Christendom And St. Thomas Aquinas
CHARLES G. MORTIMER' By
We saw last week that among the City States of Antiquity the mission of Rome was unique.
WORLD EMPIRE WAS ACHIEVED UNDER AUGUSTUS about the time that Christ was born. From these two events rose the Europe that was to be.
0 pass from pagan antiquity to the world of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century is to realise that a splendid ideal has for the moment triumphed; what, briefly, are the connecting links?
The Roman Empire of the West fell with a crash about halfway through the fifth century A.D. The Eastern Empire continued till the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in the fifteenth century. The ruling power in the West passed in the first place to barbarian chieftains, like Odoacer, who had settled inside the Empire and absorbed its traditional culture; and later to the Emperor who was regarded as the alter ego of the Pope. The Church, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were the supreme rulers of Feudal Society.
The influence of the Church had grown through three great epochs and St. Thomas Aquinas comes in at the close of the entire period.
1. In the first period we might take St. Augustine as the typical figure; he sums up
D. his personality and life work the patristic age, when western theology was formulated.
2. The second epoch is represented by Gregory the Great and the Venerable Bede. Under Feudalism vast masses of halfinstructed barbarians found themselves suddenly in the Christian regime. These " terrible neophytes," as they are called by Tixeront, formed the practical problem of the age, and the Church coped nobly with its duties.
Age of Scholasticism
3. When the Dark Ages passed, the Church had become the mistress and teacher of Western Society. It was the age of Scholasticism of which St. Thomas is the supreme embodiment. This entailed the symmetrical building up of all the traditional materials and the " baptising " of Greek philosophy into the service of the Church.
We might summarise the mediaeval view of Society as follows :—Let all be the citizens of a single state. Let all be agreed that the Christian religion is the ultimate Revelation of God; that the Vicar of Christ on earth is the Pope of Rome. Set up the Civitas Dei; unsheathe for a single end the " two swords " of Church and State. Create one ultimate Science blending the products of reason (Aristotle) with the Faith. Let politics become a science but subject ever to the dogma of the Saint. Let the whole Feudal System, by which men had originally sought protection against their enemies, be embraced in one harmonious monarchy; and excommunication shall be the penalty for rebel and heretic.
Is this a dream that has passed for ever? By no means; it has haunted the imagination ever since. The modern totalitarian state is a kind of parody of it; the Communism we have witnessed in the twentieth century is a sort of curdled Christianity;
corruptio optimi pes.simum. When. Nationalism has gone full cycle and dragged the world into the abyss of modern warfare, we may well spare a thought for the unitary and international system of times gone. by. But we can return later to these ideas.
The whole conception of St. Thomas Aquinas was an ecclesiastical hegemony, supported by arguments from the Politics of Aristotle. He distinguishes four kinds of law: eternal, the design of the universe; divine, the teaching of the Old and New Testaments; natural law, and human law derived from it. (A bad or unfair law is not a law at all.)
Government is due to the nature of man; he needs it and his conscience approves it. Political authority comes from God. "The powers that be arc ordained of God." Unity is the end of Society and the best form of government is a Monarchy for Democracy may lead to Tyranny—a shrewd forecast. The monarch must provide for the weak and the poor. The true end of man is not limited to the Greek ideal of virtue and knowledge, but is the worship of his Creator; the restoration of all things in Christ; the application of Christian standards to the problems of social and economic life (for instance, to the evil of " usury ").
Richard Crashaw, the Cambridge poet, who was expelled from Peterhouse in 1643, and became a Catholic not long after, echoes this sentiment in his quaint lines: " All is God's; and yet 'tis true All we have is Caesar's, too; All is Caesar's; and what odds So long as Caesar's self is God's?"
Church and State are two concentric circles; each contains the other; but the true base is theocratic.
" Too Difficult" In the perspective of history the Tbomist political theory marks the end of an era. As Chesterton once said, " These grand ideals were abandoned not because they were found bad but too difficult."
In the succeeding century, the fourteenth, the conflict broke out again between Church and State; the quarrel between Boniface and Philip the Fair; the quarrel between John XXII and Lewis of Bavaria. This was followed by even graver events. With the weakening of Imperial power, the development of ambitious commercial centres like Venice, Genoa arid Pisa took its rise till at last came the era of strong national monarchies in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Add to this the great Schism of the West, the Popes at Avignon instead of Rome, under the sway of French kings, the social and economic results of the Black Death (1348), the senility of the Feudal System, and the crying need for reform in the Church itself; think lastly of the stir of new discovery, scientific revolution, the revival of learning, the pagan elements of the Renaissance; is it not plain from all this that a new age is being born?
That new age was the century of the Reformation.
Next week: The Reformation and Machiavelli.