Can There Be a Catholic History?

Some years ago, in a conversation with a non-Catholic woman of my acquaintance, I mentioned how I made my living. “I write Catholic history texts,” I told her. With head cocked and a challenge in her eyes, she asked, “Catholic history? What is that? How can history be Catholic?”

It was a good question, and I confess that, at first, I was uncertain how I would answer it. I said something like, “Catholic history is not Church history. It is history written from a Catholic perspective”; but that did not satisfy her. The more I tried to explain what I meant by a Catholic historical perspective, the less comprehending she seemed to grow. The fault was mine, for my explanations were unclear. The conversation ended with a shoulder shrug of incomprehension on her part, and I was left to ruminate on my own confusion.

The woman’s question and my failure to answer it adequately were, however, salutary. It forced me to think about what I meant by the phrase, “a Catholic perspective on history.” Today, if I were asked the question (“What is it?”), I could give a better answer.

This essay is may attempt to give that better answer. But first I shall reformulate the question that begs an answer.

What Is Catholic History?

What, indeed, is “Catholic history”? How can we speak of a Catholic telling of history? Does not the idea of Catholic history seem as absurd as the idea of Catholic mathematics or Catholic astronomy? After all, facts are facts. Some facts are religious facts, perhaps, but not all facts are religious; nor do all facts seem to have any necessary relation to religion. We do not need divine revelation to prove the Pythagorean theorem or to explain the movement of the spheres. Do we need it to discern and discuss the causes and effects of, say, Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon or Napoleon’s invasion of Russia? On the face of it, the answer seems to be no.

Of course, unlike mathematics or astronomy, some disciplines seem susceptible of falling under the religious ambit. For instance, we speak sometimes of “Catholic philosophy.” Yet one might object that even here, the Catholic epithet is misapplied. For though we might call philosophy the “handmaiden of theology,” it is only so in providing us a framework and a vocabulary of concepts by which we can better access divine revelation. In this way, it serves theology.

Still, in its relation at least to a theological expression of religion, philosophy differs from mathematics and astronomy in one important respect. It often covers the same subject matter: metaphysics, in particular, and ethics — even politics. Indeed, divine revelation may be a help to philosophy, for it might show us natural truths in moral matters or metaphysics we might not otherwise discover by reason unaided. Nevertheless, if such truths are based merely on revelation, they are only materially philosophical. Whatever is a matter of natural knowledge must be rooted in and demonstrable from rational premises accessible to the human mind unaided by revelation before it can be properly philosophical. Thus, if we call a philosophy “Catholic,” we mean only that it is in some measure inspired by or in accord with a Catholic conception of the world.

The case of “Catholic philosophy,” however, may provide the clue to the meaning of “Catholic history.” Could history be related to divine revelation or a theology founded on revelation in a way similar to philosophy? Can there be a Catholic history in the sense of a Catholic philosophy?

To discuss this, we must have a better idea of what history is. What is it in essence? What is its object? What are its means?

What Is History?

Very broadly, history is the study of what occurred in the past and why it occurred. It is an essay into and a narrative of past events and their causes: both merely natural events (such as earthquakes, floods, solar and lunar eclipses, precipitation patterns, etc.) and those that arise from the determinations of the human will. Yet, though it includes events arising in and from the natural world, these are not history’s primary subject. The subject of history is man. It is the study of human actions in the past, both in their causes and effects, their influences (including the non-human) and results.

What is the object or purpose of history? Most fundamentally, the study of history arises from curiosity about the past. Its object is knowledge, and thus history is a scientific endeavor, in the broader sense of scientia (“knowledge”), extending beyond the positive sciences. Such an understanding of the object of history sees it as a noble endeavor that looks to the perfection of the mind with the knowledge that finds its fulfillment in wisdom.

There are, of course, what we could call the perverse objects of history, such as manipulation for political, economic, or cultural ends that proceeds from a quest for power and domination. It has often been said that “history is written by the victors,” and this, one must admit, is often the case. Such manipulation may be unconscious, proceeding from prejudice or bias. It may be conscious, an intention to cast the best light on a bad affair, or the worst light on a good one. Whether conscious or unconscious, however, most would condemn such history, thus confirming the basic intuition that history should have as its object an honest and fair recounting of what happened in the past. Its purpose should be the truth that informs and perfects the mind, not the power that would seek to enslave it for ulterior ends and purposes.

