H.W. Crocker’s “Triumph” — or Triumphalism?

Smirk all you want, but I’m finally getting around to reading H.W. Crocker’s Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church and just thought I’d jot down some initial impressions.

The title couldn’t be more appropriate, because this is a raucous, triumphalistic and unapologetic history of the Catholic Church, which First Things notes will be “welcomed by readers who are weary of being told that defeatism is a virtue.”

Where so many contemporary accounts of Catholicism seem overtly preoccupied with apologizing (for the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc.), Crocker seems almost wistful when he writes of religous warfare and slaughtered heretics, praising the warrior-kings of the Middle Ages as “[by the Church’s standards] bloodstained fornicators . . . but their hearts were in the right place.”

Crocker is apparently a Catholic convert from Anglicanism — which, I think, is noticeable in his zealous and perhaps overly-vindictive manner of writing. Where the Holy Father and others since Vatican II advocate friendly relations with the Orthodox Church, such that we may “breathe with the other lung” (oft-quoted metaphor of Yves Congar), Crocker’s preference would be to dig in his heels and return to an ecumenical Cold War, peppering his text with such endearing references to the East as: “the tradition of Greek openness to heretical ideas,” Eastern Bishops “bowing to imperial demands like reeds beaten by the wind”; the Eastern Church “a cauldron of bubbling sectarians,” possessing “febrile, hate-filled, fissiparous tendendies” which, in Crocker’s opinion, justified “the whip-hand of the emperor to keep them in line.” 1

Having reached the chapter where he turns his attention from the Renaissence to the Reformation, beginning with “the disgruntled monk” Martin Luther (whom he goes on to describe as “a turbulent, semi-barbarian from beyond the Danube” and “a violent rhetorician, pounding his cudgels wherever they would make the most resounding racket”), I wasn’t at all suprised to see that Crocker’s contempt is equally distributed among Orthodox and Protestants.

I understand the appeal of Crocker’s style of writing. I also understand how, given the theological confusion, moral corruption and bloodletting that came as a result of the Protestant reformation (or, more appropriately, revolution) one might be disposed to such vehement criticism. At the same time, there are points in the book where I believe his spirited defense of the Church crosses the line into condescension, dripping sarcasm and barely veiled animosity toward our brothers and sisters in the faith who, while they may not be in full communion with Rome, are no less sincere in their faith in Christ.

John Hannity of Fox News in proclaims Triumph as “the most essential Catholic book since the Catechism of the Catholic Church,” I can’t say I share the enthusiasm of Mr. Hannity and other reviewers, I do regard Triumph as a readible and engrossing history of the Catholic Church; a good introduction, best supplemented by further investigation.

Additional Reviews:

  • Robert Spencer, reviewing for Catholic Exchange, loved it, proclaiming “critics will be hard-pressed to find any inaccuracy in his portrayal of the events.”
  • Amy Welborn offers a typically measured response. =)
  • Georg Sim Johnston, reviewing for Crisis, says:
    Catholics need to know their own story but balk at opening those multi-volume Church histories by Daniel Rops or Philip Hughes. H.W. Crocker III has written a book that solves the problem. I am still scratching my head over how he did it, but in Triumph he has told 2,000 years of Catholic history in fewer than 500 highly readable pages. The book has all the virtues of a good novel while packing an enormous amount of information. Not since Paul Johnson’s Modern Times has edification been this pleasurable—and I ought to add that this book is superior to Johnson’s own History of Christianity!
  • Two Centuries & Counting, H. W. Crocker III’s Q&A w/ Kathryn Jean Lopez. National Review March 29, 2002.

1. It would certainly be interesting to see Crocker sit down for a friendly chat with, say, Cardinal Kasper or Fr. Aidan Nichols (here making the case for regarding the Orthodox as our “privileged or primary ecumenical partner”).

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