A Portable Church History – Book Review

GEORGE SIM JOHNSTON

Catholics need to know their own story but balk at opening those multi-volume Church histories. H.W. Crocker III has written a book that solves the problem. I am still scratching my head over how he did it, but in “Triumph” he has told 2,000 years of Catholic history in fewer than 500 highly readable pages. The book has all the virtues of a good novel while packing an enormous amount of information.

Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church — A 2,000-Year History
H.W. Crocker III, Prima Publishing, 512 pages, $29.95

To be immersed in history, Newman tells us, is to cease to be Protestant. There is a corollary: To be ignorant of history is to be vulnerable to evangelical Protestantism. Here in New York City, which is not exactly the heart of the Bible Belt, not a few Catholics find themselves in Protestant Bible study groups. These courses are supposed to be "non-denominational," but it isn’t long before the participants start hearing odd things about the Catholic Church: that it was founded by the Emperor Constantine, that purgatory is a medieval invention, that the popes did not condemn slavery until the 2!0th century. Catholics often don’t know how to respond. Some throw in the towel and become "Bible Christians."

Evangelical Protestantism flourishes in a vacuum of historical knowledge. To know anything about the primitive Church is to know that it was Roman Catholic. And to know anything about subsequent history is to know that almost everything we value in Western culture is by origin Catholic — universities, hospitals, organized philanthropy, the idea of human rights. It was the Catholic Church that preserved the patrimony of classical civilization and baptized it. Although parties in the Church, including popes, have not always behaved well (and so we followed John Paul II on our knees across the millennial divide), no institution has given so much to the surrounding culture. Indeed, for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church was the culture.

Catholics need to know their own story but balk at opening those multi-volume Church histories by Daniel Rops or Philip Hughes. H.W. Crocker III has written a book that solves the problem. I am still scratching my head over how he did it, but in Triumph he has told 2,000 years of Catholic history in fewer than 500 highly readable pages. The book has all the virtues of a good novel while packing an enormous amount of information. Not since Paul Johnson’s Modern Times has edification been this pleasurable — and I ought to add that this book is superior to Johnson’s own History of Christianity.

Crocker starts with Christ’s public ministry and ends with the pontificate of John Paul II. He is particularly good on watersheds like the Orthodox schism and the Reformation. His attitude does not always conform to current political etiquette, but that is part of the fun. For example, he is very hard on the Eastern Orthodox, arguing that the East has always been a swamp of subtle heresies and politically submissive patriarchs. "The bluff, hardy, straightforward, and theologically stable Roman-Catholic-Germanic culture of the West," Crocker writes, "had little in common with Byzantium." Watching the displays of vituperation from the Orthodox rank-and-file whenever John Paul II makes the slightest overtures, one concludes that Crocker’s read on the Orthodox is unfortunately correct, although !perhaps the less said about this in mixed company, the better.

Luther and his followers fare no better. Crocker could be more nuanced and recognize the positive aspects of the Reformation — for example, its emphasis on the need for personal conversion — but again, it is difficult to argue with his final verdict:

Just as damaging to Christianity was the primitivist Protestant desire to wrench Christianity from history.... Salvation was now to be found in a single book, the Bible, and in the distant practice of an imagined unstained and primitive church. Almost immediately, but certainly by the eighteenth century...mainline Protestant scholars took a similarly critical attitude toward the Bible, scraping at it until it appeared as full of errors and superstition as the Roman Catholic Church itself. Protestantism thus became one of the main solvents for scrubbing away any faith that went beyond a general social gospel of good intentions.

Triumph is a splendid antidote to the sort of post-Vatican II Catholicism that apologizes for almost everything the Church has ever done. The council did away with old-fashioned triumphalism, but many still take this to mean that Catholics should no longer act as leaven in the world, that they are supposed to behave instead like dough in the hands of secularists. Crocker puts things back in their proper balance. Christ is the Lord of history, and he handed the keys to Peter. That authority has resonated for 2,000 years, and its story is indeed one of glory and triumph.

Along the way, Crocker offers many clarifications of Church teaching — for example, that it approves of nations but not of nationalism — and amusing observations (Lord Acton’s "thought was so complex as to confuse even himself"). He is rightly aghast at the eruption of mediocrity after the Second Vatican Council but wrongly attributes it to the council itself. The problems were there prior to the council, waiting to erupt. It may turn out to be not entirely a bad thing that so much nonsense was concentrated in a few decades. We enter the third millennium with clearer heads.

If Catholics are going to answer the call of John Paul II to re-evangelize the West, they need to know what they are building on. Despite some quirks, Crocker has performed a valuable service by writing a substantive history of the Church that goes down as smoothly as summer beach reading.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Johnston, Geroge Sim. “A Portable Church History.” Crisis 20, no. 6 (June 2002).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York City and a contributing editor for Crisis magazine and the National Catholic Register. His articles and essays have appeared in Harpers, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Crisis, and Catholic World Report. He is a recipient of the Journalism Award from the Catholic Press Association. His most recent book, Did Darwin Get it Right?: Catholics and the Theory of Evolution is published by Our Sunday Visitor and may be ordered by calling 1-800-348-2440.

Copyright © 2002 Crisis


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