Friday, August 26, 2016

Lessons of the Early Church

I am the Catholic I am, in large part because of the martyrs of the early Church.  Their faith shamed my lack of faith, and understanding why they felt it was worth sacrificing the world for the sake of Heaven gave me the impetus to return to the Church as the only way to salvation.  Now, the Church needs their witness again, as the world around us seems primed to descend into a new paganism.

Martyrdom of St. Polycarp - "Away with the atheists!"
The Christian refusal to cooperate with pagan Roman society was rooted in three connected things: (1) The Roman Empire was inherently idolatrous.  Civic participation required participation in pagan ritual worship.  Oaths of office required the same, to be a soldier, a teacher, etc., not just for politicians.  (2) The reality of (unjust) persecution.  Romans persecuted Christians mostly because they saw Christian faith as "atheism" and "innovation," two things that threatened the stability and success of the Empire as a whole.  But as Tertullian famously pointed out in his Apologeticum, forcing Christians to worship other gods by violence made that worship ineffective for the good of the Empire.  (3) Idolatry and unjust persecution represented abuses of power by the Empire.  All worldly authority comes ultimately from God, as Paul argued.  Its uses must therefore conform at least to natural law standards of justice.  That the Empire abused its power in these (and other) ways justified Christian non-participation.

This line of argument, which permeated Christian thought for two centuries, has been buried under other understandings of the Church's relationship to a world seemingly cooperative rather than repressive.  The successful evangelization of the West and the creation of Christendom meant that we didn't need to think much about things that support a Christianity of non-participation.  But we have this treasure somewhere in the attic, not entirely lost or forgotten.  If we confront the increasingly hostile world only with the lessons of cooperative Christendom, we will probably lose.  We need the lessons of conflict as well, distilled from that earlier Christian experience of martyrdom.

Here are three of those critical lessons.

1. The world can never provide an avenue of salvation.  This should be obvious to Christ's disciples.  Only God can forgive sins; only God can save souls; our ultimate homeland is not earth, but Heaven.  But in contrast, it's a key plank of modernism, more or less obvious in all three of its branches (liberal democracy, Communism, and fascism), that the State aspires to become all-in-all, the "savior," in a sense.  In fascism, it does so directly.  In Communism, it does so as the mediating institution of the people's revolutionary will.  In liberal democracy, it does so more subtly, as the mediating institution between conflicts of rights and powers; but over time, its mediation inevitably expands and coems to dominate everything else. In all three, "scientism" promises imminent salvation from all the suffering and evils of the world.

Reductio ad absurdum of acceptance of modernism.
Any uncritical acceptance of modernism, then, implicitly accepts the (false) claim that the State exercises the highest and most decisive form of authority.  This claim tends to be not merely political, but also moral (i.e., abusing God-given authority!).  It rejects, more or less explicitly, a traditional, Bible-informed moral vision.  Acceptance of modernism therefore also means accepting the relegation of religion to the private sphere only.  The moral verities and priorities of the culture (which are, in terms of Christian Revelation, not true) come to be enforced as true, and any serious objection to them is firmly punished, at least socially (loss of status, respect, jobs, friends, etc), possibly legally (fines, jail, the police showing up in the middle of the night to investigate your family, etc), and even (sometimes) fatally. 

A different acceptance of modernism - no less absurd.
If we accept, even implicitly, that the world offers salvation within itself, we cannot be Christians.  We must stand firmly and intentionally in the core Christian claim of salvation through Christ alone.  Short of martyrdom, we do this especially in our (public) worship. Worship focused on God (as in traditional modes) demonstrates our conviction, and teaches spiritual salvation.  Worship focused on ourselves (as in "theater in the round" church design, or hymns all about us or making us speak in God's first person voice, etc.) opens the door to implicit acceptance of the lie of the world saves itself. 

2. Forms of idolatry must be clearly rebuked.  The Church of the martyrs taught clearly and consistently to all its members that cooperation with idolatry leads to loss of saving relationship with Christ.  It wasn't just pagan rituals that were identified, it was a whole host of public or civic activities or positions that were inherently idolatrous - teachers and soldiers, attending theater or civic games, etc etc.  This process of identifying and rebuking forms of participation in idolatry was very successful.

Pope St. John Paul II, for one example, did an excellent job throughout his pontificate (and even before) of doing the equivalent for us today.  We don't tend to think in terms of "idolatry" today, but the moral equivalent corrupting the Church and society is "secularism" (and similar labels).  A creeping domination of "secular" ideas in all spheres of life is intent on displacing any Biblical or natural-law-based cultural patrimony in the West.  This is especially apparent at the moment in issues of sexuality and family, or education policy, for example.  Pope St. John Paul II showed us how to parse the good and the bad in all such conflicts, and having identified the elements or ideas inconsistent with truth and therefore unacceptable to Christians, he rebuked ideas without condemning people. 

March for Life 2013 - excellent example of rebuking without condemning

The more we conform ourselves to the mores of the world, the more this creeping secularism insinuates itself into our faith.  Pope St. John Paul II told us constantly, "Be not afraid!"  Short of martyrdom, we can be clear and consistent in our rejection of modern forms of idolatry by fearlessly knowing the truth (virtue of faith), living the truth (virtue of hope), and speaking the truth (virtue of love) - always with charity and mercy.  It is, in fact, the visibility of the true charity and mercy of Christ in our lives that can attract those mired in worldly idolatry.

3. Faith in Christ is the greatest treasure.  If we look to the world for our salvation (even unconsciously), and fall into secular (idolatrous) modes of thinking, we will inevitably undervalue our faith.  This doesn't necessarily mean we will lose our faith entirely, but we won't have much motive for living it out consistently.  We will be "secular Christians," who, even when we go every Sunday to worship God, live the rest of the week as if Christ doesn't matter to us.  We will be "formed by the culture" rather than "formed by the Church."  We will have fallen into the trap of privatizing our faith - which is precisely what the totalizing, secular world demands of us.

Pope Benedict XVI Adoring our Lord Jesus Christ
Pope Benedict XVI understood this dynamic deeply.  So much of his pontificate was aimed at enflaming our faith anew, at helping us realize just what an inestimable treasure faith in Christ actually is.  Nobody is attracted to a faith that seems not to matter even to its regular practitioners!  Only those who are on fire for God have the chance to spread the fire to others.  Only those who, by how they live in every sphere of life, clearly value above other things the love of God can proclaim the value of that love. 

If it's true, finally, that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," then our evangelizing efforts can only bear fruit if we first die to self, and to the world, and live only in Christ.