A History of Christendom, by Warren H. Carroll

I’ve been told for several years by Catholic friends that I ought to look at Warren H. Carroll’s six-volume A History of Christendom. Carroll is Professor Emeritus at Christendom College, which he founded, and has been at work on his History of Christendom since 1975. His curriculum vitae can be found here.I’ve recently gained access to the first three volumes, and have so far, with a few caveats, been impressed. The work is massive (600+ pp. per volume), and so doubtless given my other commitments I’ll have to comment on the work sporadically. This post, therefore, will be the first installment in an ongoing, infrequent “series.”

Some Initial Praises

The first thing I’d like to say about the work is about its title, A History of Christendom. This speaks volumes by itself, even before you crack the covers of the books. Most Church histories I’m familiar with are exactly that–Church histories.:”(Such as Philip Schaff’s A History of the Christian Church, and Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language.)”: A few are histories of Christianity.:”(Such as Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity.)”: Carroll’s is the first I’ve seen that is a history of Christendom, and to my mind that already makes a world of difference. Why? Consider Carroll’s opening paragraph for Vol. 1: The Founding of Christendom:

What is Christendom? What kind of history can be written of it?

Christendom is the reign of Christ–that is to say, for the Christian, the reign of God recognized by men. Much of that reign is invisible, since His kingdom is not of this world. Much of it is personal, since the primary concern of this divine Person is with us as human and eternal persons. But some of it is public and historical. Where men of courage and missionary spirit recognize Christ as their Lord and proclaim Him, Christendom appears as a social, cultural and political presence in the world. It grows with that courage and profession, and above all, by the silent impetus of prayer and example. It fades with timidity, indifference, apostasy, and lack of holiness.:”(A History of Christendom, Vol. 1: The Founding of Christendom [Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1985], pg. 9.)”:

After noting that Christendom has “faded today, to the edge of invisibility,” he argues that “These years of Christendom’s apparent eclipse are perhaps the best time to attempt the telling of its full historical story, from preparation through birth and growth, climax, division, and retreat–so as to be more ready for its coming resurrection.”:”(Ibid.)”: I like that a lot. Indeed, since Carroll has already defined “Christendom” as “the reign of Christ…recognized by men,” it is hard to see how any Christian could be opposed to it. Typically, of course, that to which many Christians object–living, as we all do, in the decadent atmosphere created by the obtuse Modernist doctrines of “separation of Church and State” and “freedom of religion”–is that which Carroll describes as the Faith’s “public and historical…social, cultural and political presence in the world.” We are much more at home today with the aspect of Christendom that “is invisible, since His kingdom is not of this world.”

But Carroll is correct that spirituality is not all there is to Christendom. As some Calvinist authors have argued, because “culture is religion externalized,” it is impossible for a Christian to be neutral with respect to the aspect of Christendom that is a “public and historical…social, cultural and political presence in the world.” Any cultural act–and all human acts that affect space and time, restructuring it and attempting to make it better than its original condition are cultural acts–displays a religious commitment. If a man is a Christian his cultural acts say something about Christianity just as if a man is a Muslim his cultural acts say something about Islam. If a Christian seeks for the Faith a “public and historical…social, cultural and political presence in the world” that explicitly or implicitly says, for example, that the Secular State should rule the public square because “religion” only belongs in a man’s heart, he is saying that” the reign of Christ…recognized by men” is fundamentally disconnected from public and historical reality. But such a view seems at odds with numerous declarations of the Bible that the reign of Christ has public and historical and cultural dimensions.:”(I will not here repeat my extensive biblical argument for this point. See my series The Biblical Necessity of a Christian Culture.)”:

Consequently, the mere fact that Carroll has written a history of Christendom, and not just a history of a limited institution called “the Church” or of an ideology called “Christianity”:”(Carroll himself [Vol. 1, pg. 10] points out this distinction between his work and others, and I agree with his explanation.)”: speaks volumes to me, and such a project is one with which I am in full sympathy regardless of the confessional commitment of the author. May God grant that more such works will be written in the future, so that the process of recovering a visible Christian social order may be aided. I very much appreciate Carroll’s remark that one purpose of his history of Christendom is to highlight “the decline, at long last, of the internal bitterness and dissension among believing Christians as they discover the magnitude of their common ground and common interest in the face of an apostate civilization.”:”(Ibid., pg. 10)”:

A second laudable feature of Carroll’s work is his frank admission of his biases. Speaking of the much-vaunted issue of “historical objectivity,” Carroll writes,

…every professional historian knows that the most difficult single task in historical research is pruning down and weeding out the original indigestible mass of raw material into the basis for a coherent presentation of the subject being researched and written about. Every historian must use principles of selection of what material is important and relevant to his general and particular task. Every historian (though not all are fully aware of this) has a world-view which has much to do with his choice of what is significant and relevant.:”(Ibid., pp. 11-12)”:

Furthermore, “Above all it is necessary to see the fundamental error in the widely held idea that the history of religion is ‘objective’ when written by those who do not believe in the religion they are writing about…but biased when written by a religious man.”:”(Ibid., pg. 12)”: I could not agree more with both of these admissions. Burying one’s hands deep into the fertile field of history is not an easy task, particularly in terms of sorting out “important things” from “detritus.” Every historian must select what he is going to talk about, and what angles and information he will use to talk about it. There is no escaping this feature of finite life, and Carroll’s admission reminds me of the excellent words of C.S. Lewis about attempts to tell history “as it really was.” Having already compared the process of sorting out historical “facts” as being akin to trying to sort through a deceased relative’s dresser drawer, Lewis writes:

It is not a question of failing to know everything: it is a question (at least as regards quantity) of knowing next door to nothing. Each of us finds that in his own life every moment of time is completely filled. He is bombarded every second by sensations, emotions, thoughts, which he cannot attend to for multitude, and nine-tenths of which he must simply ignore. A single second of lived time contains more than can be recorded. And every second of past time has been like that for every man that ever lived. The past…was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination. By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness as soon as it occurred….Most of the experiences in ‘the past as it really was’ were instantly forgotten by the subject himself. Of the small percentage which he remembered (and never remembered with perfect accuracy) a smaller percentage was ever communicated even to his closest intimates; of this, a smaller percentage still was recorded; of the recorded fraction only another fraction has ever reached posterity…When once we have realized what ‘the past as it really was’ means, we must freely admit that most–that nearly all–history (in Sense Two) [i.e., the total content of the past only] is, and will remain, wholly unknown to us. And if per impossibile the whole were known, it would be wholly unmanageable.:”(From “Historicism,” in Christian Reflections [Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, reprinted 1978], pp. 106-108.)”:

Consequently, I have no objection to Carroll’s admission of his bias and selectivity. In fact, I applaud him for it. In a world populated by men on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide who strenuously maintain that all they are ever doing is “letting the facts speak for themselves” so as to expose the Other Guy’s “bias,” it is very refreshing to find a Catholic historian making these necessary, salutary qualifications about his own work.

Lastly on this point, I greatly appreciate Carroll’s remark toward the end of his Introduction that “any good history should be a good story…There is no law of nature or of scholarship which says that a scholarly and reliable history must be dull, and no reason at all why it should be.”:”(A History of Christendom Vol. 1, pg. 13)”: The emphasis on telling a story–and more importantly, telling a good story–about history is one which I have learned in my studies at New St. Andrews, and it is, I believe, a far more fruitful and enjoyable way of “doing” history than commonplace assumptions about “objectivity” and “scholarly detachment” encourage. The writer of history should, as I understand Carroll to be saying, strive to do his sources justice, but at the same time he should be engaged with his subject, passionate about it, able to convey it as far more than just static collections of “information” or “facts.” History is a story, and stories have intrinsic power to move us in ways that other things cannot. In this age of waning “scientifictitious” (to borrow a term from Tolkien) expectations, we need more Christian historians who can tell lively, vivid, engaging, passionate stories.

A third excellent thing is his acknowledgement of a feature of his procedure which might appear problematic without an explanation, namely, his very heavy reliance upon secondary sources. Examining the bibliographies to his volumes, one sees that the vast majority of Carroll’s references are to secondary sources. Primary sources are rarely used, or even mentioned. I will have more to say about this below, but here it should be understood that Carroll’s acknowledgement of this fact up front, and his attempt to give a reasonable explanation for it, is another indication that he is aware of the difficulty of his task and is striving to be honest in his evaluation of the history of Christendom. This is all one can ask from any work, regardless of the confessional commitments of its author.

