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Europe, Christendom, and the Faith

Hilaire Belloc is famous, and in some quarters infamous, for the statement, in his book Europe and the Faith, that “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith.”[1]

Of course Belloc, like any intelligent man, knew well that this statement was not literally true, at least not in any statistical sense.  That is, there were millions of Catholics outside Europe, and millions of non-Catholics within Europe.  This is even more the case today than when Belloc wrote.  But there is a sense in which this statement is true, for Europe is that place in which, under God’s providence, the Faith was given both time and space to develop itself intellectually and culturally, to form Christendom, the outward and visible sign of God’s internal and invisible work in human souls.  Although originally the Church’s cultural orbit had included parts of both Africa and Asia, and many important early Fathers and other theologians were north African or Middle Eastern, after the Muhammadan invasions these areas were to some degree cut off from contact with the rest of the Catholic world—and, in the case of Latin north Africa, the Church dwindled away into nothingness.  Thus Europe was left as the only place where, although amid difficulties certainly, Catholic life could develop in a more or less natural or proper manner.  In this way it is true to say that the Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith, since it was only there that Catholic social and cultural life had the chance to attain to any degree of maturity, and in turn, this gave to the European continent a cultural unity it otherwise would probably have lacked.

Such an outward social and cultural manifestation of Catholic faith has always been characteristic of the Church.  Except in cases of persecution, it is normal for a Catholic social order to arise, and we take for granted the immense number of intellectual, literary, artistic, musical, architectural, and other expressions of Catholic faith that were produced within Christendom.  But there is one additional and almost always necessary element in this outward expression of the Faith.  That is the political aspect.  Ever since the Emperor Constantine’s initial recognition of the Church through the Edict of Milan, the Catholic Church has enjoyed a complex relationship with the various political powers of this world.  Before Constantine, of course, the Church was generally an object of persecution by the Roman government.

But after Constantine all this changed.  Now the government became, in a sense, the patron and protector of the Church.  That this patronage had a negative side, no one can deny.  But that in general it was the providentially appointed means for protecting the Church and allowing a Christian civilization to develop also seems to me beyond denial.  Because of this complex relationship with the powers of the world, a relationship often both positive and negative at the same time, it can be perplexing to evaluate any particular instance of this relationship, and thus it seems to me that we should be careful about either condemning it wholesale, or on the other hand, failing to acknowledge or downplaying its negative aspects.

In evaluating the pros and cons of the political patronage that various rulers have bestowed on the Church over the centuries, we should remember that without such patronage only rarely would Catholic cultures have been able to develop.  I will address the contemporary situation below; but speaking of the past, up to a few hundred years ago, the military or political triumph of an anti-Catholic power usually brought with it persecution of the Church, the destruction of any outward manifestations of Catholic life, and often even the slow death of the Faith on the part of individuals in their private lives.

Tertullian’s dictum, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, has certainly proven true at times, but it can hardly be regarded as an axiom to be applied uncritically to all times and places.  In the lands conquered by Moslems or in those parts of Europe that embraced Protestantism, the Church was subjected to varying degrees and kinds of persecution, and in some cases the Catholic body was reduced to nothingness.  All this is simply to point out that, whatever harm state protection and patronage of the Church has brought with it, it also provided needed space for the Church and Catholic life to exist and develop.  The sad state of the Church in Catholic Europe is often taken as proof that ultimately such official protection does more harm than good, but when we compare Latin Europe today with such once-Catholic lands as Scandinavia or Asia Minor, we might conclude that more than one opinion is possible.

In Christian Europe there existed a succession of political powers that provided this patronage even into the 19th century, albeit less consistently as the centuries progressed:  the Roman Empire in both east and west; Charlemagne’s Frankish empire; during the Middle Ages most European kingdoms; thereafter Habsburg Spain together with the Holy Roman Empire; and lastly France.  During this time, of course, large sections of Europe were lost to the Church in the Protestant revolt, about the same time as there began a Catholic expansion into the New World and into parts of Asia and Africa.  Necessarily Catholic life in these regions was derivative of European Catholic life.  In one region, though, there was enough time and resources to permit the creation of a genuinely new province of Christendom.  This was Latin America, where a Baroque Catholic culture was created, in its main lines certainly a European transplant, but in a new environment and among new peoples.  As Christopher Dawson wrote:

