To Be on the Right Side of History, Be on the Side of the Church
The story of world history is the story of a Bride waiting for the promised arrival of her faithful Bridegroom.
It was November 2016. My friend and I were roaming a West Side art gallery. I sneered, according to my custom, at any of the art pieces that were lazily crafted and ineffectually ambiguous — “modern,” that is. My friend, on the other hand, had been somber all evening. He, like several of my friends in New York, was still shaking from the very recent election results. He and I suddenly stopped in front of a wall on which one particular painting hung — a political statement that was brazenly left-leaning (but at least not modern). “I just want to be on the right side of history,” my friend sighed.
This friend and I had known each other for several years. Politics was never barrier to friendship for us. I knew that he’d spoken sincerely in his stated desire. And I, likewise, am sincere in my doubts that any secular ideology, which is so incredibly reliant on blame, could ever “save” our country.
My friend sincerely wished to be placed alongside those who’d sided with Abolitionism in the 19th century, or the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. But the ranks of Communism in the 20th century had likewise been filled with men and women who’d wished to be on the “right side” of history, who’d demanded “justice” for those whom they labeled as “oppressed” — with the result being oppression, starvation and murder throughout much of the world.
Political correctness, and the backlash against it, has left our nation polarized today. I’ve personally heard the complaints of several men and women, who’ve lived long enough to know a thing or two, that the lack of decency which they’re witnessing today is without precedent during their own lifetimes.
“Ye hypocrites,” Our Lord admonished, “ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?”
How can we ourselves be on the right side of history? How do we discern between a current hot topic that warrants prioritization, and one that is a waste of time to kick a fuss over? And having more information and raw data available for us to sift through than ever before, why does this seemingly remain so difficult?
Let’s say that time-travelers were to visit us from the year 2122, and bring one of their history books with them. What would be written in that book about our own day? Which of our current hot topics will be found in those pages? What insights could we gain about being on the “right side” of history in our own day?
Perhaps those future generations will view the pro-life movement as the 21st century’s equivalent to Abolitionism. If that is the case, those time-travelers may look upon our own generation with disgust, just as so many of us relish looking down upon our ancestors who’d tolerated slavery with a very similar disgust. (Our Lord’s first cry on the Cross is a reminder to always be gentler on those who just didn’t know any better.) And will it be historical irony that several of our southern states, which in bygone eras had established laws protecting both slavery and segregation, shall later on be remembered as states that took the lead in legally protecting the lives of unborn children?
Or will it be that that history book is merely a work of propaganda? Will those pages blame “deplorables” for the injustices of the world, just as the “bourgeois” once would have been? Will open hostility toward the Church have grown so that the list of “deplorables” with legacies to be “canceled” from public memory would include even more canonized saints than St. Junípero Serra and St. Damien of Molokai? And, out of curiosity, how many of the “greatest female athletes” of the coming century will actually turn out to be biologically male?
This can go either way. For many, to be on the “right” side of history really means being on the “winning” side of public disputes over the next few decades. Siding with a “winning” team could mean siding against the sacred, the dignity of life, or even common sense (all of which are preserved by Church teaching). But considering the full span of human history, with a trajectory including the distant past and distant future, isn’t a mere century far too short of a time period for any of us to judge by?
Let’s say that time-travelers were to visit us from the year 3022, and bring one of their history books along with. What insights would we gain about being on the “right” side of history in our own day, or any day?
In 1,000 years, our own present day is going to be interpreted, and remembered, in relation to the Church. To comprehend this, our own (meaning Christians, atheists and anyone somewhere in between) historical understanding is perhaps the greatest clue — we’re taught that the Church’s historical influence was very real in the year 1022, whereas most of the men and women who were actually living back then likely would have taken such influence for granted.
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most famous 13th-century historical figure today. (If he hasn’t yet overtaken Genghis Khan, he eventually will.) But how often would his own name really have appeared in the equivalent of the “headline news” during his lifetime? The rulings passed by, and gossip surrounding, those kings and royals who were his contemporaries (most of whom we couldn’t care less about today) would have routinely appeared in that “headline news” instead, and yet his is the name that has aged like fine wine.
Why is it that of all of the Roman emperors who’d reigned since the time of Christ, the ones considered to be either great persecutors (such as Nero or Marcus Aurelius) or patrons (such as Constantine) of the Church, also tend to be the ones whose names we can most readily recite today?
The great stories of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, being as knee-deep in the Christian worldview as they are, will continue to be read 1,000 years hence. Any hymn, such as “Be Thou My Vision,” that has already been sung for 1,000 years, is very likely going to be sung in another thousand years from now. But what confidence can we really have in the longevity of any overtly secular work of art?
Truth is eternal. What was true 1,000 years ago will remain true 1,000 years from now. We know that the Church will indeed survive these next thousand years, because she’s already survived the previous 2,000 years. And as the years continue to pass, we get a clearer view of what world history has truly been for these past 2,000 years: the story of a Bride, spurning the licentious callings of the world, waiting for the promised arrival of her faithful Bridegroom.
In 1,000 years, when parish priests around the world will find themselves trying to explain who Hitler was during the daily Mass on the Feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, how will the Church have grown in splendor? Will the fruit of ecumenism be a reconciled Church, that whatever divisions fracturing the ancient churches and young denominations today will by that time be long resolved, and buried? Will a saintly man or woman, whom we’d dismiss today as obscure, be the most famous historical figure from our 21st century? Will the great cathedrals in Mecca and Medina bear historical testimony that the world is ultimately be conquered, not by forces of the fanatical denial of Truth, but by the power of a fiery faith which rises up from the human hearts which once had been hardened?
Lies, on the other hand, simply come and go. A man cannot believe that he’ll get into shape from a diet of candy bars and ice cream indefinitely. One of the peculiarities of that history book, from 1,000 years into the future, is what will be absent. The ideological movements of our era, once widely assumed to be the wave of the future, will probably be mentioned in only a few paragraphs, if at all. The only reasons why the ideologies of our day would even get mentioned in those few paragraphs are their overt hostility toward the Church, and the remarkably high death toll which had resulted from Communism. Plenty of heresies have come, and gone, over the last 2,000 years, and they’re hardly worth remembering.
G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man is the greatest history book written within the last hundred years. Like any of Chesterton’s works, this masterpiece contains a fair share of deep thought and piercing insights. The true greatness of this particular work is in its simple outline: that all of human history is a drama of two acts, of life before and after Christ. The greatest claim to fame of H.G. Wells’ Outline of History (a deliberately secular work), on the other hand, is that Chesterton wrote his magnum opus as a response to it.
What is any person, wishing to be on the “right side of history,” supposed to do? By simply looking at history, over a long enough time period, the answer becomes rather obvious: side with the Church.
- catholic worldview
- church history