It is evident from the various definitions of civilization with which we grappled in my last article (What is Civilization?) that it is necessary to differentiate between the modern understanding of it as an intellectual construct of the Enlightenment and the traditional understanding of it as the cultural manifestation of the accumulated wisdom of humanity throughout the ages. In order to make this necessary distinction, it has been customary to append the adjective “western” or “Christian” to the noun “civilization,” thereby distinguishing the traditional understanding from its modern and postmodern antithesis. The problem is that the employment of the adjective surrenders the high ground to the noun, relegating Christianity to the level of something relative to civilization and not something to which civilization is itself subject. This being so, and since true civilization must be a bona fide reflection of authentic truth, it would be better for Christians to resurrect the word “Christendom” to more adequately and accurately define and describe true civilization.
Having demonized Wikipedia in my last article for its woefully awry definition and discussion of civilization, it is good to be able to endorse its definition of Christendom, which it correctly describes as having “several meanings”:
In a cultural sense, it refers to the worldwide community of Christians, adherents of Christianity. In its historical sense, the term usually refers to the medieval and early modern period, during which the Christian world represented a geopolitical power juxtaposed with both paganism and especially the military threat of the Muslim world. In the more limited and traditional sense of the word, it refers to the sum total of nations in which the Catholic Church is the established religion of the state, or which have ecclesiastical concordats with the Holy See.
The last of the “several meanings” given by Wikipedia is the “contemporary sense” in which “it may simply refer collectively to Christian majority countries or countries in which Christianity dominates or nations in which Christianity is the established religion.”
Of these various definitions of Christendom it is necessary to distinguish between the three definitions given above which see Christendom as a continuous and contemporary reality and the purely historical definition which sees it as referring solely to a particular period in history that has already passed. If Christendom is indeed defined and confined by its specific place in the mediaeval and early modern periods, it can be said to no longer exist or at least to have passed away. It can be said that Christendom is a thing of the past and that it is not present in or relevant to the modern world, the latter of which can be defined as being post-Christendom and therefore, by implication, post-Christian.
It should be noted and indeed stressed that many Christians, especially Catholics, are as guilty of defining and confining Christendom in these purely historical terms as are anti-Christian “progressives.” Whereas “progressives” see the age of Christendom as the “dark ages” and look forward to a “golden age” in the future enlightened by secular progressive values, “regressive” Christians see the present and the future as the “dark ages” and look back to the “golden age” of Christendom. The problem is that both groups are idealizing and idolizing a “golden age” that does not exist. Perhaps we don’t need to say too much about the naïve and puerile fantasies that inspire the progressive vision of the future “golden age” but we do need to insist that the romantic and pious fantasies that inspire the regressive vision of the past “golden age” are equally flawed and fallacious.
The one golden rule is that there was and will be no golden age. As Tolkien reminds us, history is the Long Defeat with only occasional glimpses of final victory. Even in the mediaeval period, in which the political power of the Church was indubitably greater than it is today, corruption was rife both in society at large and in the Church herself. Even as the great cathedrals were being built, there were corrupt popes and sometimes two or three different people claiming to be pope at the same time. Even as the power of Christian Rome seemed triumphant, popes were being exiled from Rome itself. Even as the great saints walked the earth, great sinners walked beside them. Even as the Church defined orthodoxy, the world was being ripped apart with heresy. For every saint in Dante’s depiction of the so-called “golden age” of Christendom, there is a sinner wallowing in his self-made hell. For every good and holy parson on Chaucer’s pilgrimage, there are drunk and avaricious friars and monks; for every noble and pious ploughman, there is an ignoble and uncouth miller.
The world is always at war with Christ and His Church, and the worldly within the Church are always in an unholy alliance with the world. The world, as the Salve Regina reminds us, is a vale (and veil) of tears and a land of exile. To reiterate, as forcefully as possible, there was no golden age and there will be no golden age.
If the non-existent golden age undermines and shows the inadequacy of the historical meaning of Christendom, how might we best understand and define its contemporary and perennial meaning?
Christendom is best and most succinctly defined in traditional ecclesiological terms as the Church Militant. Whereas the Church in eternity is the Church Suffering (purgatory) and the Church Triumphant (heaven), the Church in time is always the Church Militant, which is to say that she is the Church at War. Her war is with the world and its worldliness. Her war is not fought with soldiers but with saints and also with those sinners who are trying to become saints. Her weapons are not those that bring death but life to her enemies. The culture of life that she brings with her is animated by the goodness of virtue, the truth of reason, and the beauty of God’s image in His creatures. She is the wellspring of civilization.
What is Christendom? It is the Presence of Christ in the world through His Presence in the Church He founded, against which the gates of hell will not prevail.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.