Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Catholic Truth in History

I HAD almost written that history is the most important department of all education. To put this without modification would be, of course, to put it wrongly. The most important part is the teaching of dogma; next, and inextricably connected with it, the teaching of morals; next, the securing (and this is also connected with the teaching of dogma and morals) of continuous Catholic daily custom. History comes, of course, after all these. Any Catholic parent would much rather that his children grow up ignorant of history than ignorant of the Faith or of sound morals, or of Catholic custom and habit. Nevertheless, there is an aspect in which history may be called the most important of all subjects taught. And that aspect is precisely the purely scholastic aspect.

If I am sending my child to a school where he is taught positively certain things for a few hours a day, I may at a pinch guarantee his getting his religion and morals at home. But I cannot prevent his history being taught at the school, for history is regarded everywhere as part of the secular curriculum. And yet, upon what view of history he absorbs in youth depends a man's judgment of human life and of the community in which he will pass his days.

History is the memory of the State and at the same time the object-lesson of politics. It is by true history that men know what they really are. False history must make them think themselves different from what they really are. By history is the continuity of the State preserved and its character determined. Now history being of this supreme importance to philosophy, to one's whole outlook on life, and yet at the same time universally treated as a secular subject, you have meeting in it two issues, the conflict between which forms the great peril Catholics have to run in this country (England). History must have a philosophy. It must tend to praise or to blame. It must judge. There is no such thing as mere external history, for all history is the history of the human mind. Therefore, in anti-Catholic society history will be anti-Catholic. It will be anti-Catholic in the textbooks. It will be anti-Catholic in the examinations which Catholic youth has to pass. We are confronted in this country with the crucial difficulty of having to present the most important of human subjects, the one which, of temporal subjects, most affects the soul, with a machinery designed for the production of an anti-Catholic effect. . . .

Anti-Catholic Methods


First, let us examine in what way the anti-Catholic effect comes in. The great error of Catholics who would meet the opposing current is that they search out in the textbook which they must use, the sentences maligning particular Catholic characters, times, doctrines, or false statements with regard to particular events. But such passages are rare and are not essential.

The essentials of anti-Catholic history, the things which make it all anti-Catholic, are, first, the anti-Catholic selection of material; second, what is called the anti-Catholic tone; and third, the anti-Catholic proportion observed in the presentation of historical fact. I would like, with your permission, to enlarge upon these three points which are capital to our subject.

First, as to selection. The telling of any story whatever is a matter of selection. If you select so that the truth sought is not revealed, then your selection, though every fact you present be true, is in its sum-total an untruth. What facts we choose to tell, and in what order, determine the picture we present.

Now, as to tone. I would like to emphasize in this matter of tone in history something which a good deal of detailed work has taught me but which, I think, is not sufficiently appreciated. It is this: tone or atmosphere in history is not a vague unseizable thing. It does not escape analysis. You can, if you will carefully go through a passage, exactly noting the adverbs and adjectives used, the type of verb also, and even, sometimes, the substantives, put your finger upon what gives the particular tone and say: ''That was the way in which the lie was told."

Thirdly, proportion, the respective amount of space and weight given to various parts of your story, is the final element which determines the whole. It is not the same as selection. Two men may select the same dozen facts to relate and each relate them, yet arrange a very different proportion among them of length, emphasis and weight.

We are surrounded by an atmosphere of, and presented with the machinery of, anti-Catholic history; history which produces its anti-Catholic effect not so much by misstatement of fact—that is rare—as by anti-Catholic selection, anti-Catholic tone, and anti-Catholic proportion.

