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Posted August 12, 2009

Book: The Story of the Church
Author: Alfred McBride, O. Praem
St. Anthony Press. Cincinnati, OH. 2009. Pp. 310

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

With rich storytelling and reader-friendly style, Father Al McBride spans the twenty-one centuries of church history. Far from dry facts and figures, he delves into the human drama of church history, from the stories of the early martyrs to the continuing unfolding of the changes of Vatican II and the church in the new millennium. Updated and reformatted with new chapters, sidebars, bibliography and index. The Story of the Church is ideal for classroom use, small groups or individual study.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Looking Back


The eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the French Revolution of 1789 and the bloodbaths of the Napoleonic wars devastated the Catholic church, especially in France and its environs. Rationalist radicals oversaw the emptying of all the monasteries, the slaughter of priests and nuns, the pillaging of churches. Napoleon humiliated the pope and made puppets of the bishops. People questioned the very existence of the church.

In 1815, only twenty-five years after the French Revolution, an astonishing turnabout took place. Thousands of new recruits flocked to the monasteries and seminaries. Missionary orders suddenly flourished again. Intellectuals reevaluated the thinking of the Enlightenment and declared it was not impressive as it had seemed.

New thinkers judged the Enlightenment’s view of human nature too shallow. They repudiated its mechanized vision of nature and renounced its dogma of progress. Was the “reign of terror” progress? Some Progress! The new thinkers sought once again the values of faith, mystery, revernece and regard for tradition.

Nevertheless, disenchantment with liberalism was not outright divorce. Many tenets of liberalism clearly were here to stay: The liberal agenda call for democratic government and the elimination of church control of marriage and education. Reaction to the violent results of liberal philosophy meant that liberals would lie low but not disappear.

Between 1815 and 1830 Europe was in no mood for liberalism or any of its revolutions. Kings returned to their thrones with self-confidence, supported by the conservative backlash. The church, accustomed to its traditional partnership of “throne and altar,” was content.

Lammenais’s Challenge

In 1831, new stirrings of liberalism were noted, this time inside the church. A brilliant priest named Lammenais became the found of Catholic liberalism. Together with the eloquent preacher Lacordaire and the scholarly historian Montalembert, he fought for the acceptance of liberal concepts within the church.

His fundamental premise was that church and state should be separated. He counseled the church to examine more carefully the trends of history. He was convinced, correctly, that monarchies were dying. The church should cut its ties with moribund forms of government and back the democratic wave of the future. At the same time, Lammenais advocated the concept of a strong papacy.

He believed in freedom of education and freedom of the press: One must trust in the power of truth to overcome error. And fifty years ahead of his time, he preached the right of every human being to have a vote. One should trust in the common sense of the people and their reserve of popular wisdom. Said he, “Let us not tremble before liberalism. Let us Catholicize it.”

He could hardly have preached a more unpopular message. By no standards of the times was the church ready for liberalism — even a Catholic one. The bishops preferred to tremble. They pointed out to him that such a plan would impoverish the church overnight. Lammenais thought that a splendid idea. At last the church would be identified with the majority of humanity that was in fact poor, as well as with the Christ of Bethlehem and Calvary. He did not move them. Even the secular liberals repudiated him, especially his concept of universal suffrage. In 1831 they were not about to give the vote to the “ragged masses” — or to women.

Lammenais felt there was only one place to turn. Had he not supported the concept of a strong papacy? Surely the pope would listen to him. He misread Gregory XVI, the closed-minded authoritarian predecessor to Pius IX. Gregory probably felt he was, in fact sufficiently strong. What more power did the papacy need? The papacy had survived the insulting behavior of Napoleon and lived to bury him.

But Lammenais and his two friends, Montalembert and Lacordaire, thought they could change Gregory’s mind. They wrote a memorandum explaining their views and set out for Rome as “pilgrims for God and liberty.” they gave the pope their memorandum on December 30, 1831. They waited for his reply. And waited . . .and waited. No answer. Disillusioned, they returned to France. The pope waited six months to give them his answer: a thundering no! His encyclical Mirari Vos totally rejected their plan.

Lammenais was crushed. Still, he spent a year trying to gain some concessions. In a series of letters with the Vatican he hoped to pry open some corner where a dialogue could begin. The pope would not listen; he demanded obedience. Lammenais despaired when the pope supported the Orthodox Russian Czar’s suppression of Catholic Poland’s rebellion. Bitter andexasperated, Lammenais left the church which had “divorced itself from Christ to fornicate with his torturers.”

Why wouldn’t the pope bend a little? Why was the church of the 1830s – and throughout most of the nineteenth century — so intransigent about liberalism? Perhaps a comparison with the twentieth-century church’s attitude toward communism may help.

The Russian communist revolution was blatantly atheistic and overly anti-church, not only in theory, but in practice. Communists used police-state methods to intimidate and destroy religion, however unsuccessfully. Pius XI and Pius XII were outspoken enemies of communism because of this atheism and hostility to religion. In the 1830's secularistic liberalism had attempted to destroy the church in much the same way, provoking the same reaction. Pope Gregory XVI raged against the liberalism of the French rationalist revolution for much the same reason that Pius XII would fume about the radicalism of the Russian communist revolution. Lammenais did not have a chance of being heard.

By extension, Gustavo Guttierrez, today’s Latin American advocate of liberation theology which “Catholicizes” Marxism, would have had no hearing from Pius XI or Pius XII: neither did John Paul II enthusiastically endorse this approach. At the same time many of the liberal ideas advocated by Lammenais are now, a century later, accepted by the church. If history repeats itself, some of us may live to see elements of Marxism accepted by the church of the twenty-first century.

The story of Pius IX shows that Lammenais would have been no more successful with him. The events leading up to the election of Pius in 1846 reveal an uncompromising attitude within the church toward liberalism, whether of the secular kind of Lammenais’ Catholic version. To their credit, liberals did not lie down and die. They stayed and fought, inside and outside the church. They have lived to see the church accept much of their agenda, modified by time and reflection and adapted to continuity with church tradition.

Table of Contents:

1. Timeline

2. First-century adjustments

3. More than martyrdom

4. Early liturgy

5. From house to basilica

6. Development of ritual

7. First-century adjustments

8. The western church as servant

9. Saint Augustine

10. Part Two: Timeline

11. Monks

12. The architecture of faith

13. Friars

14. The Crusades

15. The great schism

16. Heretics

17. The Black Death

18. Spirituality in the Middle Ages

Part Three: Timeline

19. Reformers: Luther and Earasmus

20. The rise of Protestantism

21. Counter-reform

22. The Renaissance

23. The Council of Trent

24. The American scene

Part Four: Timeline

25. On guard against liberalism

26. The church’s social teaching

27. Some literary converts

28. New movements

29. John XXIII and Vatican II

30. Moving forward: the faith on fire