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St. Peter and Mahomet; or the Popes Protecting Christendom from Mahometanism

Brownson’s Quarterly Review for July, 1850

When the Apostles were sitting at the feet of Christ for the last time before his passion, they began to dispute among themselves; and the question was, which of them would be the greatest. Our Lord settled this dispute, and then he turned to the Apostle who was soon to become prince of the sacred college, and said to him, "Simon, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith may not fail. And thou, being converted, confirm thy brethren."

St. Peter knew not at that moment in how many ways Satan would sift the Church,- from how many quarters he would lead forth the united strength of earth and hell. He saw the Devil, not as a serpent, nor as an angel of light, but as a roaring lion. His conception of the whole matter appears in his answer:- "Lord, I am ready to follow thee to prison, and to death." And the first sifting which the Church received at the hands of Satan was precisely that which St. Peter expected. The world for three hundred years groaned beneath the tyranny of Rome, and during that long period the worship of Christ was proscribed, and his children hunted to the death; the prisons were choked with them, the wild beasts were glutted with their flesh, the ground was red with their blood; they were pitislessly murdered, sometimes singly, sometimes by hundreds, sometimes by thousands. This was the first great sifting; it was a trial of the Church by fire and by sword, a determination to crush her by treating her children as convicted enemies of the Empire and of the immortal gods. The yet uninspired fisherman was ready for all this, but he had no notion of the far more terrible storms which would issue from the womb of time, and burst upon the Church. He could not foresee the day when heresy would sit upon the throne and trample the altar, when the astonished world would find itself Arian, when the true faith would be denied by the East, and scarcely find a resting-place in the West except in the bosom of Leo the Great. He did not suspect that Scribes and Pharisees would sit again in the chair of Moses,- that some of his successors would be ambitious, cruel, and licentious men, incapable of denying the faith simply because Jesus Christ had promised the world that his Vicar should never lead the world to believe a lie. He did not see the tide of barbarism issuing from Northern Asia with resistless force, and failing to destroy civilization because it could not destroy the parent of all true civilization, the Church of God. In the days of St. Peter the Emperors were the high-priests of paganism, and after a thousand years had rolled away, the German Caesars bethought themselves of this fact, and straightway they claimed some of the inalienable rights of the High-Priest of Christianity. A long struggle served to evolve an undeniable right of the Holy See; the refractory Emperors were stripped of their purple, until they would consent to render to God the things which are of God. The Western Schism threatened to leave the Church a dismembered corpse upon the plains of Europe; the captivity of Babylon, as the stay of the Popes in France was justly called, nearly ruined Italy, and produced the most deplorable effects in the Western Churches; and the Protestant rebellion tore whole nations from their mother’s arms. St. Peter was ready for imprisonment and death, but he was not prepared to meet storms like these. What if he could have heard modern doctors proving that he had never been in Rome! What if he could have heard the wise disciples of Strauss gravely say that he never lived, that his Master was an Idea!

If the Church ever could really fear an enemy, she would have been hopelessly affrighted at Mohometanism. All her other trials were accompanied with some solace for her wounded heart. The persecutions were bitter, but she often had a little time to breathe; she felt that such a violent state of things could not endure long, and she knew that the surest way to enlarge her fold on earth was to send crowds of martyrs to heaven. No man ever sowed tares in her fields as Arius did, but in three hundred years the heresy which had stolen the throne, the temples, the palaces, and the cities, had fallen to pieces; it was a lost Babylon,- no one could tell where it was. The awful irruptions of the Northern barbarians seemed to have thrown upon the plains of Europe a great mass of soulless human flesh, which would corrupt the air, and make the country a wild desert; but the Church took these things to her bosom, and her supernatural warmth made those bones live again; she made them Christians, and they became men. It was not so when she fought the new enemy. The powerful genius of Mahomet made him dream that he could do what Caesar and Alexander did,- that he could enslave the world; and he matured his plans with care. The political aspect of the world was very inviting to an ambitious imposter, for the Western Empire had fallen, and the strong arm won the spoils; the Eastern was getting old and crazy, and all Asia was nearly independent of the Greek Emperors. Mahomet gave laws which were singularly adapted to please man’s corrupt nature, and his laws were piously kept. He won his soldiers to his party by promising them rich booty, and by keeping his promises. The captains always shouted with Mokanna,- "Thrones to the victors, heaven to him who falls."

