The Church and ‘Historical Amnesia’

120213112905-moses-bishops-politics-story-top1This morning I woke up to find an article posted on the Commonweal magazine website titled, “Historical Amnesia: When Catholic Leaders Misread the Past,” by Nicholas Clifford, the emeritus historian from Middlebury College. In my opinion, it is a very interesting and well-written piece that creatively highlights a number of ways that church leaders have — and continue to — misread history. The key example he uses is the rather infamous “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign of the USCCB and an orchestration of Archbishop Lori of Baltimore. Rather than take the exercise in political-religious demonstration to task, Clifford examines the justification and rhetoric used in the promotion and campaigning that went along with the movement. In raising questions about the reading of history, Clifford highlights some of the really problematic tendencies present in various efforts of church leaders to make claims about particular teachings in a given era.

The whole conversation about the role of history, especially its reading (or misreading) by some church leaders, today is indeed timely. It strikes me as particularly relevant given that last night I gave and again this morning (10a in the community center at St. Francis church in Brant Beach, NJ) I will give a lecture titled, “Vatican II as History.” The subject matter of the talk was requested by the parochial staff on Long Beach Island that organized a summer lecture series about Vatican II. My contribution has been from the perspective of a young theologian who was born after the close of the Council and for whom, quite literally, Vatican II has been history.

But history is never dead nor static. Such is the case with the church, which remains — as the great Jesuit historian John O’Malley, SJ, has said of Vatican II — both the same church that existed before the Ecumenical Council yet one that now has a radically different self-understanding afterward. Or, as Clifford puts it, citing Pope Francis’s first encyclical, “times change and teachings change, so that (in the words of Lumen fidei in 2013) “everything in the patrimony of faith comes to be more deeply understood,” or, as we might say, historicized.” Theology and history are deeply intertwined so that we can say through a richer appreciation of our history we might aid the theological quest to seek better understanding of our faith.

As with the church’s history of promulgated teachings on “religious liberty” that are contradictory and, at times, confusing within the span of one century alone (not to mention going back over the course of some two millennia), the church’s history of doctrinal, moral, and social teaching in the final documents of the Second Vatican Council remains not only egregiously misread at times, but also not fully enacted and far-too-often ignored.

Case in point: Can one really square certain diocesan policies regarding the ministerial involvement of the laity in the liturgy with the teaching of Sacrosanctum Concilium, especially nos. 7 and 14? I do not know how one can without simply “forgetting” the conciliar texts (Clifford’s “historical amnesia”) or terribly misreading the Council.

I could go on, but won’t. Instead I’ll leave you with the closing quote Clifford offers and encourage you to read the whole essay for yourself.

“Like it or not, we are creatures of history, and must face up to the difficulties of our heritage—at least if we expect our pronouncements to be taken seriously.”

To read the whole piece visit Commonweal’s website.

Photo: AFP/Getty
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