A New History of the Councils

From Harvard, here is a new survey of recent–“recent” being a comparative term–ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, by Georgetown University scholar John O’Malley, whose work we have noted before. The book looks like it would be especially helpful for people who need an introduction to the subject. The publisher’s description follows:

From one of our foremost church historians comes an overarching analysis of the three modern Catholic councils—an assessment of what Catholicism was and has become today.

Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.

The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?

Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

American Saints

9781469649474Last October, I posted a new biography of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the Catholic Church’s first native-born American saint. This month, the University of North Carolina Press releases A Saint of Our Own: How the Quest for a Holy Hero Helped Catholics Become AmericanJudging from the publisher’s description (below), this book focuses not so much on the inner lives of Seton and other American saints, but on why American Catholics believed it so important to have the Church recognize them. American saints, the author maintains, helped American Catholics feel more at home in their culture. The author is historian Kathleen Sprows Cummings (University of Notre Dame):

What drove U.S. Catholics in their arduous quest, full of twists and turns over more than a century, to win an American saint? The absence of American names in the canon of the saints had left many of the faithful feeling spiritually unmoored. But while canonization may be fundamentally about holiness, it is never only about holiness, reveals Kathleen Sprows Cummings in this panoramic, passionate chronicle of American sanctity. Catholics had another reason for petitioning the Vatican to acknowledge an American holy hero.

A home-grown saint would serve as a mediator between heaven and earth, yes, but also between Catholicism and American culture. Throughout much of U.S. history, the making of a saint was also about the ways in which the members of a minority religious group defined, defended, and celebrated their identities as Americans. Their fascinatingly diverse causes for canonization—from Kateri Tekakwitha and Elizabeth Ann Seton to many others that are failed, forgotten, or still under way—represented evolving national values as Catholics made themselves at home. Cummings’s vision of American sanctity shows just how much Catholics had at stake in cultivating devotion to men and women perched at the nexus of holiness and American history—until they finally felt little need to prove that they belonged.

Cardinal Who?

80140105274650LSome of our readers may know of this episode, but I have to confess I had never heard of it. During World War I, a cardinal in Belgium, Désiré Mercier, became the face of Belgian national resistance to the German occupation. Apparently, Mercier was quite famous at the time; his autobiography was a best-seller in the United States. I find this episode interesting for three reasons. First, one can hardly imagine Belgian nationalism nowadays; the country is beset by centrifugal tensions that threaten to tear it apart. Second, it is somewhat unusual today to think of a Catholic cardinal as principally a nationalist leader, though of course there are exceptions. Finally, and most intriguingly, how could this man, so important a figure on the world stage in his own time, be so completely forgotten only 100 years later?

A new book from Cornell University Press addresses Cardinal Mercier and his role during World War I: Cardinal Mercier in the First World War: Belgium, Germany and the Catholic ChurchThe author is KU-Leuven historian Jan De Volder. Here is the description from the publisher’s website:

Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, was the incarnation of the Belgian resistance against the German occupation during the First World War. With his famous pastoral letter of Christmas 1914 ‘Patriotisme et Endurance’ he reached a wide audience, and gained international influence and respect.

Mercier’s distinct patriotic stance clearly determined his views of national politics, especially of the ‘Flemish question’, and his conflict with the German occupier made him a hero of the Allies. The Germans did not always know how to handle this influential man of the Church. Pope Benedict XV did not always approve of the course of action adopted by the Belgian prelate. Whereas Mercier justified the war effort as a just cause in view of the restoration of Belgium’s independence, the Pope feared that “this useless massacre” meant nothing but the “suicide of civilized Europe”.

Through a critical analysis of the policies of Cardinal Mercier and Pope Benedict XV, this book sheds revealing light on the contrasting positions of Church leaders in the face of the Great War.

King Louis and the Conversion of Muslims

Here is an interesting-looking new book from Princeton on an historical episode (or legend) of which I’d never heard. In the middle ages, the crusading French king and Catholic saint, Louis IX, allegedly converted a significant number of Muslims to Christianity and settled them in France. Most historians dismiss the episode as apocryphal, but, in The Apple of His Eye: Converts from Islam in the Reign of Louis IX, Princeton historian William Chester Jordan takes the story seriously. Whether true or not, the story is certainly suggestive of how the Catholic Church historically has viewed Muslims, a topic that recent comments by Pope Francis have revived. Here’s a description of the book from the Princeton website:

The thirteenth century brought new urgency to Catholic efforts to convert non-Christians, and no Catholic ruler was more dedicated to this undertaking than King Louis IX of France. His military expeditions against Islam are well documented, but there was also a peaceful side to his encounter with the Muslim world, one that has received little attention until now. This splendid book shines new light on the king’s program to induce Muslims—the “apple of his eye”—to voluntarily convert to Christianity and resettle in France. It recovers a forgotten but important episode in the history of the Crusades while providing a rare window into the fraught experiences of the converts themselves.

William Chester Jordan transforms our understanding of medieval Christian-Muslim relations by telling the stories of the Muslims who came to France to live as Christians. Under what circumstances did they willingly convert? How successfully did they assimilate into French society? What forms of resistance did they employ? In examining questions like these, Jordan weaves a richly detailed portrait of a dazzling yet violent age whose lessons still resonate today.

