The Past as Pilgrimage: Narrative, Tradition and the Renewal of Catholic History (Christendom Press, 2014) presents a compelling argument for the importance of a Catholic worldview in the study of history.
Why is a Catholic vision of history important?
Blum: What we believe about the nature and destiny of the human race shapes our view of history and vice versa. Christians hold that the human story begins at creation, turns upon the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and will come to an end with Christ’s second coming. If the story that we tell about mankind does not have that beginning, middle and end, then we are not thinking as Christians should. And if we are not thinking as Christians, then we will have a hard time living as Christians.
What method is used to teach history to students at Christendom College and the Augustine Institute?
Blum: At the Augustine Institute, our graduate students in theology take two courses in the history of the Church, each with an emphasis on evangelization. In both courses, the students study carefully the lives of certain key saints who exemplify Christian evangelization, the very soul of which is holiness.
Shannon: At Christendom, students take a four-semester core sequence in history, spanning the ancient world of Hebrews, Greeks and Romans to the modern, 20th-century West. Following the basic timeline as many secular Western Civilization survey courses, the core courses at Christendom put the story of Christ and his Church at the center of the grand narrative of the West. At the same time, we seek to expose students to the best of recent and contemporary history writing by secular academics and to challenge them to synthesize the best of secular history with the best of Catholic history.
In his encyclical Centesimus Annus (on the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum), St. John Paul II said, “The way in which [man] is involved in building his own future depends on the understanding he has of himself and of his own destiny.” What are your thoughts on the Holy Father’s words?
Blum: When we face present and future challenges, we cannot help but draw upon past experience — our own and that of the human race — in framing our plans and aspirations. Christians, therefore, have a tremendous advantage, because we have the wisdom of the Church and of the saints to draw upon.
Shannon: History may indeed have lessons to teach us as we move toward the future, but those lessons depend fundamentally on what we see when we look at the past, which, in turn, ultimately depends upon how we understand the human person. The corruption of our proper understanding of the past lies not in anything so recent as “political correctness,” with respect to race, gender and sex, but a much older revision of history, from the story of man’s quest to know Jesus Christ to the story of the advancement of human freedom.
What advice would you give to parents who want to ground their children in authentic Catholic history?
Blum: Make sure that they know the saints! The Vision Books series republished by Ignatius Press is a great place to start.
Shannon: Encourage children to think about the relation between the saints and their times. Most saints do not make it into mainstream history books, which focus on the “great” events of the past, generally understood in terms of wars and the rise and fall of kingdoms/nations. What would it mean to think of a saint such as Mother [Frances] Cabrini, who served the poor in industrial America, as a more significant historical figure than John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie?
What do college-bound students need to know before entering the “World History 101” lecture hall?
Blum: All Catholics headed to college should read Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi (Saved in Hope) before starting their semester of “History 101.” It is the best short presentation of the Catholic view of reality, and especially of the Catholic view of history, that I know of.
Shannon: My first bit of advice is: Be open. If you are a Catholic student taking a world history class at a secular institution from a professor who appears to be not particularly sympathetic to the Church, you can still learn a lot. For all of its bias, secular history still has much to teach regarding the great and not-so-great people and events of history. My second bit of advice is: Be discerning. The best of secular history will always only present a partial, incomplete view of the past. Rather than shutting down when you sense hostility to the Church, try to engage secular arguments on their own terms and try to find ways to reasonably reconcile the often sinful actions of members of the Church in the past with the ultimately divine nature of the Church across time.
It has been said that, in order to understand history, one must have both a genuine sensitivity to the human person and an understanding of his goals and motives. How do authentic sensitivity and understanding differ from the “sensitivity and understanding” sought by certain factions in our society?
Blum: Christians are ideally suited to be sympathetic to their fellow human beings and truly merciful in their judgment because they know the truth about man that has been revealed in Christ. In an age mired in sentimentality, the Christian testimony that it is the truth alone that sets us free is the most effective form of compassion there is.
Shannon: The meek shall inherit the earth. The current vogue of privileging previously marginalized or underrepresented groups is in fact a distortion, a perversion, of this fundamentally Jewish/Christian principle. The distortion lies not in the desire to raise the lowly and humble per se, but in losing the virtue of humility through a false sense of “empowerment.” Jesus did not simply feed the poor and cure the sick — he suffered with them. That suffering, most especially on the cross, is the model for a properly Christian “sensitivity and understanding.”
Celeste Behe writes from