He did not give them thrones,- common soldiers would not know what to do with them; but they were always ready to exchange the promised throne for present license to unmitigated avarice and lust, and the soldier was satisfied. It is true that the slain did not ascend to heaven, but they never came back to tell their surviving comrades so.

Some say that Mahomet was a reformed drunkard; others ascribe his law against wine-drinking to the fact that he could not use it. They do him injustice; he was an ambitious captain, and he knew that he could do nothing with a drunken army. Yet he had no easy task, for the Arabs were a nation of sots. Death was as common at their dinners as drunkenness at ours. But they consoled themselves with a gluttony that made their former drunkenness ashamed. In our own times, death from excessive eating at a genuine Turkish dinner is an event too common to attract much notice. "God is great, but Mustapha was a good eater. Who will die next?"

Soldiers and slaves must not think too much, or they will become captains and members of Provisional Governments. Caesar knew it when he looked so at the lean and hungry Cassius. The Praetorian guards had much time for making and hearing speeches, and the end of it was, that they became auctioneers, and sold the empire to the highest bidder. The Janizaries cared not who held the sword and purse, while they held the bowstring and dagger. A few years of idleness taught them that the word Sultan, when interpreted, means a strong army. From that moment the Grand Turk sat under the Janizaries as uneasily as Damocles did under the sword, until Mahmoud eased his mind by cutting their throats. Now Mahomet made war the rule, not the exception, of his public policy, and of course it followed that his people would have little time to cultivate their minds. He knew that the breathing intervals would be given to beastly indulgence, and in order to make their ignorance profound, he gave them the Koran, and told them to read nothing else. They treated it as Native Americans treat the Bible;- they swore by it, but scarcely opened it. The views of Mahomet touching mental improvement were practically illustrated by Omar, when he burned the Alexandrian library. What a monument he would have, if every curse of the learned were a stone upon his grave!

Tell men that they can serve God and Mammon at the same time, charge them to indulge their passions freely, secure to them a heaven whose first law is sensual gratification, make ignorance the first commandment, and erect this scheme of lust and rapine into a religious system, and what remains to insure it long life? Punish apostasy with death. This stern law of the Prophet is as faithfully kept now as it was under Al Raschid. We have often seen converted Turks, whose return to their own country would be instantly followed by their assassination. It is true, that the Sublime Porte issues firmans of toleration, but secret assassins are numerous, and justice is seldom obtained in the capital, elsewhere never.

So Mahomet unfurled his banner, and in a twinkling it waved over a great host. He went forth to make converts and subjects. The process was quite simple. He held his tablet of laws in one hand, and the sword in the other, and in most cases the people chose to live and believe in one God, and in his prophet, Mahomet. The Jew was not forced to abandon all his venerable observances; the renegade eased his conscience by observing that Jesus ranked next to Mahomet in the new order of things; the idolater forswore his graven images, and changed the names of his gods. But this synthesis in theology was too ostentatious to be real. The spiritual headship of a minority, with the political sovereignty of nations differing in every thing excepting in the human shape, did not suit the purposes of Mahomet. He did not want an Ireland, an India, or a Canada, in his empire. He knew that his Christian and Jewish converts would never disturb the commonwealth, but he was not so sure of his many-colored Gentiles. Their Penates would make them quarrel among themselves, and then an easy process of reasoning would lead them to quarrel with him. He knew that the pagan who has no images forgets his theology,- that he becomes an animal, with just enough of humanity to prevent him from walking on all fours. So Mahomet became an iconoclast. The worship of strange gods was an effect of man’s worship of his own self. Idolatry always began at home. The Prophet wished not to destroy the cause; he simply diverted the effect into a new channel. To read his Koran one would think that the ideal formula of his system was the purest theism. So a discourse of Spinoza begins and ends with God. Cousin often speaks of the Divinity in terms that would do credit to a Father of the Church. When Hegel talks of God, his words sometimes become a hymn which might be chanted by an immortal choir. But get Spinoza, Cousin, and Hegel into a corner, force them to tell you what God is in the last analysis, make them speak in words which you can understand, and they will answer, God is I.

