Last fall I cheered the impending news of John Henry Newman’s canonization, for which we now have a date: October 13 of this year. October happens to be the month in which, after many years of study and agony, Newman was received into the Church in 1845. What sealed matters for him was the completion, on the eve of his reception, of his landmark Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. That book, and the rest of Newman’s corpus, has much to teach us not just about doctrinal history and development but also about historiography.
Newman would, I dare say, be appalled by how badly many Christians today view and handle our history—just as they did in his own day. Suspicion fell upon Newman by some Catholics after 1845 because he was a man of the Fathers and not especially of the Scholastics. His patristic formation in, and intellectual debts to, the first millennium seemed to set him at odds with certain Catholics who viewed the tradition as bookended by Thomas Aquinas and Trent.
That dynamic of not just periodization of history but prioritization, even glorification, of select periods, has not changed much in our own day—merely the timeframe. Today among some Catholics it is as though history ends somewhere between 1958 and 1962—with the death of Pius XII and the opening of Vatican II. For others, the Church only comes alive after 1965 when the council ends, the period before it being regarded (as I’ve heard not a few French Canadians claim, including one prominent archbishop) as la grande noirceur.
With every passing year, I am more and more convinced that too many problems within the Church today, and between Christians, are both historiographical in nature. We prefer to write, and read, history in a way that either amplifies or denies the messiness for present felt purposes. We ransack history for ways to condemn or elevate the present depending on our politics, a process often aided by treacly doses of nostalgia and romanticism.
The ways in which we write and read history reveal much about us and our psychology. Rather than reading and writing history ascetically, we too often read and write it passionately. To write and read history “ascetically” is to do so in a way that keeps our own egos and agendas out of the way so far as possible. If we do not do this, then we write “passionately,” in the sense used by Evagrius of Pontus: the disordered passions (logismoi)—or what come to be called capital sins in the West—control us, robbing us of peace and grace and the ability to see the truth clearly, resulting in distortions and disorders of every kind—moral, spiritual, and intellectual. If we suffer from the passion of anger (which Evagrius feared more than any other) at, say, Pope Francis, we may tend to write and read history in such a way as to portray him in the worst possible light.
To write Christian history ascetically does not mean to do so in a way drained of all color, conviction, or commentary. It is not to abandon any sense of judgment about good and evil. It does not give in to either exaggerated fear or ungrounded hope.
The person who does all this so well is of course Newman. Consider just the concluding paragraph of his famous Biglietto speech in Rome in 1879 upon being made a cardinal. Newman captures the unbreakable tension Catholics must maintain in looking at our plight today, and in telling our history. After laying out unsparing evidence of the apparent widespread ravages of “liberalism” (see how little things change!), Newman ends thus:
Such is the state of things in England, and it is well that it should be realised by all of us; but it must not be supposed for a moment that I am afraid of it. I lament it deeply, because I foresee that it may be the ruin of many souls; but I have no fear at all that it really can do aught of serious harm to the Word of God, to Holy Church, to our Almighty King, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Faithful and True, or to His Vicar on earth. Christianity has been too often in what seemed deadly peril, that we should fear for it any new trial now. So far is certain; on the other hand, what is uncertain, and in these great contests commonly is uncertain, and what is commonly a great surprise, when it is witnessed, is the particular mode by which, in the event, Providence rescues and saves His elect inheritance. Sometimes our enemy is turned into a friend; sometimes he is despoiled of that special virulence of evil which was so threatening; sometimes he falls to pieces of himself; sometimes he does just so much as is beneficial, and then is removed. Commonly the Church has nothing more to do than to go on in her own proper duties, in confidence and peace; to stand still and to see the salvation of God.
To stand still and see the salvation of God, in hope that He will not abandon us: this is the task today for all Catholics who are tempted to despair over the state of the Church!
To aid us in holding on to our hope when things seem dark, we must begin again to read church history from serious scholars. Over the last several decades, we have had no shortage of first-rate historians just in English alone: e.g., Christopher Dawson, John Bossy, Jonathan Riley-Smith, and both Henry and Owen Chadwick (all deceased); among those still living, Eamon Duffy, John Pollard, Hermann Pottmeyer, and Francis Oakley. The Society of Jesus has seemed particularly adept at producing first-rate historians and historical theologians, including John O’Malley, Klaus Schatz, Brian Daley, and Robert Taft. What sets them all apart is the tension and the dynamic, they try to maintain: unflinching acknowledgement of evil in our history, and recognition of where God has seen us through and where His holiness has triumphed.
In more concrete terms, this is the same dynamic we must maintain with regard to history of the post-conciliar period, too: recognizing both the good and the mischief unleashed by Vatican II. (To know conciliar history is to recognize that there was conflict and messiness at and after every other council, too. Nicaea I grappled with Arianism, but Constantinople I had to continue the work fifty years later. Iconoclasm got worse in some respects after Nicaea II in 787 and only began its final, but never complete, decline after the mid-ninth century.) While I have defended Vatican II in many ways (see, for example, my essay, in Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb, eds., The Reception of Vatican II, Oxford University Press, 2017) I have never understood the urge either to rubbish the entire thing, or to defend everything.