What are the means of history? If we include pre-history in history, the means include archeology and paleontology. Yet history properly so called, though it draws on these disciplines, focuses more narrowly on the written records of the past. In fact, we use “pre-history” to refer to those ages before the time of the first extant written records. Since man and human actions stand at the center of history’s interest, history primarily consults the accounts written or told by men about themselves, their deeds, and their times.

With this understanding of its essence, object, and means, what are we to say about “Catholic history”? The answer is clear. Like mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, history confirms its hypotheses by means that are fully accessible to the human mind without the intervention of supernatural grace or revelation. History is not theology, whose principles are drawn, not from observation and experience, but from revelation. Thus, if by Catholic we mean “theological,” and by history we mean the discipline we have been discussing, Catholic history is impossible. This is not to say, however, that there cannot be some sort of history based on revealed sources — such as the history of God’s people, based on the Scriptures as revelation alone. Yet such a history would be a part of theology; at best, it would be narrow subset of history, extending only to the parameters of what has been revealed. It would be convincing only to those who have the gift of supernatural faith. Beyond the subjects of such a sacred history, Catholic historians would have to rely on the same sources and methods that other historians use to uncover the past.

History and Perspective

So, is there any sense in the term “Catholic history”?

Some would say there is great sense in it, mainly pejorative.

For these critics, “Catholic history” or any history told from a religious perspective falls under the perverse objects of history that we have discussed above. If such history is not always history as told by the victors, it can be a loser’s attempt to gloze over failures and sins, to hide them or to cast them in the best light possible. That such historical works exist is undeniable. Historians, whether Catholic, of some other religion, or with political ends in view, have indulged in such polemics, sometimes in self-defense, sometimes in a quest for power. In every such case, the result has been a betrayal of history as knowledge.

Yet those who charge religious historians with bias proceed from an assumption — that bias is inherent in the religious mind, that those without religious faith can be objective in a way a religious believer never can be. The assumption, however, is baseless. It follows from a misapprehension that should be apparent to the most casual observer of human nature.

Those who assume bias follows inexorably from religious faith miss the fact that everyone, religious or not, approaches the world with presuppositions about its nature or its meaning. Indeed, no one approaches the world without having come to some conclusions about God. The atheist’s judgment is every bit as theological as the Catholic’s. Both proceed from a “bias,” or better yet, conviction, as to the fundamental nature of things. If a Catholic historian is biased on account of theology, so is every other historian on account of his own point of view.

Yet, whatever their bias or conviction, we expect a certain “objectivity” from historians. Historians must strive to conform their account of the past to the facts, not the facts to their account. They must be prepared, whatever their philosophy and religion (or lack thereof), to work in accord with the principles of the discipline of history in the narrow sense. That is, historians must strictly apply themselves to the interpretation of documents or the consideration of the evidence of artifacts according to all the canons of the historical discipline without interpolating into it principles that do not intrinsically belong to it.

A trenchant example will illustrate this point. I will assert a claim — that, in operating simply as historians, a Catholic and even an atheist could come to the same historical conclusions about the resurrection of Christ.

This claim might seem counter-intuitive, but it is easily demonstrable if we assume both the Catholic and the atheist are acting as historians. As historians, both the atheist and the Catholic must, for instance, appeal to the primary source documents of the life of Christ — the Gospels and the New Testament epistles. They must assess those documents as to their reliability based solely on historical grounds. Are they, for instance, eyewitness accounts, or, at least, accounts by a near contemporary? If they are contemporary to the events they describe, do the Gospels hint at any bias that might compel an unfavorable judgement as to their historical reliability? How do the Gospels line up with each other? Are there discrepancies; and, if there are, are the discrepancies only apparent? Are they grave enough to cast serious doubt on the Gospels’ reliability as historical texts? How do the Gospels compare with other witnesses to the life of Christ? How do they compare with what we know otherwise about the history of the period? How do they line up with the discoveries of archaeology? These are among the questions any historian, whether he has faith in Christ or not, must ask if he is to function as an historian. He cannot shirk these considerations without betraying the discipline of history itself.

