For Catholics, the history of Christianity begins with Christ's appointment of the apostle Peter as the first pope of His Church. Triumph proclaims the same good news, but the book opens with a prologue in which the Roman Emperor Constantine invokes the obscure religion of his mother, leading his men into battle with crosses on their shields to defeat a usurper. With this victory, what had been a persecuted Middle-eastern religion truly became the universal, or Catholic Church.
The prologue is apt, because as the book's title suggests, H.W. Crocker writes with the zeal of the newly converted (in his case, from Anglicanism). And why not, the history of the Church is one of constant struggle. Condensing its 2,000 years into 500 pages, Crocker tries to unfold all the dramatic highlights, which in many ways is the story of Western Civilization itself.
The material is inherently lively, but the writing is unfortunately lacking. Crocker, a journalist and speechwriter, strains too hard at times to grab his audience's attention with the first line of each of the early chapters, from the hokey "A little looting goes a long way," to the disturbing "Origen severed his genitals." He also has an annoying habit of distracting the reader with scattered contemporary political references. The Romans in decline are like "the post-Vietnam, pot-smoking, demoralized American army under President Jimmy Carter." Or more shocking still, "the Nazis polled 44 percent of the vote, or roughly the same percentage won by William Jefferson Clinton?in the 1992 elections." And there's more where that came from.
Triumph is sporadically useful, as when dispelling some longstanding urban legends about the Church. Far from a closed-off, backward hive of superstition, it was the Vatican during the Renaissance that patronized art, scholarship, architecture, exploration, and yes, science. Because Catholics are not Bible literalists, they are not required to believe the sun revolves around the earth. In fact, it was a devout Catholic, Copernicus, who showed just the opposite to be true. Galileo's theories did not conflict with the Church, only his personal ridicule of the popes. The Church was perhaps overly sensitive regarding authority, scripture, and science at the time because of the strong criticisms coming from Protestants on these matters. But even today, the same Church that gave the world Louis Pasteur and Gregor Mendel, still operates its own observatory at the Vatican.
Another common, and more current charge, is that during World War II, Pope Pius XII was a Nazi collaborator. This, it turns out, is pure Soviet propaganda concocted after the war to discredit one of the world's leading anti-Communist institutions. Unfortunately, it is still parroted today by "useful idiots" who have outlasted the Soviet regime. The Vatican did sign concordances with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but only to fulfill its duty to protect the Catholic Church within those regimes. The pope prayed for peace, but clearly saw the intertwined evils of Communism's master class and National Socialism's master race, and repeatedly denounced them both. Still, rather than engage in the kind of empty talk so popular on the Left these days, the Church preferred to act, hiding thousands of Jews and escaped POW's in Church buildings (as captured in the 1983 television miniseries, The Scarlet and the Black). After the war, the chief Rabbi of Rome was baptized a Catholic and took the name Eugenio, Pius XII's Christian name.
Readers can also glean a number of other interesting details, such as the fact that our modern calendar came from Pope Gregory XIII. Or that John Wyclif, who rejected transubstantiation and embraced predestination and sola scriptura, could have been the first Protestant, had his followers, the Lollards, not been defeated by Henry V, the hero of Agincourt. But then Crocker makes suspect assertions like "Shakespeare?was probably a Catholic." Worse, he claims that Constantine first established religious freedom in the Edict of Milan, centuries before the United States was born. Of course, it was not the recognition of a natural right to freedom of conscience for all faiths, but rather a narrow grant for Catholics to practice their once persecuted religion.
Triumph is also overly eager to excuse the excesses of every Catholic who ever lived. The kings of the early middle ages were "blood-stained fornicators" but their "hearts were in the right place" because they were Catholics. The infamous "Renaissance popes were, in fact, men of the normal religious piety of their times." Sure, "some of the popes surrendered to their Mediterranean temperament," but if a pope had mistresses, at least he was "loyal to the mistress who bore him his children." And if a pope sold offices and indulgences, such actions were "financial necessities" in order to fund wars launched against Italian nobles. Besides, "it was the sale of indulgences that paid for the work of Michelangelo and Raphael." And don't even get me started on the Inquisition.
For all the gentle treatment of Catholic misdeeds, Triumph soon lapses from what St. Paul called the greatest of virtues, charity, and becomes hopelessly derailed by vicious polemics. The reader can feel it coming when Crocker finds several parallels between militant Islam and Protestantism, concluding that "[t]he creed of the Mohammedans would be the most dangerous religious movement to afflict Christianity until the time of Luther."