Nowhere are the vitality and fecundity of the Baroque culture better displayed than in Mexico and South America, where there was a rich flowering of regional types of art and architecture, some of which show considerable indigenous Indian influence.  This power of Baroque culture to assimilate alien influences is one of its characteristic features, and distinguishes it sharply from the culture and artistic style of the Anglo-American area.[2]

This assimilating power of the Spanish Baroque was so great that, as one scholar put it with reference to music:

It is very difficult in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador to separate the musical elements of Indian origin from those of the European tradition….  The elements of the two cultures combined to form inseparable units.[3]

But although Latin America did offer fresh space for Catholic cultural development, it, like all the newly-discovered or colonized lands, continued to depend upon Europe both politically and intellectually.

In Europe, as I noted, important and increasingly powerful states had already loosed themselves from Catholic unity.  Protestant England together with Holland and for a time Sweden became the chief loci within Europe aiming at the destruction of Catholic civilization.  These became not only political and military rivals to Catholic powers, but erected an alternative model of Western cultural life, a model which has exerted a powerful intellectual appeal on many.

Subsequently the United States became the foundation of this Protestant culture worldwide.  Speaking of this, Belloc wrote, “The strength of the Protestant culture now lies out of Europe, in the United States.”[4]  These various Protestant powers worked by seizing bits of Catholic territory all around the world, by sending out Protestant missionaries into Latin America and other Catholic lands where they have contributed to the destruction of Catholic faith and culture, but perhaps most importantly by offering an alternative model of Western culture that appeals strongly to modern materialist man.  The increasing industrial might and wealth of this model offered a kind of spurious argument in its favor, an argument summarized by Belloc as follows:

The Catholic Church is false because nations of Catholic culture have declined steadily in temporal wealth and power as compared with the nations of an anti-Catholic culture, which, in this particular instance, means the Protestant culture.[5

Although today neither Great Britain nor the United States as nations has any interest in Protestant theology, both of them continue to reflexively oppose Catholic interests, or any remnants of Catholic culture existing in the world today.  In fact, part of the anti-Hispanic feeling that animates so many Anglo-Americans, even Catholics, has its roots in this feeling of the cultural superiority of Protestant civilization.

Although in general Protestant civilization still exists as a power supporting (I do not say Protestantism as a religion, but Protestant culture), today there is no Catholic power.  In fact, with the partial and weak exception of a few Latin American nations,[6] the Church and Catholic culture have no true political props today.  In the late 19th century Pope Leo XIII and other far-sighted Catholic thinkers saw that the Church could no longer depend for her external support upon Catholic princes.  In both the political and the cultural realms it was now the mass of the Catholic people, more and more living in democratic regimes and possessing some voice in their governments, who would be the external support for the Church, if anyone would be.  And at first this new arrangement seemed to work tolerably well.  The last third of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries was one of the most brilliant periods in Catholic thought and letters, in philosophy, in the efforts of popes from Pius X to Pius XII to realize the liturgy’s potential as a school for Christian living.  Despite the interruptions of two world wars, Catholic thought exerted an influence on politics in more than one country; a number of official or unofficial Catholic political parties existed; and some few regimes were more or less consciously devoted to carrying out a Catholic program in their public policy, while even in Protestant countries popular Catholic life flourished in a great variety of associations and institutions, and Catholics exercised sometimes considerable influence on the political process.

Unfortunately, in the second half of the 20th century the Church deliberately, if uncomprehendingly, inflicted a grave wound on herself.  Although apart from a few ambiguities the conciliar documents themselves are unproblematic, it does not seem to admit of reasonable disagreement that the conduct of the Second Vatican Council, and much more its aftermath and application, by and large have been a disaster for the Church, a disaster at once pastoral, intellectual and institutional.  As a result of this disaster the popular Catholic life that had existed was in large part destroyed.  Although Catholic culture is much broader than simply the reception of the sacraments and catechesis, it depends upon such formal elements of Catholic life. Without them it cannot last.

