Reconstructing the Christian Past

Renowned historian, James Hitchcock, has long been recognized for his books and essays on U.S. politics, Roman Catholic intellectual life, and the controversial reforms of the Church’s sacred liturgy. A man of deep faith, he belongs to the great tradition of other Catholic historians such as Lord Acton and Hilaire Belloc; but unlike these predecessors, who often ignored certain historical evidence, Hitchcock has relied on it scrupulously. And like Christopher Dawson, Hitchcock has sometimes taken a broad approach to historical understanding, often turning his investigations into meditations on the meaning of history; but he has not usually taken it to the cultural and sociological depths achieved by Dawson.

Hitchcock’s most recent book, however, History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium, is unlike any of his previous works. Guided by the ideal of being “honest”—which means using evidence with scrupulous fairness—the Princeton-educated Hitchcock has now produced a detailed but easily readable one-volume history of the Church, and the secular events which have influenced her growth and development. The end result is exhaustive, including all the important councils and events, movements and groups, and personalities that have contributed—for better or worse—to the long life of the Church.

In fewer than 600 pages, the long-time St. Louis University professor has provided a brilliant synthesis of events during the last two thousand years in the life of the Church, helping readers understand Her as both a spiritual institution, and as one composed of imperfect and flawed human beings. Yet, characteristic of his approach to history, Hitchcock avoids anything that might even remotely be considered a providential view of history and, as he has elaborated elsewhere, implicit is his assumption that it is a mistake to try to deduce “specific manifestations in history from a general belief in divine providence.”

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Cover of 'History of the Catholic Church,' by James HitchcockThere are few others who could have undertaken and completed such an encyclopedic project in this way. The late Warren H. Carroll, founder of Christendom College, produced an earlier survey, History of Christendom. But it adopts an explicit “Christ as the Lord of History” approach; and its six volumes, published in stages between 1985 and 2013, are a staggering 3,239 pages. And while there have been attempts to provide brief histories of the Church—Thomas Bokenkotter’s A Concise History of the Catholic Church (2005) comes to mind, as does the clumsy Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church (2003) by Harry W. Crocker III—none have achieved what Hitchcock has: which is incorporate a staggering amount of facts, while still managing to find a balance between what is essential and necessary, and what is interesting but secondary.

Hitchcock certainly seems to leave nothing out: heresies and reform movements, warriors and saints are all included, as are glimpses into the evolution of the liturgy, and the rise of sacred art, architecture, and music. Along the way, he also helpfully explains unusual concepts or theories, and translates phrases from Greek and Latin. Even when speaking of Islamic Medieval philosophers, Hitchcock provides the Arabic names of thinkers like Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd).

There are fascinating snippets of detail about customs and practices of yore. Regarding hairstyles, Hitchcock explains: “[T]he desert monks let theirs grow wild and uncombed; the Roman tonsure cut most of it off, leaving only a narrow circle around a bald pate; and the Celtic tonsure shaved the front half of the head but let the back half grow long, a sign that the monk had relinquished his status as a warrior.” All these forms of tonsure were examples of how “externals” revealed the inner world of the spirit.

In addition to early Fathers of the Church—Irenaeus of Lyon, Ignatius of Antioch, and Cyprian of Carthage—Hitchcock makes sure to mention others in later centuries who played important if potentially scandalous roles in the life of the Church. In France, for example, he points to French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre and, later, atheist journalist Charles Maurras, member of Action Française, who provided support to the Church against rabid anti-clericals.

The noble military-religious orders—Knights Templar, Knights of Malta, and Teutonic Order of Knights—are not neglected in Hitchcock’s grand tour, nor are any of the religious orders that that have arisen over the centuries, even including the Capuchins, Ursulines, and Theatines. And when speaking of the modern age, Hitchcock leaves no stone unturned, making passing mention of groups like Opus Dei, Communion e Liberazione, Focolari, the Neo-Catechumenate, and the Legionaries of Christ.

