Continuing with my reading plan for the year, I decided to read Hilaire Belloc's "short" essay Europe and the Faith (available free for Kindle) - being a modern American, my version of a short essay is much shorter than this one, which I guess is close to 200 pages. One downside of reading on a Kindle is that you don't know how many pages you have read - but I will admit that I like the percentage of the way through feature.
This essay was one of the suggested readings for the first time period of EPIC - Mustard Seed (along with Quo Vadis, and several other books that I don't have and weren't available free on Kindle.) Belloc makes some very good points throughout the essay about the history of Europe being taught in a false way in order to fit a Protestant narrative.
Belloc begins with the question: What was the Roman Empire? It was united, a civilization with one mode of life for all in its boundaries. Outside of the Empire were barbarians, but they were not a threat to the Empire, and many wanted to become part of the Empire - traded with the Empire, accepted its coins, took bits of its language into their own. Even when there were civil wars, with multiple emperors ruling - or no emperor at all, the power, office and system of the Empire were all one.
Next, he asks: What was the Church in the Roman Empire? The Catholic Church was "a clearly delineated body corporate based on numerous exact doctrines, extremely jealous of its unity and of its precise definitions, and filled, as was no other body of men at that time, with passionate conviction." It was not an opinion, fashion, philosophy, theory or habit. The Church caught and preserved the Empire as it declined. The Empire declined because of the increasing numbers of "barbarians" hired as soldiers, weakened central power giving way to local power by rich landowners, and the rise of the Catholic Church in the whole society.
Further, he asks: What was the "fall" of the Roman Empire? The changes in the Empire came from within, rather than from outside forces. It failed to keep the local government subordinate to the Imperial government. Taxation and central bureaucracy weakened, and localities had more independence. Much of this came from the changes in the Roman army - once an army of citizens, then it became an army comprised of slaves willing to take on military service for the benefits it would provide them and poorer freed men, then the army was made up in large parts of tribes who entered into the empire under the condition that they serve as soldiers. Eventually, the local government would fall into the command of the local forces of the Roman Army, which were often "barbarian" because of the recruitment strategy of the Army. The Church remained an important force throughout the Empire, even as the power became more localized.
Belloc also discusses the history of Britain (in particular), and the dark and middle ages, which I am having a hard time simplifying into a blog post! I'll just say that there is a lot of interesting information presented in this essay about those topics.
He also asks, What was the Reformation? The true causes were spiritual, and thus hidden, so a historian can only answer the question "what was it?" not "why was it?" Because of the faster rate of change, the Church was not able to absorb and regulate new things quickly enough. One very important note is this: "No one in the Reformation dreamt a divided Christendom to be possible." Those people challenging the way things were done desired to affect the universal Church and change it - they sprang up from everywhere due to a universal uneasiness of a universal society.
Finally, he discusses why Britain's split from the Church happened, and how it affected the Reformation - In Britain in particular, the economic power of a small group of wealthy men had grown "greater than was healthy for the community." Britain had many markets and ports, so new messages were frequent. Finally, England had the most exaggerated awe and devotion to the monarch in all of Europe. Henry VIII wanted to put pressure on the Church in order to get what he desired - the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon - but he did not mean to break permanently from the unity of Christendom. When he suppressed the monasteries, it was not to destroy (which did happen) but to enrich the crown. Belloc argues that "England did not lose the Faith in 1550-1620 because she was Protestant then. Rather, she is Protestant now because she then lost the Faith."
Of course, Belloc gives many great historical details to support his points, and there is no way for me to get across all of his ideas. This was a challenging read for me - it took a lot longer than I anticipated because I could only read it when I was able to concentrate on it fully - not something I get to do all that often around here. I would recommend this if you are really into Church history, but it is not light reading.