It is thus hard to envisage any ready way out of our present situation, since both the formal and the popular sides of Catholic life have been affected.  So how can we respond to that situation, in which the Church neither enjoys the patronage of any powerful government nor commands widespread enthusiasm and loyalty on the part of the Catholic people at-large?  In such circumstances how can the Church and Catholic life be maintained, nourished, and extended?

Sadly, the measures that can be suggested to achieve this end seem woefully inadequate.  Attention to a beautiful and historically rooted liturgy, deliberate cultivation of a consciousness of the Catholic intellectual tradition, including am emphatic stress on the Church’s social teaching, new or restored Catholic schools at all levels, constant popular education through the media—these seem to me to be the chief means that are possible and that have some hope of success.  None of them is easy to establish and of those that have been initiated many are already more than tainted by alien influences: e.g., in the United States, by fatal compromises with the worldview of classical liberalism on the part of uncomprehending Catholics unable to distinguish between a Catholic view of the social order and that of classical liberalism, simply because the latter seems to be at odds with the trajectory of more recent and obviously harmful liberalism.  That both forms of liberalism are rooted in the same errors is seemingly impossible for many to grasp.

I am not hopeful for the immediate future.  About the long term there is no doubt and there should be no fear, for it is Jesus Christ who is head of the Church, his Mystical Body.  How long this long term may be is hardly our concern—short or long it is not in our hands.  Meanwhile, success should not the norm of our activity, but simply faithfulness: faithfulness to the mandate given to the Church by her Founder to go out into the world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.


[1].  (Rockford : TAN, [1920] 1992) p. 2.

     [2].  The Dividing of Christendom (Garden City : Image, 1967), p. 162.

     [3].  Bruno Nettl, Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice-Hall, 2d ed. 1973) p. 191.

     [4].  “The Two Cultures of the West,” in Essays of a Catholic (Rockford : TAN, [1931] 1992), p. 244.

     [5].  Survivals and New Arrivals (London : Sheed & Ward, 1939), p. 80.

     [6].  When Argentina observed March 25 as the Day of the Unborn Child for the first time, to symbolize its rejection of abortion, her President, Carlos Menem, wrote to the heads of state of all the Latin American countries, and of Spain, Portugal and the Philippines, inviting them to join in this observance.  He noted that “the common historical roots of our nations bind us together not only on matters of language but also in an understanding of man and society based on the fundamental dignity of the human person” (Catholic World News feature, 3/25/1999).  This is an echo of the Hispanic world’s former status as the geopolitical bulwark of Catholicism.


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  • Thaddeus J. Kozinski

    Take that John zmirak

  • Brennan

    Great article. Unfortunately the establishment of any type of Catholic culture, or recognition that it is even important, is quite often fought tooth and nail in local parishes and in the Church at large.

    Thus there is literally no sense that one is actually participating in “historically rooted Catholicism” in the liturgy, music, art, or architecture in most American parishes.

  • RoamingCatholic

    You seem to be presuming some of your premises to be more broadly self-evident than they are, particularly in regards to the intrinsic goodness of not only protection but outright endorsement (dare I say enforcement) of the authority of the Church by that of the State. Having said that, I think you may have provided my answer to your conundrum yourself in your final sentence. Catholics in this post-Christendom era, and especially in the United States, have struggled to find their voice and identity in a dauntingly pluralistic public square. But I believe the Church’s loss of social and political leverage is best taken not as a tragedy but as an opportunity – the opportunity to shift our focus from success as measured by worldly power to faithfulness to the gospel, especially as the former can so easily detract from the latter, however good our initial intentions may be.

    • Thomas Storck

      My argument here was that if we look at history it’s undeniable that without civil protection Catholic life could hardly have flourished and created a Christian civilization.

      You’re perhaps aware that such an arrangement of state protection has been endorsed by numerous popes, and that the Church’s current stance toward this idea is by no means as negative as is often assumed. E.g, ` The duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially. This is “the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” By constantly evangelizing men, the Church works toward enabling them “to infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [they] live.” The social duty of Christians is to respect and awaken in each man the love of the true and the good. It requires them to make known the worship of the one true religion which subsists in the Catholic and apostolic Church. Christians are called to be the light of the world. Thus, the Church shows forth the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies.’ Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2105.

