St. Matthew and the Myth of the Dark Ages

Matthew was a despised publican, or tax collector. But Jesus chose him to bring his message, the Gospel, to the whole world. It would be Matthew’s task to find a way to bring the message, and the values, of God to all the various cultures of the world. Thus he spoke in many towns and villages. He wrote one of the Gospels.

Every follower of Jesus is likewise called to be an evangelizer, to help shape their culture with the values and saving truths of the Gospel. Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 On Evangelization in the Modern World, taught that the “split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times” (20).

He said that every strata, every dimension, of humanity must be transformed, “For the Church it matters not only of preaching the Gospel more widely and to greater numbers of people, but also of affecting, and as it were upsetting, through the power of the Gospel, mankind’s criteria of judgment, his determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life, which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation” (19).

In so many words, if our evangelizing is only on the periphery of our society, then we are not the active yeast and seasoned salt that Jesus expects us to be. The world desperately needs to hear the Gospel, even when it loudly complains about our intrusion into the public square, and the public media.

It helps to know that many biased myths about Catholics are beginning to be exposed today. Rodney Stark, a non-Catholic sociologist and historian, wrote a book in 2016 on Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries Of Anti-Catholic History. Among other things, he cites the total bias of calling the 4th to the 14th centuries, the Dark Ages.

The popular attitude today is that “Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and most of Europe. Then we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from AD 300 to at least 1300. This occurred because the leaders of orthodox Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge.” This view has been promoted by such people as Voltaire, Rousseau, Edward Gibbon, and Bertrand Russell.

According to this accounting, Western history consists of four major eras: 1) classical antiquity, 2) then the Dark Ages when the Church dominated, followed by 3) the Renaissance-Enlightenment that led the way to 4) modern times.

For several centuries that has been the fundamental organizing scheme for every textbook devoted to Western history, despite the fact that serious historians have known for decades that this scheme is a complete fraud – “an indestructible fossil of self-congratulatory Renaissance humanism.”

It is inappropriate to apply the term “Renaissance” to identify the rebirth of intellectual progress following the “Dark Ages,” because there never were any Dark Ages. Even the respectable encyclopedias now define the Dark Ages as a myth. The Columbia Encyclopedia rejects the term. Britannica disdains the term Dark Ages as “pejorative.” And Wikipedia defines the Dark Ages as “a supposed period of intellectual darkness after the fall of Rome.”

As for the recovery of classical learning, to the extent it ever was lost, Church scholars accomplished the recovery long before the Renaissance. And if one wishes to identify an Age of Reason, it must be re-dated to have begun very early in the Christian era, for the Western faith in reason originated in Christian theology.

In part, the notion that Europe fell into the “Dark Ages” was a hoax perpetrated by very antireligious intellectuals such as Voltaire and Gibbon, who were determined to claim that theirs was the era of “enlightenment.” Rodney Stark’s Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History deserves a wide reading.

We are all called, like St. Matthew, to be evangelizers of our times and our culture. It helps to know some of the barriers that we must face, and overcome. Jesus associated with everyone.

“The healthy do not need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus alone can heal the wounds and divisions of mankind. He wants us to be his collaborators, using our various God-given talents, to help bring the body of Christ “to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

Fr. Matthew Habiger