Sometimes "History" needs to be "Re-Written"

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.

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20 Responses to Sometimes "History" needs to be "Re-Written"

  1. Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

    We are not talking about academics rewriting something from documental evidence from the past, but ecclesiastical bureaucrats hauling out of documents things their authors did not say was there.

  2. Matthias says:

    At lur Bivle study last night we commented about issues of spiritual blindness ,and one was the adage
    “if we are all nuice to one another then the world will be a better place”Very much in the same vain as McCulloch’s quote “the civilization of love” — as an evangelical service to man and society. “as one of my fellow group members said people would find it eventually draining as they would be nice and yet not have a sustaining faith in Christ.

  3. Robert says:

    Sadly, MacCulloch has a nasty anti-Romanism. It’s his one major weakness as a historian. He seems very theologically liberal, but as with so many of these people, seems to dislike Catholicism.

    • Schütz says:

      Welcome to the SCE commentary table, Robert! (as soon as Jim’s finished with the port, we’ll pass it down your end).

      The “nasty anti-Romanism” is a little more obvious – or lets say “nasty” – in this piece than in his works in general. He is an avowed “BCP Evensong Anglican” by upbringing and taste without (as far as he has indicated) any real or lively faith. I suppose Catholicism is just a little too “hot” for his religious tastes. Still, I like reading his histories.

      • William Tighe says:

        MacC’s father was a Scotsman who read Divinity at Edinburgh, but was ordained in the Church of England, and served as a “country parson” in Suffolk for almost all of his clerical life.

        MacC himself did a doctorate at Cambridge ca. 1977 (we had the same “doktorvater” but MacC left a year before my arrival there) which subsequently appeared as a very good book, *Suffolk Under the Tudors*. He taught for ca. 15 years thereafter at Wesley College (Bristol), the principal English Methodist theological college, and while there underwent study towards being ordained in the Church of England. Around 1985 he was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Bristol, Barry Rogerson, a liberal, but a “discreet” one, and a man known to be very “left Labour” in his political sympathies. Bishop Rogerson ordained him knowing that he was a “partnered” homosexual — but then, when MacCulloch appreared around that time on the BBC-TV “religious affairs” programme Credo, as one of a number of partnered homosexual “clergymen” (both Anglican and Nonconformist) and spoke openly about his beliefs and “lifestyle,” Bp. Rogerson refused to ordain him to the priesthood because of the publicity he had brought upon himself.

        This embittered MacC, and after a bit he came to describe himself as a “sympathetic outsider” to Christianity. For a time after getting an Oxford professorship and a fellowship at St. Cross College he would attend Evensong betimes at St. Barnabas (Jericho) in north Oxford (he was once characterized, perhaps by himself, as “a liberal Anglican with a taste for tat”).

        I never observed any evidence in him of anti-Catholicism in the old English Protestant Evangelical sense, but he has for many years been an admirer of “Liberal (i.e., revisionist) Christians” of all sorts, even the egregious Bishop Spong.

        If you want to see MacC’s views in a nutshell, read his “The Myth of the English Reformation,” which appeared in the January 1991 issue of the *Journal of British
        Studies* (pp. 1-19). The “myth” that he does his considerable best to debunk is the Laudian/Tractarian/Anglo-Catholic “myth” of the “essentially Catholic” nature of the English Reformation and of the Church of England after 1559. Rather, he sees the Church of England as a thoroughly Reformed body (looking to Zurich and Geneva, and not to Rome or Wittenberg, as he puts it), which preserved a few “Catholic remnants” due to the personal predilections of Elizabeth I and in order to allow the 1559 Reformation statutes to squeak through the House of Lords (the Act of Uniformity passed there by a vote of only 22 for to 19 against). At the end of the article, he clearly nails his colours to the mast: the C of E should make up its mind about women’s ordination, ecumenical relations and other controverted issues based on a full understanding and acceptance of its Protestant heritage, and not the “mythical” claims of Anglo-Catholics.

