by Russell Shaw
(book review, Catalyst 4/2002)
In the last several years the culture war against the Catholic Church has been extended to a new battleground—the writing of history. It is not the first time this has happened, since it has long been known that he who gets to tell the story of the past his way can reasonably hope to shape the future. Think of the “Black Legend” concocted against colonial Spain. Still, it would be hard to think of any previous era that witnessed a more concentrated attack on Catholicism in the pages of newly penned historical or pseudo-historical works than this one has.
It is a notable feature of this assault on the Church that some of its leading figures are themselves Catholics. Among these are John Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, Viking, 1999), Garry Wills (Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Doubleday, 2000), James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin, 2001), Thomas Cahill (Pope John XXIII, Viking, 2002), and others. Quotations suggest the flavor of their historiography. Wills, dismissing the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, says it implies that the Virgin Mary’s “very flesh was…like kryptonite, unable to die.” Cahill, raging against Pope St. Pius X for his campaign against Modernism, tosses off the line, “He may have been clinically paranoid.” Say one thing for these Catholic writers, they’ve got class.
Why has this been happening? A simple desire to fill in unexplored gaps in the history of the Church, admit mistakes, and correct failings would commendable. That is the intention underlying Pope John Paul II’s program of “purification of memory,” which has included such welcome steps as setting the record straight on the mishandling of the Galileo case and on the Holy Office’s condemnation of a number of propositions attributed to the innovative religious founder and theologian Antonio Rosmini-Serbati (1797-1855) but now acknowledged not to be his. Honesty like this regarding embarrassments out of the past is praiseworthy and constructive.
But the new revisionists have more in view than setting the record straight. In fact, they have an agenda. It is to reinterpret the record in line with their own progressive ideology, defame historical figures whom they dislike, and use the resulting caricature of the Church of the past as a club against the Church of the present in order to pave the way for the Church of the future. Cornwell candidly predicts a “cataclysmic schism” in the near future between Catholic traditionalists seeking to uphold a Church modeled on the “pyramidal” model associated with Pius XII and progressives like himself who seek to promote the ascendancy of a decentralized, pluralistic, democratized model of the Church. In this struggle books like his—and Wills’s and Carroll’s and Cahill’s—are meant to play an important part. To take just one example: When a writer like Cahill assails Pius X on the subject of Modernism, it is because he thinks Modernism’s relativizing, psychologizing religious vision is correct and hopes it will prevail.
Against this background it is a distinct relief to turn to H.W. Crocker’s new one-volume popular history of Catholicism Triumph (Prima Publishing, 2001). The book’s subtitle says it all: “The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church.” Along with being history, this is an unabashed love song to Catholicism, written by a Catholic convert author who has worked as a journalist, speechwriter, and book editor.
To get the feel of it, compare Crocker’s version of certain historical events with their treatment by the Catholic revisionists.
Here is Cahill on the Cathars (Albigensians), the bizarre, body-hating sect of Manichean origin which provoked a bloody military struggle in southern France in the thirteenth century: “The Albigensians held austere beliefs not unlike those of the Franciscans.” And here is Crocker: “The Albigensians were a sort of Pro-Death League, opposed to marriage, children, and pregnancy (a calamity for which abortion was recommended); and if one could not follow a Pauline path of celibacy, the next best thing was fornication that did not perpetuate the species.” Cahill is talking nonsense, while Crocker, despite the somewhat breezy style, has got it right.
Here is Wills on Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors: “Though the Pope thought of each stage of this campaign