As we build the new Catholic civilization, we have the advantage of being able to turn our gaze towards Christendom, “the outstanding example in history of the application of faith to life: the embodiment of religion in social institutions and eternal forms, and therefore both its achievements and failures are worthy of study.” (Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays (Doubleday, 1959, p. 53)
Dawson explained why medieval Christendom is a role model:
“There has never been an age in which Christianity attained so complete a cultural expression as in the thirteenth century.
Europe has seen no greater Christian hero than St. Francis, no greater Christian philosopher than St. Thomas, no greater Christian poet than Dante, perhaps even no greater Christian ruler than St. Louis.
I do not maintain that the general level of religious life was higher than at other times or that the state of the Church was healthier, still less that the scandals were rarer or moral evils less obvious.
What one can assert is that in the Middle Ages more than at other periods in the life of our civilization the European culture and the Christian religion were in a state of communion: the highest expressions of medieval culture, whether in art, in literature or in philosophy, were religious, and the greatest representatives of medieval religion were also the leaders of medieval culture.
This is not, of course, an inevitable state of things. It may even be argued that the dualism of religion and culture that existed under the Roman Empire, and more or less generally in modern times, is the normal condition of Christianity.
Nevertheless, the other alternative, that of a cooperation and collaboration between religion and culture, is undoubtedly a more ideal system, and from this point of view the medieval achievement remains unsurpassed by any other age.” (Christopher Dawson, Medieval Essays)
As Pope Leo XIII stated:
“There was a time when the philosophy of the Gospel governed the States.
In that epoch, the influence of Christian wisdom and its divine virtue permeated the laws, institutions, and customs of the peoples, all categories and all relations of civil society.
Then the Religion instituted by Jesus Christ, solidly established in the degree of dignity due to it, flourished everywhere thanks to the favor of Princes and the legitimate protection of Magistrates.
Then the Priesthood and the Empire were united in an opportune harmony and by the friendly interchange of good favors.
So organized, civil society gave fruits superior to all expectations, and its memory subsists and will subsist, registered as it is in innumerable documents that no artifice of the adversaries can destroy or obscure” (Pope Leo XIII, Immortale Dei, n. 28).
Although we recognize that the first Christian society might have grown up in India or Persia instead of in Europe if St. Paul were to have continued on the road to Asia instead of taking the ship to Greece, that simply did not happen.
The Church which came to birth in Jerusalem was destined to spend its formative years amid the cultures of Athens and Rome until it reached adulthood, when, with its own native genius, it would go on to build its own city: Western Civilization.
The first and most important influence in the Church’s genetic make-up were the 2,000 years of noble Jewish genes: so much of her heritage in language, traditions, symbols and prayer resonate with the ancient history of Israel where God had prepared the way for the Incarnation. By implication therefore “Western” civilization owes much through the Church to its Jewish -and therefore Eastern- ancestry.
With hindsight we can glimpse underneath the historic “coincidences” of the arrival of the Church to Europe in her infancy the water-marks of God’s providential action since in Greek civilization the Church was to find a home that was culturally prepared to be hospitable to the Faith.
For there occurred on the landmass we now call Europe in the centuries immediately before the birth of the Savior a unique happening that has universal significance and validity: the unfolding of the grandeur of man’s reason in the philosophy of Greece especially in the thought of Plato and Aristotle. Then, when in the first century A.D. Greek philosophy met the new religion coming from the midst of the Jewish people the embryo of a new Christian culture was born.
There was a certain magnetic attraction between the highest development of human reason and the sublime revelation of divine truths which led to an intimate bonding and ultimately over the following thousand years the creation of a Christian culture which became Western Civilization.
In the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato the Church found a way of thinking about religion that was revolutionary in the history of mankind for it did not accept religious myths or images without asking the question: “But is it true?”.
In Greece the Church found concepts about man, society and reason that were compatible with divine revelation and thus she adapted and incorporated them as privileged vehicles for the expression of her ideas. Amid the Greek culture of North Africa at Alexandria and in the Middle East at Antioch she found the language and philosophy for so much of her theology in the early Councils.
Her youth was amid Romans whose culture gave her the Latin language which she adopted as her own as well as Roman law and imperial organization that conferred a certain physiognomy on her structures of government. Her theology owes much to the Roman citizens of North Africa: Augustine, Cyprian, Tertullian and others.
From the 5th century onwards the Church with all this Jewish, Greek and Roman patrimony became architect and builder of a new society in Western Europe.
The Church embodied her vision and values within institutions making them the ideal, the standards and the modus operandi of a new society made up largely of recently-arrived barbarians.
A new and most original civilization was born, a civilization that we can only call her civilization, a Christian civilization symbolized by Gothic spires piercing the heavens.
In a myriad of different ways Christian artists, musicians, architects, writers and statesmen produced a new culture which was Christian in root and fruit: laws, government, education, arts and literature all radiated the Catholic truths.
Like the classical ages of Rome under Augustus or Athens under Pericles this civilization had its high point in the 12th century when the Christian paradigm and virtues were the reference point and source of inspiration for all classes of people as they went about their ordinary everyday lives.
“But the dawn is brief and the day full often belies its promise” (The Silmarillion): this thousand year old civilization for complex reasons springing not from its own nature but from the deep wounds of fallen men’s souls came under assault and spiralled into a decline to its demise in the last hundred years.
The artistic landscape of the West still reminds us of the old world-order.
The Gothic cathedrals of Europe leave no historian in doubt about the Church’s influence in architecture; the masterpieces of Giotto, Michelangelo and Raphael point to Catholicism’s steadfast influence in art; the heavenly chants of Gregorian and polyphonic, the sublime notes of Haydn’s, Beethoven’s and Mozart’s Missa Solemnis, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and Schubert’s Ave Maria witness to the enduring inspiration of Catholic worship for the great composers; St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dante’s Divina Commedia have never ceased to influence the Western mind: unassailable therefore is the Church’s paramount influence in 2,000 years of the history of the fine arts and in science, economics, law, human rights, technology and organized social assistance for the poor.