This book is an interesting although deeply flawed look at Church history over the past 2,000 years. It is less a history than a collection of moments in time without a true feel for the flow of events. In addition, many prominent events are simply ignored or passed over with barely a mention. Let me give a few brief examples. Little is said of the collapse of the Church in North Africa where it was thriving (Saint Augustine was a bishop in Hippo) until it was replaced by Islam. The Crusades are barely discussed and their effects on relations with the peoples of the Middle East aren't discussed at all. The Thirty Years War is given a single paragraph. This is surprising because this war turned Europe from a continent of nations based on religion into a continent of nations where national loyalties were more important than religious loyalties. The loss of power of the religious leaders in Europe can be traced to that war.
This is fairly typical of the book. It discusses many prominent people such as Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome in some detail but fails to put their lives into a perspective of overall Church history. The flow of the book is often interrupted by jumps ahead and then back again so sometimes it is confusing because it isn't clear as to what events have occurred and which are still to come. There is also a tendency in the book to move too fast at times and introduce characters with a sentence and then never mention them again.
All that being said, the book is not a complete failure. Taken from a Catholic viewpoint, the book is an acceptable, although incomplete, introduction to Church history. The author does not try to hide the bad acts of the Church that led to the Reformation, for example, and instead points out the critical failures of the Church. His discussion of some key Protestant leaders such as Luther and Calvin will enlighten those who knew little of their lives. In fact, the book is at its best when the author ignores trying to write a history and instead gives us short biographies of key figures in Church history.
The last part of the book covering the period since Vatican II was the most disappointing to me. The author abandons any attempt to write a history and instead turns the book into an editorial about the Church's failure to become "modern" in the last 40 years. Strangely, this is the longest part of the book. I'm not sure how a book claiming to be a history can discuss 1,960 years of Church history in 400 pages and then the remaining 40 years are given more than 100 pages. Overall, the book is fair as an introduction to Church history until about 1900 but a failure as an editorial on the current Church.
on April 14, 2001
I found this book both comprehensive and informative. The author traces the history of the Catholic Church by following the papal progression from Peter to the John Paul. As with most historical texts, the concentration is on recent history with the first 1000 years providing a foundation for these events, but not extensively explored.
I liked this book because it expanded my knowledge and provided a well-developed review of liberalism in the Catholic Church. However, this book is not without the author's influence. He appears to feel redeemed with the changes set forth in Vatican II as validation of the liberalist approach to the Church. He also appears unhappy with the limits that John Paul has attempted to put on those revisions. He promotes a Catholic Church run by a democratic process similar to government. This perspective becomes clear at the end and, in reading the book, it was apparent that the author was not completely unbiased in his presentation of history. Throughout this presentation, there seemed to be a lack of faith in God as the creator. This was not disrespectful, but more agnostic in nature.
This being said, I would highly recommend the book for anyone interested in learning the history of the Catholic Church. Its attractiveness to non-Catholics will be its independent scholarly presentation of history. The faithful however, will notice a mild shortcoming as it promotes a move away from papal authority towards a Church more of man than of God.
I have searched far and wide for a one-volume history of the Catholic Church that meets the following criteria:
1) Readable to the Layman
2) Unapologetic about the glories of Catholicism yet unafraid to recount its shames
3) Understanding of each period in history in the context of that time, not through the lens of modern biases and beliefs
4) Treating the whole history of the Church without partiality towards those periods most favored by today's popular culture, such as the Reformation and modern times.
After reading "A Concise History of the Catholic Church," it is clear that my search continues. In regard to criteria #1 Fr. Bokenkotter succeeds - this book is an easy-to-read summary which doesn't get bogged down in tedious writing. As to criteria #2, Fr. Bokenkotter is less successful; he doesn't mind recounting the Church's shames through the ages, but he minimizes its glories, preferring to tend towards the modern idea that if the Catholic Church was involved, it probably involved corruption and abuses of power. Fr. Bokenkotter also falls short with criteria #3, as he tends to read modern presuppositions into ancient events, instead of understanding that everyone is a product of their times to some extent.
