Cardinal Newman famously stated, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” If any single sentence could sum up the reasons for my conversion, that would be it. Yet there are many, many well-educated and thoughtful Protestants, who seem thoroughly versed in the facts of the history of the Church, for whom that hasn’t been true. I’ve been thinking on this a lot lately, how and why that could be, but have up till now refrained from writing, fearful that I might stray into polemic. I pray now that God give me the graces to consider it fairly.
My first inclination is to say that as a history major in college, I had a fairly secular and unbiased education — but I’m not sure that’s true. I did attend a public, state university, and at least in the beginning, was prescribed standard textbooks of Western Civilization, which presented a fairly balanced account of Church history. But as I progressed, most of my tutelage came under Dr. G, a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran and a medievalist, with a flair for the great men of history, who simultaneously held as heroes Luther, Erasmus, Bernard, Abelard, Peter Lombard, Gregory the Great, and Augustine. That is the stump from which my developing view of the Christian Church sprang, and if there was any self-contradiction in it, I didn’t realize it then. Dr. G also loved the great historians, and looking back, many of the ones he had us read were anything but favorable toward the Catholic Church: Gibbon, Burkhardt, Huizinga. But we also read the Catholic Friedrich Heer, and Arnold Toynbee, who probably better than anybody represents where I eventually found myself: loving and admiring whatever was great in all Christianity and every religion. (And recounting all of this makes me want to dust off my old history books.)
I grew up a Protestant, so naturally I viewed the Protestant Reformers as heroes, as having accomplished something good; and in Dr. G’s accounts of Luther, he confirmed me in that. But the more I studied the early and medieval Church, the more I fell in love with the Church Fathers. And the more I read of the Church Fathers, the more I longed for the order and consistency of the Early Church, the sure orthodoxy each of these men affirmed and upheld, and the coherency and unity with which they viewed themselves and the whole Christian world as “the Universal Church.” Those things were clearly lacking from the churches I knew in my day. Where had they gone? I presumed, as a Protestant, that they had been lost somewhere over the ages, along with the true faith that Luther and the Reformers later sought to recover; I believed that they had been destroyed and were irrecoverable. I knew nothing of the modern Catholic Church then; I was only vaguely aware of it, that there were Catholic churches and there was a pope. I presumed, as a Protestant, who in my own upbringing had been taught a distaste for “dead religion” — that is, the regimented and ritualistic and institutional; anything that would impede a “relationship” with Christ — that “dead religion” is all that was left of the Catholic Church; that all the spiritual life had been choked out by dogma and rote and rituals and rules; by scholastic definitions and speculation.
I wonder if this isn’t the view that many Protestant historians of the Church have: even if they have an admiration for the Early Church, their understanding of what the Catholic Church became being rooted in assumptions and prejudices and ignorances. Of course, it is my own assumption that an historian, having studied the Early Church and the Church Fathers, must admire it! I suppose there are two understandings the Protestant historian could take of the Early Church: either as something bright and new and pure and glorious, the thing that the Church today should long for and strive to recapture; or as something gradually corrupted and misled and fallen and apostate, the thing they presume had departed from the pure (and Protestant) teaching of the Apostles.
There is a lot more coming from this vein, and hopefully soon! This one’s really gushing (I wrote this all straight through in one sitting)! Stay tuned!