We’ve all heard “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”--but wrong knowledge is even worse. And too often that’s exactly what Catholics get about their own faith.
Last month, during a weeklong vacation at a family-owned seaside cottage, I came across a new addition to the cottage bookshelf: James Hitchcock’s A History Of The Catholic Church: From The Apostolic Age To The Third Millennium. After examining it for a couple of days, I realized that this is a very dangerous book.
Hitchcock is written a 500-page, single volume history of Catholicism aimed at a broad readership of educated Catholics. Catholics need a resource like this, since few of us have the time or energy to plow through dozens or even hundreds of history books in examining specific periods of Catholicism’s 20 centuries. A general overview like this can be invaluable in helping Catholics grasp the “big picture” of catholic history.
Moreover Hitchcock’s 2010 book has little competition among recent publications, so it is likely to become the “default” church history for millions of people, finding its way onto the bookshelves of parish priests, parish libraries, book discussion groups, Catholic schools, and even the hands of ordinary Catholics.
All these people need such a big picture Catholic history. The trouble is, Hitchcock’s picture seriously distorts the reality.
Many readers may not realize how reactionary and misleading this book is. They will not know that Hitchcock is peddling a partisan history full of ill-grounded opinions parading as established facts. But as the saying goes: he is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts.
One way to grasp how Hitchcock has skewed Catholic history is to survey his index, which supplies several clues about his priorities and prejudices.
Look up “contraception,” for example, and you find 11 references; under “birth control,” the same 11 references appear, as if Hitchcock feels the topic needs double billing. By contrast, “anti-Semitism” has zero (0) references. Those familiar with Father Edward Flannery’s classic The Anguish Of The Jews or the words of Vatican II or Saint John-Paul II on this subject will find the omission very troubling.
Look up “sin” and you find 15 references, but “God” gets only 11, and “Trinity” gets zero! “Consecrated virgins” get 6 references, but the “just war theory” gets only 1, and “evangelization” gets only “see missionary activity.”
There are 12 references to “abortion,” but only 1 reference to “gospels,” no reference to the canon of the Bible, no reference to “fundamentalism,” no reference to the poor or poverty.
“Sexuality” rates 24 references, but “Eucharist” gets only 4, under “Eucharistic practices.”
Thus the index reveals Hitchcock’s preoccupation with certain hot button issues that raise red flags for so-called “traditionalist” Catholics--and then he turns a blind eye to several significant elements of Catholic history. Clearly, Hitchcock is writing history with his own personal agenda.
I am no expert on church history, but if I focus my attention on things I do know, Hitchcock’s agenda becomes even clearer.
Treating Vatican Council II (1962-1965), he asserts “Why the council was summoned remains somewhat uncertain,” since “the Church at that time seemed quite healthy.”
He then describes pre-Conciliar Catholicism in glowing terms. His nostalgia for 1950s Catholic life is no doubt genuine, but it is nostalgia for a “golden age” that never existed. He mentions high church attendance that packed churches, for example, but avoids the fact that 85% of such mass-goers avoided Communion. Younger Catholics might be seduced by Hitchcock’s skewed account, but millions of Catholics are old enough to remember that era’s guilt-wracked spirituality, and its reduction of Catholicism to a set of rules. Such Catholics can simply say: “Mr. Hitchcock, I was there. I knew that time. It was no golden age.”
This example is high revealing, for Hitchcock’s “golden age” myth renders his entire account of Vatican II and its aftermath suspect.
He claims, for example, that the Council’s attention to church renewal was “contrary to what John apparently intended” and produced a grave crisis--even though we know that John and his successor Paul VI carefully planned the Council’s direction and managed its agenda.
He claims that Catholic life since Vatican II has pushed collegiality even though the council itself “scarcely touched…the question of how the idea…applied to other levels of the Church.” Thus, he says national Bishops’ conferences “formed themselves,” as if filling a vacuum left by the Council. But in fact Vatican II was quite explicit in its call to establish councils at all levels of church life:
Councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church…should be established as far as possible also on the parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan levels. (Second Vatican Council, Decree on Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), November 18, 1965, Art.26)
But Vatican II is not the only target of Hitchcock’s skewed history. He derides the Latin American bishops conference for endorsing the “preferential option for the poor,” implying that its link to liberation theology reflected a lack of orthodoxy. He wrote this in 2010, three years before the first Latin American pope confirmed the idea, in his first major teaching, by quoting John-Paul II:
Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.”
