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Probing History

Godfrey Kurth, The Church at the Turning Points of History (Norfolk, VA: Gates of Vienna Books, 2007) $14.95, 126 pp., Paper.

Diane Moczar, Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know: The Divine Surprises and Chastisements That Shaped the Church and Changed the World  (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2005) $13.95, 177 pp., Paper.

Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.


“In the history of mankind considered as a whole there are two grand divisions,” writes Godfrey Kurth to introduce The Church at the Turning Points of History. “On the one hand, there is the ancient world seated in the darkness of death; on the other hand, the modern world which advances in the light of the Gospel. This is, beyond compare, the greatest fact of history.”


Kurth writes not from the crimped secular perspective so typical of modern historians, but instead looks for the eternal and the transcendent. In this, of course, he is not alone. In Christ’s tomb, Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man, “the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human.”


The “Christian era,” Kurth explains, “opens the annals of a new creation and a new humanity.” Christian civilization and ancient society are based on “essentially opposed” principles. “The two societies differ in their respective conception of life and the solution they give to the problem of existence.” Antiquity offered transient pleasure “summed up in two words: idleness and voluptuousness,” which “could be the lot of but a small minority. If a man lives without work, he forces others to work for him. If he lives for pleasure, it is necessary for him to have an army of people who will furnish him amusement.” Christianity offers happiness that is eternal union with God. “The happiness of the pagan is not possible without the corresponding misery of the majority of the human race. The Christian cannot be truly happy unless he makes as many as possible of his fellow men participate in his happiness. … In principle, a Christian society is a society of brothers, just as in principle, a pagan society is a society of slaves.” Indeed, the contrast between paganism and Catholicism is so stark that Chesterton called paganism “the one real rival to the Church of Christ.”


The Incarnation, Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ is the pivot point of history. We measure time as the temporal distance from Christ, despite modern obscurant efforts to adopt the term Common Era and the abbreviations C.E. and B.C.E, which themselves nevertheless still use Christ as the pivot point.


The Church, Kurth notes, “has received charge to teach all nations … and with regard to this duty, every man has the right to call her to account.” So, Kurth defines his task: “How has the Church fulfilled her mission? … Has she been, has she truly remained, that universal and indefectible society that contains within itself all civilization, or would she be merely one of those fleeting forms, in which, at a given moment, the human race embodied its ever changing aspirations?”


The first test came swiftly, and Kurth’s retelling of it is direct and vivid.


The great obstacles, or rather, the chief danger that the Church encountered in her first years lay in her ignorance of the attitude to be assumed concerning the Ancient Law and Israel. The lapse of time has solved this problem clearly and with precision, and now it is within the grasp of a child. There is nothing now in common between Israel rejected, shut up within her synagogue, and the people of God gathered about the Church. But it was quite different when the Church came into being. Far from considering Israel as the people of reprobation, the Christians, one and all – the apostles at their head – continued to regard the Jews as the people of God. Being Jews themselves and holding fast to the Law of Moses, they saw in Christianity the complement of the Law and in the Church the consummate flower that came forth to crown the fertile root of Jesse.


And how could they have believed otherwise?


Godfrey Kurth, a Belgian Catholic historian who authored more than 20 books and contributed more than a dozen articles to the Catholic Encyclopedia, was a professor at the State University of Li├Ęge and Secretary of the Belgian Historical Society in Rome. Based on a series of lectures he delivered at the end of the nineteenth century, The Church at the Turning Points of History, does not suffer from recent confusions that so thoroughly obscure things which formerly were within the grasp of a child that now even some members of the Church’s hierarchy seem incapable of comprehension.


“This does not mean that this Christian Church of Jewish nationality wished to close her doors to Gentiles,” Kurth continues. “On the contrary, she dreamed of gathering within her embrace all the people of the earth, in order to comply with the demand of Christ.” The Jews saw themselves as “the circle of the elite; … the race marked forever with a sign of predilection, the priestly tribe which stood as the intermediary between God and man.” The first Christians carried this “Jewish viewpoint … with them into Christianity. They saw in the Church a synagogue of superior order to which God had revealed the obscure meaning of the prophecies, but a synagogue nevertheless into which no one could enter without being a member either by birth or by adoption by the people of Israel.”


