Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Christopher Dawson on the early Bishops

Described as "the greatest English speaking Catholic historian of the twentieth century" Dawson was greatly influenced in his writings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

One of our finest 20th Century
historians - Christopher Dawson

Converting to the Catholic Church in 1914 he wrote many books including; Medieval Religion and other Essays, The Age of Gods, Christianity and the New Age and many more besides.

Below is an extract from his essay on the early Bishops and he paints a picture that, I guess, many priests and laity would wish to see in their Diocese today.
A dynamic Bishop, unafraid to take on the power of the State, defender of the poor; a spiritual leader as well as a secular one.
Where did we go wrong?
The number of Bishops who today would match up to the profile described by Christopher Dawson is pitifully few; in England and Wales they are as rare as hen's teeth, America has a sprinkling of them, one in Kazakhstan and thankfully, a few are movers and shakers in Rome. I wish they would move and shake a bit more!

With Athanasius as a Christian name
you would expect this man to be a
mover and shaker -
Bishop Schneider of Kazakhstan

This is an extract from Dawson's writings on the early Bishops...........

"The Christian Bishop was, in fact, the dominant figure in the life of the time. His position was something entirely new, for which no precedent can be found in the old religion of the city-state or in the priesthoods of the oriental mystery religions.
Not only did he possess enormous prestige as the head of the Catholic Church, but he was the leader of the people in social matters also. 
He occupied the position of a popular tribune, whose duty it was to defend the poor and the oppressed and to see that the strong did not abuse their power.
He alone stood between the people and the oppression of the bureaucracy.

He was not afraid to withstand an unjust law or to excommunicate an oppressive governor, and the life and correspondence of St Ambrose or St Basil or Synesius or St Augustine himself shows how frequently a Bishop was called upon to intervene between the government and the people, and how fearlessly he performed his duty.

On one occasion it is recorded that the praetorian prefect was so offended by St Basil's freedom of speech that he declared that he had never in his life been spoken to in such a manner.
"No doubt", replied St Basil wittily, "you have never met a Bishop".....

The Church was also taking the place of the State as the organiser of charity and of the support of the poor. Every church had its matriculum or list of persons in receipt of regular relief, and enormous sums were spent in every kind of charitable work. All over the Empire, hospitals, orphanages and hostels for travellers were being built and endowed: so that the basilica was often the centre of a whole quarter which lived by and for the Church.

Thus the Church stands out in this dark age as the one hope of humanity both spiritually and materially. It saved the individual from being entirely crushed under the pressure of the servile State, and it opened to him a new world of social and spiritual activity in which the free personality had room to develop itself.
Hence, when the final collapse of the imperial government in the West took place, the Bishop remained the natural leader of the Roman population.
He was the representative of the old secular culture as well as of the new spiritual society, and it was through him, above all, that the continuity of Western civilisation was preserved"

Every word of Dawson's appraisal is a gem to be treasured; every sentiment expressed gives cause to regret that we have so few leaders today about whom it could be said that they played a part in ensuring the continuity of Western civilisation or that they would fearlessly stand up to the State.

Christopher Dawson was born in 1889 and, after his conversion he wrote extensively on the Medieval Church and the development of civilisation from those roots (a somewhat unpopular view in Protestant circles that would have one believe that all Catholics sprang out of a heitage of superstition and blind ignorance).
From 1958-1962 he was Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University.
He died in 1970 - RIP


  1. Where was he born do you know? I've just finished reading his: "Religion and the Rise of Western Civilization", it's unfortunate that Europe hasn't recognized Christianity's role in their Constitution. (Except for Hungary which came up with a new constitution recently).

  2. Elizabeth - I believe he was born in Yorkshire, his family home was Hartlington Hall.