But Hitchcock also targets an important Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, by claiming that he was the inspiration for a “new theological approach” called “aggiornamento” (updating or modernizing) that “moved in the direction of modernism,” a heresy:
Aggiornamento owed much to…Lonergan…who distinguished the “classical” from the “historical” mentality, arguing that the former…was now discredited and that theology had to operate within the historical mode.
Hitchcock is wrong twice here.
First, “aggiornamento” was actually coined by Saint John XXIII (the pope who called Vatican II), not as a “theological approach” but as a purpose of the Council itself. So to imply we should dismiss it for bordering on heresy is simply wishful thinking, not history.
Second, the Council ended in 1965, and Lonergan first published his paper on “historical consciousness” in 1967--two years too late to impact the Council!
Hitchcock also goes after the Dutch Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx, citing the many times between 1979 and 1994 he was summoned by Vatican officials to justify his views. But he avoids telling readers the conclusion, as this commentator does:
Schillebeeckx behaved with civility and docility, never provoking his inquisitors, submitting to each inquiry no matter how demeaning the procedures against him became. And the bottom line is this: no matter how threatened officials felt, and no matter how many times they cautioned him against such controversial views, he was never found guilty of heresy or even penalized, even while other theologians lost their jobs, their priesthood, or were actually silenced.
Hitchcock also attacks the Jesuit Robert Drinan, who served in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1981. Summarizing his legislative career, Hitchcock describes Drinan as “a passionately pro-abortion Congressman.” Hitchcock is certainly entitled to his opinion, which is shared by many. But he presents this opinion as if it were established fact. Yet a case can be made that Drinan, while opposing many abortion bans on legal grounds (he was previously dean of Boston College Law School) never supported abortion itself, as evidenced by his words from 1996 and 1997:
I write this as a Jesuit priest who agrees with Vatican II, which said abortion is virtually infanticide…I do not believe that every moral evil should be outlawed. I do, however, see abortion…as a grave evil and can understand why Church leaders are urging lawmakers to ban it. I do not want anything to impede that effort. On the contrary, I join in that effort and stand ready to promote laws and public policies that aim to protect vulnerable human life from conception until natural death; I support the Catholic bishops in their efforts to exercise moral leadership in the fight against abortion.
Hitchcock even targets John F. Kennedy as “denying that his religion could or should have significant influence on public policy.” But JFK’s famous 1960 speech to the Houston ministers reveals a different position, as I wrote in CrossCurrents #305:
“I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy he said, “and the church does not speak for me.” He said that…he would always make his decisions “in accordance with what my conscience tells me…” Finally, Kennedy acknowledged the possibility of a circumstance where his Catholic conscience might conflict with his oath of office. “And if that time should ever come,” he said, “when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office.”
In fact, Hitchcock’s book is laced through with rash historical judgments paraded as facts and character attacks masking his personal bias (Hitchcock was a well-known adversary, for example, of Robert Drinan).
For the most part, Hitchcock is preaching to a like-minded choir of reactionary Catholics, but objective readers with historical insight of their own will dismayed by his accounts. His portrait of Eastern Catholic churches, for example, has drawn the sharp criticism of Eastern Catholic expert Adam DeVille:
In…treating the Christian East, we see a picture little short of disastrous. Not only are hugely important events given no mention at all, but even very basic factual matters are dead wrong.
For one thing, Hitchcock insists on calling such churches “Uniates”—a pejorative label long since banned from scholarly use.
Such cringe-worthy mistakes and oversights appear as well when Hitchcock describes Pope Paul VI’s encyclicals, his 1965 speech to the United Nations, his work on evangelization, and his role of Vatican II. He also misses almost entirely the point of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, God is Love.
I’ve focused on late 20th century Roman Catholicism because that is what I know best. I can only imagine the errors that Hitchcock applies to other centuries!
With all this in mind, dear reader, you will not be surprised if I (1) advise you to avoid this book like the plague, and (2) express my hope that some competent historian will soon write a reliable one-volume Catholic history to fill the vacuum that otherwise might suck Hitchcock’s dangerous “knowledge” into our parishes, schools, libraries, and homes.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2014