Pro Vita, pro Ecclesia Dei et pro Hibernia – A journal of conservative Catholic opinion from Ireland
CHRISTOPHER DAWSON ON EUROPE’S INHERITANCE
By Father Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
For to him who has, more will be given; and from him who has not, even what little he has will be taken away.— (Mark 4:25)
THE THOUGHT CENTRAL to these lines could, I suspect, seem a bit unfair if taken out of context. The Marxist critic, for instance, might well take them as a sardonic comment on the way in which capitalism works: “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”
There is a profound echo of the real meaning of these lines to be found in the thought of Christopher Dawson. They pertain to his recurrent concern with the relations between religion and culture. Throughout the collection of his essays that is called The Dynamics of World History,1 for instance, we find him arguing for his signature thesis, that religion is not just an epiphenomenon of culture but rather an
indispensable force in the creation and the transformation of culture. With this in mind, we can view the quantities mentioned in the lines as referring not to our economic capital but to our spiritual capital, not to our funds but to our faith. To the one living by faith already, yet more faith—and the things that follow from faith—will be given; and from who does not have faith, even what he has will be taken away.
Again and again in the writings of Christopher Dawson we find comment on the need to understand the course of the past if we are to gain reliable guidance for the future. Important as doing history as politics or history as economics might be, Dawson recognizes these as but partial truths. He warns against trying to take them as comprehensive accounts. In his judgment, the prism through which one should look
at history is the prism of culture.
Accordingly, in the first nine chapters of his classic volume Understanding Europe, he recount the nature of Europe in terms of the history of culture, and on that basis he builds the four chapters of the second half, entitled “The Present Crisis of Western Culture.” They rise to a peak in a chapter entitled “The Problem of the Future: Total Secularization or a Return to Christian Culture?” Tempting as it would be to make some immediate application to America, I think that it will probably be better to let Dawson speak for himself, and the implications for us in America—in terms of the history of culture, perhaps we should be seen as “Europe transplanted”—will then be obvious.
First published in 1952, Understanding Europe is amazingly prescient. It was written just after the enormous sacrifices of the Second World War. For anyone of that time, the most prominent of the dangers perceived to be threatening just then would have been those—real enough!—posed by the Cold War. Dawson, however, understood the most worrisome danger to be the likelihood of Europe’s destruction. He saw this prospect as stemming from an infidelity to her past—an infidelity to her cultural and spiritual roots. As he grasped the matter, Europe was not so much a political entity as a cultural community of people “who share the same faith and the same moral values.” From one who does not have that faith, the common moral values that are produced by that faith (presumably these are at least a part of the “more will be given” to those who do have faith) would not long endure (“even what he has will be taken away”).
For Dawson, the spiritual crisis that is involved in a loss of faith produces in turn a cultural crisis—a loss of confidence in the goodness of the culture that has been built up, and even a loss of faith in the very power of reason. To quote from his opening chapter:
This…breach with the old European Christian tradition is a much more serious thing than any political or economic revolution, for it means not only the dethronement of the moral conscience but also the abdication of the rational consciousness which is inseparably bound up with it. It is indeed doubtful if Western society can survive the change, for it is not a return to the past or to the roots of our social life. It is too radical for that. Instead of going downstairs step by step, neo-paganism jumps out of the top-storey window, and whether one jumps out of the right-hand window or the left makes very little difference by the time one reaches the pavement. 2
Whether one calls it neo-paganism (Dawson’s descriptive term) or radical secularization (more common as a designation for this phenomenon
today), the problem is obvious. In the history of papal encyclicals from Dawson’s day to our own one can readily recognize a similar sense of urgency. Among the recurrent themes is a deep concern about the loss of civility and of rationality in current culture. It is a central topic, for instance, in Pope Benedict’s recent address to the German Bundestag, and before that his Regensburg Address, as it was in Pope John Paul II’s efforts to defend not only faith but even reason in Fides et Ratio.3
Synthesis of faith and reason
In my judgment, this theme of faith as giving illumination and protective guidance to reason is one of the paired strands in a sturdy double helix (along with the principles of Catholic social teaching) in the long and inter-locking series of papal encyclicals of the modern period, stretching from Pope Leo XIII to the present.4 In 1879, at the start of his pontificate, Pope Leo XIII gave us the encyclical Aeterni Patris, the
summons to return to the study of St. Thomas Aquinas for a renewed appreciation of his synthesis of faith and reason. In the years that followed he offered a dozen encyclicals, beginning with the rightly famous Rerum Novarum, on Catholic social teaching. Subsequent popes followed his lead in writing about both strands of thought. Sometimes these papal letters are taken in isolation, but in light of Dawson’s
directives about studying history and culture, we do well to consider them together. The faith that forms and transforms culture does so by reminding reason of its own dignity and its own duties in the building up of the proper kinds of society and moral vision.
