Our Fourth-Century Christianity

Historians universally agree that, in the course of the 4th Century AD, the religiosity of the average Christian believer went into serious decline.

The century had begun with the persecution of Diocletian, the most severe of all Roman persecutions of Christians – a last-minute effort to wipe out the rapidly growing religion.  It took courage and strong faith to stick with the Church during those years.  Many weak Christians fell away.

Then (in 313) came the Edict of Milan, making Christianity a tolerated religion.  This was the end of persecution in the Roman Empire.  Many defectors returned to the faith.  Most Christians welcomed them back; some (the Donatists) did not.  Many converts now streamed into the Church.  Great courage was no longer required to be a Christian; nor was a strong faith.

As the years and decades passed by, courage and strong faith were less and less needed as it became increasingly clear that Christianity had become the (unofficial) religion of the Empire – this despite ongoing battles between Orthodox (Nicene) Christians and Arians (or semi-Arians) as to the true Christian doctrine.

In the 360s, anti-Christians – led by Emperor Julian (the Apostate) – made one last attempt to halt the advance of Christianity and bring about a return to paganism.  But Julian’s reign was short (361-63) and ultimately ineffective.

Finally, in 380, under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the official religion of the empire.  Now it was the easiest thing in the world to be a Christian.  What required courage at that point was to remain a pagan.  Now commenced the long history of Christian persecution of non-Christians and the persecution of one group of Christians by another group.

In the years and decades and centuries leading up to and including the persecution of Diocletian, being a Christian was a risky business.  Not only was it commonly frowned upon by public opinion, but it was from time to time punished by the law.  The persecutions were strong enough to provoke resistance, but never strong enough to destroy the new religion.  During that era there were not very many lukewarm Christians.

But once Christianity became a tolerated religion, and even more so once Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, there must have been tens of millions of lukewarm Christians, not to mention many positively chilly Christians.

In those circumstances, there was a danger that the lukewarm Christians would so overwhelm the “warm” or “red-hot” Christians that the religion wouldn’t be able to survive in the long run.

How did Christianity respond to that danger?  It responded with the invention of a new institution: monasticism.  At first, the monks lived solitary lives, for example, St. Anthony of Egypt, reputed to be the first monk.  It soon became apparent that the solitary life was impractical except for the rarest individuals.  And so the solitary form of monasticism was replaced with the community form.

*

During the 4th century, the monastic movement spread rapidly, first in the East, later in the West.  Everywhere there emerged communities of celibate men and communities of celibate women, living lives devoted to fasting, prayer, hard work, and charity – lives that the monks and nuns intended as imitations of Christ.

If the average Christian was lukewarm in his or her Christianity, the monks and nuns were red-hot, or at least very warm.  And so the danger of Christianity being self-destroyed by the vice of lukewarm-ness was avoided.  Monks and nuns were seen by the general Christian populace as true Christians.  They were models for everybody else.  And by admiring them and supporting them, you (the average believer) participated vicariously in true Christianity.

And so the pattern was set for the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.  This Catholicism was a blend of two different kinds of religion: an elite religion made up of those striving for Christian perfection, and a mass religion made up of those whose religion was an incoherent mixture of Christianity, paganism, and lax morality.  The two religions were held together by a common creed, common sacraments, and a papal-episcopal Church organization.

Of course, monks and nuns often fell short of Christian perfection.  And so this falling-short gave rise to another characteristic of medieval Catholicism: monastic reform.  Again and again, reform movements were launched with the aim of returning monasteries and convents to their original spirit.

I submit that a danger like the one that confronted 4th-century Christianity confronts Catholicism in America today.  American Catholicism is nowadays a lukewarm thing.  Warm-to-hot Catholics are very much in the minority and a shrinking minority at that.  They are in danger of being completely overwhelmed by the lukewarm majority.

How can we prevent the fading-away of our religion?  Or I should say, how can we prevent the continuation of this fading-away?  For the process has been going on for at least a half-century now, and is now far advanced.

I suggest that to save Catholicism here (and in the highly modernized countries of the world generally), we need something like the monasticism that swept the Roman world in the 4th Century and after.  We need conspicuous communities of elite Christians who by their example will show the rest of us (lukewarm Catholics like myself) what a truly Christian life looks like.

I’m not saying that these model Catholics will have to be monks and nuns.  Perhaps the age of monasticism has vanished forever.  But we need something like monasticism.  The religion of the average Catholic today is an incoherent mixture of Christianity, hedonism, and skepticism.  We need models of true Christianity so that we may remember what true Christianity is.  Otherwise, there will be no revival of Catholicism in America.  Our religion will more and more fade away, like the Cheshire cat.  Only its ancient smile will be left.

One last thing.  We should not look to our bishops to be leaders in any revival.  Only rarely in the long history of Catholicism have bishops been the leaders of our many Catholic revivals. Which leaves. . .who?

 

* Image: Virgin and Child by an anonymous Christian artist, a wall painting in the catacombs of Rome, 4th century

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.

RECENT COLUMNS

Archives