Understanding the rise of the Roman Catholic Church is personal for me since my first introduction to Christianity was through the prism and environs of the Catholic Church. If you are raised in the Catholic tradition one is taught that the Catholic Church represents the true church by dating its history and tradition to Saint Peter. Reading MacCulloch, one can see the messy facts behind the early history of the Latin Church. Here are some key points that the author raise which I found rather startling:
- Pope Damasus (366-384) made Rome and its outlying suburbs a Christian pilgrimage city, a practice that continues to this day.
- The glorification of Peter over Paul as the founder of the church was emphasized by a North African Bishop and later adopted by Damasus primarily to “show that Christianity had a past as glorious as anything that the old gods could offer.”
- Damasus played an instrumental role in translating the Bible from Greek to Latin through the efforts of his personal secretary named Jerome. Thus the Latin Vulgate is not the original Bible as claimed by the Catholic Church, but it was nevertheless a great piece of Latin literature whose influence lasted more than a thousand years.
- Jerome is described as a quarrelsome figure, but he promoted the practice of scholarship as a form of Christian asceticism as honorable and worthy as isolated monasticism.
- The appeal to the Roman aristocracy seems to be a calculated and cynical ploy by the Latin Church to gain power and influence.
- The appointment of Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, gave the Latin Church immense authority and prestige in the post-Constantine era, and he gave rise to the idea of a bishop becoming an international statesman.
Clearly the traditions and political framework of the Western Latin Church owes much of its origins to Pope Damasus and Bishop Ambrose, and I would love to read more about their roles in the church. While MacCulloch can only summarize certain key points due to limitations of space, it is quite fascinating how the interplay of politics and religion shaped the Latin Church whose traditions we have inherited today both in the Roman Catholic and Protestant worlds. The concept of separation of church and state is an American invention later adopted by other nations through the years, but we would be naïve to believe religion does not continue to intersect with politics anywhere around the world even here in this country
Now I would disagree with the author that the dispensation of charity to the poor was an attempt by the bishops to manipulate the rich to give to the poor for their own political benefits. After all there is much Biblical support for the rich to support the poor. At the same time the gulf between the rich and poor must have been immense back in the 4th century with the poor population way outnumbering those of the rich, and in terms of sheer numbers the Latin Church would clearly have much more support from the poor. MacCulloch mentions Augustine of Hippo appealing to the aristocracy by promising them spiritual riches in the next life if they dispensed financial generosity to the poor, and this is certainly a practice that continues to this day in the church.
The impact of Augustine of Hippo on Western thought and theology from the late 300’s until this day can hardly be understated. It was interesting to learn in MacCulloch’s assessment of what most likely motivated Augustine to come up with his views on certain topics like sex and original sin. For instance, the impact of his mistress (and her bearing a son for him out of wedlock) as well as the influence of his Christian mother Monica greatly shaped his views; in 385, as he was deeply affected by the teachings of Bishop Ambrose, his mother urged him to break off his 15 year relationship with his mistress. The sexual sins of his personal past were to play a significant role in the shaping of his theology and that of the Church’s theology as well. As MacCulloch puts it, “When,… Augustine came to discuss the concept of original sin, that… all humans have inherited from the sin of Adam and Even, he saw it as inseparable from the sexual act, which transmits sin from one generation to another. It was a view momentous in its consequences for the WesternChurch’s attitude to sexuality.” (loc. 5897)
Many modern Christians and theologians today would be quick to decry Augustine’s views of original sin as being a very bad blemish to all of Christian theology, however, MacCulloch tempers his own harsh criticisms against Augustine by giving a somewhat sympathetic view of what led him to come up with this doctrine. He writes, “What we need to remember is that Augustine’s bleak view of human nature and capabilities was formed against a background of the destruction of the world he loved. The Western Roman Empire of the 390s, which had promised to be an image of God’s kingdom on earth, disintegrated into chaos and futility.” (loc. 6081) If we saw unbridled violence being done against our hometown by invaders on a constant basis, as Augustine witnessed the barbaric Vandals do his hometown of Hippo, wouldn’t our philosophy of life and humanity radically be affected as well? I’m sure the viewpoint of a Holocaust survivor would have been different before and after that experience.
Here, it’s easy to see how we are all products of the environment and times we live in. They have an immense influence in determining what we believe and how we believe. Faith doesn’t grow in a vacuum. It was illuminating to see the factors that led to Augustine’s theological views and it’s interesting to see why his views, more than any other Christian thinker arguably, carry such weight today. As MacCulloch writes again about Augustine’s doctrine of the Fall, “Augustine’s pessimism started as realism, the realism of a bishop protecting his flock admid the mess of the world.” (loc. 5986) It’s so easy to see the depravity of man against one another and the world- the hopelessness of man as he continually chooses to do wrong and not learn from his mistakes. And it takes supernatural grace, the grace of God, to reach down and rescue us from sin and be our singular hope for salvation. These are thoughts that I sympathize and agree with him on a basic level. On a more grander scale, it was his sincere attempt to answer the question that has plagued mankind since the beginning, “What is the nature of evil, and how does it relate to God’s majesty and all-powerful goodness?” (loc. 5942) Whichever way you may agree or disagree with his views, we all are affected and have a bit of Augustine within our beliefs about God and Christianity.