The effect of Christianity on the West

What effect did Christianity have upon Western Europe? Here were the descendants of the Roman provincials, religiously the products of the mass conversions of the fourth and fifth centuries. Here, too, were the scions of the barbarian invaders who also had come into the Church by community movements. Could Christianity raise the life of this population so that it would approximate to the standards set forth by Christ? The odds seemed overwhelmingly against success. Not only did Christianity face the obstacle of human nature, basically corrupted by sin, as Augustine had so clearly pointed out, but it also was confronted by the remnants of Grsco-Roman civilization, that civilization which had crucified Jesus and which Augustine had seen as in stark contrast with the City of God. Within the borders of Western "Christendom" there were chronic fighting and rapine, and on its borders were the aggressive Moslem and frankly pagan peoples who were constantly seeking to press into a partially and superficially Christianized area.

Among the effects we must first of all remind ourselves of what we have summarized in the preceding pages, the continued adherence to the Christian name of most of the descendants of the Roman provincials and the professed acceptance of the Christian faith by the overwhelming majority of the invaders. Although in Spain and Sicily there were substantial Moslem elements, some of them invaders and others converts from the traditionally Christian population, in the North Christianity had not only won those pagans who had settled within what had once been the boundaries of the Roman Empire, but it had also been carried beyond those borders and had been firmly established in Ireland, Scotland, and the lands of the Frisians and the Saxons. In Spain and Sicily strong churches survived the Moslem conquests and in later centuries were again to embrace the entire population.

An effect which has often been noted was the preservation through the Church and the monasteries of much of the civilization of the Roman Empire and its transmission to later generations. From the standpoint of the Gospel this was not an unmixed blessing, for, as we must never allow ourselves to forget, that civilization was basically antagonistic to Christ and his message and in utilizing it the Christian community might be preparing the way for its triumph over the Gospel. Here, as we are to see, has again and again been a major peril, notably beginning with the Renaissance and continuing into our own day. Could Christianity, while perpetuating much of Grsco-Roman culture, so select from it and transmute it that it could be made to serve the Gospel? That, whether or not they were aware of it, was what outstanding Christians were attempting. That was the dream of some of the great Popes and was seen in the Carolingian revival. Men like Charlemagne and Pope Nicholas I were seeking to make actual the City of God in the regions where their influence could reach. That they did not completely succeed is obvious.

That they and others less outstanding than they did not entirely fail must also be recognized. In the new stage of culture which was emerging in Western Europe there was more conscious effort to bring all of human life into submission to Christ than there had been under the pre-sixth century Christian Roman Emperors. The effort fell far short of the goal. The visible Church was penetrated and at times seemingly captured by irreconcilably hostile forces. The majority of the laity had at best only a faint insight into the meaning of the Christian message. Large portions of the clergy were corrupt. Prominent administrative posts, including the episcopate, tended to be captured by men ambitious for place and power in a fashion which quite contradicted the Gospel. The designation "servant of the servants of God" employed by some of the Popes and taken from the memorable words of Jesus that they who wished to be greatest among his disciples must be servants of all became in the mouths of some of the occupants of the throne of Peter sheer hypocrisy. The property owned by the Church, theoretically to be used for the welfare of men, became a major menace to the true genius of the Church. Even the monasteries, dedicated as they were in principle to the full realization of the Christian life, almost always departed from the ideals of men like Benedict of Nursia and Benedict of Aniane.

Presumably this was unavoidable. At least in one way or another and to a greater or less extent it has been seen in all institutions which bear the Christian name. Yet Western Europe after 500 and especially, as a result of what had been achieved between the year 500 and the year 950, in the centuries which immediately followed the latter date, was more nearly moulded by the Gospel than it had been before the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the great invasions. This was seen in almost every phase of its life. It was also apparent in individual after individual. Even when the majority fell so far short of Christian ideals that they seemed not to deserve the Christian name, they recognized and honoured those rare men and women who unmistakably displayed the fruits of the Spirit. These they called saints, cults arose in their honour, their physical relics were venerated, and they were regarded as worthy of emulation by all Christians.

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