Historical Amnesia

When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past

In a review some years ago of John Noonan’s A Church That Can and Cannot Change (2005), my neighbor Dennis O’Brien remarked that the Roman Catholic Church has a strong sense of tradition and no sense of history. He’s a philosopher and former university president, and I’m a historian, but his bon mot sums up the church’s worrisome habit of ignoring all too often the tangled skeins of the past underlying its public pronouncements. Think, for instance, of Benedict XVI’s May 2007 letter to the church in China, which noted Matteo Ricci’s assurances to the Ming emperor that the church had no political aims in his country. “As Pope John Paul II stated,” Benedict wrote, “recalling what Fr. Matteo Ricci wrote from Beijing, ‘So too today the Catholic Church seeks no privilege from China and its leaders but solely the resumption of a dialogue’” based on mutual respect and understanding. True enough, but few historians would recognize that as a complete picture, overlooking as it does the four centuries since Ricci's death in Beijing, and the ways in which missionaries (by no means all of them Catholic) and their home governments built up for themselves positions of entrenched privilege that ended only in the mid-twentieth century.

No doubt Vatican diplomats would argue that this sort of historical forgetfulness has its uses as Rome seeks to build bridges to the People’s Republic. Maybe so, but in any case Benedict’s letter is simply one example of the kinds of memory loss that one sees all too often—and let’s not even get into the question of Francis’s views on gay priests, already engaging the usual suspects on both sides of the issue. Take instead, a recent article by Archbishop William Lori, dealing not with China but with the United States, which seems a particularly egregious example of ignoring the past.

Religious freedom is, he points out (or at least should be) a fundamental right, not only here at home but everywhere. He praises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty (which he chairs) and its Fortnight for Freedom for “planting the seeds of a move for religious freedom” which will eventually “bear fruit among the laity.” Yet surely that sounds a bit odd, at least if we are talking about the American laity. However we may argue over the First Amendment, most of us know, after all, that religious freedom has been enshrined in the Constitution for over two centuries. Could it be that rather than the bishops’ “planting the seed” of religious liberty, so that it would bear fruit among the laity, it might actually be the laity (Catholic and otherwise) who did the planting, so that one day it would bear fruit among the bishops, as it finally did when the Vatican Council issued Dignitatis humanae in 1965? Comforting though it might seem to posit episcopal leadership in such matters, the American laity, rightly or wrongly, did not wait until the twenty-first century for the bishops to plant such a seed. In fact they have been out in front, while over the centuries, whatever their private beliefs, the bishops were held in check by Rome.

Now, it’s true that a year ago, the same Committee’s statement, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” (April 12, 2012) pays somewhat more attention to history, referring back to colonial Maryland’s brief experiment with a limited religious toleration, to Cardinal James Gibbons’s praise for religious freedom in 1887, and so forth. But it is a highly selective attention, completely ignoring nineteenth century papal condemnations of this “cherished liberty.” It’s thus rather like extolling the long history of American freedom while averting one’s eyes from the realities of slavery.

It’s worth reflecting on this, because such misreadings of history exemplify why such appeals are likely to have little resonance among Americans, Catholic or otherwise. Yet these misreadings are all too common among Catholic leaders (and by no means restricted to them alone—think of the EU’s recent battle over the Christian role in Europe’s “heritage”). Part of the error stems, no doubt, from an ignorance of history, or more likely, history badly taught. Take, for instance, the role of St. Thomas More, cited by the USCCB in its Fortnight of Freedom. More, surely, was a great man, and indeed a saint, who died for his beliefs. But in no sense was he the exemplar of religious freedom that the bishops would have us believe. As King Henry’s chancellor after 1529, he was engaged in the persecution of heretics—it was, after all, in his job description (as indeed More’s chancellerian successors under Elizabeth and others were charged with persecuting Catholics, and for that matter, Dissenters of various sorts).

But leave More to one side. The greater question implicitly raised by Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight year ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them? There’s no need to return to the problems and the corruptions of the medieval and renaissance papacies, or Nicholas V’s authorization of slavery in Romanus pontifex (1455), which sits awkwardly with John Paul II’s condemnation of it in Veritatis splendor (1993). All you have to do is look at some of the leaders of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Read, say, Gregory XVI’s Mirari vos (1832), or Pius IX’s Quanta cura and its annexed Syllabus of Errors (1864), whose teachings were later reaffirmed by Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XI. Are those pontiffs spinning in their graves today as they see their ideas overridden by later generations? Or are they (as we may prefer to believe) laughing in Heaven, joyful that the truth that has at last been understood?

