Friday, March 01, 2013

Diarmaid MacCullough on the Catholic Church

This next bit is meant as a response to tongue lashing delivered by the Thirsty Gargoyle. His ire was raised by 'an astonishingly dodgy piece' published in the Irish Times by the historian Diarmaid MacCullough on the need for reform in the Catholic Church. My agreement with his many critical points is near complete; including with terming MacCullough's description of the Catholic Church as 'clunky and inadequate', characterizing the quality of the Times article as 'falling from the first hurdle', and, not to be omitted, describing MacCullough's take on Catholicism as 'a shocking incomprehension'. Though my grasp of the situation may not be as detailed, due to a Protestant impediment I lug around wherever I go, Thirsty's general description of the Roman Catholic Church as a radically decentralized, international entity is accurate, as far as I am aware.

Notwithstanding any of the foregoing, I think one point remains left unsaid. Some light needs to be shed on MacCullough's own motivations. Indeed, Thirsty helpfully cites E.H. Carr to the effect of needing to understand why a historian selects what he or she does, why they deploy their evidence in the way they do, and what it is that motivates them to write in the first place. You may think, for example, historian X really botched things up because he obviously did not consider document Y (most likely something you have a passing familiarity with) from perspective Z (which you probably like to think of your intellectual standard). But that is not to say historian X is wrong; unless, of course, you perceive yourself the sole arbiter of historical truth. The canons of historical criticism have a stringent flexibility about them, which I take as an implicit recognition the thing under investigation (e.g. the thoughts or actions of someone or some group of people) only comes down to the present in bits and pieces--unlike, say, the canons of inductive reasoning, which are intransigently inflexible.

Carr's admonishment is a helpful starting point, because I don't think Thirsty's sensitivity to MacCullough's self-understanding of the task of a historian is what it could be. Thirsty's take on the matter is fairly clear: historians the world over ought to aim at a sort of factual accuracy that grasps the human contours of the situation. It will not do, in other words, to let your own preconceived ideas about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful loose on the historical stage. Other people will have their own take on those matters as well. The careful historian is sensitive to character of the material, technological, artefactual, and intellectual context of their subject; and they are agnostic in matters of transcendent concern. Or, if Thirsty would grant me a little interpretive license, the historian's transcendence is immanent in a human form, in much the same way the prologue to the Gospel of John presents God in human form; the difference being that the historian's concern is never focused on a single man, but embraces, at least in principle, every human being who ever lived.

MacCullough's motivations are somewhat different, and if considered carefully, may actually illuminate way he either misunderstands or misrepresents Catholicism. His motivations are on display where he discusses his reason for subtitling his history of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. The subtitle contains a dual-reference: to the Jewish paternity of the Christian faith, and also to its yet unwritten future.

In fact, the self-identified 'candid friend of Christianity', MacCullough, writes more for the future than he does to understand the past. G.K. Chesterton observed somewhere I can't quite recall, while the past is as wide as humanity, the unwritten future is as narrow as oneself. The version of Christianity's history MacCullough puts forward is tailored to his unabashedly personal vision of the way things ought to be. He says,
My aim has been to seek out what I see as the good in the varied forms of the Christian faith, while pointing clearly to what I think is foolish and dangerous in them.
Which is immediately followed by his pronouncement of an anathema on fanaticism of all sorts.

The task MacCullough gives himself as a historian is that of exposing religious insanity and irrationality. He is the quintessential post-Kantian critic of consciousness, who selects from the evidence according to the needs of a future, which he intends to write. This doesn't mean the history he writes is flat out wrong; only that it bends one way and not another.

The bent lends him to interpreting the existence of the Catholic Church as a community ruled from the top-downThe post-Kantian critic of consciousness is trained to expect that dogmatists will impose their dogmas on others, and that what applies in the realm of thought, also goes in the realm of action. Hence the government of the Catholic Church must also be top-down, despite all the evidence to the contrary.* With an eye to the future liberation of humanity, the critic will expose the irrationalities of the dogmatist's claims. If the particular bits of evidence do not conveniently line up with the cosmopolitan intention of the critic, that is perfectly fine. They are writing for the future, where irrationalities have been written out of the story.

