One of the few benefits of the literary train wreck titled The Da Vinci Code is that the book has motivated everyday Christians to investigate the early Church. Was Jesus really married? Was “pre-Catholic Christianity” actually a variant of ancient goddess-worshipping cults?
What they find is something quite different from Dan Brown’s buffet of idiocies. No dressed-up paganism anywhere in sight. Rather, ancient Christians concerned themselves with two major points: First, understanding God’s revelation in light of the world around them; and second, preserving that revelation from the corruptions that such efforts can bring.
That’s why so much of their work reached back to apostolic Tradition and the Scriptures—even in the period when the canon of Scripture was still being settled. For a tree to grow straight, it must have strong roots. The early Christians understood this, as so many contemporary Christian theologians do not.
Of course, it’s tempting to romanticize the early Church, and I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But we must remember that they had their problems as well. Dissension, rebellion, heresy, nepotism, avarice, syncretism—it was all there. Tertullian, that great defender of the Catholic Faith, veered into open heresy and died outside the Church. Origen, one the early Church’s great biblical scholars, stood by the unbiblical position that everyone would eventually be saved.
While it wasn’t all joy and orthodoxy for the earliest Christians, they did have one thing that preserved them: strong bishops. True, there weren’t as many of them as we’d love to think, and they had their own share of fence-sitters. But still, who can match a shepherd like Athanasius of Alexandria, standing—nearly alone—against an Eastern Church mired in the Arian heresy?
The early Church suffered a series of horrific persecutions, and in that fire they were tested and purified. That’s the great puzzle of Christianity. We face oppression with strength, suppression with growth—in our weakness, we are made strong. Out of persecution, great leaders arise. This is a lesson that the enemies of Christianity have never quite learned.
We have our own form of persecution in the West, though it no longer involves mass executions or physical martyrdom. Indeed, in its subtlety, it has done far more damage to the Church than the Arians or the Donatists could ever have hoped. The specter of relativism is haunting the West, and our Faith has suffered greatly under its shadow.
But here again, God has given us shepherds to guide us through. It simply isn’t the case that we have no strong, faithful bishops in the United States. They are here, and their numbers are growing.
And, of course, we have a pope whose stated mission is to confront the forces of relativism, as Athanasius faced down the Arians. Critics of Benedict XVI have called him a throwback to the pre-Vatican II days. They’re actually correct, though they’re not throwing back far enough. Benedict is less like a pope of the 21st century than he is like a bishop of the fourth. He has given hints of this, though few have noticed. Look at the pallium he has chosen for himself it’s fashioned after the style of the early Church. Or read his homilies alongside those of Augustine, or Chrysostom, or Hilary of Poitiers. You’ll quickly notice the same confident tone, the same easy handling of complex matters, and the same courage in defending truth against error. They were teachers, all of them, and Pope Benedict follows in their steps.
This is the shepherd we have, modeled after the great shepherds of the past. Rejoice.