What we have said here answers to the procedures of history — but could an atheist and a Catholic historian come to the same conclusions, even on an event like the resurrection of Christ? The answer is yes. Both could conceivably agree that the resurrection accounts witness to some real, perhaps inexplicable event; they could both conclude that the eyewitnesses or Paul were not simply lying when they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus; they could both assert that there is good historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ – not necessarily that he literally rose from the dead but, at least, that the authors who recounted resurrection were not engaged in dishonest subterfuge, that they are trustworthy.

Of course, the Catholic, on account of his faith, would be disposed to accept a literal, bodily resurrection as a historical event, while the thoroughgoing materialist atheist would be disposed to deny it. Each, too, may be disposed to reject evidence brought by the other in defense of his conclusion. Yet disposition is not determination. Reason is not bound to follow the dictates of prejudice, nor the will ineluctably crushed by the burden of one’s druthers. The intellect, like the will, though influenced by presuppositions, remains free. Judging from the standpoint of history itself, there is no reason at the outset why a Catholic and an atheist could not agree at least in large part in their judgment of an historical record such as that of the Gospels.

Thus, from the vantage point of the historical discipline, both as regards its methods and possible conclusions, it seems there should be little if any difference between a Catholic historian and an atheist historian, or between Catholic and non-Catholic history. It seems, then, that we have answered the question with which we opened this essay: can there be a Catholic history? That answer is clearly no. We are forced to conclude that “Catholic history” makes about as much sense as Catholic mathematics or Catholic astronomy. History is just history, plain and simple.

Faith and Reason for the Historian

As far as the discipline of history goes, this conclusion — that there can be no Catholic history — is simply true. One cannot escape it.

Yet can we so easily set aside the nagging intuition that there is, indeed, a real difference between history as told by a believer and that told by an unbeliever?

After all, can we entirely dismiss the nagging suspicion that, no matter how hard a historian tries to be objective, his biases will force him, if only unconsciously, to manipulate the historical record to accord with his presuppositions? The suspicion is certainly just. A healthy skepticism must accompany any foray into a historical text by any writer of whatever stripe. Caveat lector should be the watch phrase for those who plunge into the reading of historical works. At the same time, a healthy suspicion should not force us to reject out of hand any historical text based on the worldview of its author.

Nevertheless, though one cannot simply set aside the power that a philosophical or religious point of view wields over judgment in the study and exposition of history, may we advance the supposition that a point of view or conviction is not itself a negative influence? A presupposition is not by necessity in itself groundless; in fact, it is a necessary starting point from which we begin any study, even of mathematics or astronomy. A confidence in the power and efficacy of logic, for instance, founds the study of mathematics. One’s conviction as to the trustworthiness of the senses and human observation must be the beginning point of astronomy. At the very least, our sense that we are discovering reality or just describing phenomena relies on how we understand the nature of the human mind and its ability to access reality. A worldview — or philosophy or religion (for even atheists, in their own way, are religious) — sets the scope and depth of one’s perception of the world and its possibilities. We are disposed to accept as true only what we think is possible. We are wont to reject out of hand any claim that we think is untenable by reason. The possible for us sets the boundaries of reality.

At the very least, those who think God exists and those who reject this proposition, those who accept the existence of a non-material, spiritual world and those who reduce everything to the material, will have a correspondingly narrower or broader preconception of what is possible in reality. How expansive one’s understanding of reality is will certainly have an effect, and an important one, on how he approaches existence, not in a determinative (as I have argued above) but in a dispositive way.

For the materialist, reality is just that — only material. Since the universe is circumscribed by material causality, the apparently supernatural and immaterial will have to be explained by material causes. There is no alternative. If a historical text recounts a seemingly miraculous event — one that, on its face, can only be explained by supernatural causes — the materialist will either have to deny that the event occurred at all or, if that is not quite possible, seek an explanation for its apparent supernatural character in primitive credulity, the machinations of priestcraft, or a process by which the human mind transfigures and reconfigures events to fulfill a psychological need: a kind of wish-fulfillment. For example, materialist presuppositions have been at the root of the attempts to abstract the “Christ of history” from the “Christ of faith”; for the Christ of faith, who worked miracles, cast out demons, raised the dead, and himself arose from the dead, cannot exist in a universe subject only to material laws.