Text Box: Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem
“Now then, I ask,” Kurth asks rhetorically, “was this really the way to bring nations to embrace the Gospel – to oblige them to give up their nationality as well as their religion?” Were first century Greeks and Romans eager to become Jews? Would Pope Benedict XVI’s Anglican prelature stand any chance of succeeding if Australian or American or English Episcopalians were told that they first had to become Italians or Germans in order to become Catholics? “Here we see how Israel by her pretensions to leadership in the kingdom of God hindered the propagation of the Gospel. So long as Israel stood between the Savior and the human race, the human race was bound to keep away from the Savior.”


Peter’s vision, recounted in Acts 10:9-20, “is the divine solution of the irritating problem;” it “announces that the ancient law is no longer binding on the Christians, and that consequently one can be a Christian without being a Jew.” And thus, “In vain then does Israel promise herself the first place in the kingdom of God. Israel can disappear without causing a vacancy; her mission is ended and her place henceforth will be taken by a spiritual Israel made up of all the faithful.”


Peter’s vision and his baptism of Cornelius and his family, however, did not by itself immediately precipitate a dramatic change. “Those Christians who put their Jewish patriotism above their Christian faith did not give up their favorite idea concerning the privilege of Israel. This doctrine was part, so to speak, of their flesh and blood; it was one of the constituent elements of their faith; it was identified in their thoughts with the Christian doctrine. They seemed to have let the baptism at Caesarea pass as a miraculous exception, not as a rule.”


Then, from Antioch, came the news that Gentile converts were receiving baptism without any other initiation or the imposition of Jewish practices. “And to make it clear that they meant to inaugurate a new tradition and break with the past, they were taking a name never before in use among the faithful, a name that had been recently coined at Antioch: they were calling themselves Christians!”


Now, “the scandal was great. … they were abolishing the privilege of Israel. … Were these innovators to triumph it would be a seeming abandonment of the Christians of the first hour who formed the nucleus of the faithful and among whom were the most devoted disciples of Christ; to say the least it would be for them a very bitter humiliation.” The Church’s first Council, the Council of Jerusalem, resolved the dispute: “It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay no further burden upon you than the necessary things.” As Pope Benedict XVI noted in Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, “A literal application of Israel’s social order to the people of all nations would have been tantamount to a denial of the universality of the growing community of God.”


“The Council of Jerusalem had saved Christianity,” Kurth says, “but it had sacrificed Judaism. In deciding that the Church would be Catholic, that is international, it had killed the national pretensions of the Jewish clique.” Some of the Jewish Christians resisted, but “the catastrophe in which Jerusalem perished some years later drowned their opposition in a deluge of blood and was, to the Christian Jews, a decisive revelation which came to confirm that of Joppe [where Peter had his vision]. After this it was plain that Israel was no longer the chosen people of God but a rejected nation.”


Text Box:  So complete was this rejection of Israel, thought Kurth, that “it is no longer worth while to fix upon it the attention of history.” This is a bit of overstatement, or at least somewhat ambiguous. While Israel is no longer at the center of salvation history, and indeed, has been supplanted by the New Israel that is The Church, E. Michael Jones demonstrates in The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History that continuing Jewish antipathy to Christ and His Church throughout history cannot be ignored without peril.


Kurth thus labels the Council of Jerusalem “first turning point in the history of the modern world.” At it, the Church “separated her cause from the precarious destiny of a nation [and] refused to espouse the cause of the petty contingencies of history so as not to fail in her universal mission.” Frank Sheed and Masie Ward insisted that Kurth’s treatment of the Council was a source that “must be used” by Catholic Evidence Guild lecturers on the Church and Judaism.


In Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know, Diane Moczar “tried” to “present ten significant dates … around which the reader can group the main themes of the history of Christendom.” The dates “represent extremely handy ‘pegs’ on which to hang the major developments of Catholic history.”


