I have described, in the preceding chapter, the causes which made Christian worship gradually to deviate from its primitive purity, and to assume a character more adapted to the ideas of the heathen population,—numbers of whom were continually joining the church. It was, particularly since the time of Constantine, because its festivals, becoming every day more numerous, and its sanctuaries more solemn, spacious, and adorned with greater splendour,—its ceremonies more complicated,—its emblems more diversified,—offered to the Pagans an ample compensation for the artistic pomp of their ancient worship. The frankincense, says an eminent Roman Catholic writer of our time, the flowers, the golden and silver vessels, the lamps, the crowns, the luminaries, the linen, the silk, the chaunts, the processions, the festivals, recurring at certain fixed days, passed from the vanquished altars to the triumphant one. Paganism tried to borrow from Christianity its dogmas and its morals; Christianity took from Paganism its ornaments. Christianity would have become triumphant without these transformations. It would have done it later than it did, but its triumph would have been of a different kind from that which it has obtained by the assistance of these auxiliaries. Christianity, says the author quoted above, retrograded; but it was this which made its force. It would be more correct to say, that it advanced its external progress at the expence of its purity; it gained thus the favour of the crowd, but it was by other means that it obtained the approbation of the cultivated minds.
The church made a compromise with Paganism in order to convert more easily its adherents,—forgetting the precepts of the apostle, to beware of philosophy and vain traditions, (Colossians 2:8,) as well as to refuse profane and old wives’ fables, (1 Timothy 4:7.) And it cannot be doubted that St Paul knew well that a toleration of these things would have rapidly extended the new churches, had the quantity of the converts been more important than the quality of their belief and morals.
This subject has been amply developed by one of the most distinguished French writers of our day, who, belonging himself to the Roman Catholic Church, seeks to justify her conduct in this respect, though he admits with the greatest sincerity that she had introduced into her polity a large share of Pagan elements. I shall give my readers this curious piece of special pleading in favour of the line of policy which the church had followed on that occasion, as it forms a precious document, proving, in an unanswerable manner, the extent of Pagan rites and ideas contained in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly as it proceeds, not from an opponent of that church, but from a dutiful son of hers. The work from which I am making this extract is, moreover, considered as one of the master-pieces of modern French literature, and it was crowned by one of the most learned bodies of Europe—the Academie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres of Paris.
The fundamental idea of Christianity, says our author, was a new, powerful idea, and independent of all those by which it had been preceded. However, the men by whom the Christian system was extended and developed, having been formed in the school of Paganism, could not resist the desire of connecting it with the former systems. St Justin, St Clement (of Alexandria), Athenagoras, Tatian, Origenes, Synesius, &c., considered Pagan philosophy as a preparation to Christianity. It was, indeed, making a large concession to the spirit of the ancient times; but they believed that they could conceal its inconveniences by maintaining in all its purity the form of Christian worship, and rejecting with disdain the usages and ceremonies of polytheism. When Christianity became the dominant religion, its doctors perceived that they would be compelled to give way equally in respect to the external form of worship, and that they would not be sufficiently strong to constrain the multitude of Pagans, who were embracing Christianity with a kind of enthusiasm as unreasoning as it was of little duration, to forget a system of acts, ceremonies, and festivals, which had such an immense power over their ideas and manners. The church admitted, therefore, into her discipline, many usages evidently pagan. She undoubtedly has endeavoured to purify them, but she never could obliterate the impression of their original stamp.
This new spirit of Christianity—this eclectism, which extended even to material things—has in modern times given rise to passionate discussions; these borrowings from the old religion were condemned, as having been suggested to the Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries by the remnants of that old love of idolatry which was lurking at the bottom of their hearts. It was easy for the modern reformers to condemn, by an unjust blame, the leaders of the church; they should, however, have acknowledged, that the principal interest of Christianity was to wrest from error the greatest number of its partisans, and that it was impossible to attain this object without providing for the obstinate adherents of the false gods an easy passage from the temple to the church. If we consider that, notwithstanding all these concessions, the ruin of Paganism was accomplished only by degrees and imperceptibly,—that during more than two centuries it was necessary to combat, over the whole of Europe, an error which, although continually overthrown, was incessantly rising again,—we shall understand that the conciliatory spirit of the leaders of the church was true wisdom.
St John Chrysostom says, that the devil, having perceived that he could gain nothing with the Christians by pushing them in a direct way into idolatry, adopted for the purpose an indirect one. If the devil, that is to say, the pagan spirit, was changing its plan of attack, the church was also obliged to modify her system of defence, and not to affect an inflexibility which would have kept from her a great number of people whose irresolute conscience was fluctuating between falsehood and truth.
