Doomed to Repeat It

British historian Arnold Toynbee once lamented that some of his fellows considered history to be “just one damned thing after another.” He thought that history is more than a conglomeration of isolated events; it is a thing governed by discernible principles of cause and effect. His books related history in terms of the theories he had crafted to explain these principles. The particulars of Toynbee’s theories aside, we too discountenance the bogus definition in his quip.

These things come to mind because two books recently came to my attention begging to be read. The first was Godfrey Kurth’s classic, The Church at the Turning Points of History, recently brought back into print by our friends at IHS Press. The second is Diane Moczar’s Ten Dates Every Catholic Should Know, published by Sophia Institute Press. The former studies the Barque of Peter at critical junctures of history, those pivotal times when one age gives way to another. The second highlights ten important dates, focusing on “divine surprises” such as Constantine, Clovis, and Charlemagne; and “divine chastisements” including “the Protestant Disaster” (!), the various barbarian and Moslem invasions, and “The Age of Revolution.” Both books are excellent; both should be read.

Brother Francis says that “history is the laboratory of wisdom.” This is so because the achievement of salvation is the highest wisdom, and history presents us with the drama of salvation accepted and rejected. The Catholic Encyclopedia explains that the Christian historian is not “satisfied with establishing the facts and ascertaining the internal relation of cause and effect; he also estimates the value and importance of the events in their relation to the object of the Church, whose sole Christ-given aim is to realize the Divine economy of salvation for the individual as well as for the whole race and its particular groups. … In his judgment on such events, the Christian historian keeps in view the fact that the founder of the Church is the Son of God, and that the Church was instituted by Him in order to communicate to the whole human race, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, its salvation through Christ.” (my emphasis)

Seen in this light, history is much more that one thing after another: it is the divine romance, God courting his bride for the eternal nuptuals. Certainly there are healthy doses of tragedy thrown in, but the story it is a romance nonetheless. For the believer, this is what makes Church history more than merely interesting, but riveting. As Brother Francis told me in a recent conversation, “Once you have the Faith, everything [about history] comes to life.”

He added that “Everything in history reflects the providence of God.” That got me thinking. The theologians tell us we can look at providence in three different ways: first, as God’s physical concurrence, it maintains the universe in existence; second, as His moral providence, it bestows upon man a conscience with the natural law written on it, punishes evil, and, in general, governs individuals and societies. Lastly, as pertaining to the supernatural order, providence concerns such things as grace and predestination. We often refer to this last category as God’s “special providence.”

When he studies history, the intelligent Catholic will notice the same kind of natural causality that secular historians elucidate. But he does not stop there; he also “strives to recognize the agency of God and His providence, and thus to trace (as far as it is possible for the created mind) the eternal purpose of God as it manifests itself in time.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) It is His special providence for the elect that has God intervening in history in extraordinary ways, both to punish (e.g., the Philistines, Visigoths, Huns, Magyars, and Moslems) and to give succor (e.g., King David, Clovis, Saint Leo, Saint Stephen of Hungary, and Jan Sobieski). Hence Diane Moczar’s book is a study of divine providence, not in theory, but in act.

History is the laboratory of wisdom, but it also forces us to reckon with stupidity and malice. For, to draw the analogy out, laboratories are places of scientific inquiry where experiments are carried out to test hypotheses. There are both successes and failures. The historian pursues wisdom but he must also reckon with wisdom’s opposite: folly. History is not hagiography; it presents us not only with the lives of the great saints, but also with the lives of the great scoundrels. The Evangelists tell us about Judas, Pilate, and Caiphas, as well as about Christ, His Mother, and the Twelve. (Yes, the Gospels are history!)

Brother Francis insists that if we are to be a crusade, we must study history. Why? Because what we seek to do cannot be “a new beginning.” If we do not know history, we will see ourselves and our mission in a vacuum and we will not escape the kind of naiveté that has made some movements fail. Pursuing wisdom, we will try to avoid folly. As a doctrinal and missionary crusade, we must study philosophy and theology, but history adds a very important concrete dimensionality to these abstract truths. This twofold reality is in the very warp and woof of the Faith, for the Word (an Idea) became Flesh (a Man in time). To effect our salvation, Eternal Wisdom entered history.

History also helps us to read the signs of the times. Right now, economic catastrophe seems not too distant. When a complete bottoming out finally does happen, perhaps it will be the disaster we need — the Fall of the Empire, the invasion of the Huns, the Infidel at the Gate, etc. — one of those “divine chastisements” or “turning points” in history which leads to a “divine surprise.” When our empire falls and the new barbarians invade, perhaps only then will America become Catholic.

Meantime, with the help of God, we will keep working and praying for the conversion of America. Else, we will be reckoned with history’s fools.