Laicity, Christianity, the West: an Historical Profile (Part 1)

An Address by Archbishop Crepaldi

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Here is the first of three parts of an address given last week by Archbishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, former secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and archbishop of Trieste, Italy.

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The paradox of the West

The relationship of the Christian faith with the West, but more specifically the Catholic faith, is essential in nature. By that I do not intend to argue that there is a sort of identity between the West and Christianity, or that Christianity is a category of the western mentality, or that Christianity can be such only within the West in a geographical, historical or cultural sense. Such a banal pretence could be all too easily rebutted in an equally banal way by remarking that Christianity saw the light of day in the eastern Mediterranean and has spread throughout the world. In other words, the ‘western’ relationship was not a contingency in the history of Christianity. Emerging in the relationship with the West have been characteristics Christianity cannot separate itself from without ceasing to exist, but from which it has historically taken its distance precisely in the West. Thus issuing forth is the problematic and paradoxical character of the West. On one hand, Christianity’s encounter with the West was “providential”[1], helped mould and shape western civilization, and in certain periods of history – especially in the XII and XIII centuries – projected a Christian civilization[2] with particularly creative expressions. On the other hand, however, developing in the West has been a process of secularisation that progressively tends to exhaust Christianity in its ability to ‘produce’ civilization. Developing for the first time only in the western world has been “a culture that constitutes the absolutely most radical contradiction not only of Christianity, but of the religious and moral traditions of society” [3]. Hence the profound ambiguity of the category of “west” as regards Christianity itself. The “resilience” and the resistance” of Christianity are faced with a decisive ‘test bench’ in the West.

Catholic dogma and the West

Often given is a rather reductive interpretation of Catholicism’s impact on western civilization in the sense of being looked upon as influence and nothing more. That is tantamount to saying that Catholicism influenced western civilization with its works charity, art, literature, religion driven social networks, the coronation of kings and the like. All this is true, but Catholicism’s profound relationship with the west concerns dogmas and is the expression of the historicity of dogmas. This expression – historicity of dogmas – does not mean dogmas evolve historically in a manner parallel with self-awareness believers have of them. This would be the modernist vision of the issue. What the expression actually means is that a dogma has an historical and real content, and may not be relegated to the realm of myth. Dogmas nourish the Church and the Church is the Body of Christ in history, a Body remaining for eternity[4]. Between dogma and Body there is an indivisible unity, such that a dogma is present not only in a believer’s conscience, but by its very nature becomes history, and therefore civilization. This is the realism of the Catholic faith.

The Church has moulded western Christian civilization with its dogmas defined in its dogmatic Councils. Nowadays there is a widespread underrating of doctrine in the life of the Church and an emphasis on pastoral praxis, which runs the risk of thrusting this important aspect into the background. I’d like to offer two examples in this regard. The first of them has to do with Gnosis. The condemnation of Arianism and the definition of the human and divine nature of Jesus contradicted Gnosis, which was an expression of Hellenic rationalism. This entailed a lengthy process, which involved both Councils and the work of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church. This ‘match’ has yet to be won since alongside the Gnosis of the early centuries of Christianity there is an “eternal Gnosis”, but the battle of Christian dogma against Gnosis preserved human civilization from the catastrophes of Catharism, the simultaneous refusal and exaltation of matter, the destruction of matrimony and the family, and the refusal of political authority. It produced fruits of civilization in the form of the just consideration of evil and suffering, and defended against nihilism. The defence of the Old Testament against the Gnostic onslaught made it possible to preserve the positive vision of creation and the historical social dimension of the Christian faith. The baptism of children, prayers for the dead, priestly celibacy and the worship of images: what benefits brought by these elements to western civilization, and all of them would have been lost forever by a possible prevalence of Gnosis. What damage would have been caused by pauperism, pacifism, Gnostic-type radical purism if they had been able to spread without restraint! When commenting on the battle of Muret on 13 September 1213, when Simone de Montfort, after having attended Mass celebrated by St. Dominic, led 1,000 men in a rout of the Aragonese army supporting the Albigensians with 40,000 men, Jean Guitton said: “Muret is one of those decisive battles where the destiny of a civilization was decided. Strangely enough, most historians overlook this fact”[5].

The second example concerns Pious IX and the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Jesus. The definition of this dogma issued forth from a theological reading of the events of the liberal revolution. According to Pious IX all the contemporary errors stemmed from the negation of original sin, and hence the irreconcilability between God and sin. The aim of life had to be the progress of man and the world; modern man had to become autonomous and self-sufficient, liberating himself from the tutelage of the Church; religion was only useful for purposes of civil progress and had to be subordinate to it. Once original sin was denied, however, there was no place for Christ, the Church and for grace.

In the face of such a vision of things Pious IX wanted to reiterate the irreconcilability between God and the sin of the world, as well as the fact that the ultimate aim of the world and history is not the celebration of human progress, but the glory of God. And he did this by proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, “glorious victor over heresies”.

The violent events Pious IX had to witness were part of a plan to emancipate the natural order from the supernatural order. He was of the opinion that it was not possible to come to terms with this plan, that it could not be “Catholicised”. Hence the genesis of the Encyclical Letter Quanta cura and the Sillabo, which are not to be separated from the profound theological significance of the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but, together with Vatican Council I, seen as Pious IX’s response to modern sin. Not by chance was 8 December an important date for all of them: the proclamation of the dogma on that date in 1854, the Quanta cura and the Sillabo in 1864, and the opening of Vatican Council I in 1869[6].

The construction of western civilization took place with dogmas. Dogma was the principle wellspring for countering the apostasy of the West from Christianity. And this because that apostasy had also become dogmatic.


[1] This expression is used often by Joseph Ratzinger lo indicate the encounter of the Christian faith with Greek philosophy, and we can also use it in the broader sense of encounter with the West. Cf for example: J. Ratzinger, Fede Verità Tolleranza. Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo, Cantagalli, Siena 2003, p. 98.

[2] Fundamental references are the works of Christopher Dawson: La formazione della civiltà occidentale, D’Ettoris editori, Crotone 2011; Id., La divisione della Cristianità occidentale, D’Ettoris editori, Crotone 2009.

[3]J. Ratzinger, L’Europa di Benedetto nella crisi delle culture, Cantagalli, Siena 2005, p. 37.

[4]J. Ratzinger,Fede Verità Tolleranza. Il cristianesimo e le religioni del mondo cit., p. 74.

[5]J. Guitton, Il Cristo dilacerato. Crisi e concili nella storia, Cantagalli, Siena 2002, p. 166.

[6] Cf R. de Mattei, Pio IX e la rivoluzione italiana, Cantagalli, Siena 2012.