Book Break: Triumph

The title of this book tells you exactly what to expect. Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church by H.W. Crocker III was recommended to me by two or three different friends within a single month, which I found hard to ignore. It presents a well-referenced but “popular” history of the Catholic Church, written with a confident pro-Catholic bias, presumably for a Catholic audience. It was an enjoyable jaunt through the Church’s history, and it will give fire to the lukewarm. It will not, I predict, win the hearts and minds of many non-Catholic readers, should they choose to pick it up, because most will not finish it.

As I said, I enjoyed the book, but found it to be very uneven in quality. Of course, any history of an institution as old and rich as the Church cannot be confined to 427 pages without leaving out a few details. For the first half of the book, Crocker bounds through the centuries, focusing his attention on the most colorful or heroic defenders of the faith, painting a fascinating portrait of the Catholic Church ascending, but also justifying the shortcomings of its leaders in a way that borders on “the end justifies the means” at times, and dismissing sin within the Church as no worse than what was happening elsewhere, a standard I’m not sure Christ would have supported. This is not to say that the book is inaccurate — and historical context is important — but the ease with which war and wickedness are noted and discounted is disconcerting when we are called to be perfect, as Christ is perfect. If not perfect, we should at least be penitent…

Crocker’s unfiltered bias, wit, and sarcasm reach a fever pitch with Martin Luther and the Reformation. References to “the Hitler in Luther” and “Luther’s Khmer Rouge” suggest the author’s motivation is stirring Catholic pride and outrage rather than advancing scholarship in Church history. The criticism of Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant “fathers” is sometimes humorous, occasionally disturbing, and rarely if ever even-handed. I hope we would not tolerate a similar treatment of our priests.

The second half of the book seemed more balanced, although I’m curious if the support expressed for strong monarchies and an educated upper class over more democratic ideals is a true reflection of the 18th and 19th century Church or the author’s own preferences. I guess I have more reading to do in the regard. But the stance of the Church against the tide of liberalism, relativism, materialism, and all the other -isms encompassed in modernism did cause a warm swelling in my breast. There is wisdom in the Catholic Church, and an intellectual tradition that embraces the arts, the sciences, and the classics and needs not fear the world…if only more of us were better versed in it. I have made that a goal of my own, and Triumph provided further inspiration to pursue it.

This book is every bit as pro-Catholic as so many other accounts of world history are anti-. Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen more of the Church’s intellectual tradition itself in the book, and less of characters, wars, and political intrigue. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, but if you read it, know what you’re getting into — especially if you are Protestant!

11 thoughts on “Book Break: Triumph

  1. Studying Church History in grad school, I grew weary of most history texts. It was not as though they set out to be intentionally critical of the Church, at least in the sense that the authors wanted to discredit the Church. It was rather, the bias of what is considered academically normative and acceptable. Such an approach is flawed, though. One cannot assume scientific objectivity in the study of history in any context, and this is doubly true in the context of Catholic history.

    As in all else relating to the Church, one must always approach her history through the eyes of faith. Thus, to approach her history as though it were simply the history of the Roman Empire or some other secular entity about which we might conjecture with little consequence is to do a disservice to the Church, the reader, and oneself. This line of thought began to develop most clearly as I prepared my thesis and was reminded time after time by my professor that as a Historian, I was not at liberty to speak as to the authenticity of claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared in Mexico. I disagree. As a Catholic historian, I can and do say without apology that Mary did appear in Mexico, that she did leave her image on the tilma, and that those who deny these things are in error. Church history, like all realms of theology, requires a degree of faith. Thus, authors such as the one commented on in this post are generally to be commended by my estimation. They reject the otherwise unquestioned academic categories that insist that historical data must be examined without recourse to faith. This approach has become so prevalent in academia that to question the conclusions of traditional histories is to abandon academic integrity. Thus, to do authentic history, one must always leave the Church with egg on her face. Some of what she has done is indefensible without faith. I simply do not buy the idea that such lines of examination are the only reliable means of doing authentic and objective research.

    The Church is and has been for 2000 years the continued presence of Christ on Earth. Though one must always account for the “Judas factor,” the Church and her history represent the manner by which Christ is bringing about the consummation of time. Thus, it seems to me that of necessity any accurate history of the Church will attempt to find a way to show God's providence shining through human sin and folly. This is not a bias; The Church either is what she says she is, or she is not. If she is the continued presence of Christ on Earth, it is simply disingenuous for a Catholic to try to absolve himself of the obligation to look at history from anything but a sympathetic perspective. Sin within the Church did her serious damage. We needn't whitewash it, but we ought to see it in the best light possible. Likewise, charity demands that we approach with sympathy those who damaged the Church from without. But they were wrong – seriously wrong. And we should make no bones about that fact.

    Protestants will, I should hope, disagree with this view. They should vociferously protest such accounts of how history took place. If they did not, I would be forced to wonder why they are Protestant. But, an approach such as the one in this book gives Catholics permission to fight back with the teeth that academia has long tried to rip from our mouths. The Church need not always fall on the wrong side of history. “Triumph” proves this point, and does so in a way that gives your average reader sufficient ammunition to protect oneself when volley after volley is fired upon Catholic History by Protestants and secularists alike.

