Bullies and Saints:
An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History
by john dickson
zondervan, 352 pages, $28.99
What are Christians to make of corruption in the history of the Church? There are two common approaches. The first we can dismiss without much consideration. This is the tack taken by those conservative apologists who more or less deny that the Church is ever corrupt. The Inquisition, for example, wasn’t corrupt, because it was the secular princes who actually executed heretics. Charlemagne wasn’t corrupt when he forcibly baptized the Saxons, because this was the way things were done back then. The late medieval practices surrounding indulgences weren’t corrupt, because the theology of indulgences is sound. And so on. Such writers, of course, usually allow a bit of corruption into their story, but it is always minimal, always in nonessentials, always found where the Church’s true nature isn’t implicated. The Church, after all, is holy. I am sympathetic to this approach because those who advance it clearly love the Church and want to protect her. I often find myself falling into this way of thinking. But though this approach is pious, it is simplistic and clearly wrong. Church history is full of corruption.
The second approach, exemplified by John Dickson’s Bullies and Saints, is more formidable but no less mistaken. Dickson is one of those well-meaning Christian historians who dwell on the Church’s corruption, even exaggerate it, in an extended mea culpa. This impulse generally results in a rather pitiful capitulation in which the author assumes that everything the Church did that our current elite happen to like is an example of the Church being good and everything they happen to dislike is an example of the Church being bad. The whole project brings to mind the kid on the playground desperately trying to be cool, whose attempts only solidify his loser status—and yet he’s always given just enough smirking encouragement to keep him coming back for one more humiliation.
Writers pursuing this strategy tend to assume the values of secular liberalism. Wherever Christians happen to line up with those values—building hospitals, being nice to poor people, not enslaving each other—they present the faithful as being true to the gospel. Wherever Christians happen to act against elite values—evangelizing, believing that paganism is wicked, fighting evil, questioning the reign of “science,” wielding any social power whatsoever—they beg forgiveness. This approach is often presented as a serious-minded exercise in extracting the log from the Church’s eye. The log, however, always turns out to be identical to the speck that modern liberals never stop pointing out.
Given the number of genuinely scandalous episodes in church history, one can understand why so many writers adopt this stance. It is nevertheless profoundly misguided. Perhaps a rather extreme example from this book will demonstrate the point. Dickson quotes the Alexandrian bishop Dionysius’s account of the third-century Cyprian plague:
Our brethren, for the most part, were careless of themselves and with exceeding love and filial kindness clung to one another, visiting the sick without regard to the danger, diligently ministering to them, tending to them in Christ; being infected with the disease from others, they drew upon themselves the sickness of their neighbours, willingly taking over their pains. In this manner the best, at any rate, of our brethren departed this life, including certain presbyters and deacons, and some of the laity.
Seems like an example of the Church being good? Well, not quite. Dickson comments: “As our world passes through its own pandemic—I am writing in late 2020—I certainly do not endorse Dionysius’s rejection of ‘social distancing’ measures, which, to my mind, are an essential aspect of care. Nevertheless, there is something heroic, if naive, in what he reports.”
Yes. I suppose if I squint just right, and inject enough condescension, I can more or less make out “something heroic” in such otherwise MAGA-ish behavior. Are we sure it’s the early Christians who are displaying naivete here?
The modern world, in short, sets the terms of the discussion. Christianity is taken to be what the modern world takes it to be, which is a mere religion, a “way of life”: a lifestyle choice at best, a big, lame self-help club at worst. Authors such as Dickson want us to see that this lifestyle choice isn’t all bad, that it can help people be good and useful members of a tolerant, enlightened society. But whenever Christianity has become something more, whenever it has become an actual vision of reality, it has encroached on the real stuff of history—government, economics, science, the values of the faculty lounge—stuff that has no need of Christian morality. Whenever a Christian is caught sinning against today’s “values,” these writers want, desperately, for us to see that this is not a part of Christianity itself, that as with all lifestyles—maybe healthy eating?—people sometimes stumble. Such stumbling Christians need to be reminded, no doubt, of Christianity’s appropriate marginality, but we ought not to condemn all Christians in the process; fortunately, some know their place.
