The National Catholic Review

Wednesday night, I have to cram two thousand years of Church History into a two hour presentation for the RCIA group at my parish. This requires doing enormous violence to the historical record, leaving out important qualifications and focusing only on the main themes. As a historian by training, I do not equate this simplification with the distilling process which clarifies the liquid to be distilled. It is not the essence one finds when you cast aside the complications, but a distorted and often de-humanized principle, far removed from the lived reality, with all its socio-cultural encrustations, that history presents to us.

That said, it is curious what you stumble upon, or how the process of recalling forces one to dust off faded memories, the way you dust off Christmas ornaments that have been in the attic all year when they were not needed. Yesterday, recalling the papacy of Innocent III, I seemed to remember that his image appears in bas-relief in the U.S. Capitol. And, so it does, in the House of Representatives chamber alongside the bas-reliefs of other great lawgivers in Western civilization. Nor is his the only papal sculpture in the House chamber. Innocent’s nephew, Pope Gregory IX, is also accorded a place among the law-givers. The next time you or your family is visiting the imperial city, be sure to look for these two Catholic additions to our otherwise secular republican temple.

I had also forgotten the story of St. Francis going to Rome to be presented to Innocent III. The pope did not find Francis’s uncouth ways to his liking and told him to go play with the pigs where he belonged. Alas, Francis took obedience seriously and the next day showed up at the papal court covered in pig manure. Innocent, however, was a genuinely pious man and he lent his support to Francis, recognizing the importance of the spiritual regeneration of the Church at all times.

Reading the history of the Church is important for all Catholics. Some who fashion themselves "traditional Catholics" do not seem to recognize that this is redundant. To be a Catholic is to be rooted in a tradition. It is also the case that many who invoke the tradition never really took the time to learn it. Nostalgia for the 1950s should not be confused with tradition. Our traditions are rich, intellectually vibrant, spiritually compelling, confusing and inspiring often in the same moments, complicated, persistent, all at the same time. In that history we see the notes of the Church: holiness, oneness,

Catholicity and apostolicity, as well as their opposites. History is always clarifying reading.

So, as we get ready for some time at the beach, instead of a trashy novel, get the real thing. Pick up a book of Church history and see what you uncover. I’ve been at this stuff for twenty years but I still find myself surprised by what I find.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 7/29/2009 - 6:59pm

A good read, albeit not a history of the church per se, is Eamon Duffy's "Saints and Sinners; A History of the Popes."

If you can stomach more Church history after that, Penguin books put out a 6+ part history by a variety of scholars (i.e., Henry Chadwick, R. W. Southern, Gerald Cragg, Stephen Neill, etc.) many years ago.

Anonymous | 7/29/2009 - 2:35pm
Church history is essential as long as it is true history based on authentic fact, not the whitewashing we got in seminary in the '50s
Anonymous | 7/29/2009 - 4:58am
Whenever I read the history of the Church, I am reminded of Dorothy Day's blunt aphorism, "The Church is a whore, but She is our Mother."   Saints and sinners, the brilliant and the dullards, great evil and great good are mixed together, inseparably.  But they are all ours, and with the eyes of faith we see God's grace at work in all times and all seasons.
Anonymous | 7/29/2009 - 2:08am
Thank you!
Anonymous | 7/28/2009 - 8:26pm
I teach some Humanities classes and let my students who live in a dominantly anti-Catholic evangelical culture that the Catholic Church by Divine Providence took the best of the Greek-Roman Natural Law principles and "married " them with Genesis, Sinai and Calvary to give us Western Civilization based on the sacredness of Human Life. They are surprised and amazed when I tell them the Founders' " all are created equal and endowed with inaleinable rights by their Creator " is a Natural Law thesis developed in that Catholic  civilization. That  is why those Popes are honored with Moses and Hammarubi as " Authors and Doctors of Law" .  As a Catholic Christian I point to the recent letter  by Monsignor Harry Byrne in your 07-03 letters as further evidence that the US bishops are traitors to those fundamental rights for accused clergy and abdicated that core Gospel principle which deafens many of us to their admirable efforts to protect  embryos and oppose the death penalty.  They and Mr Obama are in need of prayers for converson as was Mr Bush in their inconsistent approach to a consistent ethic of life.
Anonymous | 7/28/2009 - 7:19pm
I second the Bokenkotter suggestion.  Excellent!
Anonymous | 7/28/2009 - 4:14am
Any suggestions for a good introduction to Church history? Thank you.
Anonymous | 7/27/2009 - 11:06pm
Good post. I perform a similar, though certainly less well-qualified, role in my parish. I've noticed a certain scarcity of church histories that I could recommend to the audience - ideal would be one that is brief, well-written, and ''honest,'' for lack of a better term, about the shortcomings and failures of the Church throughout its history, but especially during the century prior to Vatican II.  Any recommendations?
Anonymous | 7/27/2009 - 5:18pm
OK, so I have to ask the obvious question.  Why were these two singled out for inclusion in DC above all other popes?  Sorry to be so ignorant of our history.
Anonymous | 7/27/2009 - 1:12pm
But let's not forget Innocent III's condemnation of Magna Carta and the anti-Jewish legislation of the Fourth Lateran Council.
Anonymous | 7/28/2009 - 2:54pm

As a student of Church History and history in general, I appreciate Mr. Winters' article and also the comments by the other contibutors. My favorite introduction to Church History is a book entitled, 'A Concise History of the Catholic Church,' by Fr. Thomas Bokenkotter.  It covers the subject very well and is eminently readable. I have recommended this book to many Catholics over the years. 

Anonymous | 7/27/2009 - 10:32am
'Nostalgia for the 1950s should not be confused with tradition"
Yes, as a young man in those  times I remember a truism popular in the 50s
'The two best managed entities in the world are the Catholic Church and General Motors'....... times change things ..no?