But it is with criteria #4 that Fr. Bokenkotter spectacularly fails. Just glance at the table of contents: he covers the foundational period of the Church - the years 30 A.D. to 600 A.D. - in just 120 pages, yet takes over 200 pages for the most recent century of Church history. This is breathtakingly myopic. Everything about Catholicism - practice, doctrine and prayer - burst forth from the seed of the first century during the patristic era which covers the time period up to the year 600 A.D. Yet Fr. Bokenkotter spends a scant 120 pages on it. The past century, while definitely having some important events (such as Vatican II), cannot in any objective way be considered more influential, yet this book is able to expend over 1/3 of its pages on this time period. Another example of this myopia is that Fr. Charles Curran, a recent American dissident and minor blip on the historical scene who will be forgotten in 20-30 years, is mentioned on eight separate pages, while St. John Chrysostom, a highly influential Church Father, is mentioned twice. The whole book skews modern and American.
There are other serious flaws in "The Concise History;" for example, Fr. Bokenkotter sees most events through a modern "liberal/conservative" prism. An actual chapter title: "The Resurgent Liberal Catholics Ring Down the Curtain on the Post-Trent Church at the Second Vatican Council" - remember that two of those "liberals" would later become Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI when considering the usefulness of that title. This does a serious disservice to the real issues that have impacted the church throughout the years.
My recommendation: pass on this one - it's not worth the time or the money. Alas, my search continues...
on July 27, 2000
The author's hope that this book "would help Catholics cope with all the changes going on in the Church by showing them how much change had occurred in the past" is more clearly revealed toward the end of his novel work: "An important reason for this weakening of the Church's absolute authority in the realm of morality is a deepened sense of history. Catholics are now more aware of the relative nature of past decisions by ecclesiastical authority in the realm of morality." The "deepened" sense of history promoted by Bokenkotter is deprived of theological acumen and factual integrity.
Case in point. He claims that Pope John XXIII "seemed clearly to endorse the concept of historicity - the idea that Church doctrinal formulas are not immutable in themselves but historically conditioned answers given by the Church at a particular moment to questions raised by the thought currents of a particular time." In fact, in the same opening address at the inauguration of the Second Vatican Council, from which Bokenkotter offers a selective citation, Pope John XXIII states that "from the renewed, serene, and tranquil adherence to all the teaching of the Church in its entirety and preciseness, as it still shines forth in the Acts of the Council of Trent and First Vatican Council, the Christian, Catholic, and apostolic spirit of the whole world expects a step forward toward a doctrinal penetration and a formation of consciousness in faithful and perfect conformity to the authentic doctrine." Pope John XXIII was no advocate of historical relativism on matters of doctrine. To imply such is historically inaccurate and theologically suspicious. The same pope said in the same speech that "the greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously". The historical sensitivity of Pope John XXIII certainly did not endorse nor can be fairly identified with the reformulations of the Dutch "new Catechism", as Bokenkotter would like us to believe. On the contrary, in promoting the endeavor to express the Catholic Faith in a manner that responds to current needs Pope John XXIII emphasized that "it is necessary first of all that the Church should never depart from the sacred patrimony of truth received from the Fathers".
Bokenkotter would have his reader think that the dogmas of the Catholic Faith have changed. Invoking Pope John XXIII to support the claim reveals just one of the theological limitations and historical flaws that reveal the author's agenda and render this book unreadable.
Caveat emptor: The student of history will only be able to evaluate the quality of an historical work until he has more information than that presented therein.
on January 5, 1999
The Roman Catholic Church is the single most significant institution in history. Bokenkotter colorfully portrays the triumphs, tragedies and personalities that have guided the Church over the past two millinia in a brief, easy to read format. This book will not make anyone an expert on Catholic Church history, nor is it designed to do so. It will enhance anyone's knowledge of the most significant developments in history.
Who first wrote the Bible? What made Gregory so great? What is a "Renaissance Pope?" Did Martin Luther really nail his thesis to the door of the Cathedral? How did Catholicism spread through America? What prompted the Vatican II reform movement?
This book provides the basics, and it provides them clearly and cogently. To write a concise history about the Catholic Church is no small task. Bokenkotter did it, and he did it soundly.
on November 12, 2006
The 2005 edition of TB's "Concise History of the Catholic Church" basically adds a very brief chapter on the final illness and death of John Paul II, and the election of Benedict XVI. TB writes that little update from the fullness of the moment when the world watched the events of the passing of one pope and the election of another on live broadcasts, so his two-page insert has the freshness of the immediate. That little chapter is more of a chronicle than a historical reflection.
