Western civilization is weak, exhausted, dying. Our leaders in the Church – servants in attendance to the Great Physician – can now think of nothing to do but preach this thing they call “mercy.” There is nothing wrong with mercy, of course; but when our clerics use the word, they sound more like hospice nurses than the warriors and martyrs who came before them. A Church that consigns herself to be the handmaid of terminal decline abandons her true identity as a fighting church, the ecclesia militans.
It needn’t be this way. While Catholicism flounders in the West, it’s flourishing in Africa and Asia. While Ireland voted to embrace death, Argentina voted to affirm life in its most vulnerable stage. Of course, we should celebrate the health of the Body of Christ wherever it’s found. But none of this diminishes the fact that Catholicism and Western civilization share a close and indissoluble bond.
Catholics should not be ashamed of this extraordinary heritage, nor should the Catholic Church. Catholics shouldn’t be ashamed of asserting that, without Catholicism, the West would no longer be Western in any recognizable form or sense.
What is it that makes the relationship between Catholicism and the West exceptional? The New Testament was originally written in Greek, a Western language. St. Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire, a Western polity. The Church Fathers bequeathed their wealth of wisdom, for the most part, in the Greek and Latin language; most of them were deeply familiar with the Greco-Roman world and Greco-Roman classics. And, though the Roman Empire has fallen, our Supreme Pontiff remains enthroned in its capital city.
Indeed, the Faith undergirds every aspect of Western civilization. St. Justin Martyr gave salutary peons to Socrates and Plato in his Apologies. Augustine praised Virgil, Cicero, and Plato (through Plotinus). Aristotle became foundational to Catholic philosophy by his influence on Thomas Aquinas; he was known simply as “the Philosopher” by generations of theologians, scholars, and mystics to follow. The paintings of Titian and Peter Paul Rubens venerate the West’s “pagan” inheritance through Christianized interpretation. Dante’s Divine Comedy references most of the heroes of antiquity.
The classic writings of Spenser, Milton, and Byron have their roots in the Italian Catholic masterpiece Jerusalem Delivered by Torquato Tasso. Even more contemporary writers could not have produced their great works without the foundations provided to them from the Bible and the Christian tradition – John Steinbeck, for instance, or James Joyce. Almost all the celebrated works of Western art, music, and literature sprang from the wellspring of Christianity, that most powerful force of civilization in human history.
This is who we are, as Catholics and as Westerners. Surely, a Church that is ashamed of her own history – her very heritage – will be helpless to combat the creeping nihilism and atomization of our culture. How can it offer us a solid foundation when she’s pulled herself up by the roots?
Without the Divine Mandate, there can be neither compassion or mercy. Our leaders ought to know this. But let me go further: there can be no compassion, no mercy, unless the Divine Mandate is restored to the heart of Western culture.
Culture, of course, comes from the Latin word cultus, which means care and praise. It’s related to another term, pietas, which means piety or dedication. Catholicism, therefore, understood Christ’s Mandate to reorient the care and praise of the many nations to the Highest Good. The cultus is aligned with the proper object of its pietas. Once God was enthroned over the ephemeral goods that non-Christians extolled – family and fatherland, for instance as was common among the Greeks and Romans – only then could the real desire of the nations be consummated, and those lesser goods venerated in their proper place.
When reading Homer, for instance, one can’t escape the fact that Homer places great emphasis on the family. The Trojan War, the event which the Iliad concerns itself, began because of marital infidelity and the dissolution of a family. For our Homeric heroes, the Trojan War ends in the return journey of Odysseus to his faithful wife Penelope and their son Telemachus. Odysseus desires only to be reunited with his family and save his countrymen. This is Homer’s ideal of piety.
Likewise, Hector – the tragic hero of the Iliad – is most honorable of all the characters. Medieval Christians admired him, too, immortalizing him among the Nine Worthies. As with Odysseus, he’s devoted to his family, fatherland, and the ancient gods. Perhaps the most touching moment in the Iliad is Hector’s goodbye to his wife and son, when the warrior-prince removes his armor to comfort his crying son and say a prayer to Jove. Though a Trojan, he, too, embodies Homer’s deeply Hellenic ideal of piety.
The Catholic encounter with this esteem for family and fatherland was a productive one. When the decadent and exhausted Greeks and Romans forsook their own traditions, it was Catholicism that reinvigorated the pieties of Athens and Rome and breathed new light into their ancient stories. Thus, the marriage between Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem was made and those three cornerstones became foundational to what we call the Western tradition.
The West is sick; there can be no doubt about that. But the Western man doesn’t need the “mercy” on offer by Church leaders: the “peaceful” demise of a euthanized invalid. Just as Greece and Rome were sick when Christianity arrived on the scene, the Christian (or post-Christian) must be reoriented towards God, family, and country as the Catholic Church has always taught. What we need is a reinvigoration of the Catholic Church – not its continued backsliding into irrelevancy whilst holding hands and singing kumbaya, as if that were the summit of the Christian life.
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