Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Doing History

Our Intergenerational Faith Formation program (GOF) this year will focus on the Church's history.  As this was my area of focus as I was pursuing my Masters, I have been designated the primary instructor for the program.  I cannot say I am disappointed at the prospect.  As my thesis director and academic adviser was wont to call it, these six half hour vignettes will constitute a frolicking romp through the centuries.

While telling the Church's story is a task in itself, and I will be busy enough keeping up with that, a part of me wishes that I could carry on a sustained conversation about the nature of historical study.  What follows is an amended version of a comment I left on a post from fellow blogger J. Thorp.


Studying Church History in grad school, I grew weary of most history texts. It was not as though they set out to be intentionally critical of the Church, at least in the sense that the authors wanted to discredit the Church. It was, rather, the bias of what is considered academically normative and acceptable. The normal and acceptable approach is flawed.  It demands scientific objectivity where none can exist.  It demands the suspension of belief in the fantastical, when the foundation of human existence, from the Christian perspective, demands belief in the fantastical. One cannot assume scientific objectivity in the study of history in any context, and this is doubly true in the context of Catholic history.

As in all else relating to the Church, one must always approach her history through the eyes of faith. Thus, to approach her history as though it were simply the history of the Roman Empire or some other secular entity about which we might conjecture with little consequence is to do a disservice to the Church, the reader, and oneself. I began to philosophize thus as I prepared my thesis and was reminded time after time by my professor that as a historian, I was not at liberty to speak as to the authenticity of claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in Mexico. I disagree. As a Catholic historian, I can and do say without apology that Mary did appear in Mexico, that she did leave her image on the tilma, and that those who deny these things are in error. Church history, though not strictly a theological discipline, lends itself to the service of theology; all realms of theology require a degree of faith.

To my mind, therefore, it is commendable that the Catholic historian relieve himself of strict adherence to the principles of historical study to which his secular comrades ascribe.  The Catholic historian can, perhaps ought, reject the otherwise unquestioned academic categories that insist that historical data must be examined without recourse to faith. This secular approach has become so prevalent in academia, that to question the conclusions of traditional histories achieved by these secular means is to abandon academic integrity. In other words, to my mind, the modern academic historian, to remain credible in the esteemed eyes of the academy -- to do authentic history as defined by one's peer reviewers -- must always leave the Church with egg on her face. 

How, after all, can one describe the importance and significance of the Inquisition unless one first accepts the importance and significance of maintaining proper belief for salvation? How does one deal with questions of Holy Wars or defend the Crusades if one cannot appreciate the notion that God uses kings and kingdoms to accomplish his own ends.  One might go so far as to say that some of what the Church has done is indefensible without faith. As a result, I simply cannot countenance the idea that faithless lines of examination are the only reliable means of doing authentic and objective research.

The Church is and has been for 2000 years the continued presence of Christ on Earth. Though one must always account for the "Judas factor," the Church and her history represent the manner by which Christ is bringing about the consummation of time. Thus, it seems to me that of necessity any accurate history of the Church will attempt to find a way to show God's providence shining through human sin and folly. This is not a bias; The Church either is what she says she is, or she is not. If she is the continued presence of Christ on Earth, it is simply disingenuous for a Catholic to try to absolve himself of the obligation to look at history from anything but a sympathetic perspective. Sin within the Church did her serious damage. We need not whitewash this fact, but we ought to see it in the best light possible. Likewise, charity demands that we approach with sympathy those who damaged the Church from without. But they were wrong - seriously wrong. We should make no bones about that fact.

The Church need not always fall on the wrong side of history.  This objective is accomplished easily enough if the historian, like every other lay-professional to whom I preach Sunday by Sunday, places his faith ahead of his work.


  1. Love it, Father -- and thanks for the link!

  2. I agree that one should look at the miricles of the faith as fact and hence added to the acknowlgement of the historians. However there need be a regulatory guideline to which the miricles be held. So as to defend the said miricle and stand strong behind it.

    1. I do not necessarily disagree. Miracles attributed to modern saints undergo rigorous scientific examination before achieving designation as miraculous. It bears repeating, however, that the miraculous, by definition, defies explanation. More to my point, though, is this: Can something, even though fully explainable by means of scientific objectivity, not remain fully reflective of God's glory? Are the aurora borealis any less majestic or transcendent even though we know how they occur? Can God, the author of science, not use the discipline to reveal himself? Must we not, as a matter of faith, direct our attention to Him who makes all things possible, even as we discover more acutely how he does so?

  3. You likely would have recoiled in horror at the lecture I gave to the seminarians on Monday: covering 1800 years of the history of canon law in an hour and a half! It was cursory at best, and consisted of vast generalizations and simplifications. I was tempted to omit it entirely. But alas, I got my one point across, I think, which was that John Paul II did not just sit down in 1983 and write out the Code of Canon Law, but our Church's canonical history is as rich as its theological history, and that every canon has centuries of wisdom, prudence, and practical application behind it. If that is all they understand, then I think I have to be satisfied and move on to the ius vigens, at least in a survey course like it is.

    I do remember you talking about your thesis, though. I would love to read it.


    1. I truly wish I were taking your class. Really.

      That's an average of a century every ten minutes, which I find extraordinary. That is most definitely a romp through the centuries.


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