News Archive

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle...

Seattle Catholic is not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Seattle
Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
8 Mar 2005

Beginning at Jerusalem
Five Reflections on the History of the Church (Glenn W. Olsen, Ignatius Press, 2004)

reviewed by Walter M. Hudson

Beginning at Jerusalem

With scholarly precision and care, Glenn W. Olsen, an American medieval historian at the University of Utah, has written profusely on a score of medieval history topics for a variety of historical and theological journals, and has joined in the often heated debates about medieval society's conceptions of marriage, sexuality and social customs.

This reviewer remembers encountering articles by Dr. Olsen over a decade ago in the (sadly) now-defunct Dawson Newsletter. In that journal, for instance, Olsen brought medieval historiography alive in his perceptive, clever review of medievalist Norman Cantor's notorious Inventing the Middle Ages.1

Olsen has also shown himself to be a worthy heir to Christopher Dawson. For though his specialty is medieval history, and while he certainly has mastered the particulars of his special field, he also has the intellectual courage to break with "scholarly article" convention and generalization, to offer an explanation of history—a metahistory of Augustinian breadth and grandeur. In his new book, Beginning at Jerusalem: Five Reflections on the History of the Church, Olsen makes a grand if imperfect attempt to discern a pattern in the history of Church, and in history itself. It may seem incredible that he accomplishes such a feat in a work of just over 200 pages, but then recall that one of Dawson's own great strengths was his amazing ability to synthesize complex material into works of similar length.

The book, as Olsen explains, is taken from a series of lectures given to the Wethersfeld Foundation, but to say this book is simply a compilation of lectures in no way makes it less profound or thought-provoking. And indeed, even a cursory review of the marginalia and dicta in the book's footnotes reveals Olsen's depth of learning and his mastery of contemporary scholarship in an array of fields from liturgy to the history of science to refutations of "physicalist" philosophies of mind. This vast array of (mostly recent) historical, theological and philosophical literature underpins Olsen's reflections, and also helps make us aware that much—if not most—of what has informed the modernist conceptions of the Church has been based on dubious, outdated, and even phony scholarship.

Liturgical and Spiritual Life

The richness of this book particularly displays itself in Olsen's remarkable observations on the liturgical life in the medieval and baroque periods. Olsen powerfully rebukes liturgical reformers who have shaped (and continue to shape) views of what the liturgy should mean and do. Olsen states forthrightly that we must "unlearn interpretive perspectives" of the early medieval world;—that is, we need specifically to unlearn the narrative of the loss of the primitive church and the supposed need for recovery of primitive liturgies—the view of Jesuit Josef Jungmann that Pope Pius XII criticized (though perhaps not forthrightly enough) in Mediator Dei—the "archaelogism" that assumes what was primitive was better.

Olsen in particular recapitulates and rearticulates historian Eamon Duffy's groundbreaking work and revisionist challenge to the Jungmann hypothesis of a continuing decline in "true" liturgical participation that began in the late ancient and early medieval period, culminating in the so-called "subjective and uncomprehending quietism in the latter Middle Ages." 2 Contra Jungmann and the entire school of liturgical reform that he fostered, Duffy's current scholarship has shown, for example, that English Catholics of the late medieval period were deeply involved in their faith, and that there was a powerful spiritual communitarianism, centered especially on the liturgy—the very liturgy that existed until Vatican II.3 Olsen thus points out that the Jungmannian "active/passive" liturgical storyline is an example of a narrative based on a false history that we need to unlearn. Reflecting on the Beuron-inspired Cathedral of the Madeleine in his own Salt Lake City, Olsen presents a different perspective: "...Jungmann's active/passive dichotomy, used to separate the liturgically good from the bad, may not be as fundamental a category as we thought. Such a church perhaps encourages us to think of our fundamental stance as neither active nor passive, but as receptive or contemplative." (55) In a single sentence, Olsen throws the entire "active participation" line of liturgical reform into question. To view the Mass in such a way, not as some sort of call-and-response match between celebrant and congregation, but as a ritual in which all are called to a deeper receptivity and contemplation—here, perhaps, is the beginning of wisdom, where one begins to see how the modern liturgy has been a reason why so many faithful have gone awry.

