Friday, April 19, 2024

Review of Harry Crocker, Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church - A 2,000 Year History (Regnery, 2023)

Siege of Constantinople, Chronique de Charles VII by Jean Chartier

Harry W. Crocker III is no stranger to traditionalist debates and The Latin Mass magazine. In the 2002 Summer issue, Thomas Woods robustly endorsed his monograph Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church - A 2,000 Year History. In the next issue, he wrote a review of Vladimir Soloviev’s The Russian Church and the Papacy, which argues that Eastern Orthodox churches desperately need the papacy. His positive review drew the vehement ire of TLM’s few Eastern Orthodox readers and led to a lively exchange in the Winter 2003 issue between him and his critics. One can see why Orthodox feathers were ruffled. Crocker begins his review with: “As Newman might have said, but didn’t, ‘To be deep in history is to realize that the Eastern Orthodox are crazy.’ They are now, they were then, and they always have been.” [1]

Twenty years later, Crocker has published an updated and expanded edition of Triumph, with additions that cover the Francis pontificate. And the controversy continues.
In order to appreciate Triumph, one must understand what kind of book it is and is not. Harry Crocker is not a professional historian but an amateur (in the best sense of the word) who has deeply imbibed 2,000 years of Church history, ruminated on it, and summarized it for the general reader in light of his own judgment. For a history book that is replete with empirical facts and strives for impartiality, look elsewhere; for a history book that is unabashedly opinionated and never boring, look no further.
Every author must assume a certain persona, and Crocker’s is that of a stalwart Catholic and a somewhat aristocratic snob. He is willing to forgive popes with mistresses so long as they defend Church doctrine and attack the Church’s enemies. “On matters of sex,” he opines, “one can say that some of the Renaissance popes simply surrendered to their Mediterranean temperament or were premature Protestants” (258). And if selling indulgences is what it takes to cover Michelangelo’s salary, Crocker avers, it is money well extorted (258).
He also betrays an old-school belief that every ethnicity has its own distinctive character. Rather than shy from stereotypes, he indulges in them. After describing medieval tumult in the lands surrounding the Black Sea, Crocker quotes with approval Ambrose Bierce’s aphorism: “All languages are spoken in Hell, but chiefly those of Southeastern Europe” (224). And when commenting on the Franks’ attempt to control parts of Byzantium, he writes: “The French, however, continued to be hampered by there being too few of them—a crying need that the world has not often recognized” (180). Pope Paul II is described as “handsome and concomitantly vain” because “he was Italian, after all” (266).
And as one might expect from the 2002 Latin Mass magazine debate, Crocker saves his best zingers for our separated Eastern brethren. Before its conversion to Christianity, the Eastern Roman Empire was prone “to extremism and emperor worship” (40); afterwards, it was filled bishops who “bowed to imperial demands like reeds beaten by the winds” (106) and monks “prone to almost absurd acts of mortification” (112). Already in the early centuries of the Christian era, the Eastern churches had “febrile, hate-filled fissiparous tendencies” (119) that were only held in check when they were tethered to Rome. From the fourth to the ninth century, the East was in schism one third of the time; since it was but “a footstool for the Byzantine emperor,” it often followed the emperor’s heretical bent. The Crusaders were not impressed with the Byzantines when they first met them, regarding them “as gay Greeks—effeminate, scheming, and bitchy” (175). The sacking of Constantinople was not a travesty but condign punishment for the Byzantine court’s intrigue and backstabbing.
Crocker’s criticism of the schismatic East, incidentally, has new relevance today. Recent years have witnessed the rise of the so-called “Orthobro,” a single, usually bearded male from the Millennial or Generation Z generation who is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and who spends most of his time trolling the internet and excoriating the Filioque rather than asking a girl out on a date. If you have an Orthobro in your life, I highly recommend that you give him a copy of Triumph and then sit back and enjoy the fireworks. Schadenfreude is not a sin when the suffering that you delight in observing is for their own spiritual good.
