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A Remnant Book Review…

A Good Story about a True Story 

Timothy J. Cullen POSTED: 6/7/12

( Those who find large historical tomes intimidating and unexciting will be pleasantly surprised by Dr. John Rao’s Black Legends and the Light of the World, recently released by The Remnant Press. This sweeping historical opus colorfully chronicles a great deal of the history of the Church and her growth while interweaving an important philosophical message which constitutes the twofold central theme of this magisterial work: “the need to take the complete message of The Word Incarnate in history seriously in order to fulfill the corrective and transforming message of Christ; and the recognition that taking that message of the Word is of supreme benefit for natural as well as for supernatural life” (p. 610).

As Dr. Rao explains: “The full message of the Word can only be learned on the intellectual plane by a study of the pre-Christian world and the ‘Seeds of the Logos;’ through an examination of the Fathers, Late Antiquity, the Middles Ages, the Renaissance, and the Revolutionary Era; by means of consulting popes, councils, speculative and positive theology; and through meditation upon the practical mistakes that have been made by believers throughout the entire life of Christendom and the pastoral successes that their longtime labors have obtained. In short, a solid academic knowledge of the Word comes only with immersing oneself in the whole of the Tradition.” (610-11).

Black Legends is a ringing indictment of those throughout history who would distort the true Catholic teaching so as to serve the interests of secular power, to serve the “Grand Coalition of the Status Quo,” as Dr. Rao colorfully refers to those whose eyes are on the mundane here and now as opposed to the eternal hereafter. Rhetoricians are rightly criticized not in the sometimes soporific style of some academics, but rather in a reader-friendly colloquial tone in which the author states in the first person his strongly held convictions.

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This work is a polemic steeped in historical knowledge, not a drab and dry dissertation of the sort demanded by the self-proclaimed arbiters of academic excellence, the keepers of the keys to advancement in diploma mills and the now musty halls of academe, where the study of Church history has been sadly neglected by scholars less thorough and dedicated than Dr. Rao. Witness this comment with respect to research into the Roman Jesuit journal kept at the Oxford University library: “I was enjoying the privilege of cutting open large numbers of the thousand pages of its volumes for the fifteen year period from 1850-1865, thus, presumably, becoming the first man actually to read them in the university library.” (617)

A book like Black Legends has been long overdue, but Dr. Rao has filled the vacuum. The focus on the “war of the Word against the word” is compelling and the presentation of this theme is precise and of a thoroughly analytical nature, greatly aiding the reader in coming to grips with this previously unexamined but nonetheless real vision of the Catholic experience over the centuries. As Dr. Rao puts it so well, “The precondition of Christian hope is an accurate appreciation of the reality of the situation in which men find themselves.” Dr. Rao’s appreciation of this reality is as accurate as one could hope to encounter. And while present-day “reality” is certainly daunting for the Catholic, it is no cause for pessimism, because as Dr. Rao tellingly observes: “‘[P]essimism’ and ‘optimism’ are sophist and not Word-friendly categories. Catholicism deals in ‘hope’ and battles against ‘despair’.”

Black Legends does not neglect what Dr. Rao calls the “good stories” that trace the progress of the Word and the Church—the true story—in the ongoing “dance of life” that history records. Hope was never lost throughout times of travail, and Dr. Rao convincingly demonstrates that there is no cause for hope to be lost even in today’s trying circumstances; nor is there cause to fall prey to superficially appealing but ultimately false societal solutions as conceived by fallen man. Quoting Giles of Viterbo, Dr. Rao makes the essential point: “[I]t is necessary to reform homines per sacra, non sacra per homines; that it is men who are to be corrected and transformed by Christ—not the teaching of the supernatural Savior through the words of His temporal students and His nature-bound patients.”

In his own words, Dr. Rao succinctly states how the Church has always aimed to carry this out: “The first of these aims is the correction of sinful men and the flawed natural order in which social beings of flesh and blood must live and work out their salvation. Despite its supernatural foundations, such a project has precise contours and can even be spelled out in transparent legal language. The second aim, on the other hand, is much more difficult to capture in limited human terms. It is centered round a spiritual reorientation of both man and nature to the exalted task of giving glory to the God who created them; to a renovation of the entirety of Creation; to a transformation of all things in Christ. Exactly what this means entails a complex learning process that has unfolded over time, and has only done so in union with individual and social progress in sanctification.”

The reader’s own complex learning process with respect to the history of the Church as it has unfolded over time is made far less trying when one has a copy of Black Legends at hand. This book is the capstone of the long and distinguished career of an eminent Catholic historian. Dr. Rao, as Remnant readers well know, is the founder of the annual Roman Forum—a summer symposium celebrating its twentieth anniversary at Lake Garda, Italy, from 2-14 July 2012— and has drawn upon the wealth of scholarship brought to the Forum by Dr. Rao and his distinguished fellow faculty. Owning a copy of Black Legends is the next best thing to having been there.

Black Legends is not an “easy read,” not a historical “fast food” equivalent. This book is to be savored over time, allowing the mind to digest the wealth of historical detail and the painstaking analysis that accompanies it. One finds oneself drawn into reflection on nearly every page, pausing to link these reflections with those previously experienced, greater comprehension growing chapter by chapter.

Black Legends is destined to be a book that stays closely to hand rather than adorn a bookshelf once it has been read; as a reference work, it is invaluable. And although Black Legends is first and foremost a history, it is an equally valuable work of up-to-the-minute analysis of and commentary upon the current state of the Church and the world in which she must operate.

It is no exaggeration to state that Black Legends is a book no Catholic concerned with Church history can be without, particularly given its singular perspective. This work is destined to become a standard against which future works will be measured.

For more information as well as an interview of Dr. John Rao please click HERE

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