Two Centuries and Counting: Interview with Harry Crocker III


Like Paul Johnson, I was a journalist who'd written frequently on historical topics. I also had a definite point of view on Church history, which was that it was being hijacked for liberal propaganda with the endless stream of books like Constantine's Sword, Hitler's Pope, and Papal Sin. I wanted to respond with the real story.

I relied heavily on secular sources to show that an affirmative history of the Catholic Church is really the objective argument from history. And, of course, I wanted to make it exciting reading — a swashbuckling account full of knights and battles.

Lopez: Were there things you learned that you never knew?

Crocker: The great thing about Catholic history is that it's the history of everything. For example, the history of the Catholic Church and the history of Europe are synonymous for more than a millennium. In fact, the Church is the most important institution in the shaping of the Western world. And because the Church has always been involved in politics, philosophy, scholarship, and art, the bounds of Catholic history are virtually limitless. The Renaissance is a perfect Catholic moment. Just as the Renaissance rediscovered the classical world and so renewed the intellectual and aesthetic vistas of Western civilization, so too today if we rediscover Catholic history, our intellectual and aesthetic vistas become deeper, wider, and clearer. There is no end of learning in Catholic history.

Lopez: Besides Christ's Resurrection, is there a moment in church history that stands out for you as a greatest moment?

Crocker: Many great moments, but I think perhaps the greatest symbolic moment is when St. Ambrose compelled the Roman emperor Theodosius to do penance in his church for ordering the revenge killing of a circus mob that had murdered one of the emperor's generals. The idea of an unarmed prelate forcing the commander of all Rome's legions to do penance is a new thing in the history of the world. Here is one of the Church's greatest political gifts to the West — often unrecognized — a moral check on state power. Until the Reformation, that check was the Church.

Lopez: Things you learned you wished you hadn't?

Crocker: Not about the Church — more about the Church's opponents, because being of English extraction I very much wanted to see the other chap's point of view. Of course many of them, like Frederick the Great, do have their moments.

Lopez: Regarding the scandals that have the Church in the news everyday now, are there lessons to take from the Church's past for the faithful, the clergy, and for the rest of the world — the media covering it, etc. — a context to put it in?

Crocker: I think most lay Catholics understand that the Church is a divine institution staffed by human beings who are as subject to sin as anyone else. Even the pope has a confessor. I do think that these scandals have been seriously misreported. I think reporters are loath to run stories headlined "Experience of Church with Homosexual Priests Confirms Boy Scout Fears" even though that appears to be the real story, as the bulk of these cases involve homosexual overtures to post-pubescent boys. But just as liberals have misread what these cases are about, so too have they misread the tea leaves about the future. The outcome of these scandals will be not a more liberal Church, but a more conservative one. It was, after all, liberal moral laxity that got the Church into this mess; and the Church, if not liberal columnists, understands that more liberalism is not going to get the Church out of it. The Church will find its sources of moral renewal where it has always found them, in fidelity to Church teaching, not in liberal compromise with the world.

Lopez: Is there any kind of historical equivalent?

Crocker: Pedophilia and molesting adolescent boys are inexcusable and terrible crimes, but we don't have to look into history for an equivalent to them. As far as we have statistical data we know that priests are no more inclined to pedophilic acts than ministers of any other denomination or than the lay public. In fact, the evidence we have so far suggests that they are less inclined. So if we want to see sin and heinous crimes against innocence, just look around.

Lopez: What's "triumphant" about a Church with so many flaws?

Crocker: The Church is triumphant in that it has survived where all other earthly powers have faded into history; because it has carried on the sacraments; because it has proclaimed the teachings of Christ for 2,000-years. The Church is "flawed" only because it works through human beings who are as flawed as were the Apostles. We also know that as far as these "flaws" refer to sheer history — "the black legends" of the Church — secular historians are proving them false. This is most famously the case with the Spanish Inquisition. The traditional portrait of horror has now been shown irrefutably to be a myth; and in fact we have a new picture of a judicial body that was among the most lenient and enlightened of its time. If you don't believe me, look up Henry Kamen's book from the Yale University Press; or check out the documentary that the BBC did a few years ago. But this is a continuity in Church history. The Church rarely responds to its critics. Like the poster boy of Renaissance popes, Alexander VI, the Church's attitude has always been: "Rome is a free city where everyone can say or write whatever he pleases. They say much evil of me, but I don't mind." Unfortunately, however admirable that tolerant attitude, it is how these myths and black legends get started. My book, Triumph, is the missing response. It's the history of the Church, I've come to realize, as seen through the eyes of Maximus, the hero of the movie Gladiator. It's a book that echoes to the marching of the Roman legions, the clanking armor of the Crusader armies, and — oh well, what we're left with — the barked orders of the Swiss Guards of the Vatican!


Kathryn Jean Lopez. "Two Centuries and Counting." National Review (March 29, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Review. To subscribe to the National Review write P.O. Box 668, Mount Morris, Ill 61054-0668 or phone 815-734-1232.


H. W. Crocker, executive editor of Regnery Publishing, is author of the new book Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church.

Copyright © 2002 National Review

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