What is Christendom?

As I write these words on September 18, 2021, it is 60 years to the day that the United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash en route to a peace conference intended to end what was then a bloody conflict in the Congo. Given what the United Nations have become since then, seeing the quasi-religious significance that such as Hammarskjöld gave it can be a bit unsettling. But on one level, it is no more that with which we Americans have been used to investing our own secular State, from the Ten Commandments in courthouses, prayers in public schools, and crosses to commemorate dead heroes on public property (now banned by the Supreme Court) to the phrases “In God We Trust” on our money and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the ceremonial invocations of the Deity in courtrooms (including their own), and the phrase “So help me God” in judicial oaths. (The latter rituals have been retained by the Supreme Court upon their finding that these are mere “civic deism” – emptied of religious content through endless repetition.)

What is perhaps more remarkable is the level of trust and praise successive Popes have heaped upon the organisation. Thus, in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, John XXIII opines:

It is therefore Our earnest wish that the United Nations Organization may be able progressively to adapt its structure and methods of operation to the magnitude and nobility of its tasks. May the day be not long delayed when every human being can find in this organization an effective safeguard of his personal rights; those rights, that is, which derive directly from his dignity as a human person, and which are therefore universal, inviolable and inalienable.

On October 4, 1965, Paul VI addressed the General Assembly, saying, among other congratulatory things:

Permit us to say that we have a message, and a happy one, to hand over to each one of you. Our message is meant to be first of all a solemn moral ratification of this lofty Institution, and it comes from our experience of history. It is as an ‘expert on humanity’ that we bring this Organization the support and approval of our recent predecessors, that of the Catholic hierarchy, and our own, convinced as we are that this Organization represents the obligatory path of modern civilization and world peace.

On October 2, 1979, John Paul II chimed in at the same venue:

Besides attaching great importance to its collaboration with the United Nations Organization, the Apostolic See has always, since the foundation of your Organization, expressed its esteem and its agreement with the historic significance of this supreme forum for the international life of humanity today.

Not only did Benedict XVI repeat his predecessors’ praise at similar visits, he insisted in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, that

In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth.

The reason for this Pontifical enthusiasm for what to many of us appears as a great source of evil is in my humble opinion, a yearning for Christendom – conscious or otherwise. Christendom is a word we hear tossed around quite a bit. But what exactly was or is it? Does it bear any resemblance to the UN or any other body around to-day? Does it even exist anymore? The best way to examine a very large topic of this sort is to break it down – and so we shall, using the division offered by that wonderful prayer, the Gloria Patri.

As it Was in the Beginning

Christendom, per se, had its beginning on the first Maundy Thursday and the first Good Friday. On the former night, Christ united the Davidic Kingship – to which He was rightful earthly heir – with the communio of the nascent Church. In one eventful evening, He established the Blessed Sacrament and the Priesthood, and in the washing of His disciples’ feet laid down the symbolic example for Christian Sovereigns and leaders of all kinds to follow (as Catholic Monarchy developed, the Maundy Thursday foot washing became the hallmark of Catholic courts). From that time on, all Catholic Monarchs saw themselves as participating in the Kingship of Christ, as did their subjects. The following day the Eucharist was completed by the Sacrifice upon the Cross, and in the future, knights would take Christ’s death as the model which they must follow – every order of chivalry kept Holy Cross Day as a feast, and one or another version of the Cross as their badge.

The newborn Church was a complete society, with its own leaders and laws, and its boundaries were the Sacraments. But it was a private organisation within States which  generally persecuted it, and for all that its citizens prayed for the rulers who made them their enemies, and served loyally and gallantly in their armies – unless order to worship them. This began to change three centuries after the Incarnation, as first Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia became officially Catholic countries, and then St. Constantine the Great extended toleration to the Church. In A.D. 380, by the Edict of Thessalonica, Catholicism became the State Church of the Roman Empire. As a result, in the words of Viscount Bryce:

The first lesson of Christianity was love, a love that was to join in one body those whom suspicion and prejudice and pride of race had hitherto kept apart. There was thus formed by the new religion a community of the faithful, a Holy Empire, designed to gather all men into its bosom, and standing opposed to the manifold polytheisms of the older world, exactly as the universal sway of the Cæsars was contrasted with the innumerable kingdoms and republics that had gone before it. The analogy of the two made them appear parts of one great world-movement toward unity: the coincidence of their boundaries, which had begun before Constantine, lasted long enough after him to associate them indissolubly together, and make the names of Roman and Christian convertible.

Œcumenical councils, where the whole spiritual body gathered itself from every part of the temporal realm under the presidency of the temporal head, presented the most visible and impressive examples of their connection. The language of civil government was, throughout the West, that of the sacred writings and of worship; the greatest mind of his generation [St. Augustine] consoled the faithful for the fall of their earthly commonwealth Rome, by describing to them its successor and representative, the ‘city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ [Augustine, City of God against the Pagans].

Thus was born the idea of the “Holy Empire,” which was maintained by both bodies that would claim continuity with Rome: the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires. But around each of them grew up a cluster of Christian Kingdoms of varying origins; those Kingdoms in turn were a patchwork of principalities, duchies, counties, and so on. Yet where the modern mind sees chaos, its contemporary inhabitants saw an overarching unity; the Res Publica Christiana, Abendland, the Occident, Christendom. Despite the Eastern Schism and the Great Western Schism (which latter offered the spectacle of three competing Popes), this was held to continue regardless of civil wars and division – the Crusades in the Holy Land, Spain, and Northern Europe were looked on as the joint effort of the whole Christian people. Of course, they often fell far of their ideal; but then, so do we moderns whose ideals are far lower in scope.