Until now, scholars have dismissed historical accounts of the king’s peaceful conversion of Muslims as hagiographical and therefore untrustworthy. Jordan takes these narratives seriously—and uncovers archival evidence to back them up. He brings his findings marvelously to life in this succinct and compelling book, setting them in the context of the Seventh Crusade and the universalizing Catholic impulse to convert the world.

A New History of Catholicism in Postcolonial Africa

9780674987661-lgHere is a new book from Harvard on the history of Catholicism in Africa in the postcolonial period, African Catholic: Decolonization and the Transformation of the Church, by Tufts University historian Elizabeth A. Foster. The publisher’s description of the book, below, suggests an historical struggle in French Africa between conservative European clerics and liberation-minded Africans. Ironic, that–because nowadays the struggle in Catholicism, and other Christian communions, is between progressive European clerics and conservative African ones. Times change:

A groundbreaking history of how Africans in the French Empire embraced both African independence and their Catholic faith during the upheaval of decolonization, leading to a fundamental reorientation of the Catholic Church.

African Catholic examines how French imperialists and the Africans they ruled imagined the religious future of French sub-Saharan Africa in the years just before and after decolonization. The story encompasses the political transition to independence, Catholic contributions to black intellectual currents, and efforts to alter the church hierarchy to create an authentically “African” church.

Elizabeth Foster recreates a Franco-African world forged by conquest, colonization, missions, and conversions—one that still exists today. We meet missionaries in Africa and their superiors in France, African Catholic students abroad destined to become leaders in their home countries, African Catholic intellectuals and young clergymen, along with French and African lay activists. All of these men and women were preoccupied with the future of France’s colonies, the place of Catholicism in a postcolonial Africa, and the struggle over their personal loyalties to the Vatican, France, and the new African states.

Having served as the nuncio to France and the Vatican’s liaison to UNESCO in the 1950s, Pope John XXIII understood as few others did the central questions that arose in the postwar Franco-African Catholic world. Was the church truly universal? Was Catholicism a conservative pillar of order or a force to liberate subjugated and exploited peoples? Could the church change with the times? He was thinking of Africa on the eve of Vatican II, declaring in a radio address shortly before the council opened, “Vis-à-vis the underdeveloped countries, the church presents itself as it is and as it wants to be: the church of all.”

Velez, “The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto”

9780691174006Pope Benedict XVI famously said that art and the lives of the saints constitute the principal means for bringing people to the Christian faith. Even as a merely sociological statement, it’s quite profound. But legends are another way of spreading the faith; they often contain a germ of truth. A new book from Princeton, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto: Spreading Catholicism in the Early Modern World, documents the importance of one legendary miracle in the lives of the faithful and shows how it contributed to the spread of Catholicism across the Atlantic. The author is historian Karin Vélez (Macalester College). The publisher’s description follows:

In 1295, a house fell from the evening sky onto an Italian coastal road by the Adriatic Sea. Inside, awestruck locals encountered the Virgin Mary, who explained that this humble mud-brick structure was her original residence newly arrived from Nazareth. To keep it from the hands of Muslim invaders, angels had flown it to Loreto, stopping three times along the way. This story of the house of Loreto has been read as an allegory of how Catholicism spread peacefully around the world by dropping miraculously from the heavens.

In this book, Karin Vélez calls that interpretation into question by examining historical accounts of the movement of the Holy House across the Mediterranean in the thirteenth century and the Atlantic in the seventeenth century. These records indicate vast and voluntary involvement in the project of formulating a branch of Catholic devotion. Vélez surveys the efforts of European Jesuits, Slavic migrants, and indigenous peoples in Baja California, Canada, and Peru. These individuals contributed to the expansion of Catholicism by acting as unofficial authors, inadvertent pilgrims, unlicensed architects, unacknowledged artists, and unsolicited cataloguers of Loreto. Their participation in portaging Mary’s house challenges traditional views of Christianity as a prepackaged European export, and instead suggests that Christianity is the cumulative product of thousands of self-appointed editors. Vélez also demonstrates how miracle narratives can be treated seriously as historical sources that preserve traces of real events.

Drawing on rich archival materials, The Miraculous Flying House of Loreto illustrates how global Catholicism proliferated through independent initiatives of untrained laymen.

 

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Guarino, “The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II”

9780802874382As an outsider, I find the debate among my Catholic friends and colleagues on the true interpretation of the Second Vatican Council extremely interesting. On the one hand, there are those who insist on following “the spirit of Vatican II,” which I understand as a call to go beyond the words of the Council documents themselves and continue to press in a progressive direction, notwithstanding the traditions of the Church. On the other, there are those who wish to adopt “a hermeneutic of continuity”–I believe the phrase is Pope Benedict XVI’s–and read the documents consistently with the tradition of the Church. I realize my description is a bit of a caricature and that each side’s position contains more nuance. But I think my description is correct, as a kind of thumbnail sketch.