Materialism is thus a presupposition in every way as influential as any religious belief in the study of history. Though it does not necessitate an unsound use of the historical method, it conditions its exercise and constrains the mind and imagination. It thus disposes to a rather narrow understanding of reality and, thus, of history.

By contrast, a religious and, thus, a Catholic, historian accedes to the possibility of the spiritual and supernatural in history. I say possibility here, for the religious mind properly formed will not give immediate credence to every claim of supernatural intervention. Credulity is not the mark of the believer — an openness to a broader reality is. The historian who believes in God and a supernatural order can thus, as a historian, entertain the possibility of miracles and divine intervention in general; in exploring history, he is free to consider all of the historical record with an open mind, unconstrained by the narrow presuppositions of materialism. In doing so, he does not abandon any of the standards of the historical discipline. He does not reject material causality. He should be as strict in assessing the likelihood of any recorded supernatural event as he is in discerning the possibility of any historical claim. Still, he is not shackled by materialist presuppositions. He has been “set free from the bondage of decay” and “enjoys the glorious liberty of the sons of God” (Romans 8:21).

Such liberty marks any religious historian; yet the Catholic historian enjoys another benefit: the specificity of Catholic revelation. Though the Church does not provide magisterial pronouncements on how every historical event falls under divine providence, she does assert the reality of providence: a divine plan for history. This plan not only includes the Church, both in its mystical and existential reality, but flows in and through the Church. The Catholic thus knows that the Church is the key to understanding history. This knowledge, as it operates in the historical discipline, serves thus as a kind of hunch, a suggestive lead that the historian as historian can use to form hypotheses to interpret historical events. Again, such hypotheses cannot be used to shortchange the hard work of historical interpretation, which proceeds by rational methods; but they provide avenues for exploration that are closed to those who do not share the Faith.

Thus, far from constraining the historian, the Catholic faith opens up vistas of reality undisclosed to materialists and non-Catholic religious believers alike. Catholic history is truly history. It does not abandon any of the demands of the historical discipline; rather, it insists on them, for the Catholic, if he is truly such, warmly embraces the autonomy of reason within its own sphere. Yet, like the Catholic philosopher, the Catholic historian can sit at the feet of the one who has uncovered the “mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). From him, and through his Church, the Catholic historian has access to the mystery that has revealed man to himself and the meaning of his long sojourn on this earth.

In this sense one can speak, even confidently, of a “Catholic history.”

 

 

For more information on replacing your school’s history/social studies textbooks with a series that was created with the highest scholarship from the Catholic worldview , visit CatholicTextbookProject.comIn addition, our Institute has just released a new book through CUA Press that will be a boon to pastors who need guidance in how to renew their schools — in mission, not governance — according to the Church’s educational tradition and documents. To see Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age, visit www.CatholicLiberalEducation.org/book.

Christopher Zehnder About Christopher Zehnder

Christopher Zehnder earned his bachelor of arts degree from Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and his master’s in Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. He is the general editor for the Catholic Textbook Project and has written four of the books in its history series. In addition, Mr. Zehnder has authored two historical novels on the German Reformation, edited two monthlies, and written for various publications on historical, political, and theological subjects. He and his wife, Katherine, with their children, live in Central Ohio.

Comments

  1. The question: is there a Catholic history? And my answer would be yes. The question in and of itself is suggesting that we have missed the great Catholic gems arising out of the personalization of salvation history manifested in Jesus Christ’ Incarnation event. There need to be a gathering up of the kernel of The one true historic event that overshadows all that came before it and must impact all life events following upon the salvific history of Christ. Christ is the story teller. He knew where he came from and what his purpose was and where he was going. Hstory then becomes very telling about human life existence itspurpose in its objectives and end goal in life.

    To say that There is a Catholic history does not exclude material facts attained through reason. But as most of the rationalists have come to realize is that philosophical reasoning and empirical evidence gathered through sensory perception takes them so far and no further. Hence Catholic history can be relegated to the faith and revelatory knowledge not facts but actualized in the Person of Christ who is the great historian of Catholic salvific history of man. Christ as historian commands our attention and is credible in what He believes, teaches and the moral values and virtues he exhibits in his personal life style.

    Thank you
    Bernadette.

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