It is very easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that our age is some how special or much worse compared to previous ages. From the standpoint of world history, the last Century was the bloodiest on record, that seems to be undeniably true. But what about in Church History? The Synod on the Family has people up in arms about information and misinformation that is coming out of Rome. This cycle of misinformation will ramp up again next month when the Synod resumes. The reality is, however, that open discussion is how the Church conducts her affairs and then she makes pronouncements or clarifies doctrine after the discussion has closed. Far too many people are arguing that the Church is “doomed”, she’s filled with heretics (what’s new?!), and major changes are coming to the Church. It is frequently claimed that we are witnessing the worst period in the Church’s history. I’m afraid reality doesn’t support that assertion. Let’s take a brief walk through some of the Church’s more, umm…difficult periods.
1. Right After the Crucifixion
In my mind there is no darker period. The Apostles have scattered, except for St. John. Jesus is dead. The Apostles have hidden from the authorities and are now living with the shame of having abandoned their Lord. They do not know what to do next and fear that death awaits them if they are seen. They do not yet understand that the Paschal Mystery is taking place that would save the world. They do not grasp that the Resurrection is coming because they could not fully understand the mystery unfolding. You thought Jesus was special. Then you saw Him stripped and brutally killed. What now? Imagine that bleakness for a minute.
2. Roman Persecution(s)
Most people point to Nero when they are looking at Roman persecution, but his persecution of Christians was short-lived. Nero was just plain crazy! The real period of martyrdom began under Decius in 250 until 311 when Galerius brought it to a halt and then two years later Constantine would come to power and legalize Christianity. Approximately 60,000 Christians were put to death during the height of the Roman persecution.
3. Nicaea and the Arian heresy
In short, Arius was a bishop who denied the divinity of Christ. It is more complicated than that when looking at the arguments, but that is the gist of his heresy. At Nicaea, Arius’ position was condemned and it unleashed a period of upheaval through the hierarchy and laity. It was a heresy that would rear its ugly head repeatedly throughout Europe and Asia Minor for centuries. There are remnants of it today. Bishops excommunicated each other, banished each other, and groups of people ended up in battle because of this heresy. It has been one of the most difficult heresies the Church has faced. None of the bishops have excommunicated or banished another, so things are pretty tame right now.
4. Council of Chalcedon
The Council of Chalcedon was called in response to the Monophysite heresy, which denied the dual natures of Christ. This is where it was clarified that Christ has both a divine and a human nature simultaneously, known as the hypostatic union. Unfortunately, errors and heresies abounded in its wake and the Monothelite heresy which denied the two wills of Christ, ended in the martyrdom of a Pope (Pope Saint Martin) and the torture and banishment of the theologian, St. Maxiumus who began to resolve the conflict. Yes, there were martyrs in response to some of these heresies, especially when the Emperor got involved. I don’t think any monarchs or presidents have tried to banish or execute Pope Francis lately, or ever.
5. Post-Fall of Rome
The Roman Empire was in a state of collapse. There were great advancements underneath the surface and monasticism saved much of Western Civilization, but this period also saw a resurgence in Arianism and other heresies, the rise of Islam, the Iconoclast heresy, greater separation of the Eastern and Western Church which would lead to the Great Schism. It was a period of upheaval and Rome was under constant attack from rival forces. In 1054 the Eastern and Western Church’s split in the first great division to rock Christianity.
6. The Crusades
Much ink has been spilled over this period in Church history. A lot of it is ideologically driven, so it is difficult to get a clear understanding of the facts from secular scholars. In the beginning Christians went to stop attacks on Christian routes to the Holy Land, but the wars ended up lasting a long time and cost many lives. It was a time of much unrest and bloodshed. And properly speaking there’s no such thing as “the Crusades”. There were, rather, multiple campaigns and crusades to the Holy Land spanning hundreds of years.
7. Avignon and the Anti-Popes
There were periods in Church history when it took a couple of years to elect a pope. At one point, the anti-papal politics were so bad in Rome that the curia was too afraid to return, so they set up residence in Avignon. It was also during this time that the Black Death, also known as Bubonic Plague, ravaged Europe claiming the lives of 20 million people. Upon returning to Rome a volatile election process resulted in two popes and the Great Papal Schism occurred. What a mess! At least we only have one Pope.
8. The Protestant Reformation
We are Catholic, so that means the Reformation is not a good thing, especially since 30,000 denominations of Christianity are now in existence because of it. The Reformation was a time of competing theologies, politics, and power plays. There were many martyrs including St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, to name two. While this sad division persists, Catholics and Protestants are murdering one another a whole lot less these days.
9. The French Revolution
The French Revolution was disastrous for the Church. At one point Napoleon captured and imprisoned the Pope. The greatest impact the Revolution had was in limiting the Church’s political power and in attempting to turn the Church into an arm of the government. It was also during this time that faith and reason began to be divorced from one another in the prevailing culture and the Church began to be seen more and more as irrelevant. The French Revolution was a bloody affair that greatly impacted Western Civilization. No more guillotines is definitely a plus!
10. The 20th Century
The Century of World War I and World War II, the Armenian genocide, Cristiada War, Gulags, Mao, the Holocaust…the list goes on. The bloody tide was immense. The Church was targeted in many of the conflicts, especially in the Cristiada War and the Armenian genocide. Atheistic regimes abolished Christianity which lead to horrific human rights violations and genocide. It was an era of martyrs, as so many periods have been throughout the Church’s history. Thankfully, many of these regimes have fallen and Christianity is trickling back into those dark places. The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church.
This is a very brief trip through the Church’s 2000 year history. Plenty of books have written on these different events and I recommend giving some of them a read. The reality is that the Church has had martyrs in every age, heretics in every age, and conflict in every age. The bishops, priests, and laity have been trying to sink the ship that is the Church since her maiden voyage, but she is still here. Why? It is because the Deposit of Faith is protected and guarded by the Holy Spirit, not men. Our age is not any worse, if anything, it is the same as previous ages. We live in a time of heresy, denial of the truth, and confusion. Martyrdom is on the rise once again, especially in the Middle East and Africa, and other forms of persecution are on the rise worldwide. The Church is at odds with the world and Our Savior, Jesus Christ, was put to death. What makes us think that our fate will or should be anything less? Christianity is not easy and as G.K. Chesterton said so eloquently: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” What can we do in our age when the heresies are focused on the pelvic issues? We must focus on living holy lives and we must pray, fast, evangelize, and trust in the Holy Spirit.