Academic journal article Historical Studies

Life outside the Cloister: Some Reflections on the Writing of the History of the Catholic Church in English Canada, 1983-1996

Academic journal article Historical Studies

Life outside the Cloister: Some Reflections on the Writing of the History of the Catholic Church in English Canada, 1983-1996

Article excerpt

Since 1983, the writing of the history of the Catholic Church in Canada has experienced significant change. Two distinguished scholars of Canadian religious history, John Moir and the late George Rawlyk, can be credited for their awakening of the historians of Canadian Catholicism, notably those in the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, to pursue new themes and greater methodoligical sophistication. John S. Moir's "Coming of Age, but Slowly," a paper delivered at the conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the CCHA in 1983, challenged member-historians to be open to new historical methods and be attentive to developments in other academic disciplines. (1) While cautioning historians of Catholicism about their traditional preoccupation with the history of institutions, Moir urged their greater involvement in microhistorical studies and in the development of Catholic archives. Three years later, in 1986, George Rawlyk lauded Moir's suggestions, but added that historians of the Catholic Church in English Canada had not risen to his challenge. Pulling no punches when he reviewed Volume 50 of the CCHA's Study Sessions (1983), Rawlyk asserted:

Moir's call for "openness" and "involvement" has largely gone unheeded by his fellow essayists. There is a sense, therefore, that most of these published papers reflect the historiographical realities of 1933 rather than of 1983. Apparently, unlike even the writing of Canadian Mennonite and Baptist history in the 1980s, most Roman Catholic historical writing is bogged down in a form of safe, parochial anti-quarianism. ... Canadian Roman Catholic historiography, and this point needs to be emphasized, should be the engine of the new religious history rather than its caboose. (2)

However blunt his comments were, and however pained historians of Catholicism in English Canada were to hear them, there was a measure of truth in what Rawlyk had to say. Now ten years distant from Rawlyk's biting criticism, the study of Canadian Catholic history among anglophone historians has flourished, appearing less as a caboose, but still not quite the little engine that could.

Before one can address general questions regarding survey and synthesis, as suggested by this roundtable, one should reflect upon the developments made by the contemporary historians who explore the history of the Catholic Church in Canada, and how their labours have affected or reflected the general trends in the writing of Canadian history itself. I would like to revist the analogy of the "cloister" that I employed six years ago in an historiographical essay on the state of Canadian religious scholarship. At that time, I saw Canadian religious study emerging from what Roger O'Toole called the stale air of the cloister. (3) Religious history, when practiced within the "cloister," was often cut off from the methodological and intrepretive changes of Canadian historiography, particularly after the 1960s. In the "cloister," historians laboured away on a great variety of "Church" histories, narratives of institutional development, biographical studies, and positive reflections upon individual and community contributions to the Church and society. Comments by Moir and Rawlyk came at a time when historians of the Catholic Church in English Canada seemed prepared to pursue new questions, and adopt new research tools to find the answers. This paper will examine the contributions of some contemporary historians of Canadian Catholicism, particularly those affiliated with the Canadian Catholic Historical Association, and assess their impact on the Canadian historical "neighbourhood" in which they are currently engaged. How well have they made their presence known in the wider historical community? Quite clearly the last dozen years or so has been characterized by innovation, imagination and growth among these historians of Catholicism, although such "home improvements" have gone literally unnoticed by inhabitants of the broader historical neighbourhood. …

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