Several times, in the decade since I finally swam the Tiber, I have been upbraided by well-meaning Catholics of apparently sound mind for my attachment to Western Civilization.
This is not because they do not understand my use of the term. As I try to make clear, I mean by it, “The civilization that was created by the Roman Catholic Church.” Not that to which she “contributed,” but that which she created, working with the frightful stuff of primitive human nature, and raising it by increments from Vandal and Hun to Dante and Chartres and Palestrina.
The conceit of the modern “gliberal” (glib plus liberal), since Humanism began exiting the Church, is that our Civ was founded in ancient pagan Greece. There are fragments of that built into the whole, but only because Holy Mother Church preserved and adapted them, to her own purposes.
Likewise the old pagan Roman conception of open roads and tranquil freedom, under the law to the far horizon – Christendom was inspired by that. But it could equally have been inspired by the Chinese, or any other vast, ordered realm. It was Holy Church, and the minds she applied to worldly government, which transformed that model, introducing such principles as subsidiarity to make what was, in effect, a vast and extremely fertile theocracy.
My critics have been willing to concede all this. In denying the value of “Western Civ,” they revert to the circumstances of the first centuries, before all this was made, and thus long, long before it all began to come apart. The Fathers of the Church, they argue, as the Apostles before them, did not care for “civilization.” They certainly weren’t trying to create one. Mediaeval Christendom happened as much in spite of their efforts as because of them.
Constantine, to this way of thinking, was more the father of Western Civ than Augustine. The worldly march or “progress” of the Church was, to this view, often quite unholy. We should almost be glad the whole thing has collapsed, and happy to inhabit once again a world that requires Christian martyrs, who do not give a damn for civilization, but wish to follow Christ alone.
To my mind, this is reminiscent of, if not identical with, the “solas.”
Gentle reader may recall the (paradoxically, five) “alones” from the history of the Reformation: Sola Fide, by faith alone; Sola Gratia, by grace alone; Sola Scriptura, by scripture alone; Solus Christus, through Christ alone; and Soli Deo Gloria, being glory to God alone.
Each was flung as an incendiary device against “priestcraft” and the claims of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church – which, observe, had not five “alones” but the four marks of authority and legitimacy thus listed in her Creeds.
But of course, to an alert Protestant, of the kind with whom we used to enjoy bantering, that is itself an inflammatory way of expressing the matter. What do I mean, “her” Creeds?
The Consecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet, c. 1470
One can be on one side of the Tiber, “alone,” according not only with Faith, and Grace, (Scripture, Christ, and the Glory of God), but also figuratively by the principle of location. This was a point that became increasingly clear to me, as I contemplated the matter from the river’s other side; and realized that, with the excuse of five centuries of Protestant ancestors behind me, I had come to be standing on the wrong bank.
Oddly enough, the “sola” to which I was still clinging, as an Anglican at the time, was the one sola the Anglicans had always rejected: Solus Christus. Somehow, I thought, if I just follow Christ, it will be enough.
And it might well be enough, if my conception of Christ were large enough.
It is not easy to make Jesus into an idol, but with patience and diligence it can be done. Similarly, I don’t think madness comes easily to the sane, but there are men who have worked on it, and got there in due course.
That Christ may be distinguished from the world, and from the worldly, I think must be necessary to any Christian understanding, however hyphenated. “This, and not That,” is a human disposition so basic, as to underlie all creeds, sacred or profane. It cannot be escaped even by the mad, nor even by animals, which at a fundamental level must know to eat This, and not That.
Even the most politically correct, who oppose “prejudice” on any basis, become so prejudiced against every identifiable prejudice that they can be dismissed as puffballs of spite. With that kind of madness we are not dealing.
Instead it is with the kind that narrows Christ, so as practically to exclude Him from space and time. The experience of twenty centuries of Christ’s operation, including most signally within His own Church, is declared irrelevant. We must start over from scratch, as if none of it happened, and we are once again proceeding from Galilee.
The very role of Christ within His own Church must diminish, to this way of thinking. And this is so whether or not the Real Presence is accepted. For how can it be accepted today, if not yesterday? And if not yesterday, how will it be accepted tomorrow? The “present” in the Real Presence is reduced to a fleeting moment that occupies no time at all. Thus there can be nothing “real” in it.
No, I insist, to be Catholic we must “buy in” to the history and tradition, just as we believe that in His coming down from Heaven, Christ “bought in.”
Verily, this is crucial. To the “culture of narcissism” by which we are surrounded, in a Western world that has denied Christ, we must oppose a counter-culture. And we must oppose on every level: in our literature, our music, our art, our architecture, even our science. Whether or not it is our intention, we cannot plausibly be Catholic Christian without becoming civilized again.