History “From a Catholic Perspective” (Part 1)

In my thirteen years teaching history in Catholic institutions, I am often asked how educators—whether teachers or parents—can most effectively give their students history “from a Catholic perspective.” Teaching Catholic history in this day and age can be daunting. Secular methodology typically proves inadequate. For one thing, the standard approach of secular education is typically not equipped to deal with religious history. But even when it does, secular education is often hostile to the role of the Catholic religion in the development of civilization. These tendencies have led Catholic parents and educators to sense that a correction is needed in mainstream historical studies—something that will convey a detailed, accurate, objective assessment of the Catholic Church’s place in history. Hence the desire for history “from a Catholic perspective.”

This is an admirable goal, but it immediately begs the question, what does it mean to teach history “from a Catholic perspective”? And how does one go about this? As soon as this question is posed, we see there are a multiplicity of competing ideas we must wade through when constructing our Catholic history curriculum.

For many, “history from a Catholic perspective” becomes simply the history of the Catholic Church—that is, the history of the origin of the Church, its beliefs, practices, development, and influential personages. An example of a text that takes this approach is Fr. Peter Armenio’s book The History of the Church. This massive book often forms the history spine of an 11th or 12th grade classical curriculum in many Catholic homeschools and co-ops. It is a very informative book with that covers an astonishing breadth of content and is an excellent text for those wanting to wade into the history of the Catholic Church. Another example of a text of this sort is Anne Carroll’s famous book, Christ the King, Lord of History, which is essentially a chronicle of the People of God throughout history.

However excellent these resources are, we should also realize that teaching the history of the Church is not the same thing as teaching history from a Catholic perspective. Knowledge of the Catholic Church and its history are of course essential to understanding history “from a Catholic perspective”, but are not the same thing. When we talk about teaching history “from a Catholic perspective”, we are really talking about a method for historical education; we shall say more about this method later on. The history of the Church, however, is a smaller sub-category of historical study focused on a particular field of content (the historical development of the Catholic Church). We thus often set out to teach history according to a certain method but wind up just focusing on particular content.

A good example of this is the field of U.S. history. We frequently see calls for a history of the United States taught in a way that acknowledges the contributions of Catholics to the development of our country; what we often end up with is books and programs that simply teach the history of Catholics in the United States, which is something entirely different. Again, we begin with wanting to teach according to a certain method (“taught in a way that acknowledges the contributions of Catholics”) but end up with focusing on a narrow field of content (“the history of Catholics in the United States”).

We also see that attempts to teach “history from a Catholic perspective” can devolve into mere apologetics for the historical Church. Now, historical apologias are great; I have penned scores of them in my life. But again, a historical apologia for Catholicism is not the same thing as “teaching history from a Catholic perspective”, and historical apologetics—while admirable supplements to general history—ought never to replace general history. And besides, students are not naive. They realize when they are getting a mere apologetic in place of history. Just as there is much more to theology than theological apologetics, so there is much more to history than historical apologetics.

Two take-aways from these considerations:

First, let us recognize it is certainly not deficient to want to occasionally focus on specifically Catholic content. Of course if we want a history of the U.S. from a Catholic perspective, we are going to have to delve into that specifically Catholic content. “Catholics in America” is a subset of “U.S. history from a Catholic perspective”, and as such of course it has a place in our Catholic curricula. The point is to understand, however, that it is just a subset and is not an equivalent. One who teaches “history of Catholics in America” has not taught “U.S. history from a Catholic perspective.” They have only taught one small element of it—just like a person who wants to write a history of the Civil War but then focuses only on military campaigns and generals has not written a history of the Civil War. They have only written a history of one aspect of it.

Second, this conundrum should make it clear that Catholics really aren’t sure what it means to teach history “from a Catholic perspective.” Having sorted out what “history from a Catholic perspective” is not, in Part 2 of this series we will examine what it is.

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