The 2005 edition of "Concise History", other than the above-mentioned little piece, reproduces untouched the 2002 version of TB's best-seller. The novelty of that 2002 edition had been his appraisal of the long pontificate of John Paul II leading across the threshold of the Third Millennium. That appraisal, published in time for the pope's silver jubilee on the chair of Peter, presents a type of "point of arrival" rather than a conclusion to the ongoing story of the Church. TB's book is, after all, a survey of 2000 years of Church history, so it is interesting that the last quarter of the 20th Century should get so much attention. Yet, that is the time in which most of TB's reader's were born and have lived, so that special attention makes sense.
The "Concise History" is a solid text that can be used in college and seminary courses of Church history. I've used it as a text and resource for survey courses that I've taught at grad level for students of theology. It is highly readable, solid and sober in tone, informative and synthetic. In short, the book works, edition after edition. My students always seem to appreciate "Bokenkotter", as they call the book. Their appreciation is one of the reasons that I continue to make use of this resource when asked to speak of the history of the Church.
on January 2, 2002
I'm writing this with some hesitancy -- this is the first history of the Catholic Church that I've read, so my perspective is limited.
I enjoyed the balanced and concise (yes, it really is) coverage this author gives to earlier church history. Being a Catholic devoted to the Church, and fairly well-grounded in her teachings on faith, Scripture, sacraments and prayer, I felt the need to become better informed on her history. This text did not disappoint me.
That said, I will admit that when the author's strong liberal leanings seemed to grow more blatant in his coverage of modern, post-Vatican II times, that tone tended to chafe me intellectually and emotionally. That is probably a good thing, since it made me aware of --
-- A conservatism (perhaps?) in my own Catholicism which values obedience to authority and faith in the Holy Spirit's guidance of the church through the Magisterium. While I appreciate being made aware of this bias in myself, I make no apology for it.
-- The fact that not all Catholics feel the same way, and that liberal Catholics raise some issues that are valid and that must be addressed (but carefully).
So -- Thank you (I think?) Mr. Bokenkotter, for increasing my awareness of both of our biases, and reminding me that this living body of Christ that is the Church is still growing and learning under His guidance.
on October 4, 2008
This book is a fairly comprehensive history of the Church over the last 2,000 years. However, Mr. Bokenkotter seems quite happy to gloss over many important events in the history of the Church to devote a great deal of time to the discussion of the liberalization of the Church over the last hundred or so years. Favorite liberal bishops and theologians are discussed ad nauseum. Clearly, following the mistake so many make, Bokenkotter is viewing 2,000 years of Church history through the prism of his own experience and his own prejudices. It's as if Vatican II, in his eyes, is practically a second coming. Then, as if watching his beautiful balloon fall to earth as the air slips out, Bokenkotter devotes a terse afterthought of a chapter to the death of John Paul II and subsequent election of Benedict XVI. He obviously views the election Ratzinger as a blow to the "Spirit of Vatican II."
on October 4, 2012
A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas S. Bokenkotter
A review by Anthony T. Riggio
October 4, 2012
I ordered this book from Amazon after reading "Christianity, the First Three Thousand Years" by Diarmaid MacCulloch (an Anglican Scholar). It was an interesting book which I rated on Amazon with some interest in understanding Christianity from a "secular" point of view and while I did not write a long analysis of my thoughts on this book, my Amazon and Goodreads show the following: "Good historical work; Anglican biased; Not a Spiritual work. Looong read!" I guess after reading this book I got a bit lazy and took a short way out with my glib review. As I was accidentally looking at other religious books, I spotted the title of the instant book on Amazon before I read the reviews which seemed to be all over the scale with high praise for the book at ratings 4 and 5 stars and almost half of the reviews were three or less with 14 readers rating it a one (1) star. I did not read the reviews because I did not want to bias my views so I ordered the book (paperback) edition for $12.33 (Prime) and when I received it, the type was too small to comfortably read, so I ordered for my Kindle for $14.99 ( I could not believe it) but I have found this dichotomy with other publications. It would seem that the cost of printing is not a factor here.
