Presentation of The Church in the tempests: the first millennium of the history of the Church
22 June 2022
by Roberto de Mattei
On Thursday 9 June 2022, at the Brompton Oratory in London, Prof de Mattei presented the following talk for the launch of Calx Mariae Publishing, at which his book The Church in the tempests: the first millennium of the history of the Church was among those presented, notably along with The Christian sense of history by Dom Prosper Guéranger. Picking up in the same century where he left off in his book, Prof de Mattei highlighted Dom Guéranger’s principles for Christian historians and continued to apply them to the phenomenon of Eastern Christianity in the second millennium — unravelling a history which is of greater importance than ever as we enter the third.
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
One of the volumes published by Calx Mariae is my book The Church in the Tempests: The First Millennium of the History of the Church.
In these pages I try to offer a summary of Church history, from its origins to the First Crusade, taking my inspiration from the teaching of Dom Prosper Guéranger, who — in his book, The Christian Sense of History — writes that the Catholic historian is someone who “judges facts, men, and institutions from the point of view of the Church; he is not free to judge otherwise, and that is his strength”.
I am glad that Calx Mariae has also translated and published the important essay by Dom Guéranger, which confirms for us the importance of history in the battle of ideas. Today, we are witnessing an attempt to erase historical memory, an attempt to rewrite history in an anti-Catholic and anti-Western sense. And the history of the Church helps us to fight these errors.
I will give just one example. Leo XIII, in the encyclical, Quarto Abeunte Saeculo, issued 130 years ago on 16 July 1892 for the fourth centenary of the discovery of America, extolled the enterprise of Christopher Columbus, calling it “in itself the highest and grandest which any age has ever seen accomplished by man”.
But in America, Columbus Day, on 12 October, which celebrates the Italian navigator’s arrival in the Americas, is being equated with the celebration of a genocide. In recent years, many American states have chosen to turn Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The message is unmistakable: the supreme evil is the West, its culture, its Christian tradition.
While the West is denying itself, its roots, its tradition, Putin’s Russia is proclaiming an identity opposed to that of the West, it too erasing and rewriting its own history.
I am not going to speak on the merits of the war underway, but I take Vladimir Putin’s vision of history very seriously and would like to draw your attention to an important speech that the president of the Russian Federation gave on 12 July 2021 at the Valdai Club, the best known Russian think tank.1
In this speech, entitled On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians, Putin sets out to rewrite the history of Russia over the past thousand years, in order to justify the invasion of Ukraine. The basic thesis of the president of the Russian Federation is this: Ukraine has no right to exist, because it is a piece of Russia, part of the Russian state for more than a thousand years.
“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus’, which was the largest state in Europe. Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory were bound together by a single language and — after the baptism of Rus’ — by the Orthodox faith.”
Russians and Ukrainians are one people, bound together by one language, one culture and one faith, that of the Orthodox Church, said to date back to the baptism of Prince Vladimir in the year 988.
Putin continues his historical analysis by stating that, after the devastating Mongol invasion of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, two Russias were formed: Lithuanian Rus’, which absorbed Poland, and the principality of Moscow, which became the Tsarist Empire. The Grand Dukes of Lithuania converted to the Catholic faith, while the princes of Moscow kept the Orthodox faith. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, through Catholicism and Latinisation, allegedly tried to break Russian linguistic and religious unity. This unity was restored thanks to the tsarist conquests and subsequent Soviet domination.
According to Putin, after the fall of the Soviet regime, the Ukrainian state rebelled against Russia, asserting its independence and opening up to the West. In order to stop this process, which threatens Russia’s territorial, linguistic and religious integrity, Ukraine must be Russified. For Putin, the work of Russification is not only political and territorial; it is linguistic and cultural, because it affirms the primacy of Russian language and culture over other national languages and cultures; and above all, it is religious, because it consists in the imposition of Orthodoxy as the only religion of the state.
This ideological project is in reality based on a profound falsification of Russian history.
The first historical falsehood of Putin’s reconstruction lies in attributing a Slavic origin to the kingdom of Kiev, while it was instead the creation of an elite group of Scandinavian warriors, the Normans or Vikings, whom the Byzantines called Varangians. They were the same Normans who, at the dawn of the Middle Ages, conquered the British Isles and Sicily, and reached Greenland and the coasts of America.
The city of Kiev, on the right bank of the Dnieper River, was conquered in the ninth century by the Norman Rurikid dynasty, which takes its name from its founding father, Rurik. The term “Rus’” itself does not belong to the Slavic language, but comes from Balto-Finnic.2
The second historical falsehood is that of disregarding the fact that the State of Kiev, which between the tenth and twelfth centuries extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea, up to the Carpathians, remained part of Western Christian civilisation until the Mongol invasion.
