DARK CATHOLIC CHURCH HISTORY - chapter 2
A minor cult had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, but
success brought serious problems of its own. Moreower, Arab armies
would be building their own vast new Empire at bewildering speed,
triumphing under the banner of Islam.
"We are the times. Such as we are, such are the times!" — St Augustine
The meek, it seemed, had inherited the Earth: from persecuted sect to established religion, the Church's fortunes had been utterly transformed. Constantine's miracle-working touch had brought into being a great and powerful institution, the mighty Roman Empire's religious arm. Believers who had cowered in catacombs now gathered in great basilicas in the world's most important cities. Their clergy had the ear of the world's rulers.
Although Christianity's fortunes were now closely tied to the strength and power of the Roman Empire, alliance was also a source of vulnerability. As of
Roman power buckles before barbarian aggression: the sack of Rome in 410 sent a Shockwave through the entire ancient world. But Alaric and his Goths were just one threat to a Church which, nog finally attained imperial acceptance, feared it might find itself beleaguered as before.
ad 312, though, the potential pitfalls must have seemed extremely theoretical alongside the real and present benefits flowing from an association with the Roman state. In historical hindsight, it's clear that Constantine's own struggle to attain his throne (the fight which had in fact precipitated his Christian conversion) was a sign that all might not be well in the Empire. But this kind of 'trouble at the top' was by no means unprecedented in imperial Rome. It had never really affected the everyday administration of the Empire, nor obviously indicated any deeper instability in the state.
Barbarians at the Gate
As the fourth century went on, however, so did the divisions and the difficulties - even if the ship of state seemed able to weather any storm. The causes of the 'Decline and Fall' of the Roman Empire are notoriously elusive, of course: historians have blamed everything from imperial 'overstretch' to multiculturalism, from bureaucracy to sexual permissiveness. Christianity itself hasn't escaped censure, whether because its rise eroded the religious unity of the Empire or because its turn-the-other-cheek morality (supposedly) produced a generation unfit for soldiering.
The most obvious and immediate cause, however, was already unfolding far out on the Central Asian steppe, where the ferocious Huns - nomadic horsemen - were on the prowl. Pushing westward, they dislodged the people settled there, causing the irruption of the Visigoths into the Empire's eastern margins. The invaded now invaders, the Goths roamed and raided ever further westward until they defeated the Roman army at Adrianople in 378, killing the Emperor Valens.
A NEW BOOK MENTIONED IN THIS SECTION BRINGS MUCH NEW LIGHT ON WHY THE FALL OF ROME; IT REALLY HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THE IDEAS GIVEN BY GIBBON IN HIS SOME-WHAT FAMOUS "THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE." IT HAD MUCH MORE TO DO WITH THE TRIBES AND NATIONS INSIDE AND OUTSIDE THE ROMAN EMPIRE, SIMPLY AMASSING ARMIES AND CAUSING WAR, WHEREBY THE ARMIES OF ROME WERE DEFEATED - Keith Hunt
A Tale of Two Cities
Still the pressure in the east continued. Further waves of barbarians spilled across into the Empire -
Defeated at Adrianople, the wounded Emperor Valens rested up, but burrned to death when unwitting Goths set the shelter he was hiding in on fire. So at least the story went: is this a hint that Christians were focusing more on the fiery sufferings awaiting sinners in the life beyond?
The eyeglasses are anachronistic, but this study of St Augustine by the Master of Grossgmain (c. 1498) does suggest the colossal learning and uncompromising intellect of the man. Augustine's importance in the development of Catholic doctrine can't be overstated - nor, arguably, can the damage he has done.
the Germanic Alans and the Vandals and the Huns themselves. Again, the 'knock-on' effect was crucial: although a peace of sorts had been made with the Goths after Adrianople, in 410 they invaded Italy and laid siege to Rome. After months of slow starvation, the city yielded: in a spree of destruction the Goths sacked the Empire's capital.
If the human and material costs were cataclysmic, the symbolic damage was in some ways even worse: Rome's humiliation was just about complete. The Church was badly shaken too, its treasures plundered and its clergy killed - again, the psychological trauma was profound.
It seemed a whole civilization was at stake. St Augustine certainly saw the danger. It was in the aftermath of Rome's destruction that he started writing his masterwork, The City of God. What the barbarians were to Rome, he reasoned, religious heretics were to the Church, whose spiritual integrity had to be secured at any cost.
The Price of Debate
Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo in what is now Algeria, knew all too well the risks of disunity. Across North Africa the Church was in real disarray. Since Christian worship had once been more allowed, a group known as 'Donatists' (after their movement's founder, Bishop Donatus Magnus) had been refusing to accept those members of the clergy who were seen to have
Hell, which is also called a lake of
fire and brimstone will be material
fire, and will torment the bodies of
WE SEE THE RISING OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE IMMORTAL SOUL, AND SO IF NOT "GOOD" OR "CATHOLIC" YOU BURN IN AN EVER BURNING HELL FIRE - Keith Hunt
capitulated under the earlier persecution. The Traditores, or traitors - so-called because they had 'handed over' their holy books and trappings to the authorities when threatened - had formally been forgiven by the Church. But Donatus' followers, hardline perfectionists, saw their surrender as unpardonable: such apostates could have no place in the true Church. The result had been that two supposedly Catholic churches had been coexisting rancorously side by side - it simply wasn't sustainable, Augustine thought.
