Catholic History for Today’s Church

Catholic History for Today’s Church: How Our Past Illuminates our Present. By John W. O’Malley, SJ. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015 (A Sheed & Word Book). Kindle edition.

Fr. John W. O’Malley, SJ

John O’Malley, SJ is a history professor in the theology department at Georgetown University and a specialist in the history of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, in recent years he has become well known for his studies on the Second Vatican Council and the Council of Trent. He edited or co-edited three volumes of the humanist Erasmus who reflected the culture of renaissance Italy and the culture of Western Europe. The subject of this book is a number of articles which appeared in academic journals and America Magazine, a Jesuit publication, showing his versatility and ability to write and speak to both professional historians and the general public interested in knowing more about the path to better understand cultural and historical events in the present time.

His two books on Vatican II and the Council of Trent show his ability to grasp the central influences of these great councils and their impact on the world and the church in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The present work and others reveal a scholar of exceptional talent and ability as well as a master teacher – a historians’ historian. He is past president of American Catholic Historical Association, and the Renaissance Society of America. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the Academia di San Carlo, Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy. He holds the Johannes Quasten Medal from the Catholic University of America for distinguished achievement in Religious Studies.


The Catholic History for Today’s Church is divided in three parts: Papacy and Popes, Two Councils – Trent and Vatican II, The Church at Large (several subjects of historic importance). This development follows a long introduction about the task of the historian and the way in which he writes. The subtitle of this book indicates why history continues to be crucial for an understanding of our present and future. The last chapter is autobiographical: My Life of Learning.


In the year 2000 O’Malley was asked to write on the single historic event which he thought was the most significant in the first millennium. He chose the Edict of Milan (312 A.D.) by which Constantine gave freedom of religion to Christians. Eventually Christianity was also made the religion of the realm uniting church and state for almost all of the first millennium. O’Malley makes the point that history is a record of the decisions which have been made over the years and centuries that have shaped the world in which we live today. He coins the phrase the papalization of Catholicism and describes it as the decisions by popes and emperors in the centuries that followed Constantine’s. One of the very important decisions was the Gregorian Reform under Gregory VII and the Popes who succeeded him. In his efforts to reform the church, Gregory and his successors worked to assure that the election of bishops was made by the popes rather than emperors or rulers.

Two Councils

O’Malley was a student in Rome while the Second Vatican Council was taking place only three miles away. His two books on the Council of Trent and the Vatican Council have been very well received by experts in history and by the general public. Some of the chapters on Trent set the record straight: Myths, Misunderstandings, Misinterpretations and Misinformations, Unintended Consequences, Bishops and Theologians, Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, which show a wide sweep of errors concerning Trent that need to be corrected.

O’Malley begins his comments on Vatican II with “Ten Surefire Ways to Mix Up the Teaching of Vatican II.” He adds a chapter on “What Happened and What Didn’t Happen at Vatican II.” Finally O’Malley compares the two councils in chapter thirteen.

Part Three of the book is the Church at Large. This section discusses: celibacy, medieval universities, excommunication of politicians (which is very rare), and the two traditions of married and unmarried clergy (East and West). In this section he also explains the difference between diocesan priests and members of religious orders and communities.

My Life of Learning

This last section is one the author admits may seem rather boastful. As a matter of fact, it is a very useful collection of very wise advice for young and not so young historians. Among the points he makes is: “Le style c’est l’homme.” (The style is the man.) This proverbial French saying indicates that the way a writer expresses himself is as important as what he says. O’Malley came to appreciate style while exploring some of the sermons preached at the Sistine Chapel in Rome during the Renaissance. The style was strikingly different than what one would expect and was very different from other sermons of the time.

A welcome work of an expert in the history of the Sixteenth Century Catholic Renaissance, O’Malley’s book continues to enlighten young and old with insights on events that have shaped our world today.