The How's and the Why's to

Teaching Catholic History

in the Home


 As it appeared in the August 1994 issue of

The Catholic Family's Magnificat! Magazine

Copyright 1994. All Rights Reserved.

by Dr. Anne Carroll

Director of Seton (Day) School, Manassas, VA

On this page:


Antipathy to Enthusiasm

Importance of Church History - the Why

Three Principles to Remember

Lessons Within Principles

Impact of Christianity on the Pagan World

Actual Teaching of Catholic History - the How

Learning from Stories

High School History

Catholic Approach to American History

Research of History

The Importance of History in the Catholic Home


When new students enroll in Seton Day School, they often remark that they hate history. After they have been at Seton a few years, they may still hate history - but the class, not the material. They hate writing term papers and taking essay tests, but they usually end up liking history, even being enthusiastic about it. Home schooling parents are also often faced with "I hate history" syndrome. But they, too, can transform antipathy into enthusiasm.


Everything we teach our children should have as its ultimate purpose the glory of God and the good of souls, and history is no exception. How specifically can we teach history so that it fulfills these purposes?


First of all, it is through history that we learn that Jesus Christ is the most historically important person who has ever lived, that the Incarnation/Redemption/Resurrection are the most important events, or rather the most important event, in history. Obviously Jesus Christ is of supreme theological importance, but it doesn't take much thought to see that He is of supreme historical importance as well.


The Importance of Church History

- the Why


On the first day of freshman history class at Seton, I ask students to define history. Without much coaxing, they come up with the definition that history is recorded past events which have made a significant impact on the world. From that it is easy to conclude that the most important events and persons are those which have had the greatest impact. Who is more important: Abraham or Hammurabi? We probably won't find Abraham mentioned in a secular history book. But how many people today honor Hammurabi? How many follow a creed that he taught? How many name their children after him? The answers are probably none, none, and very few, if any. Yet Abraham is honored by the three great monotheistic religions of the world - over two billion living human beings. That's historical impact.


Yet Abraham was only a forerunner, the father of a race of people deservedly called Chosen, from whom would come the person with the most impact of all. All of the ancient world points to him because the only ideas and institutions that survive from that ancient world are either those which directly led up to the Incarnation and the founding of the Church (Jewish culture) or those which were preserved by the Catholic Church (everything we have from classical culture). If the See of Peter had not been located there, Rome would have become just another backwater village after the fall of the Empire and the barbarian conquests.


All of history since the Incarnation has been dominated by the Church. The skeptic might concede that the Middle Ages were Church-centered but deny this influence in later centuries. Yet even at times when the Church, in secular terms, appears weak, it is still the focus of attention, or, more correctly stated, the focus of attack. How many other religions are routinely pilloried in Time or the Washington Post? How often do we see the picture of the Dalai Lama or some Hindu Guru or the head of the Lutheran Church or the chief Prophet of the Latter Day Saints on the cover of Newsweek? If the Church was not influencing history today, the liberal media would not be so vociferously attacking it.



Three Principles to Remember


Thus principle number one in teaching history from the Catholic point of view is that the Incarnation is the central event in history. Principle number two is an obvious corollary: God acts in history. We can see this action in Old Testament history, but not just there. Why did Don Juan of Austria win at Lepanto? Why did nine million Indians convert in Mexico? Why did the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution end when it did? Why did Communism "fall" on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union? Did perhaps Pope Pius V's rosaries and the apparition at Guadalupe and the martyrdom of the Carmelite nuns and the election of a Polish Pope have something to do with these events? God does, indeed, act in history.


Principle number three is that history is made by free will choices. Men and women - not impersonal forces - make history. Communism did not take over Russia in 1917 because it was economically inevitable or because the dialectic of history ordained that it would. Russia fell to Communism because of Nicholas II's decision to mobilize against Austria and thus bring Russia into the war, and Alexandra's decision to hand over the government to Rasputin when Nicholas went to the front, and Ludendorff's decision to ship Lenin to Petrograd to make a revolution. Without those decisions, Communism could not have taken over the world's largest country. Russia would have been at peace, its economy stable, the people content - and Lenin would have died in Zurich.


All history is taught from a point of view. Even the most meticulous card file historian has a principle of selection. What do we choose to include and what leave out, what emphasize and what assign to lesser importance?


