Hitchcock’s “History of the Catholic Church”


I’ve just been reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church, and he’s made me reflect on a few historical developments that might offer us some food for thought today, particularly in the three following areas: 

1. Liturgical Developments

As regards the Mass, Latin became the liturgical language rather than Greek in the third century, because Latin was the vernacular. The “kiss of peace” was a pagan custom, which was gradually incorporated into the liturgy. “Communion in the hands” prevailed until the ninth century, the time in which the doctrine of the Real Presence was formulated, and Communion on the tongue became the liturgical affirmation of the doctrine of the Real Presence. (Heretics like Ratramnus attacked it.) During the Dark Ages, under the influence of the Frankish clergy, genuflections, the sign of the cross, and other gestures became liturgical commonplaces. Communion was relatively infrequent.  The Council of Trent would encourage frequent Communion; but by this the Tridentine Fathers meant something like weekly Communion by seminarians, and monthly Communion by nuns. It was Pius X in the twentieth century who opened the door to what we now understand as “frequent communion.”

As a classics scholar who studied Latin and Greek in high school, college, and graduate school, taught Latin in Africa and California, and memorized much of the Latin Mass, I was crestfallen when the Novus Ordo Mass began to be celebrated in English. Thanks to the wonders of android technology, I can now read parts of the Divine Office in Latin on my Smartphone. But I still haven’t memorized the Gloria and Credo in English. And in any case, the Mass is not about me! There is no turning back: our Church is a church of numerous rites – Roman, Byzantine, Alexandrian, Syriac, Armenian, Maronite, and Chaldean – with numerous languages – Greek, Syrian, Arabic, Russian, Slovak, etc. The Mass in English-speaking countries will remain in English, with little pockets here and there (one church in Milwaukee) for lovers of the “Extraordinary” form. Are any priests proficient in Latin anymore? If not, do they have the leisure to be taking lessons?

The practice of saying the English Mass versus populum, however, facing the congregation, rather than ad orientem, facing the altar, is problematic. If ecumenical overtures for reunion with Orthodox churches are ever to succeed, this practice, along with papal primacy, is a glaring obstacle. The architecture of Roman Catholic churches has changed significantly since Vatican II, featuring a table near the congregation, similar to Protestant arrangements, rather than emphasizing the altar in front, where the priest continues to renew the mystery of the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

We’re going to have to ask: where are our ecumenical priorities? Do we really want to concentrate on reunion with Protestants who will feel comfortable in a church with a table for “The Lord’s Supper”? Certainly, even common sense leads us to prioritize the Orthodox, who have valid Apostolic succession in “sister churches,” and reverently perpetuate the sacrifice of the Mass.

In the meantime, still attending local churches with the Novus Ordo, I would be reasonably happy if the priest celebrants clearly by their demeanor presented the Mass as a sacrifice rather than a communal supper, stopped using distracting gender substitutions for every mention of “he” or “him” or “man” in the Gospel and the Ordinary of the Mass, and refrained from going through the whole church to socialize at Communion time. And also, could the liturgists in power just get rid of some of those awful social-networking hymns like “God has chosen me,” “All are welcome,” ‘Gather us in,” etc.? 

2. Scandals in the Church

Jesus forewarned his disciples, “Woe to the world because of scandals. For it must needs be that scandals come: but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal comes” (Mt. 18:7). The ninth and tenth centuries were heydays for scandals, both in the Church and in politics. Charlemagne was married five times, had six concubines, and forced his daughters to have children out of wedlock, in order to avoid problems with power-seeking sons-in-law. Pope Stephen VI exhumed the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, to publicly desecrate it because of disagreements about church law, but was himself imprisoned and strangled to death.

In the eleventh century, Benedict IX became pope through bribery, but eventually resigned, on condition that he receive his money back. In the fifteenth century, Pope Sixtus arranged for two priests to assassinate some Medicis who were obstacles to the strategic alliances he had in mind; and Pope Alexander VI after a fierce campaign for the papacy became one of the most notorious pontiffs. Pope Pius II, the only pope to write his own autobiography, is also noted for writing pornographic works before wheedling his way into the papacy by ambitious power plays.

Reforms proliferated along with the scandals, however. In the twelfth century, Peter Abelard, famous for the “Abelard and Heloise” trysts, ended up as a monastic spiritual director and reforming abbot, whose monks tried to poison him, while Heloise became the Abbess of a community of nuns. In the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Sienna, a gadfly at the side of misdirected popes, devotes Chapter 124 in her famous Dialogues to the necessity of obliterating the scandal of sodomite priests for the reform of the Church. In the sixteenth century, Pope Paul III, whose career was enhanced by the fact that his sister had been a mistress of Pope Alexander VI, left behind his scandalous life to become a reforming pope. And in the seventeenth century, the great Trappist reform of the Cistercian order was accomplished by Armand-Jean de Rancé, after the death of his mistress.

In the twentieth century, in addition to the scandal of priests self-defrocking and nuns self-laicizing themselves, the most egregious scandal has been the sexual abuse scandal, including pederasty, by priests in good standing, and the coverups and “reassignments.” But as this nightmare has subsided, we have had two great and saintly popes, along with gradual and successful reform in an area that used to be reserved for internal Church discipline, but now by force has ended in the public arena.

