Because of the wildfires, the Pepperdine campus in Malibu was closed for over two weeks while classes were being delivered online. Yesterday, students began to return to their dormitories and classes return to “normal” today.  (After the Borderline shooting and the destructive wildfires, there will be quotation marks around the word “normal” for at least the rest of the year, and possibly longer.)

Safe in Orange County during those few days of environmental, societal, and economic hazards, I followed TV reports and social media on the shooting then the fires. I clicked the heart and the sad face on FB far more than I’d ever done. I sent and received many messages. I tried but failed to grade any papers because I kept thinking of my first-year students facing a double ordeal of the fires preceded by the Borderline shooting whose victims included one of their own. I began writing a new research paper, but it didn’t go anywhere either. Watching the Notre Dame game on TV one evening was a nice and temporary distraction.  So was volunteering at the parish festival the next day. It was a time of uncertainty and restlessness.

There was, however, a consistent thread during those few sad few days. It was the comfort, even pleasure, of reading one or two chapters of a very good history book each day.  In a way, it was temporary distraction. Yet it another way it was continuity to my calling as a faculty at Pepperdine. 

During my first year of grad school, I went to a talk about Vatican II by the premier American conciliar historian. Maybe because most of the audience were in theology rather than history—and questions were geared towards theology—I never read anything by him until recently. It’s a result of (a) a shift in research agenda and (b) a terrific tip from Tom Rzeznik. 

When it comes to knowing the latest scholarship, dissertators and editors of academic journals are just about the best people. They function somewhat differently: dissertators for mastering the scholarship of a particular subject; editors for being in the know about, usually, a larger and broader swath of studies. In this case, editor Rzeznik let me know of O’Malley’s new book on Vatican I and saved me from at least one very long footnote in a forthcoming article. Two months later, Amazon’s trick on Prime-less customers—”add $3.58 for free shipping”—led to a purchase of two more O’Malley books, including the one based on the talk that he gave at Notre Dame. They arrived to my campus mailbox two days before the fires began, and that evening I took home the most recent book.

I remember very little about O’Malley’s presentation, only that he was far from long-windedness during either talk or Q&A. It characterizes this book, which is one the most succinctly and lucidly written history books about a complex movement or phenomenon that I’ve ever read. In fewer than 250 pages of narrative, it moves from one important thinker to another, from one pope to the next, from one group to a different one, from one country to another. Cardinal Manning expectedly figures large, but I also learn a lot more. There were, for example, eighteen Canadian and nearly fifty American bishops at the Council; and they were hardly united in their thinking.

As indicated by the subtitle, however, the book is somewhat less about Vatican I than it is about ultramontanism. Only the last two chapters (out of five) are about the Council itself. To be fair, they are the longest chapters and they offer an array of information that this non-specialist had not known. But there is a feel of a synthesis about this book.  For sure, it is as much intellectual history as it is church history. Its descriptions of figures and movements are often crisp and insightful. For example: 

Historians long forgot that the values and perspectives we associate with the Enlightenment developed in France, Italy, Austria, and similar countries with fundamentally Catholic milieus simply as part of the cultural air that people breathed. The values and perspectives, which were not always coherent among themselves, were not the abstraction we call the Enlightenment but questions and issues discussed and debated in elite circles as they rose to prominence. They developed, moreover, at a gradual pace and in piecemeal fashion over the course of decades and were in a gradual and piecemeal way appropriated or not appropriated by believers, who were still the vast majority in those countries. Partly for that reason the incompatibility of Catholicism with at least some aspects of the Enlightenment did not become an acute issue until after the middle of the eighteenth century.

Or, ten pages later:

More broadly, the Romantic Movement provided ultramontane authors with a vocabulary and an ethos that allowed them to appeal to the emotions. They were thus able not only to argue their case but also to adorn it with noble sentiments and ideals. In the Romantic view, infallibility, for instance, was not an abstract, dry-as-bone doctrine but a bountiful wellspring of benefits for church and society.

And it is only the first chapter.

Another time, I will have to write about those few days of the shooting and wildfires. It suffices to say for now that I was most appreciative of family and friends for their sympathy about my institution and situation over FB and email. There was also the solace of solidarity with students and colleagues at Pepperdine. And a few other things.

But I could not have guessed that this book—by the accident of delivery shortly before campus was closed—was a source of intellectual and emotional comfort during that time days. It shouldn’t take another ordeal to get me read the other two books by this Jesuit historian.