Man is a social being and doesn’t invent his own world. To orient himself and understand what his life is about he has to find his proper place, which is an order of things where he can feel at home and to which he can give undivided allegiance.
To deserve that allegiance the order of things must include ordinary human connections but also transcend them, so that it supports all things necessary for man’s well-being. Our ideal as Christians is thus a social world that encompasses everyday life but is oriented toward God and the good, beautiful, and true in all its aspects. In our time the phrases “culture of life” and “civilization of love” have been used to refer to basic aspects of such a world, but Christendom seems the best name for it overall.
The ideal is of course impossible to achieve perfectly in this world. That would be the Kingdom of God on earth, which won’t be fully with us until the Second Coming. Still, the Lord’s Prayer has to do with the present as well as a future that may be very distant, so the coming of the Kingdom and the realization of God’s will on earth are with us even today. And in any event we must find some way to live here and now. As social beings we must live with others, and as Christians we must live with God, so the question of the connections, loyalties, and obligations by which we should live always has some sort of answer.
That answer defines Christendom as it exists from time to time. It’s the system of connections, loyalties, and obligations by which Christians live, to the extent they are living as Christians, and to which they owe their highest earthly allegiance. In one form or another it has always been present in the lives of believers, in the Church, and in social arrangements generally, in so far as they orient themselves toward what is good, beautiful, and true.
Christendom may be gone as a matter of public law, and perhaps in the consciousness of most believers, but it’s still here as a substantive reality. Obedience and loyalty form a hierarchy for Christians, with God at the top, the Church and secular connections farther down, and natural law helping to sort and order the pieces and hold together the ones that can be used. If something in our present life finds a place in that hierarchy, it’s part of Christendom.
Its manner of existing has changed over the years. Before Constantine, Christians lived among pagans under a pagan government. They were distinct from their neighbors in some important ways. Their moral code was stricter, and they abstained from popular festivals and entertainments that were based on pagan religion or had obscene or murderous elements. They were subject to mainly sporadic but sometimes severe persecution, and often had to worship in secret.
Nonetheless, they didn’t try to set themselves apart but in most respects lived in the same way as other people. They prayed for the emperor, sometimes held positions in the army and government, and accepted Roman authority within the limits of God’s law. Those affiliations were consistent with living as Christians for whom Christ was the final standard and the Kingdom of Heaven their ultimate homeland. So Christendom—the social world to which Christians are loyal as Christians—included the Church, but it also included the Roman Empire and its laws, and the customs and connections of its people, to the extent they were consistent with Christianity.
After Constantine the Empire came to recognize itself as part of Christendom. That was a step forward, just as the conversion of a man or the founding of a religious order is a step forward. To say problems arose as a result of the Christianization of the Empire is not to say the step should not have been taken. Government is always based on some understanding of man and the world, and it is better for the understanding to be as close as possible to the truth of things. Claiming a commitment to Christian understandings won’t make a government or society perfectly Christian, but the same could be said of our own individual commitments. The fact that we do not carry them out perfectly does not make it wrong to make them.
The new situation simplified matters for Christians in important ways. It was now recognized that legitimate social order is oriented at least implicitly toward God, and that law and custom lose authority when they oppose divine or natural law, so Christians could be good citizens of earthly kingdoms in the way those kingdoms understood good citizenship. They were no longer required to reject social arrangements, like the imperial cult, that secular rulers considered fundamental. Conflicts continued among rulers, ecclesiastics, and other believers, but they were conflicts within the Church among Christians.
The situation became complicated again when the Protestant Reformation split the Christian world. In England, for example, Catholics found themselves in much the same position Christians had held in Roman times. They might view themselves as loyal subjects of the Crown, but they were long subjected to disabilities and penalties on the grounds that they rejected a fundamental part of the English constitution, the Established Church. They believed that certain aspects of English society were not part of Christendom, so they did not recognize those aspects as properly authoritative, and their idea of good citizenship was accordingly at odds with the royal one.
With the coming of the Enlightenment, the belief grew up that the problem of religious differences within a single political society could receive a final solution. Christians of various denominations (and eventually non-Christians) could view each other as full and equal citizens because governments would concern themselves only with topics of general concern and not those of specific religious interest. Under such conditions any basic opposition between Christendom and society in general would vanish, so that the concept of Christendom would become unnecessary even though society in general was not Christian. In time many in the Church came to accept such a view, because it seemed that natural law could provide the common ground that would allow Catholics and others to support the same government and social order in the same way. Under such circumstances “Christendom” seemed only an historical reference.
Since then the ambitions and activities of government have grown, and the outlook of governing elites has become more and more at odds with Christianity and natural law. As a result the expectation that modern liberal society would be hospitable to religion in general and Christianity and Catholicism in particular has come to appear misconceived. Every society, it seems, has a system of ultimate commitments that functions as a religion, and that system will always be held to trump all others. Recent government decisions regarding healthcare and marriage have driven the point home for Catholics. Those who run things expect us to toe the line whenever we participate in practical life, so photographing same-sex weddings and providing abortifacients are now treated as non-negotiable aspects of citizenship for professional photographers and employers. Since it is hard to live without participating in practical life, the problem for Catholics is obvious.
In substance we’re back where English Catholics were before Catholic emancipation. The laws are more gentle in many ways, but they are also more detailed and all-pervasive. If anything, the democratic aspects of public life today add to the difficulty, because they make us all responsible for government. They tell us that Catholics have a duty as citizens to speak out and vote, but what we say and support as Catholics increasingly stands in radical opposition to official principles.
The effect of all these tendencies is that Christendom is becoming once again a clearly distinct system of connections, loyalties, and obligations by which Catholics live when they live as Catholics. That system is likely to be ever more at odds with worldly powers in the coming years, but it is the one we recognize as authoritative, and it will survive as long as the Church does and Catholics continue to adhere to her. Time will tell what the practical consequences will be.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared November 1, 2013 on Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.