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Reviewed by:
  • Thomas Bokenkotter
The Catholic Church through the Ages. A History. By John Vidmar, O.P. (New York and Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press. 2005. Pp. viii, 360. $18.95 paperback.)

At the outset the author notes the obvious difficulty of achieving balance in doing a one-volume history of the Church. He says one either adopts a breezy approach loosely combining broad topics or includes so much detail that the reader gives up. However, he aims to produce an outline of the history of the Church that combines substance with readability.

As to readability, I would say he has certainly succeeded though it does get a little breezy at times. He displays a fine talent for clearly and succinctly summing up a period, and he excels in his characterizations of leading figures. His depiction of Pope Paul IIIis a good example (p. 233). Moreover, he includes many well chosen illustrations.

In attempting to achieve substance he divides the main periods of church history into six ages following a schema of Christopher Dawson. It provides a good framework in keeping the myriad facts in some kind of order. Within each age he treats the material topically rather than following a strict chronological order, though this can at times be confusing as when he treats Modernism before Vatican Council I.

The book, of course, includes many broad all-encompassing statements. But one expects as much in a book that covers 2000 years in 360 pages though I would quarrel with more than a few of them. But they do provoke thought. For instance, in view of the many literary antecedents of the Enlightenment it is interesting to read, "Two great books heralded the Enlightenment,"viz., Newton's Principia Mathematica (1687) and John Locke's Essays on Human Understanding (1690).

Let me single out a few of his judgments to which one might take exception. His treatment of Augustine, for instance, I find guilty of special pleading as he glosses over the negative features of his legacy. Then there is the way he presents Modernism as an offshoot of Liberal Catholicism, and in his treatment of the development of doctrine he mentions Mohler, Sailer, and Schlegel but curiously fails to mention Newman's great Essay on the Development of Doctrine.

One of the merits of his short history is the way he zeroes in on matters that are currently relevant, giving informative accounts of the issues involved. [End Page 104] A reader will find his treatment of the rise of Islam especially useful today. I also found helpful the eighteen pages he devotes to the relations of the Catholic Church with the Nazis, showing the considerable resistance put up by the Catholics though they were hogtied by the destruction of the Catholic press. As he says, the few diocesan papers that managed to stay alive after 1938 paid dearly for their existence by complying with the Nazis.

For those who want a rapid walk down the mine-strewn road of Catholic history, Father Vidmar will prove a useful, if sometimes controversial, guide.

Thomas Bokenkotter
Cincinnati, Ohio


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pp. 104-105
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