Page 11, 31st January 2003

31st January 2003
Page 11
Page 11, 31st January 2003 — Bad faith Anthony Symondson SJ on a biased history of Christianity

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Locations: Rome, Antioch


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Bad faith Anthony Symondson SJ on a biased history of Christianity

The Faith: A History of Christianity by Brim Moynahan, Aurum Press £30

inhuman terms the growth and survival of Christianity has heen one f the most surprising occurrences in the world. From a subversive beginning in Palestine — a remote, troublesome, unstable province of the Roman Empire — it grew from a persecuted sect into a body of the baptised that encircles the globe. This long, discursive book is not a history of the Church, but of Christianity as a complex ' phenomenon, its beliefs, personalities and practices, written from a Protestant perspective.

Institutional religion does not emerge creditably. The power of Christ to transform life and guide the conscience on an individual basis is set against the growth of the visible Body of Christ which i s generally presented as a bad development that frequently proved inimical to the spirit of the founder. The result presents an account that is inevitably, from a Catholic perspective, lopsided and tells only half the story. But this is

not necessarily a had thing, as it enables passages of history rarely considered by the general reader to be examined.

A key to Brian Moynahan's approach is to be found in the chapter on medieval manifestations of the Holy Spirit, when he declares that "Popes and inquisitors were, in a sense, at war with the nature of Christianity itself, with its tendency to spawn individuals and sects who consider their wildly varying beliefs to be blessed by Pauline grace and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The Church had a vested interest in claiming heresy to be the worst of all crimes." Moynahan quotes with approval Lord Acton's opinion of the Church as an agent of repression against heterodox groups. He described it as "religious assassination" by which the Pope "made murder a legal basis of the Christian Church."

So, what is the origin of this unattractive position? The first Christians had been burned by pagans at Rome "like torches in the night". In386, at Trier in modern France, Christians set fire to groups of their own for the

first time. The accused were charged,with heresy, and the Christians imposed the same penalty on them as had Nero. Priscillian,,Bishop of Avila, was charged with Manicheanism but the executions of him and his followers were inflicted by a secular court, if from a religious motivation. This provoked controversy and protest and was not repeated for more than six centuries. Nevertheless a precedent had been set.

Heresy bred orthodoxy. The battle between them was, from the time of St. Ignatius of Antioch (c35— c107), inevitable. In its original sense "orthodox" meant true and upright doctrine. But Moynahan maintains that, far from being faithful to the apostolic tradition, "the Church was obliged to elaborate its own dogma; to make this dogma binding, it had to establish itself as the sole judge and guardian of true faith." St. Ignatius first used the phrase "Catholic Church" to express its universality and claim to have authority over the whole body of the faithful. This authority lay with the leadership of the Church.

"Do nothing," he wrote, "without the bishops and presbyters." The bishop was supreme because he was "as the Lord", and to celebrate baptism and the Eucharist "is not lawful apart from the bishop".

The Church was "one, holy, and apostolic" and St. Ignatius's assertion of its catholicity was the basis of orthodoxy. The Church alone could declare truths "which must be believed with divine and catholic faith". To deny or doubt such truth was to commit grave sin for which the punishment was excommunication. "Hut if he refuses to hear the Church," he quoted Jesus as saying, "treat him as a pagan or a tax collector" (Matt 18:17). St Ignatius maintained the divinity and humanity of Christ; that the life of Christ is continued in the Eucharist; that the best safeguard of the unity of the Church is the bishop; and he regarded the Church of Rome with special reverence.

There, in essence, from the time of St Peter lies the source of the subsequent development of the Church, the defender of orthodoxy, to the present time. Beyond that framework the truth revealed by God in Christ was impaired. Within that divinely ordained context lies the human failure and sin of the Church which has frequently resulted in the abuse of power and wickedness that at times makes the blood run cold and cries for forgiveness. But from the dunghill lilies grow in the lives of the saints and those who have achieved, and continue to achieve, holiness. The Church is about death and resurrection, its Claws give it human credibility as a body of sinners in need of a Saviour. To represent it predominantly in terms of human failure diminishes the . power of Christ to redeem.

Moynahan would, I suspect. like us to believe that it is the free spirit who truly represents the soul of Christ. The defence of truth is seen in terms of imposing selfinflicted wounds and the faith itself is presented as subject "to the inconsistencies and energies of mankind". The heroism and witness of the saints is achieved against the odds of a powerful, repressive institution. h enjoyed this at times exasperating book and learnt from it hut, ultimately, it made me thankful for the Church without which the Gospel would not have been preached and the teaching of Christ would have died on the desert air.

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