23 February 2013

Falling at the First Hurdle


“The Catholic Church, aka the western church of the Latin rite,” Diarmaid MacCulloch begins an astonishingly dodgy piece in today’s Irish Times, “trades on tradition.”

It takes real effort for a respected historian to start an article with such an egregious factual error, but MacCulloch manages it, and then parades out a litany of dodgy statements that will no doubt be nodded along to by almost all the Irish Timesdeclining readership, with hardly anyone bothering to check the claims of an esteemed Oxford academic, especially one they might have seen on the telly.

This isn’t the first time that MacCulloch’s described the Catholic Church in this clunky and inadequate way; in his 2009 book A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years he deployed this description as being, in his view, more neutral than descriptions which emphasise the papacy, as it acknowledges what MacCulloch deems “the equal historic status of the various Churches of Orthodoxy in eastern Europe and the Middle East [...] not to mention the various Churches of Asia and Africa which decided after the fifth century to ignore or repudiate the Chalcedonian Definition of the nature of Jesus Christ.”

Now.

Here’s the thing. Anybody who paid attention when John Paul died and Benedict became pope may have noticed a few lads knocking around at the funeral and investiture while wearing hats that, well, weren’t your typical common-or-garden bishops’ mitres. Like so:


These guys are the patriarchs and metropolitans of the Eastern Catholic Churches. The Catholic Church, contrary to Professor MacCulloch’s claims, is by no means simply “the western church of the Latin rite”; rather, it’s a network of dozens of churches, all unified by their association with the Pope, who acts as a physical and indeed personal point of unity for the Church. The simplest working definition of a Catholic is a Christian who is in communion with the bishop of Rome.

The biggest church by far within the Catholic Church is indeed the western church of the Latin rite – leaving aside the little matter of there being more than one Latin rite – but there are plenty of other smaller churches all in union with Rome, the most prominent of which being the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Maronite Catholic Church, and the Melkite Catholic Church.

These churches are among those being most heavily persecuted in the Middle East, and their members are just as much members of the Catholic Church as I am; indeed, friends of mine in America were received into the Melkite Church some years back, and I’ve been to a Melkite Mass in Aleppo. 

This is one of the reasons why it's inaccurate to refer to the Church as the Roman Catholic Church; it's not just a Roman or Latin Church. It's just what it's said on the tin since before Ignatius of Antioch used the word in 107 or thereabouts: Catholic. 

And no, it won't do to say that MacCulloch was right to equate the Catholic Church with the "western church of the Latin rite" because the other churches in the Church are so small as to hardly count. Or, at any rate, it won't do unless you don't think Benedict should have appointed two Eastern patriarchs as cardinals in his last consistory, making sure they'd have a say in the selection of his successor, and basically don't think they matter.

Mind, if that is a common view it could explain why we've done so little in recent years to help the beleaguered Christians of  Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and elsewhere.

MacCulloch’s article begins by misrepresenting the Catholic Church. It doesn’t get better.


Beware the Idiots’ Lantern or They hide that information in books, you know
I’ll come back to MacCulloch’s dreadful article in a bit, but at this point it mightn’t be a bad idea to drag up an email I wrote a couple of years back when a devout and intelligent Anglican friend – a scientist rather than a historian – asked me what I’d thought of MacCulloch’s BBC series on Christianity’s history. It'll give you a sense of what where I'm coming from on this. When you approach a historian, listen to the bees buzzing in his bonnet before you listen to what he says, as E.H. Carr advised. That goes for me as much as for Diarmaid, of course.
“So, I got to pondering your question about Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity, and wondered whether I was being unfair. You looked a mite troubled when I said how poor I’d found it, and given that MacCulloch is a very highly respected scholar of the Reformation, I wondered whether my gut reaction had been wrong. With that in mind, and believing that you deserved a far better answer than I’d given you, I decided to give it another shot, so put my work aside last night and watched the first couple of episodes. Unfortunately, and I scrabbled down some notes as I watched just to keep a shape on my thoughts, I found it even worse than I’d remembered.

Obviously I’m coming at this from a different perspective than MacCulloch; he’s recognised as a brilliant scholar of the Reformation, and is an Anglican who was ordained as a deacon but declined -- or was declined -- priestly orders because of the Church of England’s stance on non-celibate homosexual clergy, him being openly gay himself. All of this affects his take on things, as far as I can see, giving his argument a serious bias. 
It could equally be argued that as a straight Catholic ancient historian, with some background in medieval studies, I have biases of my own, and this is true, but all I can really say on this is that it’s largely for historical reasons that I’m a Christian – and in particular a Catholic one – now, and I’d have been unlikely to have distorted and misinterpreted my evidence to give me the answer I wanted. I didn’t set out wanting to return to Catholicism, after all, and was an extremely reluctant revert!