We Catholics judge by these three principles: The Incarnation is the central event in human history; God acts in history; history is made by free will choices.


Lessons within the Principles


If we teach history guided by these principles, certain lessons will emerge. The first lesson is that the Church really is built on a rock and the gates of hell really will not prevail against it. We know this is true through faith (Matthew 16: 18-19). But history confirms our faith. When we look at the broad span of history, we see the Church under attack from Roman persecutors, heretics, barbarians, Byzantine Emperors, power hungry noblemen, Holy Roman Emperors, schismatics, Protestant revolutionaries, and modern materialists and atheists. Yet the Church still stands. Perhaps the strongest evidence history can give us that the Church will always stand is that it has survived attacks that would have destroyed any human institution.


If anti-Catholics bring up the Renaissance Popes as arguments against the divine institution of the Church, we can say that they are, in fact, arguments in its favor. If the Church were merely human, its weak human leaders would have brought it down long ago.


In fact, there are even worse problems than most anti-Catholics know about. During the Dark Ages, for example, there was actually a case where one Pope ordered the dead body of his predecessor exhumed and put on trial. He was, not surprisingly, found guilty. This Synod of the Corpse is not well known even by anti-Catholics. Yet if the Church can survive this, it can survive anything.


We need not hesitate to teach older students about these problems that the Church has had. If we do, they won't be surprised or shocked if they hear about them from some other source. But, more importantly, they are good evidence for the divine institution of the Church.


A second lesson is that history is an apologetics tool. Many of the attacks on Catholicism can be answered by history. The Crusades were not aggressive, unjust wars waged by rapacious Christians against peaceful Moslems. The Inquisition did not unjustly slaughter thousands of people simply because they practiced a different religion. The Protestant Revolt was not an attempt to reform the Church of its evils and give people a chance to follow their consciences. Galileo was not harshly persecuted simply for speaking a scientific truth. Franco was not a Nazi dictator who overthrew a legitimate government and set up a police state. Pius XII was not a coward, indifferent to the plight of the Jews. All of these lies can be easily refuted with a little historical knowledge.


A third lesson is that Christianity transformed civilization.


The Impact of Christianity

on the Pagan World


Think of the characteristics of pagan society. First, the individual counted for nothing. In fact, there was not even a concept of person in the pagan world. The concept of person was first formulated by theologians to explain the Trinity and the Incarnation, and then applied to human persons As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete of the John Paul II Institute has explained, only societies that honor the Trinity will also honor the dignity of the human person. Pagan societies did not honor the human person, and our modern society is granting the title of person to an ever smaller group. Having already excluded the unborn and the comatose, it is now moving toward eliminating the elderly, the seriously ill, the retarded, and the handicapped.


A second characteristic of pagan society is that women were property. Only Christian society gave women their proper dignity. In the Book of Genesis before Original Sin, we see the fundamental equality of men and women: "This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh," Adam said to Eve. But after Original Sin, Eve was told that her husband would lord over her. The pagan world saw male dominance carried to its logical conclusion as women were considered the property of men. But in Christ, St. Paul tells the Galatians, "there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female." Salvation is open equally to men and to women. And in the Church, we see women attaining their proper dignity. Despite what the radical feminists tell us about the male-dominated Church, it is only in the Church that we find St. Teresa of Avila, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Elizabeth Seton, St. Joan of Arc, and St. Catherine of Siena, the little dyer's daughter who told Popes what to do. History properly taught will expose the lies of the radical feminists as little else can.


A third characteristic is that governments in pagan times had no limits on their power. Christianity introduced the concept of limited government, the idea that the king or ruler was responsible to God and that the legitimacy of governments depended upon whether or not they were in harmony with God's laws.


Absolutionist, unlimited governments are pre-Christian or anti-Christian. The first standard by which a government should be judged is whether or not it respects the laws of God and, therefore, whether it will respect the rights of the individual person and advance the common good. It does not matter whether the government is a monarchy or democracy. If it honors God and God's laws, then it is a just government.


Actual Teaching of Catholic History - the How


These are the main historical lessons we want our children to learn from history, but how do we go about teaching them? We tell stories. That's the way history happened. History is not a list of events and dates (though dates, of course, are important.) History is lived experience, people making choices, acting on them, and living through the consequences of those choices. The best way to teach history is to tell stories.