Kiev experienced the apogee of its splendour during the first half of the eleventh century, under the reign of Prince Yaroslav “the Wise” (978–1054), who was the monarch most interrelated by marriage to the ruling families in Europe.3 Yaroslav’s sister, Maria, was married to King Casimir of Poland; while, among his daughters, Elisiv was married to King Harald III of Norway, Anastasia to King Andrew I of Hungary, and Anne to King Henry I of France, with whom she had four children, the eldest of whom was France’s king Philip I — a Greek name which thus came into use by the French royal family. The historian, Christian Raffensperger, has written a book on genealogy and dynastic marriage in Kievan Rus’, which shows how extensive the interweaving of kinship between East and West was, within a selfsame Christendom.4
Yaroslav’s last son, Vsevolod I, who reigned from 1073 to 1093, spoke five languages and married a Greek princess. His daughter, Adelaide (1067–1109), was empress of the Holy Roman Empire, because in 1089, in Cologne, she married Henry IV (1050–1106), who later became emperor and the great enemy of St Gregory VII, by whom he was humiliated in Canossa. Adelaide accused her husband of abuse and took refuge with Matilda, Grand Countess of Canossa. Then, in 1095, with uncommon courage, she publicly accused the emperor before Urban II at the Council of Piacenza, where the pope announced the First Crusade. Adelaide at last returned to Kiev, where she died in a convent.
The third historical falsehood is that of attributing to the State of Kiev, or of Rus’, a religious determination deemed Orthodox, meaning by this term the Greek-schismatic religion that was defined in 1054, after the schism with the Church of Rome.
Prince Vladimir received Catholic baptism in 988. The baptism took place in Kherson and was followed soon after by his marriage to Princess Anna, sister of Emperor Basil II. Towards the end of May 989, Vladimir and Anna left Kherson accompanied by many bishops and priests and went to Kiev, where the collective baptism of the people took place in the waters of the Dnieper. This baptism is considered to be the historical origin of Russia.
Kievan Rus’ was born Catholic, because the schism in 1054 that brought about the religious fracture between East and West came more than half a century after Vladimir’s baptism. But even after the schism, Kiev struck its own balance between Constantinople and Rome. What in fact happened after the act of rupture of Constantinople patriarch Cerularius? As the historian Bernard Leib observes, one must distinguish between the metropolitans and the faithful of Kiev. The metropolitans remained tied to Constantinople in administrative terms, but the princes and the population never showed any sentiment of hostility towards Rome.5 In Kievan Rus’, two rites coexisted peacefully, the Eastern rite and the Latin rite. Please note: two rites, not two churches. Kievan Rus’ had understood that its mission was to act as a bridge between East and West, to continue to maintain, in addition to the rites, the unity of the universal Church.6
The princes of Kiev recognised the Roman Pontiff as the supreme spiritual authority of the Respublica Christiana, into which they were fully integrated. Thus, in 1075 Prince Iziaslav I (1024–1078), whose Christian name was Demetrius, sent his son Yaropolk to pay homage to St Gregory VII, and the pope responded by sending “most benevolent wishes of every heavenly blessing” to “Demetrius, king of the Russians, and to his consort the queen”.7
The annus horribilis of the Rus’ was 1236, when the Mongol cavalry crossed the Caucasus, led by Batu, a grandson of Genghis Khan. All the Russian principalities were conquered. Kiev was stormed and razed to the ground in 1240.8 The Mongol domination lasted for over 250 years, until the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is to the time of the Mongol domination that the tradition of servility and moral corruption which would characterise Russian history dates back. Alexander Nevsky (1221–1263), the Russian national hero, progenitor of the Muscovy princes, agreed to be a vassal of the Mongols in order to keep the throne, and his grandson Ivan I (1288–1340) became the tax collector of the Great Khan.
They belonged to the Rurikid dynasty, but politically were the descendants not of the princes of Kiev but of the Tartar Khans, from whom they learned how to govern the new state: the Grand Duchy of Moscow which was born in opposition to that of Kiev.
After the liberation from the Mongols, Catholics and schismatic Orthodox competed for religious primacy in Kiev. In 1439, the seventeenth ecumenical council of the Church was convened by Pope Eugene IV in Florence. Isidore (1385–1463), metropolitan of Kiev and all Rus’, signed with his own name the decree by which the Greek Church was solemnly reunited with the Latin Church, recognising the Roman primacy, after the schism of 1054.9
The union with the Greeks was not destined to last long. The Byzantine bishops who returned to Constantinople were challenged and reconsidered the agreement and, in 1453, the Turks conquered the capital of the Eastern Empire.