And now we are facing the possibility that, in response to blatant governmental challenges to religious freedom, bishops and other Church leaders will rise to the occasion – closing adoption centers rather than caving in to gay “married” couples, closing hospitals rather than agreeing to provide sterilizations and abortifacients, maybe even closing schools and colleges rather than succumbing to demands for contraceptive insurance coverage. The “reform” required in such cases may require outright heroism.

3. Church Councils

There has been unending criticism of Vatican II for failing to clarify and strengthen the place of the Catholic Church in the world, and, in fact, causing massive losses and fallings-away among churchgoers. But as Hitchcock brings out, Church Councils historically did not solve problems prevailing when they were called, and in fact often contributed to the intensification of the problems. The Council of Nicea (325 AD), which was supposed to clarify questions about Christ’s divinity, ended up with ambiguities regarding Christ’s “consubstantiality” with the Father. The Council of Chalcedon (451) failed to solve the problem of the relative status of the sees of Rome and Constantinople.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) was fraught with political divisions. Boycotted by French bishops, opposed by Pope Paul IV, resumed under Pope Pius IV, but subject to acrimonious national and doctrinal factions, Trent’s counter-reformation objectives of solving questions about justification and the relation between grace and free will were largely unattained, and Mass in the vernacular was prohibited – even though the Latin Mass had originally achieved priority status precisely because it had been in the vernacular.

Likewise, Vatican I (1869-70) faced considerable episcopal opposition to the declaration of papal infallibility. One problem was that, historically, two previous popes had dabbled in heresy – Pope Honorius in the seventh century accepting monothelitism, and Pope John XXII in the fourteenth century favoring, for a time, the doctrine of “soul sleep” after death before the Last Judgment. Thus the condition of “speaking ex cathedra” was incorporated into the declaration, to lessen the possibility of unorthodox pronouncements.

Vatican II, then, for all its fallout, was not unique. Political divisions were rampant. The movers and shakers at the Council were primarily theologians, many of the “progressive” strain, and the bishops and Cardinals tended to defer to these “experts.” Hitchcock writes: 

Along with Schillebeeckx, Haering, and to a lesser extent Rahner, the German-Swiss priest-theologian Hans Küng was the increasingly bold and abrasive chief spokesman for aggiornamento, demanding that the Church accommodate herself to a changing culture, while de Lubac, Danielou, Maritain, Balthasar, Bouyer, Ratzinger, and others protested what they considered distortions of the Council.

A major turning point of Vatican II took place when the Theological Commission, presided over by Cardinal Ottaviani, was upstaged after considerable maneuvering by the newly created Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, presided over by Cardinal Bea. This Secretariat was idealistic about restoring unity, and pragmatic about ways of attaining it – including diplomatic overtures to the Soviets and Orthodox representatives sympathetic to the Soviets.

Various “schemata” were subjected to ecumenical criteria. Thus, progressives were successful in defeating efforts to emphasize the Virgin Mary as Mediatrix of all Graces and Co-Redemptrix, since such doctrinal definitions might prove to be an obstacle to reunion with Protestants. And their outreach even extended well beyond Christianity to Islam as an “Abrahamic” religion adoring “the one merciful God.” (I am not aware that any of the Council experts who drew up the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium was a serious student of Islamic doctrine, practices, and history.)

Aside from such overreach, however, and some possible ambiguities in other documents (the Council did not issue laws or definitive declarations on faith or morals), nothing clearly heretical issued from the Council. Progressives mobilized with initiatives smacking of heresy – conciliarism, modernism, the primacy of episcopal collegiality, compromises of Catholic religious liberty, etc. But the belated organization of “conservatives” such as Cardinals Ottoviani, Siri, and Ruffini,  Archbishop Lefebvre, and others, and their “interventions” in conference helped to modify these initiatives and bring the debates roughly into line with previous Councils and tradition.

Those who point to Vatican II as the beginning of the downward slide of Catholicism are not taking into account that Vatican II took place in the very atmosphere of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. As the second Vatican Council began in 1962, the contraceptive pill had been in use for a couple years, and widespread expectations were that one of the results of this “pastorally oriented” Council would be the approval of at least this form of contraception. When this did not happen, and when Pope Paul’s belated encyclical, Humanae vitae (1968) met with overwhelming rejection or indifference on the part of many bishops as well as theologians, a crisis of authority ensued – and continues. Militant feminism and the onslaught against all semblance of “patriarchy” also functioned as a “game-changer.”

Was Vatican II successful in “opening the windows and letting in the fresh air,” as Pope John XXIII fondly hoped? In certain respects, yes. In Vatican I, for example, there were no cardinals from Asia or Africa. At Vatican II, cardinals from Africa, Asia and Latin America were well represented. It was clearly more visibly “ecumenical” in the sense of opening up the Church to the world. And Hitchcock brings out the interesting statistic that by 2010, the Church had indeed doubled in size since the end of the Vatican Council.

It goes without saying (almost) that Catholics in the United States, constituting only 7 percent of the world population of Catholics and despite our many problems, need to look beyond these shores to get a non-myopic and balanced picture of the present status and growth of the Church.

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.



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