History is a big subject, so I’ll start with a sweeping statement: History is the story of salvation, of God’s plan to draw all people to himself. It looks straightforward on the printed page, but as we know, lots of folks are resisting the plan, and even those of us who are inclined to cooperate don’t cooperate 100 percent of the time. Chalk it up to the pride, willfulness and obstinacy in human nature that are among the consequences of the Fall of Man and the arrival of original sin. As a result, history is littered with tyrants, wars, revolutions, self-destructive philosophies and all manner of crimes and atrocities.
In spite of these obstacles, throughout human history we see the people of God lifting themselves up and trying once again to follow the way that leads to eternal life. The great 20th-century English Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, once said that Christians do not see themselves just passing through the world, but as actively trying to change the world for the better, both spiritually and temporally.
When the apostles fanned out across the Roman world to preach the Gospel, they carried a message of how to get to heaven, but also how to live with your neighbor. The two are permanently linked, because Christ taught us that if we are cruel, spiteful and selfish in this life, our prospects are not good for the next. Catholic history, then, is the story of how Catholics — clergy, religious and laity — have tried to put into action the message of the Gospel. Have they always succeeded? No. But they have never stopped trying.
In the first centuries of the Church, one of the sharpest differences between Christians and their pagan neighbors was the Christian concept of care and compassion for the poor. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the first seven deacons were ordained, among other things, to care for impoverished widows (Acts 6: 1-6). By the year 100, Christians routinely fasted, sometimes two or three days a week, donating the food they had not eaten to feed the destitute in their city. Such sacrificial compassion was incomprehensible to pagan Romans, who agreed with the philosopher Plautus that feeding a beggar was wasteful: “You lose what you give and prolong his life for misery,” Plautus wrote.
After 313, the year Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity throughout the empire, Christians were able to expand their charitable activity. They opened hospitals, orphanages, shelters for the elderly and the disabled — all institutions unknown in the pagan world.
The new administrators
In the fifth century, when the Roman Empire collapsed under repeated waves of barbarian invasions, the administration of cities and regions often fell to Catholic bishops, who settled local disputes, brought fresh water into their cities, even erected walls and watch towers to defend against invaders. Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) is best remembered for encouraging Gregorian chant in the liturgy and sending missionaries to England, but he was also one of the ablest administrators the city of Rome had ever seen.
The Church also became the promoter of education and the guardian of the civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. As Benedictine monasteries and convents spread from Italy across Europe, the monks and nuns opened schools and established libraries where they collected and copied ancient manuscripts so the philosophy, literature, history, science, even the mythology of the pagan classical world would be preserved. In the 11th century, some of these monastery schools in Paris, Bologna, Oxford and Cambridge became the Christian world’s first universities.
The Church and sciences
It is a common misconception that the Catholic Church has always been at odds with the sciences. Nothing could be further from the truth, because countless priests, nuns, popes, even saints made significant contributions to our understanding of the natural world:
- St. Bede the Venerable (c.672-735), an English Benedictine monk, studied the sea’s tidal currents.
- Hunayn bin Ishaq (c.809-873), a Syrian physician, wrote the first work on ophthalmology.
- Pope Sylvester II (c.950-1003) knew so much about astronomy that ignorant people were convinced he must be a sorcerer.
- St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a German Benedictine abbess, was one of the world’s first female physicians.
- St. Albert the Great (c.1193-1280), a German Dominican priest, was one of the first students of science in Europe to base conclusions on direct observation of the natural world.
- Roger Bacon (c.1214-1294), an English Franciscan priest, studied optics, paving the way for the development of the telescope and corrective eyeglasses.
- Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), a Polish cathedral canon, asserted that the earth and the other planets revolved around the sun.
Light in darkness
Even the dark days of the Church’s history were not entirely black. During the 13th century, when the Church was plagued by venal cardinals and bishops, and power-hungry popes, the Church was also blessed with two great saints, St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, whose new religious orders would revive religious life among Catholics and draw countless Cathar heretics back to the faith. Even during the worst event in the Church’s history, the Protestant Reformation, when new denominations shredded the unity of the Church, there were still many proofs of God’s grace. There was the example of the martyrs, of course, particularly in England. There was the remarkable work of the missionaries who planted the Catholic faith in the Americas, India and Japan. Even in Europe the Catholic Church experienced a revival: Through excellence in preaching and education, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Jesuits brought back to the Church large parts of Eastern and Central Europe that had gone over to the Protestants. In Spain, St. Teresa of Ávila revitalized the holiness of life of the Carmelites. And in Rome, often attacked for its lazy clergy and cynical laity, the devout, charismatic St. Philip Neri restored among the Roman people a love of the faith and a fervor for performing good works.
Closer to home, in the 20th century, arguably the worst century the Catholic Church has ever endured, we see the heroism of Catholics who held onto their faith in spite of communist persecution and Catholics who risked and sometimes lost their lives trying to save victims of the Nazis. In America, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement offered homes to the homeless, while in Calcutta, Blessed Mother Teresa’s care for the poorest of the poor caught the attention and won the admiration of the entire world.
Is the course of Catholic history always edifying? No. Nonetheless, reading it is essential for all Catholics. No institution in the history of the world has endured so long and overcome such terrible exterior threats and interior scandals. And yet it goes on, with countless Catholics striving to do good. Christ did not promise that the powers of hell would not assault the Church, but he did assure that hell would not prevail. That is one common thread through all of Catholic history.
Thomas J. Craughwell is author most recently of “Patron Saints” (OSV, $14.95).