How To Meet Them


How are we to meet the evil? How are we to teach our Catholic youth true history, that is, Catholic history? For it behooves us to remember what in a Protestant country it is easy to forget: that the Catholic Church is not one of many opinions, but the truth. Its clergy are not part of the ''clergy of all denominations," but the priests of God with Sacramental power. What it says definitely on any matter is not, to use the modern jargon, a "subjective" truth; it is an objective truth. It is not the presentation of something in the mind. It is the presentation of something that would go on being there though all human mind were destroyed. And truth supports truth, as untruth supports untruth. Catholic truth is not something stuck into general history like a pin into a pin-cushion. It is part of the universal truth. The same attitude which makes a man deny the morality of divorce and affirm the morality of private property will make him tell the truth about history, when he comes to write it, in matters apparently remote from Catholic doctrine.

There is a Catholic truth about the Conquest of England, or the War of the Roses, or the Frankish Monarchy in Gaul, quite as much as there is Catholic truth about the Manichean heresy or the nature of the Reformation. By this I do not mean that in these temporal matters, dependent upon positive evidence, there will not the differences in judgment among the most learned of Catholic authorities. But I do mean that a whole library of different and conflicting books written by Catholics and dealing with the history of Europe would be Catholic in nature and would teach Catholic history; and that a similar collection of books written by anti-Catholics, however much they differed among themselves, would be anti-Catholic in tendency and produce an anti-Catholic effect upon the reader, and, so far as they indoctrinated the reader, would be indoctrinating him in lies.

Antagonistic Textbooks


Our first difficulty is the lack of textbooks. Here we may note a very deplorable accident of the immediate past. Ever since modern accurate detailed history began, pretty nearly every textbook of note has been written in direct antagonism of the Faith. Of the mass of Protestant work that goes without saying. All the German Protestant work and all the English Protestant work is anti-Catholic. The man who waved his arm at the British Museum and said: "Books written by dons to attack the Church" was exaggerating, but there was something in what he said. It is no answer to this truth to say that many of the writers are what is called "fair" to the Catholic Church. You cannot be called "fair" to the truth. The truth is not one of two interesting antagonists around whom you have to keep a ring. If you do not support it you cannot help attacking it. To talk of being "fair" to the Catholic Church in history is exactly parallel to talking of a judge being "neither partial on one side nor impartial on the other."

A Protestant historian is not to be commended, for instance, because he admits that many of the monasteries suppressed by Thomas Cromwell were well conducted. Rather is the Catholic historian to be commended who thoroughly exposes the ill-conduct of many of these monasteries, but who tells us what really happened. And what really happened was that the monastic institution was uprooted in England not because it had gone bad, nor because it was "outworn" not because it was unpopular, but because it was for the moment unfashionable in the smart intellectual world of that generation, because it was the chief defense of the Papacy and of unity of religion and, above all, because the King and the avaricious men who surrounded him wanted other people's goods. These three things combined explain that capital disaster in English history, the fiscal and territorial revolution of 1539. And if you do not put these three causes forward as the three great causes of the event, you are writing bad history.

It would be difficult to say why all the great textbooks since modern history began have been anti-Catholic, with the exception of Lingard, and even the great Lingard was influenced by the Protestant society in which he lived and for which he wrote. I can only connect so singular a phenomenon with the general story of Catholic academic work. The Church was, as it were, "taken aback" by the onslaught of skepticism in the eighteenth century. The French political system, the monarchy which was the chief defense of the Church, at that moment happened to be in decay, and when the storm blew that institution over, the scattered and defeated Catholic army of Europe took some time to rally. It did not really rally till our own time. There is also, probably, a large element of chance in the matter. Great historians are few, just as great poets are few.

At any rate, whatever the cause, there you have it. Every name you mention — Montesquieu, Mommsen. Michelet, Freeman, Stubbs, Treitschke, and a host of minor ones—tells the story of Europe and of his own country against the Church. The popular rhetorical historians do the same thing. The same is true of the dull and would-be accurate school-books. Green, who wrote for sale, leaves the innocent youth upon whom he imposed under the impression that all history led up to a Divine climax—the Protestant society of his common room. And there may be (I have not read them) other later textbooks continuing the- same tradition. The great compendiums, such as the "Oxford History," or the much superior Rambaud and Lavisse, are in the same boat.

~Hilaire Belloc: From the London "Tablet"

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