History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium
James F. Hitchcock (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2012), 584 pages.
The publication of Dr. Hitchcock’s one-volume history fills a longstanding need for an introduction to Catholic Church history in English. Students need a place to begin in which they are neither overwhelmed nor disappointed. We have a plethora of specialized studies, such as John W. O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II; Roberto De Mattei’s Il Concilio Vaticano II. Una storia mai scritta; and Matthew Levering and Matthew Lamb’s Vatican II. But, the beginner needs a survey or “view of the historical landscape from a helicopter.”
Before the Second Vatican Council, students, principally seminarians, could read Philip Hughes’ A Popular History of the Catholic Church, which informed them up to the limited threshold of the subject in 1946. (Evidence comes from Hughes himself, who wrote that the conclave of 1939, electing Pope Pius XII, had occurred just seven years before.)
Besides Hughes, students may have read Catholic-convert Carlton Joseph Huntley Hayes, or translations from the French of Henri Daniel-Rops. After 1960, a few students might have seen Hubert Jedin’s Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: An Historical Outline, which he wrote specifically for German seminarians anticipating the first session of Vatican II. Also in 1960, Philip Hughes wrote The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils.
The unabridged three-volume version of Hughes ends with Luther. His fourth unabridged volume only appeared after his death in 1967. Hughes’ Popular History was reprinted for a fourth time in 1970. Eight years later, and well after Vatican II, Thomas S. Bokenkotter produced A Concise History of the Catholic Church (1978). It is criticized for what was regarded as a naive bias, supporting the “hermeneutic of rupture” or progressivism of the 1970s. The 32 years between 1946 and 1978 were, indeed, critical for the Catholic Church.
Perhaps Alan Schreck’s The Compact History of the Catholic Church (2009) tried to correct this situation, but his history is just “too compact” for the college classroom. As with Warren Carroll’s fine works, The Catholic Church Through the Ages: A History Paperback, by John Vidmar, OP (2005), ought to have been more widely advertised. Vidmar proposes to use the metahistorical outlook of Christopher Dawson, who died in 1970. Dawson enjoys a modest revival from time to time. H.W. Crocker III’s Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church—A 2,000-Year History (2001), reads more like upbeat apologetics than history. Various authors have produced CDs and DVDs on aspects of Church history, but audio books have less appeal to readers and students who just want a book.
At last, James F. Hitchcock has come to the rescue. Our wait was worth it: the fruit of his effort reads more like a story than a textbook. Dr. Hitchcock’s formal area of specialization is Renaissance-Reformation history. He commented that scholars gave input for improvements in each chapter, and there are neither footnotes nor endnotes, though at times, these might have helped to verify precise details. The narrative is breezy and flows like the Mississippi River along which banks Dr. Hitchcock lives and worked. (He retired from teaching in May 2013.) This latest book may be his most successful. It surely will endure as an introduction to general ecclesiastical history. Unlike his earlier writings on the problems of the contemporary Church—such as The Recovery of the Sacred (1974), and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983 (1985)—History of the Catholic Church begins with the apostolic age and takes the reader up to the third millennium.
There are typographical errors which may be the fault of the printer and not Dr. Hitchcock. Such errors merit correction in the second edition. Examples include page 135, where we see the same sentence needlessly repeated in the section on Private Masses. There is a redundancy on pages 160 and 281 regarding the Inquisition’s protocols, especially on the point of the accused being allowed to submit a list of enemies. On page 532, we read “Roscasalvo,” instead of “Roccasalvo,” for Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo.
Philip Hughes ends his Popular History in 1946, and Thomas Bokenkotter’s Concise History is rigidly locked into The Spirit of the ’70s. Other authors remain less well-known and, sadly, in the shadows. James Hitchcock is all we have for a good introduction to Catholic Church history in English. His work should be used in every seminary in America! We eagerly await the second edition.
-Fr. Brian Van Hove, SJ