Martin Luther, we learn, was not interested in reforming Christianity, but in "preaching a peasant's revolt against Renaissance civilization and learning." He was "a barbarian yearning for radical moral freedom" who condoned bigamy and wife-sharing based on his reading of the Old Testament. The "Protestant revolution" was "motivated by a greed for Church property and a lust to break the bonds of celibacy." It rejected "centuries of Christian doctrine and practice: smashing stained glass, defacing Madonnas, and taking battle-axes to altars, just like the iconoclastic heretics of old." Ironically, Protestants clung zealously to the Bible, a book written, collected, and authorized by the Catholic Church to pass along what had been its oral tradition for conversions.
Lest the subtleties of Crocker's prose be lost on his readers, Triumph actually contains the passage: "the Church still hoped to reconcile with Luther?. But the Hitler in Luther soon won out." You read that right: Crocker compares Martin Luther to Adolf Hitler. He also refers to the "Luther Khmer Rouge" and credits John Calvin with "the invention of the firstand onlyChristian police state"). Indeed, for Crocker, the "petty, narrow, and ruthless" Luther is behind every ill to befall mankind for the last 500 years right up through the Holocaust. Luther "made subjectivism and moral relativism Protestant doctrine" which, in turn, became "the major factor in secularizing the Western world." That's why "[e]ven Reformed Protestant historians have linked Luther's dismissal of moral law with the eventual rise of the Fuhrer." "The dehumanization inherent in Nazi genetic engineering was abhorrent to Catholicsbut not, it must be said, to Protestants." Clearly, this is not the book to give your Protestant friends to explain the Catholic Church.
The politics of Triumph are a penance all their own. Catholic thought, Crocker says, is "politically conservative," which sounds well and good. Except that he means "affirming established authority," "preferring monarchy to democracy," and upholding "the divine right of Catholic kings?as an essential support of the faith"in short, everything an American conservative rightly abhors. Crocker would have us believe the American Revolution was no revolution at all. It was merely "an organic development" that "enshrined the traditional rights of Englishmen." Equality, reason, nature, and even nature's God are only associated with the despised French Revolution. Crocker, the author of Robert E. Lee on Leadership, sees "the medieval heritage of Catholicism" in the feudalism of the American South, and consistently refers to "the American War Between the States."
One is not surprised to find Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order cited in Crocker's bibliography, although the "entire Kirk oeuvre" is "almost uniformly excellent," we're told. No matter how many times Kirk's fictions are discredited by actually reading the documents and letters of the American Founding and Civil War eras, they still retain a cult following. Crocker would do well to recall Pope John Paul II's welcoming remarks to Lindy Boggs, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. There, the pontiff accurately noted that "The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain 'self-evident' truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by 'nature's God.'"
Triumph is openly sympathetic, even wistful, for Constantine, Charlemagne, and the union of altar and throne. Crocker still shines to the idea of an imperial, colonizing papacy, as a "monarch set over kings." The final line of the book expresses the hope that "Christendom will rise again." Crocker forgets that whereas the Jews wanted a military Messiah who would rule over the earth, Christ said his kingdom is not of this world. The Church should not be sovereign, nor subordinate, but independent.
To drive home this lesson, while the Catholic Church has been preserved in its indefectability, every despotic political entity it has allied itself with has collapsed: the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, Christendom, Napoleon, and more recently the Southern Confederacy (Pope Pius IX was stridently pro-South and sent Jefferson Davis a crown of thorns when he was imprisoned at Fort Monroe). Meanwhile, the justice of God's moral law has most notably been advanced in politics by non-Catholics like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln, Churchill, and even Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Even when the Vatican gets it right in World War II and especially in the Cold War, it goes wobbly in the face of terrorism.
Setting aside Triumph, with its many errors and offenses, one may still marvel at the endurance of the Catholic Church. In matters of faith, the doctrines of today are still those of the early Church. In matters accessible by reason, it has been remarkably unerring and unequaled in its fidelity to moral truths (perhaps never more so than in Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae). Consider: if the self-evident truths proclaimed by Americans in 1776 could be derailed by progressivism in less than 200 years, what are we to make of the only institution to hold firm for 2,000? Perhaps, this is the Church's true power and glory, and triumph.