Some Initial Caveats:”(I call them “initial” because I may have more as I have time to read through Carroll’s series. Alternatively, as I read more of it, I may find that my “initial” caveats require modification. Time will tell.)”:

My initial caveats, based on an inspectional read:”(Meaning, I haven’t read every word of the first three volumes. I’ve skipped around, reading sections of particular interest to me, such as his treatments of the Carolingians, the Investiture Contest, and the Western Schism.)”: of the first three volumes of Carroll’s series, are two.

First is a factor that Carroll himself is open about in the Introduction to his first volume, namely, his heavy reliance on secondary sources. He acknowledges that, “The majority of the citations in these notes refer to secondary sources–that is, to the work of modern historians on which the author has drawn.” Primary sources

comprise only a minority of the citations…because of the scope of this work, which renders it impossible for any one man in a reasonable period of time to master all or most of the applicable primary sources adequately; even if this were possible, it would not be a reasonable expenditure of time and effort, since so many painstaking and conscientious scholars have already investigated the primary sources with the utmost care and have reported thoroughly on them. The overriding need is not for more monographs on original sources, but for synthesis from the Christian point of view, in a time when this kind of history has virtually ceased being written.:”(A History of Christendom Vol. 1, pg. 11)”:

Second, Carroll is, as all Catholics are and must be, a papalist. However, it is significant, especially in light of his early acknowledgements of the biases to which all historical accounts are subject, that he holds to a rigid absolutist spin on papalism. In his treatment of the eleventh century controversies, for example, he cites Pope Alexander II’s defense against the charge that he had obtained the papal office by simony, and then claims, “Once again a Pope had proclaimed the essential truth that no man may judge him, only Christ Whose Vicar he is.”:”(A History of Christendom, Vol. 2: The Building of Christendom [Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1985], pg. 489)”: Similarly, in his treatment of the Western Schism (1378-1414), he exhibits excessive confidence in the idea that Urban VI and his successors constitute the one true line of popes, and that the others were mere antipopes. His rhetoric on this point, drawn largely from citing and agreeing with the letters of St. Catherine of Siena lambasting the cardinals and others for not supporting Urban, is constantly flavored with an ardent belief that the pope is an absolute monarch, and that both this “fact” about his office and his actual identity are absolutely and clearly knowable by men, regardless of difficulties.

Thus, Catherine’s indictment against the cardinals who broke from Urban VI “transfixes the heart of the Great Schism of the West with a flaming sword…its every declaration, even its very passionate outcry, is fully substantiated by the facts of history.”:”(A History of Christendom, Vol. 3: The Glory of Christendom [Front Royal, VA: Christendom Publications, 1993], pg. 426. On page 453 Carroll cals Catherine’s arguments “irrefutable.”)”: For of course, “Christ did not entrust the leadership and the future of His Church to a committee, still less to a council of hundreds or thousands. One searches the Gospels in vain for any mention of a Church council called by Christ.”:”(Ibid.)”: Writing of the discussions throughout 1391 about ways of ending the Schism, including “the way of concession” and “the way of the Council,” Carroll informs us that St. Catherine’s people (apparently the only Catholics fully in the right during this unimaginably disturbing time) “yet kept faith in the true Pope,” who himself “reminded the ecclesiastical speculators that no ecumenical council could be held unless called by the Pope and would have no authority which he did not give it…”:”(Ibid., pg. 453)”: A few pages later, after dismissing Pierre d’Ailly, one of that age’s most learned and catholic-minded theologians as merely “one of the Antipope’s strong supporters,” we are told that “the French theologians dealing with the issue began to take positions contrary to the immemorial traditions and teaching of the Church, which in time became the full-fledged heresy of conciliarism.”:”(Ibid., pg. 460)”:

Toward the end of his presentation, Carroll writes of “The last warning voice before the Council of Pisa against this highly dangerous trend [the conclusion that a Council could meet and do business without the support of the pope] was that of a scholar at the German University of Heidelberg” who, “either because of his own modesty or the hostility of his colleagues, not even his name has come down to us,” “spoke, clear as a bell, for tradition and truth.” This unnamed scholar, so daring a witness for the plain fact of the essential Christian truth of papalist absolutism, upbraided his conciliarist contemporaries with statements such as, “One must submit unconditionally to the Pope, however wicked he may be,” and “It is impossible to say…that Gregory has committed a heresy by being involved in the schism,” and “The Pope will have to give account to God for the vows he made to bring unity to the Church; no mere human being has any right to judge him in respect of them, nor has an assembly of bishops, and still less one of the cardinals….”:”(All citations from ibid., pg. 471)”:

Very strong rhetoric, indeed, and the fact that this example is what Carroll has selected, and that he has not selected contrasting examples of Catholics loyal to the papacy yet not construing obedience to it in such stark terms, serves to show that Carroll is an not merely a dedicated papalist (as again, all Catholics must be), but more than that, he is an ardent papalist absolutist. This is certainly a position with a long history in catholic discourse, and it is therefore not ipso facto wrong for Carroll to hold it or to strongly defend it. And we should recall, again, that in the Introduction to his first volume he was laudably very frank about his own biases, and also about the purposes for and limitations of his project. This is not the place or time to indulge in a full critique of Carroll’s rather unbalanced presentation of the issues of the Schism period. In my opinion, it is in this chapter that his acknowledged lack of reliance on primary sources hurts him most. A perusal of his many footnotes here reveals that with the exception of the lengthy passages from Catherine of Siena’s Letters, the majority of his citations are from secondary sources and rely heavily on the analyses of other papalist absolutists, such as Ludwig von Pastor and Louis Salembier.:”(Both of whom are certainly excellent scholars, I readily acknowledge. I have myself found von Pastor useful in many ways.)”:

For all the attention he gives Catherine of Siena as a witness to the “right choice” that all Catholics should have made, Carroll has very little to say about the other great Catholic saint, Vincent Ferrer, who took a position on the identity of the pope diametrically opposed to Catherine’s. Saint against Saint (with hundreds of thousands of ordinary Catholics caught between!) but whereas Carroll’s remarks about Catherine are littered across fifty pages (389-439) and include several rather lengthy quotes from the primary source, his remarks about Ferrer are entirely confined to one page (492-493) and refer only to secondary sources noting the Saint’s final turn against the (anti)pope he had been supporting up until it became plain that all of Christendom was willing to heed the judgment of the Council of Constance as to the identity of the true pope.:”(In fairness, though, the brevity of Carroll’s treatment of Ferrer may be related to the apparent lack of availability of his writings. The letters of Catherine of Siena, which Carroll relies upon so heavily for his understanding of the “true” situation of the Schism, are, by contrast, readily available.)”:

Most problematic, in my judgment, is the fact that none of the works of the conciliarists, particularly those of Henry of Langenstein, Conrad of Gelnhausen, Pierre d’Ailly, and Jean Gerson, are mentioned, much less engaged. Langenstein and Gelnhausen are mentioned only once in passing, and the footnote refers the reader to secondary sources. This omission is troublesome because the works of these men give extensive canonical, theological, historical, and rhetorical justification for the conciliarist position.:”(See the following: Langenstein’s “Letter Concerning A Council of Peace” and extracts from Gelnhausen’s “Letter of Concord,” in Matthew Spinka, ed., Advocates of Reform: From Wycliffe to Erasmus [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953]; D’Ailly’s “Useful Propositions,” in Francis Oakley, “The Propositiones Utiles” of Pierre d’Ailly, Church History Vol. 29, No. 4; and extracts from Gerson’s De potestate ecclesiastica, Considerations 10 and 11, in Ewart Lewis, Medieval Political Ideas, Vol. 2 [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954]; )”: Gratian of Bologna, who paved the way for the intensive debates of the Decretists and Decretalists over the nature and limitations of papal power (which debates are critical to grasping the conciliarist position) gets only two brief mentions,:”(A History of Christendom Vol. 3, pgs. 92 and 104)”: neither of them relevant to his immense importance for the debates of the 15th century. Marsilius of Padua, a major early conciliarist thinker, gets a single brief mention:”(Ibid., pp. 363-364)”: which fairly summarizes his views, but then slurringly connects them to the spirit of lawless revolution as would be later manifested in the French Revolution. William of Ockham gets a single, terse mention on one page:”(Ibid., pg. 365)”:, which entirely lacks any discussion of his positions other than to say he denied the whole Thomistic paradigm of sacred science. This is true insofar as it goes, and it does fit with Christendom College’s advocacy of the Thomistic system, but it is not even remotely an instructive presentation of Ockham’s relationship to the troubles leading up to the Schism.