This reviewer also took especial interest in the chapter of the book that discusses the most unjustly maligned and misunderstood period of Church history—the baroque or "Tridentine" period, too often derided or dismissed as politically reactionary, intellectually sterile, and liturgically moribund by conciliar experts (usually with very specific agendas). What Olsen presents is a Counter-Reformation that is "contemporary" in responding to the needs of the faithful, but also "traditional" in that it organically develops from the Church's medieval past. Olsen views the Council of Trent as very much carrying forward the project of eleventh century Gregorian reform. In the same way, the Jesuits continued to amplify many of the currents in high medieval Franciscan and Dominican thought, particularly in an emphasis on sanctification of the laity.

Not only in spirituality, but also in artistic expression did Baroque Catholicism answer the challenge of encroaching secularism. Olsen captures this point nicely when he comments that "Both Protestant and Catholic Reformations, but above all the Baroque art and architecture eventually spreading from Rome from the late sixteenth century, represented attempts to resacralize a European life that had been, from the viewpoint of Christ's dominion, unraveling and for instance, in the development of an uninhibited commercial life, had been declaring its independence from all external regulation." (115-6) Thus, contrary to the denigrations of the baroque in the work of "Radical Orthodox" scholars such as Catherine Pickstock, Olsen presents a Catholic baroque in opposition to Cartesian rationality and other manifestations of secularism of that period. Indeed, Olsen points to baroque Rome itself as a "supremely successful attempt" (119) to face the urban world—not to flee from it, as the early medieval monastics did, but to sanctify it.

And Olsen points out that at the center of baroque spirituality was the liturgy: "The liturgy is eschatological in that it transforms our world into another, but this in a special sense. The liturgy realizes or makes present both the Church and the Kingdom of God. It makes the participant beautiful by making the Kingdom present of carrying him into a new order of things." (137). Olsen presents the connection between the baroque liturgy and Tridentine spirituality as particularly profound:

If the seventeenth century Catholic world had so many saints, this was in no small measure due to the coming together of Tridentine emphasis on attendance at daily mass; Ignatian emphasis on an active life supported by the sacraments; and that most glorious of eschatological expressions, the Mass celebrated in a Baroque setting. This was the Catholic response to the disenchanted world of the Utopians. (137)

This passage sounds as if it were written by Dawson himself. Perhaps Olsen realizes, as Dawson did, that the mark of sanctification for the Church is not how many liturgical innovations are made, or committees formed, or theological declarations pronounced. The mark is simple: is the Church producing saints? As Dawson's noteworthy American disciple, John J. Mulloy once commented, what drew Dawson to the Church ultimately was not its art or doctrines, but the lives of the saints themselves—the lives of men and women who acted in this world, but not for it, but for the "greater glory of God."

Christendom's Political Order

Olsen also spends considerable time on the idea—and reality—of a Christian politics, and in so doing clears away many popular misconceptions. Today, in an era of hypernationalist secularism, any "check and balance" on the power of the state by the Church is near-unthinkable and immediately regarded as a threat. The Catholic conception, argues Olsen, was (and is) different. "Constantinism"—the supposed theocratic domination of society that began with Constantine, is in fact a complete misreading of early Christendom. Constantine and his successors sought to preserve the Roman ideal of society, not create a new one. Christendom was never a theocracy. The Church gradually assumed authority over matters, not worldly, but spiritual. Olsen thus counters the current notion (held by, for example, Father Richard Neuhaus) of the medieval papacy as a "temporal world leadership."

