After nearly four decades of post-Conciliar apologies, embarrassed explanations and self-loathing, evidence abound that Catholics just might be getting over it.
Well, yes, we have our Gary Wills and John Cornwells among us still, prompting us all to wonder why they remain (in the sense that they do) in this institution that unfailingly fails to meet their exacting standards, and their books do sell, it’s true.
But as time wears on, their cant seems more and more dated and their complaints more idiosyncratic and suggestive more of personal “issues” than the slightest nod towards objectivity.
More importantly, something is rising to take their aging, bitter places: books that are happy to be Catholic. Apologetics and conversion stories, positive accounts of Catholic life (2001’s I Like Being Catholic from Doubleday is a steady and popular seller on all fronts), and finally, works of scholarship, both for specialists and a popular audience, that no longer practically tremble with the need to tell the world why everything Catholics did between, say 33 AD and 1964 was terribly, tragically misguided.
Notable among recent entries in this area is Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church (Forum/Prima Publishing, $29.95). It’s obvious from the title that the author of this popular history of Catholicism, Catholic convert H.W. Crocker, is going to take a decidedly different view of the past 2,000 years than Gary Wills does.
The Roman Catholic Church is a massive, complex institution with a daunting history that takes in almost every aspect of human life. To write a single-volume history that is “complete” is, of course, unquestionably impossible, and Crocker knows this, so he willingly picks his battles.
Unfortunately, though, since Crocker’s past work (Robert E. Lee on Leadership) indicates a deep interest in military history, battles, both literal and figurative, are mainly what he picks to tell his story of the Church’s history. His focus is on the attainment of power: power over heretics, power over secular monarchs, power over moral life, power over economies and societies and culture.
This makes for some good story-telling, to be sure. The strength of Crocker’s book is in his sketches of individuals and his mostly balanced accounts of crucial turning points in the Church’s history. In all, this is a decent overview of the major events of Church history that will give relief and insight to Catholics (and others) who have been exposed only to Protestant and secularist interpretations of everything from barbarian conversions to the Crusades to the Inquisition
Crocker does this by engaging in the historian’s proper task of trying to present the history of the Church in context, which is a tricky thing. It is one thing to condemn the Church’s involvement in violence over the centuries, but it is another thing altogether to try to understand that involvement in the context of the crushingly violent culture in which the Church existed. Crocker invites us to shift our thinking. Instead of judging these events by our present ideals of what the Church “should” be, might it not be more fruitful to judge them in historical context, thereby discovering that things might have been considerably worse were it not for the Church?
This is a helpful perspective. The only problem is that Crocker applies this commitment to historical context very selectively. A good example is in his treatment of the Protestant Reformation. Crocker does readers a great service by revealing details about Martin Luther that were ignored and suppressed by their high school and college textbooks, details ranging from Luther’s fixation with certain bodily functions to his willing incitement of violence. But one comes away from this section, with Luther drowned in a flood of ink and the Church, its every Medieval excess and corruption explained and “put in context, spotless and smelling like a rose, believing that the only reason the Reformation occurred was because Martin Luther was a raging lunatic who happened to get a sympathetic noble ear. That is, I’m sorry to say, simply not the case, and Crocker’s account of the Protestant Reformation and events like it is weakened by his broader purpose and selective application of “context”, not strengthened.
Readers should also be aware that Triumph is primarily an institutional history: that is, a history of bishops, popes and the nobility who either supported or fought them. A few theologians make appearances, but not many, and their work is only sketchily presented. A glaring omission is any account of the development of the Church’s sacramental and spiritual life. To find accounts of how Catholics through the centuries have prayed, worshipped and constructed their daily lives in the context of the Gospel, one would have to go to another source.
Triumph is a good resource for those seeking an introduction to the development of Catholicism as an institution, especially in Europe – the rest of the world, even North America, gets scant mention. In examining Catholic history in the context he does, H.W. Crocker opens the reader’s eyes to the fact that as G.K. Chesterton said, it’s quite often the case that despite all we have been taught, “the past is not what it was.”