
Hopefully by this point the reader will at least be unable to justify rejecting out of hand the possibility that the Church is a continuation of the Divine action in history. Therefore let us proceed to review the most striking evidence for it.
The extraordinary story of the 300-year rise of the Church from the handful of mostly poor and uneducated people who followed Jesus in Galilee and Judea, until it won the adherence of the Emperor Constantine and became openly established as the principal religion of the Roman empire, is too well known to require more than brief mention. Since until Constantine the Church never had a really powerful patron, it was repeatedly and savagely persecuted with all the apparatus at the disposal of an unchallenged totalitarian state; its rise and triumph despite these persecutions is at least very difficult—though perhaps possible—to explain in human terms alone. Much less well known is the story of the astonishing survival of the Church through two tremendous internal challenges, beginning almost immediately after the conversion of Constantine and continuing for more than 200 years: the Arian and the Monophysite heresies.
The heresies themselves seem to the modern reader too abstruse and intellectual to account for the violent passions they aroused; but such a reaction is to confuse the nature of heresy—which is always the same—with its form, which changes from age to age. Heresy by definition is divisive and subversive of the teaching and authority of Christ and His Church. The passions aroused in opposition to Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning artificial contraception will suggest to the modern reader the quality of the passionate anti-Papalism of the Arian and Monophysite heretics. The Popes then had no more power than the Popes now to enforce conformity upon all members of the Church. What they could and did do was to proclaim, by their authority certifying the work of an ecumenical council, that to deny the full Divinity of Christ the Son as consubstantial ("one in being") with the Father—as the Arians did—was to reject a fundamental and essential teaching of the Church of Christ and therefore to place oneself outside the community of the faithful; and that to deny Christ's full humanity—as the Monophysites did—was equally erroneous and had the same consequences. If Christ were not both fully God and fully man, our redemption could not have been really accomplished; Christ's nature would become the plaything of intellectuals. For the heretics, if He was brother He was not Lord; if He was Lord He was not brother.
Both these heresies gained, in different centuries but for considerable periods of time, the support of the Emperor and of a clear majority of the clergy at least in the eastern, Greek-speaking half of the Roman empire, where the Faith had been longest and most deeply established, from the time of the missionary journeys of St. Paul. That is to say, the heretics had on their side all the worldly and ecclesiastical indications of success. By the standards of an objective neutral observer, not knowing or recognizing the Divine character of the Church, both the Arians and the Monophysites should have prevailed. They had the power, the money and the votes. Their adherents were in possession of the government of the empire and the government of the Church. At critical moments in the history of both heresies a Pope at best weak, at worst gravely sinful, alone stood between them and final victory, and he appeared to be fair game. For at this relatively early stage in the Church's history the Papacy had not yet been fully tested; by no means all Christians understood that the position was one that could not under any circumstances be taken over entirely by the Church's enemies.
The crisis of the Arian heresy came in the years 357 and 358. Constantius, last surviving son of Constantine, was lord of the Roman world and a strong supporter of the Arians. They induced him to order, on the pretext of restoring peace among his Christian subjects, every bishop in the Roman empire to proclaim the excommunication of the champion of orthodox theology against Arianism: St. Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt. All but a handful of the bishops—and almost all the bishops in the world at that time were within the confines of the Roman Empire—obeyed. The Pope was Liberius, a weak man, the first of all the Popes after St. Peter whom the Church has never honored as a saint. At first Liberius defended St. Athanasius; then, under pressure, he condemned him—not for his teachings, but as a disturber of the peace. Encouraged, the Arians stepped up the pressure. Pope Liberius was imprisoned and maltreated, probably tortured. His captors demanded his signature on an Arian statement of Faith. They had two such statements, one clearly heretical—declaring the Son to be less than the Father—and the other equivocal. The Pope refused to sign the clearly heretical statement; he signed the other, the Third Formulary of Sirmium, with an explanation attached that he did not intend his endorsement of it to be taken as teaching that the Son is less than the Father in any way. Not fully satisfied, but believing they had to a large extent prevailed and confident in their ability to present the Pope's concession to the Christian world as tantamount to full surrender to them, the Arians then allowed Liberius to return to Rome. At about the same time they forced the venerable Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, who had been the Emperor Constantine's spiritual advisor and the chief Papal representative at the Council of Nicea where Arianism was first formally condemned, to sign the explicitly heretical Arian statement of faith, the second Formulary of Sirmium.