What the medieval age did have was a Church that had a "right to intervene in secular matters in the cause of justice and for the salvation of souls." (77) Olsen turns to the middle ages, and the vision best articulated by Pope Saint Gregory VII, to establish a different, and more just, conception of worldly order. Saint Gregory in particular helped "desacralize" kingship, and hence temporal authority, by asserting that the king could be held accountable by the Church. The king was no longer an absolute, unchallenged monarch whose will was automatically synonymous with God's, but rather a monarch accountable to another authority whose weapons were spiritual, but nonetheless powerful indeed—Christ's Church and Christ's Vicar on earth. Modern liberals may well assert that the necessity of an ecclesial "check" is no longer necessary—that the concept of natural, inalienable rights prevents, at least in liberal democracies, such absolutism. But the Catholic responds that it is the contemporary state itself—in its courts, its constitutions, and most of all its interpretations of who has these rights—that monopolizes the debate. Hence, for example, in American society, the state has thus determined that an entire class of human beings (the conceived but not yet born) has no intrinsic rights whatsoever.

Therefore Olsen certainly cannot be classified as a "neoconservative" Catholic, for his favorable view of Gregorian reform puts him at odds with the John Courtney Murray - Richard Neuhaus school. In Olsen's view, "Catholicism in America has been so coopted by the 'American experiment' that almost the whole spectrum of American Catholic interpretation...rules out the confessional state. Thus liberalism rewrites and denies the explicit teaching of the encyclical tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, making Vatican II mark a decisive break with that tradition..." (82-3) What Olsen has done is what Dawson once did: in a deliberative way, seek to re-open a line of traditional Catholic thinking to challenge contemporary political society.

A Troubling "Theology of History"

Were Olsen's reflections exclusively on the Church's historical record, Beginning at Jerusalem would perhaps bring little debate from traditionally minded Catholics. However, when Olsen delves into more purely theological speculation, into a "theology of history," things become more problematic. For instance, he states that "Once the biblical record of God's saving events closed...we have no special access to God's mind to allow us to explain the course of the providence we do believe to be at work." (31) But this surely cannot be the case. If the Church has had no "special access" to God's mind since then, how could it possibly have determined what made up that "biblical record" in the first place? Similarly, when Olsen invokes Hans von Balthasar, a traditionally minded Catholic feels compelled to cast a skeptical eye: "We may give a von Balthasarian cast to this observation [that each age is equally under the eye of God] in that it has its own ways of living out the drama of salvation, with resolutions that remain for us to reappropriate as our situation demands." (34) The von Balthasarian "cast" on this seems to invite the worst sort of historical relativism: if each age has its own ways to reappropriate, then where is the guiding thread through the ages to tell us what is true and what is false? Are not certain ways of living out the drama of salvation premised on the unchanging moral laws? If so, what, in that regard, can there be to reappropriate?

Elsewhere, Olsen states that "One can reasonably wonder about, say, the placing of saints in service to national aspiration, as in the case of Joan of Arc, even when the logic of accepting the saint's claim at all seems to involve that one knows which side God was on in 1430." (31-32) Yet this is a problematic speculation, and, in light of Olsen's other comments, conceptually confusing. Olsen tells us that we have "no special access" to God's mind, and thus we can wonder whether Joan of Arc really was on God's side in the Hundred Years War. Yet, Olsen also tells us that each age can reappropriate ways to live out the drama of salvation. Why, then, on Olsen's own terms, is it not possible for St. Joan to have had special access to God's mind, even in that in that nationalist context? Is it not perhaps the case that the Church, by canonizing Joan in 1920, gleaned something from history: by leading the cause that eventually expelled the English from France, France was possibly saved from the destruction of Catholicism, and subsequently, the Church's "eldest daughter" became a seedbed for great saints—Vincent de Paul, Louis de Monfort, and Therese of Lisieux being just a few?

A second criticism arises upon reading the last chapter. For Olsen, the coming millennium will not necessarily be either religious or secular. Rather, we will "experience simultaneously the attempt to live as if God does not exist and the attempt to resacralize life." (144) Such a struggle against secularism is not new. It has occurred in various ages in the Church. She has employed different strategies taken to combat it—Franciscan poverty to counter mercantilist materialism in the Middle Ages; Ignatian spirituality to combat selfish consumerism and individualism in the Baroque "Tridentine" period. Along with these (continuing relevant) strategies, the question then, must be asked: is the Church today facing up to the challenge of secularism?

