Joseph Pearce is the author of numerous literary studies, including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare, and Shakespeare on Love, as well as biographies on Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He is the general editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions series, and is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine.
To understand our current times, we need to understand history. We need to see the good, the bad, and the beautiful of the story of our salvation. That’s what we’re going to talk about today on Crisis Point.
Hello, I’m Eric Sammons, your host, and editor in chief of Crisis Magazine. Before we get started, I just want to encourage people to smash that like button to subscribe to the channel. Let other people know about it. We really appreciate all the subscribers we’ve been adding recently. Also, you can follow us on social media @Crisismag and subscribe to our e-mail newsletter. Just go to crisismagazine.com and there’s a form there. You put your e-mail address and you will get our articles sent to you by e-mail every morning, which is great.
Speaking of our articles, we have a contributing editor of Crisis Magazine today, Joseph Pearce. He is the author of numerous literary studies, including Literary Converts, The Quest for Shakespeare, and Shakespeare on Love, as well as the biographies on Oscar Wilde, J.R. Tolkien, whose birthday we celebrated this week, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and others. He’s a general editor of the Ignatius Critical Addition Series and he is also the author of this new book, The Good, The Bad, The Beautiful: History in Three Dimensions, which is an excellent book. You can tell from my bookmark I haven’t finished it yet, but I am reading it. I read it every morning. I read a chapter every morning. It’s a perfect book for that.
So welcome to the program, Joseph.
Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me back.
I should actually add to your bio, too, when I have you on, Joseph is one of my favorite authors, bar none. The work you do is great. I always love having you on and talking about this. I was very excited to get this book as well. It’s very good. So I just think I want to start off asking, there’s various church history books out there. I have emphasized on this podcast before, in fact, just this week I did, how Catholics need to know history. Why is it important to know history? We all know the quote, you’re doomed to repeat it. But why is it actually important for us to know history, specifically as Catholics?
There are a few reasons. In the broadest sense of the word, if we don’t know where we’ve been, we don’t know where we are, and if we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going. At the broadest level, that’s why everybody needs to understand the past; both their own past and the collective past, which we call history.
One of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that many of us fall into the progressive trap, even if we consider ourselves to be anti-progressive. In the sense that we buy into the idea that, because of technology, things are going to get better and better in the future. Or if you don’t like it, worse and worse, but it’s going to happen. It’s an inexorable process where we are progressing through science into some sort of age in the future, which is either a golden age or a doomsday age or whatever.
In actual fact, what history is, is human first and foremost. It’s human, so we have to understand who we are. When we understand who we are, we see actually, history’s not a progress or a regress in one definite direction. It’s a tapestry woven of the three aspects of what it is to be a human person, which are the good, the bad, and the beautiful. By which I mean, the good is homo viator about traveling man or pilgrim man, man on a pilgrimage, man on a quest. The purpose of life is to get to Heaven, so everybody who’s trying to get to Heaven, is on that quest for Heaven is homo viator. They are either the saints or at least those who are trying to be saints or working at it.
There but against that, you have the bad, which is the absence of the good, in Augustinian terms. That’s homo superbus, proud man. This is the man who refuses the quest, who refuses the journey, refuses to be the pilgrim to Heaven and wants to go his own way instead, doing his own thing. In the third is anthropos, the work for man which means, according to Plato, he who turns up in wonder, he who looks up in wonder to see beauty, to see the kiss of the life of God’s presence, in the beauty of creation, but also to be the modern day, to be creative ourselves, to make beautiful things in emulation of the beautiful things made by our Creator.
So the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Of course, these three aspects of who we are actually is in here. That struggle is going on in each of us as individuals. If that’s the case, it’s going on in each human society from the beginning to the end, which is why we have these three threads running through every century. I’ve tried to have one chapter for each century, but showing those three threads running through. So history should be seen as a weird, woven tapestry. In other words, a tapestry woven by God’s providence of what it is to be human, not a progress towards some age in the future.
The book is laid out very easily. What I do is, I just read a chapter every morning. After I finish praying, I pick this up. I read a chapter. It’s very interesting like that. I want to talk about some centuries in a minute, but I would like you to describe how the thread of good is throughout history, but also the thread of bad, and the thread of beautiful. The book, for reading purposes, is split into centuries. But of course, that’s not how actual history works. It just continues to happen. What is that thread of good and that thread of bad and thread of beautiful? What are the commonalities that just keep on happening over and over again throughout history?
The book was inspired largely by the words of Pope Benedict XVI and I actually quote him at the beginning in the prologue that ultimately, the only defense of the church are the saints that she’s inspired and the great works of art that she’s inspired. So in other words, the good and the beautiful.