Now, this “cherished freedom,” of course, was never particularly high on the agenda of any of the world’s great religions before modern times (in Japan, for instance, even Buddhists fought one another). Still, the fact remains that the earthly historical teachings of these earlier popes would seem to contradict Dignitatis humanae. What to do?

There are three possible answers to this conundrum. First: we can simply elbow Clio and her complications aside, and ignore the question. That is the way church leaders often seem to behave, and it is the way the European Union behaves over the question of the continent’s Christian heritage. A second answer is to say that the teachings of Gregory XVI or Pius IX, authoritative though they may sound, are not in fact part of the church’s magisterium. This might seem a difficult argument to make, but one should never underestimate the power of sprightly lawyers, both civil and canon, to talk themselves out of tight spots.

The third answer, and the one that most historians would favor, is simply that times change and teachings change, so that (in the words of Lumen fidei in 2013) “everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood,” or, as we might say, historicized. That is essentially the argument of John Noonan’s book, which in fact deals both with slavery and religious freedom (though not with historical amnesia). It is also the argument of Patrick O’Neil, one of Noonan’s critics, faced with the problem of explaining how mere religious tolerance, once grudgingly permitted at particular times in particular places for prudential reasons, became metamorphosed into an obligatory universal religious freedom. But does this mean that our predecessors were in fact unwitting heretics? Or that those who favored religious liberty were heretics until the church announced its own conversion?

Hence O’Brien’s comment about the strength of tradition and the weakness of history. Some might see such historical amnesia as deceptive. I should prefer to put it down instead to defective education, particularly defective historical education. But then we historians are always fond of lamenting that these days no one seems to know or care anything about the past and its importance. Like it or not, we are creatures of history, and must face up to the difficulties of our heritage—at least if we expect our pronouncements to be taken seriously.

About the Author

Nicholas Clifford, a professor emeritus of Middlebury College, is a frequent contributor to Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Bishop Lori was the first USA  bishop to ban Catholic VOTF members from meeting in their own parishes in 2002. . He planted seeds alright.  

“…such misreadings of history exemplify why such appeals are likely to have little resonance among Americans, Catholic or otherwise… .”

So true at least for me. How can I get excited about attacks on our religious liberty or “Fortnights for Freedom” when

  • We have recourse to the court system, etc.
  • Our churches have special privileges, e.g., tax exemptions.
  • There are places in the world where Christians are being subject to outrageous to horrendous persecutions.

(In addition, the chaplain in the House of Representatives is a Catholic priest.)

Thank you, Professor Clifford, for your insightful analysis.  Your article reminds me that one's nose can be seen if one just looks close enough.  Too many distractions today and too many attempts to bastardize history for specific gain of one kind or other.  If we don't know from whence we came, it makes it all the more harder to figure out where we're heading --- or where we are!  Again, thank you.

Democracy and liberty are gainst Natural Law and to be everywhere condemned. So ruled the infallible popes in the 1800's. Case closed.

Democracy and liberty are gainst Natural Law and to be everywhere condemned. So ruled the infallible popes in the 1800's. Case closed.

Natural law cannot be changed. The Bishops are heretics.

When Bishop Lori writes, "Successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle" of religious freedom, he reminds me of various papal pronouncements down through the centuries that often begin with something like, "As the church has always taught...." just before we are treated to a rather novel interpetaion of some particular doctrine.

It is stunning how obtuse Archbishop Lori has been. Anyone who has read the definitive work on the subject of the politics of American Catholics in the colonies, Papist Patriots, by Maura Jane Farrelly (Oxford UP, 2012) would know that the laity's Republican principles are the root of religious freedom among Catholics in the U.S.  Anyone who recollects the silencing of John Courtney Murray in the 1950's would realize how obtuse Abp. Lori is. Anyone who knows the history, as the ironic (I hope) John McGrath does, of Roman Catholic pronouncements on religious freedom in the 1830's (against the French liberals), the 1864 reiteration of the condemnations of freedom of conscience and religion in the Syllabus of Errors, and the teaching ofTestem Benevolentiae issued by Leo XIIII against the heresy of "Americanism," would recognize the wildly selective view the archbishop presents.  