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  2. Father, I do not disagree with anything you've said in your comment — even your commendation of the author and your view of the usefulness of the book. It is all spot-on, and underscores my impression that this is a book by Catholics, for Catholics.

    Again, my problem is tone. For example, the phrases I mentioned regarding Luther: I have not studied rhetoric enough to know if there is a word for this tactic (connecting Luther to Hitler or Pol Pot), but it seems like an intellectual shortcut used to inspire anger or fear. Politicians today do this — and it's the sort of thing that makes me feel like I'm not getting the whole story; like I have an unreliable narrator with a particular agenda. I begin to question what I'm being fed…

    Or another instance: discussing the Renaissance popes, the author says this about Pope Alexander VI:

    “Unlike the popes before him, adding a cleric's collar did not change his life. He simply ignored his priestly vow of celibacy.”

    That is followed by only two further “criticisms,” voiced as backhanded compliments (his sensualism was “limited to women”; “If there is loyalty among adulterers, he was loyal to the mistress who bore him his children.”) in the context of two pages of content on how effective he was a pope. He brought order; he brought efficiency; he brought flair…he hosted a spectacular Jubilee!…and he showed political savvy and the wisdom of Solomon!

    When the author then speaks of the pope's critics, he uses words like “faint-hearted,” “ever-rebellious,” and “propaganda,” enabling the reader to dismiss them, and with them, any serious criticism they could have raised. Again, I wonder if I'm getting the whole story…which is why, in the second half of the book, I found myself asking, “Is this fondness for monarchy and feudalism the Church's or the author's?”

    I am a sympathetic reader, and I see these things as problems. A less sympathetic reader (Catholic or otherwise), I think, will find the book easy to dismiss on the same grounds. A Catholic well armed with the ammunition provided in this book will have to use it judiciously, or they could find themselves facing the same problem, I fear…

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  3. The frustrations you express, however, speak directly to the points I make in my first comment. Martin Luther was a notorious anti-Semite. Explicit portions of his theology were used to support the Third Reich. They required no reworking and no reinterpretation to achieve Hitler's ends. Though these comments seem offhand, they are well known facts among Catholic (and other) historians. The problem is that it is simply beyond the pale to raise these as serious criticisms of Luther in current academic historical research. The response is all too easily “Lutherans don't believe that anymore . . .” Likewise, it is a shot across the bow at those who would insist that Pius XII was “Hitler's Pope.” One can more easily prove that Luther was Hitler's theologian.

    Likewise, Alexander VI, though perhaps the most corrupt Pope in history was not, as many have tried to claim, a pedophile. Likewise, though sinful, the man did take care of his mistress(es) and children. In a sad way there is something admirable in that fact. There is plenty to criticize in Alexander. Crocker forces us to admit that we can only criticize where criticism is properly due.

    Thus, in a way, you are getting more of the story than you know. In a way, Crocker is challenging those in academe. “Try me,” he is hinting to his critics with these veiled references. Rather than a skewed story, it demonstrates that you are dealing with a man who has done his research and has distilled two thousand years into the fewest sentences he could.

    Another, less abrasive, author is Eamon Duffy. His “Saints and Sinners: A History of the Papacy” is also a decent read, though a bit more academic, and less overtly Catholic. His work substantiates many of the claims of Crocker. In the end, I love Crocker though, because he insists that the Church is never so bad an popular history would like to suggest, and that the actions of so many who have attacked the Church are far less defensible that popular history insists.

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  4. The book has much to say about Luther, including that he was an anti-Semite. I have no problem with that, and I agree with you about how today it is considered “beyond the pale” or irrelevant, if when it's not. However, Crocker makes his Hitler comment in the context of Luther burning Catholic books. Book-burning had been practiced in similar historic contexts for centuries prior to Luther (even by the Church, I think). And Luther predates Hitler by centuries. So while it could make sense to say that Hitler channeled his inner Luther, in what way does saying “the Hitler in Luther soon won out” make sense, other than as a jab? Luther would have had no notion of Hitler. I'm not sympathetic to Luther in this case, but it's a shortcut. It's mud-slinging.

    Crocker makes the case for Pius XII and the connection between the Nazis and the Reformation extremely thoroughly several chapters later — that, in my opinion, is well argued, and the whole book could use a similar treatment. As I said, I felt it was uneven.

    In the case of Alexander VI, I just looked back through it, and there's no mention of allegations of pedophilia. And although Crocker rightly points to the good things the pope may have achieved, he doesn't force us to admit that we can only criticize where criticism is properly due, because he doesn't due that himself. You said Alexander VI may have been the most corrupt Pope in history; Crocker paints him as a handsome fellow with a sense of showmanship and a thing for the ladies…boys will be boys, I suppose…

    You write: “Thus, in a way, you are getting more of the story than you know. In a way, Crocker is challenging those in academe. “Try me,” he is hinting to his critics with these veiled references. Rather than a skewed story, it demonstrates that you are dealing with a man who has done his research and has distilled two thousand years into the fewest sentences he could.”

