Catholic Courier

Posted: December 21, 2009

Church history offers lessons for Catholics

A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story on Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. The article focused on various aspects of his life and political career, including his religious affiliation and convictions.

Sen. Santorum is a Catholic, albeit of a particular kind. He attends Sunday Mass along with Justice Antonin Scalia and other prominent Catholics of similar orientation at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, Va., where the liturgy is in Latin and the priest prays with his back to the congregation, just like it was in the days before the Second Vatican Council.

However, at 47, Sen. Santorum was only 4 years old when the Second Vatican Council opened in October 1962, and only 7 when it adjourned in December 1965.

He never attended a Catholic college or university, having received a BA in political science from Penn State in 1980, an MBA at the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate of jurisprudence from Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pa.

In the Times Magazine article, Sen. Santorum is portrayed as exuberant over the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as the new pope.

"What you saw," he claimed, "is an affirmation by the cardinals that the church is not going to change, even though maybe Europe and North America want it to. It is going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years." A remarkable statement indeed from someone who has never had a graduate-level course in church history.

Blessed John XXIII reminded us in his opening address to the Second Vatican Council that history is "the teacher of life." Without a sense of history, one is always vulnerable to the temptation of accepting and repeating generalities that are without factual basis or, more specifically, are contradicted by the facts of history.

Many Catholics believe, for example, that only the pope can appoint bishops. But the pope has only exercised that prerogative for the universal church since the 19th century. Before that, bishops were selected by various processes, the most common of which during the First Christian Millennium was election by the clergy and laity of the diocese in which they would serve.

Catholics today take for granted that bishops can be transferred from smaller dioceses to larger dioceses when they are deemed suitable for greater pastoral responsibilities. But in the early church that was not only uncommon; it was absolutely prohibited. Indeed, the body of a deceased pope, Formosus (891-896), was dug up and placed on trial because he had accepted election as Bishop of Rome when he was already the bishop of another diocese in Italy (Porto).

These are only a few examples of changes that have occurred in the Catholic Church. There are countless others in the realm of doctrine (the church once approved of slavery, while condemning the taking of interest on loans), liturgy (the Mass was originally in Greek, then Latin and then in many other languages) and even the making of saints (it was not until the year 993 that a saint was canonized by a pope; before then it was a matter of acclamation by the people).

Sen. Santorum is surely not the only Catholic who is unaware of the lessons of church history. Nor is he alone in mistakenly believing that "the church is not going to change," that it is "going to stay the way it has been for 2,000 years."

But if history is "the teacher of life," we need to learn from it.

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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