Totalized thinking (to borrow a phrase from Robert Jay Lifton), in which something is all good or all bad, is almost never the way serious Catholic thinking takes place, especially Catholic historicizing. (Moral theology is another matter, and here, as we know, there are some things rightly and totally condemned as “intrinsically evil.” Paragraph 80 of Veritatis Splendor gives a long list, including, we must note today, “subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation.”) Thinking with the mind of the Church is a discerning act, sorting wheat from chaff, “despoiling the Egyptians” as some Fathers called it; “baptizing the pagans” as others did. This is the method that allows and indeed encourages Christians fearlessly to dive appreciatively but critically into our own past as well as into, say, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, or a thousand others, and learn from them—just as Chrysostom and Augustine and Aquinas did from Aristotle and others of Greek antiquity. It does not mean we accept everything, nor that we reject them outright. We take what is good and leave the rest behind.
We need not only to better “read, mark, and inwardly digest” our own history, but learn how it is written and best handled, too. Rather than doing that, some people today delight in tendentiously yanking out some section from, say, the Fourth Lateran Council, or a letter of Pope Clement II, or some other eminence preserved in Denzinger, and banging it onto a blog page alongside some other equally brutalized quotation from Vatican II, or the latest utterance from Pope Francis. All this is done with a triumphal flourish in what one might call “gotcha apologetics” grounded in romanticism about a past that never was, a past which is treated as monolithic, unequivocal, and unambiguously good. This is church history told in one of only two possible registers: that of “chosen trauma” or “chosen glory,” to use the terms of Vamik Volkan of the University of Virginia.
In the Church today we see this approach in the form of theories about infestations of Masons in the Vatican, infiltrations from Marxists into seminaries, and ineligible pontiffs ascending to the throne after an illegal “abdication” by Benedict XVI. There is no shortage of what one might call Catholic crackpot capitalists whose websites you can join, podcasts and videos you can purchase, and books you can buy giving you a version of history that would be unrecognizable to the Fathers, to Newman, or scholars today.
We can, and should, laugh at such monetized foolishness, but we should also answer it. Like many in the academy, and like just about every bishop on the planet, I’m not inclined to answer cranks and crackpots, but in failing to do so we thereby condemn too many Catholics to perish in this intellectual wilderness which they have entered in a desperate search for answers as to how and why the Church is in such a state today. Once again Newman is a sure guide here: he did not allow the crackpottery, the “fake news” to stand unchecked as when, for instance, he wrote out by hand over six weeks the many newspaper articles that later became his spellbinding Apologia Pro Vita Sua to refute slanderous mendacity about why he became Catholic.
If, today, Newman still helpfully gives us the big picture, it is the late Byzantine Jesuit historian Robert Taft who fills in the methodological particulars. It is from him more than anyone that I have learned about Christian historiography, and to him so often returned. Elsewhere at length I have reflected on Taft’s historiography in some detail, and how learning from him might help in Catholic-Orthodox disputes about the past, and Christian-Muslim disputes about interpreting Crusades history. Let me quote here only one crucial passage from his 1996 article “Ecumenical Scholarship and the Catholic-Orthodox Epiclesis Dispute” (Ostkirchlische Studien 45). After laying out bad approaches to the writing and telling of history, he then gives us some concrete measures for how to proceed, arguing that, following his historico-critical method,
one deals with texts and facts in context, and that theories cede to historical data, not vice-versa. Objective means evidence must be presented not tendentiously slanted to support a position, but without bias, to find an answer to the question whatever that answer might turn out to be. Though no study can ever pretend to cover all the evidence, the selection and presentation of the evidence must be comprehensive, i.e., sufficiently representative to avoid glossing over or explaining away whatever does not fit comfortably into some preconceived theory. Finally, one must be scrupulously fair in presenting and evaluating the evidence, sedulously avoiding caricature, and without substituting rhetoric for the facts.
This is not just good historiography: it is basic Christianity, a putting into action of easily the most overlooked (especially on social media) of all Pauline dictums about preaching the truth in love. Both Taft and Newman reflect what I can only see as a genuinely Catholic approach to the intellectual life, which eschews ideology and its simplistic and totalized solutions, and is not bothered one whit by the fact that not just papal but all of Christian history is composed—as Duffy titled his masterful one-volume papal history—of Saints and Sinners. For Catholics today, there is no piety to be advanced or protected by only focusing on the saints; there is no “scandal” to be avoided by denying the presence of sinners at all levels of the Church, and across Church history down to the present day. Nothing is gained by refusing to talk about our problems.
And problems there are, as Stephen Bullivant’s important and very welcome new book, Mass Exodus: Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II, makes clear. Now we can begin a forthright and blunt discussion of the data Bullivant has amassed, and continue to look for similar and further studies so we understand clearly the present reality we are facing. (I myself began looking at some similar data in the late 1990s in Canada when I was research assistant to a professor writing a book on the history of the sacrament of confession. The staggering and massive collapse in its practice—and that of other sacraments—after 1960 and the Quiet Revolution in Quebec anticipated the collapse Bullivant has documented now in the UK and US. In 1960 we saw, e.g., 85% Sunday Mass attendance on the island of Montreal; by the mid-1970s it was hovering in the mid-20s; today it stands somewhere c. 2-4%.)
As we face these numbers and realities today, the Catholic is unafraid to admit that things look dire in some places, but that we also know the Church is growing in others, and that in all things and all places, God is in charge. Thus we can freely recognize the presence of both sin and grace in one’s own life and that of the Church at large. We neither downplay nor magnify the problems. We do not passively dismiss them by saying “Well, there’s always been sin” but neither do we let the present realities of sin paralyze us from doing what we can and must in this present hour. We press on, as Newman said in one of his “Meditations on Christian Doctrine” to do the best we can now for
God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission—I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. Somehow I am necessary for His purposes…; I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain…. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place.
May St. John Henry Newman’s intercession enable us all to do this today in a way as honest and hopeful as he did in his.
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