This approach has some merits. Across a wide range of historical instances, Dickson rightly insists that liberals apply their values fairly to Christianity. Sure, the Inquisition was wicked, but really it didn’t burn as many heretics as the Enlightenment propagandists suggested. Sure, the Church’s behavior toward Galileo was contemptible, but if we look at the evidence soberly, we can see that it didn’t behave as badly as the nineteenth-century ideologues maintained—and what’s more, Copernicus and Gregor Mendel were clergymen! Sure, medieval Christendom was violent and bigoted, but let’s not forget that the monks copied the pagan classics, and the roots of the welfare state are found in medieval hospitals and schools. Sure, contemporary Christians are judgmental, but they also volunteer a lot and tend to have happier marriages.
It is not a waste of time to point out liberal bigotry. But doing it in this way reinforces the framework that supports the bias. Within such a framework, whenever the Church wields power, it is corrupt. The most striking example is obviously the Crusades. Throughout his book, Dickson merely assumes that the Crusades were wicked and that the reader on this score needs no convincing. “The real legacy of the Crusades,” he asserts, “is the way they stand as a symbol of the violent Dark Ages and of the church’s all-too-human capacity for dogma, hatred, and violence toward enemies.” The Crusades, then, serve as a limit concept for Dickson’s entire analysis. All other instances of corruption are echoes of the Crusades, movements from passivity to power, and power is the one thing Christians, it seems, should never have.
This reading simply cannot be maintained without eventually affirming the old notion that the Church fell into general apostasy between the conversions of Constantine and Martin Luther. This is so because the Crusades were not some sort of exception to the otherwise sound “spirit” of medieval Christianity. As two generations of scholarship, flowing out of the work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, have demonstrated, crusading spirituality was integral to the mentality of the whole epoch, in everything from the reform of monasteries to the building of the universities, to the explosion in movements of lay holiness. One could, of course, dismiss the whole period as corrupt (Dickson, to his credit, does not go down this road)—but one is then faced with the problem of the obvious continuity between medieval and patristic Christianity.
Dickson’s mistake is to assume that Christianity is fundamentally opposed to the crusading spirit of militant zeal. The truth, of course, is that it is anything but. Indeed, the first move toward a true understanding of the Church’s corruption must be to insist that Christianity is not an aesthetic for well-functioning liberals. The Church is a military operation, a kingdom that seeks to submit all other kingdoms to its rule—giving no quarter. Christ came to bring not peace, but the sword. The Church is made up of zealous warriors.
In the first instance, of course, the war is within, a war against the vices in which every Christian wallows. This conflict is relentless, with every advance opening new fields of battle. The inward war, however, spills out into the social and historical planes because man is essentially temporal, essentially political. There are no hard lines between internals and externals, the personal and the social. Externals are habituated into internals; internals express themselves always as externals. Law leads to virtue; virtue creates law. We are individuals always embedded in the social: We are persons in relation to other persons, and our just vocations are always aimed at drawing our neighbors toward the good as an essential aspect of perfecting ourselves. We are powerful and creative actors, and our power must be used, must be mobilized against evil everywhere it has purchase, in ourselves and in our communities.
The Christian pursuit of virtue is an unfinished war against vice; indeed, every virtue reflects a vice, because the virtue is acquired only in battle against a lingering vice. We don’t have courage merely in a generic sense. We have courage that has always been at war with our specific, historical cowardice, and as our courage develops, it develops with this cowardice reflected within it. Our courage is aimed at our cowardice. Our war shapes our peace.
What this means is that Christianity is essentially corrupt. Here, I beg the reader take the time to understand what I mean. Christians know they are corrupt. Part of their virtue is that they never stop seeking out and fighting their vice—it is their second nature. This is not because corruption is good. That would be absurd. It is because Christianity is the ever-shifting movement from the bad to the good, and it is only when we are engaged in the struggle for moral reform that we can see the badness of corruption. Only the almost good calls the bad by its name. It is our aiming at the good that constitutes the bad as corruption. The pagan is corrupt only from the outside, from the perspective of a third party. The Christian, by contrast, is corrupt on the inside, is corrupt in his own estimation. As John Henry Newman remarked to his congregation, “Your knowledge of your sins increases with your view of God’s mercy in Christ.” Or to quote the Second Vatican Council, the Church is “at the same time holy and always in need of being purified.”