A Concise History of the Catholic Church is a slight misnomer with a book of over 600 pages with small type (thank God for the Kindle edition where I could enlarge the type face to a more comfortable size). Also, I would highly recommend the Kindle edition for this book in view of the fact that there are so many terms and words which are not in most contemporary reader's vocabulary. I found this too with Diarmaid MacCulloch book as well and it would have been somewhat easier with the Kindle built in dictionary...bravo.
Luckily I had plowed through the history of the Church in MacCulloch's book, so I was able to quickly understand some of the more difficult concepts of the early schisms and heresies developed during the growth of Jesus' Church. Interestingly, these schisms and heresies continue until today and of course with a centralized Catholic church these are often put to rest before they become protests ergo protestant in nature. In Thomas Bokenkotter's, A Concise History... his central idea's or criticisms are not truly manifest until he comes to the more modern years of the Catholic Church.
Bokenkotter's book had me up and down emotionally and in my understanding of my own religion, to wit, Roman Catholicism. It was like an intellectual rollercoaster where I rooted for a decentralized Catholic Church and then realized that it could not work without great disputes and intellectual and spiritual wrestling matches that would injure and cause damage to the "One Holy and Apostolic" Catholic church of which I am a member. A cradle to grave catholic who like most people struggles with his beliefs and often wonders into dangerous areas having to kick myself back on track as I am just a simple Catholic who has not had all the educational experiences that both MacCulloch and Bokenkotter have experienced. So my criticisms and observation come from a wide base of ignorance about my church. I am, however, a lover of history with advanced degrees in the nonacademic and more practical areas of the Law.
Please understand I am not down on Thomas Bokenkotter but do not quite understand his conclusions about a more diversified and less structured Church, which is where often the really smart people take issue because of their education and experiences and their insufferable pride. Bokenkotter never identifies himself as a Catholic Priest, which he is, and that by itself, causes me some concern.
If readers of this book are not firmly anchored in their faith and belief systems regarding the Roman Catholic Church, be very aware and astute to some of the author's teachings as they may be antithetical to the Church (my perspective alone as I have not read any condemnations of the book).
Now this being said, there were some very enlightening items in this book which I never fully understood and are meaningful for not only Catholics but Christians of all denominations. They are the very serious social issues and the ones that are the most difficult for Christians of all stripes. For example the Church issues in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The issue of Liberation Theology is explored with great detail in a way that the average person can easily understand. The issue of both homosexuality and women in the priesthood are carefully explored though I am not clear on the author's position on each. Bokenkotter also addresses the recently explosive issue of pedophilia or rather sexual abuses by priests which have caused great damage to the Catholic Church both in financial and social arenas.
I am not by any stretch of the imagination a scholar, which I think this book is intended for, but if the reader has the "stick -to- it-ive-ness", the book is worth the read. I promise you will learn a lot about the Church, the Author and most important, yourself as a believer of the greatest teacher you will ever have, Jesus Christ, who through the Holy Spirit will guide you safely through the really rough areas (at least rough for me).
I gave this book three and a half stars, at least in my own personal conclusions as I am bound to whole number stars in Amazon. I recommend reading the book!
on May 27, 2000
Considering the amazingly huge scope of this book, the author, Thomas Bokenkotter, does a commendable job in his attempt to summarize the history of the Roman Catholic Church. The book is divided into five major parts: 30-600 A.D., 600-1300 A.D., 1300-1650 A.D., 1650-1891 A.D., and 1891-Present A.D. For anyone daunted by such an expansive history, take heart; Bokenkotter's writing style makes this project an enjoyable and quick read. Furthermore, his consistent attempts to immerse the events of Catholic history in their rightful historical context leads the reader to a better understanding of Western history in general during the time period that this book covers. Perhaps the most lasting impact this book will have on me is the fact that it has inspired me to further research many areas of interest in Catholic history. To help readers with similar goals, Bokenkotter has compiled an extensive bibliography for each chapter that can be found at the end of the book. Some topics that the reader will want to research further because of their influence on Catholic decision-making and history are the following: The Development of Catholic Belief in Roman Ecclesial Primacy; Papal Infallibility; Mariology; Monastic Influences on the Church and Society in the Middle Ages; Political Influences on the Church's Theological Developments; The Church's Recent Struggles with Modernity; and The Development and Influence of Liberation Theology.