"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

On James Hitchcock's Errors about the East

I just received in the mail a new book from the historian James Hitchcock, whom I have read with pleasure and profit in the past. E.g., his 1995 book The Recovery of the Sacred mounts a good case for fixing some of the problems in the reformed Roman liturgy. His latest book was published just before Christmas: History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium (Ignatius Press, 2012), 584pp.

Naturally I turned first to the sections on the Eastern Churches, and here I follow the so-called Hunwicke Rule: if a book is bad in seemingly small (but in fact greatly significant) matters, why trust it in large?
The Hunwicke test is this. I find some topic in his discussion in which the Big Writer has strayed into an area in which I do know something. And I test his assertions. My assumption is that if it turns out that he is writing a load of tasteless white fish with small, needle-like bones [pollocks] in an area in which I am able to judge him, there is every possibility (or at the very least a risk) that he is just as unreliable, tendentious, or crooked in areas where I do not have competence.
Some may assume this is an unfair rule, to which the always witty (and sadly infrequently blogging) Fr. John Hunwicke replies thus:
You may tell me that in so very Big a Book, it is unreasonable for a writer to be expected never to make little errors. "Don't be a pedant. Go for his Big Picture."

I could not more profoundly disagree with you. Any Big Picture is built up of innumerable small brush-strokes. If a man is slipshod about his details, it will be, to a greater or lesser extent, probable that his Big Picture is not worth the paper, so to speak, which it is written on. And in any case, nobody is under a legal or moral obligation to write Big Books. If someone chooses to do so, he should either get his facts straight or be excoriated for not doing so.

Hitchcock has written a very big book indeed, and in his small "brush-strokes" treating the Christian East, we see a picture little short of disastrous. Not only are hugely important events given no mention at all, but even very basic factual matters are dead wrong. It is alarming and depressing that this book, puffed on the back by "big names" in contemporary American Roman Catholicism (George Weigel, Timothy Dolan, Charles Chaput et al), cannot master even basic facts that even such a notorious site as Wikipedia is capable of mastering. Ignatius Press used to be a reliable organization, but it seems clear that for this book they employed no fact-checkers and subjected the book to no serious scholarly review from relevant experts. Consider the following:
  • Hitchcock uses the term "Uniates" with no recognition that this is a pejorative and, to many, offensive term now widely avoided.
  • He claims that Pope Benedict XIV was univocal in his support for Eastern Christians, Eastern Catholics especially. There are no sources given for this claim, and the historical record is not quite so univocal as, e.g., Maria Teresa Fattori's article on Benedict, published in the most recent issue of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, shows.
  • His too-brief discussion of married Eastern Catholic priests in the US totally ignores the pig-headed chauvinism of Latin bishops (e.g., John Ireland) which resulted in, inter alia, thousands of Catholics leaving the Church and becoming Orthodox.
  • He claims that "[u]ntil 2000 [sic], one of the official papal titles was 'patriarch of the West'" (p.207)! This is just embarrassing. Does nobody Google these things or pop onto the Vatican website, or for that matter read my book Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity, which discusses the fact that it was in March 2006 that Pope Benedict XVI quietly retired the title, for no compelling reason he ever explained?
  • He treats the Byzantine Rite as a monolith and flatly asserts that it "uses Old Church Slavonic." That's wrong, and would be news to, inter alia, Greeks, Ukrainians, Romanians, Melkites, Antiochians, and Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians in the OCA and other bodies using a dozen and more languages for the Byzantine liturgy--none of them Slavonic. Apart from the Russians, almost nobody else today uses Slavonic.
  • When it comes to the primate of the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church (UGCC), Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (on whom major studies exist in English, as well as French, and of course Ukrainian, inter alia), he gets two important and basic facts wrong: first (though it seems almost churlish to point out this almost charming error), he calls him "the heroic St. Andreas Szeptycki." Ukrainian Catholics will appreciate this (as will many others, not least the many Jews whom Sheptytsky personally saved), as many feel he is indeed a saint, but Sheptytsky (the common English spelling today) has never been officially glorified or canonized by either the UGCC or by Rome. Second, Hitchcock claims that Sheptytsky "was deported to Russia, where he died in 1944." This, too, is wrong: he died in his see-city of Lviv, Ukraine, which for most of 1944 was under German occupation before being retaken by the Red Army and murderously reintegrated into the Ukrainian Socialist Republic. Admittedly, given the shifting borders around Lviv, and more generally around Galacia (beautifully treated in Christopher Hann and Paul Robert Magocsi's Galicia: A Multicultured Land), whom Lviv "belongs" to changed rather a lot--Habsburgs, Poland, briefly the Western Ukrainian Republic, the USSR, etc--but any serious historian should have no trouble sorting this out.
  • After botching Sheptytsky's death, Hitchcock gives an inexcusably sanguine interpretation of events that saw the arrest of Sheptytsky's successor, Joseph Slipyj (treated in Jaroslav Pelikan's book Confessor Between East and West: A Portrait of Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj) who was exiled to the Gulag for 18 years, and the arrest of the entire UGCC hierarchy along with the forced reunion of the UGCC with the Russian Orthodox Church as the Pseudo-Synod of Lviv of 1946, which everyone now recognizes as a total farce--and not a funny one, either, as the UGCC would then spend the next 43 years as the largest illegal and thus underground religious body in the world, and many of her bishops, clergy, and faithful would be martyred. Some of those stories are recounted in such works as Blessed Bishop Mykolay Charnetsky, C.SS.R., and Companions: Modern Martyrs of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, but you wouldn't know any of this from reading Hitchcock. If thousands and thousands of people getting killed precisely for their fidelity to the Catholic Church (many of whom were beatified by Pope John Paul II) don't merit a mention in a book about the same, what does it take? Such an omission is a huge insult.
  • Other errors abound, not least terminological: repeatedly Hitchcock refers to Orthodox Christians as "schismatics," which  (as Henry Chadwick's genuinely magisterial East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church: From Apostolic Times until the Council of Florence makes clear) was never appropriate in the first place, and was rightly abandoned by the Catholic Church at Vatican II. This kind of language, along with a smug tone (smugness being, as Flannery O'Connor said, the besetting Catholic sin) through much of the rest of the book, make the whole thing very off-putting.
  • Equally incorrectly he refers to Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians and others as "monophysite" though scholarship for the last four decades and more has shown that that term was never correct in the first place, and certainly isn't today.
  • His treatment of Chaldean Christians ignores the hugely significant recent event whereby Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians came to an agreement of eucharistic sharing made all the more significant by Roman recognition of the ancient anaphora of Addai and Mari, a decision which the great Robert Taft said is the most significant ecumenical-ecclesiological decision made by Rome since Vatican II.
These are intolerable errors of both omission and commission. Some of these have huge ecumenical and ecclesial implications, so nobody can be thought picayune for pointing these out. Some are basic factual errors while others are more a problem of tone--and in some respects these are the more serious. For too long, as David Bentley Hart has said in his essay in Ecumenism Today, Catholics and Orthodox have allowed bad history to get in the way of unity. It is sad that this book, even in the brief treatment it gives to the East, merely repeats this process and compounds these errors. One expects better in 2013--much, much better than this "confessional propaganda" (Taft).  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I was wondering about this "Big Book." I have seen how the book jacket blurb review industry works, a far cry from your actual content.
    -Larry Gregan


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