As Easter approaches, one observes the usual seasonal phenomena in the air: the television and magazine specials earnestly querying the scholars about Jesus, and not incidentally sowing doubt; the news features about hyper-modernist preachers who claim that, no matter, since Christianity is not about any particular set of beliefs anyway; and the irritated New Atheists who remind us that, as modern persons who believe in reason and science, who cares, since we already know that people do not rise from the dead.
If it comes to that, ancient peoples knew that as well, and they weren’t stupid, at least no stupider than we are. Yet a lot of them came to believe, just as many people on every continent – who also are not stupid despite the jibes of the atheist “Brights” – still do today. It’s a remarkable thing, worthy of attention even on purely secular grounds, maybe especially on secular grounds, because there’s nothing even remotely like it in human history.
No less a figure than Thomas Aquinas, no dope whatever else even the most militant atheist might think about him, turns to such considerations in his Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, and specifically under the heading “Faith is not foolish,” “Because God’s miracles prove the truth of the things which faith teaches.”
Now you might expect that Aquinas would be talking about what many would consider the greatest Christian miracle: the Resurrection. But he takes an unusual tack, defending: “the miracles by which Christ confirmed the doctrine of Apostles and of the other saints. And if anyone says that nobody has seen those miracles done, I reply that it is a well-known fact, related in pagan histories, that the whole world worshipped idols and persecuted the Christian Faith; yet now, behold all (the wise, the noble, the rich, the powerful, the great) have been converted by the words of a few simple poor men who preached Christ. Now was this a miracle or was it not?”
A pointed question. Much has changed since Aquinas’s day. And in our day, it sometime seems that Jesus’ saying that “the gates of Hell shall not prevail” against his Church has been put into no little doubt. At the moment, those infernal gates seem to be doing quite well, indeed.
But what Jesus predicted has, quite literally, been fulfilled. Ezra Pound once felt the need to observe: “Any institution that could survive the picturesqueness of the Borgias has a certain native resiliency.” But it’s not only the Borgias. The number of things that we clearly see the Church has survived is quite impressive, indeed unprecedented compared with any other human institution: The death of Jesus. The betrayal of all the apostles (not just Judas). The martyrdom of all the apostles (except for John). Early heresies (so many they would require a separate list). Persecution and martyrdom by the Roman Empire. Acceptance by the Roman Empire. Collapse of the Roman Empire. Barbarian invasions. Saracen invasions (Old St. Peter’s itself sacked in 846). Conflicts with medieval (Christian) kings and emperors. Medieval heresies (Albigenses, Franciscan Spirituals, etc.). The Fall of Byzantium. Renaissance corruption. The Reformation (Rome sacked again in 1527 by the Lutheran troops of Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). The wars of religion. Late assaults by the Turks. Baroque corruptions. Pascal’s Jesuits. Kings claiming divine rights. Revolutions claiming absolute power. Napoleon. Freemasonry. Liberalism. Socialism. Nazism. Communism. Darwinism. Limp modern liturgies. Priestly sexual abuse. “Women religious” who believe in the Goddess or the cosmic process or whatever, and are proud of it
This is just a partial list, which would at a minimum also need to recognize the constant presence of bad bishops and priests, and an ever-fickle laity. Under such circumstances – and given the tendency of all things to decay over time, it’s a miracle – perhaps, in a way, the greatest miracle of Christianity, that the Catholic Thing has survived, as Aquinas suggested. If we believe that Jesus is the God who created the universe, his rising from the dead was mere child’s play. Keeping together billions of fallen human beings, whom God has taken the risk of endowing with the freedom to choose their own ways, in a real historical Communion via the fragile earthen vessel we call the Church, may very well require even more divine powers.
Pope Benedict remarked in a homily for Palm Sunday a few years ago that the expansion of the Church in time and space was the literal fulfillment of the ancient prophecies that Israel would rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. (Zechariah 9:10) But he also reminds us that this needs to be viewed alongside another saying of Christ’s: “Do we understand what it means to say that this Kingdom is not of this world? Or would we actually prefer that it were of this world?”
I stand convicted. I’d feel a lot better if the Faith could be confirmed by some earthly measure. Hope in the world to come is fine with me, but I’m only human. Still, if you think about it, that the gates of Hell have not prevailed is closer to a miracle than to anything else, even on purely naturalistic premises. It confirms quite a bit and has to have a cause not of this world, since left to our own devices, we Catholics would have done the whole thing in quite long ago. We still need to labor and take great care to make sure that we are on the right side of the gates as the ages unfold.
But a consoling reflection before Easter.