      The political order is not something alien to Christ’s redeeming work, and historically the way that “the kingship of Christ over all creation and in particular over human societies” was manifested was via the establishment of regimes which explicitly gave recognition and honor to God and the true religion.

      Certainly we have to face up to and live with the situation we’re in today, but when you write that we now have ” the opportunity to shift our focus from success as measured by worldly power to faithfulness to the gospel,” you seem to be implying that our fathers in the Faith, saints, doctors of the Church, etc., were more focused on “worldly power” than “faithfulness to the gospel.” This seems to me a problematic position for a Catholic to take. They seem to me to have shown at least as much faithfulness and even heroism in living out the Faith than we do today.

      • RoamingCatholic

        My question, though, is what a Christian definition of a flourishing Church really looks like, and whether the *enforcement* of any “Christian civilization” using State power is possible without abandoning the mores that make it Christian in the first place. I love that image of infusing the Christian spirit into our communities – but again, what does that look like? You seem to be presuming that this is equivalent to, or at least automatically aided by, some kind of civic endorsement/enforcement of Christian faith (please correct me if I’m mistaken here), but I have serious doubts about this. I’m not denying that this premise is in a certain sense classically Catholic, yet the historical track record of Church behavior under State protection doesn’t necessarily support your claim as to its undeniability, and to simply call it undeniable from the outset only begs the question.

        • Thomas Storck

          Roaming Catholic,

          ” You seem to be presuming that this is equivalent to, or at least automatically aided by, some kind of civic endorsement/enforcement of Christian faith… but I have serious doubts about this.”
          If the political order has been in any way redeemed by Christ, then I do think that some sort of governmental recognition of the Faith will follow naturally from the conversion of a people or culture to the Faith. It would be odd, I think, for a people to become Catholic, entirely or almost entirely, and yet conduct their civic affairs without reference to what was most important, i.e., the Catholic faith. This doesn’t mean that I completely endorse any or all historic examples of such Catholic states – all were doubtless flawed in one respect or another. But this is true of human affairs all the time.
          What I said about undeniability was that without political protection Catholic civilization could not have arisen. Do you dispute that? Before the ending of persecution by the Roman state the Church existed to be sure, but popular Catholic life enjoyed a precarious existence, to the extent that it existed at all. And later, under Moslem or Protestant persecution, the Church in some instances was not only driven underground, but ceased to exist entirely, e.g., in Scandanavia.

          • RoamingCatholic

            I suppose what I’m questioning is primarily the idealization of an enforceable “Catholic civilization”.

          • Thomas Storck

            I don’t know that idealize it. I do think it’s been a good on the whole, despite its faults, and that it is characteristic of the Faith and in a way inevitable – except where something blocks it, such as persecution. Every culture and the institutions of that culture reflect the most fundamental beliefs of the those who dwell in it. Remember what John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, #24, “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God. Different cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence.”

          • RoamingCatholic

            I think we are honing in on a couple of key questions here:
            1) Do you see any need to differentiate between a natural cultural reflection of the beliefs of the culture’s inhabitants and a required profession of said beliefs by force of law?
            2) In an American context in which Catholics have represented, at best, one voice among many within a broad left/right liberal consensus that is often at odds with Catholic teaching, how can we best influence the surrounding culture?
            I think this question is crucial, and again, I think you hit on an answer at the end of this post. We do better, in my view, to live as “leaven in the world” as best we can in faithfulness to the gospel, rather than worrying about how much political leverage we have.

          • Brennan

            I don’t think the two can ultimately be separated. The leaven of a society will be expressed politcally; it’s inevitable.

            We have very little political clout precisely because we have not been leaven in our culture or parishes and have allowed our Catholic life to become dessicated in our liturgy, art, architecture, schools, catechesis and intellectual life. Thus we end up becoming absorbed by and expressing the dominant culture along with becoming the state’s lapdog.

          • RoamingCatholic

            Brennan, this statement sounds confused to me. You warn against cultural assimilation and “becoming the state’s lapdog”, and yet you appear to assume that a faithful witness must necessarily translate into political power. Is it even possible to take advantage of the power of the state without becoming its lapdog? History has repeatedly demonstrated, at the very least, the extreme difficulty of this, with profoundly disturbing implications.

