Despite the near collapse of Christianity and the great defections the Catholic Church has suffered, some still believe, with John Henry Cardinal Newman, that "the Church that made Europe may yet save Europe, and that, in the great words of the Easter liturgy: 'the whole world may experience and see what was fallen raised up, what had grown old made new.'" One of those who so believed was Christopher Dawson.
The ideas British historian Christopher Dawson expressed on the religion and culture some 70 years ago are in many ways even more important at the threshold of the year 2000 than they were in the 1930's. At that time Europe was facing the false gods of communism and fascism and the threatened disintegration of Christian morality.
Today we are worshipping gods of relativism and hedonism in a culture where Christian morality has been almost entirely excluded from public life. Dawson, wrote in 1938 that: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture."
The awareness that Christian culture has been replaced by harmful and meretricious substitutes dominates much of present Catholic thinking. This sense of loss is a constant note in the teaching of John Paul II, most emphatically in his calls for us to reject the culture of death and choose the culture of life.
On all sides we now see desperate attempts by Catholics to re-discover values once publicly held and encouraged in the Western world. In the newly independent state of Georgia in Russia a few weeks ago, John Paul pointedly appealed to the common Christian beliefs that country and Europe once shared.
Almost at the same time, the bishops at the European synod were pleading for a new evangelization of the baptized, for a return to Christian principles ignored or totally forgotten.
Essentially, such appeals echo the thinking and writing of Christopher Dawson. In a series of books and essays he described the Christian ideals that guided Europe for nearly a thousand years, the religious disunity brought on by the Reformation, and the destructive forces subsequently unleashed, such as nationalism and materialism.
One of the keys to Dawson's thinking in "Christianity and the Soul of Europe" is his concern with the "two poles of the spiritual order," the two, sometimes seemingly paradoxical directions in which the Church must move in the world. She must worship the Godhead, must be guided by the transcendent; but she must also enter into the world, "go forth and baptize," must seek to transform the world.
Dawson says that history shows that concentrating on one principle to the exclusion of the other leads inevitably to sterility or impiety. He points to the Renaissance as an example of the Church compromising the "Christian principle of transcendence by the immersion of the spiritual in the temporal order."
But for the Church to withdraw from the world can also open a culture to "complete social materialism." The struggle to bring "an unchanging spiritual order" into the world is unending. And it can only succeed when Christians maintain their world-denying principles and transcend the false appeals of materialism and individualism, whether in 1932 or 2032.
Robert Moynihan, Editor, Inside the Vatican magazine
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Section Contents Copyright © Mark Alder and named authors 1999-2000