Confronting the Church's Past

An interview with Eamon Duffy

Eamon Duffy, professor in church history at the University of Cambridge, is one of the leading contemporary historians of the church. His landmark book The Stripping of the Altars (Yale) challenged the reigning Protestant account of the English Reformation. He also authored a highly acclaimed book on papal history, Saints and Sinners (Yale). He was invited by the Vatican last fall to participate in the symposium examining the history of the Inquisition. Raymond de Souza spoke with Duffy in his office at Magdalene College in Cambridge, England. 

Raymond de Souza: Is there a specifically Christian way of doing the work of a historian?  

Eamon Duffy: I do not think there is a Christian shape to history in the sense that things move according to God’s plan in any discernible way. I think a Christian approaches history with a sense that human life matters and has meaning and that it is both possible and important to tell the truth. Perhaps that constitutes a Christian approach to history because none of those things can be taken for granted now, even among people practicing history. There are people who practice history who think that it is a branch of the creative arts in the sense that we impose patterns on the past. I believe that we discover patterns in the past.

de Souza: Would that make Christians better historians?  

Duffy: I do not think Christians are necessarily better historians or more truthful historians than other people. Some Christian historians have been shabby workmen and rather economical with the truth. In England, for example, Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet, a great Benedictine historian, was both a bad workman and not entirely scrupulous about what he said. So you can be a churchman and a lousy historian. There are perfectly good secular historians who have all the virtues that I have said I thought a Christian ought to practice. I suppose a Christian also comes to the past equipped with a certain set of assumptions about the way human beings behave, why they behave in particular ways, and with a set of prejudices and ideas which are a result of one’s own religious formation. That used to be thought disabling in a historian—to have a point of view, to have a prejudice or a set of expectations. In fact, all historians, whether they are Christians or not, have a point of view, have a set of prejudices. The important thing is to know what you have got and to use it as a tool, not as a fortress wall.

In my own area, for example, in the history of the Reformation, I came to the Reformation period with an acquired understanding of how the Catholic religion functions as a symbol system. I did not think of religious ritual, for example, as meaningless mumbo jumbo. I was, therefore, able to read aspects of the pre-Reformation and Reformation period that did not make sense to colleagues who did not share that formation. No doubt, I have blind spots and cannot see things that somebody with a prejudice against the Catholic church might be more alert to. We have to work with the grain of our own inheritance.

de Souza: Is that what explains why your book, The Stripping of the Altars, challenged the standard telling of the English Reformation?

Duffy: The legacy of Protestant Christians writing the history of the Reformation was that it was seen as the story of the restoration of true Christianity after a period of corruption. Many of the historians who practiced Reformation history were not Protestants, in the sense that they were not believers, but they inherited a Whig view of the Reformation as a stage in modernity-—in the liberation of the human mind from superstition and prejudice—and so they worked with a whole set of assumptions about what must have happened. The Reformation must have been popular because it was true and therefore they never looked for evidence to see actually whether or not it was popular.

One of the things that happened in English Reformation history over the last fifteen or twenty years has been the discovery—which is not a terribly surprising discovery—that most people were religiously conservative and did not like what was happening. That simple discovery, which has been endlessly endorsed by local studies, has completely shifted perceptions of the Reformation. The Reformation is now seen not as a popular movement which quickly took effect but as something that had to be labored for over a couple or even three generations and which was largely driven by elite and governmental power. I would not want to argue that Catholicism is the superior article in every culture and is always popular while Protestantism is always unpopular. That is patently not always the case, but in England that was the case.

de Souza: Should a church historian see his work as part of the intellectual work of the church, akin to the vocation of a theologian?

Duffy: I would be very suspicious, myself, of historians who thought it was their primary job to vindicate the Catholic religion. I think they would be tempted to massage the past into a particular form. I think it is the historian’s job to tell the truth and if the truth goes against the church then so be it. It is more important to tell the truth than to protect the church. I am a Catholic so I think that more often than not the truth is no threat to the church. That is not always true. Remember that the church is human history in a particular mode.

de Souza: What is the role of church historians with the preparation of the church’s examination of conscience in the view of the Jubilee?

Duffy: One of the problems about Catholic ecclesiology in the past has been the identification of the historical phenomenon of Catholicism with the bride of Christ who is spotless and pure. The strict identification of the historical community with the mystical bride of Christ has had all sorts of effects. It means that, for example, we never make mistakes and the Catholic church has worked on this assumption at every level of its life—from the doctrinal to the practical—that we never make mistakes. It is felt that we must automatically, for example, defend Pius XII against charges that he was anti-Semitic. We must find extenuating circumstances for atrocities, for moral lapses in the past, for bad teaching in the past; I think historians have the great responsibility of bringing home to the church that it is a historical community made up of fallible people and that therefore the past of the church is not a sacred area. It is an area where we believe that the grace of God is working itself out in history but that does not privilege our history as different from other human history. The grace of God is working itself out in all human history and very often the gospel is focused in the church by its absence rather than by its effectiveness in the community.

de Souza: Is there then an inevitable tension between historians and the church hierarchy?

