THE CATHOLIC CHURCH THROUGH THE AGES: A History. By John Vidmar, O.P., Paulist Press, 997 Macarthur Boulevard, Mahwah, N.J. 07430), 360 pp. PB $18.95.
We are somewhat inundated with new church histories featuring interpretations that allow for no trace of magnanimity toward the Church’s actions in the midst of her various conflicted episodes. One notes with frustration that some of today’s historians who are the Church’s harshest critics are not people known to be enemies of the Church, but rather, far too often they are members of religious communities or faculty members of Catholic institutions. Sometimes it seems as if we have been preparing the troops to turn around and storm headquarters!
In contrast, with The Catholic Church through the Ages, Dominican Father John Vidmar has provided a scholarly examination of the Church’s pilgrimage (including episodes of gross negligence or misconduct on the part of the institutional Church when that occurred), but refreshingly, he does so from the perspective of a loyal son of the Church. Without suggesting unauthentic exoneration or too-facile defenses that defy credibility in explaining some of the Church’s most problematic moments, Vidmar combines his solid academic credentials (S.T.D. from the Angelicum) with recent developments in historiography to present a credible and balanced history of the Church founded by Jesus Christ on the Apostles. Whereas the author reveals a Church responsible at times for mistaken strategies, his primary mission is to relate the two thousand year-old story of a Church that has never failed to administer the sacraments, preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or attempt to respond to human misery.
Although this work initially earned the enthusiasm of this reviewer for the reasons already given, it would be a grave injustice to imply that the book’s merits stop there. This work is the product of a master teacher (Father Vidmar is a former professor and academic dean at the Dominicans’ House of Studies in Washington, D.C., and currently, in addition to other duties, he teaches at their prestigious Providence College in Rhode Island). Each chapter reads like a compelling novel one is loathe to abandon, even for a few hours. Furthermore, the finished product is clearly the fruit of the author’s dialogue with great minds. For example, the book’s six-chapter structure parallels the six cyclical “ages” of ecclesiastical history identified by the celebrated English church historian, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), and references are frequent to various scholarly questions currently dotting the academic historian’s landscape. Vidmar’s scholarship is current. He perpetuates neither the triumphalism of earlier historical efforts nor the unreasonable categorical condemnations typical of their successors. Rather, when one puts the book down, one is conscious of having been exposed to fair and accurate reporting.
The engaging narrative style of each chapter is accompanied by the pertinent photographs, art reproductions, charts, graphs, lists, maps, summaries, chronologies and notes that evidence the pedagogical mastery of the author. Preceding each chapter’s interesting end notes, a recommended list of readings and audio-visuals is provided; the recommended bibliography features a system for identifying the level of sophistication and challenge represented by each entry, and historical novels providing access to a period’s cultural milieu are included. Finally (and remarkably), the final chapter and the chronological list of Popes that is provided, both include the current papacy of His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI.
Here, then, is a church history that one can confidently place in the hands of R.C.I.A. participants, Catholic college students, Newman Center attendees, parish adult education groups and a host of others in similar circumstances. Father Vidmar’s work is a masterpiece of pedagogy, an example of fine scholarship, and an important voice in the Church’s own reporting of what the author calls her “family story.” The sheep will be well fed by the accomplishment of this book’s priest-friar-scholar-professor-historian author.
Michael Monshau, O.P.
Graduate Theological Union