Europe, Christianity, and the Thought of Christopher DawsonGERALD RUSSELLO
A European Constitution that lacks any reference to the continent's Christian roots would be a sign of a dangerous historical blindness, warns a devotee of Catholic historian Christopher Dawson.
an Englishman who strongly believed in the importance of religion's influence
on society, wrote in 1938: "A society which has lost its religion becomes sooner
or later a society which has lost its culture."
Here, the editor of Christianity
and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson (CUA
Press), Gerald Russello, shared his ideas with ZENIT on the modern importance
of Dawson's thought. Russello is an attorney in New York.
What is the relevance of the thought of Christopher Dawson today?
Russello: Christopher Dawson remains the
most important Catholic historian of the 20th century. The contemporary value
of his work is in his recognition of the abiding importance and influence of religious
belief, and its enduring ability to shape culture.
In books such as Progress
and Religion , Dawson demonstrated that materialist or environmental
explanations of religious belief did not accord with the evidence. As he wrote
in 1925, "Modern writers on anthropology and primitive thought have tended to
assume that religion is a secondary phenomenon and that man's earliest attitude
to reality was a kind of empirical materialism."
A growing body of sociological
evidence confirms the relationship Dawson saw between religion, culture and the
health of a society. Current events in the Middle East and around the world further
testify to Dawson's central insight that religious belief is essential to understanding
Therefore, Dawson speaks to us not only as a world historian
— who had great respect for the religious and philosophical traditions of
medieval Islam, China and the great Hindu epics — but in particular as a
scholar of Christendom. Through books such as The Making of Europe 
and Religion and the Rise of Western Culture , Dawson inaugurated
a fresh way of understanding Christian culture.
Christian culture is
a spiritual society as much as a political one, and modern Europe's neglect of
its religious past was a call to investigate further the true sources of European
unity and achievements.
Dawson's writing combined deep knowledge and
scholarship with a broader vision, which even non-Catholics came to appreciate.
It was these qualities that caused T.S. Eliot to call him one of the most influential
writers in England.
Dawson wrote that the passing of a religion is not a sign of progress but
a token of social decay. Is the absence of Christianity in the draft of the European
Constitution evidence of that decay?
The absence of references to Christianity from the European Constitution
is a matter of great concern. That Christianity shaped Europe more than any other
set of practices or beliefs is a simple fact of history. It is everywhere evidenced
in the traditions, art, modes of thought and languages of Europe.
by its very interest in maintaining political unity and its concern for individual
rights, the European Constitution bears at least an indirect relationship to the
Christian foundations of Europe. Any attempt to deny this historical and continuing
relationship presents the history of Europe in a misleading way, which can only
harm the chances for real and lasting unity.
For Dawson, the history
of Europe is incomprehensible without understanding the role Christianity has
played in creating it — just as understanding Islam is crucial to understanding
the history of Muslim nations. In that light, the reluctance to acknowledge Christianity's
influence is a sign of a dangerous historical blindness.
According to Dawson, what is the historical basis of European unity?
Russello: The historical basis of European
unity is Christianity and the forms it took throughout Europe, in institutions
such as the monastic orders, the tradition of chivalry, the cult of the saints
and martyrs, and above all the international structure of the Catholic Church.
Unlike other great cultures, Europe was a "society of peoples," split
geographically, ethnically and linguistically. This caused a juxtaposition of
practices and ideas that propelled Europe to world power, but it was not sufficient
to create a Western "culture."
That was provided by Christianity, which,
Dawson stressed, was in its teachings "neither Eastern nor Western but universal."
Because Christianity was not native to Europe, it was able to exist separately
from individual European people even as it molded European culture as a whole.
Christianity provides a spiritual unity to Europe but not primarily a
political one. Its great political contribution was its contention that Christians
belonged not only to a temporal society, but were also citizens of an eternal
society. The dual citizenship of the Christian had dramatic political effects
that remain important to this day in the political self-conception of the West
and its preservation of freedom.
Indeed, it is the failure to recognize
the Christian roots of this freedom that has rendered the West vulnerable to those
who would destroy it. The West carved out a political sphere that was able to
remain connected with the religious basis for Western culture, yet was still able
to govern its own affairs.
The existence of an autonomous spiritual realm,
however, also protected individuals from being considered as mere pawns by the
state. The combination proved extremely successful in political, economic and
Dawson hoped to see a supranational entity created that
would embrace Europe's tradition of regional autonomy as well as its overarching
spiritual unity and respect for the inviolable spiritual nature of the human person.
