Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Catholic Church History: One Hundred Years of the Discipline

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Catholic Church History: One Hundred Years of the Discipline

Article excerpt

Like other branches of the historian's craft, the church historian's role has in the past 100 years undergone significant changes, some occasioned in reaction to developments in general culture, others by changes most directly arising out of new perspectives introduced by practitioners themselves. Regarding The Catholic Historical Review (CHR), certain issues have arisen out of questions and problems peculiar to historians of the Catholic Church. In what follows, I describe the more important of these developments, sketch the context that gave rise to them, and indicate how both are reflected in the pages of the CHR.

The Background

The humanists of the Italian Renaissance laid the foundations for the modem study of history. Petrarch (1304-74), the "father of humanism," provided the first three building blocks.1 First, his keen awareness of the difference between the promise for the future of his own age through the recover}' of the texts of antiquity (classical and Christian) and the "darkness" (,tenebrae) of the previous age led eventually to the standard periodization of European history into ancient, medieval, and modem.

Second, he conceived history as, on one level, "philosophy teaching by example"; that is, he subscribed to the assumption that history was a branch of moral philosophy in which ethical questions were raised through the presentation of historical examples of virtue and vice. By the judicious use of rhetorical devices, virtue was made attractive and vice repugnant. Besides being instructive, history was therefore meant to warn, to edify, and to inspire.

Finally, by his call to historians to "return to the sources"-ad fontes!- he meant to purify history of legends and misconceptions by confronting them with hard documentar}' evidence. After Petrarch, other humanists such as Lorenzo Valla (1407-57) developed the philological and other tools needed for dealing critically with sources. In Valla's Annotationes in novum testamentum, for instance, he compared the standard Latin text of the New Testament, the Vulgate, with Greek manuscripts and found it wanting. In his Declamado, which showed from internal evidence that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery, he pioneered critical methods for approaching historical documents that became standard.2

Study of the history of the Church during this period was perforce influenced in its development by the rhetorical and critical approaches of the humanists. As an identifiable discipline, church history most notably made its debut with the Magdeburg Centuries (1559-74) on the Protestant side and with Cesare Baronio's Ecclesiastical Annals (1588-1607) on the Catholic side. In the former, Lutheran historians ransacked libraries and archives to prove that the Catholic Church had corrupted the Gospel and that Martin Luther had restored it, which gave further impetus to the tripartite periodization of Western history. For the Centuriators, history was instruction about the past but also polemics, a rhetorical enterprise. Baronio, on the contrary, used history to defend the Catholic Church against their attacks. History was apologetics, another rhetorical enterprise.

These developments in the Renaissance and Reformation played out in various ways in the intervening centuries, but only in the nineteenth did history' come fully' into its own to become almost the defining discipline of the period. When the young Karl Marx said "We recognize only' one science, the science of history'," he was speaking for his age.3 Historians accepted without question the tripartite division as well as the persuasion that the middle period was "dark." They' also accepted and significantly developed critical methods supposedly to arrive at "what really happened," as Leopold von Ranke so famously put it.

In so doing they wanted to distance themselves from history in the Hegelian mode. More important for our purposes, they wanted to distance themselves from rhetorical history' for supposedly' more objective and dispassionate analyses, but they found it difficult to do so. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.