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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  May 2004

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION May 2004

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Subject:

Re: teaching medieval religion

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 7 May 2004 17:46:50 -0500

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

This is a convenient way to cut the Gordian knot. It rests on an understanding of church and history that is problematic for traditional Catholic ecclesiology and, I think, would have been unrecognizable to medieval Catholics--not surprising, since it posits a clear discontinuity between medieval and early modern Catholics.  Oddly enough, no early modern Catholic would have attempted this resolution because it would have involved, effectively, conceding the entire Protestant Reformation claim about discontinuity between the church in one era and the church in another era.  So it would have been unrecognizable to both medieval and early modern (and most modern) Catholics.  Only in the last few decades has it arisen and it rests on an embrace of a Whig/Protestant view of history as applied to the church.   So, while it may provide a solution for some Catholics teaching medieval history or religion today, it should be recognized for what it is--a relatively recent way to interpret change and continuity over the centuries.  It doesn't help the (perhaps rare) Catholic who believes what both Trent and Vatican II said about continuity in church history.

I am well aware of Professor Macy's publications arguing for the rise of a sharp distinction between clergy and laity in the twelfth century and on disjunction in Eucharistic theology.  He offers evidence to support these interpretations.  My purpose here is simply to point out that, like all history writing, is an interpretation of the evidence, and one that would have surprised most medieval theologians.  Yes, of course, the disjunctive reading (so characteristic of the Protestant reformers and of Whiggish modern interpreters) was present from the early centuries of Christianity (Marcion, the Gnostics secret traditions etc.) but it was decisively rejected by the central tradition.  I am equally aware that a common response denies the very existence of a central tradition and attributes its presence in the historical data to its having been imposed through the "victors' rewriting" of history, ex post facto, to bolster the power position of those who won the relatively evenly pitched battle over discontinuity and continuity.  But how would one know this is what "egentlich geschehen ist"?  In part, one reads the evidence for or against the artificiality of a central tradition of continuity depending on one's own assumptoins about the sociology of religious movements and based on one's belief or non-belief in the church as a divine-human institution miraculously guarded from defectibility by Christ.  For most people today, who are non-believers in that view of the Catholic church, the continuity interpretation seems quite doubtful.  Professor Macy presented his interpretation as enjoying wide consensus is probably correct to do so.  But that is only another way of saying that most academics are not Catholics and that even many "practicing Catholic" academics who have been enlightened no longer believe in the supernatural indefectibility of the Church  (which does not mean its members are incapable of injustice or sin), which makes the Church not simply subjected to the ebb and flow, to the continuities and discontinuities of human sociology and history, but both within that ebb and flow yet somehow _sub specie aeternitatis), truly beyond it.

Now, the latter view, which I think is clearly reaffirmed at Vatican II, is today a minority view even among Catholics.  The only reason I raise it here is that I do think that it is closer to what most medieval Christians believed than is the view outlined by Professor Macy--it could not be otherwise, since the two "Catholic churches" his intepretation distinguishes from the medieval Catholic church (Tridentine and contemporary) did not yet exist.  

If, for instance, Vatican II had turned its back on that medieval Catholic view of things and promulgated an interpretation something like that which Professor Macy offers, his case would be clear--the contemporary Catholic church itself would have distanced itself from the medieval Catholic Church and from Trent as well.  But Vatican II did no such thing.

So, at least for those Catholics who accept the claim of Lumen Gentium that the church of the apostles, of the Church Fathers, of the medievals, of Trent, and of Vatican I are one and the same Church, Professor Macy's solution will not work as far as a Catholic teaching medieval history.  We are stuck with the medieval Church as every bit as much our church as today's church, with all its flaws, is aour church.  I am well aware that some will insists that I have offered a false or tendentious interpretation of Vatican II on this issue--the dance goes on.

Let me anticipate one other likely response: what I just articulated is "theology"--theologically, yse, the Catholic Church makes thes claims about the Church being divinely instituted and existing continuously, continuously developing without however disjoining into two or three churches, and the Church expects Catholics to believe these claism, but Professor Macy was articulating and speaking for a _historical._ view of things.  In this line of reasoning, history cannot access matters of faith or religious belief, only describe the actions of people who hold them and can only do so secularly and agnostically.  Viewed _sub specie aeternitatis_, viewed theologically, someone might reply, what you have just written is understandable, but that's theology and we are doing history here.  Don't mix the two.  WIthin history, all one can do is analyze human actions, employing "social science" theory about how humans employ power and ideals etc.