But is it true that thsoe who don't know history are condemned to repeat it?  If so, Lori is in real trouble.

My question is the following: "Why this re[peated 'mind set' that always seem to not see the value of change?  Is the possible answer that the leaders in the Church feel that "human tradition is more important the truth?"

American Catholic Bishops not only misread the past, they misread the present. Too many of them are  wealthy cosseted, pompous, narrow-minded, inadequately educated bachelors, oblivous to the challenges, suffering, joys, and achievements of the laity they purport to serve. 

Yes, my previous post, while based on fact and the acceptable Catholic habit of calling people heretics, was ironic. We did study this issue in high school and how l'Avenir came up with a slogan that convinced the staunch Belgian Catholics to let their small secularist minority write their Constitution, despite the fervid opposition of the bishops to democracy.

Misread history? What about the ridiculous Catholic chant that "marriage has always and everywhere been between one man abnd one woman." I know Catholics do not read the Bible, which would let them know that their chant was a big lie, but weren't they aware of the existence of Muslims in the world? Of course they were. They deliberately chose to lie.

I find myself in the unfamiliar place where I rise to defend a member of the hierarchy, and one with whom I disagree and find so disagreeable as Archbishop Lori to boot.  But the good Archbishop wasn't writing a scholarly paper on the history of Catholic thought on the growth of religious freedom.  He was writing a political document designed to attract people to his cause. And while the very fact that Archbishop Lori was able to write such a piece, in the New York times, no less without a single government agent excercising prior censorship or worse, arresting him immediately upon its publication,  would seem to me to indicate that both freedom of speech and freedom of religion are doing quite nicely thank you very much.  the Archbishop disagrees with a public policy and he was marshalling his "facts", no differently than any other political writer would do.  In these kinds of pieces, regardless of the view of the writer, inconvinient facts,those which don't back up the the writer's or the speaker's position, are ignored.  This isn't much different from Ronald Reagan quoting FDR on the need for a balanced budget at the Republican convention or Clinton quoting Reagan to the Democrats.  Everyone knows FDR would be more horrified by the modern day GOP than he was by the economic royalists of his own day, and that Reagan would have held a similar view of Clinton.  Everyone knows that the Bishops aren't leading the people on religious freedom and that the Church was centuries behind in its views on this matter(heck wasn't democracy part of the sin of Modernism condemned by Pius X in the 20th Century?), but that doesn't build his case for his position. 

Some do, but remarkably few people, apart from some dyed-in-the-wool reactionaries, seem willing to acknowledge that the saintly Founders, to whom God dictated the sacred Constitution, were none of them notably enthusiastic about democracy.  That is, of course, why we have a system that looks very like an 18th-century constitutional monarchy or even moderate absolutism, although not as much so as Hamilton, for example, would have wished.

One day, when the federal and states' governments decide to institute universal suffrage, as seen in countries where the aim is for every adult citizen to be on the register, this country may be able to take its first tottering steps towards democracy.  In the meantime, all the talk about The World's Oldest (or Greatest) Democracy is vacuous blustering.

No, you can't step into the same river twice.

ARE WE to FORGET that in 1455 NICHOLASV authorized slavery? DOES that mean that since then all of the popes have turned a blind eye to slavery? OR, has a pope disclaimed the fact that NICHOLAS V was for slavery?  THE CHURCH is suppose to stand up for the poor and sick,NOT the rich,moneymen that are running our world head first into ruination.

 POPE FRANCIS is more worried about the poor than about the rich. HE wants us to look after our fellow man with an eye towards enriching ones life. NOT keep trying to keep man down.

 RELIGIOUS freedom is allowing us to practice our religion,not meaning to run countries under the guise of religious freedom. THE middle east is  a perfect example of failed religious teachings and preachers preaching hatred for the infidel, the so-called non-believers.

 ARE today's bishops trying to influence elections like in the old days? OR are they trying to make us take notice and think?

It seems to me Lori's words and deeds are fine examples of the real world consequences of the topic at hand.  

