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Dawson and the "Six Ages of the Church"

Some of our readers have requested that we outline Christopher Dawson's (that's him above, left) ideas about there being six ages of the Church. This, it is said (and I heartily agree) will provide more historical context for our blog name. Eventually, this will all be under our "About Us" link as a helpful (and much needed) resource.

So, in that spirit, I have compiled a number of commentaries relating to the essay itself. The original can be found in the collection of Dawson essays entitled "Christianity and European Culture," edited by Gerald Russello.

Two commentaries from "The Public Square" in First Things are especially helpful: Dawson's Daunting Questions and
Something, Like Maybe, A Catholic Moment.

The essay is referenced in this piece by Dawson entitled, "The Study of Christian Culture."

I have pasted Fr. Richard Neuhaus's short and concise summary of the important essay below:

In the 1930s, the great and very sober historian Christopher Dawson was thinking about “the six ages of the Church,” with specific reference to America.


To very briefly summarize, Dawson said there was first the Apostolic Age, which “stands in a sense outside the course of Church history as the archetype of spiritual creativity.” The second age began with the fourth–century conversion of the emperor Constantine, the establishment of Christendom, the theological writings of the great Church Fathers, the doctrinally pivotal decisions of Councils, the flourishing of art, architecture, and letters. The second age came to an end with the loss of the Christian East and the seventh–century conquest of Islam in Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and most of Spain. The third age witnessed a new Christian culture in Europe—“ineptly termed ‘medieval,’” according to Dawson—in which “the relation between religion and culture was closer than in any other period.” Irish and Anglo–Saxon missionaries created a new Christendom of a “Latin ecclesiastical culture” that would be the basis of subsequent civilizations, and found its most ambitious expression in the Carolingian Empire, all of which would finally succumb to the barbarian invasions from the North and East. The fourth age began with the reform movement of the eleventh century that united the papacy and monasteries in resisting the secularization of the Church and its absorption into feudal society. Among the great heroes of that age were Gregory VII, Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi. They asserted the independence of the Church and broke with the traditional order to make the papacy an instrument for the evangelization of the masses and international mission.


But the princes, such as Philip IV of France, would in time have their revenge. Secular rulers, with an assist from radical movements of reform such as the Wycliffites and the Hussites, would lead to the Great Schism in the papacy itself, with competing popes, Rome debauched, and the stage set for what is called the Reformation, which separated most of Northern Europe from Catholicism, and thus delivered a large part of Christianity into the custody of the secular authority. The fifth age of the Church, according to Dawson, is the Counter–Reformation or the Tridentine Reform, which witnessed also great missionary expansion in the Far East and the Americas, as well as the highest development of Catholic mysticism and the art, architecture, literature, and devotional practices that go by the name of Baroque. But the Catholic revival that was Baroque culture was short–lived, being too closely tied to Catholic monarchies, and everything was swept away by the French Revolution and allied enemies of the ancien régime. At the start of the nineteenth century, “In the eyes of secular opinion, the Catholic Church had been abolished as a superannuated relic of the dead past.” Then began the sixth age.


“Yet in spite of all these disasters,” Dawson writes, “the Church did recover and the revival of Catholicism took place, so that the Church was in a far stronger position by 1850 than it had been a hundred years before when it still possessed its ancient wealth and privileges.” Key to this recovery is the American experience. “Indeed the whole history of Catholicism in the United States belongs to this sixth age and is in many aspects typical of the new conditions of the period.” Catholicism in America is essentially urban, whereas in Europe it was still mainly rooted in the peasantry, and it is vigorously independent from the state. “At the present day it is the American rather than the European pattern which is becoming the normal condition of the Church everywhere.”


Historians know that there is inevitably an element of the arbitrary in putting vast stretches of history into periods. The real world does not work, things do not happen, in obedience to our chronological schemes. Dawson knew that, as he also knew that the story is far from over. “I have spoken of the Six Ages of the Church—there may be sixty before the universal mission of the Church is completed. But each age has its own peculiar vocation which can never be replaced, and each, to paraphrase [Leopold von] Ranke’s famous saying, stands in a direct relation to God and answers to Him alone for its achievements and its failures. Each, too, bears its own irreplaceable witness to the faith of all.”

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Comments (1)

demz05005:

enumerate the six ages and their primary contributions so that the readers could understaND it properly.if these will be placed, it might encourage or attract readers to buy the book.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on February 27, 2005 8:25 PM.

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