The Genius of Catholicism
The excellence of Western Civilization is not a matter of race, politics or empire-building but of ideas and culture; great not because it is Western but because it is universally valid due to the harmony of its core ideas with human nature.
Indeed there is a lot about the West that is not so Western: its first builders were born in Asia and its citizens spoke a version of Latin heavily influenced by its time spent in North Africa and all this before Europe as a political and cultural reality came into existence.
It was a civilization that successfully integrated the cultural riches of the Mediterranean world where Asia, Africa and Europe meet, with the vision and values of the Catholic Faith.
Hence there is no clandestine racism in asserting the greatness of the old civilization of the West : Western man is like all men a “son of Adam” and like all men can become a sanctified son of God.
That the ideas of the Catholic Church are the most favorable for the fulfillment of the individual and of society there can be no reasonable doubt if the eyes are without prejudice.
Nothing that she proposes is contrary to reason and much there is that rises above the noblest intuitions and conclusions ever reached by human intelligence.
With these ideas the Catholic Church has carried man upwards to the peaks of human achievement in almost every dimension of existence.
How could it be otherwise since Catholic truths raise the mind to an awareness of a hitherto unsuspected dignity of man as well as to a divine nature of boundless goodness in God?
One after the other the radically new or deeper insights in Christianity laid the foundations for a new way of thinking and living: that God is love, that the noblest man of the noble Jewish race is not merely man but the incarnate Son of God who loved each and every man and died for their salvation; that man’s conscience is sacrosanct; that all men are created equal in God’s sight; that womanhood is to be respected on a par with manhood and has its own feminine genius; that human life is sacred from conception to natural death; that racism is an abomination.
These are the truths that have led so many of the West’s greatest minds for 2,000 years – men like Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine – to find inspiration, peace and fortitude in the Catholic Faith.
These ideas and their spirit produced the unique outlook on life of Western man which brought to birth the institutions and laws of his society.
The sap that once circulated strongly through Western Civilization carried the religious, anthropological and moral principles of the Catholic Faith enriched by all that the Church had incorporated from the best of Greco-Roman culture.
It was with the lungs of the Roman Church that Western Civilization breathed. The stunning affirmation that God is Love derives from the truths of the Incarnation and the Trinity and imbued the West with the conviction that love had to govern man, the family and society.
The Incarnation marked the dividing line in the history of thought: because of the Baby of Bethlehem, every baby had to be respected because for his sake Jesus had been born; the Passion of Jesus gave every human suffering the potential to cooperate with the Savior’s pain in the salvation of mankind; from the Resurrection of Jesus comes the potential resurrection of every man to eternal glory in body and soul.
The Christian concept of God as Creator bringing everything into existence out of pure goodness implies the goodness of the universe and that evil is not God’s handiwork but the result of an original catastrophe in which free beings rejected God’s plan and “twisted the straight line”.
The Christian concept of God as both Creator and Logos ultimately meant that since All has meaning, the material structure of the universe is also rational and this became the turbo-engine of philosophical and scientific research that led to the unexpected birth of modern science in one of the youngest civilizations on the planet.
Western Civilization as built by the Catholic Church is the civilization that subjects every dimension of life – including religion and religions – to the question: “But is it true?”
That is because the Catholic Faith itself had a totally different origin from the rest of the world’s religions: it was not born from the experiences of men like the Buddha or from myths like the Greek and Roman religions but from the utter conviction built upon contact with hard historical facts in the Palestine of the first century that God had intervened definitively in history in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity become man.
The first Christians knew with the knowledge derived from the testimony of the witnesses of the Resurrection, life and miracles of Jesus Christ and by the 2,000 year-old texts of the Jewish prophecies concerning him that their religion was true – the definitive religious truth.
That is why some of the first intellectuals to become Christian – like Justin Martyr – looked on Christianity not as the true religion but as the true philosophy, as the true way to reason about God, man and salvation.
The Church incorporated this primacy of truth into the West which then spread it throughout the planet and which at times may possibly be the “imperialism” that causes not a few Westerners and non-Westerners to fear both the culture and the Church that built it. For truth is certainly intellectually intolerant of non-truth – even if it takes the shape of religion or dictatorship.
In any evaluation of this civilization it is important to stay focused on its ideas and on its superlative citizens (those who honored those ideas by having them as the motives and standards of their actions).
Western Civilization was definitely not a perfect society: fallen man’s nature and the spiritual powers of darkness guarantee that no Christian society – indeed no society – will ever be such. Any human organization sets standards that some or many of its members do not live up to but when the society sets standards at the height of those of the Gospel, it is to be expected that many will falter: their failure does not invalidate the standards or the society.
“It is no disgrace to Christianity”, remarked Chesterton, “it is no disgrace to any great religion, that its counsels of perfection have not made every single person perfect. If after centuries a disparity is still found between its ideal and its followers, it only means that the religion still maintains the ideal, and the followers still need it.” Indeed what type of a mess would have happened if Christian standards had not been around?
A Christian society will always be an imperfect environment built by the brave struggles of Christians to have institutions embodying their religious and moral truths as the scaffolding that supports and enriches both the individual and collective efforts of fallen men in their efforts to be Christlike and therefore to be authentically human.
The society will remain Christian as long as enough of its members remain strong in the Faith. This means that every Christian and every generation of Christians must renew its loyalty to the truths of Christianity not once but many times.
For the Christian recognizes that history is one unending battlefield until Christ’s Second Coming; the victory of a Christian culture and civilization is always precarious; Christ’s provocative question demands unflinching vigilance : “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8). Our vision of history is not the Hegelian one of necessary progress but that of an unending “cold” war in which we can create “Rivendells” of peace only by being sentinels at the frontiers.
And still, even in spite of all our efforts, we know from divine revelation that the “cold” war will give way at some point to a particularly massive onslaught on the Church and her struggle on behalf of man, culminating in a final persecution. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.
The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.
The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.
The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment.
The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of a secular messianism.
The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, nos. 675-677)
Therefore we Catholics – unlike communists, fascists and modern-day democratic demagogues – assert that a perfect society is a Utopia that will never happen before Christ’s Second Coming.
We are, in that sense, a curious combination of bright-eyed idealism and pragmatic realism urgently striving in every generation to either renew a Christian culture already in existence or build again from the rubble.