There are things MacCulloch does very well. It’s admirable and important that he draws attention to highly ritualistic churches of the East, with their ancient roots, as we often forget them, though he glosses over how there are hardly any of them and how a large proportion of them have reunited with the Catholic Church over the past few hundred years. He’s elegantly concise in explaining the Arian and Nestorian controversies that the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon attempted to resolve, and I think is depressing on the ball in showing how the Church’s teaching on purgatory and indulgences became corrupted and turned into a scandalous industry in the late medieval period.

Other than that, though, I thought both programmes were very poor. I know from personal experience how television requires simplification, but there’s a point at which simplification – if carried out selectively enough – becomes falsification. And the programmes were blighted by such selectivity, with inconvenient evidence being ignored and details being cherrypicked to support a highly questionable thesis. Questionable? Yes, I’d say so, because I don’t think it works to present Christianity as a mere accident of history, which could very easily have been very different and far more Eastern in its appearance. 
That works perfectly well as a thesis if you assume God doesn’t exist or takes no interest in us, but I don’t think it works at all if you believe, as we do, that He does exist and loves us too. There’s a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves where he says that strictly speaking for a Christian there’s no such thing as chance. I wish I could find the quote, but having spent the past ten minutes flicking to no avail through my battered paperback edition, I’m coming up blank. Anyway, if Lewis is right, then it can’t be a mere fluke that the Church – in the broadest sense – takes the shape it has done through history.

One of the first things that bothered me about the programme was how little reference there was to the Bible in it, and how what references there were seemed skewed. This all struck me as seriously problematic, because I think it’s a very weird history of Christianity that doesn’t have the Bible in a fairly central place, not least because the Bible tells us how the Church began. I’d also argue that the story of how the Bible was written and slowly pulled together over the first Christian centuries is itself one of the most interesting and important parts of the Christian tale. 
That aside, though, it was only by leaving out a serious treatment of what the Bible is and says that he was able to launch into his main claim that Jerusalem was the natural centre of the Church and that it was only after the destruction of the Temple that the Church looked elsewhere for leadership, looking as much to east as to west until Constantine came along. As he sees it, nobody before the fourth century would have ever imagined that Rome could have become the headquarters of the Church.

This is poppycock by any definition. Well before the fall of the Temple the Church had looked west; look at Paul’s letters, and Peter’s presence in Rome, and at how Revelation features the Greek churches of Asia Minor. Were it not for the crowds at Pentecost, we’d have no Scriptural reason to ever believe there were any Christians in the east at all! Indeed, the fact that all the New Testament documents were written in Greek should be a clue as to which direction the Church was inclined to look! 
As for Rome itself, before 100AD a bishop of Rome wrote to the Corinthians to settle rows there, and just a few years later a bishop of Antioch who had been a disciple of John would write commandingly to numerous other eminent churches but say that he wouldn’t dare tell the church at Rome what to do. 
By the late second century the bishop of Lyons, formerly of Asia Minor, would write of how the Roman bishop stood in a direct line from Peter and Paul and should be regarded as a point of doctrinal unity for all Christians, and within twenty years of that the African Tertullian, having turned from the Church, sneered at the bishop of Rome as ‘the bishop of bishops’.  No, Rome’s position may have been copperfastened by Constantine in the early fourth century, but there’s no honest way of claiming that it wasn’t preeminent long before that. 
Against this he builds up a fantasy of what the Church might have been, inspired by the tiny relics that are the churches of the east. Glossing over what their ritualism might imply, and over their Eucharistic beliefs, he goes straight to what he sees as their core. These, he believes, are churches that have always listened, churches that have compromised with the societies in which they lived. Given his own personal history, I can see why he’d approve of churches that accommodate themselves to the values of the lands where they might be, but is this really what Christianity is about? 
I don’t believe Jesus ever presented his teaching to his disciples as a religion of compromise. He assured his disciples that they would be at odds with the world, and that the world would hate them as it had hated him. If the apostles had compromised, would they have been martyred? It would have been very easy for the Christians of the west to compromise with their Roman persecutors: all they had to do was to sacrifice to the emperor; they didn’t do it, and were persecuted accordingly. It was this, and really only this, that marked them out a distinct from all the other eastern cults that came to Rome and melted away in Rome’s religious hotpot. By refusing the compromise, they weathered the many storms of persecutions and eventually came out on top, unlike the eastern churches which compromised with their overlords and who now number just a few million souls.

