“Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded . . . fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present… A denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic, proves on closer scrutiny to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future.”
— Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
The historian Christopher Lasch (among many others) liked to note that Americans tend to be bad at history. We resent it. We want the past to be over and gone And there’s a very good reason for that instinct. One of our key myths as a nation is that if we work hard enough we can achieve, and deserve to achieve, anything we want. That includes reimagining who we are. It’s why transgenderism—as deeply troubling as it is—gets traction in our media and elite opinion. Absent a biblical framework, it’s just one more route to the “pursuit of happiness.”
This is why the past, as it really happened, can seem so unwelcome. Put simply, it limits our self-invention. As a record of our origins, choices, and actions, the past reminds us that we’re not fully sovereign actors. We have roots and obligations that shape us, and they’re inescapable. We each have parts in a story that preceded us, formed us, and will continue after us. For the selfish, that knowledge is a kind of oppression. For the sensible, it’s a source of hope. History teaches us the cost of mistakes. Bad things can happen. But history also teaches us that most of our difficulties aren’t really new, and that good can heal and overcome them.
As a result, knowing our history is important. A nation ignorant of its history is like a person with amnesia. Without a memory, the individual becomes, in a sense, a non-person. Without a grounding in the past, the present and future have no direction. And as with an individual or nation, so too, and even more so, with the Church. Since the Church is called to preach Jesus Christ across generations and cultures, her people need to know how and why we got where we are now, the better to support her mission into the future.
George Weigel has given us a perfect tool to do that with his latest book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History (Basic Books). His argument is simple: When Pope Pius IX lost Rome and the Papal States to anticlerical revolutionaries in 1870, it seemed
that the Catholic Church was finished as a consequential player in history. That turned out to be exactly wrong. For in the 21st century, the Catholic Church is more vital and more consequential… Rather than killing Catholicism, the encounter with modernity has helped the Catholic Church rediscover some basic truths about [herself]. Even more ironically, the Church’s rediscovery of those truths might, just might, put Catholicism in a position to help secular modernity save itself from its own increasing incoherence.
A gifted writer and speaker, biographer of St. John Paul II, and the author of more than two dozen books, Weigel ranks among the leading Christian public intellectuals of the past four decades. Stylistically, The Irony of Modern Catholic History is a pleasure to read. But the easy style disguises the fact that it’s also an exercise in superb historical scholarship, from the reactionary Pope Gregory XVI in the mid-19th century, through the Modernist crisis and Vatican II, to the present.
His treatment of Pope Leo XIII and the “Leonine Revolution” in Catholic thought that rippled through the 20th century, helps us to make sense of “the development of Catholic social doctrine that would result in the late 20th-century Catholic human rights revolution.” It was a process—unimaginable to 19th century American Know Nothing anti-Catholics—“in which religious freedom would be celebrated as the first of civil rights,” and the Church would become “a global proponent of democracy—not by surrendering to modernity, but by retrieving and renewing elements of [her] own intellectual patrimony.”
Weigel also does thorough and deeply satisfying work in handling the legacy of Pius XII, a pope much-criticized (too often unjustly), but extraordinary in his contributions to Catholic life and thought.
The author notes that “it can be easy to forget that, in the sixteen documents of the Second Vatican Council, the second most cited source after the Bible is [Pius XII’s] teaching.” It’s also easy to forget Pius’s “order to Catholic institutions in Rome to hide Roman Jews about to be transported to [Nazi] extermination camps—an act that saved thousands of lives.” Jewish families were hidden at the Pope’s summer quarters in Castel Gandolfo. And “Jewish babies [often named Eugenio or Eugenia after Pius’s pre-papacy name] were born in Pius XII’s bedroom.”
The most important quality to this most important book is its spirit of confidence and hope—backed up irrefutably by the facts of recent Catholic history and what they mean. Too often today, faithful Catholics are tempted to despondency or anger or fear. But in giving in to these poisons, we only defeat ourselves. Weigel gives us the antidote to these temptations with articulate zeal.
“Must read” is praise that’s badly abused by reviewers and publicists. But in this case it really does apply. The Irony of Modern Catholic History is a book too valuable to ignore.