One of the more thought provoking bloggers—with whom I sometimes, but not too often agree—is Fr. Anthony Chadwick of As the Sun in its Orb. He recently posted a piece that bids what he sees as a long overdue adieu to state religion and the long decayed relationship between Church and State. In his article he draws particular attention to the spiritual collapse of the Church of England, which still stands financially and institutionally with state aid. The gist of Fr. Chadwick's observation is that State enforced religion was an intrinsic corruption of Christianity and that we should be happy it is gone. I would like to present readers with some ideas to the contrary.
First let me distance myself from conventional "altar & throne" narrative one hears in the integrist parts of France (not that I mind those people, some of them are quite Catholic). Does God seek to create glorified nations or does He seek to glorify the soul? Old France, often given the name "First Daughter of the Church," was special because prior to the 18th century the faith thrived there, not because France's government exemplified Catholic virtue. England, which left the Catholic Church centuries prior to the French Revolution, has many sainted kings going back well before Hastings. France has one, St. Louis IX.
Christian societies and Christian nations are only exceptionally created by kings and emperors. More often they are a recognition of a reality and a new social paradigm that already exists. Constantine legalized Christianity when a large fraction of his Empire was Christian. He even supported the Roman Church by building three basilicas and giving the Bishop of Rome the Lateran Palace, yet he did not make Catholicism the state religion. That did not happen for another six decades, by which time the majority of the Empire was Christian. Indeed Theodosius perhaps did his Empire a favor by championing Nicene Christianity, helping to end Christological struggles that put the stability of the Empire into flux. The forced conversions that followed the Baptism of St. Vladimir of the Rus' were quite a contrast. It took centuries for Rome to Christianize, followed by the rest of Europe (Gaul, Brittania etc.) and the normalization of Christianity as the state religion confirmed what already was. It did not stage a new political or religious scene.
Among the benefits of this normalization of Christianity as the state religion is that morals could now be publicly accepted in a Catholic context. It is not unthinkable that in the mid-fourth century extra marital sex and public gladiatorial games were considered good or acceptable behavior, even though Christianity was legal. The imperial recognition of Christianity as the state religion forced the gruesome gladiatorial games out of existence and ensured a taboo for extra marital sex—not that such behavior ceased entirely. Ought we not concede or even accept the probability that God used the Roman Empire to establish and grow the Church? Was there no greater point to the miracle witnessed by Constantine beyond the Battle of the Milvian Bridge?
Surely this is correlation and not causation though? Exactly! Most commonly Christianity becomes the faith of a nation and the social norm because it has changed the behavior, outlook, and direction of that polity. At some point government forces realize this and decide to "tap into" the Church's new influence or to use the Church for the sake of political cohesion. This is not necessarily good or bad. It can be either depending on the context. When Mussolini re-established the Church in Italy he did so with entirely malevolent intentions; his disdain for the faith was quite apparent when he refused to be photographed kneeling to the Pope and when he rejoiced that the "dog is dead" upon the passing of Pius XI. Au contraire Charlemagne spread the existing Christian society in Gaul and streamlined it to mold France. In doing this he aided the Church, but also those under his dominion by diffusing education through the subsidization of monasteries and proto-universities.
"Christendom," the pre-1517 Europe, was quite unique in that it united an entire host of independent countries under one religious obedience. Yes, there were still wars, but little of the scale of what existed in the Roman days or what would exist in later days. The decision of Henry VIII to separate from Rome had far reaching impact beyond his marriage bed. It had implications beyond Protestantism. It showed the sovereigns of Europe that they could ignore the Pope in Rome, prioritize short-term national goals, and get away with it. Winston Churchill poetically surmises the result of Henry's execution of St. Thomas More and the ensuing schism:
“The resistance of More and Fisher to the royal supremacy in Church government was a heroic stand. They realised the defects of the existing Catholic system, but they hated and feared the aggressive nationalism which was destroying the unity of Christendom. They saw that the break with Rome carried with it the risk of a despotism freed from every fetter. More stood forth as the defender of all that was finest in the medieval outlook. He represents to history its universality, its belief in spiritual values, and its instinctive sense of otherworldliness. Henry VIII with cruel axe decapitated not only a wise and gifted counselor, but a system which, though it had failed to live up to its ideals in practice, had for long furnished mankind with its brightest dreams.”
A nostalgia lingers in many parts of these formerly Catholic countries. One of the verses of the folk hymn Immaculate Mary I believe says something like "Pray for us dear Lady/ Reign over us once more/ Be England thy dowry/ As in days of yore." This is not a yearning for the reign of Henry VII nor is monarchism necessarily a cry for a fictitious France under the Sacred Heart. Often it is a cry for the faith to be the norm again.
Many like Msgr. Lefebvre favored the Vichy government in France and the Francoist regime in Spain for reasons with which I sympathize. Yes, some madly thought a single strongman would restore a former national glory under the "Social Kingship of Christ the King." Others were simply fed up with a century and a half of violent anti-clericalism as existed in France. The Spanish lost their monarchy very early in their civil war, leaving Franco the fascist and the priest-murdering communists as the only options. Neither were attractive, but Franco was certainly the proverbial "lesser of two evils."
All this may be a moot point. Christian societies and Christian nations will not be returning to the Western world for a very long time. Europe has lost its faith. America is losing it. South America is becoming Protestant, which means it will lose its faith in a generation or two. The Catholic Church will, for the first time in a long time, have to live in a non-Christian society as the visible other, the outsider, the one in the world and not of it. The Church will have to lose a great deal of property and respect. She will have to evangelize many people who have never read even a paragraph of the Sermon on the Mount nor seen a Nativity scene during Christmas time. Christian societies and nations might emerge in Africa. I hope they do, but that does very little to help or hurt the Catholic Church in America, which was never the norm and damaged itself by exposing its morals and standards to proto-libertarian jingoism.
It is time to start again, but why reject the past?