The Catholic Thing
A Winning Program for Renewal Print E-mail
By Fr. C. John McCloskey   
Sunday, 17 August 2014

Recently, I wrote here about the perils and benefits of technology. Assuming that many of you are on your way to freedom from serious addiction to technology, I hope you have more time to dedicate to the most challenging task of our time – re-conversion  of a once-great country (America) and civilization (the West), both now swimming in hedonism and practical atheism.

The model we will need to follow is that of the early Church. The late Roman Empire, crumbling through plagues, demographic and moral decline, barbarian invasions, and what former President Jimmy Carter would likely call imperial malaise, was providentially “captured” by Christianity so that it could begin a centuries-long process of morphing into the West or Christendom.

How did the early Christians do it? Certainly not by force of arms. Rather, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  

For specifics on how this Christian mandate of love led within a few centuries to large-scale conversions, I highly recommend Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity. Although Stark is not a Catholic, his well-researched findings provide real pointers for those of us wrestling with our challengingly neo-pagan times.


In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic struck that carried away during the course of fifteen years up to a third of the total population of the empire, including Marcus Aurelius himself. Less than 100 years later, a similar epidemic, most likely of measles, struck again with similar results. Historians generally acknowledge that these epidemics may have contributed more to Rome’s decline than the normally attributed cause of moral degeneration.

According to Stark, these epidemics favored the rapid rise of Christianity for three reasons. First, Christianity offered a more satisfactory account than paganism of “why bad things happen to good people,” based on the centrality of the suffering and Cross of Christ. Second, “Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts.” Last, these epidemics left large numbers of people without the interpersonal bonds that would have restrained them from becoming Christians.

Stark also produces impressive evidence that “Christianity was unusually appealing to pagan women” because “within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.” He shows that Christianity recognized women as children of God with the same supernatural destiny. Moreover Christian prohibitions against polygamy, divorce, birth control, abortion, infanticide, etc., changed women’s status from powerless serfs in bondage to men, to women with dignity and rights in both the Church and the State.

Stark establishes four conclusions. First, Christian subcultures rapidly produced a substantial surplus of females as a result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide (normally directed against girl infants) and abortion (often producing the death of the mother) and the high rate of conversion to Christianity among women. Second, the higher status Christianity gave women made it highly attractive to them. Third, the surplus of Christian women and of pagan men produced many marriages that led to the secondary conversions of pagan men to the Faith, a phenomenon that continues today. Finally, the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates; superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.

Adding to the dynamism of early Christianity, as a result of the social stigma of being a Christian and the danger of persecution and even martyrdom left Christianity largely free of what Stark refers to as the “free riders,” those who want to reap the benefits of religion without sharing in its sacrifices and commitments. Perhaps we could say that among the first Christians during the first several centuries of the Faith, there was considerably more wheat than chaff.

Stark’s conclusion? Christianity grew: 

because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the “invincible obstinacy” that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the “good news.”

At the heart of this willingness to share one's faith was doctrine, that which was to be believed. And perhaps the chief doctrinal innovation of Christianity to a pagan world groaning under a host of miseries and saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death was that “because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another.”

What is the lesson we can draw for our culture? How about practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?

Corporal Works: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead.

Spiritual Works: Consoling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.

Want to change the world for Christ and help re-evangelize our country? Get with the early Christians’ winning program.

Fr. C. John McCloskey
is a Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, a former Catholic Chaplain at Princeton University, and a graduate of Columbia University.
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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Jack,CT, August 17, 2014
A wonderful reminder! where is mercy today?
We are so fast to Prove others wrong and ensure
that we "Make our Point" and strongly!

How in the world will we dumb it done to feeding
the hungry and thirsty again if our egos are the
most important aspect of earthly life?

And Oh Yeah "Praying for the living and the dead!"
A wonderful read thanks Father-
written by Mack Hall, August 17, 2014
Thank you!
written by Manfred, August 17, 2014
Does Rodney Stark mention the great Arian heresy of the fourth century which went on for centuries? Does he mention the Great Schism followed by the Protestant Revolt which sharply reduced the population and scope of the Church?
We have seen how it has all played out.
What will bring people back to the Church will be two things: The Church will again have something to teach when It admits that the Second Vatican Council and all that followed was a complete waste of time, and people will tire of living meaningless lives.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, August 17, 2014
Father, in my mind, I can lay all that you (and the author of this book) have detailed at the doorstep of this single most important human experience. The Christian life as described was and still is today a recipe for human HAPPINESS.