As rich as all this detail surely is, at times I found myself wishing that Hitchcock had elaborated a bit more about some of the groups or figures mentioned. For example, former Italian prime minister Amintore Fanfani, author of the 1934 book, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Capitalism, merited more than just a passing mention on one solitary line. And even though Hitchcock mentions the devout Chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, assassinated by Nazi agents, and his equally devout successor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, he completely overlooks Johannes Messner, an important Austrian theologian and political thinker. But these are minor omissions in a book that is already so detailed.

On the other hand, I was overjoyed to find that Hitchcock mentions long-neglected German Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, a student of phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, in a short passage on marital ethics. Here he does choose to elaborate a bit, explaining that Hildebrand saw marriage as having a “dual purpose”—that is, a procreative function (which is its objective reality) and a core experience (which is the “spiritual unity” of the spouses). But then his narrative quickly moves on to other matters, leaving me with the desire to hear more.

It occurred to me in retrospect that perhaps this was all part of Hitchcock’s strategy to entice readers to want to know more—and, thus, go out and read more. It’s hard to surmise what his intention was, just as it is difficult to assess Hitchcock’s particular interpretation of history, since he so rarely elaborates or reflects on the facts he provides. As much as I enjoyed reading this book, my overall impression at times was that Hitchcock was too busy simply delivering names, facts, figures, and dates, to be detained by any kind of interpretation of those same.

On the whole, this approach works; but some readers may be disappointed. For example, Hitchcock briefly mentions French counter-Enlightenment thinker Joseph de Maistre; but we don’t get any sense—from the little that is said about him—whether Hitchcock’s treatment is fair or not. He mentions the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his schismatic Society of Saint Pius X; but completely ignores the Priestly Society of Saint Peter, the traditionalist order that is in full communion with the Church.

None of this should take away from what is undoubtedly a dazzling tour de force; and throughout, Hitchcock demonstrates that he is the consummate scholar and Catholic professional. He never shies away from mentioning the seamier, flawed human side of the living Church—from massacres committed in the name of the faith, to the sexual predations of extremely flawed human beings, to thievery among some of the princes of the Church. He doesn’t dwell on these; but he doesn’t ignore them either.

There is no doubt that here is a lot of material; and one might expect to be all at sea while navigating this book. But the author and publisher have wisely included several useful features. Every chapter, for example, is divided into manageable sub-sections and, perhaps more importantly, every page has one- or two-word margin summaries, which facilitate the reader’s search for a particular theme or subject. Because of them, readers will find that they need not necessarily read from start to finish but can, instead, dip in haphazardly—and still derive benefit.

Whichever way the reader chooses to use this book, he is bound to leave it having a far better understanding of the history of the Church. With Hitchcock, the reader is in the hands of one of the most erudite and talented Church historians in the United States—a man who has been studying the Church for decades and who has faithfully stood by Her side, never blindly accepting the radical innovations attempted by Church progressives but never abandoning Her. In this culmination of his life-long efforts to educate, Hitchcock has provided a thorough survey of Church history, without getting bogged down in either academic jargon or theory—and, perhaps more importantly, without succumbing to the temptation of looking for meaning in the vicissitudes of history.

In his long career, Hitchcock has consistently illuminated the history of the Church with his own deep faith. But in this new book, through the story of the Church’s growth, he shows that despite the waxing and waning of Her power and influence through the centuries, and no matter how much evil is done in Her name, the Church shall remain. How things will turn out in the “end,” no one knows since, as he reminds us, the “end of history is beyond history, and history cannot reveal its own inner meaning.” But, in the meantime, especially in this time of widespread ignorance and antipathy toward the Church, we should do everything we can to learn about Her history. Here is an excellent place to start.


  • Alvino-Mario Fantini

    Alvino-Mario Fantini is the editor-in-chief of The European Conservative and is the honorary Secretary General of the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria. He serves on the boards of The Dartmouth Review, the Center for European Renewal in the Hague, and European Dignity Watch in Brussels. His articles, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in The American Spectator, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Washington Times, The Far Eastern Economic Review, and Catholic World Report.

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