Learning from the Past

History shows how diversity enriches Catholic tradition.
Students in a seminar class at St. Mary’s College of California (CNS photo/Alison Wiley, courtesy St. Mary’s College of California).

There is no revisionist historical narrative as powerful as the one that blends religion and politics in time of war. Moscow Patriarch Kirill has demonstrated this by reducing the complexities of history to tales of supremacy and victimhood in order to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—in the process demonstrating the danger of linking a church’s obsessions with world dominance to ethnocentric readings of the past.

But it is not a phenomenon limited to Russia or Russian Orthodoxy. Evidence of disdain for history in making theological and religious arguments abounds: it’s part of our twenty-first-century “presentism” following the collapse of the two futurisms of the last century, fascism and communism. “Presentism” is not just a perspective that limits the span of time to the recent past and near future; it also marginalizes attempts to look at facts in their historical complexity. Thus memorialization and monumentalization supplant history in advancing political concerns. This “presentism” is visible in public discourse about Catholicism as well: the assault against historical arguments has been normalized, with no regard for the facts of history, in ways that are unthinkable in other fields of theology. For example, no one today would seriously maintain that Moses himself wrote the Pentateuch. But it is now common to hear neo-integralists assert that pre­–World War II authoritarian regimes in Europe were helping the evangelizing mission of the Catholic Church. Another example: the oversimplification of the debate around marriage leading up to and following Pope Francis’s Amoris laetitia. Defenders of the assumed unchangeability of Catholic doctrine often revealed not just a lack of knowledge, but also a lack of interest in the complicated history of marriage in the Catholic Church.

On the extreme right, denial of history arises out of ignorance or is used to hide embarrassing facts. But in the theological and political Catholic mainstream, reasons behind its use are more complicated, and this can have real consequences for how academic institutions deal with diversity and inclusion. Christian and Catholic theologies are deeply contextual and historical; introductory or survey theology courses in particular require historical contextualization to challenge banal, reductionist characterizations of theological tradition as exclusively “white European” or “Western” and therefore no longer teachable.

Now, there is no question that diversity needs to be a bigger component in the teaching of religious and theological texts, not just to acknowledge the reality and needs of a more diverse student body or to satisfy university administrators, but for the very integrity of the discipline. The problem is when the push for diversity comes at the expense of a correct understanding of the already existing diversity in the Christian and Catholic tradition (not to be conflated with European history), in which the relations with and contributions from Judaism and Islam play a fundamental role, including in Europe. In an anti-historical culture, it has become more difficult to take the time to show how the richness of the tradition actually arises out of diversity.

Privileging our current notions of diversity at the expense of history impacts not only the trajectory of long-term scholarly production in Catholic academia, but also the ways in which students are taught about theology and religion in 200-plus Catholic colleges and universities. For example, teaching the texts of the Fathers of the Church can require not just setting aside a significant amount of time for contextualizing, but also explaining why the Fathers of the Church should be read in the first place (and almost having to apologize for that fact). This is the exact  opposite of  the problem Yves Congar described in his essay on traditions—the systematic preference for the Fathers that derived from a questionable anti-intellectualism in favor of “an essentially historicizing, documentary, static and academic theory of Tradition, going together with insufficient esteem for the living Church.”

The popular call these days for inculturation of Christianity and Catholicism in diversity is proceeding by ex-culturation of our theological studies from important aspects of Catholic tradition.

Indeed, in a theology/religious studies department at a Catholic college engaged in a program of diversity and inclusion, it can now seem “politically” easier to teach Buddhism or Hinduism than Patristics or the Council of Trent. Or maybe just easier overall: teaching about Trent or the Fathers requires serious historical knowledge developed through years of study, as well as knowledge of Greek and Latin, plus other languages in which the most important scholarship has been written—work not always necessarily required for teaching in the context of diverse traditions. And yet, foreign languages (ancient and modern) are necessary for gaining real access to real diversity. Today Latin is usually identified with conservatism (the “old Mass,” canon law) and not with the diverse kinds of Latin the Catholic tradition interacted with (for example, the genuine obscenity of Catullus). Further, the popular call these days for inculturation of Christianity and Catholicism in diversity is proceeding by ex-culturation of our theological studies from important aspects of Catholic tradition—by the absenting of the real diversity internal to the tradition (for example, the barely known contribution of North African and Middle Eastern bishops to the drafting of the most crucial passages of Nostra Aetate, the document of Vatican II on non-Christian religions). All of this is in keeping with the pretensions of a Western intellectual tradition that in theory seeks to be more global but in fact is at risk of becoming more parochial, estranged from its own tradition.

