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The Gift of the Church: Preface

  • RYAN N.S. TOPPING

"It is high time that Catholics remembered the greatness of what Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit have done in and through the Church, for the good of the whole world. Topping is the perfect guide." - Matthew Levering, James N. and Mar D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology, Mundelein Seminary


toppinggiftofchurchMy first real contact with Catholic culture was through words.  My family rarely attended church.  The closest thing to a religion in my background was of the Mennonite sort, and so, as a teen, it was to a Mennonite church that I went.  I read J. R. R. Tolkien then C. S. Lewis and the Evangelical philosopher Francis Schaeffer, and then I stumbled upon Pascal and the Imitation of Christ.  These pointed me to fragments of a noble tradition, sometimes called the Great Tradition, out of which the West had been built.  I knew there was such a thing as Western culture.  As a Protestant growing up in Saskatchewan, I wasn't sure what was left of it.  I was less sure whether it was worth defending. 

Once I arrived at college, I encountered more words: in Augustine's Confessions, through Athanasius's Life of St. Antony, and most haunting of all, through the growling, sparkling verse of Dante.  By these words I was convinced that the cultural despisers who hissed all around me — deriding Shakespeare, praising the sexual revolution, and ignoring God — were not likely to be reliable guides.  Recently a friend mentioned to me a book called How Dante can Save Your Life, a title that captures well how I then felt about the Divine Comedy.

During my second year of college, I lived for a time in Eastern Europe, just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.  It was then that the architecture of Christendom opened up to me for the first time.  Wandering through medieval markets, admiring the humane proportions of old squares, of streets built for pedestrians, my friends and I caught a glimpse of what life was like before the television and the automobile.  I was also troubled by doubts about the past.  My lessons in history had dismissed most things Catholic.  Now I wondered.  Did the true Church really recede beneath the horizon for the long millennium between Constantine and Luther?  Was religion bound to recede as science advanced?  Did progress require no-fault divorce? 

The Whig interpretation of our past that fed my imagination through public high school seemed all of the sudden less and less sturdy compared to the cobbled brick and stone upon which I was standing.  For every good purchased by modernity, I began to count a liability.  We moderns are more mobile, true, but feel less rooted; we moderns are less sexist, indeed, but find commitments hard to keep; we moderns have better health, of course, but have fewer reasons to live.  I found myself gazing through Gothic and Baroque church archways wondering.  I was drawn, too, by the little flickering candles inside but lacked the courage to kneel under their soft light.  during the next years, these longings increased.  As I dug deeper into Christianity, more and more I wanted to share the same Faith, the same culture, as Ambrose and Augustine, as Francis and Aquinas, and to enter through those archways and past the eyes of their angel-sentries less as a tourist and more as a pilgrim.

As I dug deeper into Christianity, more and more I wanted to share the same Faith, the same culture, as Ambrose and Augustine, as Francis and Aquinas, and to enter through those archways and past the eyes of their angel-sentries less as a tourist and more as a pilgrim.

In my twenties, accompanied by my wife, I would return again to Europe as a doctoral student.  At Oxford, Rome, and on Mount Athos, I came to see and hear and smell how the ancient Faith was no mere collection of stones and rituals but the living fire whose light and heat and incense had once enlivened our culture.  Could it do so again?  Now the words in the Great Books I read became illuminated against the backdrop of the sturdy geometry of Bernini's colonnades, the brilliant blue hues of San Chappelle's glass windows, the ruffling white and black cloth of Dominican habits, and the sonorous melodies of William Byrd's Masses.  I wished not only to bow my head but also to see anew by the light of those candles that still flickered.  And, by God's grace, my wife and I entered the Roman Catholic Church, a few months before the birth of our first son.

That was more than a decade ago, and we have long since returned to North America.  Many folks, I am aware, find faith closer to home, as indeed I could have, had I eyes to see.  Alas, in my case, I had to leave my own neighborhood to bump against it.  I tell you these things now because my early experiences of beauty have shaped my approach to the study of Western culture.  Over the centuries, the Church has seen her fair share of crooks.  No doubt, the history of Catholicism has been marred by faithless clergy, compromised politicians, and scores of men and women who have disregarded their baptismal call.  All true enough.  Some of these characters find their way into the following pages.  Badness is as common as it is boring.  What shocks is goodness.  The West's history has also been shaped by the saints, and the countless men and women inspired by their examples who have sacrificed themselves for a lofty idea, for the love of their friends, their enemies, their family, and their God.

Why should we care about the Church's influence on culture?  Simply, because it points to Jesus Christ.  You cannot be indifferent.  Whether you trust him or despise him, whether you fear him or hope for his return, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in our civilization for two thousand years.  It is for his sake that men have fought wars and made peace; it is in his name that many curse and countless pray.  We mark time by the date of his birth, and our tombstones by the sign of his death.  If it were possible, with a magical eraser, to rub out from our history and our literature every story or deed bearing some trace of his influence, how much would remain?  The gifts of the Church and the culture that the Church's belief has inspired are fruits born of grace and our response to the everlasting man.

