and What It Has to Teach Us
NCW 67, March-April 2000
It would, in studying an institution like the Catholic Church which is almost certainly a syncretism of Christianity and occultism, be a major mistake both to assert that nothing good ever came out of it or that God has never used it in a good, positive and upbuilding way. The purpose of this essay is not so much to balance all the negative things we have said about this institution for its own sake or to relieve some sort of imagined guilt but to genuinely take a look at this ancient institution and see all the good that it has done and to thereby learn from it.
Looking Back into History
As we look back at the long and chequered history of Catholicism it is not easy to forget the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, the St.Bartholemew's Day's Massacre in France or the St.Patrick's Day Massacre in Ireland when enraged mobs went butchering and mutilating unarmed Protestants (in Ireland the Catholics cut women's breasts off with garden shears), or the fact that Hitler patterned his SS on Ignatius Loyola's Jesuit Order, the Catholic Church's subterfuge and assassination apparatus. I say these things lest Catholics quote what I am about to write as an endorsement of their Church, for I wish there to be a proper balance. For the most part I shall be looking at Catholicism before the Reformation, when all Western Europe was under one Church and where there was little or no opposition to the Roman Ecclesiastical Institution. It is easy to be magnanimous when you are in control, but when your power structures is challenged by rivals claiming greater light than yourself, then the true colours of a Church are soon shown. Finally, in writing this I am not endorsing some of the early Protestant atrocities either.
It is almost an axiom of education these days in our secular Western society to look back on mediaeval Catholic Europe and pronounce those days as belonging to the "Dark Ages". They are only "dark" in the eyes of rationalists. To be sure, our mediaeval ancestors had their failings (what age of men doesn't), but, as Catholic Cardinal Newman rightly said, "even the errors then prevalent, a persecuting spirit, for instance, a fear of religious inquiry, bigotry, these were, after all, but perversions and excesses of real virtues, such as zeal and reverence" (The Essential Newman, ed. Blehl, New York: New American Library, 1963, p.103). Of course, there was poverty and injustice (name me an age that hasn't had these) and most of us would have been serfs. But where else on the planet would we have fared better in the 13th century? Blaming that on the religious convictions of the Middle Ages is a secularist con job. All the components of mediaeval life - art, warfare, commerce, government, play, scholarship - were judged by the degree to which they complied with the codes of conduct taught by the Church authorities. And that was, in my opinion, to their glory - to the Catholic Church's glory.
All of life was a hymn, a deliberate attempt to create a "divine milieu" which would encourage sinful, avaricious, and concupiscent man to do God's will. Religious values provided the framework of life, and filled men as in no time before or since. Chatres was built, not the Twin Towers; Boticelli painted, not Jackson Pollock; St.Thomas Aquinas was the leading intellect, not Satre; Dante the poet, not Allen Ginsberg. It was hoped that minds and hearts would, in this atmosphere, rise above their intuitive level and reach for divine beauty and wisdom; would be opened to grace. Man's obligation was to discipline himself to obey divine authority, to live a life of duty and service to things higher than himself. The hero was Sir Galahad, not some self-indulgent rock star with expensive and exotic tastes. Religious authorities defined both the human ideals to which men must aspire, and the human transgressions, the evils which should be contained and whose lures must be minimised by the threat of both civil and divine punishment. If that sounds menacing to you, like the mediaeval threat to human freedom we have all heard about, ponder a bit more on Newman:
"I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction that it would be a gain to this country were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion [as we have been told medieval men were] than at present it shows itself to be. Not, of course, that I think the tempers herein implied desirable, which would be an evident absurdity; but I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy [to be hardened against moral influence], and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility" (Ibid., p.105).
It is a moot point as to whether, in fact, the Protestant Reformation did more harm than good in the long term when one considers the moral degradation that followed in its wake. But it is equally a moot point in deciding whether social and moral decay would have taken place anyhow even without Luther and the Reformers. The Catholics have argued, with some justification, that the Reformation and the wars it sparked, was the catalyst that has led to what we have today. For the Reformation led, inevitably, to the Renaissance humanists and other men of the so-called "Enlightenment", who "freed" us from the Catholic paradigm of the theocratic state. The modern world is the result.