But St. Athanasius lived and the Emperor Constantius died. His successor, Julian the Apostate, was resolved to destroy Christianity altogether, Arian and Catholic forms alike, and began the persecution of both. Deprived of their imperial patronage and honored position in society, the Arians were hurt most. The Catholic laity had been able to maintain their faith even under a hostile emperor and hostile bishops; the Arians, who never really had much lay support, could not, and disappeared from history.
The Monophysite heresy exploded into history at the "robber council" of Ephesus in 449 when the "spiritual" heretics who denied the human nature of Christ had the orthodox Catholic patriarch of Constantinople, St. Flavian, beaten to death. At first facing a great Pope, St. Leo I, the assassins of Ephesus were decisively rejected by the ecumenical council of Chalcedon in 451. But the heresy maintained itself in the East, and grew. Later emperors in Constantinople favored it. By the next century the empire in the West was gone, overrun by barbarians; Justinian sought to restore it from Constantinople, being the only strong Christian ruler remaining in the world. Justinian's wife Theodora was a Monophysite heretic, determined to have her ally, the Monophysite bishop Anthimius, installed as patriarch of Constantinople, which had become the most powerful and prestigious office in the Church next to that of the Pope himself.
Rome and the Pope have never been in a poorer position for resistance. Rome was under military occupation by troops from Constantinople who had recently taken it from the Ostrogothic barbarians. The Pope was not even a legal subject of the emperor in Constantinople nor of any Christian state, but merely a dweller in a twice-conquered province, under suspicion of treason due to the activity of sympathizers with the Goths in Italy. The old classical world and civilization was collapsing. No external or internal support remained to sustain the Pope against the Emperor and the Empress.
Pope St. Agapitus, traveling to Constantinople, with matchless courage declared Anthimius—who, intruded into that see, had proclaimed himself in communion with the Monophysite patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch—to be deposed, in 533 A.D. But the Pope died in the imperial capital the next year. When his successor St. Silverius maintained his position on Anthimius, Theodora developed a careful plan to take possession of the Papacy. She entered into communication with Vigilius, an ambitious deacon who wished to be Pope but had been passed over. Vigilius seems to have agreed to do Theodora's will regarding Anthimius in return for her support in making him, Vigilius, the Pope. Thereupon Belisarius, the Byzantine general in Rome, was ordered to arrest and deport Pope St. Silverius. The true Pope was taken away from Rome on a ship by night. The next day Vigilius was proclaimed his successor.
But no power on earth can judge or depose a Pope. A Pope may resign (seven have done so); he may not be forced out of office against his will. Pope St. Silverius did not resign. About six months later he died of malnutrition and exposure in an island prison. Yet until he breathed his last in that prison, bearing his cross with Christ, St. Silverius was the Pope and Vigilius was an anti-pope, and an accomplice in the martyrdom of Silverius, who excommunicated Vigilius from his prison.
But with the true Pope dead, the clergy of Rome—who then, and for centuries afterward until the College of Cardinals was established in the twelfth century, elected all Popes—faced an appalling choice. General Belisarius, who had arrested and deported Pope St. Silverius, still governed in Rome; Theodora was still Empress in Constantinople; Vigilius still claimed to be Pope. To elect anyone other than Vigilius as Pope and successor to Silverius would be automatically to condemn him to the fate of Silverius, leaving Vigilius still in possession. In later schisms the true Pope always had some defenders strong enough to protect him physically. But not a hand had been raised in defense of St. Silverius, and none could be expected in defense of any successor to him other than Vigilius.
For two years the clergy of Rome agonized over their terrible decision. The pressures on them, material and moral, can easily be imagined. It was not like an old-style imperial persecution, not like an infidel invasion. Christians were in possession. Christians had martyred the Pope. Outside the empire, the only choice was the barbarians. Humanly speaking, there was nowhere to turn, nor did God raise up a hero who would willingly follow St. Silverius to martyrdom.
