I gave a talk recently on Catholic Church history – an overview, a quick hits kind of tour. Instead of trying to actually go through a lot of dates and events, I focused on the Catholic understanding of history, contrasting it with the secular view – which is the view most of us, Catholic or not, assume is the normative paradigm.
What is that secular view? That the human journey on earth is one of progress and advancement.
It makes sense, in a way, for one of the major features of human life, especially since the Enlightenment is obvious technological and material progress and betterment. And expansion of our sense and experience of human rights and civil liberties. It is not surprising that this has become our dominant paradigm for comparing past and present.
Given spice, of course, since Marx and through to the present, with the paradigm of class and now identity struggle and conflict.
But that’s not the Catholic paradigm. I really can’t do better than to quote this from Timothy O’Donnell:
It is important to note that the Christo-centric view of history is fundamentally different from the ideology of the progress of man. Those who exclude the Incarnation from the story of man preach a different gospel: that man, through his continued “enlightenment,” will eventually make sense of suffering—or even eliminate it. On the contrary, in this fallen world there will always be sin, sorrow and suffering, and only through Christ do these mysteries find meaning. Christ, the Prince of Peace, turns the human story upside down by defeating sin and death on the Cross, and by sanctifying suffering.
And then Benedict XVI, from Spe Salvi:
That is, Church Fathers such as Eusebius and Augustine understood God as speaking to his people through history, and not simply Church history proper. The rise and fall of nations were to be understood in terms of God calling his people to himself.
At the same time, two categories become increasingly central to the idea of progress: reason and freedom. Progress is primarily associated with the growing dominion of reason, and this reason is obviously considered to be a force of good and a force for good. Progress is the overcoming of all forms of dependency—it is progress towards perfect freedom. Likewise freedom is seen purely as a promise, in which man becomes more and more fully himself. In both concepts—freedom and reason—there is a political aspect. The kingdom of reason, in fact, is expected as the new condition of the human race once it has attained total freedom. The political conditions of such a kingdom of reason and freedom, however, appear at first sight somewhat ill defined. Reason and freedom seem to guarantee by themselves, by virtue of their intrinsic goodness, a new and perfect human community. The two key concepts of “reason” and “freedom”, however, were tacitly interpreted as being in conflict with the shackles of faith and of the Church as well as those of the political structures of the period. Both concepts therefore contain a revolutionary potential of enormous explosive force.
On this subject, all we can attempt here are a few brief observations. First we must ask ourselves: what does “progress” really mean; what does it promise and what does it not promise? In the nineteenth century, faith in progress was already subject to critique. In the twentieth century, Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed. To put it another way: the ambiguity of progress becomes evident. Without doubt, it offers new possibilities for good, but it also opens up appalling possibilities for evil—possibilities that formerly did not exist. We have all witnessed the way in which progress, in the wrong hands, can become and has indeed become a terrifying progress in evil. If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth (cf. Eph 3:16; 2 Cor 4:16), then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world. (Emphasis added)
And now to apply this to Church history specifically: Our stance towards the Catholic past just cannot be to point and laugh at how ignorant they were and how enlightened we are today.
No, our paradigm is to recognize that we all – past, present and future – share a common stance: on our knees before the Cross.
The Catholic view of our own history is one of humility and openness. We can learn, and we must learn – it’s required, since our faith is rooted in both Revelation and Tradition, of course.
But we can take it in another direction, as well.
To engage with the past means to engage with human beings who might live in material circumstances, and social, political and economic landscapes that are quite different than ours, but who are still, at the beginning and end, human beings who were born, suffered, struggled, were in communion, and faced mortality under the same mysterious stars.
Encountering their traditions, ways and thoughts, we would do well to engage, rather than scoff, to dig deeply and ask why did they do this? What moved them? What do I share in common with those motivations? What do I do in the present that meets those same needs? Do my actions and choices make any more sense, in the end, than theirs do?
In other words, our instinctive reaction to some Catholic moment from the past might be: Wow, that’s pretty crazy. And it might have been! But we might consider a follow-up as we consider our own lives: Wow, that’s pretty crazy, too, to be honest.
As I said, ours is not to point and laugh and bask in our superiority. Because we don’t have anything to brag about.
That is not to argue that the past is golden, ossified, and preserved in amber for our devotion and emulation. The Catholic past is a riotous dynamic which includes moments worth reverencing and moments worth critiquing.
For the history of the Church may not be properly understood by the secular definition of “progress” but it certainly has the dynamic of reform baked into it. That is indeed, our history: Establishing a thought or practice or other reality that is faithful to the Gospel, and then, invariably, that moment of drifting, corrupting and being an example, no longer of love, but of human pride and folly. And so we pray, discern, perhaps painfully tear down what have become idols, and begin again.
Again and again: rooting ourselves in the beauty and truth that has sprouted in the past, and then being completely open to the needs of the present moment, and then discerning, with the help of the Holy Spirit, what that moment calls for.
But never, ever laboring under the hubristic assumption that that our awareness of that Spirit represents any sort of necessary “progress” just because it’s now and that was then.
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