This book explores and celebrates, in word and image, how our way of life — that is, the Western way of life — has been transformed and continues to be shaped by the Church's faith.  For each generation, the life and teachings of Christ has provided an answer to its deepest and most probing questions.  Those questions remain.  So do the human longings from which they spring.  Where do we come from?  How shall we live?  Am I loved?  What awaits after death?  Many of our teachers, our lawmakers, our entertainers, and even our families no longer retain the vital memory of the answers that faith offers.  Through these pages, I hope to reawaken that memory.  In the United States today, converts to the Catholic faith number some six million souls.  Together these represent the fifth largest religious group in the nation. 

While many in the West are abandoning organized religion, countless Catholics and Evangelicals in North and South America, in Europe, and elsewhere are rediscovering the faith of the Church as a vital force in their lives.  This book is not a doctrinal introduction to Catholicism, nor is it a work of apologetics, though I have kept both ambitions in mind.  The Gift of the Church is, rather, an episodic account of the Church's past and ongoing transformation of the culture, the habits of thought and action, the institutions and the art, of the West.  Of course, Catholicism's reach has been global.  But for better and worse, the achievements of the West have drawn all other peoples into her story, and so it is here that I begin.  I offer this work to those, therefore, who wish to deepen their faith with greater historical understanding and to those who look to a new flowering of Christian culture in our time.

topping2tinyAll Christians are called to put on the "mind of Christ," as St. Paul says.  But this task takes on a particular urgency for those of us who did not grow up in a coherent Christian culture or, for that matter, church family.  You may have read parts of the Bible.  You may even have attended services all your life.  Very few of us, however, have been taught how to see the world through the lens of grace, let alone simple justice.  Being presented with partial truths throughout their formation, Catholics regularly wince at the mention of Constantine's conversion, the Crusades, the Reformation, or the Galileo affair, as though history in general bore witness against the Church.  Being severed from our cultural heritage, Christians often forget — or never learned — that the Church has been, and in many ways remains, at the forefront of charitable work around the globe; that she sponsors the largest international network of schools and colleges; and that she retains her status as the greatest patron of the arts.

Reading history should help us bear with the vicissitudes of fortune.  It should also inspire gratitude for those and that which came before us.  Remembering is one of the first duties of piety.  By raising the deeds of the faithful dead, we, the living, can witness those moments when our way of feeling and acting and praying became more beautiful and good and true because of the gift of the Church in our midst.  After his conversion, the English novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote that entering the Church is like "stepping across a chimney piece out of a Looking Glass world, where everything is an absurd caricature," into the real world God made.  Only then, he said, "begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly."  May these pages aid your own exploration of the gifts of the Church to our past and present.  May these pages make vivid one credible Catholic point of view of the gifts of the Church to our present and our future experience of the loving God who has visited our world.

The first, and present, volume leads you through a rapid survey of two thousand years of Church history.  Each chapter will introduce you to gifts given through members of Christ's body.

This is a tale told in two volumes.  The first, and present, volume leads you through a rapid survey of two thousand years of Church history.  Each chapter will introduce you to gifts given through members of Christ's body.  In it you'll come to know some of the great heroes — and villains — of the West: from the early pagan philosopher turned passionate Christian, Justin the Martyr, who denounced the hypocrisy of old Rome, to the emperor Constantine the Great, whose conversion gave politics a more human face, to saintly monks who preserved the gifts of learning and advanced agriculture to Thomas Aquinas and visionary statesmen who built universities to the tragic Luther who closed the European middle ages to Ignatius of Loyola, Bartolomé Las Casas, and their disciples who opened the modern world, developing international law and securing the freedom of slaves, to Galileo Galilei, whose clash with the Church proved fruitful for the advance of science and faith, to the clever cynic Voltaire to the saintly giant Jean de Brébeuf to the little flower Thérèse of Liseux to a sequence of popes — from Leo XIII to Paul VI to John Paul II and Benedict XVI — who have rejuvenated the papacy in the midst of a brave new world being fashioned by Marxist, feminist, and trans-humanist revolutionaries.

The second volume will extend this meditation from a different point of view.  Instead of a chronological march through the history of the Church's gifts to culture, those chapters will slow down to consider the Church's transformation of particular domains.  Individual chapters take up themes such as music, painting, architecture, literature, film, and the home.  We will trace the origins of Western music to Gregorian chant and see how the Council of Trent and the recent interventions of Pius X helped rescue musicians from Puritanism and sentimentality; we will see why the Church has cultivated both the iconographic and the naturalistic impulses among artists; we'll explore the dominant styles of architecture that developed under the patronage of the Church (and take up the case against subjectivist accounts of beauty), witness the Church's influence on Western literary forms, consider what good popes have seen in the movies, and more.  But that is all to come . . .

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Acknowledgement

toppingRyan N.S. Topping. "Preface." The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West. (Charlotte, NC: Tan Books, 2018): xiii-xix.

Reprinted with permission of Tan Books

The Author

toppingcaseforcoverRyan Topping earned a Doctorate in Theology from the University of Oxford. He is a Professor of Theology and serves as Vice-President and Academic Dean at Newman Theological College, Edmonton.  He is the author of The Case for Catholic Education: Why Parents, Teachers, and Politicians Should Reclaim the Principles of Catholic Pedagogy, The Gift of the Church: Volume 1 - How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West, Rebuilding Catholic Culture, The Elements of Rhetoric,  Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education and Christmas Around the Fire: Poems, Stories, and Lessons for the Season of Christ’s Birth.

Copyright © 2018 Tan Books
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