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Did the Church Destroy Civilization?

The Western academic bias against the Christian faith in general and the Catholic Church specifically has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. Although today there are some areas of scholarship where the bias has been beaten back or even dismantled, in most institutions of higher learning it is still alive and well.

A recent book review in the New York Times is a prime example. English historian Bettany Hughes wrote a review of The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, authored by journalist and classicist Catherine Nixey. The publisher claims the book provides “evidence of early Christians’ campaign of terror” against the pagan/classical world. “Nixey resurrects this lost history,” it continues, “offering a wrenching account of the rise of Christianity and its terrible cost.” Not unlike those of other recent historians who wrote controversial (and historically inaccurate) books about Pope Pius XII and the Second World War, Nixey’s biography highlights her Catholic background (her mother had been a nun and her father a monk) in an attempt to give weight to her criticisms of the Church.

I have not read Nixey’s book, but the glowing panegyric presented in the Times review gives us a fair idea of its contents—and of the secular academy’s eagerness to bend history to attack the Church.

Nixey’s thesis—that the Church destroyed the classical world—is not new. Many before her have claimed that Catholicism caused the downfall of the perfect, tolerant, and enlightened society of classical paganism (though tens of thousands of martyred Christians would disagree). Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), in his famous eighteenth-century work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, espoused this very myth. Gibbon believed that the Church’s emphasis on love and peace weakened the empire to the point of its collapse in the late fifth century. He also maintained that although the Church did convert the German tribes, in doing so it merely replaced their barbarism with ignorance, superstition, and intolerance. Other scholars, including Daniel J. Boorstin (1914-2004) in his book The Discoverers, asserted that, contrary to the “enlightened” tradition of Greece and Rome, the Church brought heavy-handed doctrine that retarded the development of Western thought until the reemergence of classical writings and art forms in the fifteenth-century Italian city-states.

Raised Catholic, Nixey initially recognized the great contribution of the Church in preserving classical literature (indeed, the labor of Catholic monks ensured that future generations could read such works) and Western Civilization generally, but later, as a student of the classics, she came to realize that, according to Hughes, “the early church was in fact a master of anti-intellectualism, iconoclasm, and mortal prejudice.” This recognition raised her “righteous fury” and led to the writing of her book, which even her sympathetic reviewer terms “scholarship as polemic.” But even though Hughes identifies Nixey’s writing as biased, she deems it excusable since the polemic is against Christianity. (I wonder if Hughes would pen such an enthusiastic review of a Christian author’s book detailing the evil excesses of ancient paganism and the slaughter of innocent Christian martyrs.)

The review presents examples of so-called Christian destruction of the classical world with a slanted perspective designed to make Christians appear always as the villain in the story. The destruction of the ancient pagan temple of Serapis in Alexandria, Egypt, for example, is cited as an example of Christian zealotry—but the story is only half-told. Hughes fails to mention the historical context of the time. Emperor Theodosius I the Great (r. 379-395) issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 declaring the Catholic faith the only legal religion in the empire. Paganism was outlawed, but its adherents ignored multiple imperial edicts banning the pagan cults.

A bishop named Theophilus, acting in accordance with the imperial edict, went to the temple, confiscated various pagan objects, and paraded them through the streets of the city. Pagans were incensed at Theophilus’s actions and rioted. They killed several Christians (a fact not mentioned in the review) and took others hostages as they barricaded themselves in the temple. The captured Christians were tortured and forced to sacrifice to the pagan gods. The emperor was made aware of the events and, in an effort to prevent further bloodshed, pardoned the pagans involved, declared the slain Christians martyrs, and ordered the destruction of the temple.

Another half-truth trick wielded by secular historians is to cite individual actions of Christians, or even of heretics, implying that they were acting on behalf of Christianity or the Church when that is clearly not the case. For example, Hughes mentions various extremists, such as the parabalini, an Eastern Christian group that reportedly engaged in violent activity— including the killing of the female pagan philosopher Hypatia—and the circumcellions, who were Donatist heretics in North Africa that attacked Catholics, in support of her thesis that “Christianity” was responsible for the destruction of classical culture.

Hughes provides a justification for anti-Christian academic bias. “[D]ebate—philosophically and physiologically—makes us human, whereas dogma cauterizes our potential as a species.” She and other like-minded academics hold that belief in divine revelation (exemplified by Christian dogma) enslaves the human race, leading to intolerance and violence. Only our own reason, set against dogmatism, allows us to be fully human. In an effort to lend credibility to her opinion, Hughes alludes to a law passed in the year 386 that advocated violence against those who disagree about religion but does not provide the source, name, or authority behind that law. She also takes a quote from St. John Chrysostom out of context in order to link him (and Christianity by extension) with Nazism.

In seeming contradiction to Gibbon, Hughes argues that Christian teaching infected the Roman Empire—already a violent society under paganism—with a fresh impetus to continue its militaristic endeavors in the name of the one true God. Unwilling to credit the Church’s extensive efforts to preserve, maintain, and improve Western civilization, both Nixey and Hughes bemoan the ascendancy of the Christian faith in the classical world, because it replaced the supposed wisdom of paganism with an “intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance.”

Sadly, although it is more pervasive in modernity, this rejection of the Church and the distortion of its history is not a new phenomenon. Christians have been the scapegoat of the secular world since the first centuries. As the Church Father Tertullian (163-230) aptly wrote, “If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is, ‘The Christians to the lion!’It is incumbent on Catholics to know the real story of our history so we can defend the Church against the falsehoods presented with apparent credibility by “scholars” with their own agendas.

Image: the Pantheon, an ancient pagan Roman temple rededicated as a Catholic church in A.D. 609

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