Further, I can find no mention of other important figures, such as John of Paris, William Durandus the Younger, Giles of Rome, Augustinus Triumphus, and Huggucio of Pisa. I wish to give Dr. Carroll the most charitable reading I can, and so I once more recall his salutary admissions about bias, selectivity, and secondary source use. Nevertheless, given the strength of his rhetoric against conciliarism and for a very rigid form of papalist absolutism, these are significant omissions and weaknesses in his work.:”(As well, I cannot help but wonder how Carroll’s really ardent attachment to a particularly rigid form of papalist absolutism squares with his introductory remark that the goal of ecumenism in a world in which all Christians are increasingly realizing “the magnitude of their common ground and common interest in the face of an apostate civilization” is to incarnate a process of “building on real convictions and truths which are found to be shared.” Papalist absolutism, particularly on the lips of men who advocate it with an attitude that is, like Carroll’s description of the bombastic 11th century theologian Humbert of Silva Candida, “ardent to the point of rashness,” [A History of Christendom, Vol. 2: The Building of Christendom, pg. 474] is certainly not a shared conviction and truth. In fact, this position has very often been the direct destroyer of the goal of building on shared truths, and has instead functioned as the primary instigator of division among Christians.)”:

I will pass over the fact that despite his acknowledged heavy reliance upon secondary sources, there can be found in the pages of his work not a single reference to the foundational (and to this day unrefuted) secondary work of the Catholic scholar Brian Tierney on the origins and development of the conciliarist strain of Catholic thought throughout the Middle Ages.:”(Foundations of the Conciliar Theory [Brill Academic Publishers, 1998].)”: Nor does Carroll cite any of the work of the other Catholic conciliarist titan of our age, Francis Oakley.:”(Council Over Pope? Toward a Provisional Ecclesiology [New York: Herder and Herder, 1969]. Also of great relevance is Oakley’s The Political Thought of Pierre d’Ailly: The Voluntarist Tradition [New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1964].)”: The closest thing I can find to any notation that there are other Catholic takes on the subject is the cryptic remark that “Conciliarism’ became–in a manner with which discerning scholars in a later age are very familiar–a badge of academic respectability to be conciliarist.”:”(Ibid., pg. 471)”: Given the tremendous agitation for various forms of conciliarism that has occurred within Catholic circles since Vatican II, I must ask what Carroll mean by this oblique remark. It is difficult to resist the suspicion that he is taking a veiled swipe at “dissident” Catholic scholars (i.e., Catholics who disagree with his absolutist vision of papalism), whom, as his bibliography well shows by its failure to include their works, do not seem to qualify for his earlier judgment that “so many painstaking and conscientious scholars have already investigated the primary sources with the utmost care and have reported thoroughly on them.”

On a related point, I have yet to find evidence in Carroll’s work (though such may exist, and I stand ready to be corrected) of any recognition that there are other legitimate ways for a Catholic to conceive of papalism than the starkly absolutist way which he himself holds. Even outside of Tierney and Oakley, whom many self-described “conservative” Catholics dismissively think of as mere “dissidents,” there are other strong Catholic voices advocating less strident, more flexible understandings of papalism than does Carroll.:”(See for instance, Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy: Authority and Autonomy in the Church [New York: Crossroad, 1987]; Karl-Heinz Ohlig, Why We Need the Pope: The Necessity and Limitations of Papal Primacy [St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1975]; August Franzen, “The Council of Constance: Present State of the Problem,” in Concilium, Vol. 7: Historical Problems of Church Renewal [Glen Rock, NJ: Paulist Press, 1965], pp. 29-68.)”:

Paying all due respect to Carroll’s synthesizing purpose (a purpose to which I as a liberal arts student am very sympathetic) and remembering his laudable admission of his own biases and his reason for relying almost entirely on secondary sources, these factors seem to add up to a great imbalance in his work. Granted, I have chronicled this imbalance entirely through his treatment of the Western Schism and the early phases of the Conciliar Movement, issues with which I am more than passingly familiar myself.:”(See numerous postings on this blog, and my forthcoming B.A. thesis “Catholic Conciliarism and the Protestant Reformation.”)”: It may be that other important sections of his project display more balance.

I will write more about Carroll’s work as time permits me to read through his volumes. This review of my findings so far will serve to introduce, and set, all future remarks I may make.

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