So we see basically, the template of all of history, I think, laid out in the gospel. We have Christ and His followers, and then we have the rest who are not His followers, who are the majority. Of His own followers, we have the Judas. So what we have, Christ says we have to take up our cross. Voluntarily doing that is to become homo viator, pilgrim man following Christ or the Via Dolorosa of life. But failure to do that makes us the bad. We can do that. We can be Caesar. In other words, we can be secular or we could be Judas. We could be the heretic or the corrupt person within the church, within the mystical body of Christ who’s causing chaos and corruption from within.
In every generation, we have those who are trying to be saints and becoming saints. They’re the good. We have the bad, which are both in terms of those who choose the world, choose the city of man over the City of God. Then we have the Judas, those who are corrupted by the world, even though they are within the church. That’s what we see in the bad. In every generation, we have beautiful works of art; architecture, visual arts, music, literature. These shine forth the life of Christ in the goodness, truth, and beauty of what they are.
You talk about the beautiful. I think that’s something that, when I first got the book, I didn’t really see that. The good and the bad, obviously. Of course, there’s the good, bad, and the ugly they talk about, from the movie. But the good, the bad, and the beautiful. The beautiful, the importance of that, would you agree that you can see it in that sometimes there have been movements, both inside and outside the church to kill the beautiful? You see it, obviously, with the iconoclasm of the first millennium, in the seventh, eighth century or something like that. You see it in the iconoclasm of the prophet’s information. You see it in the iconoclasm of today.
So what is the sin of ugliness, I guess, is a right way to put it? Why is there this attack on the beautiful?
I think what we need to do is to see the beautiful as part of the splendor of God. When the Greek philosophers talked about the good, the true, and the beautiful, they were already getting an inkling of the trinity because these three, those distinct were inseparable. The good and the true is always beautiful. The true and the beautiful is always good. These three things are triune and therefore, they shine forth the beauty of God, and the goodness of God, and the truth of God.
I believe that when Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” He is actually saying, “I am the good, the true, and the beautiful.” Because obviously, goodness is love. It’s laying down our lives for the beloved. That’s goodness, virtue. True, the true is the Logos. So God is love. Agape is the good, but the true is logos, reason. God is the reason. All reason ultimately emanates from Him and all true use of reason leads us back to Him.
And the beautiful is the life. The thing about the beautiful is that the beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. That’s relativistic nonsense. The beauty is in the thing beheld, but we do have to have eyes to behold it. So there’s something about the beauty of something is the life in it. So I’m not talking about biological life here. A sunrise has life in it because of its beauty. It lifts us up. It magnifies our soul, but it doesn’t have biological life. So there’s the beauty in the life of the thing, and then we have to be alive to that life ourselves in order to be kissed by that beauty, to have that relationship with it.
So the presence of beauty to be perceived requires the life of the thing beheld and the life of the beholder. So I do see when Christ says, “I’m the way, the truth, and the life,” He’s saying, “I’m the good, the true, and the beautiful.” So we can’t separate them.
In what ways is this beauty expressed throughout history? Because obviously how, in the second century, very different than perhaps the 10th century or the 20th century. But what are some examples of how beauty, particularly Catholic beauty, how is it expressed throughout history?
Yeah. At the beginning of the book, I deflect what Chesterton does in his book, The Everlasting Man. The first half of that book is the man in the cave and the second part is the God in the cave. What Chesterton says about the cave man. He says, “What do we know about the cave man? The only thing that we know about the caveman is the fact that he’s an artist. The only evidence we have of the caveman is the fact that he drew pictures on the walls of the caves.” And as Chesterton was trained as an artist said, “Actually very good pictures, a sense of movement, absence of form.”
Well, the earliest Christian art, where are the earliest Christians forced into being? In the catacombs, right. The earliest remaining Christian art is the art we found in the catacombs. We know that there’s music in the early liturgy. We know from the history of the liturgy that it has its roots in the Jewish temple. So the earliest liturgy of the church in the first century would have had beautiful music associated with it. So the beauty is something that accompanies history, along with goodness, and truth, and of course, the absence of those things, which is the bad.
I really do think that, like I mentioned these iconoclastic movements. They really are, they’re evil attacks because beauty, a lot of converts over the centuries have said beauty is one of the things that brings them to the truth, brings them to Christ is seeing the beauty. Then when you see beauty, the utilitarian type of architecture we have today where everything is built today for usage and not for beauty at all, it really does undercut the beauty of Christ, the beauty of the gospel. In a way, it’s inhuman.
