24 August, 2021

On telling the history of the Church

In my research throughout the years and in reading the accounts of many Australian Catholic historians, I have noticed a distinct change in the emphasis of telling Catholic history over the last 50 or so years.  Reading these studies, sometimes I have felt that there is very little difference in style between those writing about the history of the Church and those writing the history of a political party, for example, or detailing the reign of a monarch.  In such studies, although they are academically rigorous, there has been something lacking, at least from my perspective.

Consider the following, for example, written by a Catholic priest as a foreword to a study on the beginnings of a congregation of Religious sisters in Australia:

All good history is an argument which marshalls evidence in support or rebuttal of a case.  It is never just facts piled upon facts in some shapeless mass; nor is it bland assertions without any proof.  Since history is about people, it is the same line of territory as imaginative literature and catches what it was like to be alive at the time of its subjects.  Thus it expands our experience of being human as well as our knowledge of the past.  EN1

This seems very good, so far as it goes, but is there something lacking?  What would that be?

Saint Bede the Venerable
by JD Penrose.
In answering that question, perhaps it would be helpful to look into what the Church has taught about the study of ecclesiastical history as described in an interesting and comprehensive article written by the renowned historian and biblical archaeologist Monsignor Johann Peter Kirsch for the 1910 edition of the Catholic Encyclopaedia. The following is an abridged extract from an article.

The Church was founded by Christ Jesus for the realisation on earth of the Kingdom of God and for the sanctification of man.  The Church has two elements : the Divine, comprising all the truths of Faith destined for the guidance of the faithful and the practice, together with the guardianship of all the means by which man receives and sustains his supernatural life (for example, the sacraments). The second is the human element being the co-operation of the human free will - under the influence of earthly factors - with the Divine. This human element is subject to change and development, and it is owing to it that the Church has a history. The scope of ecclesiastical history consists in the methodical investigation of the life of the Church in all its manifestations from the beginning of its existence to our own day among the various divisions of mankind hitherto reached by Christianity.  

In one facet, ecclesiastical history treats of the development of Church teaching, based on the original supernatural deposit of faith; of the development of ecclesiastical worship in its various forms; of the arts in the service of the Church, especially in connection with worship; of the forms of ecclesiastical government and the exercise of ecclesiastical functions; of the different ways of cultivating the perfect life in religion; of the manifestations of religion and sentiment among the people; and of the disciplinary rules whereby Christian morality is cultivated and preserved and the faithful are sanctified. 

In another facet, however, ecclesiastical history details the lives and activity of individuals (biography), who, during their lifetime, were of special importance for the life of the Church. There is also the historical description of single countries or parts of them, e.g. dioceses, parishes, monasteries, churches, the history of orders and congregations and also the history of missions, a subject of far-reaching importance. Furthermore, there is the history of the popes, of councils, collections of the lives and legends of the saints, also of patrology, dogma, liturgy, worship, the law, constitution, and social institutions of the Church. 

It is not sufficient for ecclesiastical history merely to establish a certain series of events in their objective appearance; the historian is also bound to lay bare their causes and effects. Nor does it suffice to consider only those factors which lie on the surface and are suggested by the events themselves, as it were : the internal, deeper, and real causes must be brought to light. In the ethical and religious world, the facts are the concrete realisation or outcome of definite spiritual ideas and forces, not only in the life of the individual, but also in that of groups and associations. 

Individuals and groups, without exception, are members of the one human race created for a sublime destiny beyond this mortal life. Thus, the action of the individual exercises its influence on the development of the whole human race, and this is true in a special manner of life in religion. 

Moreover, to discover fully the really decisive causes of a given event, the historian must take into account all the forces that concur in producing it. This is particularly true of the free will of man, a consideration of great importance in forming a judgment about ethical phenomena. It follows that the influence of given individuals on the development of the whole body must be properly appreciated. 

A characteristic, which ecclesiastical history has in common with every other species of history, is impartiality. This consists in freedom from every unfounded and personal prejudice against persons or facts, in an honest willingness to acknowledge the truth as conscientious investigation has revealed it, and to describe the facts or events as they were in reality; in the words of Cicero, "to assert no falsehood and to hide no truth." (De Oratore, II, ix, 15).

Believing Christian historians keep in view that the founder of the Church is the Son of God, and that the Church was instituted by Him in order to communicate to the whole human race, to individuals and to particular groups, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, its Salvation through Christ.  It is from this standpoint that the Christian historian assesses all particular events in their relationship to this end or purpose of the Church. Consequently, the possibility of Divine intervention can never be absent from the Christian historian's assessment of historical events.  The history of the Church , indeed, exhibits most clearly a special guidance and providence of God. 

The unbelieving historian, on the other hand, recognising only natural forces both at the origin and throughout the development of Christianity, and rejecting the possibility of any supernatural intervention, is incapable of appreciating the work of the Church in as far as it is the agent of Divine design.  EN2

From this exposition, we see Catholic history is not merely "about people" (as Father Campion suggested), but rather the story of people of Faith and their cooperation - more or less adequately - with God's plan for salvation of the human race, each and every individual.  Such a story does not preclude good humour, or the recounting of unpleasant, even disedifying stories.  It ought, however,  to be open to considering God's hand in shaping our story, through the mystery of his Providence.

Because historians are also fallible human beings, it is possible to fall into certain traps.  One of them concerns a practice of arranging facts according to a pre-conceived narrative or ideology.  We see such patterns all the time in the propaganda of politicians and governments.  The historian must attempt to step outside such pre-conceptions.  Similarly, a defect in assessing history is to perceive past persons or events entirely through the lens of modern thinking, rather than the thinking of the  age past.  It is easy to be shocked by attitudes from the past, but not so easy to analyse the degree to which those attitudes might be mistaken.  Likewise, those writing the history of our own age might be shocked by attitudes currently held commonly, which we might consider "enlightened" in contrast to our own past.

The last thing I would like to comment upon is the practice of charity.  In studying history, we frequently meet with persons who are not very admirable and events which offend.  We also meet with admirable people who have made serious mistakes or who have profound flaws.  Since history is mostly about persons who passed from this life, it is helpful to remind ourselves that, upon death, each and every human faces God and has to account for his or her life.  As Catholics, we believe that our failures and flaws will be made very clear to us at that moment by God.  We ought also to believe that, confronted with such things, the Faithful Departed will understand their failings in the light of God's plan for the Redemption of the human race.  We may judge sternly persons or events in history, whilst remembering that we ourselves, in our turn, will be judged.  Accordingly, the historian, in seeking to tell truthfully and objectively the events of the past, must temper that telling with charity.  That is good history.

Ut in omnibus Deus glorificetur.


EN1  Foreword by Father Edmund Campion in Sister M.M.K. Sullivan RSC A Cause of Trouble?  Irish Nuns and English Clerics, 2nd edition, 2019.

EN2  An abridgement of the article "Ecclesiastical History" by JB Kirsch in The Catholic Encyclopaedia, vol. 7, pp.365-380, Robert Appleton Company, New York, 1910.

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