Book offers careful history of the Church

Being an evangelical Christian of the 19th century, British historian, essayist and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay was hardly predisposed to take a friendly view of the Catholic Church. Yet in 1840, in a long review of Otto Ranke’s history of the papacy, Macaulay penned a tribute that remains as remarkable as anything ever written about the Church. 

History of the Catholic Church
Courtesy of Ignatius Press

“She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world,” he wrote, adding: “And we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all.” 

In setting out to capture the 2,000-year history of this extraordinary institution between the covers of a single volume, American Catholic historian James Hitchcock undertook to do something that was clearly impossible. In the resulting History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius Press, $29.95), he has done the impossible — as even Macaulay might agree — extremely well. 

In the introduction, Hitchcock writes: “An awareness of the historical character of the Church carries with it the danger that she will be seen as only a product of history … .[Those who make this mistake] imprison Christianity entirely within the movement of history, essentially reducing questions of faith to factional struggles.” 

This is a mistake that Hitchcock avoids. Instead, his “History of the Catholic Church” is scrupulously careful to give an honest historical account that does not water down abuses and mistakes but stands consistently against the realistic background of religious faith.

A fresh take

The result is a welcome change from history written in the secularist manner. History like that takes economics, politics, nationalism and the personal ambitions of leaders and would-be leaders as the only important keys to the explanation of events — including even events with an obvious religious dimension. Faith and the action of God in history are brushed aside as pietistic irrelevancies. 

Undoubtedly Hitchcock’s approach will be shrugged off by secularists, but it makes much better sense of history than the secularist version. “Even on a purely human level,” he points out, “history cannot be understood apart from the reality of sin. … The Christian recognition of man’s freedom is the only resolution of the mystery of evil.” Exactly so. 

Hitchcock is a longtime professor of history at St. Louis University, author of numerous books and articles, and a prominent figure in orthodox American Catholic circles of the last four decades. 

At 580 pages, his “History of the Catholic Church” is a very large book, but also one adapted to general consumption. It includes not only a chronological narrative but a 42-page index along with an extensive list of “suggestions for further reading” designed for serious non-specialists. Footnotes are kept to a minimum and employed for explanatory purposes. 

A one-volume history like this has been needed for a long time. Philip Hughes’ “A Popular History of the Catholic Church” appeared in 1947 and suffers from saying nothing about the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar era. Popular histories of the Church since Hughes generally suffer from bias. Hitchcock also is biased — in favor of faith, you might say — but he is an experienced professional historian who tells the story straight.

Flashes of insight

While some people will read this book cover to cover, most will probably consult it selectively for overviews of particular subjects. Many sections of History of the Catholic Church — for example, the 15 pages devoted to Vatican II — stand as admirable short essays covering both the context and the substance of their topics. 

If a reader is interested in some special aspect — Vatican II and the media, let’s say — he may well encounter a quick flash of insight like this: 

“Certain bishops and periti [experts] entered into a working alliance with certain journalists, with both becoming in effect ‘participant observers’ reporting the events and at the same time trying to influence them. … The gist of such reporting was that at long last the Church was admitting her many errors and coming to terms with modern culture. … Consequently, people who understood almost nothing of the theological issues believed that the Council’s ‘real’ purpose was simply that of repealing rules that had become burdensome.” 

Like many things recorded in Hitchcock’s excellent book, the engineered misunderstanding of Vatican II was a deeply regrettable development but one of transitory importance. The Church survived, as it has done many times before and will go on doing. Macaulay captured something of that when, speaking of events in the post-Napoleonic era of the early 19th century, he wrote: 

“Even before the funeral rites had been performed over the ashes of Pius VI, a great reaction had commenced, which, after the lapse of more than 40 years, appears to be still in progress. … The distribution of property, the composition and spirit of society, had … undergone a complete change. But the unchangeable Church was still there.” 

As the story told so ably by Hitchcock strongly suggests, it’s likely to be there for a long time to come. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.