What was the Christian West? Well, it certainly included Ireland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Romania, and perhaps most important in terms of history: Poland. You will note I do not include the majority-Protestant nations of Europe, such as England, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian nations, for a non-invidious reason. The vision of Christendom and the union that term implied (perhaps most ardently pursued, but never fully achieved in the form of the Holy Roman Empire) have been bound up in European history with Rome and the papacy. In addition, the emergence of Protestantism is so closely tied to the centrifugal forces of the emerging modern nation states that the Protestant nations in some sense began by, more or less, gradually sawing off their own branches from the Christian West.
Today, all of the nations of the Christian West mentioned above (with the exception perhaps of Poland), though they may derive from a Catholic background, can no longer be considered Catholic or even Christian. The reasons are many, including scientific materialism and the devastating wars in the last century.
Of course, through the two millennia of the Church’s existence, she has faced many different kinds of attacks. Just think of the early persecutions by the Roman Empire, for example. Later there were the attacks by barbarians, who over time were converted to the faith. And then there were the many heresies through the centuries, which peddled doctrines not only contrary to the true Faith but deadly to sound civilization. Witness the Albigensian heresy’s detestation of the material world.
The Protestant Reformation can be considered the last of the great heresies that attacked Christendom. And not only at the time, but for some centuries after its appearance, the Reformation appeared to have fought Catholicism to a standoff. Lacking Authority and Tradition, however, and hamstrung by its dedication to private revelation, it has for at least the last couple of centuries shown no power to resist the inroads of secularism and accommodation to the secularizing and reductive spirit of the age. Mainstream Protestant churches have been slowly declining in numbers throughout the world, although evangelicals and Pentecostals have shown renewed life.
More recently in the history of the Christian West, during the 20th century, the main threats came from the paganism of Nazi Germany and the atheism of Communist Russia. But further back than Protestantism and reaching forward into current affairs, by far the most serious threats to the Christian West have come from the heresy known as Islam. Muslim extremists form a cult that is our greatest threat today. Hilaire Belloc wrote that, had Christendom’s military institutions failed in their struggle against Islam, our civilization would have been wiped out – indeed, at one or two critical points in the middle of the eighth century and at the end of the ninth it seemed we were doomed.
What can be done today to help ensure a similar victory against Islam? It seems to me that most crucial factor is fertility. To survive, even without the Islamic threat, the Christian West must stop shrinking, and to compete equally with Islam today, we simply must grow. Therefore, on prudential as well as spiritual grounds, Christian families need to be open to life. If not, over time there will be an Islamic majority, which, acting in accord with its very nature, will make Christians suffer if they refuse to submit themselves to Islam, as has happened in the past. In the end, however, Western fertility will be not only a means of resistance but a healthy indication that the West has pulled back from demographic suicide.
It’s also important that those countries that want to protect their Christian heritage should be very careful about how Muslims integrate – or do not – in Western societies. As we know (and given current levels of Muslim fanaticism), several Muslim countries will do everything possible to obtain weapons of mass destruction – something to be resisted by all morally legitimate means because, if they obtain such weapons, they will use them. Think of 9/11 and what would have happened in New York City if the fanatics had had WMDs at their disposal.
Christendom has faced many attacks from Islamists, and we are facing one of the greatest periods of attack now. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when our civilization’s will to live and moral resolve are at low ebb. What is most important for us is to live out our Catholic faith with joy and never in fear, because we know what awaits us if we are faithful. One thing is sure: We are all going to die one day. Our time here on earth should be spent with joy, as we generously make the gift of self to the people around us. And the greatest gift of all is to share our faith, as did the early Christians, with excitement and the certainty that no temporary pain or sacrifice could in the slightest compare with the Good News they had received.
So be of good cheer: The best is ahead for all of us – if we are faithful and share that faith with others.