Christopher Dawson on Our Cultural Mess

Given the latest battle Catholics have lost in America’s Culture War, I asked myself, how did we get into this mess? What caused the tide to turn against us? To get a handle on the problem, I reread a book I first cracked open forty years ago, Understanding Europe, written in 1952 by the distinguished British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970). I’m glad I did because this work – which should really be titled Understanding the West – explains why our Christian inheritance was already being eliminated from the public square more than a half century ago – and earlier.

For Dawson, the formative power in the West had been Christianity. It “transformed Europe from a barbarian hinterland into a centre of world culture” and was responsible for the rise of city-states, the creation of new literature and philosophy, “as well as new social, cultural and religious institutions: the order of chivalry, the estates of parliament, the religious orders and the universities.”

After the theocratic unity of Medieval Christendom was destroyed, the unity of European culture remained, because, as Dawson wrote, “the influence of the new humanist culture which spread from Italy to the rest of Europe in the later fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries provided a bond of intellectual and artistic unity between the two halves of divided Christendom and between the sovereign states and nations of Europe.”

However, the 18th century Enlightenment that culminated in the French Revolution “swept away the venerable relics of medieval Christendom” and wrecked cultural unity. This secular movement, “which denied the eternal truths of Christianity and the moral value of humanism,” opened “the gates of the abyss and liberat[ed]. . .the dark irrational forces which had been chained by a thousand years of Christian culture.”

After the Second World War, Dawson detected a new generation of neo-pagans leading “a revolt against the moral process of Western culture and the dethronement of the individual conscience from its dominant position at the heart of the cultural process.”

Dawson foretold that the cult of state would become the religion of the contemporary world and that a hierarchic, bureaucratic state would “stand above and apart from the citizen body.” That all powerful, managerial state would also deny citizens fundamental rights and liberties that come from the hand of God.

Educational systems in the United States and Europe that transmitted “a system of common beliefs and moral standards,” Dawson warned, would be stamped out by the secular state. The common values – the unifying element – conveyed in classical education would be replaced with a more technical education that would teach the masses that the basic condition of a free society is the relativity of truth. Education would no longer be “the invitation of the young into the social and spiritual inheritance of the community.”

Christopher Dawson
Christopher Dawson

As for the United States, Dawson observed, “In the past, American society derived [its spiritual] force from the religious idealism of sectarian Protestantism, and its principles from the eighteenth century ideology of Natural Rights and rational Enlightenment. But today both these forces have lost their power. American religion has lost its supernatural faith and American philosophy has lost its rational certitude.” This situation coupled with the expansion of materialism “has been accompanied by a neglect and loss of the spiritual resources on which the inner strength of a civilization depends.”

He also noted, “if we consciously permit the guidance of the modern world to pass from the leaders of culture to the servants of power, then we will have a heavier responsibility than the politicians for the breakdown of Western civilization.”

Sadly, during the past half century, many “leaders of culture” – Catholics, Protestants and Jews – have walked away from the Culture Wars and allowed secular forces to develop, essentially uncriticized and unchecked.

The battle over same-sex marriage is a classic example of religious and cultural leaders ceding the high ground. In New York, for example, I heard very little from the Catholic bishops when the issue came before the New York State Legislature. They did not call on the laity to pressure their elected officials to vote no. There were no strong letters read from pulpits, no press conferences, no protest marches.

And after last week’s Supreme Court decision, one proponent, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a baptized Catholic, really stuck it to his Church. He sought and received in the last week of June, the authority from the legislature to perform civil marriages in order to marry a same-sex couple on Gay Pride Day, Sunday, June 28.

To recover Christian culture, Dawson called on Christians to rise up and break the secularist’s control of education. Education of our youth, he argued, is crucial, because it is the “process by which the new members of a community are initiated into its way of life and thought from the simplest elements of behavior or manners up to the highest tradition of spiritual wisdom.”

That’s a tall order, particularly since zealous young liberal bishops in the post-Vatican II era contributed to the destruction of Catholic culture by interpreting John XXIII’s aggiornamento as a call to dismantle the very social foundation of the Church in America.

The U.S. Catholic Church has now lost close to three generations of its faithful to the secular utilitarians – a simple fact that makes Dawson’s call to arms even more difficult.

Nevertheless, no matter how bad it gets, Dawson insisted that the mission of Catholics is to nourish and preserve the tradition of sacred culture. “However secularized our modern civilization may become,” Dawson concluded, “this sacred tradition remains like a river in the desert, and a genuine religious education can still use it to irrigate the thirsty lands and to change the face of the world with the promise of new life.”

He’s right. And we shouldn’t let the latest defeat – serious as it is – discourage us from fighting the good fight in our homes, schools, churches. And in the public square.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.