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Daniel-Rops on the origin of Christendom, Part 1

December 13, 2006

Part One of a series:

Christian Europe was mindful of her unity, because all men were subject to a universal order. Now this organic whole, inspired by common principles, owed its existence to a single cause – the profound influence of the Faith and the overriding authority of the Church.

The Christian world had profited by her manifold triumph in the temporal domain. During the years of peril, the Church had played so decisive a part in determining the fate of Europe that no one dreamed of refusing her obedience. She had won recognition for her teaching as the very basis for civilization, and her representatives were active everywhere. She was clearly the guide of nations, for it was she who imparted to mankind the notion of their common destiny; in proclaiming them sons of God redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ she convinced them that they were brothers one of another, raised above the conflict of private interests.

But there was more than solidarity; there was vitality and the consciousness of human endevour. Each man knew that God had set him down in a particular station of life, where he had a definite task to fulfill with a perfectly clear end in view. Each man, therefore, had his appointed place, and enjoyed the certainty that his labour formed part of a much greater and transcendental work. The universe appeared like some vast but single entity foreseen and ordained by a superior Power; nothing, therefore, could be trivial or in vain. It is indeed no small advantage for a society to know its destination.

Thus for 300 years the Augustinian thesis strove to attain actuality. The “City of the World’ was merely a preparation for the “City of God,’ and we find the two united in that fresco at Santa Maria Novella. All the baptized constitute on earth a living and fraternal body, enlivened by the same principles, linked in a common effort. In future we shall designate this body by its proper name and call it ‘Christendom.’

The first and fundamental meaning of that term appeared towards the end of the ninth century when the aged Pope John VIII, in a moment of rare insight and in face of dire peril, tried to inspire the Christian world with a sense of its common interests. Christianitas had hitherto been used in an abstract sense, to signify the Faith of Christ or the fact of being a Christian. By applying it to a concrete entity, the temporal society of mankind, the Pope had given it a new and deeper meaning.

From the eleventh century onwards the term was in current usage. Henceforward we find frequent reference to Christendom, to the dangers which beset it, and to its obligations. A similar meaning attached to such phrases as ‘the Christian People,’ ‘the Christian Community,’ ‘the Christian Brotherhood.’ One great pontiff after another enriched its significance. Gregory VII first used it to denote the sum total of those territories where Christians dwelled; in his view, where the Cross of Christ was planted, there is Christendom. Urban II, preaching the crusade, emphasized the unity of Christendom, and directed it as a single body towards a shining goal. Alexander II introduced the juridical sense, which requires peaceful relations between all baptized peoples in the interests of the Christian world. Finally, Innocent III completed the idea of Christendom, which he sought to make a true society of Christian states, an ‘Internationale’ of the Cross with the Gospel precepts as law and Christ’s Vicar upon earth as the sole fount of authority.

Excerpted from Cathedral and Crusade by Henri Daniel-Rops, Image Books, 1957

Related Posts:
Daniel-Rops on the origin of Christendom, Part 2
Daniel-Rops on the origin of Christendom, Part 3


From → Books, On Christendom

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