The clergy of Rome surrendered. In 540, two years after Silverius' death, they validly elected Vigilius Pope—and so the victory of the heretics was complete. They had captured the Papacy. It remained only for Vigilius to "confirm his brethren". Evidently Theodora sent him a pointed reminder to get about it, now that all Christendom recognized him as its head. Here is his reply—a veritable explosion of grace:
Far be this from me, Lady Augusta; formerly I spoke wrongly and foolishly, but now I assuredly refuse to restore a man [Anthimius] who is a heretic and under anathema. Though unworthy, I am vicar of Blessed Peter the Apostle, as were my predecessors, the most holy Agapitus and Silverius, who condemned him.(1)
Pope Vigilius paid for his sins. Seized in Rome while saying Mass, he was carried off to prison in Constantinople, where he spent ten years. On one occasion there, when he felt himself weakening, he escaped from his cell, ran to a nearby church, threw his arms around the altar, and prayed for help and rescue. This poor human clay, who had bought the Papacy with the martyr's blood of his predecessor, whose own theological knowledge, judging by his responses to the Three Chapter controversy during his pontificate, seems to have been woefully lacking, faced totalitarian power alone from prison, year after year, with no man to help him, with no help but the altar of God. He gave way whenever he thought he possibly could, and was often outwitted; yet whenever he was confronted with an ultimate test, there came from the crumbling clay a ring of iron. It is as sure as anything in the human mind and heart can be, that this iron was not a product of the life of the man Vigilius.
While Pope Vigilius lived, the Empress Theodora died, and the Monophysite heresy faded into out-of-the-way corners of the world, into the mountains of Ethiopia and the Caucasus, while the Church endured and spread over the world, converting as it went, beginning with the barbarians who had conquered so much of what had been the Western Roman Empire, and were to be the seed-bed of Western Christendom and the glories of the High Middle Ages.
The Church in Western Europe should, in a secularist view of history, have fallen with the Western Roman Empire, and be remembered only as a legend like King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table and the Holy Grail they sought (Arthur himself almost certainly lived, a Christian king, but went down fighting in the barbarian night). But before the Western Roman Empire fell, St. Patrick had already reached out from it to convert Ireland, never a part of the empire; and from Ireland and from Rome, converging, Christian missionaries journeyed all over ravaged Western Europe to preserve and rebuild the Faith and the Church. It was an age of dying for merely human things, an age of rebirth for the Body of Christ.
Now came an enemy whom even the greatest saints could not convert. Said Mohammed: "There is no god but God, and Mohammed is his prophet." Jesus of Nazareth was a lesser prophet, never God; the seer of Arabia had superseded Him. His followers gathered armies and marched, for the old eastern Roman Empire was rotten to the core and would fall at a touch. "I fear these men have been sent by God to lay waste the world, "(2) murmured Cyrus, Patriarch of Alexandria, as he surrendered to them without a fight the great and ancient city to which St. Mark the Evangelist had brought the Good News and where St. Athanasius had so magnificently upheld it. Centuries later St. Francis of Assisi was to stand, barefoot and ragged, before the Sultan of Egypt, pleading with him to accept Christ, and receiving this response: If all Christians were like you I would accept your Christ, but they are not, so go your way. God let Moslem hearts be hardened; in every age His people have needed a scourge.
History knows no conquests like those of the first three Moslem generations after Mohammed. In the year 718 their left wing stood in Spain and was crossing the Pyrenees -unopposed into France; their center was besieging Constantinople, committed to its capture and permanent conquest; their right wing was on the march into China, sending ambassadors to the court of the Son of Heaven in Peking. Examine what they had done; measure it on a world map, or a globe. All the ancient Christian heartland was gone, most of it never to be regained for the Faith. Mosques were rising in Jerusalem. The Christian age was over; the age of Islam had begun.
A handful of harried fugitives hiding in a cave called Covadonga in the mountainous northern rim of Spain met by torchlight in the evening of the Christian world, and believed in the dawn. The world conquerors heard of them. "Thirty barbarians perched on a rock,"(3) they called them in disdain, and sent a renegade bishop to call for the surrender of their petty chieftain, Pelayo, one of the few surviving officers from the army of Christian Spain which the Moslems had destroyed seven years earlier at the Battle of the Guadalete River.