Because like you said, the first cavemen, we see their art. It’s almost interesting that art is a sign of rationality. A lot of people think of rationality and art as in opposition. You have your math people. You have your art people. They’re completely opposites. But it’s actually art that proves that it’s not animal that we’re dealing with, that it’s actually a rational being.
I guess just touch on that a little bit more because I feel like that is one of the things about this book that is unique in that a lot of people tell a story of history, the good and the bad, but the beauty is really that aspect that brings out uniqueness of … Catholic beauty is, obviously there’s beauty outside the Catholic Church, there can be. But what is that Catholic beauty that you’re really focusing on in the book?
So basically, Chesterton says that art is the signature of man. Chimpanzees do not paint pictures, nor do they compose music. There’s something about beauty and creativity and the love of the beautiful and the creation of the beautiful which is divine. It’s part of the modern day.
In other words, how do we know what is the image of God in us when it’s what’s in us that’s not in any of the other creatures? Obviously, the ability to reason and the ability to love, to rationally choose to lay down our lives for the beloved, but also the ability to enjoy beauty and to do beauty, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or composing a piece of music, admiring a work of art or painting. This is part of the divine image in who we are and if we want to understand human history, we have to understand the modern day who we are. That includes those who love beauty, who do beauty, who are creative as God Himself is a Creator.
That’s why talking, talking creation story for middle Earth, God, the one God presents to the arch angels the great music. God is presented as the composer of the cosmos and yet, the ancient philosophers talk about the music of the spheres. Prometheus, for instance, in his book, Day Musica, he’s not talking about music we can hear, he’s talking about the harmony, the beauty in the cosmos itself, the music of the spheres, the movement of the stars is like a dance. Then you have the musica of the cosmos, music of the naturala, and then you have the music of humana, the music synapse, the music in human souls. We are something which is meant to be harmonious. We can become discordant, but through sin, but we’re meant to be harmonious. The music’s in us. The third type of music, Prometheus says, musica intstrumentalus. That’s when we incarnate this music in such a way we can hear it. Like we’re moving sound waves, as we would now say.
One other very quick thing, Eric, as well about this, there’s no opposition between beauty and reason. The greatest scientists have to use imagination. Mathematics is the use of the imagination to innovate, to discover things for the first time. You need to have an imagination to do that. If you don’t have your eyes opened in wonder, which is necessary for the seeing of goodness, truth and beauty, you will not be able to be a good scientist, either.
Right. Now, I’ve read a lot of history books, church history books. I’ve read a lot of lives of the saints. One of my common complaints of them all, just about, is that they underplay the bad. I get it on some level because especially some lives of the saints, you’re trying to uplift and show. I’m not saying that’s a wrong thing to do, but I do feel like it makes it more difficult when we have the bad going on now, whatever now might be, whoever it is, that we are like, “Oh, but it used to be so great.”
You make a point that every single century, you have bad. One thing I wanted to ask you about that is, do you see a relationship between the good and the bad as it plays out in history? What I mean by that is, sometimes it seems to me that a person’s greatest strengths also ends up being his downfall or his flaws. Do you see, when you mapped out these centuries, did you see, “Oh, yeah, this century was great on this, but it was also terrible on this, which is kind of related?” Or is it more just a matter of whatever the evil happened to be at the time, whatever the good happened to be at the time?
That’s a great question. I think the key thing is that the same pattern is in all centuries and all times, but it may manifest itself slightly differently. I’ll give an example. You mention about the so-called tragic flaw, the hero’s greatest strength can also be his downfall. But it’s also true that our downfalls can become our greatest strengths. In other words, many people become converts to the faith because they hit rock bottom by following some addictive habit, behavior, what have you. In other words, the crucifixion’s necessary before we can experience the resurrection.
So God can and does, throughout history, bring good out of evil. That’s one we have to know. I’m going to give a few examples here to illustrate what I’m trying to get at. There was a historian called Professor Walsh. I don’t think he was a priest. He might’ve been. Taught at Fordham, historian. Wrote a book called The Thirteenth, Greatest of Centuries. His argument was this was as good as it’s going to get, this golden age in the past, the 13th century. It’s the magnificent church, basically, dropped on Earth.
You look at that century and you’re good, absolutely. The rise of gothic architecture, the founding of the Franciscan order, the founding of the Dominican order. Although, we have to remember, why were they necessary? Because of the corruption in the church at the beginning of the 13th century. Of course, then the rise of the opening of the universities, the rise of scholasticism, Saint Albert the Great, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Bonaventure, these wonderful philosophers that show us how faith and reason are one.