The advances we know in science and medicine might just never have occurred if all of life had been directed toward mediaeval ends. Though this may again be a moot question. Maybe the "freeing" was needed for man to develop his full capacities. But the seeds of what we now know as relativism took root as well. What began as an honest challenge to the corrupt intrigues of profligate popes and despotic kings degenerated into a challenge to the very notion of authority itself. Luther's and Galileo's demands that their research and expertise be permitted to add to the body of knowledge upon which genuine authority is based, turned into a solipsistic [the belief that only the Self is knowable] denial of man's ability to know truth at all. We went from John Calvin to John Dewey; to "Do you own thing, man", the ultimate wisdom of our time. And to "If it feels good, do it" - assertions which Galileo, Luther and Erasmus would have condemned in the quickest reaction this side of a knee jerk.
No, I have to say that I support the Catholic concept of the theocratic state, notwithstanding the openness to abuses. But is our modern Protestant-derived separation of Church from state any better? I understand the Protestant concerns all to well and I would, perhaps hypocritically, be the first to defend it were I to find myself in, for example, a Moslem country where the Sharia Law was in force. But then I admit I am prejudiced - I believe Bible Christianity is true - that it is absolute and not relative truth. The American separation of Church and State issue has, in any case, resulted in the opposite which its Christians founding fathers set out to achieve, for now it is being used to exclude Christianity from almost everything public and to enshrine atheism and witchcraft.
I would be the first to agree that pre-Reformation Catholic Europe also had its dark periods, periods I would not have wished to live in. But I would rather have lived in 13th century Catholic Europe than I would, say, in a communist state. I would be willing to relinquish certain freedoms in order to have a Christian order of sorts. The ideal society is not possible...yet. And the secular one is definitely not ideal, and never will be, for in the end it will always trample and marginalise Christianity, and even persecute it.
As I look back at the Catholic past I observe and glory in the fact that some of the finest - if not the finest - religious worship and music was born, not to mention architecture. Inspiration of the Holy Spirit was in the air that men breathed. Chastity and virtue were upheld, marriage protected (not withstanding the celibacy and anti-polygamy abuses) There's nothing comparable today. And such creativity was only possible within a theocratic environment where society propelled you in the direction of the divine. Thus when I look forward to the coming Millennial Rule of Christ I derive much inspiration from the Catholic past.
And now a difficult question...for Protestants and others. If Catholicism were so evil and apostate, why did God permit it to dominate Western Europe for twelve hundred centuries or more? Why wasn't an 8th century Martin Luther send? Why wait until the 16th century (or the 19th if you're a Mormon, Jehovah's Witness, or Christian Scientist)? To in any way suggest that He "couldn't" is to deny His omnipotence and sovereignty. The fact of the matter is that Yahweh must have had a purpose. And I would say the same of the Eastern Orthodox Church (which experienced no Reformation but which is being challenged my Protestantism march eastwards and which it is trying to contain by legal measures).
I am not, as you all clearly understand, saying that the Roman Catholic Church is true or that it is nearly true for I believe it to be fundamentally wrong in many areas. And I am no supporter of the Papacy. Catholicism is a syncretism of Christianity and the ancient Babylonian mystery religion. And as with all syncretisms, sometimes the one component dominates the spiritual life of the Church, and sometimes the other. It is the same with Mormonism, a more modern syncretism of Christianity and the occult. Its basic faith and substance is Christian, but its deeper mysteries are utterly pagan and satanic. So it is with the Roman Catholic Church. My praises here are for its Christian face. As to what the 21st century holds, I shudder to think, for the current Pope has already shown himself not to be a Christian but a pawn of the New Age.
Who can deny the inspired work of Thomas à Kempis? This Catholic writer is studied by New Covenant Christians and by not a few Protestants too. There are many others. Catholicism has much to teach us about discipline, loyalty, and piety, and we have not been slow to imitate many of their accomplishments in these areas. The priest, monk or nun coming into the light of the whole Bible truth surely has a great advantage over the wishy-washy hedonists being spawned by most of Protestantism. We, in our own New Covenant experience, have received many blessings from those coming out of structured and disciplined religious systems like the Catholics and Mormons, as we have from those who have come out of Protestantism who understand something of freedom. They key seems to be, as we have been maintaining for so many years, a keen balance between freedom and order.
New Covenant Christians want to build the millennial theocratic order of discipline and grace in perfect harmony. We look forward to the spiritual state with Christ as regent. Catholicism was an attempt to imitate this to some degree; Protestantism, which reacted to its abuses, ended up throwing out the baby with the bath water. Little wonder that many Protestants have been attracted back to Catholicism in recent times. However, in the end, they will hunger there too, for Catholicism is not what it seems to be.
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Last updated on 20 April 2000
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