Fighting Catholic Amnesia

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It is quite common to hear students of history quote the old adage that those who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. This article suggests that the same is true with Church history. A cursory look at various highlights throughout history demonstrate this point in a compelling essay that is suitable for both teacher and student background.

I was a high school junior before I learned that the Catholic faith was something more than Mass, folk songs and the Bible. Father Corry turned me on to Church history in his religion class. He showed me how our rich intellectual and spiritual tradition could teach my mind and my heart what it means to be Catholic. Like all good teachers of history, he taught me that only by knowing our past can we understand who we are--and what we might become. Our history is part of our Catholic identity.

Unfortunately, most Catholics are ignorant of our shared history. We have a strange disease: Catholic amnesia.

Why is it dangerous? Consider that a person with amnesia can't function, go to work or even find where he lives because he has no memory of his past education or experiences. Amnesiacs have trouble moving forward because they have no past.

In a similar way, Catholics will have trouble facing the challenges of the new millennium without learning from the mistakes and conflicts of our brothers and sisters who have lived the faith during the past 20 centuries.

Catholic amnesia leaves us vulnerable to attack. Our lack of knowledge may also account for the widespread dissatisfaction afflicting many Catholics within the Church, especially young people. Maybe this is the best time to recover a picture of our past that is more than a comic book or caricature. After all, Cicero warned us that those who are ignorant of the past will always remain children.

Bede, who wrote a history of the Christian faith in the British Isles in 731, injected God and morality into the argument for knowing our past. "For if history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good," Bede wrote in the preface to his book, "or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God."

Learning Church history fights Catholic amnesia by reminding us today of how God acted in the lives of our Catholic ancestors. By looking at how God helped Augustine convert from a playboy life or how God gave Dorothy Day a boost in figuring out how to live her Catholic faith in the confusing 20th century, we will gain hope that God is also helping us on our own journeys toward heaven. We can learn from the past by seeing the hand of God--then and now.

A theologian and political theorist named John of Salisbury taught in the 12th century that we should know our history "so that the invisible things of God may be clearly seen by the things that are done, and men may be examples of reward or punishment and be made more zealous in the fear of God and pursuit of justice."

So how can we be Catholics who are adults in terms of both our years and our understanding of the faith as it's been lived out during the past 2,000 years? Here is a place to start: some foundational lessons from the study of Church history.

Faith Seeking Understanding

Doctrine did not spring fully grown and completely articulated the moment Jesus ascended. No book with all the answers came flying down from heaven on Ascension Thursday. Ours is, and has always been, a faith seeking understanding. Human beings in the Church grappled with words to describe truths which are, ultimately, mysteries.

Consider that the disciples on the road to Emmaus didn't understand what it all meant even after Mary Magdalene brought news of the empty tomb and they walked with the risen Lord (Luke 24:13-35).

Our ancestors took time and spirited debate to express how Jesus could be both fully divine and fully human at the same time. It wasn't until the year 325--nearly 300 years after the Resurrection--that the Council of Nicaea produced the Creed explaining Jesus as God and man.

Of course, this doesn't mean that the truth of Jesus' humanity and divinity didn't exist until the day the Council settled on the Creed. But this example does remind us that it takes time for us to find human words that even come close to describing divine mysteries.

The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist took even longer for us to put into words. During the Carolingian Renaissance ushered in by Charlemagne in the eighth and ninth centuries, a trio of learned monks named Paschasius Radbertus, Rhabanus Maurus and Ratramnus argued over whether or how the bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Jesus during the consecration.

The question of real presence continued to be debated until the doctrine of transubstantiation was proclaimed by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. During the Catholic Reformation, especially the 16th-century Council of Trent, this doctrine was proclaimed anew in response to the challenges of the Protestant Reformation. The mere fact that the matter was discussed 1,500 years after the Last Supper is a reminder of how complex the mystery of God is and how feeble we can be in expressing God's glory.

But many well-meaning people will disagree as they try to figure out and explain that essence. Arguing is part of our heritage, too. The Council of Nicaea, for all of the greatness of its achievement in giving us the Creed, solved a problem on parchment that took many centuries to sift out in real life. The champion of Nicaea, a young deacon named Athanasius, found himself exiled five times during the next 50 years even though he had become bishop of Alexandria, one of the most important dioceses in early Christianity.

When Cardinal Bernardin broke common ground in Chicago a few years ago, many Catholics were shocked that bishops and cardinals disagreed in public over his proposals. But read the accounts of the Council of Jerusalem in the New Testament and you'll find hints of real tension between Peter and Paul--even though they were both trying mightily to spread the Good News. Maybe that's why their statues are separated by several hundred feet on the steps of Saint Peter's Basilica even today.

