The Progress of Christianity


THE foster mother of the new civilization was the Church. As the old order faded away in corruption, cowardice, and neglect, a unique army of churchmen rose to defend with energy and skill a regenerated stability and decency of life. The historic function of Christianity was to re-establish the moral basis of character and society by providing supernatural sanctions and support for the uncongenial commandments of social order; to instill into rude barbarians gentler ideals of conduct through a creed spontaneously compounded of myth and miracle, of fear and hope and love. There is an epic grandeur, sullied with superstition and cruelty, in the struggle of the new religion to capture, tame, and inspire the minds of brute or decadent men, to forge a uniting empire of faith that would again hold men together, as they had once been held by the magic of Greece or the majesty of Rome. Institutions and beliefs are the offspring of human needs, and understanding must be in terms of these necessities.


If art is the organization of materials, the Roman Catholic Church is among the most imposing masterpieces of history. Through nineteen centuries, each heavy with crisis, she has held her faithful together, following them with her ministrations to the ends of the earth, forming their minds, molding their morals, encouraging their fertility, solemnizing their marriages, consoling their bereavements, lifting their momentary lives into eternal drama, harvesting their gifts, surviving every heresy and revolt, and patiently building again every broken support of her power. How did this majestic institution grow?

It began in the spiritual hunger of men and women harassed with poverty, wearied with conflict, awed by mystery, or fearful of death. To millions of souls the Church brought a faith and hope that inspired and canceled death. That faith became their most precious possession, for which they would die or kill; and on that rock of hope the Church was built. It was at first a simple association of believers, an ecclesia or gathering. Each ecclesia or church chose one or more presbyteroi—elders, priests—to lead them, and one or more readers, acolytes, subdeacons, and deacons to assist the priest. As the worshipers grew in number, and their affairs became more complex, the congregations chose a priest or layman in each city to be an episcopos—overseer, bishop—to co-ordinate their functioning. As the number of bishops grew, they in turn required supervision and co-ordination; in the fourth century we hear of archbishops, metropolitans, or primates governing the bishops and the churches of a province. Over all these grades of clergy patriarchs held sway at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome. At the call of a patriarch or an emperor the bishops and archbishops convened in synods or councils. If a council represented only a province it was called provincial; if it represented only the East or the West it was called plenary; if both, it was general; if its decrees were accepted as binding upon all Christians, it was ecumenical—i.e., applying to the oikoumene, or (total Christian) inhabited world. The occasionally resultant unity gave the Church its name of Catholic, or universal.

This organization, whose power rested at last upon belief and prestige, required some regulation of the ecclesiastical life. In the first three centuries of Christianity, celibacy was not required of a priest. He might keep a wife whom he had married before ordination, but he must not marry after taking holy orders; and no man could be ordained who had married two wives, or a widow, a divorcee, or a concubine. Like most societies, the Church was harassed with extremists. In reaction against the sexual license of pagan morals, some Christian enthusiasts concluded from a passage in St. Paul1 that any commerce between the sexes was sinful; they denounced all marriage, and trembled at the abomination of a married priest. The provincial council of Gengra (c. 362) condemned these views as heretical, but the Church increasingly demanded celibacy in her priests. Property was being left in rising amounts to individual churches; now and then a married priest had the bequest written in his name and transmitted it to his children. Clerical marriage sometimes led to adultery or other scandal, and lowered the respect of the people for the priest. A Roman synod of 386 advised the complete continence of the clergy; and a year later Pope Siricius ordered the unfrocking of any priest who married, or continued to live with his wife. Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine supported this decree with their triple power; and after a generation of sporadic resistance it was enforced with transient success in the West.

The gravest problem of the Church, next to reconciling her ideals with her continuance, was to find a way of living with the state. The rise of an ecclesiastical organization side by side with the officials of the government created a struggle for power in which the accepted subjection of one to the other was the prerequisite of peace. In the East the Church became subordinate to the state; in the West she fought for independence, then for mastery. In either case the union of Church and state involved a profound modification of Christian ethics. Tertullian, Origen, and Lactantius had taught that war is always unlawful; the Church, now protected by the state, resigned herself to such wars as she deemed necessary to protect either the state or the Church. She had not in herself the means of force; but when force seemed desirable she could appeal to the “secular arm” to implement her will. She received from the state, and from individuals, splendid gifts of money, temples, or lands; she grew rich, and needed the state to protect her in all the rights of property. Even when the state fell she kept her wealth; the barbarian conquerors, however heretical, seldom robbed the Church. The authority of the word so soon rivaled the power of the sword.

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