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The Church at the Turning Points of History

The Church at the Turning Points of History


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Kurth begins with the Mission of the Church. He then considers the relation of the Church with the Jews. The next turning point is the Church and the Barbarians. This is followed by the Church and Feudalism. Neo-Caesarism follows as a turning point. Soon the Church must deal with the Renaissance. This is followed by the Church and the Revolution.
The Mission of the Church opens: "In the history of mankind considered as a whole, there are two grand divisions. On the one hand, there is the ancient world seated in the darkness of death; on the other hand, the modern world which advances in the light of the Gospel. This is, beyond compare, the greatest fact of history."
The Church then deals with the Jews, stepping out beyond Judaism to become a universal religion.
"This goes to show that the Christians had adopted without misgiving the common belief in the eternity of the Roman civilization. Whatever the pretensions of their persecutors, the Christians were not less patriotic than the pagans, though in another way, and their religious belief contained nothing contrary to their convictions as citizens. Nay more, they found in their sacred volumes passages which seemed to confirm this conviction in a marvelous manner. For what was that fourth and last empire foretold by Daniel, and compared to iron to symbolize its indestructible duration, but the Roman Empire. This belief in the eternity of the Roman Empire was, in away, part and parcel of their faith; in fact, it was adduced by the first apologists as an unanswerable proof of their patriotism. "How", said one of them, "could we desire the end of the Empire, since thereby we would desire the end of the world'"" And thus we consider the barbarians who had to be civilized.
Feudalism then became the danger, when the secular authority wished to interfere with the authority of the Church and to control the Church for its own ends. And this was the problem of feudalism.
On Neo-Caesarism we read: "Who then was the mysterious and terrible enemy that was about to upset Christian and change the course of civilization. It was the Lay State, a new and conquering power which preceding centuries had not known. It rose suddenly, like a giant, to face the Papacy and provoke it to mortal combat. Armed from the beginning with a theory from which it deduced its omnipotence, this Lay State claimed the adherence of its followers with the authority of an unquestionable dogma, though in reality it had no other principle than force; it began against the Church of Christ the long drawn out combat which has not yet neared its end, and whose fluctuating fortunes remained for our descendants the most solemn problem of history." Kurth comments on the evil of Neo-Caesarism: "It was, first of all, the destruction of what has been called the Christian Republic of the Middle Ages. Up to then Europe was strongly united not only by the identity of religious beliefs but also by the identity of political maxims. It connected public right with Christian morality, and recognized as the interpreter of the latter the Vicar of Jesus Christ. From the time of Philip the Fair it was so no more. There was no longer a Christian Republic, as was evidenced by the disappearance of what was its wonderful manifestation-the Crusades."
The Renaissance soon follows with its own problems, including the Protestant Revolt.
Let us consider the Revolution, which remains with us to this day: "If conditions were such, how explain this atrocious Revolution, this hideous debauch, whither sacrilegious folly and sanguinary impiety led dismayed humanity for years. ... Are they the tragical phases of that gigantic struggle between two powers which is going on forever for the possession of society-the struggle between good and evil, between truth and error, between God and Satan."

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781484818220
Publisher: CreateSpace Publishing
Publication date: 04/26/2013
Pages: 198
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.42(d)

About the Author

Godfrey Kurth was a leading Belgian Catholic historian, a Knight of the Order of Pius IX, and the director of the Belgian Historical Institute in Rome. He died in 1916. Patrick Foley, PhD, is a well-known Catholic historian and the author of approximately 140 published works, including three books on Catholic history. He received a papal medallion from pope John Paul II for writing the official essay on the history of the Church in Texas.

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The Church at the Turning Points of History

By Godfrey Kurth

IHS Press

Copyright © 2007 IHS Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-932528-43-5



In the History of mankind considered as a whole there are two grand divisions. On the one hand, there is the ancient world seated in the darkness of death; on the other hand, the modern world which advances in the light of the Gospel. This is, beyond compare, the greatest fact of history.

Christianity opens new era for humanity.

The opposition between these two worlds is sharp and well-defined. The line of demarcation which separates them is very clearly drawn. It is not an imperceptible and gradual evolution that leads humanity from the one to the other. It is rather a new spiritual influence, a mighty impulse which brings about an immediate and radical change. We know the precise date of this great change, and we have taken that date as the starting point of our chronology. It is the Christian era that opens the annals of a new creation and a new humanity.