And it is here, as a traditionally minded Catholic, this reviewer again respectfully disagrees with Dr. Olsen's prescriptions. For here, Olsen turns to the postconcilar approach, particularly of the current papacy, and its confrontation with "the whole twentieth century developments, including the shading of modernity into postmodernity" (150) as an effective strategy against secularism. And indeed, the Holy Father often has sharply criticized the West's "culture of death" and decried in particular Europe's "silent apostasy." Yet, it appears to many traditional Catholics that the Vatican has not provided either clear or consistent guidance through the current crisis. One might talk, as Olsen does, about the millennium being a "hermeneutical key to the papacy," and thus imply its historical and symbolical significance. But the millennium year has come and gone; indeed, very early in this new millennium perhaps the worst scandal in the Church's recent memory—the sexual abuse of its youth by its clergy—has broken loose. Sadly, that terrible crisis may have more explanatory power as a hermeneutical key to the current state of the Church than theological speculations of a millennium celebration five years old and more.

Indeed, even Dr. Olsen at times falls into a kind conciliar-speak as he grapples with the Church's confrontation with modernity. At one point he asserts that "the Church herself comes to realize her own nature more fully through dialogue with other cultures." (156). Yet how can She be truly countercultural this way? And with what cultures? And how is this dialogue not, in reality, a surrender to cultures that are profoundly secular? And what can it possibly mean when Dr. Olsen says that the Church has "recovered her charismatic dimension" after Vatican II? (168) Where has this recovery occurred? In emotionally overblown "charismatic" liturgies? This kind of language, in light of continuing apostasy and crisis, more and more appears dubious—a kind of slippery phrasing that looks dangerously assimilationist, and not in the least countercultural.

Dr. Olsen's own dicta reveal the extent of how the Church is institutionally failing to answer the crisis of this age. When he points out, for instance in a footnote on page 162 that "There clearly are bishops who understand the issues," this is far more worrisome than comforting. So, then, only some, perhaps just a few of the Church's episcopacy, are "getting it," really grappling with the latest crisis in secularism. But this reflection is indeed disturbing and disconcerting: four decades after the great Second Vatican Council, apparently called to provide guidance on how to deal with secularism and materialism, is the most that Dr. Olsen can come up with is that some bishops understand how seriously troubling and dangerous things really are?

Certainly, it is within the authority of faithful Catholics to question prudently and respectfully certain non-dogmatic postconciliar propositions and positions that seem harmful to the good of the Church. Yet such a negative note should not end this review. Dr. Olsen's book has many strengths. Ultimately, Olsen's reflections are more than reflections on liturgical and political life, even more than an attempt at a theology of history. His reflections are more profoundly about how a sense of our Catholic tradition and history, stretching back through time, through the great saints to Our Lord's own time on earth, informs our lives. As we lose this tradition, we also lose historical consciousness—and in a real way, we lose our identities: "Our times have become increasingly timeless in the sense that so few now have a knowledge of history that most lack a clear sense of where they or their civilization stand in history." (99) However imperfectly, Dr. Olsen has presented a powerful vision that seeks to restore our history and traditions. And in restoring that history and tradition, perhaps we can restore ourselves.



1 Glenn W. Olsen, "Inventing the Middle Ages," The Dawson Newsletter, Vol. X, No. 2, Spring 1992, 4-10.
2 Frederic M. Roberts, "The Stripping of the Altars and the Liturgy: Some Reflections on a Modern Dilemma )Overview of Keynote Address of the Same Title Given at the Conference, "Catholic Liturgy Thirty Years After Vatican II, September 1995, Salt Lake City, by Eamon Duffy) Antiphon: Publication of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, 1, no. 1 (Spring 1996) 2-4 at 2, quoted in Beginning at Jerusalem at 40.
3 See Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Catholicism in England, c. 1400-c. 1580, Yale University Press, 1994 & The Voices of Morebath: Reformation and Rebellion in an English Village, Yale University Press, 2003.
© Copyright 2001-2006 Seattle Catholic. All rights reserved.