|Church History|

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day: Layers of Time in Church History

Author: Dr. Giulia Marotta

This blogpost comes to us from one of our first WiRe fellows, Giulia, who came to Münster in 2018 to develop a project on Catholic female historiography. Now, almost 3 years later, she reflects fondly on her time in the city and at the WWU: „Both the city and the university life were very inspiring for my research, and the WiRe staff went out of their way to make me feel welcome and create the best possible environment to achieve my professional goals. They did it so well that I decided to come back to the University of Münster in 2020 as a post-doc 😉 And of course, I couldn’t help getting involved in the WiRe community again“. 

And we are so happy that she is back as a contributor to the blog! Giulia tells us, „With this series I would like to offer readers of every level and background a non-intimidating and easy-to-follow resource to sneak a peek into my new research project, which deals with the conceptual history of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The story, all names, and characters portrayed in this blogpost are fictitious. I wholeheartedly thank the WWU for funding the preparatory stages of the project through the Post-doc Program and Erasmus+, and Professor Dr. Olaf Blaschke, apl. Professor Dr. Klaus Große Kracht, and Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Hubert Wolf for their invaluable input and support. And a huge THANKS to the WiRe Programme for hosting me on their wonderful Blog :-)“

With that, please enjoy this first instalment of a three-part series, guiding us by way of creative writing through a historical past.

I remember that day so vividly! I was walking fast through the streets of Roma Prati to be on time for the aperitivo in Piazza di Pietra. The air was warm, the sky was filled with a mild sunset light, and the pink corduroy of my favorite springtime jacket, finally out of the closet after a long winter, was blending beautifully with the new leaves and flowers blossoming all around. I kept speeding up my pace and slowing down my thoughts at the same time. I had been racking my mind for hours over a new research project and by the end of the day my hopes of figuring out the best approach in time for my deadline were dangerously low. So, there I was, trying to take a break from a busy but unproductive week of reading and pondering… taking notes and pondering, and then just endless, maddening pondering and pondering. My gaze was wandering across the delightful cityscape, with its tall umbrella pines and its many monumental buildings. From the majestic fortress of Castel Sant’Angelo to the lavish fountain of Piazza Navona, my eyes were finally meeting something different than a computer screen. And how different… My ears instead were in another world, one of memory and dream, but also of protest and liberation. I surely wanted to protest against a week of pointless brainwork, and the electrifying 90s hard rock playlist which was blasting through my big ivory headphones was just the kind of help I needed. Shuffling through the music I couldn’t stop thinking how each song was perfectly intertwined with the previous one, yet perfectly surprising…

Then a further surprise, after being so lost in thought: I finally arrived at my destination. Piazza di Pietra was so full, one could hardly take a single step without bumping into each other, but that’s part of its charm of course. The luxurious bougainvillea hanging from one of the buildings had not yet flowered, but its raw, healthy green was a balm for the soul of an overworked scholar. My friends Aurora and Elena were right under that ruffled curtain of leaves, sitting at a tiny square table, waiting for me to arrive and order a drink. Just like me, Aurora was wearing her favorite spring outfit, a long sleeve, mellow yellow dress almost matching her blond hair. Elena instead did not look completely out of winter yet, with her big brown curls pulled back into a ponytail and a white turtleneck loosely tucked into a pair of wide-leg jeans. As I saw them from a distance, I quickly took off my headphones, and dodging the last scraps of crowd, I rushed to the free chair and said “Hello!”

It didn’t take long for the conversation to move from the most ordinary greeting to detailing the extraordinary task that I set out to accomplish that week: drafting a winning project on one of the most controversial topics of the moment, a topic involving gender, sex, crime, and power: and calling for historical research to make the difference. My project was going to tackle the issue of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church from a historical perspective.

“So, what’s up? Did you make any progress on your project?” inquired Aurora.

“Oh yes, your project! I remember your deadline was approaching. Do you feel ready?” added Elena.

I should have known it. If there is a possibility for your work to join you uninvited for drinks and dinner, then sooner or later it will. Even so, help was on the way. A bold waiter interrupted us to take our order. “What can I get you?” he asked taking his digital notepad from the pocket of his black apron. “Finally, an easy question…,” I thought, and smiling at my unaware rescuer I exclaimed, “A blackberry mojito, thanks!” Aurora and Elena ordered their usual spritz, and though for a moment I believed the waiter’s intervention could have spared me the trouble of talking about my unfinished project, by the time he was back with our drinks my academic fate was again on the table.

“So, what were you saying about your project?” resumed Aurora with a gleam of curiosity in her eyes. I took a first, hefty sip of mojito and decided to face the challenge of putting together into words my project ideas. An even bigger challenge was to make them understandable to people living it up in weekend mode, but in the end I went for it, with absolute bluntness and even a pinch of nonchalance.

Me: “Well, I actually didn’t make any great progress since last week. I’m kind of stuck,” I admitted.

