'God Does Not Need Our Lies.' (Catholic Scholar John Tracy Ellis)(Column)

By Shelley, Thomas J. | Commonweal, April 7, 1995 | Go to article overview
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'God Does Not Need Our Lies.' (Catholic Scholar John Tracy Ellis)(Column)


Shelley, Thomas J., Commonweal


Forty years ago, Monsignor John Tracy Ellis wrote an essay, "American Catholics and the Intellectual Life" (Thought, Fall 1955), that left a lasting impression on American Catholicism. A major theme in the essay was the need for intellectual integrity in Catholic scholarship. One of the first places where Ellis ever spoke his mind publicly on this subject, however, was in the pages of Commonweal in an article that appeared on February 2, 1934.

At that time Commonweal was only ten years old, and Ellis was Mr. John Tracy Ellis, an obscure twenty-nine-year-old layman who was teaching European history at the College of Saint Teresa in Winona, Minnesota (population 20,850). The Catholic press had recently been surfeited with articles commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Rerum novarum, Pope Leo XIII's seminal encyclical on Catholic social teaching. Ellis used the occasion to call attention to "Another Anniversary" in the life of the great pontiff, not another encyclical (Leo issued no fewer than eighty-five of them), but the golden anniversary of a letter Leo wrote on August 18, 1883, on the subject of church history, when he opened the Vatican Archives to scholars and researchers.

In that letter, Leo quoted with approval the words of Cicero that the first duty of a historian is not to tell a lie, and the second duty is not to be afraid to tell the truth. "From the day Leo's letter appeared," wrote Ellis, "it has, and must ever remain, the vade mecum of the Catholic historian." In opening the Vatican Archives to all scholars, the pontiff showed that he was practicing what he was preaching, at least to a degree. One of the first historians to take advantage of the Vatican Archives was Ludwig von Pastor of the University of Innsbruck, who was encouraged by the pope to write a scholarly history of the Renaissance and Counter-reformation popes in response to the critical history of the popes that had been written by Leopold von Ranke.

Ellis heaped praise upon Leo for making possible the scholarly work of Pastor. "Through the materials which Leo's opening of the Vatican Archives brought to his hand," said Ellis, "[Pastor] was able to lay bare the full panorama of papal history in one of its most troubled periods, the religious revolution of the sixteenth century." What young Mr. Ellis did not know, and could not know, was that Pastor's access to the materials in the Vatican Archives was much less complete than he thought. Not until forty-two years after he began work on his history of the popes did Pastor obtain permission to visit the storerooms where the materials were kept. Nonetheless, Ellis was correct to praise Leo for his decision to open the archives, for, as Owen Chadwick, the former Regius Professor of Modern History in Cambridge University, once said, Leo's decision brought "new confidence among instructed non-Catholics that the Catholic church cared about the truth.

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