An outward profession of faith always satisfied the Prophet. The language of Caliph Vathek to the captains of the Emperor Theophilus was in substance the standing sermon of the Moslems to their captives. "Why will you die when your lives are in your own hands? Why will you not leave the narrow way which the Son of Mary has marked for you? Enter into the broad path which the great Prophet has opened for this life and for the next. Are not his words full of wisdom, when he says, that God has given every imaginable good to his servants in this life, and paradise in the other world? God is good; he knew that his children were too weak to bear the yoke of Jesus, and he sent Mahomet to free them from the irksome burden. The faith of the true believers is enough for their salvation." The Mahometans said, Pecca fortiter, fortiter crede, before Luther, and they were more consistent besides. Their caprice, or the soul’s involuntary tribute to virtue, made them suffer a few great saints to live quietly in their midst. But they lost no opportunity for tempting these heroes. When St. Nilus met some of them, they tried to make him a true believer; and when they saw that it was useless, they begged him to lay aside his austerities. "If you are resolved to torment yourself, wait until you are too old to enjoy the good things of this world."

The imposter ruled Arabia before he died, and he had the fortune which is commonly denied to political innovators; he left men who were equal to the task of prosecuting the work which he had begun. Under Abubekir, Omar, and Ali, Palestine, Syria, and Egypt were enslaved, and although schism, which must distract and finally ruin every society not upheld by God, was even then dividing the true believers, nevertheless the cause went on and prospered. The great Caliphate; so celebrated in Eastern romance, was established at Bagdad; then Persia became Mahometan, and the religion of the Prophet was professed along the shores and in the islands of the Indian Sea. The tide rolled westward; desperate attempts were made by the enemy to obtain foothold in Europe, and they were too successful. The African shores of the Mediterranean submitted, and the piratical nests scattered along the coast from Egypt to the Straits enabled the true believers to begin a series of operations against Sicily and Spain.

Mirza governed Africa in the name of Caliph Valid. He had been plotting the conquest of Spain, when Count Julian invited him to make a descent upon the coast. The Count had a private quarrel with King Roderic, who had debauched his daughter. The Moor entered Spain with a great army, and destroyed the kingdom of the Goths, which had flourished three hundred years. The Moors made Cordova their capital; the Goths elected a new king, and returned to the Asturias, when Pelagius began the war, which raged eight hundred years, until Ferdinand and Isabella drove the Moors back into Africa. The enemy crossed the Pyrenees, ascended the Rhone, and pushed their conquests in France as far as Sens at the eastward, leaving behind them ruined cities, wasted plains, and thousands of martyrs. At the westward they entered Aquitaine, where they were routed by Charles Martel. Two hundred years rolled away before the church of France recovered from this blow. In Italy, Radelgise and Siconulph fought for the duchy of Benevento. The former called in the African Moors, the latter met them with the Saracens of Spain. It was a sore day for Italy. Rome was nearly taken; the Chruch of St. Peter was sacked, as well as the immense monastery of Monte Cassino. The infidels were bribed to go away, and the ornaments of the altar were sacrificed, as they have been often since. In 877, Pope John VIII wrote to Charles the Bald, begging for aid. "The blood of Christians," wrote the Holy Father, "never flowed as it does now. If they are not murdered, they are sold into slavery. Cities, abandoned by their inhabitants, are masses of shapeless ruins; bishops beg their food from city to city. Rome itself is scarcely a safe asylum for them or for me; it is sitting in the dust, awaiting the moment of its destruction. Last year we sowed and our enemies reaped; this year we cannot hope for a harvest, for we dared not go outside our walls to throw seed into the ground." The Pope was forced to purchase the peace of his states by the annual payment of twenty-five thousand silver marks to the Moors. A few years later, they were encouraged to return by Athanasius of Naples, and they did not leave Lower Italy until it was so wet with blood that the flames of what were cities could scarcely dry the ground.

The Greeks stood condemned before the world of perfidy and injustice; before Heaven, of obstinate schism. They retreated towards Constantinople slowly; so slowly, that more than six hundred years passed on before the Saracens completed their work of destruction in the East. Nothing remained but the city of Constantine; and its hour came too. So the Mahometans came into the possession of a city which was more serviceable to them than any other in Europe; and they had scarcely taken possession of it when they turned their arms against the lower Slavonic provinces, and led their forces into Hungary, threatening Vienna with destruction, and Europe with a darker night than that which settled over her when the Northern barbarians poured from their fastnesses, bringing with them certain ruin to every institution that was not upheld by the right hand of Almighty God.

