Learning the Right Questions

Remembering John O’Malley, SJ
Jesuit Fr. John W. O’Malley (CNS Photo/Tyler Orsburn)

“Yes, Ken, excellent!  I am excited.  John” 

This was the last email I received from Fr. John O’Malley, SJ, sent last July in reply to a message detailing my plans to interview him for Commonweal. As with all his prose, it was brief, lively, and to the point. 

At the age of ninety-five, he warned me, he was no longer able to move about easily, much less travel to Chicago where I had hoped to do the interview live before an audience at the Lumen Christi Institute. All the same, he wanted me to know that our planned interview at the Jesuit retirement home in Baltimore, where he now lived, still excited him. 

That’s the word that resonated with me last weekend when I learned that he had died. I can’t pretend to a long and close friendship with Father O’Malley. He was nine years older and traveled a different professional circuit. But I read and much admired his work, as anyone who cares about the craft of history must, and was fortunate to enjoy a relationship with him based as much on coincidence as anything else. As it happened, we were both from Ohio, he from a small town along the Ohio River, and I from a suburb of Cleveland, on Lake Erie. He reminded me of that in a longer email last July: “I assume you are as proud about coming from Ohio as I am,” he wrote. He then quoted something Orville Wright said to someone who asked him how to succeed in life: “First choose good parents. Second, be born in Ohio.” 

This was not just Buckeye boosterism. As O’Malley makes clear in The Education of a Historian, his autobiographical last book—published at the age of ninety-four!—he believed that you could not really understand others until you understood where they came from. Roots mattered, and so did all the other breathing pressures of particularity—time, place, happenstance. 

O’Malley believed that you could not really understand others until you understood where they came from.

O’Malley’s own life history, as he construed it, proceeded from one coincidence to another, each of the serendipitous kind. He never met a Jesuit until he entered the novitiate. He never planned on becoming a university teacher but did. He did plan to get his doctorate in Europe but ended up at Harvard. He did not intend to focus on Renaissance history, much less write books on Renaissance art, but did both. 

There are some historians—good ones—who never see the inside of an archive once they finish their dissertation, but O’Malley’s fascinating account of working from difficult primary sources—medieval texts written in abbreviated Latin—for his dissertation at Harvard is revealing of the man and his work: 

Historians have no choice but to begin their research with their own questions, but these questions are simply clumsy tools to get at the questions driving the authors of the texts the historians are studying. In other words, historians must be ready to abandon or at least modify the questions with which they began in favor of questions lurking with the texts that make the texts intelligible.

This insight is manifest on every page of O’Malley’s magisterial interpretations of the councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, in which he not only tells us what issues each council was called to address, but how well it succeeded or failed in that endeavor and what tools—conceptual, linguistic—the participants had at their disposal. It wasn’t all Church politics. 

Doing original research taught O’Malley another valuable lesson:   

I now knew on an entirely new and deep level what it was to know on the basis of what I had discovered on my own rather than accepted on faith from somebody else. I knew on that level because I had first wrestled with difficult sources to come to see things nobody had seen before. I knew what I knew and that I knew, which made me keener in recognizing sham, especially in myself. Knowing what I knew made me painfully aware of the vastness of what I did not know…a lesson in humility as well as pride.” 

Also not a bad lesson for those who practice the much humbler craft of journalism. 

 

O’Malley’s work first came to my attention at Newsweek in 1983 when a commentary of his was published in a book by the art historian Leo Steinberg with the (then) provocative title, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion. Steinberg’s argument was that the preoccupation of Renaissance painters with showing the genitalia of the infant Jesus was not simply evidence of the era’s wider interest in reviving the nudity of classical art, as conventional history had it. Rather, as O’Malley’s commentary emphasized, it was the artists’ way of emphasizing the full humanity as well as the divinity of Jesus. And that, I thought, was newsy enough to merit the notice I gave it in Newsweek. But around the office my piece was dubbed, inevitably, “the Christ’s pee-pee story.” 

O’Malley published thirteen books all together, but my favorite will always be his dazzling Four Cultures of the West, not only for what it says but also for how he says it. (He often cited Flaubert’s axiom on writers, “The style is the man himself.”) The four cultures are the prophetic, the academic/professional, the humanistic, and the artistic—each of them claiming its own sovereignty, each employing its own language, conceptual as well as linguistic, and often at cross purposes. Here, for example, is O’Malley describing the scholars at the Council of Trent responding, inappropriately, in the language of the academic/professional to Martin Luther’s culturally prophetic description of the Christian as “simul justus et peccator”—at once saint and sinner: 

Luther’s discourse is psychological and relational, the theologians at Trent logical and metaphysical. Luther glories in the paradox, the theologians are puzzled or even repelled by it. The decree of Trent was the scholars’ solution to Luther’s anguished cry…. They responded…not in his language but in theirs. 

O’Malley’s own cast of mind was more Erasmian than prophetic, but he did enjoy paradox, as any historian must. “The only way to get rid of the past,” he liked to say, “is to remember it.”  The best way to remember O’Malley, for those who never knew him, is to read his books. And to thank God for the gracious gift of his learned servant.  

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was the religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years and is currently writer-in-residence at the Lumen Christi Institute.

Also by this author
Catholics, Politics & Abortion

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Religion
Religion
Books
Collections