1: Gerald Russello on How the Historian Might View Constitutional
NEW YORK, 15 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).
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.
Dawson (1889-1970), 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....
Q: What is the relevance of the thought of Christopher
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
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.
Q: 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?
Russello: 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.
Indeed, 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.
Q: 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
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
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
Part 2: Gerald Russello Tells Why
the Historian Saw Ecumenism as Crucial
NEW YORK, 16 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).
A key part of the Catholic Church's role in Europe
is its mission to promote Christian unity, says an expert on Catholic
historian Christopher Dawson.
Gerald Russello, editor of "Christianity and European Culture:
Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson" (CUA Press), shared
his views on the modern importance of Dawson's thought, in the second
part of this interview with ZENIT....
* * *
Q: What role did the Church play in fostering
Christian unity [in Europe] in the past, and what can it do to promote
Russello: 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
As in 1947, Dawson would have seen the Church's role as an instrument of
unity even more critical today.
Q: 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 progress occurred.
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 wealth.
"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
This process of rebirth was not always peaceful; the Christians
presented a challenge to pagan Rome and were slaughtered as martyrs for
Similarly 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.
But 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 of culture.
Q: What points in common are there between Pope John Paul II's view of
culture and Christianity and Dawson's thought?
Russello: The 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."
Dawson 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.
Both saw 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 had passed.
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 power.
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