"Have you not read in Holy Scripture," said Pelayo to the renegade bishop, "that the kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it is grown it is greater than all the others?"
"So it is written," the bishop agreed.
"Our hope is in Christ!" Pelayo cried. "This little mountain will be the salvation of Spain and of its people; the mercy of God will free us from this multitude."(4) And so Catholic, crusading Spain was born, in a pocket in the mountains twenty miles by twenty, defying a world empire. Four years later Pelayo met the Moslem detachment sent to subdue him in a battle at Covadonga, and defeated it. The tiny Christian principality grew, and today over 300 million people, fully half the Catholic Church, speak the tongue of Pelayo and the derivative tongue of the Portuguese, offering Christ's Holy Mass from Covadonga to the deserts of Mexico, the jungles of the Amazon, the Straits of Magellan and the Philippine Islands.
The Moslems were repulsed from France and after long centuries driven out of Spain; the Church gradually brought every single European people into its fold, completing the work of conversion with the Lithuanians in the fourteenth century. By the year 1400 virtually every European was a baptized Catholic; there were no true rival churches in doctrine (the schism separating the Greek church of the east had no longer any doctrinal basis once the filioque controversy was resolved at the Council of Lyons in 1274). And Catholic Europe of the High Middle Ages had built a Christian civilization that still amazes nearly every beholder, Christian or secularist, with its richness and glory, reaching an artistic summit in the cathedral at Chartres, an intellectual summit in the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, and a summit of holiness in the life of St. Francis of Assisi—all in the hundred years from 1175 to 1275.
The first Christian age of the martyrs had been followed by the age of the Fathers and of the great heresies, that by the age of the Moslem assault, and that by the climax of medieval Christendom. Each of these ages in European history was essentially made by the Church, yet the Church passed through them all, one by one, surviving essentially unchanged. Each age was profoundly different, except for this one great common bond of the enduring faith. Each age had the Church, the Pope, and its own great saints. In each, in Chesterton's memorable phrase, it seemed "that the Church grows younger as the world grows old."(5)
But the modern age was about to begin, and this, we have been told a thousand times, was to be the Church's conqueror. The Church must become modern or perish—though it had become neither Roman-imperial, nor Arian, nor Monophysite, nor barbarian, nor feudal, nor tributary to Islam, nor even medieval. The Church, to be sure, must speak to the modern world, must respond to its central concerns and its grave problems. But if the Church were ever in fact to become modern it would perish when modern civilization perishes, just as if it had become late Roman or feudal or even high medieval, it would have perished with the Western Roman Empire and feudalism and medieval Christendom.
The Church in the modern age has indeed been challenged as never before, because so many of the assumptions and characteristics of the modern mind are indeed hostile to Christianity. Again, by merely human standards, apparently triumphant modernity should have destroyed the Church or transformed it out of all recognition. But it has not done so. Renaissance libertines, Calvinists, Jacobins of the French Revolution, nineteenth-century scientific materialists, and hosts of Marxists have danced on the Church's grave while its weaker disciples, like those on the first Good Friday, fled—only to find, with Annas and Caiaphas, that Easter morn is here again, and a Mary Magdalene yet remains to fall at the feet of the Risen Lord.
Renaissance, "Reformation", Age of Discovery—they came together in time, and standard history teaches us that all were part of the same modernist wave which passed the Church by. But the Church was never hostile to Renaissance learning; the Popes were among its greatest patrons; Michelangelo and Leonardo were devout Catholics whose greatest subjects were profoundly Christian. The true Reformation was not that of the Protestant revolutionaries whose declared aim was to destroy the Church and Christendom, which Martin Luther proclaimed to be the work of Anti-Christ, but of the Church itself in the second half of the sixteenth century, cleansing itself of corruption, raising its standards for the clergy, establishing whole new systems of education, breaking forth with a new starburst of saints (the movement which secular history calls the "Counter-Reformation"). And the Age of Discovery came from no Protestant country but from Spain, from Portugal and from mariners of Italy. It was something very like medieval rather than Renaissance Christendom that the conquistadores and the Spanish missionaries brought to the Americas, baptizing new millions into the Church of Christ at the very moment the Protestant rebels were in the process of taking millions out of it. Hispanic Catholicism is self-evidently a very important element in the modern world; yet it is, and by and large has remained, more Christian than modern—as befits heirs of that Pelayo who stood against the tide.
