Why Catholics can’t afford to dismiss their own history

“Our past is among the most precious gifts God has given us, and we must not allow ourselves to lose it,” says Mike Aquilina, editor of a new series of books aimed at making Church history accessible.

Photo by Chantel Lucas on Unsplash

As one may expect of any institution with a 2,000-year history, there is no shortage of myths and misinformation regarding the history of the Catholic Church. There are tales of intrigue and espionage; conspiracy theories about Knights Templar and midnight assassinations; misunderstandings about Constantine, the Crusades, and the Spanish Inquisition; not to mention broad mischaracterizations of Catholic theology and teachings.

A new series from Ave Maria Press aims to be a sort of corrective to the many centuries of what it calls “half-truths and noble lies.” The series, Reclaiming Catholic History, is edited by Mike Aquilina, the prolific writer, speaker, and Church historian.

Aquilina is also author of the first volume, The Early Church (33-313): St. Peter, the Apostles, and Martyrs (Ave Maria Press, 2019). The series will ultimately consist of seven titles, covering the early Church, the Roman Empire period, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the Modern Age. Aquilina recently spoke with Catholic World Report about the series, including the first volume, and the challenges of writing Church history.

Catholic World Report: Tell us how the book and series came to be. What was the genesis of this series?

Mike Aquilina: The publisher approached me with the idea. It was shortly after the release of my book A History of the Church in 100 Objects, which I co-authored with my daughter Grace. I think we were all surprised by the response to that book. Nobody’s supposed to like history! It was the subject of those dreaded quizzes in high school. It was the blur of memorized dates, from 1492 to 1776. Yet here we were celebrating the sales of a thick book that was all about history.

Admittedly, that book was popcorn. The chapters were very short and dominated by pretty pictures, and each one told a vivid, true story with lively characters. But I think the publisher, Ave Maria, saw that there was a potential audience for histories that moved at a pace that was just a little less rapid, but still told great stories.

So they asked me if I could assemble a team of writers for such a series—one that took our two millennia and considered it one era at a time. I’m Sicilian, and I know when I’m facing offer I can’t refuse.

CWR: You are the series editor—what does that entail?

Aquilina: I helped set the standards and formats, and I wrote a general introduction for the series. I also also helped to identify and recruit the writers. I try to communicate clear expectations to the authors up front—but then I get out of the way. The books are best when the authors feel the freedom to tell the stories. I also review the manuscripts once they’re done.

CWR: Why is there a need for such a series? In what sense does Catholic history need to be reclaimed?

Aquilina: Americans today are profoundly ignorant of history. Our collective memory begins approximately with the last season of Seinfeld. Studies show that most people can’t identify which came first, the Revolutionary War or the Civil War.

Catholics are doubly ignorant because we weren’t taught our own history in the first place. In fact, we were fed misinformation about our history—the urban legends and propaganda generated by the Reformation and post-Enlightenment secularism. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard—from professing Catholics!—that Constantine invented the Bible, or that the Crusades were naked acts of aggression, or that the Eucharist is a fourth-century invention.

Stockholm syndrome is the condition that causes hostages to develop an unwarranted sympathy with their kidnappers. I think we have a bad case of it.

Biblical religion is by nature historical. We’re not about “once upon a time.” We worship a God who interacted with specific people in particular ways on particular dates and in places you can find on a map.

Our past is among the most precious gifts God has given us, and we must not allow ourselves to lose it. Our faith is the “faith of our fathers,” but we believe they’re living still. We’re supposed to live in relation to them.

These are the big reasons we want to reclaim history.

CWR: Some might say, “What’s the point? So a lot of people firmly believe erroneous things about the Catholic Church. Big deal.” How would you respond to that?

Aquilina: It’s not so long ago that those errors empowered the Ku Klux Klan to burn crosses on the lawns of Catholics—and find other ways to harass us. One of my great mentors had this happen to his family when he was young.

Bigotry depends on ignorance. And bigotry is the precursor to oppression and persecution. Don’t laugh. This happened rather rapidly in Christian lands throughout Europe last century—in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, in Germany, in the lands of Eastern Europe. Ignorance of history empowers bigots still today. I do think that’s a big deal and getting bigger every year.

CWR: In the book, you discuss the biblical approach to history, and you say that we don’t see histories written by the “historical losers” until we come to the Bible. What is unique about the Catholic approach to history?

Aquilina: We can acknowledge our mistakes and sins and account for them by our doctrine of original sin. We can also recognize a providential Hand that brings about good in spite of human failings.

Every history has a meta-narrative. Every historian has hidden assumptions, whether or not he acknowledges them. We, as Catholics, can be open about ours, which are at least as coherent and cohesive as any others.

CWR: In writing this book, and editing the series (so far), have you learned anything? Has there been anything that really surprised you?

Aquilina: Every story brings surprises—new flashes of insight—when it’s told well. That’s why we chose writers who were not only deep in history, but also adept at storytelling. So I have to say that even the most familiar stories arrived as news when I read them in the books that have been produced so far.

CWR: How were the topics of the seven books chosen? Were there any topics or periods that were considered, but ultimately turned down?

Aquilina: We wanted to tell the whole story, so we divided the two millennia into the eras familiar from high-school and college history: Dark Ages, Middle Ages, Reformation, Enlightenment, and so on. Some historians will contest the divisions and the titles, and we have to admit that every division is artificial. They’re imposed by later historians in retrospect. No one in the 13th century thought: “I’m living in the Middle Ages.”

Some historians, in fact, reject the titles and claim that the titles themselves are anti-Catholic. “The Reformation” seems to grant the claims of Martin Luther, which are at least debatable if not dubious. “The Enlightenment” implies that a general darkness prevailed until secularism arrived. And “Dark Ages” certainly has negative connotations.

