It’s a typical mid-term election year. We’re hardly a month into 2022, and already we’re receiving dispatches from the battlefront in our never-ending culture war. Name the issue, and reporters will tell you that the influence of Christianity is receding and being replaced with something new and better.
The problem is that the new world order looks suspiciously like a very old one. Post-Christian secularism looks a lot like pre-Christian paganism.
Pro-choice in the matter of abortion? So was the Greco-Roman world.
In favor of easy divorce? Indiscriminate sexual relations? Contraception? Euthanasia? So were the ancient emperors and senators.
The problem with such worlds, whether old or new, is that they make their inhabitants miserable. Their refusal of limits is actually a refusal to sacrifice, a refusal to surrender anything to God. This makes love elusive, because love without sacrifice isn’t love at all.
And life without love seems unbearable, even in times of material prosperity. The Romans lived with the assurance of satiety, ample bread, and endless circuses. They were well fed and entertained, but chronically unhappy.
Here's good news: Christianity transformed that world. I’m not saying the Christian empire was perfect, but it did introduce certain elements into history that had never been there before — things that make for happiness.
With Constantine’s Edict of Milan came the first-ever statement of religious freedom and toleration. With Theodosius’ reform of the legal system came the first recognition of universal human dignity and rights: even slaves had to be respected and could not be abused.
This was a culture created by the preaching of the men we know as the Fathers of the Church.
By dint of their biblical teaching — and by the grace of God — the Church Fathers changed the world, changed the course of history, replacing a culture of death with the beginnings of a civilization of love.
And they put their teaching into action. They created new institutions to serve people, heal them, and help them reach their God-given potential. In their time we see the invention of the hospital. We witness the proliferation of orphanages, soup kitchens, hostels, and other establishments that had previously been unimaginable.
Secular historians will tag later epochs with laudatory titles like “renaissance” and “enlightenment,” but no historical period has been as revolutionary and as positively efficacious as the time of the Fathers.
Theirs is an accomplishment that cries out for imitation. And so in every great age of the Church there has been a retrieval of the Fathers. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas conceived his “Summa” as an orderly arrangement of the Fathers’ teaching.
At the time of the Reformation, the writings of the Fathers were food to saints and scholars as great as St. Thomas More and Erasmus. In the 19th century, the Fathers brought John Henry Newman to Catholicism; and Newman in turn, by invoking the Fathers, influenced thousands of other conversions. Quite recently, Pope Benedict launched his pontificate with weekly meditations on the Fathers.
This year is a good year to get historical perspective. It’s time to honor our Fathers — by reading them.