Arts & Books Books

The story of the ‘greatest organisation in human history’

Crusaders were pious and idealistic, but also 'crude, arrogant, and at times savage'

Steve Weidenkopf, who teaches Church history at the Christendom College Graduate School of Theology in Virginia has written in Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church (Our Sunday Visitor, £15/$20), a concise summary of a sprawling, complex and often controversial subject. The book is an excellent textbook for college students as well as for those outside the Church who want to learn more about this strange, enduring institution.

Inevitably, with a huge period to span, the author concentrates on the events leading up to the first millennium and from there to the Reformation period. The 20th century is only touched on lightly, with a few pages devoted to the popes following Pius XII. The focus is largely on Europe as the locus of the faith in the past 2,000 years. This, we can be sure, will change in the future as the African and Asian churches come to assert themselves.

Weidenkopf does not evade the many questionable or scandalous episodes of Church history, reminding the reader that “Through 2,000 years of the Christian faith, there have been those, even in the highest office of the Church, who did not authentically live their vocation to holiness.” He also reminds readers that ecclesiastical history is “the study of a new civilisation”.

This last phrase is what strikes the attentive reader. Founded by Christ and often tarnished by his supposed followers, what endures in this narrative is the holiness of those heroic men and women in every age whom we call the saints, who have striven to show the spiritual transformation required of those who desire to be Christians. In a sense, the institution, with its temptations to clerical power, worldliness and worse, will always be at odds with Christ’s injunction, “Be ye perfect.”

At every stage in this history, whether the persecutions of the Roman emperors, the destructive influence of heresies such as the Arian or the Manichean, the Great Schism with the Eastern Church and the Reformation in the West, Catholic theologians, such as St Augustine, “the Church’s unmatched thinker and theologian for 800 years”, who contended with the Donatist, Manichean and Pelagian heresies, or reformers such as St Benedict, the father of Western monasticism have, along with the martyrs, come to the rescue.

During the so-called Dark Ages following the collapse of the Roman Empire, personalities including St Patrick, St Boniface and Pope St Gregory the Great contended with the paganism and corruption of their times.

Islam, its disputed origins, its swift rise, its ingrained warlike aspects and its powerful appeal, is given thoughtful coverage, as are the Crusades and the Inquisition – often contentious subjects for those who challenge the Church’s claim to holiness. The Crusaders’ motives might have been pious and idealistic but they were also “crude, arrogant and at times savage”.

Describing the legal processes of the Spanish Inquisition, Weidenkopf dispels many myths. Nevertheless, it is difficult to persuade modern critics to think historically: “Before the modern world, religious freedom was neither practised nor tolerated because unorthodox religious beliefs were not only a danger to souls, but to social order as well, since it often led to violent rebellion against civil authority.”

As always, we are faced with the Church’s divine origins and the limited, flawed, all-too-human response of her members to historical circumstances. Weidenkopf concludes by reminding readers that the Church is still “the greatest organisation in human history” and that learning about it should help us in our turn to “transform the world for Christ”.

Fr Pat Collins, a Vincentian priest, is a well-known author and retreat leader who is also an experienced exorcist.

Freedom from Evil Spirits (Columba Books, 244pp, £10.99/$13), subtitled Released From Fear, Addiction and the Devil, is a reminder that oppression – as distinct from possession, which is rare – takes many forms. In the chapter on freedom from fear, Collins explains that “Although fear is a natural emotion, and addictions are forms of illness, nevertheless the Devil can and does exploit them in order to lead people into sin.”

Collins is enlightening on the addiction to alcohol, analysing the famous 12 steps of spiritual and psychological freedom devised by Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, with the help of Dr Bob Smith. On evil and the Devil, Collins tended to think, as a young priest, that psychology provided the explanation – until he visited Dachau and realised that the Holocaust “was demonic in origin”.

Collins believes the malicious activity of Satan has increased all over Europe, alongside mass apostasy from the Church. Among the many authors he quotes in his book, Archbishop Fulton Sheen stands out for his concision and wisdom, such as: “Satan has very little trouble with those who do not believe in him; they are already on his side.”
This is a useful work for all troubled by crippling fear, addictive behaviour or for those who have dabbled irresponsibly in the occult.