So yeah, wonderful century. But it’s also the century of the Crusades. It’s the century in which a Christian army sacks, pillages Constantinople. It’s the century in which a Christian army besieges a Christian city in Croatia and pillages it, ignoring the Pope threatening to excommunicate them that do it. The rise of Islam is continuing.
So the golden age, the 13th century, beginning of the 14th century, we have three different people claiming to be Pope at the same time. The Pope’s in excide, in Avignon. He’s not even in Rome. So, so-called greatest of centuries, yeah, there’s great stuff happening, but there’s a lot of wicked stuff happening. What I say is, one of my favorite centuries, I actually give surprising answers, I love the 16th century. People say, “That’s the Protestant reformation. That’s the rupture. It’s when we lose a large body of the Christians, become heretics. How’s that?”
Well, because that Protestant rupture gives birth to the Catholic revival, the Catholic restoration. Some folks call it the Catholic reformation, but that doesn’t really do it justice. The Council of Trent, the founding of the Jesuits, St. Theresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, new monastic orders. It all happened and caused some beautiful polyphony, some of the greatest sacred music ever written. William Shakespeare at the end of the 16th century.
So the worst of times, the best of times. And another favorite of mine is the 19th century. In 1800, basically, the Pope’s a prisoner of Napoleon. He’s taken prisoner from Rome and he dies in France, a prisoner of Napoleon. The previous Pope, under pressure from secular rulers, banned the Jesuit order, which is basically the only part of the church which had any fight and spunk in it at the time, and the Pope himself dissolved the Jesuits. In 1800, you think it’s all over, that the Catholic Church is finished.
Then the 19th century is a great time of revival. If you see the number of Catholics in the United States in the 1900 compared with the 1800. The number of Catholics in the UK in 1900 compared to 1800. You have the Catholic literary revival, these great writers from your Newman, and then Chesterton, and Belloc, and Tolkien. So this Catholic revival begins in the 19th century. Probably you could say with the romantic movement, near medievalism, the gothic revival, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, all these wonderful things in the 19th century when, as Chesterton said, the church has died many times and has risen again from the dead because she worships a God who knows the way out of the grave.
It is interesting that an Englishman would pick the 16th century considering what happened in England at that time. It’s more like, I feel like some centuries are more extreme than others. Not necessarily better or worse, but more extreme and the 16th century had that because you had the depths of terribleness, which is the Protestant reformation. But then like you said, when most people think of the greatest saints, when most people name the top 10 greatest saints of top 20 greatest saints, a disproportionate amount would come from the 16th century, so it’s an extreme century.
One of the things I noticed in looking at the history is, I feel like, you mentioned you reject the progressive idea of history, that we’re going towards this nirvana or whatever and we have to be on the right side of history, all that crap. Would you say, though, that in some way, not completely, that there is a certain circular nature to history, or spiraling, or something like that in the sense that, it does seem like sometimes the church goes great, things are going well, and then it crashes.
So this 13th century, we have the situation with Francis and Dominic, Saint Thomas Aquinas, all this classicism, all that stuff, and then we crash and burn almost, it seems like, in the great Western schism. You have that also in reversal because in the 10th century, which it’s usually ranked the worst for at least the papacy, if not for just the church, and then it leads to the 11th century, which has the great schism, so it’s still bad stuff.
But then all of a sudden, we have the big revival. Would you say there was a circular nature, or was that also a bad way to look at it?
I think we can’t see history as circular because it’s a tapestry and it tells a story, so there’s a story to be told. It has a beginning and it will have an end. We are destined to be a small part of the picture in time.
But this is the other aspect. We have to see history within the context of eternity. In other words, we have to view time within the context of eternity. For God, and this is crucial, for God, there is no past and there is no future. God’s omnipresence means not just that He’s present everywhere, though He is. I think in a much deeper sense, everything is present to Him. So the whole of history is present to God and is being played out in His presence. When we understand history in that sense, then we can certainly see it as something which is all present.
So the past is present to us. The past is actually more present to us than the future because where we are now, this moment, we can’t be anywhere else because of the past. So the present is like a mathematical point. Chesterton says somewhere that it’s so sharp that when you try to live in the present, it’s something similar to sitting down on a pin. The present is something, as soon as we even perceive it, it’s the immediate past.
So we live in the past. We have nowhere else to live. The future exists to God in His presence, but to us, it’s a figment of our imagination. In other words, I might know what I’m going to be doing in an hour from now, and I probably will, in terms of all probability, be doing what I think I’m going to be doing in an hour from now. But what will I be doing three years from now? I have no idea whatsoever.
So the future for us is nothing but a figment of our imaginations. The past is the reality in which we actually live. Therefore, we have to understand it if we’re going to know where we’re going.