Viewed with these pieces of history in mind, the debates we are currently experiencing about Vatican II's implementations are nothing to worry about. The Church has been through such growing pains before. We just have to make sure that the tension is creative, not destructive.

Diverse But Not Adverse

Another lesson from debates about the Trinity, Christ and the Eucharist is that unity in the Church does not require uniformity. In describing canon law, Bernard of Clairvaux taught that our principles are "diverse but not adverse." That statement could be applied to many other aspects of the Church's life.

During the Middle Ages, the papacy became so much of a hierarchy and bureaucracy that historians call it a papal monarchy. While the papacy's organization was a tremendous achievement, it also left the Church open to the charge that it had become too worldly.

Enter Saint Francis, who was part of a much larger movement of people who were trying to lead the life of the gospel adapted to Italian cities in the 1200s. His call for poverty and simplicity coexisted with the papal opulence--and the Church drew from both ways of spreading the Good News.

So, too, the Middle Ages saw fights over the best way to celebrate liturgy, an important lesson to learn as the topic of our Mass becomes the battlefield among Catholics. The monks who followed the Cluniac style of liturgy and prayer were like the Victorians of the 19th century: More was more and a lot was not enough.

At the same time, the Cistercians and Carthusians lived the kind of life that Thomas Merton chose earlier this century in a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. These Cistercians and Carthusians were as spare as the Cluniacs were ornate. For the Cluniacs, the most precious gift in the world was the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, so only gold was good enough for chalices and patens.

The Cistercians said nothing could even come close to the priceless Eucharist, so they used brass and copper on their altars. If they had our hymnals, their favorite song would have been "Earthen Vessels" where the lyrics say, "We hold a treasure, not made of gold. In earthen vessels, wealth untold." These two styles clashed, but we can draw on the heritage of both to remind ourselves that there are still many ways to celebrate the same mystery.

Thinking Out Loud

Many faithful people, thinking out loud, labored to understand central tenets of our faith. Although not all of them avoided falling into heresy, most were earnest believers trying as best they could to describe orthodox principles. Because of their creativity and adventurous spirits, a number of such heroes were regarded with suspicion by the Church before they were recognized as being touched in a special way by the hand of God.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the 13th-century writings of Thomas Aquinas, the greatest intellect in our history, were officially investigated by Church authorities before they were recognized for their theological brilliance.

The example of Aquinas brings up another important lesson to be learned from the study of Church history. Catholics have been, and are, real intellectuals, not unthinking sheep blindly following the pope. The university system which underlies the educational system around the world began, in large part, from the monastic schools and libraries which represented the only bastion of learning in the otherwise bleak moments of the early Middle Ages. Modern-day universities had their roots in the cathedral schools of Paris and Bologna during the 12th century.

The Church was not afraid of innovations in learning. Catholic scholars were at the forefront of philosophical and theological movements throughout the Middle Ages; they led the recovery of Greek texts, particularly Aristotle's, which transformed the substance of Western education.

As for its form, Peter Abelard established the foundations of medieval scholasticism during the Renaissance. And he gave us a good guide for learning by telling us that it's O.K. to have misgivings and to pursue our sometimes unsettling questions. "For by doubting we come to inquiry," he wrote in his handbook on theology titled Yes and No. "Through inquiry, we perceive the Truth."

On the Cutting Edge

Some people want to label the Church as "conservative" or "progressive." The truth is, these labels don't work when talking about Church history. You can't travel back in time and ask this saint or that pope if he's right or left of center. They wouldn't know what you were talking about. The Church has conserved or preserved its traditions, true, but has also been on the cutting edge of society in many ways that affected the entire society of the time.

Apart from Saint Francis working in urban ghettos because that's where the action was, take the cutting edge of learning as an example. You won't find any backward Church lagging behind the times there. For example, the humanism of the 15th and 16th centuries was not alien to the Church. The idea of a Renaissance which illuminated an age darkened by the iron-fisted, tyrannical authority of the Church (unfortunately still common in history textbooks) is a myth. While some members of the Church resisted the innovations of the Renaissance, others saw the rising secularism of early modern Europe as a new challenge to be met head-on.

Cardinal Ximénez, the archbishop of Toledo, Spain, helped start the University of Alcalá and used his own money in the year 1520 to commission a Bible with parallel columns of text in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, along with critical commentaries. Ximénez's work in Spain, like that of Erasmus in northern Europe about the same time, demonstrates that Christian humanism was not an oxymoron. That's something to think about in an American society that seems increasingly aware of the limits of its own pervasive secularism.