Duffy: The historian has a great contribution to make in reminding the church of what actually happened and refusing to allow anyone, particularly the hierarchy, to sanitize it. The hierarchy is always looking, not in any malevolent sense, to the past to justify its own actions. It is very important that if the church goes to the past, then it should be the real past it goes to and not some fantasy or some heritage past that has been manicured and tidied up. It was interesting that among the historians called to the Inquisition symposium there were a large number of Catholics but also atheists, Jews, Protestants, and agnostics, because the Holy See recognized that you had to go to the people who knew the history. The primary qualification of the historians there was that they should be good historians, and not that they should be believers.

Some of the most telling interventions came from people who were non-Catholics and they were often extremely friendly. Indeed, one of the non-Catholic participants said that if he had been a sixteenth-century heretic he would have much rather been tried by the Inquisition than by any secular court. But there were also those who disagreed with that.

de Souza: What is your view of the call for a "purification of memory" as a preparation for the Jubilee, by confessing the sins of the past?

Duffy: I think the idea of "purification of memory" can be a dangerous concept. The idea of apologizing for the past and starting with a clean sheet in the third millennium—you cannot start with a clean sheet. You carry with you what you have done. People can forgive but the dead cannot forgive. There is a danger of thinking that if you say what you have done—that is it, it is finished. I am dubious about that. One of the Jewish historians at the Inquisition symposium made a devastating intervention when talking about the church asking forgiveness. He said, "I don’t believe in forgiveness. I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe there is anyone to forgive us. In any case, I think when people ask for forgiveness they are very often asking to be let off. What I did not hear the pope say and what I have not heard any of you say is that the church is ashamed of what it did." He got an ovation for that. Everybody felt he had said a true thing.

de Souza: What is the value then of this historical examination of conscience?

Duffy: I think it is important. People do take note when the church admits that it got things wrong. There is a theological problem here which the theologians at the symposium were very conscious of and which is implicit in the relevant sections of the pope’s apostolic letter on the millennium, where he says that the church must face up to its past and must admit that its children often got things wrong. All of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, at the Inquisition symposium felt that this was an evasion.

Some of the theologians, for example, wanted us to say that the church had done terrible things and murdered people for their beliefs in the past but that was not the magisterium. But the Inquisition was an arm of the papacy, and it was the uniform teaching of the church for a thousand years that heretics should be punished physically. And the church got that wrong. That teaching—which was practical teaching, if not doctrinal teaching—is contrary to the teaching of Vatican II. The church changed its mind about this in 1965 and there is no escaping it. It really frightens the theologians to say that, because the church cannot change its mind. There is a fear that, if we say that the church changed its mind, then Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre was right and the Second Vatican Council was apostasy. But that cannot be true. That is a problem for the theologians, not for the historians. The historians can all see that the church has actually changed its mind.

It is very, very awkward but you have to live with the awkwardness. I think we have to be able and willing to say with integrity that the church was wrong. I think that historical work has serious implications for theology. People will think less of a theology that does not confront history truthfully. If our account of the magisterium is such that it cannot take account of facts that everybody can see, then it is the theology that must change, not the history. We must not put ourselves in the theological position of saying, "It is better not to believe the historians." If your theology cannot face the truth, then it’s not itself telling the truth. It just means that we’ve got it wrong and have to go back and rethink. I don’t want to hammer that point, but this is an area where theologians are clearly having a problem at the moment with facing up to a changed perception of history.

de Souza: If these theological dangers are on the horizon...

Duffy: Dangers? I don’t think that they are dangers, just difficulties for the theologians!

de Souza: Given these theological difficulties, why do you think that the Vatican desires this examination of history?

Duffy: I think it is largely the Holy Father’s initiative. I think Poles have a very strong sense of the meaning of dates and anniversaries and so on. The Jubilee looms very large in the pope’s sensibility. It is impossible not to feel when you meet him that he is keeping himself going just so that he survives into the new millennium. So I do think it is very largely driven by the pope, but I think most of us also feel some symbolic resonance there.

In this century the church has made a great leap into seeing itself as voyaging through time. I love that phrase in the third Eucharistic Prayer, ecclesia peregrinantem in terra—a pilgrim church on earth. The church is facing up to the truth that it is a pilgrim people and therefore it falls on the road, that it wanders and loses its way. I think that the Jubilee is gathering all that up and the idea of presenting our very mottled history to God and saying we know we made a mess of it but you can heal it—that’s a very powerful and evangelical thing. But is must not involve laundering the past. The purification of the memory must not involve the laundering of the memory. I certainly do not think that is the pope’s wish. It is very good that the church can say, "We have sinned."

 


Related: Eamon Duffy reviews George Weigel's 'God's Choice'
Brad S. Gregory reviews Eamon Duffy's 'Fires of Faith':
"Quite Contrary"

Published in the 2000-01-14 issue: 

The Reverend Raymond J. de Souza is a chaplain at Queen's University in Ontario.

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