How great is the change from St. Francis of Assisi to St. John of the Cross, from St. Catherine of Siena to St. Teresa of Avila, from St. Dominic and the order he founded to St. Ignatius of Loyola and the order he founded? The former were medieval in time, the latter modern in time; but the earlier of each pair has far more in common with the later than with the temporal and secular conditions of his or her own immediate historical period. How clearly St. Francis would have understood St. John of the Cross, and St. John St. Francis, had they met in life—how much better than St. Francis would have understood and communicated with the cynically unbelieving and anti-Papal Emperor Frederick II, his contemporary, or St. John of the Cross with his contemporary Queen Elizabeth—or Frederick and Elizabeth with each other! Holiness is a constant in the Church, whose character changes very little over the ages.
The immense upsurge of spiritual vigor that had cleansed the Church, preserving and renewing her through the years of the religious wars in Europe, regaining large areas of the continent that had been lost to Protestantism, seemed spent by the late eighteenth century. The frivolities of the court of Versailles, capital of the greatest Catholic power in the world of that time, seemed to typify the new decline. Modernism was working itself out from the individualism of Protestant doctrine through the growing intellectual pride of rationalism and science to a Satanic resolve to build a new world without God. Such was the declared aim of the French Revolution.
The conventional explanations of the causes of the French Revolution are both ludicrously inadequate and largely false. Louis and Antoinette were not depraved, at worst rather weak and superficial; there had been worse rulers before them in history and would be far worse rulers after them, but there was nothing else like the French Revolution. The Bastille was not packed with languishing victims of royal tyranny; only seven persons were to be found in the rambling old structure when the Paris mob came to liberate them on the day still celebrated as France's national holiday. Economic conditions, if a bit unsettled, were not even seriously threatening, to say nothing of catastrophic, and the nation was at peace. The origins of the French Revolution cannot be accounted for by conventional historical analysis—any more than the origins and early triumphs of Islam. The real enemy of the Revolution was not royalty, which the guillotine eliminated easily enough; the real enemy was the Church, for which the blood of martyrs is a seed.
The Pope at the time of the French Revolution, Pius VI, did not die by the guillotine, but he did die in France, a helpless prisoner, scorned, mistreated and almost alone; he was buried without honor in a small town cemetery, and the revolutionaries said he would be the last Pope. In the year of his death (1799) the Revolution seemed to have prevailed in France and, under the brilliant military leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, was spreading irresistibly throughout Europe. Italy had already been conquered. The Church in France was under state control; the glorious defense of the Faith by the peasants of the Vendee had been overwhelmed. The Church had died again, and its tomb was being sealed.
Pope Pius VI on his deathbed offered a prayer. He prayed for forgiveness for his captors and persecutors; he prayed that the faith would be restored to France; he prayed that peace would be restored to Europe; and he prayed that the Pope would be restored to Rome. Not one of the last three petitions, pertaining to the observable human and historical situation, seemed in any way capable of being fulfilled, at least in the foreseeable future. But all were fulfilled in sixteen years.
Assembling on an island in the Adriatic Sea, a remnant of the College of Cardinals decided that they would, after all, try one more Pope. The cardinal elected was known as a compromiser, one who could get along with the world-conquering Napoleon. He took his predecessor's name, reigning as Pius VII. At first he did cooperate with Napoleon, until it became unmistakably clear to him that Napoleon was resolved either to rule the Church or to ruin it. In 1808 he took his stand: "You may tell them in Paris," the once-compromising pontiff roared, "that they may hack me in pieces, they may skin me alive, but I shall never agree"(6) to Napoleon's demands. He too was taken off a prisoner to France; but in that same year of 1808 the people of Spain rose from a century and a half of decline to fight to the end against rule by Revolutionary atheism; four years later Napoleon was humbled in the snows of Russia, and the Church was being reborn all through his dominions. In the end Napoleon was beaten, and sent off to St. Helena; Pope Pius VII returned to Rome, and there was peace and a great restoration of the Church. So it had been with Constantius, with Theodora, with Frederick II....