The papal encyclicals on Catholic social teaching in the last hundred years are, to be sure, only the latest instalment of a two thousand year tradition of teaching in this area. Throughout those two millennia we regularly find three important areas of concern: the political, the economic, and the cultural (including marriage and family). In any given situation, one of these three areas may be given more prominence than another, but it is only at one’s peril that any of them will ever be ignored. What is more, they are only properly understood when there is a robust sense of the relation of faith and reason as at their roots. The degree to which they are realized in a given land or era will depend on the vivacity of religion in actually forming and animating a given culture.
Need to repair the damage to reason
It is thus no surprise to find the cultural component of Catholic social teaching holding as prominent a place in the encyclicals of the modern papacy as the economic and political themes during Dawson’s day as well as in our own. Pope Pius XI, for instance, made the connection when he defended the indissolubility of marriage in the 1930 Casti Connubii and then turned to the Church’s teaching on the economic and political in Quadragesimo Anno of 1931. The saintly Pope Pius X had contributed to the body of teachings on faith and reason with his 1907 encyclicals
Lamentabili and Pascendi. Without trying to recite the names and dates of the many papal writings here, let me summarize the point thus: A longitudinal study of papal encyclicals in the modern era clearly reveals a strong sense of the need to repair the damage done to reason and to culture as a task that is crucial to the proper service of God and religion.
In the same volume on Understanding Europe Dawson offers his own analysis of the some of the historical forces at play here:
There has been the separation between religion and culture, which arose partly from the bitterness of the internal divisions of Christendom and partly from a fear lest the transcendent values of Christianity should be endangered by any identification or association of them with the relative human values of culture. Both of these factors have long been at work, long before our civilization was actually secularized. They had their origins in the Reformation period, and it was Martin Luther in particular who stated the theological dualism of faith and works in such a drastic form as to leave no room for any positive conception of a Christian culture, such as had hitherto been taken for granted.5
When there is division within Christianity, her opponents are generally quick to take advantage.
We can easily see this in the crises that mark our own day. The sadly long-standing divisions within the Christian fold has allowed the whole series of tragic ruptures in the intellectual and moral order to occur: the legal toleration and even the promotion of relatively easy divorce, the shift from reluctant approval of contraception to its almost universal acceptance as a required part of health care, the global promotion of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, same-sex marriage. The intellectual justification for moral aberrations can be traced to the distortions in understanding reason itself, whether in the form of failures of nerve like skepticism and nihilism or in deviations and displaced emphasis like relativism and utilitarianism. When Christianity is fragmented by internal division, as its has been during the period that Dawson described in Understanding Europe, the centrifugal forces of reason have spun off in many directions, and social unity has been the poorer. Those who do not have faith will lose what will they have of what faith brought them in the past.
Privatization of religion
If the drumbeat of these topics did not already deafen our ears with such an infernal din, we could go on. But that drumbeat is all too loud and clear. Let us return instead to the second item in the passage just quoted from Dawson. After noting that part of the explanation resides in the bitterness of the internal divisions of Christendom, he explains that the danger also arises in part “from a fear lest the transcendent values of Christianity should be endangered by any identification or association of them with the relative human values of culture.”