What is the vital principle of this new creation? It is the new ideal brought into the world by Jesus Christ, or, to adhere to the simplicity of the Gospel language, it is what Jesus Christ Himself calls the New Law. Deposited within the bosom of humanity as leaven in the paste – this comparison is also His – it produces there the marvellous fermentation that transforms the most refractory elements. Allow this leaven to do its work. The more it acts the more substantial and nourishing will be the bread of civilization.

Christianity offers supreme happiness to all.

The principle of Christian civilization is essentially opposed to that of ancient society. Compare the two worlds: on the surface you perceive many characteristics common to both, but at the bottom of these common traits you perceive the irreducible contradiction of the fundamental idea on which they were based. There is question not merely of a difference of degree, but of a difference of nature, which has a bearing on a most important matter, on the most vital interests of humanity. The two societies differ in their respective conception of life and the solution they give to the problem of existence.

Antiquity has never proposed this problem in formal terms; moreover the ancients lacked both the courage and the knowledge required to solve it. In practice, however, they have always given the wrong solution. Christianity has proposed the question boldly and has answered it in a triumphant manner.

Why has man been placed in this world, and what is the end of his existence here below? Must he be only the ephemeral spectator of the tableau of creation, or the unconscious instrument of some mission higher than his own, or the lamentable plaything of blind forces that dispute the possession of his senses and of his heart? Is he, with the contradictions that are at the root of his being, and with his boundless aptitude for suffering, the abortive child of this world and the plaything of an eternal illusion? Has he a future to conquer, an end to attain, and are this future and this end worth the effort they cost him? Or is he only a fortuitous and lamentable combination of elements associated for the time in a community of joys and of sufferings, to be finally disassociated and recomposed later on in the eternal circle of pitiless fatalities?

Christianity answers these questions with absolute clearness and certitude.

Man is not a child of chance – he is the creature of God. God has made him the king of creation. He has given him a mind to know Him, a heart to love Him, and a will to be in accord with His own. He has opened before him the way he must follow, He has taught him the law he must observe, He has promised him eternal happiness as the reward for fidelity in serving Him. In other words, He has made the fidelity of man to the Supreme Being the condition of his supreme happiness.

Paganism brings empty pleasures to few.

This is the teaching of Christianity. In this promise all religions and philosophies join Christianity. But, unable to rise with her to the pure and high sources whence flows the true happiness of the human race, they flutter about with their short wings in a common and feverish aspiration for happiness. They also promise happiness to men, but they do not understand it as Christianity does. The good, in which they make men hope to find this happiness, has none of the qualities that give it stability. It is not absolute, it is not pure, it is not eternal. It is a sum of joys that do not go beyond the duration of time, the boundaries of earth, or the reach of mankind. In a word, it is not happiness, but pleasure; – sometimes pleasure of a higher order, when, as with elevated souls, it consists in the intoxication of glory; other times pleasure of a low and degrading kind, when, as with the multitude, it limits itself to the gross pleasures of the senses. In every case, whether it be intellectual or material, it is but the shadow, or to speak better, it is only the appearance of happiness. And yet this sort of pleasure – and this alone – antiquity had the courage to promise to men, and the power to procure for some of them. And antiquity never meant anything else when there was mention of Roman felicity – that fiction so dear to the statesmen of the Empire of the Caesars.

Quite a complicated machinery was needed to realize this paltry happiness. It was necessary to place in common the powers of all men, and to deposit them in the hands of a being produced by their collectivity – the State. Invested with all the power and the rights which before could have resided in all and in each of its members, the State undertook to procure for them the sum of all the enjoyments which constituted their ideal of happiness. These enjoyments may be summed up in two words: idleness and voluptuousness. To eat one's bread without labor and to pass one's time in amusement was, to use a familiar and at the same time a very exact phrase, the maximum of felicity as the ancient State understood it.