We decided to go with standard terminology because it’s familiar to most readers out there. Many people can situate the Dark Ages on a timeline. Hardly anyone can place “Late Antiquity.”

CWR: What can we expect from the rest of this series?

Aquilina: Great stories well told. Myths debunked. Page-turning, fun reads. Knowledge easily gained and easily put to use for correcting your know-it-all co-worker or anti-clerical brother-in-law. What’s not to love?


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About Paul Senz 63 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

7 Comments

  1. After just having had a long a fruitless discussion with someone about “The Dark Ages” I’m most interested in this project. The faithful are in need of a solid grounding in history, most especially the history of our Church and our faith.

  2. “Bigotry depends on ignorance.”

    No, bigotry depends on difference.

    I am guessing this series will be written primarily from a Latin perspective.

  3. At the parish level, I have begun teaching a non-specialist course on Church history. In the opening session I find it useful to contrast (a) the conventional chronological format (as used in the proposed book series) with (b) more of an Augustinian format…

    That is, instead of continuing to risk flatten the meaning human history into academic periodization (the “chronological snobbery” debunked by C.S. Lewis!), real human history is all about the historic incarnation of Christ as always the CENTER—-known as the actual center, rather than too-easily imagined more as a dated episode along a periodization (or timeline) from Ancient, to Classical, to Dark Ages to Modern.

    (The lead-in spade work of the transcendent Holy Spirit with the Chosen People becomes the singular identity-politics narrative that actually has a direction and a universal meaning.)

    So, at what “time” are we today in what is, in fact, a (a) created and sacramental universe, rather than (b) an invented clock-calendar universe—-with its academically imposed periodization moving from a primitive/theological stage, to a metaphysical and then to secular freedom (Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology and of positivism as the notion that truth is created by democratic vote or judicial fatwa)?

    Instead of any “time”, the significant “moment” of Nicaea and the Christological councils suddenly figures greatly. Our human self-understanding is again more as pilgrims (St. Augustine says “resident aliens”). All the better to understand, say, the “modern” encounter between tribal Islam, on the one hand, and our Western disarray of post-modern identity politics/tribalism on the other.

    The sacramental and almost radioactive Real Presence stands out across all periodization of history. In terms of the New Evangelization, then, to only “make a mess of things” is one thing, but to more deeply and faithfully unlearn and replace the conventional mess of things (periodization) is probably another.

  4. Good reading informative well formatted with essential excerpts from the Fathers. I have Michael Aquilina’s The Fathers of the Church [expanded version] on my kindle. My suggestion is an abbreviated linear account on the identity of Christ developed from Nicaea to Chalcedon that centered on Eastern overemphasis on his divine nature to detriment of his human nature. The issue centered on the dispute between Cyril of Alexandria Patriarch of that city and Nestorius Patriarch of Constantinople. What caught my attention was Aquilina’s excerpt of Pope Leo the Great who called the second Council of Ephesus 449 the Robber Council. It was convened by Emperor Theodosius II and Dioscorus Patriarch of Alexandria in which Archimandrite Eutyches proposed a monophysite [single divine nature] Christ perpetuating the error of Nestorius. That Nestorian error was repudiated by Cyril of Alexandria earlier at the first council of Ephesus 431 during which he issued his famous Anathemas directed at Nestorius. The significance of the Anathemas is that they confirmed Jesus as one Person who has two complete natures human and divine each with a human will and divine will. That underscores the expedient purpose of Jesus Son of Man who alone achieves salvation for Mankind as the perfectly obedient Son. And that the flesh and blood received from the Blessed Virgin, that his being born ‘from’ her conveys the divine nature in holy communion. Similarly he Filioque Clause [which was added later to the Nicene Creed] has significance in context of Jesus complete divine nature. Thus we don’t have issue with a veritable two person heresy as we find with Nestorius a divine Word person and an historical human person. That same heresy appears in Joseph Fuchs Natural Law in which he describes a duality. The Natural Law of the Creator Word as distinct from the soteriological love of the Redeemer. The Fathers of the Church attest to the identity of Christ and it was during this relatively short period that it was forever defined.

  5. It’s always good to have additional resource on Church history. Ascension Media has a 20 DVD set on the Journey of the Catholic Church covering the Church’s complete timeline. Besides the DVD set, an associated study guide and other learning materials are provided. My parish offered a class on this, but unfortunately it was not well attended. The DVD/course was to say the least very informative and enlightening,

  6. The gift of time itself as a blessing , in order to redeem the past , thus the more truthful grasp of history , as the book could bring , to help in rejoicing in the blessings of the past , asking for mercy for errors , on behalf of all who contributed to such too, just as our shared history through the O.T helps us to do .
    Nations and persons , bringing the past unto The Father in The Lord , to thus help undo the holds of unholy soul ties / pacts with the powers of darkness and their terror ridden ways , who advocate lust and carnality as the gods to aim for , such influences having ongoing effects , in perpetuating violence , confusions and divisions – unsure if the book explicitly addresses that hidden undercurrent .

    https://www.ignatius.com/Eternity-in-the-Midst-of-Time-P3159.aspx,
    a small book that sheds light into seeing time as a gift , might be a good companion for the above book on Catholic history , to help see the past , through trust and hope , in His mercy .
    Blessings !

  7. Church Tradition has so much to teach us, if only we learn it! Things have not always been as they are today.

    A good place to start is a book written over 20 years ago by Australian priest and historian Paul Collins. Title is ‘Papal Power’.

    Thoroughly recommend it!

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