The more Christian an epoch, then, the more we historians find its people talking about their corruption, which is why there are so many sources relentlessly listing Christians’ failures. Historians sometimes misinterpret these sources as demonstrating that Christianity wasn’t really the ethos of society, or that Christianity was somehow competing with rival worldviews. (Among the common people, these worldviews are supposed to have consisted of charming “folkways” that involve harmony with nature, sexual freedom, and herbal remedies—whereas the worldview of the elites is supposed to have been a cynical Machiavellianism.) This kind of reading fails to see that the most Christian people are the least Christian people. As long as there are Christians failing to be Christian, there is hope; the alternative is a fading away into surrender, apostasy, worldliness.
The historical Church is a regime that seeks always to use human power, responding to grace, in order to move forward from vice to a more perfect virtue and so a more perfect regime, which facilitates a more perfect acceptance of grace, and so a more perfect virtue, and so on. Ultimately, perfection can be found only in communion with God himself, but it is nevertheless approached in time, through actions of reform, actions that always, by definition, contain conflict.
This dynamic has two extremely important implications for church historians. The first is that the Church (which includes the laity, of course) wields social power, including coercive power. Dickson cites the example of some monks who seemed so holy, so peaceful in one instance and then, in the next instance, are found destroying pagan temples. He sees here inconsistency, a paradox of saints who somehow become bullies. But there is another explanation: that the monks’ battles against the devils in their hermitages and their battle against the pagan gods in their temples were part of the same war. The devils were the enemy. The gods were devils. The devils must be defeated. This is, of course, how such monks talked about themselves, and it is an extremely dubious method to separate what the historical actor held together. The monks had to destroy the temples for the same reason that they had to destroy their vice: because they were Christian.
Such spontaneous action, however, is rare. Normally, the Church builds structures of discipline that aim to enforce morality in a manner that is prudent and charitable and compassionate, that is not manifested in lashing out, but in steady progress into sanctity, within which a great deal of tolerance is normally called for. Failures in prudent tolerance are examples of corruption, no doubt. Yet structures of temporal power are not, in themselves, to be identified with such failures. They are essential to the Church. The Christian’s internal war against vice must, because of mankind’s social and historical nature, be manifested in the Church’s external, structural war against the laws, institutions, and practices that encourage vice.
The Church’s wielding of social power is not, then, a betrayal of her true nature; it is essential to it, and the form this social power takes will always reflect the corruption it is built to combat—in the same way that our virtues reflect our vices. In a militaristic world, the Church (again, including the laity) will build armies; in a criminal world, police forces; in a greedy world, mechanisms of appropriation and redistribution; in a lustful world, strict sexual codes. The Church must build exactly the structures that will be, in fact, engaged in combat. When being true to herself she will, therefore, always be seen fighting. She will always be obnoxious to the world. It is when we don’t see her fighting that we should worry that she is betraying her nature, that an apostasy is underway.
The second implication for church historians is more troubling, and yet it naturally follows from the first. The Church’s corruption is not limited to the objects of her structures of discipline. Rather, corruption and sanctity are constantly intermingled. This means the objects of the Church’s reform must include the very structures of reform that she builds in order to defeat corruption. These structures are themselves corrupt: The reform requires reform. The Church must double back on herself in a spiral of discipline and grace. Rulers will abuse the Church’s social power; it will be corrupted, it will—at least partially—fail. But that does not make it less essential to the Church.
For example, though the Crusades were almost certainly a necessary expression of the Church’s militant posture given the circumstances, it ought not surprise us, even if it saddens and angers us, that the crusaders sometimes turned into murderous thieves. The Church could not have fought the Crusades without building exactly the structures that in their inevitable corruption are open to such abuse. This is not to excuse such behavior. It is unambiguous sin—which is why the Church condemned it, even as she called for more Crusades. She condemned the “violent” knights as villains who “plunged their swords into the gut of Mother Church.” They were murderers and thieves who violated their sacred crusading vow, who committed blasphemy against the very cross that they wore on their breasts. They had abandoned, Pope Innocent III lamented, “the land flowing with milk and honey” to “go astray in the direction of the desert.” The same reform that called forth the crusaders, called forth in turn the preachers of penance who harangued the crusaders for their failings.