It was not much, and, nevertheless, how few could enjoy this meagre happiness. It could be the lot of but a small minority. If a man lives without work, he forces others to work for him; if he lives for pleasure, it is necessary for him to have an army of people who will furnish him amusement. There existed, therefore, legions of slaves of every kind to procure bread and pleasure for the favorites of the State; the terrestrial paradise of the chosen few had for its correlative the terrestrial hell of the multitude. Even at this price, were the elect sure of their happiness? No: they wasted away with disgust and weariness. For such is the inexorable providential law attached to the abuse of earthly pleasures. Pleasure, chosen as an end, is a cruel god who devours his adorers. In the midst of pleasure the happy ones of the world felt themselves taken at the throat by the lurking hand of death which crouched within their poisoned joys. They saw these sources of prosperity that formerly were fed by the sacred sweat of labor dry up around them. The Empire was no longer defended except by Barbarians; public works were carried on only by slaves; the fields, deserted by the farmer, were fruitless; the ranks of human society began to thin out in a dreadful manner. Happiness, as understood by the ancient world, was nothing but the slow suicide of society. Thus, universal misery sprang from the very principle of the civilization that had promised to its votaries happiness here below.

The happiness Christianity promises to man presents a sum of characteristics radically opposed to those of the Roman felicity. It consists in the enjoyment of a Supreme Being, that is to say, in the union with God. It is perfect like the Good which is its principle, it is indefectible, it is eternal, it is made for all on the sole condition that they obey the law of love: – to love God above all things and one's neighbor as oneself. The happiness of the pagan is not possible without the corresponding misery of the majority of the human race. The Christian cannot be truly happy unless he makes as many as possible of his fellow men participate in his happiness. He does this directly by the daily practice of charity, and indirectly by mortification and labor. By mortifying himself he frees those who minister to his pleasures; by working he produces a wealth that increases the well-being of others. In principle, a Christian society is a society of brothers, just as in principle, a pagan society is a society of slaves.

The Church is reservoir of divine life of Christianity.

It is not enough to know the difference – or better, the opposition – between these two principles. It is necessary also to see how the Christian principle was able to implant itself in human society notwithstanding the violence which it does to human nature, how it could continue in existence notwithstanding the bitter war which all the passions have declared against it, how it has succeeded in becoming the guide and the light of the better part of the human race. Why does the word which has promulgated the New Law always dominate the development of our civilization, as an ideal acclaimed even by those who misunderstand it; while so many other golden words, fallen from the lips of the ancient sages, have suffered the lot of those delicious perfumes which are exhaled by some choice flower but which, after having for a time perfumed the neighborhood, scattered and vanished in the air without leaving a trace save in the memory?

Christian faith answers that this word is a divine word, and that the words of Jesus Christ, according to His promise, will not pass away. But the Christian, who seeks to give an account of his faith, is not forbidden to study the manner in which Providence assures to His word the indefectible authority it should have over men. If Christianity has been more than a sublime philosophical doctrine, if it has been a principle of life and of action which has permeated, quickened, and transformed the world, it is because, from the first, it was so constituted that it could live and perpetuate itself on earth. It was clothed with a living body which became the agent of its transcendent action; this body is the Church.

The Church, with her powerful and incorruptible organism, is the reservoir of the divine life of Christianity, distributing this life and renewing it at its source. She has been created perfect, because to fulfil her mission she must have in herself the principle of life; sovereign, that she may be fettered by no one; universal, to embrace all men; indefectible, to extend to all generations. It is in her and by her that the human race realizes its supernatural mission, which is the conquest and the enjoyment of the Supreme Good. She assumes the direction of the moral life, but leaves to the State a portion beautiful enough. This portion is the earth which the State has at all times claimed and striven to obtain. The Church reserves for herself heaven in which the State has no concern.

The State is the society of bodies, the Church, of souls. The former is the kingdom of men, the latter is the Kingdom of God. The Church does not declare war on the State, she extends to it the hand of friendship. If the State helps the Church, she blesses it; if the State respects her liberties, she asks nothing more; if the State attacks these liberties, she sheds her blood rather than allow it. For she cannot renounce her mission. She has received charge to teach all nations. She is responsible to God for the salvation of humanity and, with regard to this duty, every man has the right to call her to account.

How the Church fulfils her mission.

How has the Church fulfilled her mission? During the course of the nineteen centuries just elapsed, has she always grasped the many and changeable problems that have confronted her? Has she, like the father of the family spoken of in the Gospel, known how to draw from her treasure the eternal truths which admit of no compromise, together with the new applications which vary according to the diversity of time and place? Has she known how to speak their language to all the centuries she has traversed, and to familiarize herself with the genius of all the peoples she has met on her way? Has she been, has she truly remained, that universal and indefectible society that contains within itself all civilization, or would she be merely one of those fleeting forms, in which, at a given moment, the human race embodied its ever changing aspirations? This is the question which it behooves us to answer in the lectures that will follow.

