Book review: “History of the Catholic Church” by James Hitchcock

Continuing the ecumenical strand in my reading, I tackled a rather ambitious History of the Catholic Church packing over 2000 years of history into ~500 pages. I have read a book of similar scope about the Orthodox Church last year (review here) and I went through a huge Chesterton phase a few years back. But getting a bird’s eye view, so to speak, has been extremely helpful. I was able to connect all the dots between the events of the New Testament to the Church of the Middle Ages to events of today.

This history of the Church takes the perspective of a knowledgeable believer, perhaps comparable to Saints in the Latter-Day Saint tradition, at least in terms of tone. It attempts to be comprehensive, but how to do that well in so short a space? The author organizes the book into 14 chapters, further broken into mini-sections of 2-5 paragraphs. I didn’t like the format at first, as it fell too superficial. But for it serves its purpose as a broad overview, and I found myself looking up additional books on topics I would like to read up on in more detail.

While the book does address controversial aspects of the Catholic Church, it clearly has its biases. For instance, on the Inquisition the author writes:

The chief purpose of the Inquisition was to persuade the accused heretic to recant, in which case he was made to do public penance… Torture was permitted in order to obtain a confession, but it was used sparingly in heresy cases, since an individual who denied being a heretic was considered to have recanted.

On the topic of indulgences:

Technically, the indulgence was not being sold; recipients had to be truly penitent of their sins, as well as give money, and poor people could gain an indulgence without payment. But even some orthodox theologians considered the practice of granting indulgences overly mechanical and self-centered, and some of the indulgence preachers were extremely aggressive and appeared to be engaged in a sordid trade.

In this strain, the author acknowledges bad behavior, but doesn’t go into sordid detail and seeks to put it in the most positive light possible. This is understandable, and it is valuable to understand the history of the faith from the perspective of a believer. As Krister Stendahl taught, when you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. I do appreciate self-reflective pieces as well that seeks to acknowledge fault and do justice in light of it, and I am certain there is plenty of that genre in Catholicism.

While the whole book is fascinating, I found the adaptations of the Church to the modern era to be of particular interest. While the Catholic Church has been a continuous organization for 2000 years, there was a definitive shift in the last century. Pius IX was the last pope to rule as a prince when the Papal States became a part of Italy. The author commented:

The question of the papacy’s “temporal power” remained an issue in Catholic circles for many years. The argument in its favor was both theoretical—the Papal States were bestowed by God—and practical: How could the Pope be secure in the exercise of his spiritual authority unless he ruled an autonomous principality free of the secular powers? But on balance, the loss of the Papal States proved to be beneficial to the Church. They were only a fragile protection for papal autonomy, and fifteen hundred years of fighting for territory often had a deeply corrupting effect on the papacy.

While Pius IX oversaw the loss of temporal power, Pope John XXIII struck an entirely different image of what it meant to be pope:

In a sense, the “style” of the new Pope was more important than his specific policies. Apart from anything he decreed or authorized, John immediately effected a revolution in the public image of the papal office, an abrupt transition from the concept of the pope as ruler to the pope as kindly pastor.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the popes played a major part in politics, for better or for worse. From the perspective of today, it seems very distasteful. It smacks of church and state being intermingled. But one thing that Fareed Zakaria points out in his The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, it kept a power that could rival the power of the state, in effect keeping state power in check. Zakaria traces this back to Constantine’s decision to leave the pope behind in Rome when he moved to the East:

The church never saw itself as furthering individual liberty. But from the start it tenaciously opposed the power of the state and thus placed limits on monarchs’ rule… The Catholic Church was the first major institution in history that was independent of temporal authority and willing to challenge it. By doing so it cracked the edifice of state power, and in nooks and crannies individual liberty began to grow.

The book felt very different for me as it started to catch up to events of today, specifically everything after the 1960s. I don’t think it’s just because it starts to cover events from my lifetime or my parents’ lifetime; I started to feel the author take stances on the political issues of today and was decidedly pessimistic about modern advancements. In sweeping generalizations like this:

In 2010, the frontiers of morality stood at a point that had been mere science fiction at the time of Vatican II. Besides abortion, euthanasia, and suicide, the issues included induced sex changes, artificial insemination, cloning, and “creation” of life in laboratories, often to be destroyed from embryonic stem cell research.

The crisis was metaphysical more than moral, in that the very identity of humanity was being called into question by a seemingly irresistible, all-devouring technology and by men determined to deny both higher moral truth and any concept of inherent human significance.

The author seems to think that everything has gone downhill since Vatican II right before the 60s. Vatican II was a Pandora’s box that opened concessions to modernity. He is clear that he doesn’t blame either Popes John XXIII or Paul VI. But something definitely was amiss:

For many, the postconciliar period therefore proved to be a time of rudderless experimentation, with change itself apparently now the only new certitude. In that environment, the distinction between essentials and nonessentials was for many people no longer clear. If Catholics could now eat mean on Fridays, why would they not get divorced, especially if the purpose of the Council, and of “Good Pope John”, was to make the faith less burdensome?

I couldn’t help but see many touchstones with my own faith. The media reception of Vatican II felt all too familiar reminding me of reading Twitter commentary of General Conference:

The gist of such reporting was that at long last the Church was admitting her many errors and coming to terms with modern culture. The Council Fathers were divided into heroes and villains, “liberals” and “conservatives,” and the conciliar deliberations were presented as morality plays in which open-minded progressives repeatedly thwarted the plots of Machiavellian reactionaries.

The book left me feeling with a greater appreciation of the Catholic church and its history. I know in my own faith community we tend to paint the Catholic church in a negative light, and it is in a large part due to ignorance. I find myself increasingly drawn to our similarities.

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