So I want to take it a little bit like, what’s the purpose of learning history? What’s the purpose of this, our present? How does our past help form our present?
One of the things we talk about a lot at Crisis is the current crisis in the church and in the world. We’re always trying to help Catholics in particular navigate it, understand it, not lose their faith, all of those type of things. I’ve always said, one of the things I’ve hammered on is, you have to know history. I don’t know if I’ve always explained it that great, but how would you say your knowledge of history, for example, you’ve been doing research on this book and what have you. How does it help you today when some scandal comes up, corruption, whatever the latest thing happens in the church, that has caused real people to lose their faith? It’s not something to take lightly. How does this help you or does it help you navigate what we’re going through today?
Again, a great question. The first thing that I try to do in that book is by having one separate chapter for each century and showing the good, the bad, and the beautiful in each century is that we can see, if you like, the presence of God in each century and each century being present to Him. We can also see the absence of God in the bad, because that’s what it means, turning your back on God, refusing Him, which we have a right to do because He’s given us freedom which is necessary to love.
When we see history in that context, we can look and say, “Okay, we’re living in dark times, 2024.” 1924, we just had World War I. The number of people killed in that beggars belief. Seven years earlier, just over six years earlier, there was the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of a radical, secular, fundamentalist, atheism, anti-Christianity. The fascist regime had just taken power in Italy. Mussolini would flatten most of Rome to build roads for fast cars and tanks and military parades. Then of course, the Nazis were on the rise and within 10 years would be in power and within 15 years, we get a second World War.
So are we living in dark times today? Yes, we are living in dark times today. Are they the darkest ever? No. No, they’re dark. They’re not the darkest ever. You can read, do the same thing. Here’s what I try to do. Put a blindfold on and throw a dart into any century in history, any time in history and you’ll land somewhere. You’ll see good things happening. You’ll see saints at work. You’ll see beautiful art. You’ll also see wickedness. You’ll see secularism, the power of the world being used against the forces of good, forces of church in every generation, in every century.
That’s why it’s valuable. Also to remember that we are in the church militant, which is the smallest part of the church. The largest part of the church, we can be fairly sure, is the church in Heaven. All of us are called to get there and all we have to do is be good and faithful servants and good and faithful warriors, church militant, milieus cristi, soldiers of Christ, for our tour of active duty and then we get off. If we’re good and faithful servants, we get off, we go, probably my purgatory, but that’s a one way street to Heaven.
So why should any Christian who has authentic faith in Jesus Christ, in His presence in history and eternity ever be tempted to despair? Really, if people are losing their faith, it’s because they don’t have it. If you think that the power of the devil is so powerful that he’s going to destroy the power of Christ, then you don’t have faith in Christ.
Right. One of the things, obviously it’s topical today, is the role of Pope in the church. It almost seems like, in a way, that the popes in history have been almost an incarnation of the church history in the sense of the good, the bad, and the beautiful. So when you were looking at your history and you mention a number of popes in here; obviously the good, the Saint Leo the Greats, I’m just going to take an aside here. I did not know the story of Saint Nicholas the Great. I know who Saint Nicholas the Great was. I feel like I’m well versed in who he was. I did not know the story of him defending marriage. So I’m just going to stop my question I was going to ask. I just want you to tell the story of Saint Nicholas the Great and how he defended marriage. Can you tell that story? Because I read that and I was like, “I didn’t know that one.”
You’re asking me to get down deep and dirty in something I wrote over a year ago. Tell you what. I could do it, but I would be playing telephone with myself from a year ago. Why don’t you tell us because you’ve just recently read it?
Right, exactly. There we go. I put you on the spot there. That’s very good. But I want to pull up here because basically what happens is that Saint Nicholas the Great is one of only three popes who have that moniker of Great right after his name. One of the things he’s known for is, he was the pope during the time of Photios and so there was a lot of debate over the east/west split and he helped bring it back together.
What I remember was, with Nicholas was, okay, here we go. I want to make sure I get it right, too. So the emperor of, what’s his name, Lothair, I’m not sure how to pronounce it, L-O-T-H-A-I-R. He got divorced and remarried. Let’s be honest. In history, a lot of rulers, a lot of kings, a lot of monarchs and emperors, they get divorced and remarried and often, church officials have given them annulments. Let’s just assume they were legitimate or something like that, but it’s not uncommon in history. It’s very common today for just individual, normal people to get annulments, but over history, you see that a lot. If I’m reading something about 12th century and I think it was Henry II, I can’t remember, one of the kings of England got a divorce and remarried. No, it was his wife, Elanor. That’s who it was. Sorry.
