The Papacy and the Modern World

CHRISTOPHER DAWSON

The Popes of the twentieth century have been called to rule the Church in an age of revolutionary change when one catastrophe has followed upon another, when the old landmarks have been submerged by the flood of change and the old rules of tradition and precedent no longer avail.

Christopher Dawson
1889-1970

During these pontificates the world has changed and the conditions of the Christian apostolate have been changed with it. A new world has come into existence, though it often seems not a world but a formless chaos, and the Church has had to find a new language in which to speak the creative word to the new nations that are being born or renewed.

In the last years of the reign of Pius IX, Rome was perhaps more isolated from the civilization of the modern world than at any previous period. The great achievements of the pontificate of Pius IX had seemed to be annulled by the political defeat of the Papacy and the destruction of the temporal power. Pius IX had become the prisoner of the Vatican and his last years were darkened by the growing alienation of the Catholic world from the Holy See. It was the age of the Kulturkampf, the denunciation of the Austrian Concordat and the growth of militant anticlericalism in France and Italy and Latin America. In Italy, Catholics could no longer take part in public life, while elsewhere they had become identified with lost causes like Carlism in Spain and royalism in France: in the eyes of a hostile world the Papacy seemed to stand alone, undefended and without allies, against the triumphant forces of modern secular civilization.

Nevertheless there were some who read the lesson of history in a very different sense. Cardinal Manning, who had been one of the foremost defenders of the temporal power in the years before 1870, was also one of the first to foresee the true nature of the change that was taking place. During his visits to Rome in these years he expressed again and again his sense that a turning point in the history of the Church had been reached, that the old world of the courts and dynasties was dead and that a new world of the peoples was coming into existence – a new Christendom which was no longer confined to Europe but was expanding across the oceans and the continents to embrace the whole habitable world.

In 1878 this new world was indeed only visible to the eye of the prophet. The world was dominated by a small group of European states and statesmen and the expansion of Western civilization represented the triumph of material power and the exploitation of a subject world by Western capitalism.

It was however in this age that Leo XIII laid the foundations of a new papal apostolate and began the great work of Christian reconstruction which has now reached its fulfillment in the work of the Papacy in the 20th century.


In the past, encyclicals and other papal utterances had possessed a somewhat limited appeal. They were read by bishops and theologians, but they did not reach the common man, nor did they deal with the problems which immediately affected the lives of the masses. But from the time of Leo XIII onwards, papal utterances have acquired a new character. Peter has spoken directly to the whole body of the faithful on the great issues which concern humanity: on modern civilization and the dangers that threaten it, on the state and its functions, on liberty and citizenship, on capitalism and socialism, on the condition of the workers and on the family as the basis of human society.

But after 1914 the whole aspect of history changed. The old securities disappeared and the dangers which Leo XIII had foreseen suddenly became monstrous realities with which European statesmen were forced to grapple and which affected the life and death of millions of common men. The catastrophe brought the Papacy and the modern world together in a new way.

But the new apostolate to the nations which was begun by Leo XIII assumed a new character during the period after World War I. In the beginning, Leo XIII was speaking to a world that was intoxicated by material power and prosperity and there were few to listen to the prophetic voice which warned Europe of the dangers that threatened society and of the abyss of destruction towards which modern society was tending. But after 1914 the whole aspect of history changed. The old securities disappeared and the dangers which Leo XIII had foreseen suddenly became monstrous realities with which European statesmen were forced to grapple and which affected the life and death of millions of common men. The catastrophe brought the Papacy and the modern world together in a new way. Not that the conflict between Christian principles and secular civilization was in any way lessened; on the contrary the revolutionary consequences of the first World War, above all in Russia, revealed more clearly than ever how deep this conflict was: but at least men could no longer feel, as they had done in the 19th century, that the Church had become detached from the contemporary world and that the teachings of the Papacy were no longer relevant to the needs of modern man. For now it became evident that the cause of the Church was the cause of humanity.

For more than a hundred years Western man has set his faith in a religion of material progress and scientific enlightenment which would free mankind from the miseries and ignorance of past ages and create an earthly paradise of freedom and prosperity. Now this dream has suddenly disappeared, and its failure was not due to any lack of power, since it occurred at a moment when Science had given Western man new powers which far surpassed his highest expectations. It was a moral and spiritual failure due to a flaw in his own nature – a curse of Babel which divided man from man and nation from nation so that they no longer understood one another's speech but were driven to destroy one another by an instinct that was far stronger than the rational idealism in which they had put their faith. This is the curse of nationalism which, beginning in the romantic cult of the element of diversity in European culture, has spread like an epidemic from one end of the world to the other, leaving no room for an international order and no common ground on which to build a world civilization.