A new book from Eerdman’s, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II: Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine, by Seton Hall theologian Thomas G. Guarino, addresses this debate. Looks very interesting. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) radically shook up many centuries of tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. This book by Thomas Guarino, a noted expert on the sources and methods of Catholic doctrine, investigates whether Vatican II’s highly contested teachings on religious freedom, ecumenism, and the Virgin Mary represented a harmonious development of—or a rupture with—Catholic tradition.

Guarino’s careful explanations of such significant terms as continuity, discontinuity, analogy, reversal, reform, and development greatly enhance and clarify his discussion. No other book on Vatican II so clearly elucidates the essential theological principles for determining whether—and to what extent—a conciliar teaching is in continuity or discontinuity with antecedent tradition.

Readers from all faith traditions who care about the logic of continuity and change in Christian teaching will benefit from this masterful case study.

O’Donnell, “Elizabeth Seton”

80140103062730LI don’t know too much about the life of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American citizen to be named a saint by the Catholic Church and the founder of the first free Catholic school in this country. I do know that the order of religious sisters she founded is linked to the Vincentian order that founded St. John’s. She seems to have been a spiritually formidable person. She would have to have been, to convert to Catholicism in a society as thoroughgoingly Protestant as early nineteenth-century America, in which conversion entailed a distinct loss of social status. A new biography from Cornell University Press, Elizabeth Seton: American Saint, by historian Catherine O’Donnell (Arizona State) tells her story. Here’s the description from the Cornell website:

In 1975, two centuries after her birth, Pope Paul VI canonized Elizabeth Ann Seton, making her the first saint to be a native-born citizen of the United States in the Roman Catholic Church. Seton came of age in Manhattan as the city and her family struggled to rebuild themselves after the Revolution, explored both contemporary philosophy and Christianity, converted to Catholicism from her native Episcopalian faith, and built the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Hers was an exemplary early American life of struggle, ambition, questioning, and faith, and in this flowing biography, Catherine O’Donnell has given Seton her due.

O’Donnell places Seton squarely in the context of the dynamic and risky years of the American and French Revolutions and their aftermath. Just as Seton’s dramatic life was studded with hardship, achievement, and grief so were the social, economic, political, and religious scenes of the Early American Republic in which she lived. O’Donnell provides the reader with a strong sense of this remarkable woman’s intelligence and compassion as she withstood her husband’s financial failures and untimely death, undertook a slow conversion to Catholicism, and struggled to reconcile her single-minded faith with her respect for others’ different choices. The fruit of her labors were the creation of a spirituality that embraced human connections as well as divine love and the American Sisters of Charity, part of an enduring global community with a specific apostolate for teaching.

The trove of correspondence, journals, reflections, and community records that O’Donnell weaves together throughout Elizabeth Seton provides deep insight into her life and her world. Each source enriches our understanding of women’s friendships and choices, illuminates the relationships within the often-opaque world of early religious communities, and upends conventional wisdom about the ways Americans of different faiths competed and collaborated during the nation’s earliest years. Through her close and sympathetic reading of Seton’s letters and journals, O’Donnell reveals Seton the person and shows us how, with both pride and humility, she came to understand her own importance as Mother Seton in the years before her death in 1821.

“Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion” (Lowenstein & Whitmore, eds.)

9781108733663I have always been puzzled by the way some of my Catholic colleagues in the academy strive to prove that William Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. All sorts of coded messages in his sonnets and plays are adduced; all manner of shadowy associates and networks offered by way of proof. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but to me the evidence seems pretty shallow. Not that I think Shakespeare was a committed Protestant–and let me add, I have no particular church in this fight. It’s just that all these secret messages and clandestine networks can’t overcome, for me, the indifference about religion that I see in his plays. Shakespeare seems detached about pretty much everything, including religion. (I know, I know, that’s just how a secret Catholic would present himself in Elizabethan and Jacobean England). Shakespeare seems to understand Christianity in broad, cultural terms and to take from it only one thing: the virtue of forgiveness. More than that, it seems to me, it isn’t really possible to say.

These matters are perhaps discussed in a new collection from Cambridge, Shakespeare and Early Modern Religion. The editors are David Lowenstein (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Michael Whitmore (Folger Shakespeare Library). The publisher’s description follows:

Written by an international team of literary scholars and historians, this collaborative volume illuminates the diversity of early modern religious beliefs and practices in Shakespeare’s England, and considers how religious culture is imaginatively reanimated in Shakespeare’s plays. Fourteen new essays explore the creative ways Shakespeare engaged with the multifaceted dimensions of Protestantism, Catholicism, non-Christian religions including Judaism and Islam, and secular perspectives, considering plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King John, King Lear, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale. The collection is of great interest to readers of Shakespeare studies, early modern literature, religious studies, and early modern history.

  • Offers interdisciplinary perspectives on Shakespeare and early modern religion from both literary scholars and historians, appealing to a broad range of readers.
  • Illuminates the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays represent a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices, also revealing a dynamic interaction between religious and secular issues in the plays
  • Connects religious issues in Shakespeare’s plays with political and national ones, illuminating religious belief, politics and national identity in early modern England.

 

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