Christendom: old and new

We have come to think of the Church, the gathering of God’s faithful, in primarily spiritual terms. Throughout Christian history, however, faith implied social and even political obligations, which supplied a concrete expression for the Christian life. In the history of Christendom, one political organization prominently stands out: The Holy Roman Empire. We think of the Roman Empire as ending in 476, the date of the abdication of the last emperor in the West, although it continued with unbroken succession in the Byzantine East until 1453. In the year 800, Pope Leo III crowned a new emperor in the West, Charlemagne, to serve as the preeminent political ruler of Europe and the protector of the Church. Emperors were longstanding partners of the Pope, the one serving as political and the other as spiritual head of Christendom, though they often turned into rivals.

Peter Wilson provides a thorough account of the Empire, and a defense of its effectiveness as a political body, in his Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Belknap, 2020, paperback ed.). The extensive book (of just under 1,000 pages) does not provide a standard chronological account of figures and events, as it examines the overlooked heart of European culture through three sections focused on the ideal of the Empire, its unique sense of belonging that held it together, and finally its governance. The book’s organization provides an interesting and fresh approach, but it could have used a stronger narrative through coherent stories and summary of the key contributions of important figures (somewhat supplied by the timeline at the back of the book).The Empire’s key characteristics included its transnationality (centered in Germany and embracing at least parts of twelve other modern states); its decentralized authority, with governance dispersed among the Emperor, kings, electors (tasked with voting for new emperors), princes, prince-bishops, counts, knights, and free cities; and its cooperation with clergy, with bishops integrated into its civil rule.

As the nature of Christendom implies, the Church is not solely spiritual; it is a lived social and even cultural reality in the world, and the laity have a role in regulating Christian life in the world. The emperor was the chief representative of the laity and even held veto power within the papal conclave. As such, the emperor was the main defender of Christendom against external enemies and promoter of internal peace. The Holy Roman Empire experienced remarkable stability and purpose, uniting such a large expanse of territory and peoples through an understanding of the Empire’s role in the defense of local rights and of Christendom itself. It provided a sense of corporate identity and freedom by seeking consensus and peace, rooted in faith: “Freedom was expressed and celebrated collectively through communal gatherings and festivals, and by verbal and visual reminders of the community’s traditions and identity” (579).

Christendom is currently taking on new forms in the southern hemisphere. Despite having its original heartland in the Middle East, even 100 years ago it would have made sense to speak of Christianity as a religion centered in Europe and North America. No longer. There is a drastic shift in the proportion of Christian population to the southern hemisphere, ensuring Christian growth for the next 100 years and leading to new spiritual and social expressions of the faith. Philip Jenkins thoroughly explains this shift in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2011, 3rd ed.). Although the Catholic Church should experience significant growth in Latin America, Africa (which will become the largest Christian continent), and Southeast Asia, much of the global growth comes from Pentecostal and independent groups. “The Christian world will have turned upside down,” Jenkins notes, as a solid majority of Christians will come from the south, while “Christianity worldwide is becoming steadily more charismatic” (113, 85).

With growth in numbers, new social expressions of Christianity will follow. And like the Dark Ages of Europe, the Church is stepping into the social void to provide stability: “All too often the Catholic Church occupies such a prominent role because it is literally the only institution that can hope to speak for ordinary people” (179). As Christians work to rebuild society, “we might even imagine a new wave of Christian states, in which political life is inextricably bound up with religious belief” (172). It is hard to predict the future, even as a very different trajectory seems inevitable, as the Christian faith, once again, proves itself adaptable by finding fertile soil for spiritual and social renewal. Reflecting on Christendom helps us to realize not only what we’ve lost, with the breakdown of the social reality of the Church in the West, but what could be, building upon the growth of Christian culture in the global south.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.