It is a grand panorama that will be unrolled. I dare say, there is none grander in all history, nor is there any more instructive. It is not for me to deduce in advance its teachings; but from the very outset who could doubt of their bearing and eloquence? They will, I hope, speak loud enough to be understood without much mental effort. Our ambition will be more modest and at the same time more elevating than the wild fancy of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who believed he heard the harmony produced by the eternal movement of the spheres. We will strive to understand the voice that issues forth from the great phenomena of history, and which is, in a certain measure, the voice of God.



In this lecture I shall try to answer this question: How did Christianity become a universal religion? At first sight it would seem that this is not a question at all. At this day it is indeed beyond question that Christianity is by its nature the religion of humanity and that once she had received her mission to preach the Gospel to every creature she could not shirk it without perishing. But these considerations, which are enough for the faith of the believer, do not satisfy the curiosity of the historian. For what interests the historian is not merely the terminal of the journey but the course of travel as well. The question under consideration comes then to this: What obstacles hindered Christianity from becoming a universal religion? And how did she succeed in overcoming them?

Christianity hindered in expansion by question of Ancient Law.

The great obstacles, or, rather, the chief danger that the Church encountered in the first years lay in her ignorance of the attitude to be assumed concerning the Ancient Law and Israel. The lapse of time has solved this problem clearly and with precision, and now it is within the grasp of a child. There is nothing now in common between Israel rejected, shut up within her synagogue, and the people of God gathered about the Church. But it was quite different when the Church came into being. Far from considering Israel as the people of reprobation, the Christians, one and all – the Apostles at their head – continued to regard the Jews as the people of God. Being Jews themselves and holding fast to the Law of Moses, they saw in Christianity the complement of the Law and in the Church the consummate flower that came forth to crown the fertile root of Jesse.

Christian Church Jewish in origin.

And how could they have believed otherwise? For centuries Israel had waited for the Messiah, who was to come according to the promise of the prophets to establish the kingdom of God, and to bring upon earth the reign of justice and peace. It mattered not whether this kingdom was of a temporal order – as the greater part of the Jews believed – or of the spiritual order – as the Christians admitted from the beginning – this much was certain to them all:- it was to be the kingdom of Israel. Was it not the people of Israel who had received the divine promises? Was it not Abraham to whom it had been foretold that his posterity would be as numerous as the stars of heaven, and was it not David to whom God had announced that he had made a covenant with his house and that from him should come forth the Desired of all Nations? Was not Israel the guardian of the Law, of that Law which Christ said He had come to fulfil and not to destroy? And had He not said further that He had come first for the wandering sheep of the flock of Israel, and had He not recommended His Apostles to preach the Gospel first to the Jews?

How, then, could the Church have been to men of that time other than an extension of Israel, a new budding forth of Jacob? She was wholly Jewish: her Divine Founder was a Jew, the apostles and disciples were Jews, the first converts also were Jews. The three thousand persons whom Saint Peter baptized at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were Jews of the dispersion; and he addressed Jews exclusively, when he said: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know most certainly that God hath made both Lord and Christ, this same Jesus, whom you have crucified." (Acts II, 36) And later, when the apostles and disciples carried the Gospel beyond Judea, they tarried only in the towns where there were Jews, stayed in the Jewish quarters, frequented the synagogues, and it was there they announced to all that the Messiah of the prophets had come nd that He was called Jesus of Nazareth. In a word, everywhere, throughout the entire world as at Jerusalem, the Church was sinking its roots deep into the synagogue, and the first Christian congregations were in truth assemblies of Jews.


Excerpted from The Church at the Turning Points of History by Godfrey Kurth. Copyright © 2007 IHS Press. Excerpted by permission of IHS Press.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION by Patrick Foley, Ph.D.,
FOREWORD by Bishop John P. Carroll,
I. The Mission of the Church,
II. The Church and the Jews,
III. The Church and the Barbarians,
IV. The Church and Feudalism,
V. The Church and Neo-Caesarism,
VI. The Church and the Renaissance,
VII. The Church and the Revolution,

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