Most readers of this ‘ere blog, will know that I greatly admire the works of Dairmaid MacCulloch, the Oxford Church Historian who is the author of The Reformation: Europe’s House Divided and A History of Christianity (and who has his own six part BBC TV series of the same name).
Well, here is a column by him in The Guardian in reference to Pope Benedict’s speech at the Belem Cultural Center in Lisbon. In this speech, MacCulloch claims that Pope Benedict has attempted “to rewrite Vatican II’s history, as curia officials and their admirers have been doing over the last quarter-century and more”.
The paragraph to which he refers in the Pope’s speech is this:
Precisely so as “to place the modern world in contact with the life-giving and perennial energies of the Gospel” (John XXIII, Apostolic Constitution Humanae Salutis, 3), the Second Vatican Council was convened. There the Church, on the basis of a renewed awareness of the Catholic tradition, took seriously and discerned, transformed and overcame the fundamental critiques that gave rise to the modern world, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In this way the Church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity by transcending them on the one hand, and on the other by avoiding their errors and dead ends. The Council laid the foundation for an authentic Catholic renewal and for a new civilization — “the civilization of love” — as an evangelical service to man and society.
He complains that:
It’s difficult from this to know what the pope might count as “the best” of modernity’s requirements, but apparently even those can be transcended, and plenty of errors and dead ends just get avoided – a bit like a sacralised version of Lara Croft dodging through the nasties. You could hardly get a more defensive vision of the council than this.
Admittedly, I think we can agree that it would have been nice if the Holy Father had actually specified some “for eg.’s” about what the “best of modernity” and the “errors and dead ends” might be. But I think it a little unfair to complain that the Holy Father is “rewriting history” in this statement. Surely no-one can say that it is “rewriting history” to say that the Council actively and expressly sought to engage with “the best” of the modern age, although I know we have some readers who might be of the opinion that the Council was less successful in avoiding the “errors and dead ends”.
It is clear that MacCulloch thinks Pope Benedict’s “rewrite” is an attempt to falsify the “History” of Vatican II which for the last 40 years has been in the ascendant among academic historians. But perhaps MacCulloch is becoming a victim of his own popular success, and forgetting the crucial distinction between “history” and “facts”. The duty of every historian is to string the “facts” of verifiable records together in such a way as to create a coherant narrative, and by so doing create an interpretative context in which one can understand “what really happened”. History CAN be “re-written” – and in fact “re-writing history” is very often the bread-and-butter of such academic historians as Prof. MacCulloch himself (who has done his own share in this department!). There is nothing wrong with “re-writing history” if the prevailing historical narratives are found in some way to be deficient either in terms of doing justice to the verifiable records or in terms of the hermeneutical context thereby created.
IOW, sometimes history NEEDS to be re-written! A good example is the history of the English Reformation (an area in which Prof. MacCulloch specialises), as for eg. in Prof. Eamon Duffy’s famous “The Stripping of the Altars”. As far as I know, Prof. MacCulloch completely approves of this “rewriting” of history.
Anyway, read the article and continue the discussion in the combox – I would be very interested in your views.