It's painfully obvious that MacCulloch’s no more of a medieval historian than he is an ancient one, as glaring errors mark his comments on why Rome’s main church of St Paul is where it is, on when and how Britain was reevangelised, on Charlemagne, and on the Crusades. Most striking, though, was what he had to say about the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, where the Church clarified its language for describing what happens at the Eucharist. 
For him this whole idea of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ was a new invention, based on pagan philosophy, when it was nothing of the sort. The language was new, sure, but the language was an attempt to grapple with a long held belief, a belief we can see in John 6 and 1 Corinthians 11, a belief which is very clearly expressed by Christian writers from the generation taught by the apostles, and a belief which is shared by the Orthodox and the churches of the east, none of which would have been inclined to adopt a new Catholic doctrine in the thirteenth century.

I may give the later episodes a shot later, because surely he must be better when he moves into his own specialist field. And I am rather tempted to read his big book on Christianity, which being a massive tome must be less likely to leave out inconvenient truths. It’s had very high praise from people who know what they're talking about, so it probably is worth looking at. Not yet, though.”
On this email, yes, I know parts of it may cause eyebrows to raise, but it was addressed to someone who knows that when I spoke of a Biblical focus in early Christianity I was speaking purely in terms of it as a historical text rather than an inspired one, who realises that the persecutions the early Church faced tended to be sporadic, localised, and erratic in application, and who’s well aware of my view that historians of the early Church should start from an essentially agnostic position.

As ever, there's a basic rule of historical analysis which says that when considering what somebody says, you need to pay attention to their target audience. Mine was a dear friend who's smarter than most and who shares certain preconceptions with me so I didn't need to spell everything out; Diarmaid's were ordinary BBC viewers and now are Irish Times readers.

And yes, I’ve since read his book, and found it a mixed bag. I'd definitely recommend it as well worth a read, but it certainly shouldn’t be the only general survey of Christianity anyone tackles.

Anyway, what of today’s article? Well, some of the points in it are basically addressed in my email to my friend, but to take a few others:


Peter and Rome
Rome’s prestige, MacCulloch says, “derives from possessing the tomb of the Apostle Peter, who probably never visited the city. This Palestinian fisherman, who would have spoken a version of Aramaic, plus enough street-Greek to make himself understood in the forum, may have been illiterate in either language, but he is represented among the books of the Bible by two elegantly-penned Greek letters written by two different authors – he himself was neither of them.”

Now, I’m quite happy to buy that Peter authored neither letter traditionally attributed to him, that being a well-argued scholarly orthodoxy, but it’s worth noting a couple of points about 1 Peter in particular. 1 Peter was clearly known to several early second-century authors, such that it must have been written before the end of the first century, with scholars tending to date it around 80, and it ends with the farewell:
“She who is at Babylon, and is likewise chosen, sends you greetings; and so does my son Mark. Greet one another with the kiss of love. Peace to all of you that are in Christ.”
Nobody believes Peter actually wrote this from the distant backwater that was first-century Babylon; rather, modern scholars are almost unanimous in holding that, as in Revelation, ‘Babylon’ is here a codeword for Rome. The question then is why, within a generation of Peter’s death and the lifetimes of many people who knew him, anybody who would have written a letter associating Peter with Rome had he not even visited the city.

Indeed, why would Clement, a Roman bishop generally thought to have written around 97, have in his Letter to the Corinthians held up Peter and Paul as the martyrs to whom the Corinthian Christians should look for example, were they not especially cherished by the Roman Church? Why would they in particular have been so cherished? One might even wonder Rome’s last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, claimed in the mid-fourth century that Rome’s Christians used to gather to worship at the tombs of Peter and Paul even within the lifetime of the last apostle.

MacCulloch accepts even in the article that Rome holds the tomb of Peter, speculating in his book that Peter’s shrine was built in the 160s to mark the centenary of Peter’s death, but this avoids pointers that Peter was especially venerated in Rome rather earlier than that, and also how early second-century texts indicate that Rome had a pre-eminence of some sort within the lifetimes of some of those who’d been taught by the apostles. Clement, for instance, sees it as his Roman duty to direct the Church at Corinth in how it should conduct its affairs, and writing around 107, Ignatius of Antioch balks at exhorting Rome in the way he exhorted other early churches, saying “I do not, as Peter and Paul, issue commandments unto you.”