If Lori wishes to be a politician than he should be one.  If he wishes to be a Catholic priest than he should be one.  To be both requires support of the notion there is a point one reaches in the Catholic bureaucratic hierarchy at which there no longer exist an absolute requirement one follow the teachings of Christ.  Being a successful politician demands making decisions a Catholic priest simply may not make.  The unshakeable conviction heaven is real and reachable is a powerful force.

For a priest to do otherwise will always result in that priest embracing a fuzzy view of his own history.  And I believe it is reasonable to assume one's view of all history is heavily colored by ones own history.

That Lori may speak and publish freely is indeed a good thing all around.  That he be called to task is an even better thing.  It is an indication of the fact we are not blind to the power of words and the enormous influence so many have had with their misue.

A biographer of Henry VIII--I telieve it was Francis Hackett but I am not certain--wrote that the Catholic Church had the best organized memory in the world. He meant that it could find precedent for any position it wanted to take at any given time, just as it could support the opposite position a few decades or scores of years later. Nicholas Clifford has shown more examples of that flexibility.

Nicholas, this is a fantastic article, and I thank you for it.

Might I add an additional complication, or unintended consequence, of the egregious tendency of bishops to read history selectively and make incredible statements based on these misreadings? The whole church loses credibility when it comes to matters of grave importance to faith.

The greatest truths of the faith are supposed to be taught by our bishops. If they can't even get a few historical facts right... it undermines the credibility of everything else the Church teaches. 

The questions posed toward the end of the article deserve close attention.  

Consider first the question of "what to do" about apparent contradictions, e.g., that between Dignitatis humanae and earlier pronouncements.  The "three possible answers" listed are first, to ignore the question; second, to deny that the earlier pronouncements belong to the magisterium; and third, to state simply that times change and teachings change.

That last alternative leads, as noted, to more questions, and they do need to be addressed.  But first I would note that there is a fourth alternative, and it has not been neglected by those who would (a) expand infallibility as broadly as possible and (b) deny that Church teachings ever change.  It is a different way for "spritely lawyers" to "talk their way out of tight spots."  Here a doctrine that has become inconvenient receives a new reading, so that it no longer says what it obviously said.

The best way to employ this strategy is to issue a new authoritative statement upholding the earlier doctrine while adding language that renders it irrelevant.  An example is Benedict XIV's Vix pervenit.  Issued in 1745, it confirmed age-old strictures against usury.  It was definitely a sin to demand of the borrower more money than was lent just because it was lent.  But the pope also noted that there might be certain titles running along with the loan, extrinsic to it, which the lender might justly claim.  And of course those "extrinsic" titles just happened to add up to the reasons interest was charged in the real world (elaborated by late medieval and early modern moralists, they were based on lucrum cessans, damnum emergens, periculum sortis, and others).

So the newer doctrine can pretty much clear the way for the spritely (or sprightly) lawyer.  Alternatively, the older doctrine may have been set out in such a way as to separate it from its practical effects at the time it was issued.  The key to that strategy is to declaim against heretical positions without naming the heretics.  Suspects may protest that they don't hold the positions condemned.  Their protests can be ignored, and sanctions can be imposed.  Later, condemnations of the heresies, even "phantom heresies," can be upheld with a straight face, and never mind the unjust treatment of real people (consider, for instance, the cases of Americanism and Modernism).

Going back to the "third answer" in the article, the formulation in Lumen fidei is surely distorted if it is reduced "simply" (too simply) to the assertion that "times change and teachings change."  In that reduction the "patrimony of faith," rather than being "more deeply understood" would be relativized out of existence.  The perplexity expressed about unwitting heretics, or those who cease to be heretics when the Church comes to see things their way, would be understandable.

Far from suggesting such radical relativism, Francis goes on to quote Dei verbum on the transmission of the faith.  That same document contains observations about different stages in that transmission and also about the contributions that various scholarly methodologies can make, for instance, to the interpretationof Scripture.

The distinction necessary in considering contradictions between earlier and later Church pronouncements is that between the faith and the teaching used to interpret and transmit it.  Those charged with the interpretation and transmission have sometimes erred in what they taught.  Admitting that would enhance rather than lessen their credibility.    

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment