The Cultural Consequences Of Christian Disunity I – Christopher Dawson

July 25, 2011

Jean Restout, Pentecost, 1732

If you still don’t understand the divide between Catholics and Protestants, this is perhaps the most lucid and intelligent historical and cultural assessment of that division that I have ever encountered.


Of all divisions between Christians, that between Catholics and Protestants is the deepest and the most pregnant in its historical consequences. It is so deep that we cannot see any solution to it in the present period and under existing historical circumstances. But at least it is possible for us to take the first step by attempting to overcome the enormous gap in mutual understanding which has hitherto rendered any intellectual contact or collaboration impossible.

From this point of view the problem is not to be found so much in the sphere of theology, strictly speaking, as in that of culture and historical tradition. For the changes that followed the Reformation are not only the work of the Churches and the theologians. They are also the work of the statesmen and the soldiers. The Catholic and Protestant worlds have been divided from one another by centuries of war and power politics, and the result has been that they no longer share a common social experience. Each has its own version of history, its own social inheritance, as well as its own religious beliefs and standards of orthodoxy. And nowhere is this state of things more striking than in America, where the English Protestant North and the Spanish Catholic South formed two completely different worlds which had no mental contact with one another.

It was not until the 19th century that this state of cultural separation came to an end; and the change was especially sharp in the English-speaking countries when Catholicism and Protestantism finally came together within the same societies and cultures. In England this was due to the movement of intellectual rapprochement which is represented by the Oxford Movement and the personality of Newman, while in America it was the result of external forces — above all the mass immigration of the Irish Catholics to America in the middle of the 19th century, which produced such profound social changes, particularly in New England.

Nowhere in the world have Catholicism and Protestantism been brought together more suddenly and closely than in Boston. Throughout the 19th century these two sections of the population remained separate peoples, although they necessarily shared the same national and regional citizenship. It is only in quite recent times that they have come to share a common culture. But this culture is a purely secular one; and one of the reasons that it is so completely secular is that there has been this complete cleavage of spiritual tradition and absence of intellectual contact between Catholics and Protestants.

No doubt there are many other factors in the secularization of modern culture, but this is one for which Christians are directly responsible. The movement of history, which for Christians in some way reflects the action of divine providence, has put an end to the social division of Christendom which followed the religious revolution of the 16th century. Hence it is now our business to see that the inner division in our culture should also be overcome by a progressive movement of intellectual understanding, the reconstitution of a common world of discourse and of a new dialogue between Catholics and Protestants.

In this work of mutual explanation there are two main fields to be covered. First there is the theological field, in which the student has to study the positive developments of Catholic and Protestant doctrine so as to understand the exact nature of the divergence in our beliefs. In the past this field had become a battleground of theological controversy so that it was a source of division and antagonism rather than understanding. Indeed it was the controversial character of theology that did more than anything else to discredit it in the eyes of the world. It is only in recent times that theological studies have taken a new direction and there is a growing tendency to re-examine the whole question in the light of first principles.

We see the results of this new theological orientation in the French series published under the title Unam Sanctam, and there has been a parallel movement of theological thought in Germany. Indeed it was there that the new approach first originated more than a century ago with the writings of John Adam Moehler. Today there is an international literature on the theology of Christian unity, which is likely to increase as a result of the Ecumenical Council.

But in addition to this theological study we have also to study the historical background and the cultural development of Catholic and Protestant society during the centuries of disunity. It is these historical studies that have been most neglected in the past, owing to the artificial separation between ecclesiastical and political history, which has had the effect of focusing the light of historical research on certain limited aspects of the past and of neglecting others that were intrinsically no less important. Thus political history has developed as the history of the European State system and the power conflict between the European dynasties and empires, and finally of the political revolutions that have changed the forms of the state.

It is only in modern times that historians have attempted to rectify this one-sided emphasis by opening up the new field of economic history, which today is generally recognized as no less important than political history.

But this is an exception, and there are still important fields of culture which are relatively uncultivated by the historians. The obvious solution would seem to be the expansion of historical science to include the whole of human culture in all its manifestations; but in spite of the efforts of German culture-historians to create a new study of this kind, it has failed to establish itself as a scientific discipline and is still looked on with considerable suspicion by the professional historians. In any case, we have to consider the question of religious history as a field of study which historians ought to take account of, but which they have in fact neglected. No doubt their answer would be that this is the business of the ecclesiastical historians. This is true enough in theory. In practice, however, ecclesiastical history is as highly specialized as political history, which it resembles in certain aspects.

The ecclesiastical historians have dealt exhaustively with the history of heresies and theological controversies, but they have shown little interest in religious culture. Even such a famous book as Ritschl’s History of Pietism is not a genuinely historical work. It is a polemical work, devoted to the demonstration of a theological thesis rather than to the exposition of a phase of religious history or the explanation of a form of religious experience. In fact it is not to the ecclesiastical historians but to the literary historians that we must look for the main achievements in this field. With all his faults SainteBeuve was a real religious historian when he wrote his Port Royal; and in our own days I think that the best approach to religious history has been made from the literary side, in respect of Catholicism, by Bremond in his literary study of religious experience in France in the 17th century, and of Protestantism by Professors Perry Miller and Johnston in their study of the New England mind.

When we come to the subject of this work, which is the development of the Catholic and Protestant cultures in modern times, we shall find ourselves in a no man’s land, between the political and the ecclesiastical historians. For while the actual schism which destroyed the religious unity of Western Europe has been studied exhaustively by both. groups of historians, neither of them has paid much attention to the development of the new forms of religious culture which took the place of the old common culture of medieval Christendom. Yet no one can deny their importance, for they had a considerable effect not only on the development of literature and music and art but also on the structure of social life, as we see in a very striking way in the contrasts in the social development of the two Americas.

And it is the same with the following period. For the political and ecclesiastical historians have both written a great deal on the history of the 18th century Enlightenment and on the political and religious revolution which followed it, but the religious revival of the 19th century, which transformed and re-created the Christian world that we know and in which we live, has, I believe, never been studied in its cultural aspects. One should perhaps make an exception as far as North America is concerned. For American Catholicism is the creation of this period, and in so far as historians attempt to study American Catholicism, they are bound to focus their attention on the 19th century development. Even so, it is impossible to study that development without studying the European background from which it emerged and which influenced its development in so many different ways. Yet there has been no study of the European Catholic revival by American historians, so far as I am aware, and very few translations of European works on the subject.

Moreover there is another and more fundamental reason why religious history during the last century or two should be a neglected and difficult field. For this is the age when the secularization of Western culture was triumphant and when religion was consequently pushed out of social life and increasingly treated as a private affair that only concerned the individual conscience. Whereas in the past religion had occupied the center of the stage of world history, so that a monk and a mystic like St. Bernard had moved armies and had become a counselor of kings, now it had withdrawn into private life and had left the stage of history to the representatives of the new political and economic forces.

This progressive extrusion of Christianity from culture is the price that Christendom has had to pay for its loss of unity  – it is part of what Richard Niebuhr has called “the Ethical Failure of the Divided Church.” The tragedy of schism is that it is a progressive evil. Schism breeds schism, until every social antagonism is reflected in some new religious division and no common Christian culture is conceivable. In the old world of united Christendom these social antagonisms were as strong as they are today, but they were antagonisms within a common society, and the Church was seen as the ultimate bond of unity. As William Langland writes, “He called that house Unity — which is Holy Church in English.” No one was more aware than Langland of the evils of contemporary society — the whole of Piers Plowman is an impassioned plea for social and religious reform, so much so that he has sometimes been regarded as a harbinger of the Protestant Reformation. But his emphasis is always on unity: “Call we to all the Commons that they come into Unity” “and there stand and do battle against Belial’s children.” As I have pointed out elsewhere, the creative age of medieval culture was the result of the alliance between the Papacy and the Northern Reformers, represented by the Cluniacs and the Cistercians, and when this alliance was broken, the vitality of medieval culture declined.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century represents a final breach between the Papacy and the Northern Reformers — between the principle of authority and the principle of reformation. But both principles were alike essential to the traditions of Western Christendom, and, even in the state of division neither part of the Christian world could dispense with them. Therefore the Catholic world developed a new reforming movement, as represented by the Jesuits and the other new religious Orders; while the Protestant world had to create new patterns of authority and theological tradition, such as we see in the ecclesiastical and theological discipline of the Calvinist Churches. But this pattern was never a universal one, and the Protestant world was weakened from the beginning by continuous theological controversies which produced a further series of schisms and permanent divisions between the different Protestant Churches.

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  1. point of clarification: do you mean “Dawkins” in your titles when you have “Dawson”?

    • No, I don’t. Corrections made. Thanks for the feedback.


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