Europe, Christianity, and the Thought of Christopher Dawson (Part 2)

Gerald Russello Tells Why the Historian Saw Ecumenism as Crucial

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NEW YORK, SEPT. 16, 2003 ( A key part of the Catholic Church’s role in Europe is its mission to promote Christian unity, says an expert on Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.

Gerald Russello, editor of «Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson» (CUA Press), shared his views on the modern importance of Dawson’s thought, in the second part of this interview with ZENIT.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Monday.

Q: What role did the Church play in fostering Christian unity [in Europe] in the past, and what can it do to promote it now?

Russello: The Church has been the central institution of Christian unity. As I explained earlier, for Dawson [1889-1970] the Church united the disparate people of Europe into a spiritual whole. The Church’s mission is to unite all things in Christ, and so therefore its temporal goals must mirror its eternal one.

As a convert, Dawson had an acute sense of the need for the Church to be an active agent of Christian unity. Dawson worked with an ecumenical organization called the Sword of the Spirit, which had been formed to resist totalitarianism and to place Christian values at the center of a new European civilization.

Dawson believed that Catholics must play a central role as instruments of Christian unity and in re-imagining Christian culture. If Catholics choose to remain passive, as Dawson wrote for the Catholic Herald in 1947, «they prove false to their own temporal mission, since they leave the world and the society of which they form a part to perish.»

As in 1947, Dawson would have seen the Church’s role as an instrument of unity even more critical today.

Q: Why does Dawson highlight the importance of religion and its formative role in society?

Russello: For Dawson, religion was «the key to history.» Culture is directly related to cult, with the organized practice of religious worship. Every culture has a religion at its core; the two rise and fall together.

As he wrote in 1938: «A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture.» Seeing modern Europe after the destruction of two World Wars, Dawson was concerned that the rise of secularism would mean the destruction of the unique achievements of Western culture.

Dawson wrote at a time when elite opinion considered religion merely as an explanation used by primitive people for things they could not understand, or something that would fade as scientific reasoning and economic progress occurred.

To the contrary, as Dawson argued that «the religious factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures than that which has usually been ascribed to it.»

Dawson reminds us that cultural or spiritual progress is not the same as political power or economic wealth.

«The fact is,» as Dawson wrote in an essay entitled «The Eclipse of Europe,» «that the fate of civilization is not determined solely, or even predominantly, by political and economic causes. The decline of the Roman Empire was also an age of spiritual rebirth, which prepared the way, not only for the coming of mediaeval Christendom, but also for the civilizations of Byzantium and Islam.»

This process of rebirth was not always peaceful; the Christians presented a challenge to pagan Rome and were slaughtered as martyrs for the Faith.

Similarly with our time, amid great economic and military powers there is much spiritual emptiness. Persecution of Christians increases throughout the world, and the secular nations of the West discourage public expressions of religious belief.

But there are also signs of spiritual awakening and resistance to secular pressures. It is this spiritual activity that Dawson finds to be the surest creator and sustainer of culture.

Q: What points in common are there between Pope John Paul II’s view of culture and Christianity and Dawson’s thought?

Russello: The greatest point of similarity between Dawson and the Pope John Paul II is that both are philosophers of culture. They both believe that the longings of humanity are answered not by material progress, but by a deep spiritual life expressed throughout the life and institutions of a culture.

Dawson shares with John Paul II an appreciation of some achievements of modernity, as well as its limitations. Dawson wrote: «The liberal movement in the wider sense transformed the world by an immense liberation of human energies, but liberalism in the narrower sense proved incapable of guiding the forces it had released.»

Dawson devoted much of his work to trying to reintegrate the achievements of modern society with its religious and spiritual foundations, in an effort to protect and further the spiritual dimension of human life. I believe Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals such as «Centesimus Annus,» expresses a similar point.

Both saw in the rise of the consumer culture a strong challenge to traditional Christian morals. What John Paul II has called «the culture of death» was very much in Dawson’s mind as he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s when the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany had passed.

Although Communism remained a threat, Dawson was convinced that the internal dissolution of Christian culture from the pressures of economic and moral liberalism was a graver threat. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging spiritual values, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political power.

Both Dawson and Pope John Paul would agree, I think, that these cannot substitute for a religious faith that expresses eternal truths and a rich spiritual life.

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