    And that is my point, Father: “I'm getting more of the story than I know.” I felt I wasn't getting the whole story, and I'm not. He may have done his homework and may be comfortable challenging academe, but “veiled references” aren't ammo enough for Catholics to defend themselves. He speaks the truth with great confidence and daring, but if I do the same, can I back it up?

    Reminds me of Steve Earle: “My very first pistol was a cap-n-ball Colt/Shoot as fast as lightnin' but it load a might slow/load a might slow/I soon found out/it'll get you into trouble but it can't get you out.”

    I'm criticizing style, not substance. I used to write for another Catholic blog, until one of the co-authors posted something that included, “Lutherans are from the devil.” As the only blogger on the site using my real name (and because I have productive conversations about religion with Protestant friends) I called him on it. He went on to explain that God, through Christ, founded one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, and any division of that church could not have come from God, but must have come from the Enemy.

    I saw immediately what he was saying. The origins of his simple sentence may have been good and true, but the simple sentence itself, without further context, study or reflection, was uncharitable and problematic, in my view. This, to me, is similar.

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  5. Ahh, don't stop now! I could set and read what you two write, for a century and probably not get bored. you both write so well. I am envious!
    As to what you say about the comparison of Hitler to Luther, I liked it as in one word, he conjured in my mind exactly what he was trying to achieve, to me. Please, lets no molly coddle all that we read. goodness knows that there are plenty out there who will vilify the Church and I came away very proud of my Church, my Lord and all that it has come thru' One point he made that I loved was that we, as the Catholic faithful have been here for over 2000year. The only other Christian faith to come close has only been here for 500 years! So we have had 1500 years more to distill, think, study and try to speak of what we are here for and why what has come in the past has led to today. If Protestants don't like what they read here, perhaps they just can't “handle the truth” so to speak.
    There are plenty to attack, can't we at least6 defend. And as to arming your self with knowledge, he give full reference to what he writes and where it comes from. I think this should be mandatory reading not just for every Catholic, but for every Protestant, so they will know where THEY came from and see if they really feel that they are correct in their thinking.
    Yes, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but you also must speak the truth and I am afraid most in both the Church and the Protestant faith's, do not. I think mostly they pass on what they think they learned as children and that is good enough. You know, just be a pretty good person and all will be well. Sorry, a bit simplistic for me and with this book in hand I can pass on a little bit of the history and at least make they argue their faith and beliefs.
    Those who don't remember history are doomed to repeat it!

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  6. I enjoy these discussions with Father, because he is so much better read on this stuff. And you are right, JB: the author gives references. Like I said, the book inspired me to work to better understand our Catholic roots — I know I have much more reading to do!

    In the meantime (since I've not done all that reading), I am pleased to know from Father that this book is on solid ground. I am more and more convinced after reading this book that elections and wars won't win the day — we have to convert individuals, families, communities. My objection is absolutely the honey-versus-vinegar debate — you've nailed it! Yes, you do need to speak the truth, but if you punch your audience in the face as you do so, you won't find many who will listen. I had hoped for a true and compelling history of the Catholic Church for a general audience — not pulling any punches, but also not “by Catholics for Catholics” either. Perhaps I need to write that, eh? Would that be useful? Would you collaborate, Father? 🙂

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  7. I maintain that this book is the best one volume Church History around. Though perhaps flippant in the treatment of various episodes in the history of the Church, abrasive in his descriptions of the Protestant Rebels, and caustic in his evaluation of their misdeeds, he does manage to make mention of all of the important moments in our history. The reader finishes the text with an accurate basic timeline and a sense of how Catholics interpret the events of history. It is a book by Catholics for Catholics. I like that.

    Likewise, I tend to be flippant, abrasive, and caustic at times. I like the offensive (as opposed to defensive, though I suppose both are accurate in this book) tone he sets. In a world where the Church is daily accused of hate mongering, bigotry, and ignorance of reality, Catholics so often feel as though they ought to apologize for their religion. This book makes an argument otherwise. Moreover, in a time when it seems that we spend more time around milquetoast Catholics than zealots, it is a comfort to find a zealous neighbor, even if it is only through a book he wrote.

    Crocker won't make many Protestant friends, and he is likely to be off-putting to a lot of nominal Catholics. A part of me says this is collateral damage. There is value in a book that makes Catholics proud of their heritage, while simultaneously reminding them that tolerance, while perhaps a practical necessity for a pluralistic society, is not a virtue.

    Your argument, however, makes a good point. Does venom serve the truth? Does it serve charity, which is the greatest virtue? The answer is “no” on both accounts. It makes an emotional impact on the reader, but far too much in our world has been decided on account of emotion.

    The book is a primer. It is a bit like reading Scott Hahn: always a good introduction, great for apologetics, but in the end, not the book I would choose to teach a class. Hahn is popular theology; this is a popular history. Both are good at serving their intended purpose and audience. Bother serve as a starting point for an in-depth look.

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  8. That, my friend, is a fitting last word…unless someone else jumps into the fray. Father, I would take recommendations on other strong books of Church history if you have them!

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