But the essential element of the French Revolution—the diabolical drive to build a new world, a whole new kind of human society, even a whole "new man" from which and from whom God and His Church were to be utterly excluded—remained despite the defeat of its first advocates, and soon returned again. It was the purpose of Karl Marx, and of many other less obviously evil and destructive leaders, "reformers" and revolutionaries. The revolutionaries' goal began to seem more plausible as the development of science and technology seemed to be transforming the world fundamentally, giving men godlike powers such as they had never before imagined. Pride rose up, and a potent alliance was formed between those who sought power to control and use the fruits of science and technology so as to remake society, primarily because they loved power, and those who sought it out of a genuine and often well-founded moral indignation against the oppression of the poor by existing power structures for the selfish ends of the wealthy. Communist and Christian alike could share this indignation, and though their solutions to the abuses which engendered it were radically different, it was possible for men of good will to lose sight of this difference in the concentration on the evils of oppression and exploitation that were actually taking place. Reformers became impatient with counsels of caution from the Church, and too readily assumed that the Church was in league with heartless "conservative" and reactionary royal absolutists in sanctioning the subjection of the common people.
Attempts to build a truly Catholic society were still being made, but were opposed by both sides of the ideological dialectic—by the conservatives because they seemed to them "socialistic", and by the socialists because they seemed "conservative". As always, the Church was bigger than ideology, or faction, but in their blindness men thought her smaller, or simply insisted on forcing her into their own categories without regard to what she was actually saying. Increasingly, less and less attention was paid to the Church by any of the major contending powers and influences in the modern world. More and more she was left with only peasants and women, until their presence became a stock joke among her enemies. But these were Christ's poor.
Then came the First World War. Still outwardly imposing, the Church at the outbreak of this disastrous conflict was as weak as she had been at any time since before the conversion of Constantine. Out of all the governments and nations of the world, only one—the Austrian Empire, heir of the Holy Roman Empire whose glorious tradition through five centuries of Hapsburg rule had been the defense of the Faith—paid any real heed to her, and its Emperor, Franz Josef, was 85 years old, no longer able to control or significantly influence events, especially after the great war began with the assassination of his heir. Catholic religious orders and Catholic schools were outlawed and actively persecuted in the nominally Catholic countries of France, Mexico, Portugal and even Italy. And as the war grew from muddled beginnings into a devouring monster, the bloodiest conflict in all European history not excluding the Second World War, the Prince of Peace had never seemed more distant.
The pope was Benedict XV. Frail, bespectacled, not a dominating personality, he is hardly remembered at all today, unlike his canonized predecessor Pius X and his successors Pius XI and XII. Benedict XV called for peace, begged for peace, prayed for peace. Again and again he offered himself as an intermediary, arbitrator, negotiator. The warring once-Christian nations paid no attention to him at all. Rivers of Christian blood continued to flow—for no principle, no necessary cause, merely for nationalistic ambitions and pride. When old Franz Josef finally died and young Charles was crowned the last Emperor—Charles whose body was found incorrupt fifty years after his death in a poor grave on Madeira, whose beatification process is now underway—he listened to the Pope, and sent out ambassadors for peace. His offers were refused; the war went on.
In Russia the Czar, who had come under the influence of the Satanic figure of Rasputin, was overthrown, and Emperor Charles' German allies saw what seemed to them a splendid opportunity: they proposed to take the coldly fierce, utterly dedicated and remorseless Marxist revolutionary who called himself Lenin from his exile in Switzerland, and send him into Russia to make his revolution and thus knock Russia out of the war against Germany. Charles protested in horror: this man was the enemy of all Christian civilization; to use evil could only breed evil. The German government told Charles to be more practical and mind his own business; Lenin was shipped into Russia through Germany in a sealed railway train, where he did indeed make his revolution from which the Church and the world have suffered from then until now.
Man had failed, God remained. On the fifth of May in that terrible year 1917, Pope Benedict XV offered up, in the name of the whole Church, an impassioned prayer for peace to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eight days later came her first apparition to the children at Fatima in Portugal.