Moczar begins after the apostolic era with a dramatic retelling of the story of Constantine and the events leading to the Edict of Milan, “the great charter of liberation of the Catholic Church,” in 313 A.D., and its aftermath. “So, was the period following the Edict of Milan a utopia for the Church? Far from it.” Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire, “but the empire was doomed.” So, in 452, Pope St. Leo staves off the Huns, refuting the claim that the barbarians were an admonition for substituting Christ for the Roman gods and also establishing that “the destiny of Europe was not to be a province of Asia.” Soon thereafter, with the baptism of Clovis in 496, France was born: “The conversion of the Franks proved to be of enormous importance for the future of Catholic Europe. Catholicism was no longer the weak and inferior religion of the conquered. It was plain to pagans and Arians alike that the God of the Catholics was far stronger than theirs, since he gave his followers such spectacular victories. On this barbaric habit of thought the Church was able to build.” From there, it’s on to 800 A.D. and the Crowning of Charlemagne, “protector of Rome, unifier of Europe, and Father of Western Christendom. It is hard to think how Catholic Europe would have emerged from the Dark Ages without him.”


Kurth also addresses Constantine’s conversion, the fall of Rome, and the baptism of Clovis, all in a single chapter that stresses the universality of Catholicism. Kurth emphasizes the attraction of the “sweet yoke of Christ,” rather than the attraction of a “stronger” God who delivered “spectacular victories.”


“Rome, in the language of its pagan worshipers, was called the Eternal City, and Christianity in borrowing this appellation from the civil language, did not wish, at least in the beginning, to modify its traditional sense,” Kurth writes. Indeed, he notes, early Christian apologists pointed to their belief in the eternity of the Roman Empire as proof of their patriotism. “Just as the Christian Jews were firmly convinced that the future of Christianity was indissolubly united with the future of their own people, so the Christian Romans imagined that their future was one with the future of the Empire.” But the Church “understood her role better … if she had not risen above the resentments of blind patriotism, Christianity would not have survived, but would have sunk into the abyss along with the Roman Empire.” Citing Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, and others, Kurth writes, “the Catholic Church unlocked the gates of her sanctuaries and opened the road of salvation to the new nations. Thus is explained her prodigious success during the sixth century with the Barbarians, whether Arian or pagan. When these became convinced that they could carry the sweet yoke of Christ without submitting to the heavy yoke of Rome, their prejudices against the Catholic Faith fell to the ground, and its natural superiority over heresy, as well as over paganism, found no longer any obstacle.”


Others, including Moczar, compare the baptism of Clovis to that of Constantine, but Kurth maintains that, “it matches in a remarkable way, the baptism of the centurion Cornelius:”


Then, the Church, separating her cause from that of the people of Israel, had gone to the nations and received them into the Christian community without imposing upon them the obligations of the Judaic Law. This time, detaching her destinies from those of the Empire, she went to the Barbarians and put into their hands the scepter of the world without requiring them to wear the dress of the Roman civilization. On both occasions it was a stroke of strategy of the same superior order. On both occasions, Christianity, the common patrimony of all humanity, had escaped utter destruction. Instead of weeping on the graves of extinct civilizations, Christianity had busied herself with winning to the faith of Christ the nascent communities. She had thus indicated in a precise and explicit manner, and for all centuries to come, that, as she is created to spread the kingdom of God on earth, she cannot identify herself with any of those ephemeral things which are called dynasty, nation, social class, civilization.


As Chesterton observed, Christianity has “died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” Or, to bastardize Belloc’s famous aphorism, Europe is not the Faith, and the Faith is not Europe. The Faith will not perish but, quoting Belloc, “Europe will return to the Faith, or she will perish.” The Catholic churches in Europe may all become museums, but the Catholic Church itself will never become a museum or a museum piece.


Professor Kurth’s turning points of history also include the Church’s escape from lay investiture in the feudal period, neo-Caesarism’s dissolution of Christian republics and the consequent end of the Crusades, the Church and the Renaissance, and the Church and the French Revolution. “The evil of the Revolution is its pretension to treat political society as if it were the creation of pure reason, independent of the action of the divine laws which rule the life of the world and of humanity.” Moczar includes Cluny, the Protestant “catastrophe,” Lepanto, and Fatima among the surprises and chastisements that shaped the Church and shaped the world. Moczar’s book is a more popular treatment; Kurth’s is a deeper probe.CW

James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.

This review was published in the December, 2010 issue of Culture Wars.

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