A millennium ago, it was understood that Christianity and Christendom were coterminous. This identity of course was fractured by the East/West divide in the 11th century and later diluted by the proliferating consequences of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Today the word “Christendom” is rarely heard.
Recently, however, I have come across it and its author proposes a new definition, one that is somewhat contradictory with the definition of “Christianity. His perspective merits consideration if only because it is provocative.
The proposed distinction, he posits, between “Christianity” and “Christendom” resides not in theology but in the makeup of the individuals who constitute each group.
Those who belong to “Christianity” include serious Christian believers. However, also belonging are those “cultural Christians” who, although baptized, are indifferent to or even ignorant of the beliefs, which had animated their ancestors. For these, the faith is a dim heritage that belongs to the past rather than a vibrant calling that looks to the future. Their personal conduct is governed more by societal laws than by religious conviction, and awareness of the Divine – if present at all – is minimal. Although graced with the sacrament of baptism they are essentially non-believers.
On the other hand, those who belong to “Christendom,” according to the new definition, include committed Christian believers but also serious non-Christians who, in response to their understanding of God and God’s will, faithfully lead lives of piety, justice and compassion. These are the souls – Christian or otherwise – who everyday recognize themselves to be in the providential sight and care of God.
In support of his perspective, the author points to two familiar passages. The first is from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus says: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom but only those who do the will of the Father.”
The second is found in the Vatican II document ¬Gaudium Et Spes: “Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged.”
If one sincerely obeys the law inscribed in his heart by God and is “doing the will of the Father,” is he not, per Jesus’ words, qualified to enter the Kingdom? By such qualification, would he not be enrolled in this “new Christendom”? In a world where so many regions are increasingly steeped in godlessness, could it not be possible that the authentic example of the believers in the new “Christendom” would in some way evangelize the many non-believers who are part of “Christianity”? This would be a paradox.
The presence of paradox is not cause to suspend one’s faith journey. After all, the Holy Spirit inspired sacred scripture, which is replete with contradiction and paradox. Perhaps the path to understanding begins in the balance of paradox, a balance, which is itself at once delicate in its subtlety and indestructible in its certitude.
Maybe we’ll find guidance in the joyous paradox we are about to celebrate. Merry Christmas to all of you from all of us at the National Catholic Community Foundation.
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.