End Notes

The great historians have distinctive voices and even when we are dubious about how they tell the story we go back to them again and again for the pleasure of seeing the world through their eyes and hearing once more their voice. Reading Marvin O’Connell encourages thoughts about what precisely historical narrative is.

Aristotle, in a famous passage of the Poetics, placed history below poetry which in turn was put beneath philosophy. The reason for this ranking is what should draw our attention. The poet tells us of Hamlet in great particular not only to tell us about Hamlet but about everyone else as well. For Aristotle, the historian just tells you what happened, providing a narratio singularium. O’Connell in a series of remarkable books has perfected a way of writing history that aspires to incorporate the best of the poetic and the philosophical.

A student of the redoubtable church historian Philip Hughes, O’Connell wrote his dissertation on a counter-Reformation figure named Thomas Stapleton. I doubt that any reader reading it without being told that it had its origin as a doctoral dissertation would believe it. Little wonder that, when Hughes died without having written it, O’Connell was asked to produce the Counter-Reformation volume for the prestigious Langer series. But it was his The Oxford Conspirators (1969) that made it clear that a very different historian was transforming his field.

The story of Newman and his friends had already been told many times when O’Connell’s book appeared, but it had never been told like this. The mark of the poet is the gift for metaphor and the aim of metaphor is to put a matter vividly before the eye. In this sense, certainly, O’Connell is a poetic historian. He has a novelist’s knack for evoking a scene, an event, a personality. His biography of Archbishop John Ireland (1988) begins with Ireland and one of his priests named Moynihan walking a street in Paris, discussing the purpose of Ireland’s trip to Europe and his troubles in Rome when the two men turn a corner and we are made to see what they see. Such effects are the result of the most meticulous research and yet those pages read like the opening of a novel.

Of course no historian can know real figures as well as a novelist knows his characters, so there is a constant danger of crossing the line into imaginary rather than imaginative reconstruction. One comes to trust O’Connell that this is not going on in his work. His masterpiece, the recently published Critics on Trial: An Introduction to the Catholic Modernist Crisis, (Catholic University of America Press, 1995) immediately sweeps us into these events with a retrospect.

One afternoon in the late spring of 1940 a hearse approached the Ambrieres along the road from the south. It had passed through the rolling champenois countryside, between the FOret du Val and the broad Lac du Der-Chantecoq, and then up the twisting narrow road that led into the center of the village. There, in the little walled cemetery, amid the garish decoration of their graves favored by the French peasantry, the coffin was lowered into a place already occupied by the corpse of a woman who had died seventy years before.

One does not put down such a book once begun. You know that the author has been there, walked that road, stood in that cemetery and thought long thoughts. This is the burial of Loisy, a major figure in a movement that the saintly Pius X called the summation of all heresies.

A good deal of swift revisionism has characterized most post-conciliar writing on Modernism. One has become used to triumphalist tracts suggesting that Vatican II was the vindication of the Modernists. O’Connell does not enter into that debate. Rather, he puts the matter before our eyes. He respects the reader’s intelligence to reach whatever conclusions he will after he has seen both Modernism and its critics from within.

A theologian must ask after the truth or falsity of doctrines, but a historian in the O’Connell mold, like a moralist, like a novelist, cannot be content with the abstract but must press on into the mysterious depths of the persons who spoke and wrote and wrote and spoke so much. Reading Marvin O’Connell is to be reminded that heterodox teaching came from flesh and blood men who can mystify and haunt us. “Strange creatures, Socrates.” “Yes. Like ourselves.”

Was O’Connell drawn to his subject because of the revisionist tendencies already mentioned? Perhaps. Does he see Modernism as relevant, not to Vatican II, perhaps, but to what some have tried to make of the Council? He does not say. He does not have to. The reader will doubtless notice the kinship between the dissidents of the post-Vatican II church and the figures Marvin O’Connell brings to life for us in this magnificent book.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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