‘The Good, the Bad, the Beautiful’ shows Catholicism through and through

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Good Bad Beautiful
Cover of Joseph Pearce's book, "The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful: History in Three Dimensions" published Nov. 6, 2023 by Ignatius Press. (OSV News photo/courtesy Ignatius Press)

Whether it’s the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition or Galileo, the apparent missteps of the Catholic Church within history are commonly used as arguments against her claim to be the one true path to salvation. In his latest book, Joseph Pearce sets out to work through all of Church history in hopes of identifying where God was actually at work, as opposed to where human impulses and evil influences appeared as wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Each chapter of “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful” summarizes one of the centuries making up the 2,000-year history of the Church. Pearce takes a trinitarian formula, based on Jesus’ identity as “the way, the truth, and the life” and identifies where the Church, in that century, had been “Good,” serving as the way of salvation; where she went “Bad,” distorting the truth of God’s love; and “the Beautiful” thing she produced as a lasting testament to God’s majesty and the wonder he is due.

“The Good” of each century of Catholic history is what the reader is most likely to expect. The saints, most especially martyrs who witnessed to the faith with their lives and their service to the poor and vulnerable, kept the Church on the right path. Scholars such as Irenaeus and Thomas Aquinas revealed the divine through theological works. Widespread practice of the sacraments meant that people were continually given access to the grace they needed for salvation.

And yet, from even the first century of the Church, Pearce acknowledges that there have been forces working against the Holy Spirit, seeking to confuse, divide, and even destroy the Bride of Christ, beginning with rampant heresies and persecution. From the fall of Rome to Martin Luther — continuing to the Enlightenment and then two world wars — throughout her history the Church has been impacted by political and cultural events. “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful,” demonstrates that although she is tossed and thrown at every age, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

Highlights and flaws in Church history

When Joseph Pearce discusses what is beautiful about each century of Church history, he looks primarily at the creation of art as a participation in the transcendental good of “beauty” without excluding secular art. What is beautiful, he says, reflects not only human culture but also brings insight into the divine as the Creator has revealed himself in that particular age. From Augustine’s “City of God” to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy — with many artists, writers, composers, architects and more in between — the subsections of “The Beautiful” that close out each chapter are delightful expositions of how the popular culture of the day has continually and surprisingly fostered an encounter with God.

Pearce ends the book in the 20th century, however, without mentioning the realities that we now know and must face regarding clerical sex abuse and the cover-ups surrounding all kinds of clerical misconduct. Given the cacophony of the other evils that took place in the last century, and that fact that the abuse and misconduct issues primarily came to light in the 21st-century, this makes some sense, but at least mentioning the apparent evils being faced almost daily by the Church faithful might have made the book feel a bit more current and complete.

While “The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful” may be a bit dense for the casual reader, it is a real treasure trove for the history buff or a budding Catholic apologist. Each century is covered briefly, in only a few pages, hitting the highlights of the time without getting bogged down in unnecessary details. In this book, Joseph Pearce has given the Church an incredible assist in seeing Catholicism’s sometimes turbulent history within the light of God’s loving plan.

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful: History in Three Dimensions
Joseph Pearce, Ignatius Press (2023)
300 pages, $19.95

Cecilia Cicone

Cecilia Cicone is an author and communicator who works in diocesan ministry in Northwest Indiana.