And thus, in six hundred years after the death of the Prophet, Mahometanism had nearly fulfilled its purpose; its universal sovereignty seemed only to be a question of time. It had blasted Asia; it had destroyed Africa; it was the terror of the Mediterranean; and it was advancing slowly but surely upon the last abiding-place of Christianity, converting, like a cancer, healthy flesh into a mass of corruption and hopeless deformity. The Church of God never saw such an enemy, for Mahometanism was evidently a heresy that would live for very many ages.

It sounds like a paradox, but it is, certain, that Catholic truth may be something more than the teleological consequence of heresy; it may be its logical result, when the heresy is stripped of its quibbles, and reduced to an ideal formula.

This is pretty clear a posteriori, for it is a fact that the disciples of the ancient heretics, one or two classes excepted, returned to the Church at last. One reason why these one or two classes were always so obstinate will be given directly. Another cause may, perhaps, be assigned. Heresy has rarely been hopelessly hereditary, excepting among the Orientals. It would be curious to inquire, whether the principle which makes Eastern idolatry and heresy so lasting be not the Manichean. Manes was not an inventor; he found the worst of his ideas already current in Asia. The only Western sect which has had any thing like Oriental persistence in hereditary error is Manichean. It has had various names. Men have called its followers Albigenses, Templars, Illuminati, Freemasons. They were Red Republicans in 1848.

It is true that this return of heretics to the Church was the work of Divine grace. But this is no objection; for we must bear in mind, that, while the nature of grace and its mode of action are mysteries, its subject and its effects are open to observation. It acts immediately upon the will, mediately upon the intellect. We do not here ask of illuminative grace,- gratia illustrationis,- which, as St. Augustine says, is given that we may know what is right,- facienda noverimus,- and whose immediate subject is the intellect of man; but of co-operating grace,- gratia inspirationis, or gratia cooperans,- which is given that we may do what we know to be right,- ut cognita faciamus,- and with which, whether it be sufficient or efficacious, the questions concerning merit and demerit are usually connected. It is plain enough that the grace which brings about the conversion of the heretic is cooperating grace, acting immediately upon the will, and finishing the work which was begun by the illumination of the mind, or, at least, providing sufficient means for its completion. So the mere vision of the truth is not meritorious; we must give it free assent, and this is the doing of the will. The blessed in heaven merit nothing by seeing the Increated Truth; the devils, too, believe, and tremble. This cooperating grace certainly acts upon the intellect, but it does not show it truth; that is the work of illuminative grace; it rather moves the will to overthrow an obstacle which man places between his intellect and the light. This is precisely what is wanting in those thrice happy Protestants who are invited to the feast, and who would come, were it not for a wife, a yoke of oxen, or a farm. Diligenda credunt, sed credita non diligunt. The one thing necessary to them is, not intellectual illumination, or sufficient cooperative grace, but the honest use of good eyes.

When a man denies a revealed truth, he takes a step as false in logic as it is in theology; when he returns to the Church, he does it because he had opened his soul to the light that shineth upon every man that cometh into this world, but he can look back, and see a reason, a chain of antecedents and consequents which formed a logical process in his mind, as it came nearer to the whole truth. The Magi knew that the star would lead them to the Messiah, but it was not until the heavenly guide shone upon the place where the child was, that they knew the road from their home to Bethlehem.

It is true that this logical process never did, and never can, bring about a conversion, so far as it is a mere logical movement; and if it does any thing, it is because it ceases to be purely natural. Reason and grace are in two distinct orders; but grace can elevate reason so that it may cooperate in a supernatural work, such as conversion from heresy to the Church. Pure logic can beget nothing supernatural; if it could, Theodore Parker would be a Christian, Dr. Pusey would be an Oratorian, the Devil would be again a morning star.

