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What might Edward Gibbon say today?

Whether some version of the Benedict Option or a big-tent “field hospital” strategy prevails, the collapsing West—as with the Roman Empire—now also faces an external and assimilative challenge.

Exterior of the Colosseum in Rome (Diana Ringo/Wikipedia)

Ross Douthat made this remark recently while discussing his new book The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success:

But if you look at how many kids they’re having, our birth rate is at 1.6, 1.7, in places like South Korea it’s at one—that has the potential to cut your population in half without immigration over a couple generations.

Thinking population decline, some historians now assign much of the cause of the decline of the Roman Empire first to widespread disease and depopulation, beginning as early as the second century A.D. Is this internal inflection point the triggering and root cause for the flat-lining of Roman Civilization? If so, then the barbarian invasions from the north, and the much later the Islamic invasion from the east (into the surviving Byzantine half of the Empire) are symptoms rather than causes. Recent archeology reveals a long trend of urban shrinkage in the early years.

So, today, what might the historian Edward Gibbon (1737-94) have said about the ancient relation between Church and State? What if he had not written as a lapsed Catholic on life-long sabbatical? What if he had not first lost his Catholic faith before writing his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? One year after his conversion to the Catholic faith at the age of sixteen (1753), under the influence of Bishop Bossuet (a Jesuit), Gibbon flipped back to Protestantism. This after receiving from his father a Christmas Day threat of disinheritance.

Gibbon revisited

From the first volume of the Decline and Fall (1776) we can speculate what a different Gibbon might say to us in our current predicament—the decline and fall of the post-Roman West that Christianity helped create. The early Gibbon pointed to six reasons, internal to the Church, for the early success of Christianity.

The primary cause of Christianity’s “victory over the established religions of the earth … was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author.”

And the secondary reasons? Of Christianity’s “exclusive zeal,” today Gibbon might lament our very non-exclusive and intolerant “tolerance,” including our own commercialization of Christmas Day, and the overall blending of Christianity with the cult of Consumerism at home and the bankrupt Prosperity Gospel abroad.

Of “the immediate expectation of another world,” Gibbon might condemn the eclipse of doctrinal and moral fidelity, too often disguised with activism in the political and economic arenas of this world.

Of “the claim of miracles,” Gibbon might damn the displacement, since the Enlightenment, of Christian content regarding all of creation visible and invisible by an overreaching scientific method suitable to only the physicality of the material universe.

Of “the practice of rigid virtue” (the bond of the persecuted Church), Gibbon might mourn how even natural virtue is ridiculed and shunned—as an alleged imposition of “theocracy” upon our secular, then secularist, then non-religious, and then anti-religious and anti-human culture.

Of “the constitution of the primitive church …ministers [were] entrusted not only with the spiritual functions, but even with the temporal direction of the Christian commonwealth.” Today, with the advancing shakedown of principled civil government, Gibbon might also condemn the Church’s neglect of internal discipline (the McCarrick malignancy), as well as its external accommodations with pre-Christian primitivism, post-modern secularism (the culture of death), and even with Communism (Chinese)—only one of many gnostic/utopian mutations spawned by a de-Christianized West.

The early Gibbon glossed “the union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.” Only a state within a state?

Today, a different Gibbon might point, instead, to the reality that—more than a state within any Empire—transcendent Christianity first affirms a kingdom “not of this world” (Jn 18:36). He might also ask: how much septic Secularism has become a church within the Church?

Synods or synod-ism?

Commenting on “the constitution of the primitive church,” even the earlier Gibbon saw that the episcopal form of government—with ordained bishops and priests—was already “introduced” before the end of the first century. (From above, at Pentecost!) And not accreted a century or two later, as claimed by Protestant reformers, who have even influenced Islamic apologists.

Gibbon does criticize the later pomp and “tiara of the Roman pontiff, or the mitre of a German prelate.” The German mitre, perhaps as in a “binding synodal path”? Today might a Catholic Gibbon now question the vulnerabilities of a new and poorly defined synodality?

The institution of synods was so well suited to private ambition and to public interest, that in the space of a few years it was received throughout the whole empire. A regular correspondence was established between the provincial councils, which mutually communicated and approved their respective proceedings, and the catholic church soon assumed the form, and acquired the strength, of a great federative republic. (Emphasis added)

Mutually approved? A federative republic? For the universal Church also a possible oxymoron, especially today. What might a coming-home Catholic Gibbon have to say about Pachamama primitivism in Amazonia, nation-states in the West, and ecclesial/moral deconstructionism in national-church Germania?

The perennial Church in any time of crisis

What might a Catholic Gibbon say about the divinely-instituted and perennial Church—yes, with feet of clay—in a world of empires that both rise and fall, and of populations again on the move? Perhaps three key points:

1) Evangelically, the sacramental Catholic Church is one that assembles around the Real Presence in the Eucharist—councils and synods are what the Church does, not what it is.

2) Institutionally, the Church (with the best of the Classical world) preceded and created the West, not the other way around. This coherence of faith and reason—more than a cerebral and obsolete construction—awaits rediscovery as through a New Evangelization. This rather than burial by a self-cannibalizing secularist culture, or any in-step “new paradigm” Church.

3) Globally, whether some version of the Benedict Option or a big-tent “field hospital” strategy prevails, the collapsing West—as with the Roman Empire—now also faces an external and assimilative challenge.

In comparison with the lost morale/morals of the West, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger summarized the Muslim mentality in the 1997 book Salt of the Earth:

We [Muslims] are somebody too; we know who we are; our religion is holding its ground; you don’t have one any longer. This is actually the feeling today of the Muslim world: The Western countries are no longer capable of preaching a message of morality but have only know-how to offer the world. The Christian religion has abdicated; it really no longer exists as a religion; the Christians no longer have a morality or a faith; all that’s left are a few remains of some modern ideas of enlightenment; we [Muslims] have the religion that stands the test. (Salt of the Earth, 1997)

Does the West proclaim a message for the world other than Roman-style “know-how” and bread and circuses—monopoly-money budgets, and collegiate/ professional athletics now on pause as we deal with an unprecedented pandemic? We in the post-Christian West drift daily into a confluence of Rome’s 2nd-century malaise and paganism with our own identity politics—both aligned against megatribal Islam’s 7th-century expansionism.

Placing Douthat’s critique in The Decadent Society within this even longer historical perspective, what now from a less demoralized West and a more sacramental Church?


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About Peter D. Beaulieu 11 Articles
Peter D. Beaulieu earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in urban and regional planning from the University of Washington (1975), is a member of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author of Beyond Secularism and Jihad? A Triangular Inquiry into the Mosque, the Manger & Modernity (University Press of America, 2012) and A Generation Abandoned: Why 'Whatever' Is Not Enough (Hamilton Books, 2017).

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