A typical secular history book would probably devote a few sentences to Cortes' conquest of the Aztecs along these lines: Cortes went to Mexico and destroyed a flourishing native culture, imposing alien European values, in a flagrant example of cultural genocide. One way to counteract this kind of teaching is simply to replace the pejorative words: Cortes went to Mexico and defeated the evil Aztec Empire, allowing Christianity to be brought to the people. Thus we will have stated the facts and communicated a lesson. But there is another way to teach the same facts and the same lesson.


We can land with Cortes in the coast of Mexico, hear with him the rumors of massive human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs. Watch him scuttle his ships so that his men won't be tempted to return to Cuba when they realize the incredible odds they must face. March with him across the plains. Enter Zocotlan and see the temple with its enormous racks for skulls, each representing a victim of human sacrifice. Count them with Bernal Diaz, the chronicler of the expedition, and add up the totals: 100,000 skulls. Arrive at Tenochtitlan, the capital city, be greeted by Montezuma who doesn't know quite what to make of this bearded white man who shows no fear. Go on the tour of the city. See the towers and benches made of skulls, smell the blood, see the hideous idol of the Aztec devil god Huitzilopochtli, which the Spaniards called Witchywolves. Watch Cortes grab an iron bar, smash the idol, and order Montezuma to have the place cleared out and a chapel set up. Hear Cortes try to convert Montezuma to the true faith and then see Cortes capture the Emperor in spite of the presence of his stupefied guards. Feel the fear as the Aztecs besiege the house where the Spaniards are staying. Escape on the night known as Noche Triste, Night of Sadness, as the Spaniards fight their way out of the city, at great cost. Stand with the battered, exhausted remnants of the army on the Hill of the Turkey Hen and look down into the valley to see an enormous Aztec host blocking the way. Hear Cortes commend their souls to God and Holy Mary and call upon St. James and St. Peter. See the victory won. And then with every reason in the world to leave the nightmare empire of the devil gods and never return, follow Cortes to a safe place where he begins rebuilding his army to make a new assault on Tenochtitlan, an assault which finally brings victory. Attend the Mass of thanksgiving celebrated by Father Olmedo. See the temples of the devil gods destroyed and human sacrifice ended forever. Then kneel with Cortes at the bare feet of the Franciscan missionaries who have come to bring Christ to the long suffering people of Mexico.


Learning from Stories


For younger children, up to about fifth grade, it is probably best not to use a textbook or to use it only as a general guide. Instead tell them stories, read them stories, and give them books to read on their own. They should learn the stories of Old Testament history, the great stories from classical history (Marathon, Alexander the Great, the Punic wars, for example), a history of the Church with emphasis on saints and heroes which will give them a general understanding of European history, the stories of missionaries and the establishment of the Church in non-western lands, and the Catholic saints of the Americas integrated into a general summary of United States history.


Seton Day School begins with sixth grade, and for our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, we teach World Culture. This class is a country-by country approach in which we teach great cultural achievements, the saints, and the most important historical events of each country. We cover all the countries of eastern and western Europe, Russia, India, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, and others depending on the interests of a particular class. We teach a different group of countries each year so that in three years we've covered the whole curriculum.


A similar approach would work in the home. Parents with their children could pick out the countries they want to cover each year. Use a good encyclopedia to learn the people and events that are important and then go into detail using books from the library or other sources.


To give an example to illustrate, one of the most popular countries to study at Seton is Italy. We begin with St. Peter's basilica, giving historical background on the martyrdom of St. Peter, the conversion of Constantine, the building of the first St. Peter's, its falling into disrepair when the Popes went to Avignon, and the decision to build the new one during the Renaissance. We then discuss the different artists and architects who worked on the church, climaxing with Bernini and the baroque interior of the basilica. Then we do other great artists of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rapheal, Titian. We do great Italian saints: St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Bosco. For modern times, we do Padre Pio and the rescue of the Jews during World War II. This obviously not a political history, but it gives the students the flavor of the country. Each student does a project involving research and a presentation both oral and visual. Parents may not have time to give a 45-minute class every day the way we do at school, but they can direct their children to the sources to read and then discuss these sources with them. Surely there is time at the dinner table, while doing chores, or while riding in the car to discuss these topics even if there isn't always time for a specific class during the day.


TAN Books and the Daughters of St. Paul have many books which will help parents teach history and world culture to younger children. Make good use of your public library as well.


