Pop History, Cultural Amnesia & the Bad Old Church

February 2007By James Bemis

James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review and a frequent contributor to The Latin Mass magazine.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages: The Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art From the Cults of Catholic Europe.  By Thomas C. Cahill. Doubleday. 320 pages. $32.50.



The only thing worse than a pop psychologist is a pop historian. Given our cultural amnesia and pathetic knowledge of the past, a writer of popular histories who himself has little grasp of what is important can do enormous and long-lasting harm. Thomas Cahill is one such pop historian, perhaps the pop historian. His first major success, How the Irish Saved Civilization, spent a year and a half on The New York Times bestseller list. With over one million copies in print, the book is used in college-level Western Civilization courses throughout the country. The impact of his writings is hardly negligible.

Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the fifth in Cahill's "Hinges of History" series, focuses on what he calls "the great gift givers" of Western Civilization, including Hildegard of Bingen, Eleanor of Aquitane, Francis of Assisi, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Giotto, and Dante. Cahill's thesis is that these individuals bequeathed to the world the gifts of feminism, science, and art, with the unspoken assumption that the modern variant of each "gift" is an unalloyed benefit to society. This latter point is debatable, to say the least.

But Cahill proves less a historian than a modern weathervane. He unfailingly takes all the standard liberal positions, with frequent jarring -- and annoying -- references to contemporary music, movies, and television shows, in a rather juvenile attempt to prove how hip he is. Of his unseemly obsession with sex (which, to be fair, he shares with most of his contemporaries), the less said the better.

Cahill exhibits a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church: loving her cultural glories while hating her hierarchy -- an animus that frequently gets the better of him. Popes are always "shouting," even when being quoted from written works. Yet Cahill refers to Pope Pius XII as "a silent pope" and "perhaps already a bit dotty" by 1951.

Cahill has particular loathing for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the medieval age's greatest men. He frequently makes disparaging remarks about the saint and seems particularly incensed that Dante chooses St. Bernard to lead him to the beatific vision in Paradiso. Cahill would be happier if Bernard had been relegated to one of the lower circles of Hell: "Bernard, in fact, was one of the most cutthroat players of his time, always on the hunt for heretics.... Bernard was the self-appointed Grand Inquisitor of 12th century Europe, a sham saint capable of complete chastity, as well as an undying jealousy and hatred."

Predictably, his scant praise for things Catholic is reserved for fellow liberals: "What Thomas Aquinas's encyclopedic masterpiece, Summa Theologica, did for the 13th century, Hans Küng's 700-page masterpiece of summation, To Be a Christian, has done for our age." Further, "it is chiefly because Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the ever-gentlemanly twentieth-century Jesuit paleontologist, distanced himself from the Augustinian position that his works of genius, offering a unique combination of scientific and theological insight, remain under a Vatican cloud."

Often, Cahill is contradictory or even flat wrong. For instance, he writes, "The Jewish world view...assumed that death was the end: when the body died, you died. Period." However, in the same paragraph, he states, "Both ancient Jews and ancient Greeks left room for a shadow world beneath the earth, where the insubstantial shades of what were once living men and women drifted like smoke." Which is it? Both statements cannot be true.

Despite his strong opinions, Cahill is curiously ignorant about the Church he wants to revolutionize. He makes continual reference to Catholics' "worship of the Virgin Mary," a gross misstatement of the veneration due to her. He observes wrongly that "the Pope, to begin with, was not in any sense head of the Church. He was just Bishop of Rome, one of several dioceses thought to be founded by apostles and therefore especially ancient and venerable." This contradicts numerous biblical citations referencing St. Peter as the head of the Apostles, and the practice of the early Church, which often deferred to Rome in important matters.

In stretching to establish his progressive credentials, Cahill sometimes misses a larger point. His chapter on St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, emphasizes the saint's skills as peacemaker, while Francis's monumental contributions to religious life are given short shrift.

Most telling is the book's final chapter, "Postlude: Love in the Ruins," in which Cahill prescribes his remedies for the ills of the Catholic Church, including popular election of clergy, voluntary celibacy for priests, and mass resignation of the episcopacy -- indicating a lack of understanding of the Church's nature. Here, Cahill refers to the heterodox Voice of the Faithful as "a sincere movement," indicating where he may have gotten his harebrained ideas for reforming the Church.

This is not to say Mysteries of the Middle Ages is all bad: Cahill can be an engaging writer when not pandering to his audience. His chapter on Giotto is excellent, with a splendid description of the great artist's magnificent paintings on the walls of Padua's Scrovegni Chapel. Cahill's thought-provoking comparison of Dante and James Joyce makes us wonder if Joyce could have been a 20th-century Dante if the talented Irishman hadn't lost his faith.

Ultimately, though, Cahill is confronted with the limitations faced by every secular scholar writing about the Middle Ages: It is impossible to understand European civilization without an appreciation for the single most important institution in its development, the Catholic Church. At its height, Europe was the Catholic Church's teachings incarnate. This insight gives Catholic historians an enormous advantage over secular ones, who struggle to understand the medieval mind. The fact is that without grasping the supernatural dimension of the Church and her mission, Thomas Cahill remains ill-equipped to write truly and seriously about Europe.



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