Catholicism today and the lessons of history

Catholicism today and the lessons of history

John Young

There are many Catholics who just don't see how serious a crisis the Catholic Church is in. They don't know there is a war on. But there are others who go to the opposite extreme and are profoundly pessimistic. In this article I want to look at that extreme.

Such people see the doctrinal and moral chaos afflicting Catholic life, and tend to despair of a recovery. Some think the present state of things, in Christianity and in the secular world, points to the Second Coming of Christ; that we are living in the time of the Antichrist and the end of history.

People with this opinion point to the widespread repudiation of essential Christian doctrines, even by well-respected theologians. For example, they note the denial by moral theologians of even fundamental moral truths – as in the approval of same-sex "marriage".

They are shocked and disheartened by the silence of so many bishops who allow serious errors to be promoted by dissident priests, and who fail to fulfill their duty of teaching the Faith. Nor have they acted strongly to stop the sexual abuse of minors by priests, and instead, all too often, have covered up these horrendous crimes.

With both the secular world and the Church in such a deplorable state, some people believe the likeliest conclusion is that this present world is about to end.

Surviving crises

I believe, on the contrary, that the Second Coming of Christ is probably still in the distant future, and that a revitalisation of Christianity can be expected in the near future. No one can be sure, but my relative optimism is based on history.

Viewing the history of Christianity over its first two thousand years we find crisis after crisis, but with the Church emerging stronger after each one. I believe things have been worse in a number of past epochs than they are now. I'll illustrate this with a few examples.

Right from the start the situation seemed hopeless. Christians were a tiny persecuted minority composed mainly of people with no worldly influence, preaching (of all things!) a crucified Saviour, and holding moral values, especially regarding sexuality, which the culture rejected.

In addition to the external opposition the Church was plagued by many heresies, as we see even while the Apostles were still alive: St Paul and St John in particular warn against these aberrations.

Yet in less than three hundred years the Roman Empire was officially Christian. Not that the heresies died. One of the most devastating heresies was Arianism, which denied both the full divinity of Christ and his full humanity. He was seen as a lesser god, while his "humanity" lacked a human soul.

In the fourth century there seemed a real danger that Arianism would triumph, which would have meant the overthrow of the two most fundamental of all Christian dogmas: the Trinity and the Incarnation. The menace facing the Church is captured in St Jerome's famous words: "The whole world groaned to find itself Arian."

But Arianism was defeated, and a result of the controversy was a new clarity in the Church's understanding of these key revealed teachings. And the same has happened constantly through the centuries when controversies have arisen.

For example, the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, with a vast range of disputed teachings, led to the clarification of doctrine concerning the relation of Scripture and Tradition, the seven sacraments, the Mass, the Real Presence, purgatory, indulgences, prayer to the saints, and the papacy.


Nor is the moral corruption of recent decades a new phenomenon. Consider the state of things a thousand years ago, as the Church emerged from the so-called Dark Ages after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. Many bishops and clergy were corrupt, partly due to the interference of the secular authorities in the appointment of bishops; most of the laity were ignorant of their Faith; even good popes could make little headway against the forces ranged against them.

Nor were all the popes good. A few were a disgrace. John XII was still a teenager when elected pope (chosen through political pressure), and he had little interest in the duties of his office, preferring hunting, banqueting and love affairs.

Writing of the tenth century, historian Father Philip Hughes says that conditions were nowhere darker than in Rome, where "for sixty years a single noble family dominated, making and unmaking popes at its pleasure. The details of the story are so grotesque that they lost all relation to reality. They have scarcely any power to shock, so great is their incredibility" ( History of the Church, volume 2, p. 192).

Corruption persisted for centuries. To quote Hughes again, writing of the eleventh century: "The same causes, during this century, produced the same effects: ecclesiastical discipline in decay, simony rife and clerical marriage the rule, nobles appointing their own kin to abbeys and sees in order the more easily to plunder them" (volume 2, p. 199).