High School History


In ninth grade we teach World History I, which is a survey from Abraham to the end of the High Middle Ages, around 1500. In tenth grade ( World History II), we go from the 1500's to the end of World War II. The reason we stop there is that in the upper division courses we cover the 20th century thoroughly, but in the home the parent could cover later events. This two-year course is taught systematically and chronologically.


It is important by the time children are in high school that they get a detailed survey of history. This survey should include events that might not have an immediately apparent Catholic significance. But every educated person should have a good basic knowledge of important historical events. The difference from surveys in secular schools is that everything will be taught in the context of the principles we have already outlined, and it will be more interesting because it will be taught in terms of the stories of the people who made history.


A good example would be the Battle of Waterloo. Everyone should know the story: How Napoleon escaped from Elba and rebuilt the Grand Army to face the Allied armies near that little Belgian village; how he was overconfident and made crucial mistakes; how Prussian general Blucher who had been trampled by horses two days before rose from his bed of pain to bring the Prussian army to Waterloo just in time to win the day for the Allies. The Battle of Waterloo is a great story.


And the Catholic significance? Napoleon was the child of the French Revolution. He spread revolutionary liberalism throughout Europe. It was important that he be defeated once and for all. His defeat gave Europeans a breathing space in which traditional values could be restored and there could be a great Catholic revival before Europe had to face the next great revolutionary onslaught, Communism.


The Catholic Approach

to American History


In the last two years at Seton, we alternate two upper division courses: History of the Americas and Twentieth Century History. History of the Americas covers North and South America. Of course, the majority of the time is spent on the United States, but students need to know Hispanic history as well.


In U.S. history there is not as much Catholic material as one would wish but more than we might think. Our children need to know about the early missionaries in North and South America, Blessed Junipero Serra, Mother Seton, Bishop Carroll and Charles Carroll, Bishop Neumann, the anti-Catholic Nativist movement, Bishop Hughes, Mother Drexel, Mother Cabrini. And they need to look at U.S. history with intellects that have been formed by the historical principles we discussed earlier - in order to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of American government, to evaluate Supreme Court decisions, to look at our current problems with historical perspective. With regard to the first point, we don't teach a separate government class at Seton; we integrate the information students need about American government into the history class so that they can see how our government became what it is. With regard to the last point, a student with a good historical background will know exactly why Bosnia is a trouble spot, will see why our health care situation is not likely to be improved by Hillary Clinton, will know why all the indexes of social health in our country are giving bad readings. It was easy to know not to vote for Clinton, but not all political decisions are so obvious. A good knowledge of U.S. history will enable a young person to see beyond the photo ops and to make intelligent political decisions.


Our Twentieth Century History course mainly chronicles the rise and fall of Communism. Even though Communism looks like it has fallen in Europe and Russia, its harmful effects are still very much with us and we must never forget how much evil the Communists perpetrated. Just as we study the Nazis even though Nazism is no longer a historical force because we don't want such things ever to happen again, so we must study Communism. Furthermore, Communism is still a historical force in Asia.


Research of History


Juniors and seniors should have the background to explore any area of history in depth. They should be able to read historical sources, do research, write documented papers, and give oral presentations on what they have learned. We require research papers in our upper level courses, and home schooling parents should do the same. Being able to research and write historical papers is an important skill and no one should get a high school diploma if he hasn't written at least one major historical research paper, preferably more than one so that he can learn from the mistakes of the first. The student should use sources by secular historians so that he can learn to evaluate their conclusions and their evidence.


Understanding the Importance of History in the Catholic Home


Teaching Catholic history in the home is a challenge for Catholic parents. For the younger children the parents must find sources and become familiar with the material so that they can tell stories. The older children must be guided in the right direction so that they can find and evaluate sources. On all levels, the parent must take the time to discuss the material with their children, inspiring them to see the wonder of human virtue and the consequences of human sin.


But out of the effort will come a deeper awareness of the importance of our free will actions, of the responsibility which we must take for our decisions, of the splendor of Holy Mother Church, of the glory of saints and heroes. Must importantly, parents and children alike will be able to contemplate the love of God for man, the love of the Second Person of the Trinity who chose to become one of us and enter into our history, sharing with us the human condition and transforming history forever.



Dr. Anne Carroll is the founder and director of the Seton (Day) School, where she also teaches history and religion. The school is located in Manassas, VA.

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