Recently I read a collection of essays by various Catholic historians published in a book entitled Catholicism and Historical Narrative, edited by Kevin Schmiesing. As Schmiesing says in his introduction to the book, the fundamental job of historians is to “uncover the truth about the past.” “Yet,” he reminds us, “most historical debate occurs not around matters of fact, but around matters of interpretation and emphasis.”
The writing of history depends on the context of the actors and events, what questions are asked and how those questions are framed, and which ideas and events should be emphasized and which should be marginalized. In short, historical accuracy depends on correct facts. But what history says about someone or something depends on the historical narrative employed, which is to say it also depends on how the story is told, even the facts may be correct.
In one of the essays in the book Adam Tate writes about the efforts of Bishop John England of Charleston, South Carolina in the early 19th century to correct the anti-Catholic historical narratives in the United States that were at the time widely accepted as true. The most pernicious was “the Whig interpretation of history,” which held that the principles of liberty and freedom, enshrined in the founding documents of the United States, had been preserved and protected by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century against the tyranny and despotism of feudal monarchies and the Catholic Church, both of which subjugated their citizenry with force and superstition. But this was a false narrative.
Bishop England saw in the United States a place of religious and economic freedom for Catholics. He labored tirelessly to counter the Whig interpretation, and to provide an authentic historical narrative that accurately told the story of the salutary effects of the Catholic Church and its members in the history of Europe in general, in the history of England in particular, and not least in the history of the United States. He published a newspaper in which he penned articles and editorials. He preached, and gave lectures. He was the first Catholic bishop to address the U.S. Congress when he spoke there on Sunday, January 8, 1826, in effect presenting his historical narrative directly to the leaders of the nation.
After reading Tate’s essay on Bishop England and the latter’s work to challenge and correct the prevailing historical narrative of his day, I happened to read an article about Pope Francis in a major secular daily newspaper. It was very typical of many such articles and news reports, both in the secular press and in some of the Catholic media. The writer gave what has become the popular secular narrative of the Second Vatican Council, the last two popes, and the current pontiff. It is simple, and in three parts. It is also inaccurate, not least because, to paraphrase Pope Benedict, it is filtered through a Hermeneutic of Rupture.
Part One. The council threw out the evils and superstitions that had corrupted the Catholic Church prior to the council, especially the results of the Council of Trent, and with the Vatican II a new, reformed Church was born that was compatible with the demands of modern man. The triumph of good over evil happened only because of the courageous actions of liberal council fathers and their periti against the evil machinations of the conservative fathers and their assorted henchmen. Both the secular world and enlightened Catholics enthusiastically embraced this new, reformed Catholic Church.
Part Two. Just as the magnificent conciliar reforms, having taken firm root, were beginning to blossom and produce great fruit… Just when Christendom was to be re-unified with a now compassionate and wholly accepting Catholic Church, imbued and guided by the new orthodoxy of diversity and non-judgmentalism… At the very point of finally shedding the chains of the antiquated notions of family order and sexual restraint…. At the death bed of any lingering life of a vertical perspective in matters liturgical… At that very moment in 1978, John Paul II was elected pope, and for the next 23 years he put the torch to the wonderful and glorious reforms of the council. And then John Paul II was succeeded by Benedict XVI who was even more repressive and regressive than his predecessor.
Part Three. Like a rainstorm in a drought the heavens opened in 2013, and Pope Francis descended out of the Argentine heavens into Vatican City to reform the reform of the reform, to save the divorced and remarried, to countenance the physical liaisons and marital aspirations of the worldwide “LGBT community,” to put the “antiabortion activists” in their place, and not least, to once and for all rid the liturgy of arcane formalism so that it can be the true meal of fellowship in celebration of human diversity that was intended by Jesus.
The historically correct narrative comes to us through the Hermeneutic of Continuity. It is simple, and also in three parts.
Part One. St. John Paul II is a saint because he was not some theological terrorist who destroyed the work of the council. Rather, he was a holy man who saw the abuses that had corrupted the work of the council. He recognized that too many theologians and teachers of the Church had become dangerously seduced by the lure of modernity and the power of radical autonomy. So he taught us how to think clearly again. He taught us how to think as Catholics and Christians. He showed each of us, gifted with both reason and faith, how we ought to understand and relate to the world and to our God.
