In A Concise History of the Catholic Church, Thomas Bokenkotter, professor and Catholic pastor in Cincinnati, demonstrates his flair for distilling mountains of scholarship into intelligent, highly readable prose. This is a necessary talent for the educator and the pastor—i.e., for the public speaker; but it is rare that an educator and a pastor can actually write this clearly. The scholarship is implied but not obtrusive. Footnotes are minimal. But there is a sizeable annotated bibliography.
The original 1977 book of the same title was updated in 1979 and 1990, and, with this latest edition, in 2004. Despite this 2004 imprint, a final, brief chapter brings us up to April of 2005 with Pope John Paul II’s death and the new pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.
The book is divided into five parts, and each part has from six to ten chapters. Part One (30-600 A.D.) was perhaps titled with a wry nod to Edward Gibbon (Gibbon: “The Triumph of Barbarism;” Bokenkotter: “The Church Triumphs Over Paganism”), and begins with Jesus and ends in the sixth century with the solidifying of papal primacy by Pope Leo I. The information here is reliably up to date. For instance, the chapter on Jesus reflects current academic opinion on the quest for the historical Jesus.
Part Two (600-1300) concentrates on papal politics, the East-West schism, and the emergence of novel ideas like Aristotelianism that will be integrated with medieval theology.
Part Three (1300-1650) treats the gradual unraveling of Catholic hegemony beginning in the late middle ages owing to corruption and missed opportunities, and ending with the Protestant fracturing of Western Christendom.
Part Four (1650-1891) covers the two centuries of reaction on the part of the Church—reaction to the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, Enlightenment critiques of the Church, and new biblical scholarship and liberal theology emerging out of Germany.
Part Five (1891-present) relates the growth of the modern Church, heavily tethered to the controversies of its recent past but inching its way into modernity.
Any historian of a 2000-year old phenomenon must make judicious choices for a one-volume work: How much to include on the institution of the church, per se? How much on the papacy and hierarchy? How much on lay history? How much on the intellectual life of theologians? How much on saints and sinners? On balance, this book is slightly “top-heavy” (only slightly), with repeated stories of papal action and reaction to events and trends. But there is still plenty of material on other aspects of Church history.
In all five parts, to his credit, Bokenkotter relates the low points of the Church’s history, too: persecution of pagans, heretics, Jews, Muslims (but he fails to mention the witchcraze and its targeting of many thousands of innocent women); and twentieth- and twenty-first-century sexual abuse scandals in North America.
The book is a bona fide best-seller with over 200,000 sold. Surely most of these buyers/readers are not in a college setting, but this book is indeed suitable as a supporting text for any undergraduate course on the history of the Church. The annotated bibliography alone would make it so. It’s indexed, too. Black and white illustrations throughout.