In this confusion of tongues, the Papacy stands as the one supranational power which can speak to the nations the words of peace and reconciliation. At first sight, the Church has little reason to look with hope on this new situation. She has lost not only her old allies, the Catholic monarchies which disappeared after the first World War, but also the Christian states of Eastern Europe like Poland and Hungary which have disappeared behind the iron curtain of a totalitarian and anti-Christian imperialism. She has seen the field of her missionary activity increasingly restricted by the revolt of Asia and Africa against the West, and while Christianity has suffered from its traditional association with European culture, that culture itself has continued to become increasingly secularized and more alienated from the Christian Faith.

But these losses have been in some degree compensated by the new opportunities that have been opened to the Christian apostolate. The breakdown of the traditional association between the Church and the Catholic States with their concordats and entrenched privileges and prerogatives, has set the Papacy free to undertake its universal mission to humanity at large. The new pattern of international organization and world order has far more in common with the Catholic ideal of natural law and universal order than the old state system which rested so largely on raison d'etat and the claims of historical precedent.

No doubt the new internationalism is secular in spirit and derives from liberal rather than Christian tradition; no doubt its action is still hampered and restricted by power politics and the power of the veto. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the central principles on which the Popes had based their social teaching – the unity of the family of nations and the sovereignty of the reign of law and of the principles of international justice – have now been accepted and given judicial expression by the ruling powers of the modern world. At the same time the establishment of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the numerous subsidiary institutions for cultural and economic purposes, has created a new world forum and a new area of common activity which is at once wider and more free than the old diplomatic channels of international action.

The principles formulated by papal teaching apply not only to the relation between society and the individual, but also to the relation of societies to one another. In principle, according to the creative divine purpose for humanity, all the different societies and states and peoples form a universal community with a common purpose and common duties. Thus, there is no room for state sovereignty in the absolute sense, for every state is the member of a wider society and is morally bound to cooperate with its fellows for the common good and to submit to the common law of international justice – to the law of nature and of nations.


This international society was not created by the Treaty of Versailles or the Atlantic Charter. It has always existed and looks to nature and the Creator of nature as its foundation.

But there is an immense gulf between this divinely instituted and immutable order and the historical realities of international politics, in which states and nations have devoured one another, like the fishes in the sea. Throughout history, war and violence have been so common that they seem the normal condition of the human race and there have been times like the early middle ages when this state of perpetual war was not confined to states and empires but was diffused throughout society, so that every city and family was in arms against its neighbor. Under these conditions the reign of law was confined to islands of order that had been created and defended by the sword. For the sword is the traditional symbol of sovereignty and it was only under its shadow that human justice was administered.

At the same time even in the darkest ages mankind retained a consciousness of the divine origins of justice and of the duty of the bearer of the sword to use his power in the service of God. And as the Church extended her influence over the barbarian kingdoms of Europe, there grew up a Christian Society of Nations which recognized, at least in principle, that they were bound by a common law of justice, so that the evil realities of war and despotism were no longer the only reality, but were regarded as the social expression of the moral disorder in which human nature has been involved from the beginning.

And as the Church extended her influence over the barbarian kingdoms of Europe, there grew up a Christian Society of Nations which recognized, at least in principle, that they were bound by a common law of justice, so that the evil realities of war and despotism were no longer the only reality, but were regarded as the social expression of the moral disorder in which human nature has been involved from the beginning.

In the modern world both these two opposing tendencies are still represented, though today they have assumed new forms. On the one hand, as Pius XII pointed out in his first encyclical – Summi Pontificatus – the secularization of modern civilization has brought darkness on the earth and has set up in a new form the old blood stained idols which Christianity had cast out. The totalitarian state involves not only the denial of personal liberty and the freedom of conscience, it is also irreconcilable with international peace and order, since it puts itself outside the family of nations and denies the existence of any higher law than the law of revolutionary violence. And the same errors are found in the exaggerated forms of nationalism, which substitute nationality for humanity as the ultimate source of social values, and exalt the way of life of a particular people above the universal moral law.

