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Providence Present in History

As it has done for many years now, This Rock serves the Church by providing concerned Catholics the tools they need to defend the faith. As this year begins, the magazine has embarked on a new venture in apologetics with its emphasis on Church history. Last issue, respected writer and raconteur Bob Lockwood began his project of refuting “Catholic urban legends”—lies and distortions that began with a lie by an enemy of the Church and have become accepted “truth” because they have been repeated so many times by the ill-informed or the deliberately spiteful.

This issue, I have the privilege of launching an alternating column that addresses the other face of Church history apologetics.

Filling in the Gaps

As Thomas E. Woods wrote in the last issue (“Don’t Know Much about History”), it is critically important that Catholic historians defend the Church from the many attacks that are made against it, from the Galileo affair to the Inquisition to the Crusades. But, he adds:

Good spiritual directors tell us that avoiding sin is not enough; we must immerse ourselves in what is good. Likewise, overturning myths, important as it is, is not enough. We need to show the whole truth: not merely that the Church has not been as bad as people have thought but that it has been far greater and more glorious than just about everyone, Catholics included, seems to realize.

The inspiration for this column came in part from my work as the moderator for the Church history forum on EWTN.com. Among the several thousand questions I have answered over the years, many of them have related to little-known events, people, or trends in Church history that people wished to understand better or had read about and had forgotten the details.

Readers were likewise eager to learn more about some of the pressing topics of the day, such as the fabricated controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII and the Jews, or the fake ossuary purporting to contain the bones of “James, brother of Jesus.” Both exemplify the ability of the modern media to trumpet salacious stories about the Church.

Going on the Offensive

So, while Bob ably handles the defense, I’ll be on the offense, examining aspects of Church history that may not be familiar to Catholic readers. Bob’s column will refute the lies about Church history, while mine will be aggressive in celebrating the fascinating Catholic past, shining the light on little-known or calculatingly obscured moments of Church splendor and achievement, and offering analysis on controversial stories that have dominated recent headlines. The topics will be at times grim (such as the truly horrific dissolution of the monasteries under King Henry VIII), but they will also be sweeping in their scope—asking, for example, how the Roman Empire became Christian.

For example, few people know that authentic Church reform was well underway long before Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses upon the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg in 1517. My next column will trace the grass-roots renewal that fought the decline during the late Middle Ages of some institutions within the Church. This renewal was not a response to the Protestant Reformation—it predated it. The Catholic Reformation was part of a wider historical process of reform in the Church and is a reason for celebration along with the so-called Counter-Reformation that was accomplished under the papacy and the convocation of the Council of Trent.

This kind of information has a practical purpose. It is apologetics that reminds Catholics they have little for which to apologize. The history of the Church is a glorious one, and every Catholic has an obligation both to recognize that fact and to proclaim it to a culture that has lost much of its interest in the past in general and the history of faith in particular. The gifts of the Church to the world need to be known, but the task of knowing those accomplishments must begin with Catholics themselves.

Perpetual Renewal

As most Catholics are acutely aware, the Church today is reminded constantly of the supposed misdeeds and errors of its members and accused of crimes against progress and enlightenment, being intolerant, and fostering fanaticism and violence in the name of God. We are all aware of the accusations and supposed evils surrounding the Galileo episode, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. There is an obvious tendency to remember only faults of the past while forgetting the overwhelmingly beneficent effect the Church has had everywhere in the world.

History tells us, though, that there is nothing new in such attacks. They go back to the days of the apostles. Lies and calumny were spread about the Church by pagan Romans, old medieval emperors in their struggles with the popes, Protestant Reformers, Enlightenment philosophers, communists, Nazis, American Know-Nothings, and even today’s Catholic-hating secularists.

Catholics everywhere have as well the obligation to answer those who maliciously use history to make false charges and lies to further their own agenda against the Church. Setting the record straight is an essential.aspect of modern Catholic apologetics, especially in the wake of such recent phenomena as The Da Vinci Code and the sex-abuse scandal in America and elsewhere.

This is not to deny the sins and errors of the past. Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for the genuine failings of some of the Church’s members throughout history, a mea culpa that was typically insufficient for some but brought genuine healing for others. John Paul’s purpose in offering this reflection upon the errors of Catholics in former centuries was stated in his 1994 apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, which urged the children of the Church to:

purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act. Acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage that helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today’s temptations and challenges and prepares us to meet them.

Underlying the Pope’s plea was also recognition of the power of the Church to be in a state of ceaseless renewal. This capacity for rebirth, rooted in the unfailing presence of the Holy Spirit, has been present from the very birth of the Church on earth on that day in Jerusalem when the Spirit descended. Since that time, as the Church has progressed on its pilgrimage across time and the world, there has been need for renewal on the part of her members. Such is the call of the gospel, expressed eloquently by Pope St. Gregory the Great (595–605): “Semper Ecclesia reformanda” (“The Church is always being renewed”).

One Faith, Many Councils

We have all read the polls indicating that Catholics vote in a way that is statistically identical to the rest of the country, like most Americans dividing across sharply drawn cultural and political lines. The cohesive fabric of American Catholicism had been torn apart in the post-Vatican II age. There are many reasons for this, of course, from the increasing cultural assimilation of Catholics into mainstream culture to the collapse of Catholic education (and above all Catholic culture) to the failure of many Catholics to maintain a clear Catholic identity in a turbulent age of individualism and materialism. Added to these, I would contend, is the abandonment of our great treasury of the past.

For all too many Catholics, there is little of value in studying what went before the Second Vatican Council, as though the previous councils no longer matter. Professors pit Vatican II against the Council of Trent, implying that one is valid and the other is not. As Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger observed before his election as Pope Benedict XVI:

Whoever accepts Vatican II, as it has been clearly expressed and understood itself, at the same time accepts the whole binding Tradition of the Catholic Church, particularly also the two previous councils. And that also applies to the so-called “progressivism,” at least in its extreme forms. . . . It is likewise impossible to decide in favor of Trent and Vatican I and against Vatican II. Whoever denies Vatican II denies the authority that upholds the other two councils and thereby detaches them from their foundation (The Ratzinger Report, Ignatius Press, 28).

If this new column achieves one worthy thing, it will be to remind Catholic readers that we belong to a community of faith not forty years old but two millennia old, one shaped not only by the last great council but by all of them. Moreover, we belong to a community that loves and lives the same truth that proclaims eternal life and has changed the world. As Pope Leo XIII pointed out in his 1883 teaching on historical studies, Saepenumero Considerantes: “All history in a way shouts out that it is God whose Providence governs the varied and continual changes of mortal affairs and adapts them, even in spite of human opposition, to the growth of his Church.”

The life of the Church in the world has always been more than mere events and personalities. It is one of universal mission accomplished in time and realized throughout the history of humanity. Jesus Christ is, as Pope John Paul II observed, the Lord of history. This is the source of enormous joy and hope, and the late pontiff reminded us in 1986 that history has its purpose, divinely oriented and with its gaze set ever on God:

Divine Providence, then, makes itself present in the history of man, in the history of his thought and freedom, in the history of hearts and consciences. In man and with man the action of Providence acquires a “historical” dimension, in the sense that it follows the rhythm and adapts itself to the laws of development of human nature, while remaining unchanged and unchangeable in the sovereign transcendence of its subsisting being. Providence is an eternal Presence in the history of mankind: of individuals and communities. The history of nations and of the whole human race unfolds beneath the “eye” of God and under his almighty action.


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