A right-wing, political-religious narrative often explains its opposition to diversity in terms of preserving (white) European culture while also complaining that proponents of diversity are deaf to its arguments and reasoning. The problem, as I see it instead, is that even when we aim for diversity, we must take care to remember the tradition, to emphasize serious knowledge of that tradition, so that we don’t do foolish things like censor literature or thinkers from previous ages. In Catholic academia, theology and the social sciences have become closely intertwined over the last few decades, but at the same time theology and history seem to have been separated from each other, which is a problem. Knowing how “historical understanding” works is foundational to scholarship; it’s what allows room for complexity, for ambiguity, for ideas and answers that challenge (or even confound) expectations rather than merely fulfill them. But in the discourse of diversity, some themes or ideas or pursuits are “good” by definition, and once those are identified, all that follows—from teaching to publishing to grant-writing—is aimed simply at communicating that “good” as effectively as possible, complexity and ambiguity be damned. If the neo-medievalism on the Right sees hope only in an idealized past, it can seem that proponents of diversity want to reject the past entirely. Such hostility to ascertainable linkages between history and tradition is destructive and self-reinforcing, a sign of cultural decomposition.

So at Catholic institutions, the study of theology and religion as it relates to the study of history is in a spot. It seems either not to need history or to reject the contributions of history. But even if that wasn’t the case, it would have to deal with how the study of history has also been forced to contend with a shift in emphasis to social and cultural studies, in a way that rejects the contribution of history if it is not capable of supporting a reparationist logic towards the victims of history. It seems to have become much more difficult to write about history—even Church history—as “an act of faith in the possibility of a world that is shared even among universes of differences,” as Rowan Williams wrote a few years ago.

And it was nearly thirty years ago when David Tracy wrote that we all  must face the “fascinans et tremendum actuality of our polycentric present.” Today, a defiant rereading of Church history is characterized not by moral outrage in service of theological and institutional reform. It is characterized by the impact of a vertical crisis of all institutions—a gap that para-institutional, alternative, “hip” Catholic personalities are happy to fill, and who present a greater threat in some ways than the institutional crisis itself. This is important because of the short-circuit in ecclesiology—that is, a certain idea of the Church today with an emphasis on social justice. The theological debate seems aimed at an audience that is already convinced of the goodness of the causes for which it is fighting.

The loss of history is not just a problem in understanding the past of religion; it also weakens the process of symbolic thinking and moral imagination. The Catholic tradition needs to accept democratic polities in church and state, a more developmental approach to doctrine, dealing unapologetically with the contribution of Christian theologies to colonialism, racism, and white supremacy. As Michael Hollerich wrote in the conclusion to his recent book on Eusebius of Caesarea, “It is difficult for this writer at least to imagine historic Christianity without some version of ‘apostolicity’ as guarantor of continuity across time (and some claim of ‘catholicity’ across space), and for that continuity to be linked in some way with church structure, whether we think it originated in Jewish synagogal practice, Greek municipal assemblies, household governance or a combination of all three. A purely charismatic Christianity never existed.”

The de-emphasizing of history in Catholic theology and in Catholic institutions is not simply the result of the collapse of the humanities. It’s related as well to the massive shift in the discourse regarding the term “Catholic,” from the old legitimacy conferred by the ecclesia (a tradition of oppressive ecclesio-centrism to be sure, but also a healthier ecclesial sense of belonging) to the new one required by a sense of societas based on social justice, diversity, and inclusion. But history must have a role in how we study the Christian and Catholic tradition in the context of diversity and inclusion. Without it, Catholicism will simply make itself vulnerable to new forms of homogeneity and exclusion.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States (Bayard). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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