But this is only one side of the picture, for the same age which has seen the secularization of Western culture and the rise of the totalitarian state, has also witnessed the development of a world-wide movement making for international order and cooperation. The influence of this movement is not confined to the two great official experiments in world government – the League of Nations and the United Nations Organization. It also manifests itself at many different levels in international movements for humanitarian, economic, scientific, and cultural ends; and though these are now being brought into relation with the United Nations Organization, many of them are independent in origin and date back to the last century.

All this is a new phenomenon. It may have been inspired to some extent by the example and influence of Christianity, but it is not the conscious product of Christian principles, like the common institutions of medieval Christendom.

Nevertheless it is an unfortunate fact that internationalism, like the humanitarianism with which it is so closely allied, is a relatively superficial movement, which represents the aspirations of the idealist or the moralist; whereas totalitarianism and ultra-nationalism are inspired by the deeper irrational forces in human nature which manifest themselves in war and revolution.

Thus the soul of modern civilization is divided between the sublimated abstractions of humanity and international unity and scientific enlightenment which are apparent to reason, and the repressed forces of revolution and violence which move the passions and the will to power. And Humanity will perish in the conflict unless some higher spiritual power intervenes.

As the Church in the Dark Ages provided the spiritual motive power which transformed the warring chaos of the barbarian world into the European commonwealth of nations, so today the Church remains the only power which is capable of overcoming the spiritual disorder of the modern world and making the Society of Nations a living organic reality.

No doubt this international mission will be regarded by secular opinion as remote from the political realities of the modern world. If the Catholic Church can no longer maintain its old unquestioned authority in Christian Europe, if Christendom no longer exists as a social reality, how can we expect to see the extension of her influence over the nations that have never known her, or have been divided from her by centuries of conscious opposition? In the past moreover, the Church was able to extend her influence into the non-Christian world through the alliance and protection of the colonial and imperial powers: as we see in the case of the Spanish empire in America, the Portuguese patriarchate in Asia, and the Austrian empire and the Polish kingdom in Eastern Europe. But today these powers no longer exist and the very memory of their achievements is an embarrassment when the old cultures of Asia and the new nationalism of Africa are in revolt against the West and the traditions of European colonization.


Yet in spite of all these difficulties there has been no weakening in the Church's insistence on the universality of her mission. On the contrary she has redoubled her missionary activities during the present century, and the decline of power and influence of Western Christendom has brought out more clearly than ever her international or rather supranational character as the one universal society in which the spiritual unity of the human race is realized.

[But] just as Christ was in the midst of men, so too His Church in which He continues to live, is placed in the midst of the peoples, as Christ assumed a real human nature, so too the Church takes to herself the fullness of all that is genuinely human, wherever and however she finds it, and transforms it into a source of supernatural energy.

For secular internationalism, in spite of the hope of peace that it offers, is at once a lower and more abstract thing than the universal spiritual society whose feet are firmly planted in history and whose Head is divine: a Society which possesses no less objective reality and juridical form than a State, while at the same time its action extends to the very depths of the individual human soul.

In his Christmas allocution to the College of Cardinals in 1945, Pius XII spoke as follows: "The Catholic Church, of which Rome is the centre, is supranational by its very nature . . . The Church is a mother – Sancta Mater Ecclesia – a true mother, mother of all nations and all peoples, no less than of all men individually. And precisely because she is a mother, she does not and cannot belong exclusively to this or that people, nor even more to some than others, but equally to all."

And the Holy Father then went on to describe how the growing individualism and totalitarianism of the modern state has made it more vital than ever to assert this supranational character which is no longer centered in Europe and the old society of Western Christendom, but which has extended its sphere of action to include the other continents.

And he concludes: "Is there not revealed in this progressive enrichment of the supernatural and even the natural life of mankind the true significance of the Church's supranational character? She is not – because of this supranational character – placed aloft, as though suspended in an inaccessible and intangible isolation above the nations. [But] just as Christ was in the midst of men, so too His Church in which He continues to live, is placed in the midst of the peoples, as Christ assumed a real human nature, so too the Church takes to herself the fullness of all that is genuinely human, wherever and however she finds it, and transforms it into a source of supernatural energy.