But MacCulloch knows all of this, which is why not once in his book does he go further than to say that it is unclear whether Peter ever played the role of bishop in Rome, even if he did die there, about which he comments: “the suspicion does linger that the story of Peter’s martyrdom there was a fiction based retrospectively on the undoubted death of Paul in the city.”

Which, I think we can all agree, is far cry from claiming that Peter probably never even visited Rome.


An Italian Prince?
Until the French Revolution, MacCulloch proclaims, the Pope was just one Italian prince among others.

Well, there’s some truth in that: certainly, I think we’d all agree that for much of papal history, the fourteenth century obviously aside, popes tended to be Italian princes; it is, however, ludicrous to say that they were just that, on a par with other Italian princes.

There were not many Italian princes whose definition of the dual nature of Christ would have been accepted by the gathered bishops of the Church at Chalcedon in 451, after all, but Leo I’s definition was supposedly greeted there with the great cry “Peter has spoken thus through Leo!” It's safe to say that few Italian princes in 595 would have commissioned Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the English, as Gregory I did.

It would have meant nothing for an Italian prince to crown Charlemagne as Emperor, but it meant a lot for Leo III to do so on Christmas day in 800, and I think there’s no need to ask whether any other Italian prince could have stood at Clermont in 1095 and successfully called, as Urban II did, for an armed pilgrimage to Jerusalem to liberate the city and its pilgrim routes and to help the beleaguered Byzantines.

Which Italian princes would have been capable of transforming Christian Europe – and the wider world – through formally establishing such orders as the Dominicans and the Franciscans, as Honorius III was to do in 1216 and 1223, or the Jesuits, as Paul III would do in 1540? No other Italian prince had his realm become for centuries the great prize of European politics, with France so controlling the fourteenth-century papacy that the Templars were suppressed by Clement V in 1312 at the behest of a French king, with the papacy being based in Avignon for almost eighty years.

Yes, the Renaissance popes embroiled themselves as deeply as could be in the power politics of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Europe, but again we have to ask ourselves whether they were simply Italian princes or whether they were something more than that. Again, all we have to do is look to Paul III, who for all his personal failings nonetheless convened the Council of Trent in 1545, after nine years of trying; in organising Trent and supporting the Jesuits, Paul III launched the Catholic Reformation and shaped Catholicism for the next four hundred years. I cannot see how a capable or honest historian could ever dismiss him as a mere Italian prince.

Whatever one might think of the actions of the popes prior to the French Revolution, I cannot see how any historian could dismiss said popes as mere Italian princes. They may have been that, but they certainly weren't just that. They had a reach, for good or ill, that no other Italian prince could even have dreamed of.


As for the Revolution?
MacCulloch claims that the French Revolution transformed the papacy by sweeping aside innumerable Catholic monarchs, prince-bishops, and other fiercely independent local jurisdictions in cathedrals and the like, leaving the papacy as the last piece on the board, enabling it to remodel the Church across the world, to eliminate local independence in Church government, initiative, and scholarship.

Yet again, there’s some truth to this, but MacCulloch’s description of a monarchical papacy owes rather more to the deep-seated Protestant paranoia that even now is latent among so many English – and, sadly, an increasing number of ill-informed Irish – than it does basic reason or cold historical fact.

Regardless of the fantasies of the ultramontanists, the papacy has never been monarchical in the way MacCulloch imagines; indeed, it could not have been. How, in an age before telecommunications and flight, could the papacy really have controlled matters in the local churches of Ireland, Paraguay, California, and the Philippines? 

Even now Rome’s power is profoundly limited in this respect: scarcely more than 2,000 people are employed in the Vatican – of whom only about half work, quipped John XXIII – and the budget of the Holy See is roughly half that of UCD or a decent-sized English university. The Catholic Church is, and has always been, profoundly decentralised.

It could hardly have been otherwise.


Bits and Pieces
The tail end of MacCulloch’s article is no better than the body of it.

The variety of Catholicism that predominated in Ireland until recently he sees simply as the creation of the Vatican; not for him the possibility that it might have been tainted by French Jansenism during the penal years, let alone that it was shaped above all by the Victorian values that marked the era in which it rose to dominate Irish public life; there is something to be said, after all, for Vincent Twomey's contention, in The End of Irish Catholicism?, that Irish Catholicism was rather out of step with the varities of Catholicism found on mainland Europe.

Benedict he describes as an arch-traditionalist, which really only suggests that he’s neither encountered any traditional Catholics nor engaged with any of Benedict’s writings. Did Benedict really say this week that nothing much happened in the Second Vatican Council? No, Diarmaid, he didn’t. He said something rather different and a damn sight more profound than that. Even our earliest account of his talk with Rome’s clergy made that clear.

It looks to me as though MacCulloch’s strolled into the trap John Allen so prudently warned of in the one very good section in his otherwise rather ropey 2000 book Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith:
“Because Ratzinger is a polarising figure, reaction to him is often uncritical, driven more by emotion and instinct than sober reflection. Progressives do not read his books, they disregard his public statements, and they assume every position he takes is based on power politics; conservatives revere most of what he says as holy writ, often spouting it mindlessly without penetrating to the principle or value he sees at stake. Neither response takes Ratzinger seriously.”
MacCulloch talks of a need for a multi-polar Catholicism, unaware of how that is, in so many ways, a reality already. John Allen puts it well, pointing out that the Church may be “top down on doctrine”, but is “bottom up on everything else”. Administration, finances, personal, and management are all run locally, bishops are basically popes in their own dioceses for most purposes, and among the most dynamic aspects of modern Catholicism are such new lay movements as the Focolares, Communion and Liberation, the Neocatechumenate, and L’Arche, all of which are basically grassroots phenomena.

Having displayed a shocking incomprehension of historical and modern Catholicism and the person and outlook of the current pope, MacCulloch wraps up with an ode to historians.
“But history has rich resources to offer: showing how they did things in the past, so Catholics can find sensible solutions for what to do next. In the middle of what any fool can see is a deep crisis in Catholic Church authority, let historians ride to the rescue.”
There’ll not be much point in our riding to the rescue unless we’re on the right kind of horses, wielding the right kind of weapons, carrying the right kind of ammunition, and clued in on the nature of our allies and our opponents.

Know yourself and know your enemy, and all that.

13 comments:

Lynda said...

I and others who have some knowledge do not esteem Mr MacCulloch as a historian of the Catholic Church - I was actually embarrassed for him re his book and extracted TV series. Ideologically-riven and -driven history is expected/ authorised in our highly controlled culture.

aelianus said...

While I otherwise agree with the sentiments and most of the content of your post I must demur at your claim that the term ‘Roman Catholic’ is inaccurate. Pius XII taught in Humani Generis that “the Mystical Body of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church are one and the same thing”. The First Vatican Council describes the Church as “Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman” and it teaches that the universal primacy is Roman by Divine ordinance. The Church is Roman Catholic not because it is, as MacCulloch falsely claims, identical with the “the western church of the Latin [sic] rite” but because as you correctly state “a Catholic is a Christian who is in communion with the bishop of Rome.” Both Daniel 9:26 and Matthew 21:43 imply that the Covenant was not transferred to the Gentiles generically but to the Roman People in particular. Indeed, the seats of all seven of the Church’s patriarchs of jurisdiction (representing all of her ritual traditions) lie within the frontiers of the Roman Empire. As Cardinal Vaughan said a century ago “To be Roman is to  be Catholic, and to be Catholic is to be Roman”. As Leo the Great taught the Romans of Ss Peter and Paul “These are they who promoted you to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter's Holy See you attained a wider sway by the worship of God than by earthly government. For although you were increased by many victories, and extended your rule on land and sea, yet what your toils in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered.”

Kevin said...

Fr Hunwicke warned of this historian's poor grasp of Church history a a while back.

http://liturgicalnotes.blogspot.ie/2010/12/diairmid-mccullough-or-however-he-is.html

Lazarus said...

Excellent post (as usual!). The problem with any sort of grand narrative like MacCulloch's is that, the more internally coherent and striking it is, the less it's likely to survive detailed historical probing. It's also far more susceptible to the projections of the author. 'Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford' sounds just the sort of chap you'd want to listen to. 'Homosexual agnostic with lingering Protestant antagonism towards Catholicism' is far less catchy (but just as true).

Brandsma Review said...

Well, Thirsty, great analysis of a rather pathetic piece. I was thinking of reading MacCulloch's tome on the history of Christianity and may well do so in time, but the Irish Times piece is no good advertisement for it.

But in regard to the Irish Church of the mid to late 19th Century and early to mid 20th Centurgy, all the forces you mention helped shape it. However, I would say one single force which had most influence on Irish society and all its institutions, religious and secular, was the Great Famine. I suppose this is to reinforce John Allen's point about the Church being top down in regard to doctrine and bottom up in regard to everything else.

Anonymous said...

