Christianity’s curious second thousand years

Christianity’s curious second thousand years

Catholic History for Today’s Church
by John O’Malley SJ
Rowman and Littlefield, £15.95

“No institution,” writes John O’Malley, “has had a richer or more complex history” than the Catholic Church. It can be unusually difficult for anyone, not least a Catholic, to write about that history.

Continuity is all-important since the Church is there to “pass on an unadulterated message received long ago” but the Church also “lives in time and space”. Change, development and competing interpretations of the past can hardly be ignored.

Few scholars have confronted the challenges, or relished the opportunities, of studying Catholic history with the skill and subtlety of John O’Malley. His early work on the Italian Renaissance won plaudits. His researches into Jesuit history transformed the field and he has developed an impressive sideline in writing wonderful books about mighty Church Councils, namely Trent and Vatican II. His writings in more populist arenas have also required him to “perform as a generalist and to become skilled in periods and issues that stretched me beyond my specialties”. Here, too, O’Malley provides a rewarding read.

This compendium brings together 18 short articles, ranging from scholarly snippets to engagements with contemporary debates. Dialogue between different periods is a recurrent theme. “In every case I explicitly or implicitly ask the question, ‘so what for today?’,” he writes. This reflects his declared objective as a historian: “I study the past in order to help us live more wisely in the present.”

Accordingly, a number of pieces remind us that today’s conversations can be improved by a rounded understanding of the historical backstory.

Reform of the Roman Curia, for example, has been a “recurring problem” for many centuries. O’Malley appreciates the “difficulty of finding a theologically credible connection between Peter, the simple fisherman of Galilee, and Peter, prince of the Apostles, heading a large bureaucratic central office”. We must, though, understand “a fact of life. The Roman pontiff needs assistance.” Adjustment has sometimes been necessary over the centuries but “amid all the current publicity about the faults and failings of the Roman Curia and the cries for its reform, we need to step back for a moment and put the situation into a larger context”.

The book is crammed with pithy historical sketches. We are taken back to the Church’s first millennium when “popes did not run the Church”. They “defined no doctrines; they wrote no encyclicals; they called no bishops ad limina,” and they neither convoked nor presided over Church councils. Why and how, asks O’Malley, did papal authority and prestige soar during Christianity’s second thousand years? And talking of councils, the book offers a series of punchy analyses of Trent and Vatican II. Some of the titles give a flavour of the tone: “Ten surefire ways to mix up the teachings of Vatican II”; “What happened and did not happen at Vatican II?”; “The Council of Trent: myths, misunderstandings and unintended consequences.”

This is a consistently entertaining and enlightening volume. We discover how “papal job descriptions” have evolved over time, why cardinals now elect popes in a particular way, and what the decrees of Trent meant for Michelangelo’s depictions of nudity. Everyone is urged to use the past as a precious resource. Those who accuse some American Catholic colleges of having “gone secular” are invited to study the muddled reality of medieval universities. Those concerned by the “sometimes tense relationship… between theologians and bishops” are encouraged to learn from our forebears. Those who debate clerical celibacy are asked to do better than “sound-bite explanations” and confused “dips into Church history”. With all such topics, dipping will not suffice.