For many Catholics, learning Church history is considered a mundane and tiresome activity. It is not often a focus of parish catechetical programmes in the same manner as Scripture studies. Of course, developing an understanding and love of the Word of God is extremely important in the faith life of all Catholics, but learning Church history is also critical. Studying the 2,000-year history of the Catholic Church can be a daunting task, made more difficult by the fact that most history in the English world for the past 500 years has been presented from a Protestant perspective. However, as an entrée to the study of Church history, I offer five things every Catholic should know about Church history.
1) Church history is our family history
Learning Church history is not just an intellectual undertaking; rather, it is an exercise in getting to know our family. History is the study of men and women and their past actions. Catholic history involves learning the story of the men and women who came before us in faith. As Christ revealed God to be a loving Father, and we are adopted sons and daughters of Christ, members of the Church are a family. When we study Church history, we study our spiritual genealogy, and since we hope to live with the saints in eternity, we should learn the history of our spiritual family. Additionally, we should learn our Catholic history in order to make sense of our world, to know Jesus better, and to defend the Church against the false narratives presented in the modern world.
2) The Crusades were not an aberration in Church history
One of the most misunderstood events in Church history is the Crusading movement. There are many myths about these events, and, despite copious academic research over the last generation, these myths have become ingrained in the minds of many. Essentially, the Crusades were armed pilgrimages called by the pope to liberate ancient Christian territory occupied by Islamic forces. Blessed Pope Urban II called the First Crusade at the local council of Clermont in 1095. The Crusades were integral to the life of the Church for centuries.
Despite some modern Catholics who look on these events with shame and view them as an aberration in the Church’s history, the historical record clearly indicates that the movement was infused with genuine Catholic devotion. Popes from Urban II to Innocent XI urged Catholic warriors to utilise their weapons at the service of Christ and the Church, and they provided spiritual incentives (indulgences) for their sacrifice. Clergy participated in these armed pilgrimages and saints exhorted the people of Christendom to get involved. Six ecumenical councils discussed and planned for Crusades. Many, if not all, Crusaders were motivated by love of God and the Church, love of neighbour (defending Christians in Muslim-occupied territory and protecting Christian pilgrims) and love of self (concern for their salvation).
3) Despite abuses, the inquisition was focused on charity
Like the Crusades, the Inquisition is frequently mischaracterised in the modern world. From Monty Python to Mel Brooks, the Inquisition has been portrayed as an ominous, cruel instrument of religious bigotry that oppressed religious and intellectual freedom, and was responsible for thousands (if not millions) of deaths. This caricature doesn’t do justice to the complex reality. The historian Cardinal Walter Brandmüller has observed, in an essay on the Inquisition, that medieval man “overlooked the fact that God also willed man’s freedom and endowed him with noble dignity”. The Inquisition, Brandmüller writes, “deserves criticism”, but we must “look at it within the framework of its historical context”.
The primary focus of inquisitors was the conversion of the heretic. True, the state viewed heresy as an immediate cause of social breakdown, and so punished heretics severely. But the Church desired that heretics be reconciled. Whatever abuses took place, its ultimate aim was charity.
4) It was a Protestant revolt, not a Reformation
The cleaving of Christendom in the 16th century, which is commonly referred to as the Protestant “Reformation”, fundamentally altered Church and world history. The movement was not a “Reformation”, but rather a theological revolution that tore asunder the fabric of European society; its effects are still felt in the modern world. The main characters of this tragic drama (Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, etc) sought the destruction of the Church and her replacement with their own creations. Protestant revolutionaries completely rejected Church authority and the entire sacramental system.
The Church had been greatly weakened by the papal crisis of the 14th century (residence in Avignon and the Great Western Schism) and the later Renaissance popes. This resulted in a loss of respect for the papacy. Coupled with rampant ecclesiastical abuses, this allowed Protestant leaders an opportunity to foment rebellion throughout Christendom. While Protestantism had various political, social and economic causes, it was in essence a theological revolution started by a university professor. The true causes of the Protestant movement were not the abuses and corruption in the Church (for previous centuries had seen the same things), but rather disagreement over the sources of Divine Revelation, the issue of justification and the interpretation of
5) Missionaries were motivated by the Gospel and charity
Modernity views the period of European discovery and colonisation with disgust and labels missionaries like St Junípero Serra as genocidal maniacs. The truth is that the Catholic Reformation produced a vibrant Church that endeavoured to spread the Gospel to areas of the world where it had never been heard. Although some European colonists mistreated indigenous peoples, the majority of Catholic clergy loved the people they met and desired their happiness and eternal salvation. Missionaries such as the priest Bartolomé de las Casas (1474–1566) spoke out against colonial abuses of the native peoples. The Jesuit Peter Claver (1580–1654) made it his life’s mission to serve the Africans who were being imported by Portuguese slave traders to the New World. The French Jesuits of New France provide an example of missionary activity focused on spreading the Gospel in a manner that was rooted in love for indigenous people. Eight Jesuit priests, including Isaac Jogues (1607–1647) and Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649), and several lay workers, known collectively as the North American Martyrs, shed their blood for Christ in the New World in the years 1642–1649, killed by those whom they came to serve.
It is important for Catholics to know our family history, and present it to others, in order to make sense of the present age, grow deeper in faith, and to combat false anti-Catholic historical narratives.
Steve Weidenkopf is the author of Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church; The Real Story of Catholic History: Answering Twenty Centuries of Anti-Catholic Myths and The Glory of the Crusades. For more information, visit steveweidenkopf.com