Off the coast of Africa near the country of Yemen there is an island called Socotra. According to tradition, St. Thomas the apostle was shipwrecked there and used the remnants of his boat to build a church. The evidence that Thomas may have traveled there appears to be strong, but regardless of who founded the first Christian community on the island, by the tenth century virtually all of the inhabitants had been converted.
Through an unfortunate series of events in the sixteenth century, Christianity almost completely disappeared from the island.
What could have caused this?
Socotra is isolated. Communicating with people in remote places was extremely difficult in those days, and so the inhabitants there likely weren’t in regular contact with the Church at large.
Meanwhile, in the fifth century, the heresy of Nestorianism had arisen. This view (named after Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople) held that Christ was two people: one human and the other divine. It was declared a heresy at the Council of Ephesus in 431, favoring the correct position that Christ is one person with two natures.
The result was a schism that saw a number of churches break from the West. Many of Nestorius’s supporters relocated to areas known today as Iraq and Iran.
This would have had an impact on the Christians of Socotra. Marco Polo reported that the bishop there owed allegiance not to the pope in Rome but to the patriarch in Baghdad (cf. The Travels of Marco Polo).
The Nestorian patriarchs had their own problems to deal with. Muslim aggression was keeping them busy, and so support for the mission on the island was neglected. Eventually, the Christians on Socotra would succumb to Arab invaders.
Here we have an example of extreme isolation. While Christianity managed to thrive for over a thousand years on the island, an unfortunate series of events drove it further away from the universal Church. These days there is scarcely any evidence that a Christian community was ever there at all.
An Analogy for Spiritual Isolation
The history of Christianity on Socotra strikes me as an analogy for spiritual isolation. We can see this among Christians in our own day when they are cut off from the Church, leaving them vulnerable to external influences that either distort their understanding of the Faith or cause them to abandon Christianity altogether.
In recent times there has been an increase in the number of people subscribing to the “me and Jesus” mentality. Many of us have friends or family members who say, “I don’t need the Church to be spiritual.”
There are many pitfalls to this approach. If one does not need the Church to be “spiritual,” then one does not need the sacraments. If one does not need the sacraments, then one does not need to attend Mass on Sundays. If one does not need Mass on Sundays, then one eventually cuts oneself off from the community.
One is also left to one’s own devices in matters of theology and biblical interpretation when the institutional Church is removed from the equation. All of this can lead to a “spiritual chaos.” You can imagine how the rest of this downward trajectory plays out.
Many Christians have abandoned long-held beliefs on important issues ranging from the use of contraception to the existence of hell. The teachings of the Church have little meaning for those who have isolated themselves in order to formulate their own ideas of what Christianity ought to be.
The difference between the Christians of Socotra and us in the United States is that the events leading to their isolation from the Church were mostly beyond their control.
Where to Learn More
If you are interested in understanding why the teaching authority of the Catholic Church is so essential to the integrity of the Faith, I recommend the DVD Truth And Consequences: The Case For Authority by our director of apologetics, Tim Staples. In this lively talk he lays out the case for the magisterium and gives examples of the consequences arising from its absence.