Looking beyond his own diocese to the wider Church, Augustine could see other forces for disunity: there were the Arians (followers of Arius), who disputed the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing that, as the 'Son of God', Christ was a separate entity from his Father. Another group, following Pelagius, believed that Adam's Sin hadn't of itself been finally damning for the individual soul: if you conducted yourself well enough in life, you could save yourself without the necessity of God's help. Today, in a secular age, such disputes may seem nit-pickingly petty, but theologically
Dunked by demons in pools of fire, souls suffer an eternity of torment:
this picture of Hell comes, fittingly, from a French edition
Dei ('The City of God'). It was here that St Augustine
scetched out the sort of punishments awaiting the unrepentant sinner.
INDEED THE DOCTRINE OF SUFFERING IN AN ETERNAL HELL BEINGS TO BE PROMULGATED AND TAKE ROOT IN THE THEOLOGY OF ROME. THE TRINITY DOCTRINE IS TAKING SHAPE ALSO; AND TODAY IT IS TAUGHT AS EITHER THREE SEPARATE BEINGS IN HEAVEN [THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT] OR AS SOME KIND OF ONE BEING THAT CAN BECOME TWO, OR THREE AT ANY POINT IN TIME, THEN MOVE BACK TO BEING ONE BEING - A STRANGE AND WEIRED IDEA. THEN YOU HAVE SOME TEACHING GOD IS A HUGE NOTHINGNESS, AND CAN NOT BE UNDERSTOOD NOR SHOULD WE TRY TO UNDERSTAND - ALL ARE VERY WRONG THEOLOGICAL IDEAS - Keith Hunt
the disagreements were profound. More to the point, in practical terms, Augustine's concerns were understandable: these differences had the potential to tear the Church of Christ apart.
A Punitive Faith
Augustine was humane by nature, but his fears for the Church seem to have driven him to fanaticism. In reaction to Pelagius' optimism, he offered a brutally pessimistic survey of the human spiritual condition. Not only was he the first to formulate the central doctrine of 'Original Sin', he did more than anyone else to shape the idea of hell.
While warning of the 'wages of sin', the scriptures had been surprisingly vague about what these might be beyond a few poetic hints about 'pools of fire' and banishment to the 'outer darkness'. Augustine spelled things out more clearly - there was no room for misunderstanding his assertion that:
'Hell, which is also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned.'
By 'material fire', of course, Augustine meant real, flaming fire that literally burned the body's physical flesh - it was anything but metaphorical, in other words.
Here began what for many modern theologians was an unwarranted - and even un-Christian - obsession with the intimate details of damnation and a sadistic interest in the terrible topography of hell. And, in Augustine's doctrine of 'Original Sin', a profoundly internalized self-hatred extended into every corner of the Catholic's emotional and sexual life. Only in very recent times has the Church begun to allow its adherents to make some sort of peace with themselves psychologically, and started to shake off one of the very darkest aspects of its history.
A Rival Religion
Augustine's vision of Catholicism as a city under siege was frighteningly convincing but perhaps unduly pessimistic: the Church was to survive - however uncomfortably - the Fall of Rome. The barbarians who in 476 deposed the unfortunate boy-Emperor Romulus Augustulus were at the very least loosely allied with the Christian cause.
Within just over a century, however, a still more serious threat to the Church would arise 2000 miles to the east in Arabia. Muhammad's first divine
IN THE BOX
In his rage for orthodoxy, Augustine eventually came to feel that there was a place for the punishment of heretics not only in the afterlife but in this life, by officials of the Church.
Having earlier spoken out against torture as an instrument of oppression, he later started to distinguish between the persecutions of the old Pagan state and that 'just persecution which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the wicked'. Citing the example of St Paul, he pointed out that his being struck down by violent force on the Road to Damascus had enabled him to find a truer faith founded in doctrine and in love:
'It is wonderful how he who entered the gospel in the first instance under the compulsion of bodily punishment, afterwards laboured more in the gospel than all they who were called by word only; and he who was compelled by the greater influence of fear to love, displayed that perfect love which casts out fear.'
'Why, therefore,' Augustine asked, 'should not the Church use force in compelling her lost sons to return?' Tragically, he asked the question rhetorically.
visions date from ad 610. At the time a middle-aged businessman in Mecca, the Prophet received a series of visits from the Archangel Gabriel who dictated to him the word of Allah - God. A new religion was brought into being: Islam - the name meant 'submission', in the sense of yielding to the divine will. Like Judaism and Christianity (for whose scriptures and traditions Muhammad had much respect) it was a monotheism - recognizing only a single deity. As such, inevitably, it affronted the Pagan beliefs of the Arabs at large, and life became uncomfortable for Muhammad and his handful of converts who came into conflict with the Quraysh, Mecca's wealthy elite. In 622 the Muslims left for the neighbouring city of Medina. Relations with the city's three tribes of Jews were good, at least to begin with. As hostilities with Mecca continued, though, suspicions between the two groups grew, Muhammad and his followers fearing that the Jews might make alliance with their Arab enemies.
