The Catholic Encompasses Western History

One reason why I’m grateful to be a Catholic is for the comprehensive way that Catholic identity encompasses the history of what we might call the Western world.

The first Christians lived in a context that was governed by systems of Roman administration, in which the universal language and the literary exemplars were Greek. Their heritage and their Scripture was Jewish, a Semitic people whose stories and traditions and thinking had been profoundly affected by the empires of the ancient world, such as the Persians, Assyrians, Babylonians. Deep in our roots, these things are familiar, and we are at home with them.

In the Church’s first centuries, Greek philosophy and literature grew to be more and more influenced by and intertwined with the growing Christian faith, until eventually they became one. Likewise, Roman society and government developed ever more points of contact with the Christian faith, until they became almost a single system that included both religious and temporal rulers.

We can think of the intellectual and cultural developments of the Middle Ages, of the West’s benefitting from and clashing against Islamic civilization, and similarly benefitting from and clashing against Eastern Christian traditions. We can call to mind the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, even the Protestant Reformation. These were all Catholic things, and while subsequent intra-Protestant developments are alien to the Catholic mind, the Reformation itself cannot be well understood, even by Protestants, without a knowledge of the Catholic backdrop of the story and indeed, of the Catholic currents of thought that informed and propelled the Reformers themselves.

Even the contemporary moment is a Catholic moment, although it can be more difficult to recognize it as such. The political institutions we possess, and the moral intuitions that we often invoke to justify them, have largely grown out of Medieval and Renaissance Europe; likewise the tradition of natural science, our artistic and philosophical context, our views of family and work and leisure. “Secularism” takes its name from a Catholic distinction between the rulers who have power in the present age as opposed to those whose first concern is for the eternal destiny of souls. Atheism in its many forms cannot help being derived from a reaction against Catholicism (or one of the offshoots of Catholicism), a reaction which itself speaks with the language of ancient Catholic mystical teachings about the darkness and absence of God.

To build on an oft-quoted remark of St Newman, we could perhaps say that the opposite is also nearly true — that to look at the history of the West (even in all its disfigurements and imperfection) with love, appreciation, sympathy, understanding, solidarity, admiration, rather than with hostility and contempt and alienation, is to be drawn inexorably toward thinking and living like a Catholic.

The person who loves Western history (not necessarily with a blind love, remember) does explicitly and externally what the Catholic does implicitly and internally. The external observer who can’t understand why either does so, may well be justified in such incomprehension. It is often unclear to us, even as its call is impossible to ignore.

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