If I read Dawson aright here, it will not do to think that we can preserve ourselves and our faith in an isolated bunker, or a Catholic ghetto, or a mountain top monastery. There are hermits out there, and thankfully they are praying for us with a fervor that even those on the battlefronts within our culture rarely match. But it is precisely the privatization of religion to which the forces of secularization have in recent years been tempting us with their preferred version of the doctrine of the division of Church and State. The powers of this world would love to see us abandon the battle and head for the hills.
In the light of such passages from the Gospel as the one with which this essay began, and in the light of Dawsonian wisdom on the relation of religion and culture, we Christians need to pray and work and sacrifice together in defense of religious liberty and the legal protection of moral conscience. Let me close with some words from Dawson on this point:
A society cannot continue to live indefinitely on the traditions of a vanished social order. In some respects the techniques of modern mass civilization are more advanced in America than they are in Europe, and they are bound to exert a growing influence on politics unless they are controlled by some positive spiritual force and guide by positive rational principles. In the past American society derived this force from the religious idealism of sectarian Protestantism, and its principles from the eighteenth-century ideology of Natural Rights and rational Enlightenment. But today both these forces have lost their power. American religion has lost its supernatural faith and American philosophy has lost its rational certitude. What survives is a vague moral idealism and a vague rational optimism, neither of which is strong enough to stand against the inhuman and irrational forces of destruction that have been let loose in the modern world.—Understanding Europe (2009), p. 147.
“For to him who has, more will be given; and from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Let us pray for deeper faith and for the zeal needed to live it and let it reform our culture.
Father Joseph Koterski SJ is Associate Professor of Philosophy in Fordham University, New York.
For your diaries: Father Koterski will be one of a number of speakers to address a symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of The Brandsma Review. The event will take place in Dublin on Monday, 16 July. Further details will follow in the next issue. All our readers are welcome.
1 Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History (Sherwood Sugden, 1978).
2 Christopher Dawson, Understanding Europe, Washington, D.C. The Catholic University of America Press, 2009 , p. 16.
3 Pope Benedict XVI, “The Listening Heart: Reflections on the Foundations of Law,” Address to the Bundestag, Berlin, Germany, on September 22, 2011, available at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2011/september/document/hf_benxvi_spe_20110922_reichstag-berlin_en.html. Pope Benedict XVI, “Faith, Reason, and the University,” Address in the Aula Magna of the University of Regensburg on September 12, 2006, available at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeche/2006/September/documents/ hf_benxvi_ spe_20060912_university-regensburg_en.html.
4. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, Encyclical Letter of September 14, 1998, available at: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/
5 Understanding Europe (2009) , pp. 8-9.
In the same issue:
Apostolic Visitation Report—Awaiting the Outcome?;
The Five Pillars of Islam and Us
CHRISTOPHER DAWSON ON EUROPE’S INHERITANCE
Rev Professor Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
CARDINAL COUNT’S GRAMMAR EXERCISES
ORTHODOXY—OPTIONAL NOW, TOMORROW PROSCRIBED
ANTI-CATHOLICISM AND THE NATIONAL QUESTION
A MULTI-LAYERED TREATMENT OF CREATION, EVOLUTION AND THE HUMAN PERSON
Dr Joseph McCarroll
SERMON FOR THE ANNUNCIATION
Rev Brendan Purcell
Letters from Eric Conway and James & Anne Maher; Straws for the Camel’s Back including: ‘The Oh-So-Democratic Liberal Clerisy’, ‘Beastly Popes’, ‘Catholic Jehovah’s Witnesses’, ‘Revealed! “Imposter” Sister Lucia’, ‘Ex-Termination a Simple Issue’, ‘Sickening Irreverence’, ‘Telling it Like It Is’, ‘Masculine Women’, ‘The Truth as Lived’, ‘Look at Me, Lord’, ‘Those Brave Lefties’, ‘Pill Rebukes Cardinal’, and ‘Lighten their Darkness’; More HurlingShots from the Ditch; and another list of Francis Book Sales.