So we cannot, without becoming terrible historians, separate the Church’s pursuit of power from aspects of her history—such as service to the poor—that seem more admirable to the modern mind. Such a separation does violence to the nature of Christianity. Service to the poor, to the spiritually or physically weak, requires that the Church not retreat entirely into the safety of the contemplative life. Service to the poor demands that the Church also risk the active life, that she fight bullies, build institutions, wield power—a move that always, always involves the risk of corruption. This is why Christian mission is so fraught with peril, why the Church has always emphasized the terrible dangers of the world even as she sends the faithful out to engage with it.
Even though the Church’s activities against corruption are themselves unavoidably corrupt, they are not futile. As she reforms, she is made more perfect, and so corruption gives way to sanctity. This is a real movement: The spiral of reform is an ascending spiral. The Church moves in an eschatological ascent, but this does not mean that she moves in a linear, Whiggish progression. Corruption is real and is constantly counteracting reform, constantly threatening to drag the Church back down into the world, and to various degrees succeeding. But even such regressions must be understood as the providential settings for new reforms, for a new calling of the Church out of the world—like Israel out of Egypt—to build new structures of discipline and form new strategies for sanctity. The historian of the Church, then, must have a subtle, patient posture toward the object of his work. He must listen to the Church, hear what she says about what she is doing, allow her both sanctity and corruption in the same movement, see her sin within her more profound dynamic of reform into sanctity.
But such an approach is liable to be misunderstood. The modern world, like the pagan world, rests ultimately on a dualism. Capitalism requires the welfare state and the welfare state, capitalism, and yet they cannot coexist. Freedom is only freedom from oppression. Peace is only the lack of enmity, and it only emerges because of enmity somewhere else. Modern man does not see himself in his enemy. He doesn’t even see a man—he sees a monster. The modern world, then, is built as a set of absolutes that are at war with one another. Within such a world, self-righteousness is the inevitable moral stance. This is a world hostile to reform because it is constituted as a series of closed societies that cannot allow their negations to inform their self-understanding. It is a cosmos of warring gods.
Christianity’s movement, by contrast, comprehends its own negation (corruption). Christianity denies, ultimately, the possibility of a true binary, of a difference that does not operate within a unity. As Augustine explained, the man hanging upside down by his feet experiences pain only because he belongs to a right-side-up cosmos (he is upside-down). Sin is identified for what it is only within a world that is built to undo sin. There is an irony here: Only human beings are capable of sin, and redemption is the movement into ever fuller humanity. As a saint moves deeper into perfection, he is able to identify his sins more perfectly and resist them. Disordered goods become more obvious and more offensive exactly as goods become more properly ordered. The law convicts us even as grace saves us. In the dualistic modern world, such Christianity can be perceived only as the most profound hypocrisy, as logically absurd and morally reprehensible. Christians always talk about peace, and yet they wage war. They praise holiness, and yet they often sin. They call for reform, and yet they are corrupt. Christians, in short, are foolish bigots. This is what the sophisticates of the Roman Empire saw. This is what our elites see.
Conflict, then, is unavoidable. Christianity has the potential to destroy the world that persecutes it through the sacrificial power that wages war always for the weak and never for the strong. If the Church does not destroy this world, it must join it, through a downward spiral of violence without sacrifice and of suffering without power. Within the Christian dynamic, the martyr and the crusader are part of the same story. But within the framework of the modern mind, the Crusades emerge as grotesque at the same rate that martyrdom becomes incomprehensible. Christianity has become just another bit of the world, another religion, another lifestyle, maybe a good one—as Dickson would have it—but probably not.
The Church is corrupt. If the Church stopped being corrupt, that would mean that she had stopped taking risks, stopped venturing out into the world, stopped fighting. This is an unsettling and humbling thought. But the alternative is to make things simple, to accept the absolutes of the world, to accuse with ease and self-righteousness, to deny both the legitimacy of the crusaders and the holiness of the martyrs in favor of moral certitude. It would be a false solution. Instead, let’s fight.
Andrew Willard Jones is Director of Catholic Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville.