There is an understandable lovefest surrounding the new pope, and not only from Catholics. Anglicans, Orthodox, and evangelical leaders are all praising the new servant of the servants of God. Jewish rabbis are looking forward to stronger relations with the Vatican because of Francis. Even Baptists are cautiously optimistic that this new pope will prove to be the actual anti-Christ so the rapture can occur and none of them will be left behind. (Kidding, I’m kidding. Kind of.)
I have made it clear that I am an evangelical. Have been for nearly 40 years, all of the time I’ve walked with the Lord. I came to faith in an American Baptist church in southwest Ohio where I was taught that anyone who went to any other Protestant church might be a Christian, but barely if that. And that no Catholic could be a Christian. Ever. For any reason. Catholics worshipped dead people and put the pope above Scripture and even above Jesus. I was told that Catholicism was a cult, just like Mormons or Jehovah Witnesses. For years during testimony time I heard the phrase “I used to be a Catholic, then I got saved and became a Christian.”
Lately, however, I have been feeling a tug to look more closely at the Catholic Church. Maybe it is just to have a better understanding of Catholicism. Maybe to purge some of my earlier anti-Catholic teachings. Maybe, just maybe, because I feel my time as an evangelical may come to an end. I don’t know. In any case, I want to spend some time this morning, and again this afternoon, looking at several books I’ve been browsing lately regarding the Church past and present. These are not meant as in-depth book reviews, merely as jumping off places for discussion.
Where I would really like to start is at the feet of Martha of Ireland, our resident Catholic scholar. I would gladly travel to Ireland and search for her hiding place. Then I would soak up her knowledge of the history of the Church, as well as her insights into where it is headed. Unfortunately, time and money don’t permit an Irish adventure just now. So I have had to settle for some book learnin’.
My first stop was James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. The 580 page hardcover book was imposing when I received it from Amazon. It is not small, but how could a book covering 2000 years be small if it is to be of any worth whatsoever?
The first thing I realized as I read through Hitchcock’s work is this is much more than a history of the Catholic Church. It is the history of Western culture. The Church didn’t exist as today’s evangelical and mainline Protestant churches do, in a semi-ghetto-like setting, separate from the rest of the world. The Church was the world, at least the Western world.
He starts with the world as it existed just before the incarnation of the Christ, and slowly takes us through the first decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection. You get a feel for just how fragile this new Christian sect was. If persecution from Rome didn’t threaten them, persecution from Jews did. And how this fledgling faith survived the many heresies that emerged is a miracle unto itself. This story is a rip-roarin’ read, let me tell you.
This is not an academic book, though Hitchcock is a respected professor of history at Saint Louis University. There are no footnotes to be found, which for me is both good and bad. Bad in the sense that I found myself wanting to check his source to see if I could delve deeper into a topic, and good because footnotes are speed bumps for the eyes that make reading much more tedious. There is a suggested bibliography to go with each chapter, so you can get an idea where his thoughts come from.
Hitchcock paints for the most part a very favorable picture of the Catholic Church. Yes, there were some scandals and excesses too grand for him to brush over, but these are eclipsed by all the greatness the Church accomplished. I’m not trying to say he has painted unfairly; this is his book and his history. And it is not meant as an in-depth critique, or even an in-depth history for that matter. This is a leisurely journey from 30,000 feet. You can see below you, but not in any great detail. Still, this is an extremely enjoyable and informative book, one that I will be referring to again and again.
Of course, a great deal of the history of the Catholic Church must, by its very nature, be a look at the various popes, from Peter to Benedict XVI. For that I turned to Fr. John O’Malley’s A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present. Once again, O’Malley starts at the beginning, which is not always the best place to start a story, but for a history lesson, it is rather necessary. He gives an apologetic for Peter being the foundation of apostolic succession, which was helpful for this Protestant.
Then O’Malley takes off on a wild ride throughout the papacy. Once again, we don’t just learn about the Church, but the world around the Church and how each affected the other. O’Malley doesn’t pull any punches. If a certain pope was a stinker, he says so in detail. And there were many more stinkers than I ever suspected. But here is what comes through in this portrait: Yes, there were men who were lecherous, selfish, greedy crooks who wore the pontiff’s robes. There were some who were incompetent in every way. There were some who had good hearts but surrounded themselves with those with black hearts.
And yet the Church has survived. It has not only survived, but today Pope Francis has a platform to proclaim the Gospel unlike at any other time in history.
From both of these books I see something remarkable: The faithfulness of God. No, I don’t mean it’s remarkable that God is faithful. I mean that, in spite of the very best efforts of men and women to muck everything up, God loves us and is merciful beyond measure. This is not a story of a perfect religion with just a few bad apples. This is a picture of a gnarled, worm-ridden apple being held by Someone who says he will give all he has to buy it for it is beautiful in his eyes. My eyes have been opened, however slightly, to the grandness and realness of the Catholic Church. Could there be a home there for me? If St. Malachy is correct in his prophecies, I don’t have much time to decide.