So basically, he got divorced and he married, I think his mistress or somebody like that. Didn’t matter, and the Pope wouldn’t give him an annulment. So literally, his brother marched on Rome and laid siege to the Pope. So basically, this is pretty significant pressure on the Pope. This is a political thing, people need to understand. Obviously, it’s a moral question, so the Pope’s looking at it like that. Nicholas basically refused to back down, so he could have died, all in defense of marriage and what marriage was. He could have been made a martyr.
In the end, the emperor who was siege was like, “Oh, crap. I’m not going to get this guy to do what I want,” and so he backed down. So basically what happened was, Nicholas stood up for marriage and against this invalid marriage that basically, this man had married somebody else. I did not know that story, but that’s just an example of a Pope, obviously, he’s called the Great for a reason, but I just think it was a great example that we can look to.
But tell us. Going back to the main point, though. How have popes basically represented the good, the bad, and the beautiful over the past 2,000 years and how can that help us understand the papacy itself in that context?
Again, as you rightly say, we see the humanity of the papacy, so we do see saints. We see the good popes. We see bad popes and there are many of them. We see popes struggle, some of them that might not necessarily be saints, but nonetheless are courageous in defending the faith.
If you look at the golden age, so called, which I’ve already disputed, the 13th century, who’s writing right at the end of that and the beginning of the 14th century, immediately after it? Well, Dante, arguably the greatest writer who ever lived, and he’s putting heaps of popes and priests in hell. Now, we can be shocked by that and I think we probably should be, but the point is that this is in the high Middle Ages, this acknowledgement of the fact that the popes have great responsibility. If they don’t live up to that responsibility, they betray that responsibility to be good and faithful servants, servants of the servants of God, then their souls are in peril. They can go to Hell. Are there popes in Hell? It’s not for me to send anybody to Hell or to judge any individual person’s soul because I can’t read their soul. God does that. But are there popes in Hell? I think it’s very likely that there are.
I think the other thing that’s got us a little bit confused is we’ve just come out of a golden age of the papacy in many ways. It’s very unusual to have a string of good popes for about 200 years, which is effectively what we’ve had since the 19th century, right up to this century. We’ve had a string of really, really good popes and that’s unusual. We seem to expect every pope is going to be a saint, which has never been the case in history, that every pope’s a saint.
I think another problem is that Saint John Paul II was so charismatic, many people began to see the papacy in the light of John Paul II. In other words, every pope’s got to be like John Paul II. No. Saint John Paul II had his own charism. It worked for him. He helped bring down communism, et cetera, because of what he did, what he said. But Benedict XVI is not John Paul II, so he has his own way of doing things.
So I think we have to see the papacy again in the light of history and not expect every pope to be a saint, not expect every pope to be good, expect there to be an occasional bad pope because it happens. It has happened and presumably will continue to happen.
I would even argue that we’ve had basically decent and good popes since the 16th century. There was a run even longer than 200 years because if you look at since the time of maybe Pious V, who was a saint for a long time. But then after that there was none that were, I’m not saying they were all great or anything like that, but none that were super scandalous or anything like that. They basically all did their job, some better than others. Then you had a few high points like a Pius X or something like that. But essentially, though, they weren’t a problem.
But yet you look, obviously, 10th century is the most obvious; the pornocracy of the papacy then and you write about that well in there. I think, though, the important thing to remember, I think, with both the popes and just in history is you keep an even keel in the sense that yes, there’s good and yes, there’s bad. This is just the human condition and there’s beautiful and it’s not like, “Oh, my gosh. The sky is falling.”
I’m a little bit surprised, but I think it’s great how you’re saying the 13th century, yes, obviously there was good in it, but it’s somewhat revisionist to act like it was this perfect moment of Christendom and that’s the ideal we have to strive for. Really, it was just, it had very good, but a lot of bad, too.
So I think that’s good. Is there anything else, though, that you think just from history, doing the book and your own knowledge of history that helps us to understand today and really understand the future, what we can look forward to? Because I think that’s one reason we look to the past is to help look to the future. Like you said, we can’t know it, but how does it help us at least to go forward?
That’s obviously important. We need to know and understand the past in order to understand where we are, in order to understand the present and where we’re going. So insofar as we can know the future at all, to at least be able, you can if you like plot a line from the past. We can see certain things happen. This sort of thing’s happened in the past. What happened as a consequence of this thing happening? So if it’s more decadence. More decadence always leads ultimately to anarchy and then anarchy ultimately leads to a tyrant because people want someone to put an end to the anarchy. So the strong man comes up and takes over.
