15 October 2015

Historical Depth and the Search for Catholicism

John Henry Newman famously said that "To be deep in history is to cease to be a protestant."  This is a great motto for Catholic converts from Protestantism, as it captures one of the most common instrumental causes of conversion.  But I think the line could be reformulated to apply, not just to converts from Protestantism, but to all Catholics.  It would run something like this: To be deep in history is to take possession of the catholic faith.


Obviously if we wanted to say such a thing rigorously, it would have to be expressed with more finesse, but the idea is true: the more we grasp the Church as it has existed through the centuries, the less our own Catholicism remains a variation on the worldliness of the present day, and the more it becomes an expression of something unchanging.

This is not to say that the uneducated cannot know "essence of Catholicism" (as Karl Adam calls it), nor does it mean that anyone who acquires a great deal of historical knowledge will automatically become holy—both thoughts are absurd.  But we learn by experience and advice, and the more we witness, through the historical record, the Catholicity of the doctors (teachers) and saints (holy ones) of the Church, the more we will understand what it means to be Catholic, and grasp the ramifications of faith in Jesus Christ for all our actions, attitudes, and beliefs.


Over the past few years I've begun reading Church History a bit more seriously. Right now I am reading the first volume of Ludwig von Pastor's History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages.  Pastor's History covers about 500 years of the Papacy (roughly 1300 to 1800).  It is one of those prodigious works of scholarship that we can hardly imagine someone writing today, as soaked as we are in epicurean distractions and the schizophrenia of modern media.  He spent about 40 years of his life working on it, and it spans 40 volumes in the English edition, each about 450 pages long.

Truly, it is a great treasure of modern Catholic scholarship, as it manages to combine a resolutely Catholic perspective with a passion for primary sources and historical precision.  No triumphalism, but no cynical revisionism either.


The Church is going through a crisis.  Some have called it a "crisis of identity".  We could trace it back to the 1960s and the hierarchy's (effective) acquiescence to modern liberalism, or to the 1870s and the collapse of the Papal States, or to 1789 and the emergence of secular liberalism as a New Order in society.  But the more one gets to know the history of "Modernity" since the 1400s, and the place of the Church within it, the clearer it becomes that the Church has been in a state of intermittent crisis all the way through.  

And this is the great thing about Pastor's work.  It's easy to succumb to the progressive mythologization of history and believe that the difficulties surrounding the Church over the past fifty (or 150) years are totally unique, and to wonder what the Church is becoming, or how it will ever find its way again.  But Pastor confirms that the present crisis is just another variation on the crisis of modernity which has confronted us since the 1400s, when Lorenzo Valla wrote essays attacking chastity and the Papacy, and Rinaldo degli Albizzi argued publicly that science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and Poggio Bracciolino expressed total contempt for religious life.  No, all the corruptions of today have come and gone in the ages that preceded us. This is just a new form of the interminable struggle. And this too shall pass.


But we cannot assume that simply because "there is nothing new under the sun" and "the gates of hell will not prevail" we are allowed to fall back into an optimistic quietism about the spiritual disasters and crises of the present age.  No, the light of faith has shown forth through the centuries because God has kept it alight in the minds and voices of faithful Christians.  And we, today are those Christians.  And we, today are called to keep the light burning against the violence of the encroaching darkness.

How better to do it than by deepening our knowledge of those who have faced similar struggles in the past? What better way to learn what we should do than by seeing what trials and successes the Church has encountered through the centuries?  This is what I hope to find in Pastor's History.