But in this same eleventh century, Hughes continues, "Catholicism was, nevertheless, on the eve of a restoration so speedy in its realisation and so magnificent in its scale that, even yet, no one has adequately described it as a whole" (p. 202). The chief figure in this restoration was Pope St Gregory VII.

It was not a complete restoration, of course: the Church has always been plagued with problems in this fallen world. But there was a marvellous flowering of sanctity, great missionary activity, a new penetration of society with the spirit of the Gospel, and the supreme intellectual achievements of the thirteenth century.

Worldly bishops

By the sixteenth century the Church was again in crisis, with worldly bishops being partly to blame for the Protestant Reformation. A trigger for Martin Luther's rejection of the Catholic Church was the disgraceful behaviour of the Archbishop of Magdeburg in Germany, Albrecht of Hohenzollern.

He had managed to acquire a number of sees – for a price. He was heavily in debt to the bankers, but was able to negotiate a deal with Rome. An indulgence was being preached, with the proceeds going to the rebuilding of St Peter's. Albrecht allowed the preaching of the indulgence in his jurisdiction (which covered a third of Germany) only on condition that he received half the money. Pope Leo X agreed to this. Albrecht used the money to help pay off his debts.

Although it was officially stated in the instructions about this indulgence that the poor need not give alms (they were only required to pray), that fact was omitted by some preachers of the indulgence; and preachers also claimed falsely that an offering of money was all that was required to get a soul out of purgatory, even if the donor was in a state of sin!

This is just one indication of the deplorable state the Church was in at that time. But a great renewal soon took place, particularly through the reforms initiated by the Council of Trent, and including the clarification and deepening of many doctrines by that Council.

Great saints helped to spread the renewal, including the mystics St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross, and the founder of the Jesuits, St Ignatius of Loyola. Their influence is still present today.

The French Revolution in the eighteenth century threatened to destroy the Catholic Church in France, with bishops and priests being persecuted and driven out of the country. Yet the following century saw a marvellous revival, with missionaries from France going abroad to spread the Faith.

Our present crisis, therefore, is nothing new – which is certainly not to deny that it is extremely serious. Christianity, especially in the West, is faced with a secularism that would abolish not only the supernatural, but the natural order itself. Hence the denial of naturally known truths about the family and human sexuality.

The upsurge of secularism in the 1960s coincided with the Second Vatican Council, a Council which attempted a new openness to the world. The Council denied no doctrines (and in fact reiterated many key doctrines such as the uniqueness of the Catholic Church and the obligation of Catholics to follow the teachings of the Church's magisterium), but the genuine positions of the Council have been grossly misrepresented ever since.

But things are improving, with an increase in orthodox priests and bishops, while the dissenters are growing old. Sound religious orders are getting vocations.

The dire results of the current secularism are becoming more apparent, which can be expected to lead to a healthy reaction, and a return to sanity. It is also to be remembered that in parts of the world, including most African countries, the outlook is much healthier than in the West.

Pope Saint John Paul II anticipated a new flowering of Christianity, and I think he was right. One reason for confidence is found in the signs of a renewal that are visible at present. A more general reason is from the lessons of history: that's the way it has always happened.

That doesn't mean a perfect age is imminent. In this fallen world there is no such thing as a perfect age; the clash between good and evil will continue till the Second Coming of Christ.

Meanwhile we must use the current opportunities. A time like the present is valuable in shaking us out of complacency and mediocrity. A greater incentive is afforded to improve our knowledge of the neglected truths, and to engage in apostolic work. Above all, today's crises should lead us to greater holiness.

G.K. Chesterton

In chapter six of his wonderful book Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton writes of the paradoxes of Christianity. He relates how the Church, through the centuries, has been endangered by opposite views and has embraced the truth hidden in each, while rejecting the errors.

For example, in the fourth century Arianism and orientalism presented opposite threats. The Church "left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism which would have made it too unworldly."

Chesterton compares the Church to a chariot flying through the ages, avoiding obstacles on all sides. "To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."

John Young is a Melbourne based writer on theological and philosophical topics. Some of his writings are available from Freedom Publishing.

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