by Father John McCloskey
Recently, I wrote here about the perils and benefits of technology. Assuming that many of you are on your way to freedom from serious addiction to technology, I hope you have more time to dedicate to the most challenging task of our time – re-conversion of a once-great country (America) and civilization (the West), both now swimming in hedonism and practical atheism.
The model we will need to follow is that of the early Church. The late Roman Empire, crumbling through plagues, demographic and moral decline, barbarian invasions, and what former President Jimmy Carter would likely call imperial malaise, was providentially "captured" by Christianity so that it could begin a centuries-long process of morphing into the West or Christendom.
How did the early Christians do it? Certainly not by force of arms. Rather, "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
For specifics on how this Christian mandate of love led within a few centuries to large-scale conversions, I highly recommend Rodney Stark's book The Rise of Christianity. Although Stark is not a Catholic, his well-researched findings provide real pointers for those of us wrestling with our challengingly neo-pagan times.
In 165, during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, an epidemic struck that carried away during the course of fifteen years up to a third of the total population of the empire, including Marcus Aurelius himself. Less than 100 years later, a similar epidemic, most likely of measles, struck again with similar results. Historians generally acknowledge that these epidemics may have contributed more to Rome's decline than the normally attributed cause of moral degeneration.
According to Stark, these epidemics favored the rapid rise of Christianity for three reasons. First, Christianity offered a more satisfactory account than paganism of "why bad things happen to good people," based on the centrality of the suffering and Cross of Christ. Second, "Christian values of love and charity, from the beginning, had been translated into norms of social service and community solidarity. When disasters struck, the Christians were better able to cope, and this resulted in substantially higher rates of survival. This meant that in the aftermath of each epidemic, Christians made up a larger and larger percentage of the population even without new converts." Last, these epidemics left large numbers of people without the interpersonal bonds that would have restrained them from becoming Christians.
Stark also produces impressive evidence that "Christianity was unusually appealing to pagan women" because "within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large." He shows that Christianity recognized women as children of God with the same supernatural destiny. Moreover Christian prohibitions against polygamy, divorce, birth control, abortion, infanticide, etc., changed women's status from powerless serfs in bondage to men, to women with dignity and rights in both the Church and the State.
Stark establishes four conclusions. First, Christian subcultures rapidly produced a substantial surplus of females as a result of Christian prohibitions against infanticide (normally directed against girl infants) and abortion (often producing the death of the mother) and the high rate of conversion to Christianity among women. Second, the higher status Christianity gave women made it highly attractive to them. Third, the surplus of Christian women and of pagan men produced many marriages that led to the secondary conversions of pagan men to the Faith, a phenomenon that continues today. Finally, the abundance of Christian women resulted in higher birthrates; superior fertility contributed to the rise of Christianity.
Adding to the dynamism of early Christianity, as a result of the social stigma of being a Christian and the danger of persecution and even martyrdom left Christianity largely free of what Stark refers to as the "free riders," those who want to reap the benefits of religion without sharing in its sacrifices and commitments. Perhaps we could say that among the first Christians during the first several centuries of the Faith, there was considerably more wheat than chaff.
Stark's conclusion? Christianity grew:
...because Christians constituted an intense community, able to generate the "invincible obstinacy" that so offended the younger Pliny but yielded immense religious rewards. And the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the "good news."
At the heart of this willingness to share one's faith was doctrine, that which was to be believed. And perhaps the chief doctrinal innovation of Christianity to a pagan world groaning under a host of miseries and saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death was that "because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another."
What is the lesson we can draw for our culture? How about practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy?
Corporal Works: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead.
Spiritual Works: Consoling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.
Want to change the world for Christ and help re-evangelize our country? Get with the early Christians' winning program.
First appeared in The Catholic Thing in August, 2014.