Now, Thirsty can complain all he wants about MacCullough's treatment of the evidence. That does not change the fact that he and MacCullough have two very different ideas about what it means to read the evidence.

So instead of enumerating MacCullough's many scholarly sins, none of which I have any reason to take issue with, one actually has to persuade him of the need to confess them at all. MacCullough has never, to my knowledge, feigned obedience to Rome. Like so many others persons in these strangely halcyon days following a pope's voluntary abdication, however, he has found reason to express an interest in the future direction of the Catholic Church.

As that Church professes to embrace the whole human race--potentially, if not yet in actuality--MacCullough's caricatures would seem to be its cross to bear; which throws Thirsty's conclusion, 'Know yourself and know your enemy, and all that', in sharp relief.

Know yourself, and let the rest work itself out.

*Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens made this same error when they assumed the pope was ultimately responsible for the sexual offenses of priests perpetrated against minors and set about to issue a warrant for his arrest from a British court, just in time for a papal visit. The warrant was never issued.


The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I would agree with a lot of this, Rich -- most, really -- but in some ways I think your demurral makes my point for me.

I don't think there are many historians who think that it's in the remit of historians to mould the future rather than to understand the past; understanding the past is the point of history. Of course, many historians would say that the better we understand the past, the better we can look to the future, but that's different. What McCullough does, in taking the line he does, is less history than propaganda.

Historians are always obliged to select from the evidence, and clearly can't use everything: as such, there's an argument that we're entitled to use the evidence we see appropriate to our theses. It's not an argument many historians find convincing, however, not least as it reeks of intellectual dishonesty, especially in the case of the ancient world.

We have so little evidence for first two Christian centuries, that any analysis of the period that omits such evidence as the New Testament documents, the first letter of Clement, and the letters of Ignatius of Antioch must be acknowledged as either lazy, ignorant, or dishonest; one way or another we must recognise that such analyses can have no value save as propaganda.

More broadly, the problem with this is that if the thesis comes first, then we can all too easily disregard the evidence that doesn't suit us. The thesis should be at least modified in accord with the evidence. I see no sign that McCullough does that. Rather, a trained and experienced historian, he uses his academic credentials to mask that fact that he's now more propagandist than historian.

(We might liken him, in this respect, to Richard Dawkins's abuse of his scientific background in recent years.)

Is there a need to persuade McCullough of his scholarly sins? Perhaps, but not because McCullough has any duty to Rome; rather, simply, because if we have duties at all, our duty is to the truth.

Of course, if there is no God, as McCullough, Christianity's self-styled 'candid friend', evidently thinks, then there may well be no such imperative: who controls the past controls the future, as Orwell recognised, and if ends justify means then some might argue that it can be fully justified to lie about the past if that will give us a better future.

I'd disagree, of course, and not just because houses shouldn't be built on rotten foundations, as The Dark Knight Rises rather brutally insisted.

We are blessed with the gift of language; we should not use it to deceive. Suppression of evidence in a quest to construct an 'is' from what we deem to be an 'ought' is not merely bad history; it is not history at all. It is not the task of the historian to say what should happen; it is our task to find out what did.

Richard Greydanus said...

We aren't disagreeing on any of the substantive points, at least not as far as I can tell. My point was to ask a different sort of question about the nature of the historian's intention.

Though your identification of my demurral helps make my point for me. What is being contested here is what exactly the truth of the historical evidence is. There isn't truth (what ought to be) on the one side and evidence on the other (what is)--or, if there is, how these two are read together is not at all clear. And that tension needs to be explored, I think.

I have also read and own Richard Evans' In Defense of History, to which you linked at the end of the comment. Have you read his Third Reich trilogy, where he puts all of those theoretical suggestions to work? The two bodies of work complement each other wonderfully.

In response to your final comments: some thoughts I had about the study of the human past as an intrinsically moral science may be apropos. (I too can channel the ghost of Leopold von Ranke.)