          • Brennan

            Yes, it would translate into politics because politics is an outgrowth of culture; they aren’t two completely separate things. The worse a culture gets, the worse its politics will be.

            If Catholicism begins redeeming a culture and transforming it this will naturally be reflected in the country’s politics and laws. If this is not happening, rest assured politics will reflect the prevailing culture in its secularism, individualism, and even anti-Catholicism.

          • RoamingCatholic

            I’m afraid we may be talking past each other a bit. To try and clarify, I am not questioning whether a Catholic witness has political implications, but whether those implications must necessarily result in the Catholic Church having a privileged social status – or even, as you seem to be suggesting, the ability to enforce profession of the faith via the governmental power of the State – and whether that would entail an authentic conversion of society.

          • Brennan

            Hi, I am certainly not suggesting enforcing the profession of the faith on individuals as that is not authentic faith. And even if a State recognized the Catholic faith as true and thus adapted its laws accordingly (as in following the Natural law when crafting legislation, or allowing the teaching of the Faith in schools) this does not require or suggest forced conversions.

            Conversely, I would question any authentic conversion of society to Catholicism if its politics and laws did not reflect this conversion.

  • Thomas Storck


    You asked:

    “1) Do you see any need to differentiate between a natural cultural reflection of the beliefs of the culture’s inhabitants and a required profession of said beliefs by force of law?”

    I think Brennan’s answer here is exactly correct. He wrote, “I don’t think the two can ultimately be separated. The leaven of a society will be expressed politcally; it’s inevitable.”

    The teaching of both Aristotle and St. Thomas was that man requires a political community. St. Thomas even said that had mankind never sinned, this would still have been the case.
    (Summa Theologiae part one, question 96, article 4.) We can’t have a society without a political order, and if the political order pretends to neutrality then in actual fact, it will work against the Church. Moreover, as I said, it would be absurd for Catholics to pretend in their political activity that the Faith was not true or was irrelevant.

    “2) In an American context in which Catholics have represented, at best, one voice among many within a broad left/right liberal consensus that is often at odds with Catholic teaching, how can we best influence the surrounding culture?”
    That’s certainly a hard question, especially at present. But we certainly cannot influence our culture if we ignore or downplay aspects of Catholic teaching that are at odds with the American political tradition. Unfortunately the Church in the U.S. has been doing so for over 100 years, so that today many Catholics don’t even know about those teachings.
    Again, I’d call attention to what Brennan wrote, “We have very little political clout precisely because we have not been leaven in our culture or parishes and have allowed our Catholic life to become dessicated in our liturgy, art, architecture, schools, catechesis and intellectual life. Thus we end up becoming absorbed by and expressing the dominant culture along with becoming the state’s lapdog.” I think that right now we have to concentrate on restoring our sense of Catholic identity, since without that we can’t have any influence anyway. If we can successfully do that, then we will be in a better position to evangelize our nation. And remember, it’s not just to “influence” the culture. We want to, or we should want to, convert the United States and the entire world to the Faith.

    • RoamingCatholic

      I think we are agreed on our desire for the conversion of the world; the fundamental disagreement is on what this requires, or how it is manifest, on a societal level. A legally enforceable faith would represent a superficial conversion at best. This is not at all to say that our faith shouldn’t influence our politics; naturally, we should do all we can to encourage our society’s laws, social systems and mores to conform to the truths we hold about the intrinsic dignity of all human life and its divinely oriented telos. But if such efforts are to make any headway toward authentic conversion, they should be aiming toward a much deeper transformation than a nominal Catholicizing of the state.

      • Thomas Storck

        I think you’re scared, and rightly, of a merely politically sponsored Catholicism, such as it seems existed in France in the decades before the Revolution, when bishops were often unbelievers and many people didn’t take the Faith seriously, even though it was the official religion of the state. You’re right to be scared of that. But that’s not what I’m advocating. You’re probably familiar with the maxim, the corruption of the best is the worst. The historical fact of decaying Catholic political and social orders does not negate the principle that if we are to really transform a society, we cannot neglect the political order.

        • RoamingCatholic

          Thank you for this: I think you understand my concern, and I have no objections to your conclusion here – as long as we remain vigilant about keeping the transformation of society our goal, rather than our own gain.