Already, at the beginning of the fifth century, some haughty spirits, Christians who were making a display of the rigidity of their virtues, and who were raising an outcry against the profanation of holy things, began to preach a pretended reform; they were recalling the Christians to the apostolic doctrine; they demanded what they were calling a true Christianity. Vigilantius, a Spanish priest, sustained on this subject an animated contest with St Jerome. He opposed the worship of the saints and the custom of placing candles on their sepulchres; he condemned, as a source of scandal, the vigils in the basilics of the martyrs, and many other usages, which were, it is true, derived from the ancient worship. We may judge by the warmth with which St Jerome refuted the doctrines of this heresiarch of the importance which he attached to those usages. He foresaw that the mission of the Christian doctrine would be to adapt itself to the manners of all times, and to oppose them only when they would tend towards depravity. Far from desiring to deprive the Romans of certain ceremonial practices which were dear to them, and whose influence had nothing dangerous to the Christian dogmas, he openly took their part, and his conduct was approved by the whole church.
If St Jerome and St Augustinus had shared the opinions of Vigilantius, would they have had the necessary power successfully to oppose the introduction of pagan usages into the ceremonies of the Christian church? I don’t believe that they would. After the fall of Rome, whole populations passed under the standards of Christianity, but they did it with their baggage of senseless beliefs and superstitious practices. The church could not repulse this crowd of self-styled Christians, and still less summon them immediately to abandon all their ancient errors; she therefore made concessions to circumstances, concessions which were not entirely voluntary. They may be considered as calculations full of wisdom on the part of the leaders of the church, as well as the consequence of that kind of irruption which was made at the beginning of the fifth century into the Christian society by populations, who, notwithstanding their abjuration, were Pagans by their manners, their tastes, their prejudices, and their ignorance.
Let us now calculate the extent of these concessions, and examine whether it was right to say that they injured the purity of the Christian dogmas.
The Romans had derived from their religion an excessive love of public festivals. They were unable to conceive a worship without the pompous apparel of ceremonies. They considered the long processions, the harmonious chaunts, the splendour of dresses, the light of tapers, the perfume of frankincense, as the essential part of religion. Christianity, far from opposing a disposition which required only to be directed with more wisdom, adopted a part of the ceremonial system of the ancient worship. It changed the object of its ceremonies, it cleansed them from their old impurities, but it preserved the days upon which many of them were celebrated, and the multitude found thus in the new religion, as much as in the old one, the means of satisfying its dominant passion.
The neophytes felt for the pagan temples an involuntary respect. They could not pass at once from veneration to a contempt for the monuments of their ancestors’ piety; and in ascending the steps of the church, they were casting a longing look on those temples which a short time before had been resplendent with magnificence, but were now deserted. Christianity understood the power of this feeling, and desired to appropriate it to its own service; it consented, therefore, to establish the solemnities of its worship in the edifices which it had disdained for a long time. Its care not to offend pagan habits was such, that it often respected even the pagan names of those edifices. In short, its policy, which, since the times of Constantine, was always to facilitate the conversion of the Pagans, assumed, after the fall of Rome, a more decided character, and the system of useful concessions became general in all the churches of Europe; and it cannot be doubted that its results have been favourable to the propagation of Christian ideas.
There is, moreover, a peculiar cause to which the rapid decline of the pagan doctrines in the west must be ascribed, and I shall endeavour to place this powerful cause in its true light, carefully avoiding mixing up with a subject of this importance all considerations foreign to the object of my researches.
Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, after having defended a long time the true faith, strayed from it on a subject which proved a stumbling-stone to so many theologians—I mean, the nature of Jesus Christ. Nestorius distinguished in the Son of God two natures, a divine and a human one; and he maintained that the Virgin Mary was not the mother of God (Θεοτοκος), but the mother of the man (ἀνθρωποτοκος). This doctrine, which was a new and bolder form given to Arianism, spread in the two empires, and gained a great number of partisans amongst the monasteries of Egypt. Many monks could not almost suffer that Jesus Christ should be acknowledged as God, and considered him only as an instrument of the Divinity, or a vessel which bore it (Θεοφορος).