        • Schütz says:

          Thanks for that background, William. I had no idea that he was an ordained deacon of the Anglican Church. Has he ever been laicized? I would agree also that if we can accuse Professor MacCulloch of any antipathy toward the Catholic Church (and really, I do think to say that he is “anti-Catholic” is going much to far) we can also see a mirror image in his attitude toward Calvinism. I think it would be better to say that he admires much in both camps, but that his liberal religious views puts him at odds with the ultimate challenges of both serious Reformed Christianity and serious Catholicism.

          • William Tighe says:

            “Has he ever been laicized?”

            Not to my knowledge. He has certainly not been “defrocked” — and I don’t know that he has “renounced his Orders” in the way that Church of England clergy are allowed to do if they wish to seek positions (like election to the UK House of Commons) that clergy of the Established Church are ineligible to hold.

  4. I agree, David, why shouldn’t the Pope re-write the history of Vatican II? After all, the Papacy has been built on re-writing history!

    • Schütz says:

      I know that your comment is tongue in cheek, Pastor Mark, because you know as well as I do that the Papacy does not have a monopoly on “rewritting history” – the Reformers were pretty good at it too!

      Seriously, everyone who writes history uses an hermeneutic. That is Papa Benny’s point. So let’s be honest and ask ourselves: what is my historical hermeneutic? What is the hermeneutic of the historian that I am reading? What is the hermeneutic of the “history” that I have been taught? Is that hermeneutic open to challenge? Does it do justice to the events as evidenced in the verifiable records and does it give a coherant explanation of events?

      Significantly, in the introduction to her new book on Pope Benedict (“Benedict XVI: a guide for the perplexed”), Tracey Rowland points out that Ratzinger has, throughout his career, sought to present “a Catholic understandingof the mediation of history inthe realm of ontology.” History, its meaning and its relation to reality, is a subject of very great importance to the present Pope.

  5. Jim Ryland says:


    Having been an active church musician and liturgist during the reigns of John XXIII and Paul VI, my view of Vatican II reminds me a bit of the general Anglican approach to Anglicanorum Coetibus. The readers of the ensuing documents see in them what they wish to see, colored by their personal opinions and desires. The terminology of these two sets of documentation is literally rather clear but ambiguous enough to invite some interesting interpretation spiced with personal desires and expectations.

    I think that the pope might have been saying that Vatican II was both good and not-so-good. The good part was the “opening of windows” to freshen the air in the Church. This included alternate liturgies with emphasis on the historic. It also encouraged the development of a new and unique liturgy easily adaptable to the vernacular. The bad part came from a strong element in the Church who wished to change her, her canon laws, and her foundations. It also included an egregious ‘adaptation’ in ‘gutter’ English. The real tragedy was that strong theology was undermined in that adaptation.

    Few realize that V-II was not binding… not an edict as Trent had been (see Paul VI’s statement). It was an attempt to “open the windows”. The tragedy was that a powerful element within the episcopal structure saw their chance to “remake” the Church in their own image.

    The ‘spirit’ of Vatican II had its heart in the right place but the worker-elves had other intentions.

    • Schütz says:

      Hi, Jim! Welcome to the SCE commentary table (someone pass Jim the port – Hey, PE, do you know the Bishop of Norwich?).

      I am reading Tracey Rowland’s new book on Benedict (Benedict XVI: A guide for the perplexed – separate blog post coming up), and in the introduction she makes this simple comment:

      “The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) removed the lid fromthis cauldron of theological conundrums though the issues were far from resolved in the Conciliar debates and documents.”

      I think that simple statement puts it well. It isn’t that the Council was intentionally ambiguous, and I certainly don’t hold with the idea that it was not “binding” – but it was literally an “opening up”, a start, a beginning, rather than a conclusion or a definition.