On 18 December 1439, Eugene IV rewarded the work of Archbishop Isidore with the purple and sent him as his legate to Russia to implement the union. Isidore met with no difficulty in Kiev and its nine bishoprics, but in Moscow, where he arrived on 19 March 1441, his mission failed. In fact, Isidore delivered a letter from Eugene IV to the prince of Moscow, Basil (Vasily) II (1415–1462), in which the pope urged him to support the spread of Catholicism in Russian lands. Basil categorically refused and had Isidore arrested, but he managed to escape and make his way Rome, where he died on 27 April 1463. He is now at rest in the Vatican basilica.
Moscow, which at the time of the birth of the State of Kiev was just a small Finnish village, had received Christianity from Ukraine, and its church reported to the metropolitan see of Kiev. But when, in 1453, Constantinople fell under the dominion of the Turks, Moscow proclaimed itself heir to Constantinople’s political and religious role, developing a visceral theological and political hatred against Rome and Latinity.
The sixteenth century was that of the first great Revolution: the Protestant Revolution that followed the era of humanism and the Renaissance. But during the same years in which Luther turned his back on Rome, a second great apostasy took place: that of Muscovite Russia. It was in the years of Martin Luther’s revolt, between 1520 and 1530, that expression was given to the concept of Moscow as the “Third Rome”. The letter of the monk Philotheus of the Pskov monastery (c. 1520) addressed to the Grand Duke of Muscovy, Basil III (Vasily III Ivanovich) is considered as a manifesto of this ideology. According to Philotheus, the true faith that for centuries was held by Constantinople did not collapse along with the fall of the city. “Holy Byzantium did not vanish but was transferred to Moscow” as to “the third Rome, and there will be no fourth”.
The historian Felix Koneczny (1862–1949) states that Philotheus finally defined “the basic canon of Moscow culture: the conviction about their own superiority over the rest of the world, founded on a state religion and temporal despotism, controlling the Orthodox Church”.10
Orthodox Christianity, with Ivan IV — “Ivan the Terrible” — (1530–1584), became a sort of national religion. Ivan IV reunified the Russian lands under Moscow and was the first to take the title of Tsar of all Rus’, which in 1561, was approved by decree of the patriarch of Constantinople. Russia presented itself as the sanctuary of the true faith, and the Kremlin was the fortress that contained the foundational myth of the Third Rome. The legacy of Genghis Khan merged with that of the Byzantine Empire.
The Moscow Patriarchate was created in 1589. Six years later came the response from Rome and Kiev. On 23 December 1595, in the Hall of Constantine in the Apostolic Palace, Archbishop Michael Rohoza (1540–1599), Metropolitan of Kiev, Galychyna and all Ruthenia, after having presented to the Supreme Pontiff the declaration of all the bishops, made in their name and in his own name a solemn profession of the Catholic faith. The union was solemnly proclaimed in Brest on the Bug River on 16 October 1596. Pope Clement VIII, with the apostolic constitution Magnus Dominus et laudabilis nimis,11 announced this to the whole Church, and with the apostolic letter Benedictus sit Pater, addressed the bishops of the Metropolia, communicating to them that the union had taken place.12
Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Ukraine lost its territorial and state identity and was repeatedly taken apart and put back together between Russia, Austria and Poland, but it did not entirely lose the Catholic identity that it had recovered in the Union of Brest. Brest is the answer to the Third Rome of Muscovy, and it is once again a historical falsehood on Putin’s part to link this religious event to the Latinisation process promoted by Austria and Poland because, in the Union of Brest, the Eastern rites were maintained, and not the Latin ones of the Church called Ruthenian.
The popes of the twentieth century always confirmed that the ancient Greek rites can be preserved, as had already been permitted by the Council of Florence and the apostolic letter Benedictus sit Pater of 1596.13 When John Paul II spoke of a Europe that could breathe with two lungs, that of the West and that of the East, he was not referring to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but to the method of evangelisation of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who, worked according to the ideal of uniting the new believers in Christ; adapting the liturgical texts to the Slavic language and the Greco-Roman law to the customs of the new peoples.14 The Eastern rites should not be confused with the Orthodox religion, falsifying history.
Above all, there is a line, not of continuity but of discontinuity, between the state of Kiev in the year 1000 and the principality of Moscow in the sixteenth century. Unlike the state of Kiev, which was integrated into Western Christian civilisation, Muscovite Russia began its existence as an extra-European state, meaning that it was outside the domain of the “Christian Republic”.15 The Moscow Patriarchate, subordinate to the state, was always characterised by a radical theological hatred of the Rome of Peter. Equally visceral was the Kremlin’s hatred of the Lithuanian-Polish state, which after 1569, became the largest and most powerful country in eastern Europe, within which were found a good nine contemporary nations: Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Russia and Transnistria.
