Review of The Church Ascending by Dr. Diane Moczar

A New Title for a First Book: Review of The Church Ascending by Dr. Diane Moczar. Sophia Press, 2014

This is not a new book by this talented author, but a reprint of her first book, What Every Catholic Wants to Know, originally published in 2006. That work, under the old title, is now out of print.

The Church Ascending is Dr. Moczar’s first effort at writing a book and it is actually the first half of Church history which continues with the book we last reviewed on this website, The Church under Attack, covering Catholic history from the Protestant Revolt to modern times. Our present volume covers the first centuries of Catholic history as the Church was born in the Roman world and takes us through the Middle Ages just before the time of the so-called Reformation and beginnings of the Renaissance.

It is easy to tell that Dr. Moczar is a teacher because she wants us to love history – especially Catholic history. In this book, she pairs the chapters so that the reader can easily appreciate the actual occurrences of a particular era in the odd numbered chapters while the following even numbered chapters inform us of the thought and culture of the era previously discussed. For example, Chapter 3 is entitled “The Church in the Dark Ages” followed by Chapter 4, “Catholic Thought and Culture in the Dark Ages. So on it goes through Chapter 14, “Catholic Thought and Culture in the Late Middle Ages. She follows up her history, which is packed with fascinating events and characters, both saints and villains, with a handy-dandy chapter teaching her readers how to become historians. A great project if you wish to try it!

I will mention a few of the interesting folks and events that populate this great little volume. Why were the Dark Ages so dark? Catholic culture had auspicious beginnings after it came out of the catacombs in the fourth century thanks to Emperor Constantine. There were enormous intellects like Saint Augustine, Saint Boethius, Saint Jerome and Saint Ambrose. Catholic learning was flourishing in the Empire, producing many works of philosophy, theology, and history. Great saints and mothers like Monica and Helena, and strong and holy popes like Saint Gregory the Great, played highly important roles. What a fantastic beginning! What happened?

Well, we all know that the Roman Empire, powerful and productive as it had been, had become corrupt, decadent, and downright licentious. It is customary to speak of the “fall” of Rome in the year 476 AD, but the Empire had been crumbling from the inside for several centuries before that. The great push for the fall of Roman high civilization was the movement of the barbarian tribes from eastern Europe into western towns and cities, and into the countryside of Rome itself. These barbarians, in turn, were being pushed by the fierce Huns originally from the north of China who were chasing the German tribes out of their lands and had them running for their lives toward Rome. The feared leader of the Huns was the “Scourge of God” – Attila, who seemed to envision conquering the known world and making it his own empire. Their lightning swift horses led attack after attack on European towns and villages – hit, kill, burn, and retreat.

Heading toward Rome, Attila saw coming to greet him a procession of men dressed in white and chanting hymns. They were led by the holy Pope Leo I whose spiritual authority apparently impressed Attila enough to call off the attack and head back east. Attila is said to have died in a fit of choking on his own blood after a great feast. After Attila’s death, the Huns became less of a threat.

The Barbarians, mostly Germanic tribes, were unschooled, and after a time Europe was in a shambles, with only twelve towns of ten thousand inhabitants left by the year 1000 on the entire continent. The great city of Rome with more than one million inhabitants in its prime was reduced to a village of dwellers among the ruins. (This is an astounding fact to me, one I had not read before.)

As with all history, “one thing led to another” and out of the ruins, while most Christians had fallen into Arianism, came the Franks — a pagan Germanic confederation, who would save Christianity due to the marriage of the Catholic Queen Clotilda to their pagan king, Clovis, who eventually converted. Out of that union was born the “eldest daughter of the Church” – the Catholic Kingdom of France which produced so many saints during these and later years. Dr. Moczar makes us laugh with her comments on Pepin the Short (“How short was he? Little, bitty guy, exact dimensions unknown.”) and his much larger son Charlemagne (“they ran to extremes in that family”) with his great body and intellect and his squeaky voice (“perhaps inherited from his father”).

Much later, over in England, during the High Middle Ages, in the twelfth century, when learning and education had recovered and conditions had gotten out of the barbaric stages, King Henry II, Plantagenet, inherited the throne. He was a fairly good king who made some effective contributions to the English legal system. His wife, the French Eleanor of Aquitane, was a woman of strong ideas who created much turmoil in his household. The brilliant and highly educated Thomas Beckett, meanwhile, had become financial clerk to Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury. Soon the archbishop recommended Beckett to Henry as Chancellor. Unlike his character in the movie Beckett, who was portrayed as a rounder of loose morals, the real Beckett was everything good – honest, handsome, pure of morals and brilliant, although he did enjoy the finer things of life that his position allowed for. The older Beckett became the twenty-four year old Henry’s mentor.

Henry made the mistake of appointing his friend Archbishop of Canterbury upon the death of Theobald, although Beckett was neither priest nor bishop. Beckett warned Henry that this appointment would forever change their relationship and balked at the suggestion, but Henry insisted. Within three days, Beckett was ordained and consecrated to the highest ecclesiastical position in England.

Beckett became a different man. Forfeiting his luxurious life and ways, he became a true ascetic and holy man whose only aim was the good of the Church in England. As a consequence, he and Henry began to clash, and when Beckett once more infuriated his king, in a rage (one of many) the king let slip his wish to be rid of this meddlesome prelate. Four of his henchmen took him at his word and cut Beckett to pieces while he was saying Mass in the Cathedral, which soon became one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in England. (Remember The Canterbury Tales?) Almost four hundred years later, another Henry in another rage against the Church had Beckett’s remains disinterred and scattered to the winds to prevent the faithful from visiting that holy site.

This terrific book takes us through the soaring good times and the horrible, plague-filled bad times of the Church and, consequently, of Europe – for, as Hillaire Belloc said, “The Faith is Europe; Europe is the Faith.” Dr. Moczar familiarizes us with the saintly and brilliant and the not-so-saintly and dangerous. One of the latter was William of Ockham, a fourteenth century Franciscan sophist who is responsible for the theory called nominalism – the dangerous idea that there is no universal truth. Although his thought is very complex and confusing, he seemed to have claimed that only what is perceived by the senses is real. He denied the Christian principle that God can be known from nature by reason, a truth that was stressed by Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans and echoed in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Another dangerous man, though brilliant, was Niccolo Machiavelli, who, in advising political figures of the Renaissance, wrote in his book, The Prince, that “the end justifies the means.” Even a cursory knowledge of modern politicians tells us that his thought is alive and well in our own times.

Dr. Moczar asks a series of questions after each chapter encouraging us to compare the events of the chapter to today’s world. For example, regarding the Crusades, she asks is there any chance that a Crusade could be launched in our age? What would be the conditions that might cause an international force to take to the field against Muslim powers? And, could the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq be compared to the Crusades? She calls each of these sections “Food for Thought.” Indeed, they do make us think. Each chapter also has a final section of “Reading Suggestions” in the event we want to pursue a particular character or event in more detail.

The Church Ascending is a highly recommended book if you want an easy, interesting and exciting read about how Catholicism came to dominate Europe in its first fifteen hundred years. Coupled with its companion, the more recent The Church under Attack, in two relatively brief volumes we have an entire picture of the major figures and events that shaped the Church of today.

To read this book, click here.