When we can effectively communicate by our lives to those who do not yet know Christ that we constitute a people who are uniquely happy, then the world will be converted. They will become curious about our lived experience and seek to know more. It's then that we tell them the answer to what they are looking for: His name is Jesus Christ.
written by Triumphal, August 17, 2014
Also, the early Christians did not have a Bishops Conference urging the Roman Senate to let the Visigoths and Vandals illegally invade the borders of the Empire.
written by Myshkin, August 17, 2014
Sorry, I don't believe there is any hope for "re-conversion of a once-great country (America) and civilization (the West)," precisely because they "both now swimming in hedonism and practical atheism." Something big has to happen to break through this wall of sinful attitudes and behaviors.

This is obvious from what Fr. McCloskey relates of Stark's historical reconstructions. Stark is a sociologist of religions at Baylor University, not a Church historian, and often publishes well outside of his expertise (the book Fr. McCloskey reviews was published in 1997). However if Stark was right in pointing to epidemics as one of the main causes for the success of the early Church, then the take away is that the Roman Empire as it existed prior to being decimated by this external "act of God" would *never* have repented of its evil and turned to Christianity. It took the loss of over "a third of the total population of the empire" to create the moral sensibility that would allow repentance and entrance into the Patristic Church. BTW, such an immense disaster makes all of the plagues written of in the Scripture, in comparison, puny.

Losing one third of our world's population within the span of a few years is about what it would take to get it to repent, turn from false gods and heretical movements, and enter the Roman Catholic Church. But if such a thing did occur, we would no longer be so concerned with America or the West, but rather being a good faithful Roman Catholic. This is also at the heart of Fr. McCloskey's post.

Also, in the same paragraph as it describes the works of mercy, the Catechism mentions almsgiving as an exemplary merciful act: "Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God" (2447).
written by LAM, August 17, 2014
In the years ahead we will see large numbers of Chinese women, Muslim women and women in the west, who have been severely psychologically damaged and used by the new paganism in men, drawn to the liberating beauty and truth of Christianity and to Our Lady as occurred in the first few centuries of Christianity as described by Stark.
Thank you Fr. C. John.
written by Sygurd Jonfski, August 17, 2014
The major problem with this solution is that - contrary to what many superficial observers say - our society is not the same as that of the first century AD. It places a great stress on love, charity and equality and it does so in some cases in a way even surpassing the Christian attitudes in this respect (e.g., the compassionate attitude toward animals leading to vegetarianism and veganism as opposed to the near-complete silence on this issue in Christian thought and practice). So, when we look at the list of corporal works, there is nothing on it that the secular charities and the welfare state wouldn't be doing already, for a long time. How then all of this can possibly "re-evangelize" the West?
written by Sooper, August 17, 2014
So basically we need to return women to horrible bondage and oppression so they realize how good they have it in Christianity. Then men will have more interest in marrying them and making babies than using them just to their rocks off. So, first things first in reconverting the West--let feminism destroy itself and ungrateful women with equality fantasies, then we can rebuild Christian patriarchy and sane, peaceful family life, which a lot of lost souls living in the misery of the sexual/feminist revolution will find very enticing.
written by Bill Hocter, August 17, 2014
A positive, hopeful article devoid of handwringing! More like this please!
written by Tony, August 17, 2014
The society that I live in has the word "love" on its lips, but not much in its heart. If it did, it would be a society of real and thriving communities. It would not ship children off to institutional holding tanks; that is, the children it allows to survive. It would not set out to amputate their innocence and cauterize the stump. It would not consign a quarter of its people to perpetual status as clients of a "welfare" state. It would not subject children to the chaos of fatherlessness or divorce. It would not have a politics motivated almost wholly by envy, avarice, and fraud ...

written by Paul V, August 18, 2014
"Get with the early Christians'winning program"

It's a good program and Christians should implement it, but I don't think it will work this time. I believe we're nearing the end of the age and the vast majority of people will respond to a different message.

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