What role did the Church play in fostering Christian unity [in Europe]
in the past, and what can it do to promote it now?
The Church has been the central institution of Christian unity. As
I explained earlier, for Dawson [1889-1970] the Church united the disparate people
of Europe into a spiritual whole. The Church's mission is to unite all things
in Christ, and so therefore its temporal goals must mirror its eternal one.
As a convert, Dawson had an acute sense of the need for the Church to be an
active agent of Christian unity. Dawson worked with an ecumenical organization
called the Sword of the Spirit, which had been formed to resist totalitarianism
and to place Christian values at the center of a new European civilization.
Dawson believed that Catholics must play a central role as instruments of
Christian unity and in re-imagining Christian culture. If Catholics choose to
remain passive, as Dawson wrote for the Catholic Herald in 1947, "they
prove false to their own temporal mission, since they leave the world and the
society of which they form a part to perish."
As in 1947, Dawson would
have seen the Church's role as an instrument of unity even more critical today.
Why does Dawson highlight the importance of religion and its formative
role in society?
Russello: For Dawson,
religion was "the key to history." Culture is directly related to cult, with the
organized practice of religious worship. Every culture has a religion at its core;
the two rise and fall together.
As he wrote in 1938: "A society which
has lost its religion becomes sooner or later a society which has lost its culture."
Seeing modern Europe after the destruction of two World Wars, Dawson was concerned
that the rise of secularism would mean the destruction of the unique achievements
of Western culture.
Dawson wrote at a time when elite opinion considered
religion merely as an explanation used by primitive people for things they could
not understand, or something that would fade as scientific reasoning and economic
To the contrary, as Dawson argued that "the religious
factor has had a far more important share in the development of human cultures
than that which has usually been ascribed to it."
Dawson reminds us that
cultural or spiritual progress is not the same as political power or economic
"The fact is," as Dawson wrote in an essay entitled "The Eclipse
of Europe," "that the fate of civilization is not determined solely, or even predominantly,
by political and economic causes. The decline of the Roman Empire was also an
age of spiritual rebirth, which prepared the way, not only for the coming of mediaeval
Christendom, but also for the civilizations of Byzantium and Islam."
process of rebirth was not always peaceful; the Christians presented a challenge
to pagan Rome and were slaughtered as martyrs for the Faith.
with our time, amid great economic and military powers there is much spiritual
emptiness. Persecution of Christians increases throughout the world, and the secular
nations of the West discourage public expressions of religious belief.
there are also signs of spiritual awakening and resistance to secular pressures.
It is this spiritual activity that Dawson finds to be the surest creator and sustainer
Q: What points
in common are there between Pope John Paul II's view of culture and Christianity
and Dawson's thought?
greatest point of similarity between Dawson and the Pope John Paul II is that
both are philosophers of culture. They both believe that the longings of humanity
are answered not by material progress, but by a deep spiritual life expressed
throughout the life and institutions of a culture.
Dawson shares with
John Paul II an appreciation of some achievements of modernity, as well as its
limitations. Dawson wrote: "The liberal movement in the wider sense transformed
the world by an immense liberation of human energies, but liberalism in the narrower
sense proved incapable of guiding the forces it had released."
devoted much of his work to trying to reintegrate the achievements of modern society
with its religious and spiritual foundations, in an effort to protect and further
the spiritual dimension of human life. I believe Pope John Paul II, in encyclicals
such as Centesimus Annus, expresses a similar point.
in the rise of the consumer culture a strong challenge to traditional Christian
morals. What John Paul II has called "the culture of death" was very much in Dawson's
mind as he wrote in the 1950s and 1960s when the totalitarian threat of Nazi Germany
Although Communism remained a threat, Dawson was convinced
that the internal dissolution of Christian culture from the pressures of economic
and moral liberalism was a graver threat. Because liberalism dispenses with acknowledging
spiritual values, it becomes vulnerable to appeals to economic utility or political
Both Dawson and Pope John Paul would agree, I think, that these
cannot substitute for a religious faith that expresses eternal truths and a rich
spiritual life. ZE03091622
Christopher Dawson was most likely the
most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever
written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in
the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present
moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In
order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He
believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because
it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization.
His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing
of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture,
won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.
Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are
and the Rise of Western Culture, The
Making of Europe, Medieval
of World History, and Progress
and Religion. Also available is A
Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher
Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson ©
Julian Philip Scott, 2003.
ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide
objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating
from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the
This interview was conducted in New York on September 15, 2003.
with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.
© 2003 Zenit