Elena: “You can’t get your head around the problem?”

Me: “Yep… I feel that something is missing in everything I read, but I don’t know what.”

Elena: “If you don’t know what is missing, maybe nothing is missing. Maybe you’ve just been reading too much about your topic and it started to feel boring.”

Me: “Um… I don’t think that’s it. You see, I think I know what is missing in this or that work… I just can’t pin down what all of them are missing.”

Aurora: “Oh, so you want to find out what they all have in common…?”

Me: “Yes. A gap that they all have in common. That would make a great research question!”

Elena: “All right! Just pitch your thoughts to us and we’ll see what comes out.”

Me: “Well, some authors focus a lot on change, which I like… but they also tend to overplay certain events as turning points, like for example the student protest movements and the sexual revolution in the 1960s.”[1]

Elena: “Okay, and what’s wrong with that?”

Me: “The thing is that there are tons of archival materials which make it very hard to prove that sexual abuse within the Catholic Church may be related to such recent events.”

Elena: “And nobody besides you noticed it?”

Me: “Yes, many authors did! But then they left behind the search for changes, and basically argued that the handling of sexual abuse in the Church followed a centuries-long pattern already established in the Middle Ages.”[2]

Elena: “I see. So, for some authors these scandals popped out almost suddenly and all at once, and for some others they are instead something very old that has been repeating itself over and over again.”

Aurora: “To me both viewpoints look pretty static…”

Me: “Yes! You are right! What is missing is some more dynamics, some more history.”

Elena: “Some more history? What do you mean?”

Me: “For starters some more attention to the documents… They show a long-term continuity but also a lot of transformations.”

Elena: “Transformations? I thought the Catholic Church was all about tradition, not transformations. Am I wrong?”

Me: “That’s a very good question! One way of putting it is this: even when it did not adjust itself to the context of the times and even when it did the exact opposite of adjusting, the Church kept reacting to the outer world and therefore it also kept changing.”

Elena: “So Church history is at the same time about tradition and about transformation?”

Me: “Definitely! Both recurring patterns and unforeseeable changes belong to the history of the Church, just like the history of any other part of society.”

Aurora: “And you want to study all these layers of patterns and changes, right?”

Me: “Yes, indeed! ‘Layers’ is the perfect keyword! After all, for better or for worse, Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

As these words resounded in my mind, I realized that our glasses were empty and we were ready for our next Friday night destination. As we got up, I looked up and saw the last streaks of the sunset fading out and clearing the way for a limpid, clear and cloudless black night sky. I realized that my research question, too, was finally clear. It was clear that the point of arrival was at least partially known: some structural principles and mechanisms were behind the Catholic Church’s way of dealing with sexual abuse, but the historical path that led to those principles and mechanisms was still mostly unknown. With my project, I was going to uncover not only the general course of this centuries-long path, but also its turns and shifts, its discontinuities and ambiguities. A first step was maybe to identify a Sattelzeit,[3] a transition period in which, even with consistent use of the same words, the political-social language changes so much that a ‘new time’ begins.[4] I already had a hunch about a possible Sattelzeit in Church history, but this is another story, for my next blogpost 😉

Thank you for reading, stay tuned for the next part of the story!

Contact: marotta@uni-muenster.de 


[1] If you want to find out more about this debate, you can check out these articles: Benedict XVI, „Die Kirche und der Skandal des sexuellen Mißbrauchs,“ in Klerusblatt,15 April 2019; and B. Aschmann, „Das wahre katholische Leiden an 1968: eine Antwort auf Benedikt XVI,“ in Herder–Korrespondenz, 2019, 73 (7), pp. 44–47. An English version of the first article is available here: https://www.corriere.it/english/19_aprile_11/benedict-xvi-the-church-and-the-scandal-of-sexual-abuse-8e40d438-5b9c-11e9-ba57-a3df5eacbd16.shtml

[2] If you want to learn more about this perspective, take a look at D. Elliott, The Corrupter of Boys: Sodomy, Scandal, and the Medieval Clergy, University of Pennsylvania Press 2020. 

[3] The concept of Sattelzeit was theorized by the German historian Reinhart Koselleck. If you want to better explore this topic, there are many introductory works in English, e.g., by Gabriel Motzkin, Niklas Olsen, and Melvin Richter. And, for a very basic definition, you can lean on the good old Wikipedia https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sattelzeit (an English translation is available here https://second.wiki/wiki/sattelzeit).

[4] My paraphrase. Original quote by R. Koselleck, Zeitschichten. Studien zur Historik, Suhrkamp 2000, p. 302: „Eine Hypothese für unser Lexikon geschichtlicher Grundbegriffe besteht darin, daß sich die politisch-soziale Sprache seit dem 18. Jahrhundert auch bei durchgängigem Gebrauch derselben Worte insoweit geändert hat, daß seitdem eine ‚neue Zeit‘ artikuliert wurde“.

Author

Comments are closed.