Fine, but this thread began with the dilemma faced precisely by those who do believe, who do have faith--asking how they deal with that in examining a past era, in doing history.  SImply to ask believers to do history agnostically will not solve the problem for them.  It solves things very well for those who are agnostic.  But it solves the problem by asking the believer to come over, at least in the classroom or professionally, to the secular side.  Yet it is an article of faith with those who believe, whether in ISlam or Christianity or Buddhism, that their believes affect their entire lives.  To ask them to bifurcate is to ask them to be persuaded to give up their coinvictions, at least temporarily and methodologically.  If we asked this of everyone, Marxists, post-colonialists, etc., it mght be defensible.  But to ask it only of some and not of others is not defensible.

The problem of "owning' the medieval Catholic as continuous with one's Church today is a specifically Catholic problem  Protestant understandings of the Church presume discontinuity--a fall into decadence and apsotasy at some point along the line, with a recovery and rebirth of the True Church at some other point.  Non-Christians (whether secularists, Enlightenment moderns, postmoderns, Buddhists, Hindus) by definition will view the medieval Church as "other"--this does not preclude forms of indentification with it, but at lesast on some level, a gulf exists between them and it.

Professor Macy offers a way around this dilemma for Catholics.  I think it is at odds  with Vatican II understandings of the history of the one Catholic and apostolic Church.  Since he presented his interpretation as representing a consensus of scholars and as an unproblematic solution for Catholics medievalistis, I think it helpful to point out that at least one practicing Catholic finds it incompatible with Vatican II Catholic self-understanding.  The majority of Catholic medievalists and Catholic historians mght find his solution acceptable.  Curmudgeon that I am, I thought it necessary to point out that it solves the problem only if one adjusts traditional (and medieval) beliefs about the nature of the Church considerably.

I'm sorry, but I think we Catholics are stuck with the medieval church as our own, warted-up members of it included, even as we are stuck with the contemporary church, with all its sinful members, yours truly included.  A messier solution than distinguishing three distinct Catholic churches over time is to look carefully at all the claims for the medieval church's  sins, assess them as accurately as one can, account for anti-Christian and anti-Catholic biases in post-medieval historians, account as best one can for one's own Catholic biases, be as honest as one can and denounce injustice where one sees it and praise selfless holiness where one sees it.  Oh, and while one is at it, ask modern folk to be just as honest and relentlessly critical of whatever injustices and sins have occurred on the post-Christian Western and non-Christian non-Western watch--there's plenty of injustice to go around.

Dennis Martin


>>> [log in to unmask] 05/07/04 2:18 PM >>>
medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

I am sorry to jump into the discussion so late, but on the West Coast, 
when I read my mail, it was morning and some of us were still 
caffeinating.  Without responding to the all of the issues raised here, 
I would at least argue that first of all, the church(es) of the Middle 
Ages were quite diverse.  There were at least two quite different forms 
of church polity particularly before and after the reforms of the 
eleventh century consolidated at Lateran IV.   So, secondly, these 
churches were not "Catholic" in the sense that "Roman Catholic" is used 
now.  Late medieval Christianity was the origin out of which all of 
Western Christianity emerged.  This is not a new point, of course.  I 
as well as others have written on the subject often enough.  However 
the point is worth repeating because from this perspective, there are 
no longer any late medieval Christians.  Certainly the church that 
emerged from Trent and became Roman  Catholicism is no more "medieval" 
than some other Western Christian groups.  Therefore explaining late 
medieval Western Christianity should not be seen as necessarily 
"defending" or "attacking" any present Christian group. The 
identification of Roman Catholicism as it came to exist after Trent 
with the "medieval Church" (as if that were somehow an identifiable 
unity) was a political move of some complexity, but one of very 
questionable historical value.  From this perspective, the medieval 
inquisitions, for example, were not "Roman Catholic" nor was the rise 
of the universities .
>
Gary Macy, Ph.D.
Professor
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Latino/a Catholicism
University of San Diego
5998 Alcalá Park
San Diego, CA 92110
619-260-4053

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