Recognizing Mistakes

The Middle Ages represented the apex of Church involvement in nearly every aspect of European society, from high politics to everyday life. While Christianity was a centerpiece of medieval Europe, the Church was not always a model of harmony or charity. Our mistakes are part of our history too and, as with all mistakes, offer lessons for the future.

Anti-Semitism, the excesses of the Inquisition and the condemnation of Galileo's theories, for instance, rightfully continue to haunt the Church. Pope John Paul II has called for a close and frank look at our missteps so that we may learn from them. He has led the way by offering almost 100 apologies to people and groups the Church has offended or even harmed over nearly 2,000 years.

Perhaps most shocking, from 1378 to 1417 there were two and then even three popes during the Great Western Schism. Still, these decades of turmoil are not necessarily a great skeleton in the Church's closet, but a moment when reformers built on centuries of tradition to rescue the Church. Councils throughout the Middle Ages decided on matters of dogma and liturgy by gathering together clerics and learned laypeople to discuss problems and pray over solutions. This central tradition helped revive the Church of our own memory during Vatican Council II.

Reform councils demonstrate that the Church is always dynamic and growing. The Church is always trying to return to the founding spirit of Christ and the early Church by reforming its current practices while at the same time adapting to a changing world. The Church is, in essence, an institution on this earth trying constantly to keep in touch with the breath of divinity within.

Taking From the Old and the New

Catholics have always taken from both the old and the new. The central participation of the laity stressed during Vatican II is nothing new, an important point to keep in mind as we face a shortage of priests. During the first few centuries after Christ, local churches enjoyed great lay participation in an arrangement that combined the unique talents and vocations of ordained ministers and laypeople who sought to live out the truth that there are many gifts but the same spirit.

During the late Middle Ages many educated laypeople translated prayers, selections from catechisms, parts of the Mass, saints' lives and sermons into vernacular languages, even dialects, so the simplest could learn more about their faith--even if this meant one literate man or woman reading to a crowd of illiterate friends and relatives.

In the Netherlands, the Modern Devotion encouraged large numbers of laity to combine married lives and deep inner spirituality through shared prayer, discussion and charitable activity in their neighborhoods.

The challenge of keeping your prayer life and your family going at the same time, then, has been around for many centuries, even if the particular obstacle of driving your kids to soccer practice hasn't.

A preferential option for the poor and the idea ofsocial justice also didn't spring up for the first time in 1965. Especially because of a concern with the least of Christ's brothers and sisters (Matthew 25:45), the laity and bishops worked together to house the homeless, employ the jobless and clothe the naked.

This social concern of the bishops, seen today in their pastoral letters on hot social topics, has always been a central part of their duties. From the crumbling cities of the fading Roman Empire to the vibrant urban areas which emerged during the high Middle Ages centuries later, bishops often led efforts to care for the poor. They were assisted by rich lay merchants and "blue-collar" artisans who either set up or staffed hospitals or poor tables which doled out money, food and clothing.

The point that the way things are now isn't always the way things have been is perhaps best made by looking at the introduction of Communion in the hand and the current debate about returning to a Latin Mass. When Communion in the hand was offered as an option fairly recently, some people were disturbed. They saw this as an innovation, even an abomination.

But interestingly, receiving Communion in the hand was the way the first Christians shared in the Eucharist. There was nothing "new" at all; in fact, we were returning to our "old" roots.

Pope Calixtus I (217-222) got himself into deep trouble in Rome when he did something outrageous in the eyes of some: He translated the liturgy from Greek, in which it was being celebrated, into Latin, which was the language of the everyday person. So turning from Latin to vernacular languages like English because of Vatican II's updating is nothing other than a continuation--very belated, of course--of the Church's tradition to bring the old into the context of the new.

Looking Back, Moving Ahead

Church history, then, can go a long way in helping us to recover our Catholic identity, the loss of which many people are currently mourning. It reminds us that we are pilgrims in a pilgrim Church, always on our way but never at our destination. And there are many different ways of doing things that, for all of their unfamiliarity, are not wrong.

Since the Acts of the Apostles we have been progressing on our journey with change and continuity, with the old and the new, with preservation and adaptation, with good and bad memories. But it's only by traveling in the present with our past that we can even hope to arrive at our future.

Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph. D., is assistant professor of Church history at Saint Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, and its Institute of Religious Studies in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of What Every Catholic Should Know About the Millennium (Liguori Publications).


© Copyright St. Anthony Messenger Press. This article was published with the permission of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, which provides study guides to accompany many of its articles. You can access these guides by going to the magazine's Links for Learners page. Teachers will find a wealth of other resources at the St. Anthony Messenger Press web site by clicking on this link:

Published July 1, 1998.