The image of the Gothic is something usually depicted as something dark, depressing, and horrifying. The Gothic was, for a time, nearly synonymous with Catholicism, especially in the Protestant world where Gothic was associated with darkness and superstition like Catholicism was depicted as being—and this was reinforced and propagated by British Gothic horror often being set in Catholic backdrops from the likes of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Matthew Lewis, and Charles Maturin. While there is still an anti-Catholic, Protestant, and Whig legacy to this day with Catholicism being culturally envisioned as an old castle of darkness and horror, there is, in fact, a strong connection between Catholicism and the Gothic not simply because of literary products of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Pilgrimage, Restlessness, and War
Why did the Gothic become synonymous with Catholicism? While the Gothic tribes were, for a time, Arian, they were the first of the post-Roman “barbarians” to adopt Catholicism as their religion with the baptism of Clovis being a consequential event for the future of Christianity, Europe, and the world. Clovis’ baptism brought the rest of the Frankish tribes to Catholicism instead of Arianism. One by one, the rest of the Gothic tribes in the post-imperial West also began to adopt Catholicism like the Visigoths after the Council of Toledo.
The history of the Gothic peoples mirrors the theology of pilgrimage presented by St. Paul to the Galatians and developed by St. Augustine in his masterpiece The City of God. Part of the calamitous events that brought down the Roman Empire in the west was the migration crisis of the Goths, which was a refugee crisis, when the Huns invaded and put to flight the Goths who fled westward to escape the furious storm winds of the Hunnic invaders. In their migration period they adopted Arianism before settling down in the western territories of the empire after being invited to foederati service in the imperial armies.
Gothic history is a near perfect temporalization of the Christian drama. The Gothic peoples were restless pilgrims driven from one homeland, nominally enslaved by the Romans, directly enslaved by the Huns—the “Scourge of God”—and were hardened in war. The Goths not only warred with the Romans, they warred with the Huns before being instrumental in the defeat of Atilla at the Catalaunian Plains in 451 A.D. It was only after two centuries of war that the Gothic peoples were able to settle down from their restless pilgrimage to lands that they could call their own; only to have these lands be conquered by the eventual Islamic invasions which culminated at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D.
While the Roman Empire provided the politico-juridical structure and the establishment of Nicene Christianity as the de jure religion of the empire by 380 A.D., the survival and consolidation of Christianity was mainly due to the Goths. Clovis’ baptism, the conversion of the Visigoths under Reccared I, and the rise of the Carolingians is when structural Christianity, Catholicism, truly became its own. In a very real sense, the development and survival of Catholic Christianity was because of the Goths more than it was the Romans. Had Clovis not converted the Franks would have remained Arian. Had the Visigoths not converted, they would have remained Arian. Sigismund of Burgundy, who was Catholic, put pressure on the Arian Ostrogothic Kingdom to keep a favorable tolerance of Chalcedonian Catholics in Italy before the consolidation of the Carolingian Empire and the formation of Catholic Christendom solidified the marriage between the Goths and their heirs with Catholicism.
Guilt, Sin, and Horror
One of the distinctive markers of Catholicism and Western Christianity has been the emphasis on Original Sin, Original Guilt, and the depravity of man. While St. Augustine never taught total depravity in the manner of the Calvinists, but Augustine did articulate the view that man could never sustain the good (union with God) without God’s help. Catholicism has affirmed this essential dogma ever since the Council of Orange.