So the return of the heretic is a reasonable act, reasonable in its beginning, in its progress, and in its consummation. It cannot be otherwise, for true intellectual life is superhuman; no one can live it outside of the Church, as the legitimate channel of God’s grace. And the grace of God is necessary to that life, because in the Church we are, in some measure, always children. A boy that obstinately refuses to hear his master will never know any thing, not because his intellect is dull, but because his will is perverse. If a man be emancipated from earthly schools, it is because in time he knows as much as his master does, perhaps more; but this cannot be when the master is God, speaking in his Church. So the submission of the will, necessary to the boy when he is in school, is indispensable to the Christian until he dies.

The matter is equally clear, a priori. For pure falsehood is a metaphysical impossibility; it cannot be an object of the intellect of God. The heretic cannot start from a postulate which is purely false. His error becomes intelligible, not of itself, but because of the intelligibility of the truth with which it is accompanied. Two things may be safely predicated of truth; that it is essentially generative, and that it can only generate itself. All particular truths, objectively considered, have a natural affinity for one another, and they are all reducible to one formula, which shines in each of them like the sun in a million dew-drops, and by virtue of which they are one in their logical state, as they are one in their physical being in the intellect of God. This is the reason why man can abstract one particular truth, and from that alone deduce the others; as Descartes pretended to do, when he began with the fact of personal existence, and from that drew his whole philosophy. When I hold in my hand only one link of a chain, I am in communication with every one of the others, no matter if the chain reaches to the stars. A drop of water that is absorbed from the ocean unites itself with other drops, falls upon the mountain, leaps down the rocks, hurries along with the river, and rushes again into the bosom of its own ocean. The intellect, created to see all truth, cannot rest in one; it is always impatient to know what comes next.

It is this affinity which makes a system of science possible. Descartes relied upon it, as we said before. So did Spinoza, when he built his pantheism upon a false definition of substance. So does a mathematician, who begins by showing you the properties of a straight line, and ends by proving to you that solar attraction is in an inverse ratio to the square of the distance. So does Gioberti, when he raises a sublime philosophical structure upon one postulate,- L’ ente crea l’ esistenze. All this holds good with truths of the natural order.

But no one of these can bring the mind to Catholic truth, because nemo dat quod non habet. Catholic truth is in the supernatural order. To arrive at it, two postulates are absolutely necessary. One is a point of Catholic truth to start from. The other is Divine grace, which gives that truth, and guides the soul tanquam lucerna in caliginoso loco. Until this be given, Lucifer non orietur in ullo corde. Ventura thinks that he has that starting-point, when he says that the logical basis of Catholic truth is the following postulate: - Christ was true God and true man. It may be that natural truth and the supernatural are more closely connected than is commonly imagined. No really sound philosophy can be formed without having recourse to some fact which only revelation furnishes. It may be inferred from this that merely human philosophy cannot be sound, but if so we cannot help it. The formula of Gioberti, above quoted, starts from the fact of creation. That is a fact which men knew not, but by the revelation in the first chapter of Genesis. That there is a bridge between truths of the natural and the supernatural order is true enough; but the soul of man needs a better guide than even an angel, or he will never pass it. His natural reason, without the positive evidence which establishes the fact of revelation, will avail him nothing. The grace of God may help him to pass by that causeway to eternal truth.

For common purposes, where exact language is not needed, it is well enough to say that error, too, is generative, and must generate itself. But this is not correct, for error has no entity; then it has no activity, it does nothing; it is not of itself intelligible; then it has no predicates. Then it does not generate, neither does it generate itself. The apparent generation of error is the struggle of truth to eliminate it, and to stand alone; a thing which truth necessarily tends to do, for its unnatural union with falsehood can do nothing but perpetuate error, which lives by it as the ivy by the solid wall. Then this struggle is a wholesome action; as a fever is the effort of a body to throw off corrupt matter, and return to a healthy state.

The heretical formula must present a portion of truth, and it may lead to Catholic truth in two ways,- the truth which is in it may be considered alone, or the whole formula may be pushed to its ultimate consequence. The first case is that of a man who takes the article of the Incarnation, for example, considers it closely, and concludes that no church but an infallible and Divinely appointed one has a right to propose such an article of belief. His difficulty, then, resolves itself into two questions of fact, namely, Is there such a Church? And if so, where is it? If he follows up the inquiry, and obeys the motions of grace, he becomes a Catholic at once.