Part Two. Benedict XVI is not now and was never mean and regressive, except in the cloudy minds of the accomodationists. He was a full supporter of Vatican II, and of the true work of the council. If John Paul II was the best philosopher pope in modern times, and he was, Benedict was the best pope theologian. It was not mean to tell the Church that the Sacred Liturgy had been misunderstood, if not actually hijacked by those who did not understand or appreciate it. It was not regressive to undertake a deep and thoughtful re-reading of Sacrosanctum Concilium to reform the abuses (the many abuses) in the liturgy that had corrupted Catholic worship since the council.
Benedict recognized that too many in positions of power in the Church, as well as the souls in their spiritual charge, had lost the very idea of worship and the true meaning of the Eucharist. So he taught us how to worship and pray again. He taught Catholics how to engage themselves in the Sacred Mystery of the Eucharist and the Sacraments given to us by Jesus himself. He reminded us that Mass is an encounter with the person of Jesus.
Part Three. If Bishop England of Charleston was with us today, he would still have a lot of work to do correcting false narratives about the Catholic Church, even if less so from Whig Protestants than from much of the secular media, and from (maybe especially from) some of the Catholic media. Pope Francis is undoubtedly loose in many of his public statements. His unpredictable and imprecise approach causes more than a little anxiety among the faithful as to whether he is, as claimed by his supporters among the hierarchy, a true son of the Church. His insistence without personal scientific expertise that Catholics accept his conclusions about the existence, cause, and remedies of man-made climate change is troubling. His harsh criticisms of many in the Church who seek nothing more than to uphold the truth of Jesus Christ in a world largely waging war on innocent life and in revolt against objective moral truth in favor of the pleasures of radical autonomy are unnecessary, not helpful, and frequently hurtful, if not uncharitable.
However Pope Francis has not (at this date) dived off the papal throne into the murky waters of relativism to swim with the accomodationists. His supporters in the hierarchy, many of them truly good and prayerful men, assure us that he is a true son of the Church. His appointment of Cardinal Robert Sarah as the Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship was a blessing for the Church and for the continued reform of the Sacred Liturgy. Furthermore and importantly, Pope Francis has clearly made Catholics deeply examine their consciences on the way we live the beliefs of our faith in a broken world. These are blessings for which we should be thankful.
If St. John Paul II taught us how to think, and Benedict XVI taught us how to worship, Francis indeed is teaching us how to live, and reach out in mercy to those on the physical but also the spiritual margins. The irony is that his teaching on true Christian mercy arising from a personal relationship with Jesus is not even comprehensible to modern man except against the backdrop of the teaching of John Paul and Benedict who so often were rejected the modern man.
Mercy that does not arise from and is not animated by the love and teachings of Jesus, as so clearly taught by St. John Paul, is only human altruism. The magisterium of Benedict articulated with beautiful precision the fundamental truth that it is from the submission of our very being, body and soul, into the depths of true worship, specifically into the Eucharistic encounter with the person of Jesus in the mystery of Trinitarian love, that genuine Christian mercy flows. In short, if this is the Year of Mercy it must be the Year of the Eucharistic encounter.
This is the genuine historical narrative. One of continuity. The story of the teaching of one pope building and expanding on the magisterium of his predecessor, and of councils past.
Finally, if one takes seriously Francis’ challenge to go to those on the margins who are in the most perilous spiritual state and most in need of the healing and saving words of Jesus of Nazareth we must recognize that it is the accomodationists and relativists (the pope’s most vocal supporters, and the chief creators of the secular narrative) who are perhaps most in need of our mercy. It is to them especially that we must charitably but firmly and without equivocation impart what we learned from the catechesis of St. John Paul and from Benedict.
Perhaps the pope and all of us should take our cue from Mother (and soon to be saint) Teresa of Calcutta. Her life was dedicated to those on the margin, but she was no accomodationist. She was no promoter of situation ethics. To the poor, the disenfranchised, the spiritually sick, and the lost she brought not mainly care, treatment, and physical sustenance, but truth. She fed bodies, but mainly fed souls. She bandaged wounds of both the body and the soul. She will be named a saint not principally because of her charitable work, as good as it was, but because of her faith in Jesus and her complete acceptance of his teachings. She lived mercy fully because she lived truth fully.