A Sense of History

One of the more useful things I have learned from having leiomyosarcoma is that the emotion of anger is every bit as dangerous as the Desert Fathers and, indeed monastic tradition as a whole, has always taught. When one faces death daily, one is more aware of one’s own sins than the shortcomings of others and one sees, with a clarity quite frightening in its intensity, that anger is very rarely what angry people want it to be, viz. righteous anger, but more usually a way of expressing inner discontent and violence. Latch that discontent and violence onto a lack of a sense of history and what do we get? Sometimes nothing worse than sheer silliness, as in the current fashion for tearing down statues because of their association with things that no one in their right mind would countenance today. Sometimes the result is much more sinister and amounts to persecution of individuals or groups, as in some of the terrible genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. An angry person is not merely blind to truth, he or she does not want the truth — only what supports their chosen narrative.

This morning I was mulling over the Pope’s latest Motu Proprio, Magnum Principium, disappointed to see how many had rushed online to air their views without apparently much knowledge of Church history beyond the last five centuries or so, and without any real appreciation, so it seemed to me, of the complexity of liturgical and canonical developments over a like period. Admitting one’s limitations has never been very fashionable, but blazoning one’s passion has today become a test of authenticity. So we end up with those who are ‘for’ Pope Francis treating the document as though it contained no debatable elements and those who are ‘against’ him treating it as sheer heresy from start to finish. The position we adopt proclaims that we are ‘true Catholics’, the implication being that those who take a different view are not. The real point, the document’s potential effect on our celebration of the liturgy and the way in which that liturgy expresses the belief of the Church, is lost sight of.* It has become a vehicle for expressing other views, for advancing another agenda.

To those who are not Catholics, all this may seem like just another internal church squabble with very little relevance for anyone else. The trouble is, what is happening inside the Catholic Church is very like what is happening outside. The polarisation of politics, the campaigns for inclusiveness and equality which stretch our understanding not only of history but of such fundamental matters as sex and gender, the determination  to be seen doing whatever the ‘correct’ thing of the moment may be, create a great deal of clamour but do not always lead to wise or helpful conclusions. To realise that how we are today is not how we were half a century ago, and that how we were half a century ago was not how we were half a century before then, is not merely something that historians must understand, it is something we must all try to appreciate. Without a sense of history, of how the passage of time affects us, we are in danger of perpetrating many injustices. Not the least of these is letting our anger run away with us, of forcing the historical narrative to fit our current agenda and so of perverting truth. It’s not just because I am myself a lapsed historian that I say cultivating a sense of history is essential to our wellbeing as a society. It is because failure to do so affects our judgement in many areas of life and ultimately makes us less free, less happy, less human.

• I may comment in more detail on Magnum Principium in a later post, but for Latin Rite Catholics there seems to me to be both potentially good news (eg vernacular translations will be freed from the ‘one English fits all’ kind of approach, which has led to some very deadly translations in the past) and potentially bad news (eg the Words of Consecration may not always and everywhere be rendered in the same way — think of the argument over the translation of pro multis). We certainly need to pray for our bishops.