      What we make of the documents and decrees of Vatican II is therefore vital. It is not that they were “ambiguous” so much as “unfinished”. In a sense, the history of Vatican II is still being written. The phenomenon of Vatican II is not yet “complete”. We – the “worker-elves” if you like – are the ones who can now determine what that history will be. It is precisely in this regard that Pope Benedict’s idea of two “hermeneutics” comes into play. We can either run with Prof. MacCulloch and Hans Kung et aliter and make Vatican II a rupture, or we can pick up the ball and run towards the other goal, and steer the Good Ship Vatican II back on course once more (sorry about the mixed metaphors). It really IS up to us – this is one history book that is still in the process of being written.

      • Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

        Previously, when I used the old classic “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich” re this port drinking metaphor, you appeared not to know it. Been doing a little research?

        So now I’ll take the other side — the current Bishop of Norwich is Graham Richard James and I do not know him, however, being an Anglican “bishop” he isn’t a bishop at all. The last real Bishop of Norwich was John Hopton, who died in 1558.

        Now here’s the bleeding port.

        • Schütz says:

          Yes, indeed I have “researched” this further and now tell the story to anyone at a dinner party when the port bottle has ended up at the wrong end of the table (ie. not my end).

  6. Pax says:

    You summed it up to perfection with your sentence “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.”
    Sometimes new written records are discovered which throw a new light on existent materials and may even create doubt as to the authenticity of previous documentation.
    However the term rewriting history could also be used to imply a falsification of history by exaggerating minor developments or players or even falsifying and/or fabricating documents.
    The latter is a much more serious issue and very dangerous phenomenon.The efforts by some to try and minimise or completely deny the reality of the Holocaust comes to mind.

  7. Jim Ryland says:


    Thank you for the welcome.

    The curse of ambiguity falls on my shoulders here. When I referred to Paul VI statement, which was aimed at enforcement of liturgical innovations, I was considering that no major dogmatic statements emerged from the council regarding faith and morals. V-II was more properly a “work session” and you are spot-on when you say that it was a beginning. It is far from completed and work will hopefully continue long after we are gone.

    Perhaps the most unfortunate part of V-II was the timing. Had it occurred 10 years earlier the outcome might have been quite different. It fell in the middle of a period of social upheaval in the western world and much of that era’s secular mentality found its way into the implementation of the changes. There are still priests and bishops who are simply ‘aging hippies’ and one expects to hear ‘groovy’ inserted into their homilies.

    • Schütz says:

      Or indeed, had it happened 15 years later, in the last days of Pope Paul and the first days of Pope John Paul II, instead of in the last days of Pope John and the first years of Pope Paul. But that is, of course, a matter for the “what if” school of history (which I have never found very fruitful and is the most vexed kind of “rewriting” history)!

      • Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

        Pigs. Had there been no Vatican II, there would have been nothing remotely like “John Paul” as the name indicates — he was entirely a creation of the Church of Vatican II.

  8. Past Elder / Terry Maher says:

    Just what I was taught: a community grows in its understanding of its experience, and as it grows it will find new formulations of that experience, which do not contradict the earlier ones but are another point in the process of growth and development which in the case of the church is protected by and guided by the Holy Spirit.

    Thus, one can try to force Vatican II back into Trent bottles, as is done here, or one can say he for whom “He is risen” is a literal statement and he for whom it is a metaphor of the continuing overwhelming significance of Jesus borrowed from times when such metaphors were common, both equally believe that He is risen.

    An invitation to absolute anarchy and power politics, such as you see now.

    “Hermeneutic” is this Urim and Thummin whereby one sees in something precisely what one wants to see, and finds in something what one already believes is there.

    In terms of rewriting history, none are better than those who now try to put into the movements leading up to and words of its authors things in the proverbial documents of Vatican II that they never said were there.

    Thus does a list of one after another of formerly silenced authors become periti and cardinals, and one after another of formerly condemned movements become “Catholicism”, yet nothing changed, not really.

    It was not bad timing that Vatican II happened in a period of social upheaval and secular mentality; Vatican II was part of it, the ecclesiastical version for those who thought it would be different if these things were dressed up for church.

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