The idea of “Catholic Guilt” has long been a trope and another demarcating aspect of Catholicism in distinction to the uppity-happy-go-lucky Protestantism of contemporary Evangelicalism. Original Sin and Original Guilt originally, pardon the pun, went hand-in-hand. That “all sinned in Adam” once implicated all in the sin of Adam. That is, the sin of Adam is a sin that we all committed and are guilty of committing. Though we have come generations after Adam, we still bear that mark of original sin, original guilt, and restless anxiety and shame for the depraved actions that led to the Fall. The modern Catechism argues that Original Sin, Fall, and Guilt are ‘contracted’ and not ‘committed’ – a state and not an act.’” While post-Vatican II Catholicism has tried to soften its original harshness, the state of Original Sin still entails a contracted guilt irrespective of whether one is personally guilty of the act of the parent. As the Bible teaches, and as Catholicism affirms, the sin of parents is imputed and implicated in children (cf. Dt. 5:9; Lv. 16:21; Nu. 14:18; Is. 53:6; Rm. 5:12); this is, in fact, contracted, and enters into the state of existence, even if the children did not commit the sins of the parents.
The gravity of guilt in the Catholic doctrine of sin, however “nice” modern happy-go-lucky accompaniment Catholicism tries to outwardly act, reaches down into the depths of man’s being. This constitutes the “deep anthropology” of Catholicism compared to the shallow anthropology of Protestantism. The deep anthropology of original guilt, fleeing from the past, unable to own up to mysterious primeval events that drive people into anxious guilt, is not only an integral to the Catholic understanding of the human person, it is one of the hallmarks of Gothic horror.
Fyodor Dostoevsky captured the essence of Gothic horror perfectly in Crime and Punishment, the best Catholic novel written by a non-Catholic. The protagonist, Raskolnikov, viciously and brutally murders a hag pawnbroker with a hatchet. Convinced that he could do great things with the money which the pawnbroker does not do despite the ability to do so, Raskolnikov is a perfect exhibited case study in the futility of Pelagianism and Jacobinism as he is overcome with dread and horror for his crime and he literally becomes a glutton for punishment, suffering internal torment before confessing his crimes though another has confessed to the crime. His penal punishment is relatively light, but his internal torment is what constitutes the punishment of Dostoevsky’s novel. It is internal, interior, and psychological. It is the same psychological guilt felt by Coleridge’s ancient mariner after killing the albatross of harmony.
Hell is not merely an eschatological place. It is, indeed, a spiritual place—the internal quarrelling between law and criminality, grace and nakedness, brutality and regeneration. The sinful man is wickedly tormented, as Augustine explains in Confessions; sinful man is like the runaway slave who delights in his being chased by the law and only flees because of his anxiousness and guilt but entertains his anxiety and guilt by playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can with the Divine Law and Divine Justice; sinful man, in his grief and guilt, his torrential state of internal anxiety, his lust for lust, but his soulful attempts at restraint, all show a guiltful depravity but his guilt testifies not to a total depravity but a recognition of wrongdoing which leads to a sense of guilt, of wrongdoing, which is absent in the Calvinist account of total depravity where man feels no remorse, or guilt, for his wrongdoing—the feeling of guilt presupposes a goodness looming over the individual telling one what one has done is wrong. Man delights in being chased by Divine Law and thinking he can escape; man is thrilled by wrongdoing and has ecstasies of fantasies for escaping punishment.
The impetus of Catholicism is that man must sink into darkness to come to the light. It is in man’s plunge into wickedness and darkness that, through his emerging insanity and feeling of guilt, that the dim candlelight of truth, beauty, and goodness wars with him to become a partaker in the Divine Energies to be co-worker and co-creator with God. Christ crucified did not make all our problems disappear. On the contrary, what Christ did for our sins ought to horrify you that God would go to such great lengths to wash away the sins of the world and yet you, despite all your problems, struggle to be honest at the sacrament of reconciliation where God does not demand self-expatiation for the remission of sin but the open and honest confession of sin to Christ in the persona of the priest.
The horror and torment of man, that quintessential hallmark of the Gothic cultural milieu, may have intended to mock the “dark” and “superstitious” religion that Christ founded, but that depth and penetrating insight into the torment of man is the essence of Catholicism. The depth of the depravity of man depicted in Gothic fiction and horror is the depth of the depravity of man in his state of wickedness, enslaved to the lust of licentious “liberty” thinking he could do great things, even greater than God, which obliterates all boundaries, borders, and the natural law, to let loose the violence of man.