James Hitchcock has written a new one volume history of the Catholic Church. History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. A one volume history of the Catholic Church is quite an undertaking and to do it in a bit over 530 pages is not a simple task. Writing only 500 pages on any century of the Church would be a difficult task. Creating a one volume history imposes many expected limitations, but if done well can provide a very valuable service. There are several one volume histories of this type, although I have mainly read either the multi-volume sets such as The History of Christendom by the late Warren H. Carroll or histories covering specific area.
What James Hitchcock has pulled off if quite exceptional. This is a summary history that sweeps through the ages of the Church. While it leaves you wanting to know many more details of the history described, still you are given the best overview possible for this format.
For the most part this is a sequential sweep through the history of the Church from its birth to the present. While mostly the history is sequential some of the chapters are focuses on specific areas and can contain large sweeps of history regarding that topic. I was hooked from the introduction on. The information is presented in topic focused paragraphs with a topic title displayed to the right or left of the text. The topics are usually only a couple paragraphs in length. I really liked the format of the book because I will be using it in the future as a reference. Besides the lengthy index the topic headings next to the text make it very easy to scan and find specific information you might want to go back to.
I have heard complaints about Harry Crocker’s one volume history “Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church” for being triumphalistic (doesn’t that go with the title). So you might wonder how James Hitchcock presents the history of the Church. Well to sum it up the history of the Church can be described using Charles Dikens’ start of “A Tale of Two Cities”.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.
The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes starts off “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age.” This history displays that tension and does not whitewash the history of the Church. He does not gloss over serious evils that occurred. This history is nicely balanced as a presentation and this is certainly the way I prefer it. Really the history of the Church is sort of a proof for the Catholic Church. If it was just up to us Catholics the Church would be a historical footnote by now. If she were not a divinely given institution she would have passed like all man-made institutions. It does the Church no good to minimize what has happened and it is always a temptation to do this. For example some apologists will minimize witch-hunting as something that mainly occurred among Protestants. As he states witchcraft persecutions were an “activity carried out by Catholics and Protestants with equal zeal.” Sandra Miesel has an excellent article regarding this. So while the low points are not left out, neither are the glories of Christendom reduced.
This is simply a great history of the Church that gives a topological summary giving you the birds-eye view. I really like how he crafted the topic summaries to pack in the information. This succinctness I am sure took some serious work to pull of. I also like that there is little editorializing of history while still delivering some fine insights. Plus peppered throughout were little details at times that added to the enjoyment. At times I thought that perhaps he might have left something out only to find it a couple of paragraphs later or separated into one of the more topic focused chapters.
To sum it up I think this is a quite a major work and just a great one volume look at Church history. There was only one time in the whole book where I scratched my head a little where a footnote regarding Joan of Arc read “She was canonized in 1920. Her sanctity is problematical insofar as she acted merely as a French patriot, but her canonization was based on her heroic virtue.”. Although if you can go through 500 plus pages of a book of Catholic history and only have one quibble, that is a pretty amazing accomplishment.