In time the Muslims prevailed, though, and their victory marked the start of one of the most astonishing campaigns of conquest the world has ever seen. By the time the Prophet died in 632, to be succeeded by his father-in-law, the first Caliph Abu Bakhr, the Arabs had already carried the word by force of arms - and inspiration - through much of the Middle East.
Although their warlike nature had always been recognized, the Arabs had hitherto been dismissed as raiders, a mere nuisance: now, however, their aggression was channelled by a passionate faith. Christianity was in retreat, with the destruction of three of Catholicism's five patriarchal sees: Jerusalem, Antioch (Syria) and Alexandria, in Egypt. Across North Africa - the Maghreb - they continued: any dissensions among Augustine's spiritual descendants were rendered academic as the forces of Islam spilled across the region in an advancing tide.
In the early years of the eighth century, Arab armies pushed west from Libya across the entire length of the Maghreb. In the east, in 717-18 a determined siege of Constantinople was successfully resisted, but no one was under any illusion that Europe was safe from Islamic conquest. By this time Spain was already largely under Muslim occupation. The first raiding party of Arabs and Islamicized Berbers had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711: Tariq ibn-Ziyad's warriors crushed the defenders sent against them. By 718, Iberia's Catholic Visigoth rulers had been defeated by these 'Moors' and almost the entire peninsula was under Islamic rule. Only in the far north, in Asturias, did the Muslims suffer a setback: in these mountains, a little pocket of Christendom remained.
Turned at Tours
On into France they advanced: this time, though, the Catholic Princes managed to come together to repel the invaders. In 732, at the Battle of Tours, near Poitiers, under the command of Charles Martel ('Charles the Hammer'), 30,000 Franks lined up to face a force of 80,000 Muslim men. The Moorish cavalry came at them in waves but, a Christian witness reports, the Franks stood firm, 'as motionless as a wall'. Their shields locked together, all in line, they presented a seamless barrier, 'like a belt of ice frozen solid, and not to be dissolved'.
In the decades and centuries that followed, the Muslims were pushed slowly southward, although their kingdom of al-Andalus still covered most of Spain and Portugal. Only in the second millennium was it to be confined to that southern region, which is still known
On the side of the angels now, the Visigoths had established a Catholic kingdom in Iberia. In the early eighth century, however, it was overrun by Islamic invaders from North Africa.
as Andalucia. The Caliphs of the Umayyad dynasty had made it their base, holing up here after the rest of the Empire fell under Abbasid rule in 750, their capital at Cordoba a match even for Baghdad in its astonishing mosques and palaces, its gardens, its crafts, its culture and its learning.
Back to the Margins
It was an age of magnificence, of creativity and - for the most part - tolerance. There had been - and would in the future be - many much darker times for the Catholic Church. The Caliphs were easy-going about the presence of the dhimmi - the community of non-believers, such as Christians and Jews - in their midst. There's an element of wishful thinking in the recently-fashionable suggestion that al-Andalus was some sort of multicultural Utopia: the Islamic rulers seem to
have disdained the Christians' creed and milked them cynically for tax. In the annals of persecution, though, such low-level harassment scarcely registered: Catholics had little to complain of in Islamic Spain.
The real offence was to Christian self-esteem. The Church and Christendom seemed completely to have lost the initiative: they were on the defensive, responding to events. As the Muslims made strides in science, philosophy, art and literature, moreover, Christian culture was coming to seem backward, crude: who had the 'civilization' and who were the 'barbarians' now? What had appeared to be the religion of the future had been brushed aside, apparently without effort, over much of its territory and there was little confidence that further advances could be resisted. Christ had promised eternal life, but could his Church really deliver? Had history already passed it by?
OF COURSE IT WAS NOT CHRIST'S CHURCH, HE HAD NEVER HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT; HIS TRUE CHURCH HE STILL HEADED, WAS IN THE WILDERNESS, SMALL BUT ALIVE, AND STILL HOLDING TO THE FAITH ONCE DELIVERED TO THE SAINTS - Keith Hunt
IN THE BOX
The desert-dwelling Arabs were traditionally fighters on dry land, but they'd established an important tradition of seafaring as well. Arab vessels carried trade goods - and the Islamic word - from the Red Sea and the Gulf down much of the side of Africa; Arab raiders attacked Christian centres in the Mediterranean. In the early eighth century, they established an important base at Messina, Sicily, from where further attacks were mounted around the coasts of southern Italy. In 846, helpless defenders looked on as Arab raiders rampaged through Rome and the Vatican: even St Peter's Basilica was not spared.
Chaos ensued when, in 846, Arab attackers raided Rome, burning and looting in the very sanctuary of the Catholic faith. The confrontation between Christianity and Islam was to shape the history of both great religions over the next few centuries.
TO BE CONTINUED