So those sort of patterns you can see happening in history and so we can see those patterns happening now. The problem is and I deliberately stopped at the end of the 20th century because it’s myopia, right? The closer things get to us, the more blurred it becomes because we can’t really detach ourselves from it. So I don’t really want to start talking about the history of the last 20 years because we can’t really see it in perspective. We have to look back and get that critical distance between us and the past in order to be able to see it in some sort of objective, coherent, cohesive sense.
I think it’s dangerous to be trying to understand the present in a way that we can understand the past. We can see the past in focus. We can focus on it. We can see it clearly. We can look back and look at the whole landscape of the 20th century and see what happened. You can see. So the Russian Revolution happens, 1924, 100 years ago, people believed that communism was going to conquer the world. One of the reasons that Nazism and fascism rose is people thought they had to choose. You’re either going to have a Marxist future or you’re going to have a fascist future. You’ve got to take sides here. Where was the sanity to be found? In the Catholic Church; the Catholic Church’s social teaching, the Catholic Church’s moral teaching, it’s pinnacle philosophy.
The point is that in 1924, we couldn’t see the fall of the Soviet empire. We can’t see it. We can see it now, because we look back. We can look at the situation we’re in now and think, “That’s it. Communists are going to take over the world. It’s all over. Modernists have taken over the church. It’s all over.” Well, sorry. We’re too close. It’s too messy. We don’t know what the future will hold except that we do know, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, that the gates of Hell will not prevail. We do know that.
Right. You know the black swan events where you just can’t predict them and they change history, and literally nobody can predict them. That’s the whole point of why it calls that. I think that’s something that we often forget. Because I do think we think in linear terms. We look at, let’s say last 10 years, last 20 years. We look at that direction. We say, “Okay, it’s going to continue like that.”
But of course, one problem is, we’re not looking at 100 years, 200 years, something like that. Also, it doesn’t work like that. It’s not linear. Just because it’s going in this direction right now does not mean it’s inevitably going to go in that direction. It’s kind of like you said, the progressive view of history. The flip side of that is, and I think some Catholics, and I say we because I can, too, is a negative view of history that it’s just going to get worse. Progressives say it’s only getting better, but sometimes I think we can say, “Oh, it’s only going to get worse.” Because obviously God, as you said, is always present.
One final question I wanted to ask you and it’s funny because I was thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t ask this,” but I don’t care because it’s my podcast. I’ll ask whatever I want. I did notice that there seemed to be a number of instances in which English history is brought out, which I think I can forgive you, being as you are the author of the book. You can talk about whatever you want. Me, being the person I am and loving English history, I of course, enjoyed it.
I just want to ask you, how has English Catholic history, how has it impacted the history of the Catholic Church for the good, the bad, and the beautiful?
The first thing I would say insofar as there is a bias towards the Anglo-sphere, should I say, toward England, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
No, no, no, no.
But I read a book called Faith of Our Fathers, A History of True England. That is legitimate. They obviously, the focus on England.
That is a great book, by the way. Just interrupt for a second. I’m looking at it right now. I can see it on my bookshelf. Faith of Our Fathers, that is the book for English Catholic history. It is a one volume short. It’s great. Just wanted to say yeah, I love that book.
Thank you, Eric. I appreciate the plug. You get 10% on all sales.
But obviously, with the new book, The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful, A History of Three Dimensions, I am trying to be balanced and keep things in perspective, hence the three threads and hence one chapter per century. But also, I didn’t want a bias to come out and I hope it’s not too evident.
Oh, no. I kind of chuckled. I had read Faith of Our Fathers I think last year. It wasn’t that long ago, so I knew some of the things you had brought in there.
If Alfred the Great had not defeated the Vikings, the Danes, and England had fallen from Christendom, that could have been terminal as regards Christendom itself. Same thing. He looks at the disastrous consequences of Henry VIII and English reformation, et cetera.
So he certainly, Belloc was a Francophile. He was not an Anglophile. So he certainly sees at certain points that what happened in England was crucial to what was going to happen to Christendom as a whole. So I hope I reflect that, but obviously, you play to your strengths. I know much more about English history than I do about Polish history, so it’s going to be likely that it’s going to be a slight deferential nod to the knowledge I already have, rather than scouring around for things I don’t know.
I do think, though, it is important to note that, most of the people watching this are probably American or Canadian, which obviously has an English history behind it. I think we think of England as Protestant, as Anglican. It’s like we don’t even consider the impact it had on Catholicism, but it really was the jewel of the Catholic Church for a very long time, which is what makes it so tragic, what happened.