This was also the vision of Peter the Great (1672–1725), who moved the capital from Moscow to St Petersburg (1703), strengthened the centralised and autocratic state and created the Holy Synod, the supreme ecclesiastical council placed at the head of the Russian church and controlled by imperial authority. In the title of “Autocrat of all Rus’” that he adopted in 1721, there was the convergence of Mongolian absolutism, Byzantine Caesaropapism and the Muscovite ideology of the Third Rome. The autocratic character of the Russian state, its Asiatic connotation and its isolation from Europe has never wavered during the entire period from Peter the Great to the Bolshevik Revolution, or up to our own day.
The destruction of historical memory represented a constitutive element of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century and is a characteristic of the new totalitarianism of the twenty-first century. Although totalitarianism can erase and manipulate memory, it must nonetheless resort to it if it wants to survive.
Stalin, to consolidate his regime, invoked the memory of Alexander Nevsky, the victor over the Teutonic knights in the thirteenth century, and not that of Marx; he invoked the memory of Ivan the Terrible, the destroyer of the Tartars in the sixteenth century, and not that of Engels. To justify the invasion of Ukraine, Putin invokes the founder of Kievan Rus’, St Vladimir, seeking to combine his memory with that of Stalin, the patriot who, in the Second World War, restored the territorial unity and moral greatness of Russia.
At the conclusion of these considerations of mine, some may object that I have given a negative image of Putin’s historical reconstruction and question whether a positive value be ascribed to the West, which today sets itself against Russia? Are Putin’s patriotic and religious values not better than those of the depraved West in which we live?
My answer is this: in all my books, my articles, my talks, I have always denounced the cultural and moral degradation of the West, which, for centuries, has been going through a historical process of self-dissolution. I define this historical process as Revolution, with a capital letter, following the analysis that Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira made in his work Revolution and Counter-Revolution.
But Joseph de Maistre had already said that the Revolution must not be resisted with a Revolution in the opposite direction, but with the opposite of Revolution; or if one prefers, an error has to be counteracted with the truth and not with an error in the opposite direction.
So if it is true that Putin’s Russia cannot be counteracted with Biden’s West, the contrary is equally true, namely that the ideology of Soros and Bill Gates cannot be counteracted with that of Aleksander Dugin and Russkiy Mir. This is precisely the temptation I am trying to combat within the Catholic and conservative world.
I am not afraid of Moscow’s tanks and missiles, but of the ideology that lies behind them. For me, more dangerous than Russia’s political and military expansion is the Kremlin’s ideological propaganda, which consists of presenting the religious and patriotic values of Russia as better than those of the corrupt West and even those of the Catholic Church, which remains its true enemy.
An error is not fought with another error, but with the truth, full and intact. This truth is, for me, the way of thinking and living transmitted by the Catholic Church over the centuries. This is why, in my book, The Church in the Tempests, I sought to follow Dom Guéranger’s teaching, to which I wanted to bear witness in today’s brief contribution as well: “the Catholic historian is someone who judges facts, men, and institutions from the point of view of the Church; he is not free to judge otherwise, and that is his strength.”
The Church in the tempests: the first millennium of the history of the Church is available to buy here.
- See Vladimir Putin, Sulla storica unità tra Russi e Ucraini, Italian translation in Di fronte alla storia, P. Greco, Milan 2022, pp. 273-290. http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181
- Francis Conte, Gli Slavi. Le civiltà dell’Europa centrale e orientale, Italian translation Feltrinelli, Milan 1991.
- Bernard Leib, Rome, Kiev et Byzance, a la fin du XI siecle, rapports religieux des Latins et des Greco-Russes sous le Pontificat d’Urbain II (1088-1099), Auguste Picard, Paris 1924, p. 143.
- Christian Raffensperger, Ties of Kinship: Genealogy and Dynastic Marriage in Kievan Rus, Ukrainian Research Institute Cambridge, MA, 2016.
- B. Leib, Rome, Kiev et Byzance, pp. 18-19.
- Gonzague de Reynold, Le Monde Russe, Plon, Paris 1949, p. 246.
- Ep., lib. 2, ep. 74, Migne, PL, vol. 148, col. 425
- Giorgio Cella, Storia e geopolitica della crisi ucraina. Dalla Rus’ di Kiev a oggi, Carocci, Rome 2022, pp. 77-80.
- Denz-H, nn. 1300-1308.
- Feliks Koneczny, The Turanian Civilisation of Russia, Antyk, Komorow, s.d.. p. 280.
- Bullarium Romanum V/2 (1594-1602), 87-92.
- See A. Welykyj, Documenta Pontificum Romanorum Historiam Ucrainae illustrantia, t. I, p. 257-259.
- See https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_23121945_orientales-omnes-ecclesias.html
- John-Paul II, Angelus, 15 February 2004. See also: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_19850602_slavorum-apostoli.html
- Oscar Halecki (1891-1973), Limiti e divisioni della storia europea, Italian translation, Edizioni Paoline, Rome 1962, p. 166.