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Cross of Christ

The coming of Islam seemed to be nothing less than a divine judgement on the Byzantine world for its failure to fulfil its mission. And the cause of that failure was the same as that for which St Ephrem … reproached the Greeks in the fourth century – the unbridled lust for theological controversy which made the most sacred dogmas of the faith slogans of party warfare, sacrificed charity and unity to party spirit

Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (1967)

Dawson was writing about the impact which the rise of Islam made on the Eastern Roman Empire, but his words might apply equally to ourselves. Our wider society, having largely forgotten where its social and economic teachings came from, has all but abandoned any attempt to root them in its Judeo-Christian heritage; what ISIS has done to the temple in Palmyra, our governments have done to our heritage. Rightly we are outraged by ISIS; tens of millions killed in the womb – meh, not so much. The excuses offered are those used by exterminators down the ages, but as our society has no sense of the sacred, it has no sense of outrage – except for those of us who, if we did not keep a check on it, would live in a perpetual sense of outrage. If we want to see what living with man at the centre of our concerns looks like, we only have to look around us.

But have we – Christians, the outraged ones – have we also failed rather in the way Dawson described? I have to confess I have stopped looking at some ‘Catholic sites’ on the Internet because they seem full of bile, hatred and dissent; if one examines the fruits of the Spirit as St Paul lists them, then one looks at these places, and they are, at best, whited sepulchres. People who present themselves as Catholics loyal to the Pope, seem to be accept his authority until they find themselves in disagreement with him. Some say he has been dupted, others think they are the ones being duped; but perhaps they are all feeling threatened because he is asking them to confront their own settled views? This kind of guerilla civil war will only worsen as the Synod on the family approaches. More than half a century of ecumenism has accomplished something for the men and women who attend the meetings and write the reports, but as far as the person in the pews is concerned, it is all noises off, signifiying nothing. Smaller and smaller congregations in most places in Europe are not counter-balanced by larger ones in a few places. The most popular boy’s name in London by registration of births is ‘Mohammed’. The maths  of the future is pretty easy. There are those who would see in all of this a divine judgement on us for not practising the Catholicism of the Middle Ages – I invite any such to reread the Dawson quotation.

Neo recently reminded me of a post by Jessica on the failure of the negotiations at the Council of Florence in the early fifteenth century. The Catholics and the Orthodox both thought they were right – the latter passed into Ottoman slavery for half a millennium, the former had to watch the splintering of Western Christendom within a century, and the slow decline of Christianity in Europe for the next five centuries. Some of their descendants fight that battle still, and console themselves with fantasies about remnants of the pure and holy – as the judgement proceeds. It may be that God is judging us for not having the priest facing east, or for putting the filioque into the Creed, but I suspect Dawson is right, he’s judging us for the way we sacrifice charity and love for party spirit. What ails us is the fruit of what we do and the way we do it, and even more so, what we do not do. The judgement is brought on by our actions, we visit it on ourselves.

If we are looking for a judgement, perhaps it is already happening. God offered us the example of self-sacrificial love, and we prefer to pass judgement on other sinners. Is this because we feel ourselves without sin, or is it because it is easier to condemn others than to deal with our own sins? The constant cries that ‘if the church changes x then …’ show a willingness to place our own judgement over that of those authorised to speak for the Church. There are even those who declare that should the Church change this or that teaching, it cease to be the Church. Those I invite to read Dawson’s whole book and reflect on where a millennium and a half of such attitudes have taken us because, for sure, a continuation of them will take us further along that road.

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