I’ve read a lot about King Alfred the Great. I think he’s great. Sorry. I actually think he should be a saint. But I think also, but I did not think of that, though, the impact of him withstanding the Vikings, what that had not on just England, because obviously we know the impact on England, but then all of Christendom, really had an impact. I guess that was eighth, ninth century. He and Charlemagne were kind of, I think you say great kings is the title of the chapter.
Most people acknowledge Charlemagne, obviously, his impact is immense. But King Alfred’s was also very great. Of course, on the flip side, King Henry VIII was drastically a disaster for church history in so many ways. So it’s fair, I think, all this stuff. I just chuckle because I know you and like I said, I read your book, Faith of Our Fathers. But you have a good balance in there.
What Chesterton said about becoming a Catholic and he said about the Blessed Virgin Mary, he says, “I’ll have to warn you that anything I say on the subject will be tainted by enthusiasm.” So obviously with me, up to a point, I’m an Englishman. I love my nation. I love my nation’s history. And I’m a Catholic, so Catholic England is something obviously I’m very attached to. I’m sure that the book is tainted with my enthusiasm.
Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that. I just want to recommend to people to get the book, The Good, The Bad, and The Beautiful, History in Three Dimensions. It’s from Ignatius Press and I will have a link to where you can buy it at Ignatius. But also I’m assuming we can buy it at your website, which I’ll also have a link to your website. Why don’t you also tell us about your website. What are you doing? We don’t know the future, but what are your plans for what’s going on in the Joseph Pearce world?
Well, jpearce.co is my personal website and that’s the one stop place for everything. You can go there and get links to purchasing all of my books, irrespective of the publisher. Obviously, ignatius.com for this particular book, but jpearce.co for any of my books. Also, I post three new podcasts every week to it, anything I’ve written, such as for Crisis Magazine. Anything I write for Crisis Magazine, that will go up on my website. It’s a good one stop place. People want to know what I’m doing after this podcast, what I’m writing, the books that I’ve published, just go jpearce.co and it’s all there at your fingertips.
So it’s jpearce.co. Not .com, but .co. Real quick, just because, what is it that you’re talking about on your podcast typically?
I have three Home is Where the Hearth Is podcasts. I talk about whatever inspires me, so that could be on anything. Obviously, faith and culture is my forte, so it’s normally connected to that somehow or other. But I always do a poem of the week podcast, in which I read and discuss the great poems of western civilization and I do a revisiting old favorites podcast, where I read from my books and other people’s books selectively and maybe comment upon them.
So they’re the three podcasts each week. I write an essay called The Lady Dell Diary where I just talk about whatever I want to talk about. That’s every week for the Inner Sanctum on my website. Also, anything I’ve written anywhere gets posted on that.
That’s great. Just this week, I did a podcast, solo podcast where I talked about the path forward for Catholics, how we should live and I was talking a lot about having a balanced lifestyle, that we can’t be constantly focused on the bad stuff going on in the church and that can lose our peace. But at the same time, we can’t put our heads in the sand, either, and act like nothing wrong is going on.
I would just say at Crisis, my solo podcast often talks about scandals in the church, stuff like that, and I do think it’s necessary. But I would just recommend people who listen to that podcast go, “What are some practical things we can do?” I think listen to Joseph’s podcast is a great way as well because it gives a perspective of the good and the beautiful going on in the world, in the church. I think that’s a great way to maintain that balance, especially just in the podcast world, so to speak.
Let’s be honest, the podcasts that market in scandal do the best. I think we all know that, that they end up being the most popular often. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing, but I think that’s a reality. So I think that having other podcasts as well like this, so I just want to recommend that people go to jpearce.co, check out the podcast and the writings. I think that’s a good way to help us all, and of course, get the book as well.
Okay. Well, Joseph, thank you. I appreciate it very much. Like I said, I’ll have links to the book and also to your website for everybody who’s interested. I appreciate all the work you’re doing.
Well, thank you very much, Eric. Also keep up the great work you’re doing at Crisis Magazine because we are in times of crisis. History’s usually a time of crisis and this is no different and we do need people doing what you’re doing. So you keep up the good work you’re doing. I would say also, it’s an honor to be counted amongst your senior editors and to be writing for you.
Thank you. That reminds me. You’re right now in a series for us at Crisis on the unsung heroes of Christendom, which is a great idea because we think of the big saints and that’s how we look at things, but there’s all these unknowns or relatively unknowns, not canonized saints who have done great work. I think it’s every other Wednesday we’re putting out one of your articles on the unsung heroes, so check that out as well at Crisis Magazine.
Okay. Well, thank you very much. Until next time everybody, God love you.