Knowledge of Catholic past deepens faith, historian finds
By Carl Bunderson
History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock, Ph.D. Credit: The Maximus Group.
History of the Catholic Church by James Hitchcock, Ph.D. Credit: The Maximus Group.

.- A new book authored by Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, is aimed at helping Catholics live their faith more richly by exposing them to the Church's 2000 year history.

“It gives them a complete, rich picture of the Church...a Catholic who knows that will have a deeper faith,” Hitchcock told CNA in a December interview.

His new work, “History of the Catholic Church,” was published Dec. 19 by Ignatius Press.

“If you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going, and you're not even sure where you are right now,” he said.

“In order to understand what the Catholic Church is and what it means to be a Catholic, one has to understand the evolution and development of dogma, the various kinds of spirituality, the relationship between the Church and cultures, and religious art and music.”

The book is meant both for Catholics and non-Catholics, and provides explanations of potentially unfamiliar terms. It features helpful marginal notes to assist readers easily find what they are looking for.

Hitchcock said his approach to history aims for “honesty” while also regarding the Church as a “major positive force.”

The author specializes in the renaissance and reformation eras, and said that writing a history of such a broad subject as the entire history of the Catholic Church was a challenging task.

“I boned up on some of the fields myself, but I do also rely on what other historians have done...all historians have to do that; unless you have a pretty narrow subject, you cannot master the whole thing, and you're going to have to rely partly on what other people have done.”

Hitchcock emphasized the importance of reflection on the past for evaluating choices in the present. Inculturation – or, the process of adapting the faith to local culture – he noted, “needs to be approached with a tremendous amount of both faith and discernment,” and that while “the word is new, the activity isn't.”

He pointed to the earliest days of the Church, when the New Testament was written in Greek, a lingua franca, and it was decided that Christians would not have to follow Jewish law.

“At each age it inculturates in a different way,” he said. Evaluation of these inculturations are difficult at the time, but “in retrospect,” he says, their positive and negative aspects can be assessed.

Hitchcock included the time since the Second Vatican Council in his book, the period from 1965 to 2010, when he finished writing the work. He said he did his best “to evaluate what I thought had happened in that period.”

The author said that the disagreements in the Church about the Council are not without precedent. He pointed to three examples, the Councils of Nicaea, Trent, and Vatican I.

“The battles went on for quite a while” after Nicaea, he noted, and that even though Trent “went relatively smoothly,” its writings on grace and free will were scrutinized very carefully and the Jansenist heresy emerged.

Even within the Church, he said, “we have a very profound disagreement as to what Vatican II actually meant...and that's somewhat unprecedented.”

In particular, Hitchcock pointed to Vatican I as having lessons for today. He noted that a group, called “Old Catholics,” denied that Council's definition of papal infallibility and went into schism.

The Society of St. Pius X, another group, was formed after Vatican II because of rejection of that council.

“It shows, and the Society of St. Pius X ought to realize, that schism goes nowhere. The Old Catholics sort of still exist barely, but they aren't really a factor.”

At the same time, Hitchcock offered hope for the reconciliation of such groups, saying that “we can find examples in the history of the Church where careful, patient discussion and pastoral concern has brought schismatics back into the Church; this is true especially of some of the Eastern rites.”

Hitchcock also discussed how history can guide the new evangelization. Though it is “still in the process of being defined,” he said that in the past, the Church has successfully evangelized through zeal.

“The first obstacle the new evangelization has to overcome, is just to make Catholics evangelical minded; most Catholics don't seem to feel that witnessing to the faith is something they're supposed to do.”

In the past, he said, “people went out and preached, and in a way elbowed their way into places where they weren't welcomed, and they sometimes suffered for it. But they had enormous success over a period of time.”

Hitchcock finished by reflecting on how Christianity's world-view has affected the view of history itself.

“That history is moving toward a goal gives it meaning. The pagans couldn't see any meaning to history; it was a meaningless circle going round and around.”

“But the Christians said it's moving toward something, and we're called upon to bring about the presence of Christ in the world. It's directly related to evangelization, and moving toward the eventual fulfillment of history.”

Tags: History, Catholic Culture

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