"Thus ever more fully is verified in the Church of today that phenomenon which St. Augustine praised in his City of God: 'The Church recruits her citizens from all nations and in every language assembles her community of pilgrims upon earth. She is not anxious about diversities in customs, laws and institutions, she does not exclude or destroy any of them but rather preserves and observes them. Even the differences in different nations, so long as they do not impede the worship of the one supreme God, she directs to the one common end of peace upon earth.'"

This universal mission to the nations is something quite different from the relation of Church to State which has been the main centre of attention in the past and which has given rise to so much discussion and controversy.

The State is the juridical organization of social and military power; while the nation represents the natural organic community of speech and culture into which a man is born and from which he receives the indelible imprint of a particular social tradition. The number of states is limited and their importance is determined by official status and protocol.

But the nations and peoples of the earth are countless and their only title to recognition is the mere fact of their existence. They may be the creators of world empires or lost tribes that have been thrust aside out of the stream of history. But whatever they are, strong or weak, civilized or barbarian, they all alike possess their place in the Church's universal mission. Each has its own language and its own way of life and the Church calls on them all to hear the words of life in their own tongue and to use their way of life as a way to the service of God.

This Christian internationalism with its ideal of spiritual unity in national diversity stands in contrast and opposition to the totalitarian pattern of world order which threatens the existence not only of Christianity but of humanity itself. But this danger is not entirely due to the aggressive action of those ideological dictatorships like Communism which aim deliberately at world conquest. They have their ultimate source in certain tendencies in modern culture which are world-wide and which are growing stronger in proportion as the world is drawn together by economic and political forces.


The new powers created by modern science have made the technological organization of life more complicated and more all-embracing, while on the other hand the development of democracy has made publicity and the formation and influence of mass opinion the dominant forces in social life.

These forces are not in themselves evil, so long as they are subordinated to rational and moral ends, but as soon as they get out of control or are exploited recklessly in the interests of power by parties or groups, they become engines of social destruction. Any society that submits to their unrestricted action becomes a huge machine which crushes human nature under its pressure and uses the disintegration of the mind and will of the individual human person as a source of inhuman energy.

Now it is the consciousness of continuity in time, of the living past and the social inheritance, that makes a nation and a social culture. If the nations are deprived of this, they are no more than masses – human herds...

This process of degeneration and destruction affects the life of nations as well as individuals, since, as Pius XII has observed, the totalitarian order destroys that continuity in time which has hitherto been regarded as an essential condition of life in society, so that man is cut off from his social past and left isolated to face the enormous pressure of contemporary materialism.

Now it is the consciousness of continuity in time, of the living past and the social inheritance, that makes a nation and a social culture. If the nations are deprived of this, they are no more than masses – human herds separated from one another by the barriers of language, and submitted blindly to the absolute control of forces which possess unlimited technological power and resources, but which are themselves blind, because they lack spiritual knowledge and direction.

In this dark world, divided against itself, cursed by the confusion of tongues and frustrated by the lack of common purpose, the Papacy speaks to the nations as the representative of the only power that can "lead man back from the shadows into the light. The Church alone can make him conscious of the past, master of the present, and secure for the future. Like the mother of a family, she daily gathers around her all her sons scattered over the world and brings them into the unity of her vital Divine Principle." (Pius XII, Allocution of February 20, 1946)

This profound doctrine of the supranational mission of the Church as the center of spiritual unity in a divided humanity has been developed and actualized by the Popes of the twentieth century throughout the course of their apostolic ministry. In countless utterances and public audiences they have applied these principles to the special needs and circumstances of the different peoples. Never perhaps in the history of the Church have the peoples come to Rome in such numbers and from so many different regions, and in addition a still wider audience has been reached by radio and television and all the resources of modern publicity.

We seem to see the beginnings of a new Pentecostal dispensation by which again "all men hear in their own tongues the wonderful works of God."

The pontificates of the twentieth century have occurred in a catastrophic period, full of wars and the rumors of wars and the distress of nations, but they have also seen the dawn of a new hope for humanity.

They foreshadow the birth of a new Christendom – a Society which is not confined as in the past to a single group of nations and a single civilization but which is common to every people and language and unites all the members of the human family in the divine community of the Mystical Body of Christ.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Christopher Dawson. "The Papacy and the Modern World." Christianity in East and West (1959).

This essay is the final chapter of Christianity in East and West, published in 1959.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.

THE AUTHOR

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 2004 Julian Philip Scott




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