Retroactive indignation

A dear friend who works in politics once admitted he occasionally tells people he is a social security actuary in order to avoid the ridiculous political comments people make when he reveals his true line of work. I have considered doing the same thing at times, because when I tell people I teach Church History – or even that I am committed to the Church – I get negative responses ranging from disbelief to horror, from an implied “But you seemed so normal!” to a sputtering “But- but- but – WHAT ABOUT THE CRUSADES??”

Uh, they were bad?

Seriously, I get the Crusades question a lot, almost as often as I get invasive lines of questioning about my take on sexual ethics, a field in which I have no academic background, no professional purview, and which is the topic of another post entirely. Either way there are a lot of assumptions made right off the bat, and as often as not a visible disapproval of my line of work This disapproval frequently manifests as a list of wrongs committed throughout history. Clearly, my interlocutors would have handled things differently.

Of course they would have, because they were born in the 20th century in America, they’re mostly middle-class, mostly well-educated, swimming in the postmodern current like all the rest of us. So I find their retroactive indignation alternately annoying and amusing. It’s almost childlike the way they imagine time-travel, that they could plop themselves down in the driver’s seat 1000 years ago.

There’s always a context. There’s always a culture. There’s always a why. Even our famed “religious wars” (which I frequently remind my students, had little to do with doctrine and a lot to do with “stuff”) was partially prompted by the fact that there were bored knights running all over the empire getting in fights, and Pope Urban thought to himself “I have a way to get them all far away from here…”

We laugh at the 19th century Popes clinging to temporal power (because to our 21st century minds that’s not what a Pope is ‘supposed to do’), but you can’t understand that without understanding the rest of the story. Pius IX acted the way he did because Constantine moved the capital of the Empire in the 300s…because Leo the Great met Attila the Hun in the 400s…because Pepin the Short foresaw a prudent alliance in the 700s… With our 21st century minds sometimes we just don’t get it, and it’s ok to admit that.

I’m not advocating a retroactive indifference either – we should look at history with a critical eye, with dismay or admiration or even horror. But to be smug about decisions made centuries ago is silly. For how will history judge our own era of ‘tolerance’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘peace’? When in the year 2500 someone judges our social sins of action and inaction will they interpret it in light of our world, or will they immediately condemn us?

There is so much progress still to be made in our world, and I admire those prophetic voices who insist the change must come immediately and without delay. But in my heart I’m not convinced we can change the outcomes without changing the context. When I think of the issues that distress me the most – particularly issues of gender, both in and out of the Church – the great sadness for me is not that I can’t have my way. I mourn that the world is not with me in my desire. I don’t just want the outcome, I want the world to be ready for it, I want the world to want it too.

We will get there, but it takes time. If the study of history has taught me anything it’s that it takes a long time to turn around a big boat. When I started studying Popes I never thought it would make me more patient, but there you have it.

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5 Responses to Retroactive indignation

  1. Christopher says:

    What a great post! Thanks for introducing me to your blog; I will definitely be stopping by often! It's funny you mention the Crusades because I've heard people bring them up at the strangest moments. For example, I could mention a speech by Benedict XVI and if the person I'm speaking to disagrees or dislikes what I've said, they come back with, "Oh yeah, well, what about the Crusades?" I think to myself, "Where the heck did that come from?"I enjoyed your insight on how we look through our 21st century lens at historical events and think how odd people must have been to make such decisions, without ever giving due consideration to their historical context. And that we also don't ever take the time to consider how primitive we will seem to a culture 500 years from now.

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