Baptism brought Roman citizenship, thanks to Theodosius, and no matter how divided the two Empires and many Kingdoms might be politically, it was true in each of them that Baptismal waters not only brought freedom from original sin, but entrance into the political commonwealth. Only the baptized had full civil rights, and membership in the body politic – those without it or who renounced it, be they Jews, Muslims, or heretics, were outside. The first two were allowed to live in their own settlements under their own rules as foreigners or resident aliens; but the latter were seen as heretics—traitors to the Christian commonwealth. Thus, only the baptised were allowed entry into local government, the guilds, the universities, and all the other countless mediating institutions of public life. No ceremonies of official life – the openings and closings of legislative, judicial, and educational bodies, not even the Coronations of Emperors and Kings – could be conducted without the offering of the Mass, and in the last named, without the Holy Communion of the newly Crowned.

This synthesis, imperfect as it was, began to unravel with the Reformation; in those countries whose rulers embraced the new religion, their ties with Catholic countries were broken, and Catholics were added to the list of those outside the pale, while the newly erected Anglican, Lutheran, and Calvinist State churches usurped the position the Catholic Church had held. This situation would be transplanted to our own Thirteen Colonies in America, wherein the New England Provinces (save Rhode Island) established Congregationalism, and the Southern ones the Church of England. Nevertheless through the Council of Trent, the Church struck back against this attack on Chrisendom and created a resurgence against decline – Baroque civilisation – which obtained in Italy, Austria, Spain, but most significantly in the New World—French, Spanish and Portugese Christendom in the Americas (and parts of Asia) integrating persons and cultures from at least three continents, though imperfectly, into Christian peoples.

But beginning in 1642 with the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and continuing down to our own times, both violent and peaceful revolutions in all the countries of the West continually wore down the inherited system. At different speeds in different places, the former view of citizenship was replaced with a purely secular one, and national expressions of religion were reduced to either those that directly served the interests of the State (such as military chaplaincies), continued to bind the loyalty of the still-believing to the government (as with Washington’s annual Red Mass), or served some folkloric or touristic interest (such as various celebrations of Saints days in different locales). The rule of thumb, however, was that these demonstrations must not challenge the non- or anti-Catholic nature of the government and society. Religion must be an entirely personal issue. After Vatican II, the Catholic Church itself tacitly approved of this arrangement.

Is Now

To-day, outside of a few favoured places (like Liechtenstein), Christendom subsists, but in a completely individual manner. When, in 1925, Pius XI established the feast of Christ the King in a decidedly retrograde manner, Ernest Oldmeadow, convert editor of the Tablet opined:

Christ the King has other rebels besides Russia and Mexico and France. The map of His dominions shows not only the Empires and Kingdoms and Republics, but also the counties, the towns, the villages, the hamlets, and – like the ordinance maps of largest scale – the homesteads each and all. Indeed, it goes farther than the work of any human cartographer; because it shows the inmost places of every human heart. Even the humblest man or woman or child alive is, so to speak, a tiny province in the dominions of Christ the King: a province either submissive or disobedient, either loyal or rebellious.

Save that every nation that was part of Christendom is a rebel against Christ the King alongside Russia, Mexico, and France, this description remains true to-day.

So it is that at its deepest base, Christendom subsists in every loyal Catholic heart. But each of these hearts has the ability to practise his faith, to receive the Sacraments, and follow such devotions as Eucharistic Adoration, the Sacred Heart, and the Rosary. There are countless devotional societies and confraternities he may join. There are various organisations – some new, some tattered remnants of groups that attempted to defend this or that aspect of Christendom during its long outward decline – that one may join. There are also here and there those remaining signs and symbols of civic Christendom – processions, local consecrations, and the like – to which he may lend his hand. There are even alternative educational and other institutions growing in the face of this hideous strength that he can assist. And, of course, there is an endless field of the apostolate in his family, work, and special interest groups in which he may labour. If, as the saying goes, we all pray as though everything depended upon God and worked as though it all depended upon us, then happier future generations may see the Kingship of Christ and Queenship of Mary once again placed at the headship of human affairs. Hopeful intellectual movements are arising to recapture Christendom and even in some local communities this is becoming something of a reality.

And Ever Shall Be

It is, of course, important to remember that whatever the current leadership in Church and State declare or mandate, Christ does indeed remain King, and Mary remains Queen. None of our tumult on Earth can change or diminish those facts. From time to time – through things like the six scientifically established Eucharistic Miracles of the past quarter century that the Church has verified, the various approved Marian apparitions over the past two centuries, and the continued witness of the Saints of our time – we are brought face to face with this reality, deny it as we may. The Holy Souls in Purgatory and the Blessed Company of Heaven rejoice in Christendom; the damned in Hell tremble at it, and their earthly allies grow hysterical at any remembrance of it.

There is always the possibility that these are the Last Days; that some of us now living may witness the Final Judgement in the flesh. Or it may be that we have centuries yet, before that day of wrath occurs. No matter; our duty is the same – to live as subjects of Christendom in precisely the same way our forefathers attempted to, whether that meant quiet loyalty to Altar and Throne, or violent struggle against or martyrdom at the hands of that heresy or this revolution. When, at last, in God’s good time the Earth yields up its graves, those of us who persevere shall see that New Heaven and that New Earth Christ promised, and reside in Christendom forever.

Photo: Mont Saint-Michel, France by Bas van Breukelen on Unsplash 

 

 

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