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.”