Crocker’s tendentiousness (much of which is deliberately provocatory and, he admits, satirical) [2] all but guarantees that the reader will sooner or later be offended (for me it was his line that Henry II’s conquest of Ireland was a “necessary project of civilization that remains uncompleted even a thousand years later” [192]). The overall effect of Triumph, however, is—at least for orthodox Catholics—quite satisfying. Although Crocker is imprecise at times and impolitic at all times, he almost always lands in the right place. The Renaissance, he charges, was not the rejection but the fulfillment of the Middle Ages, which also revered the classical world (259). His explanations of controversial topics such as the Crusades, the Babylonian Captivity, the Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, the American Founding, and the Napoleonic era are excellent, and he is a fine raconteur, often weaving together different threads of a story out of their chronological sequence in order to tell a more vivid tale.
Crocker’s treatment of the twentieth century is also good. After summarizing the great works of the early- and mid-twentieth-century Popes (including Pius XII’s heroic actions to save Jews from the Holocaust), he moves on to the organizers of Vatican II, whom he characterizes as misguidedly optimistic. Oddly, he spends more time on Humanae Vitae than the Second Vatican Council, and he does not address at length the liturgical revolution that ensued except to lament illicit and unwelcomes innovations such as
hand-holding during the Our Father and cupping one’s hands in imitation of the priest—offenses that should have been dealt with under sharia law, adopting the Islamic punishment for thievery, as part of the Church’s new openness to other religions (516).
As for the Francis pontificate, he is surprisingly restrained. The author who lets loose the haymaker that the Sack of Byzantium should be made a feast day puts on kid gloves to describe Pope Francis “as a sometimes charismatic, generally well-meaning, but occasionally spiteful and authoritarian man of muddle, vulnerable to liberal flattery” (535-36). Not bad, but H. J. A. Sire’s 2018 The Dictator Pope, which Crocker did not consult, paints a darker but well-documented picture. Similarly, regarding the doctrinal controversies surrounding this Pontiff, he dances like a butterfly but forgets to sting like a bee, perhaps because he published this new edition before the promulgation of Fiducia Supplicans, which in the eyes of many is when the gloves of the current pontificate have finally come off.
That said, Crocker draws a wise conclusion from the bizarre chapter of Church history in which we find ourselves:
But if Francis’s pontificate made anything clear, it was that the Church needed to move on from the liberal platitudes about the spirit of Vatican II, platitudes that would (even if this was not his intention) have the Church conform to the liberalism of the world, the dictatorship of relativism, as the only acceptable dogma (536-37).
Not all of Crocker’s facts are straight. On page 330, he states Pope Paul IV excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I, but ten pages later he states that it was Pope St. Pius V (the correct answer is Pius V). He also claims that the Church celebrates the Battle of Lepanto every year as the feast of the Holy Rosary on the first Sunday after October. In fact, the feast has been celebrated on October 7 since Pope St. Pius X changed the date in 1913. And his claim that Calvinism today is either moribund or dead is proof that he has never visited the campus of Baylor University or Wheaton College.
But overall, Triumph is an impressive achievement: a well-written, judicious, and entertaining presentation of 2,000 years of tumultuous Church history. I strongly recommend it to all faithful Catholics and sincere truth-seekers, especially those who feel embarrassed by the Church’s historical record or are disheartened by the Church’s current state of affairs. Triumph does not whitewash, but it puts the black marks in their proper perspective. Moreover, it cogently defends its main thesis, which is expressed in the final paragraph:
The triumph of the Catholic Church, from its beginnings with the Apostles filing out from the Holy Land, to its rising to be monarch over kings, to its continued survival and worldwide development against every conceivable persecution, is the most extraordinary story in the world (541).
“La Jérusalem céleste“, extraite de la Tapisserie de l'Apocalypse du Château d'Angers, France

This review first appeared in The Latin Mass magazine 33:1 (Spring 2024), pp. 60-22. Many thanks to its editors for allowing its publication here.

[1] “To Russia with Love,” TLM 11:4 (Fall 2002), 63.
[2] TLM [Winter 2003], 5.

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