The Church survived the First World War, though it may yet prove to have been the fatal blow to modern Western civilization. Communism triumphed in Russia and began its spread across the world which Mary had predicted at Fatima on July 13, 1917. But right along with the communist advance came a great revival of the Church and the Faith, in Catholic and non-Catholic countries alike. Tens and hundreds of thousands of converts entered the Church in the English-speaking countries, including some of the foremost intellectual leaders, writers, scholars and artists. France between the wars produced one of the most brilliant generations of Catholic scholars in all the Church's history (whose works, at least in English translation, have now been allowed almost entirely to go out of print). Spain went down into the dark valley; its heroic Catholics met the Communist and revolutionary enemy in a death grapple whose story has never yet been properly or fully told in English, a story that includes a hundred thousand men who fought with rosaries around their necks and the Sacred Heart and the Cross of St. Andrew on their uniforms: the Carlist requetes for whom a Spain not Catholic was inconceivable, in whom the flame of Pelayo at Covadonga burned as brightly as ever more than twelve hundred years after him. The enemies of Christ were defeated, and the Faith was saved, at least for a generation in Spain.
The Nazi horror then broke upon the world, the work of Hitler who saw his ultimate enemy as neither Communists nor democrats nor even the Jews whom he killed by the millions, but the Catholic Church into which he had been baptized and which he had rejected; and Hitler's defeat tragically opened the way to a great new advance of communism, whose persecution of Christians matched or exceeded the worst persecutions in all of Christian history. Salazar of Portugal died, and Franco; U.S. President John F. Kennedy solemnly declared that he would never let his Catholic faith influence his public actions, a promise he seems to have kept, and once again there was no ruler, no government in the world willing to recognize the moral authority of the Church Christ founded, or to defend her against her enemies. A new ecumenical council of the Church was held at the Vatican, and the mass media of a secularized and apostate West so distorted its message that even many of the best and most loyal Catholics were deceived, believing that the Church had at last conformed herself to the spirit of the age. And Pope Paul VI, like Pope St. Pius V in Chesterton's great poem "Lepanto,"
...has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross...
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall.
We have come down to the present. It is too early yet for us to know or even guess who, this time, the "last knight" will be, or whence he shall come. But we know that he and his like must come again, because they have always come before, ever since the first Easter. The actions of such heroes—and of the Church as a whole—are clear confirmation of the Church's Divine character. If we are to find the fullness of truth and life today, we can do no better than to turn to the one institution which enjoys a life and power far beyond the human mode. For the Church's heroes do not come on their own; they are called and they are sent. That is what it means to be apostles of Christ the Eternal King, who is Lord of history until the end of time.
- Newman G. Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History, I, 272.
- John Bagot Glubb, The Great Arab Conquests (London, 1963), p. 232.
- Joseph F. O'Callaghan, A History off Medieval Spain (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975), p. 99.
- Chronicle of Alfonso III, 9
- G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 338.
- E.E.Y. Hales, Revolution and Papacy (Garden City, N.Y., 1960), p. 186.
The best brief general presentation of the Catholic view of history—which is also a brilliant piece of literature—is G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image Books, 1955, still in print). Detailed Catholic histories largely reflecting this point of view, both unfortunately now out of print, are Newman G. Eberhardt, A Summary of Catholic History (St. Louis: B. Herder & Co., 1961), and Henri Daniel-Rops' great nine-volume history: The Church of Apostles and Martyrs; The Church in the Dark Ages; Cathedral and Crusade; The Protestant Reformation; The Catholic Reformation; The Church in the Seventeenth Century; The Church in the Eighteenth Century; The Church in an Age of Revolution; A Fight for God (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1957-1966). A great American Catholic historian whose works fully reflect the Catholic view of history is William Thomas Walsh, notably in his Isabella of Spain (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1930); Philip H (N.Y.: Sheed & Ward, 1937); Our Lady of Fatima (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Image Books, 1954); and Saints in Action (Garden City, N.Y.: Hanover House, 1961). Important information on vital elements in twentieth century Catholic history appears in two books by non-Catholics, Gordon Brook-Shepherd's The Last Hapsburg (London, 1968) on Emperor Charles, and Anthony Rhodes’ The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (New York, 1973) on Hitler's attitude toward the Catholic Church.
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