The celebrated St Cyrillus, bishop of Alexandria, wrote an epistle to those monks, in order to call them back to respect for the traditions established in the church, if not by the apostles—who, in speaking of the holy virgin, never made use of the expression, mother of God—at least by the fathers who succeeded them. The quarrel became general and violent; the Christians came to blows everywhere. Nestorius seemingly wished to draw back, being frightened by the storm which he had himself raised. I have found, said he, the church a prey to dissensions. Some call the holy virgin the mother of God; others only the mother of a man. In order to reunite them, I have called her the mother of Christ. Remain, therefore, at peace about this question, and be convinced that my sentiments on the true faith are always the same. But his obstinacy and the ardour of his partisans did not allow him to go beyond this false retraction. The necessity of a general council was felt, and the Emperor Theodosius II. ordered in its convocation at Ephesus. On the 21st June 431, two hundred bishops condemned Nestorius, and declared that the Virgin Mary should be honoured as the mother of God. This decision was accepted, notwithstanding some vain protestations, by the universal church. The fathers of the council of Ephesus had no thought of introducing into the church a new dogma or worship. The Virgin Mary had always been considered by them as the mother of God, and they made now a solemn declaration of this belief, in order to reply to the attack of Nestorius, and to remove every incertitude about a dogma which had not hitherto been opposed. But these great assemblies of Christians, notwithstanding the particular motive of their meeting, were always produced by some general necessity which was felt by the Christian society, and the results of their decrees went often beyond the provisions of those by whom they were framed.
Though I am far from believing that it is allowable to weigh in the scales of human reason the dogmas of Christianity, I do not think that it is prohibited to examine which of these dogmas has been the most instrumental in detaching the Pagans from their errors.
We have several times penetrated, in the course of our researches, into the conscience of the leaders of Paganism, and we have always found that it was entirely under the influence of political views and interests. These interests, which so powerfully acted upon the politician’s mind, had but a feeble hold upon that of the inhabitants of the country. And, indeed, what interest could the agriculturists, the artisans, and the proletarians, have in maintaining the integrity of the Roman constitution, or in preserving the rights of the senate, as well as the privileges, honours, and riches of the aristocracy? Being destined, as they were under any religion whatever, for a life of labour and privation, they might choose between Christianity and Paganism, without having their choice actuated by any personal interest. It is therefore necessary to seek for another cause of that obstinate attachment which the lower classes of the town and country population showed for the practices of a worship whose existence was for a century reduced to such a miserable state.
I shall not dwell on what has been said about the tyranny of habit, which is always more severe wherever minds are less enlightened. I shall indicate another cause of the obstinacy of the Pagans, which was founded at least upon an operation of the mind—upon a judgment—and was, consequently, more deserving of fixing the attention of the church than that respect of custom against which the weapons of reason are powerless.
The Christian dogmas, penetrating into a soul corrupted and weakened by idolatry, must have, in the first moment, filled it with a kind of terror. And, indeed, how was it possible that the Pagans, accustomed as they were to their profligate gods and goddesses, should not have trembled when they heard for the first time the voice of God, the just but inexorable rewarder of good and evil? Should not a solemn and grave worship, whose ceremonies were a constant and direct excitation to the practice of every virtue, appear an intolerable yoke to men who were accustomed to find in their sacred rites a legitimate occasion to indulge in every kind of debauchery? The fear of submitting their lives to the rule of a too rigid morality, and to bow their heads before a God whose greatness terrified them, kept for many years a multitude of Pagans from the church.
If it has entered the designs of Providence to temper the severe dogmas of Christianity by the consecration of some mild, tender, and consoling ideas, and by the same adapted to the fragile human nature, it is evident that, whatever may have been their aim, they must have assisted in detaching the last Pagans from their errors. The worship of Mary, the mother of God, seems to have been the means which Providence has employed for completing Christianity.
After the council of Ephesus the churches of the East and of the West offered the worship of the faithful to the Virgin Mary, who had victoriously issued from a violent attack. The nations were as if dazzled by the image of this divine mother, who united in her person the two most tender feelings of nature, the pudicity of the virgin and the love of the mother; an emblem of mildness, of resignation, and of all that is sublime in virtue; one who weeps with the afflicted, intercedes for the guilty, and never appears otherwise than as the messenger of pardon or of assistance. They accepted this new worship with an enthusiasm sometimes too great, because with many Christians it became the whole Christianity. The Pagans did not even try to defend their altars against the progress of the worship of the mother of God; they opened to Mary the temples which they kept closed to Jesus Christ, and confessed their defeat. It is true, that they often mixed with the worship of Mary those pagan ideas, those vain practices, those ridiculous superstitions, from which they seemed unable to detach themselves; but the church rejoiced, nevertheless, at their entering into her pale, because she well knew that it would be easy to her to purge of its alloy, with the help of time, a worship whose essence was purity itself. Thus, some prudent concessions, temporarily made to the pagan manners and the worship of Mary, were two elements of force which the church employed in order to conquer the resistance of the last Pagans,—a resistance which was feeble enough in Italy, but violent beyond the Alps.