I strongly suggest you contact The Irish Times and ask for them to publish a shortened version of this by way of a 'right to reply' article.

Good luck.

Richard Greydanus said...

This next bit is meant as a response to tongue lashing delivered by the Thirsty Gargoyle. His ire was raised by 'an astonishingly dodgy piece' published in the Irish Times by the historian Diarmaid MacCullough on the need for reform in the Catholic Church. My agreement with his many critical points is near complete; including with terming MacCullough's description of the Catholic Church as 'clunky and inadequate', characterizing the quality of the Times article as 'falling from the first hurdle', and, not to be omitted, describing MacCullough's take on Catholicism as 'a shocking incomprehension'....

More: http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/03/diarmaid-maccullough-on-catholic-church.html

Richard Greydanus said...

Don't know if you my response posted a couple of weeks ago: http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/03/diarmaid-maccullough-on-catholic-church.html.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

My apologies. I've been rather busy!

I would agree with a lot of what you say, Rich -- most, really -- but in some ways I think your demurral makes my point for me.

I don't think there are many historians who think that it's in the remit of historians to mould the future rather than to understand the past; understanding the past is the point of history. Of course, many historians would say that the better we understand the past, the better we can look to the future, but that's different. What McCullough does, in taking the line he does, is less history than propaganda.

Historians are always obliged to select from the evidence, and clearly can't use everything: as such, there's an argument that we're entitled to use the evidence we see appropriate to our theses. It's not an argument many historians find convincing, however, not least as it reeks of intellectual dishonesty, especially in the case of the ancient world.

We have so little evidence for first two Christian centuries, that any analysis of the period that omits such evidence as the New Testament documents, the first letter of Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch must be acknowledged as either lazy, ignorant, or dishonest; one way or another we must recognise that such analyses can have no value save as propaganda.

More broadly, the problem with this is that if the thesis comes first, then we can all too easily disregard the evidence that doesn't suit us. The thesis should be at least modified in accord with the evidence. I see no sign that McCullough does that. Rather, a trained and experienced historian, he uses his academic credentials to mask that fact that he's now more propagandist than historian.

(We might liken him, in this respect, to Richard Dawkins's abuse of his scientific background in recent years.)

Is there a need to persuade McCullough of his scholarly sins? Perhaps, but not because McCullough has any duty to Rome; rather, simply, because if we have duties at all, our duty is to the truth.

Of course, if there is no God, as McCullough, Christianity's self-styled 'candid friend', evidently thinks, then there may well be no such imperative: who controls the past controls the future, as Orwell recognised, and if ends justify means then some might argue that it can be fully justified to lie about the past if that will give us a better future.

I'd disagree, of course, and not just because houses shouldn't be built on rotten foundations, as The Dark Knight Rises rather brutally insisted.

We are blessed with the gift of language; we should not use it to deceive. Suppression of evidence in a quest to construct an 'is' from what we deem to be an 'ought' is not merely bad history; it is not history at all. It is not the task of the historian to say what should happen; it is our task to find out what did.

Richard Greydanus said...

We aren't disagreeing on any of the substantive points, at least not as far as I can tell. My point was to ask a different sort of question about the nature of the historian's intention.

Though your identification of my demurral helps make my point for me. What is being contested here is what exactly the truth of the historical evidence is. There isn't truth (what ought to be) on the one side and evidence on the other (what is)--or, if there is, how these two are read together is not at all clear. And that tension needs to be explored, I think.

I have also read and own Richard Evans' In Defense of History, to which you linked at the end of your comment. Have you read his Third Reich trilogy, where he puts all of those theoretical suggestions to work? The two bodies of work complement each other wonderfully.


In response to your final comments: some thoughts I had about the study of the human past as an intrinsically moral science may be apropos. (I too can channel the ghost of Leopold von Ranke.)

http://rgrydns2.blogspot.ca/2013/03/history-as-moral-science.html

Independent said...

Prof MacCulloch is the historian who told us that since Benedict had appointed the majority of the members of the conclave then the new pope would be a mere Benedict clone.

Anonymous said...

This is quite off-topic. Sorry. In a past blog post (The Cloyne Report:Tackling Prevailing Myths), you said that religious schools "were supervised by the Irish State, not by Rome." I was wondering if you could provide a source for this. I urgently need this information. Thank you.

Lazarus said...

Happy Easter! BTW, I've awarded you a Liebster Award - see here http://cumlazaro.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/liebster-award.html. Onerous, but may result in even more people passing by...(And you'll see I've waived any conditions that you don't feel like meeting!)