"Quel ton!" he exclaimed on
reading the Bible. " Quel effroyable ton!
Ah, Madame, how unfortunate that the
Holy Spirit should have so little taste."
The Maréchale de Luxembourg
"About a Little Book"
The biblical scholar, Alfred Loisy was excommunicated by Pius X in 1908 for, among other offenses, writing an allegedly heretical book on the gospel and the church, a book which was published in 1902 during the reign of Leo XIII--who had, however, refused to condemn its author. As the reader shall see, one of the themes of the present book on popes and politics is the dramatic shift in defining religious policy and in exercising religious authority that frequently occurred with the election of a new successor to the "Chair of Peter." In the memory of many adult Catholics, the transition from Pius XII to John XXIII was such a catalytic event; so too--though more gradual and less dramatic-- was the transition from Paul VI to John Paul II. To think of the church which these various pontiffs headed as sharing in the presumably unchanging character of the eternal would not only be against all experience; it would be against the very nature of an institution founded on incarnation, on the "wondrous interchange," the admirabile commercium of the eternal and the temporal. The church is by definition an institution in history and with a history.
Loisy's L'Evangile et l'Eglise was placed on the index, along with four of his other books, among them a volume of letters which not only defended his book on the gospel and the church, but which also was in effect a manifesto proclaiming the freedom of the Catholic scholar to pursue scientific biblical research. The name of that volume is the title to this first chapter, Autour d'un petit livre. I thus employ the old trope, parvis componere magna, that I shall use several times subsequently of comparing something of major importance with something of relative insignificance. Popes and Politics is a little book in scope and in intended impact, unlike both Loisy's Gospel and the Church and the volume of letters with the modest title, "petit," that he wrote in defense of the earlier book. It is even possible that anticipating condemnation, Abbé Loisy was alluding to another reformist predecessor, Abbé de Lamennais, author of Paroles d'un croyant (Words of a Believer), which was condemned by Gregory XVI as a "book little in size but immense in perversity." De Lamennais was also subsequently excommunicated.
The use of the word "little" here is motivated by the same intent and has the same significance as the word "accidental" in such contexts as Anne Tyler's novel about "the accidental tourist," or the computer-simulated game, "the accidental war." Both words suggest something modest and provisional which is situated in the hazy area between disinterestedness and earnestness; their effect is thus to express neutrality and yet also to entail a moderate but serious undertaking--in this case one having to do with popes and politics.
This is not a book that I planned on writing. Its immediate predecessors were works of literary criticism that had no direct social or political relevance, save in the highly restricted sense of Cardinal Newman's commonplace that if you make people think in secular matters you will make them think in matters of religion--and conversely: which is merely to say that all the areas in the cycle of learning are interrelated. Those earlier books did not even have an implicit message--a subtext as it's now called--in any way related to public affairs. And to the degree they had a methodology, it was to a large extent derived from the one school of criticism that was conventionally dismissed as being indifferent to the social, historical, and even to the cultural background of the art work: the much maligned, though now moderately resurgent, New Criticism.
Hence the "accidental" nature of this book. Though it is a personal work in the obvious sense of representing a personal point of view; it is not a personal work in the sense of being motivated by any ax to grind, or by any antagonist sentiment toward the various writers of whom I am, admittedly, highly critical and even disparaging. After roughly a quarter of a century and many hundreds of printed pages of greater or lesser import, so far as I can remember none of the names of authors whom I criticize in this book have appeared in anything I have published. As to the "why" of this book, any description of the process and motivation of its writing would be as banal as an analysis of the most quotidian of activities, the mowing of a lawn, the washing of a car, whatever. The simple fact is that I merely read out of curiosity one of these books on Catholicism, which led to reading another and then in turn to many others--some of which through the same happenstance procedure will put in an appearance in the pages that follow.
What gradually struck me about the various works I ended up criticizing in detail--and about others I criticize only in passing--were certain traits common in a greater or lesser degree to all of them. There was first a strident tone, an ease about condemning, often vehemently, whatever a given author wanted to oppose. One's attention is concentrated--to put it in the mildly ironic language of Dr. Johnson--at reading that a recent pope publicly told a "deliberate lie"; that attention became more sharply focused when the accuser attempted to prove his point by a deliberate distortion. (1) There was also not just the occasional glimmer of bias, but the flaring, repetitive manifestation of it; as though the writer, hitherto in the dark about some matter, had undergone an incandescent transformation, rays of which she was intellectually unable to repress. As to the repetitiveness, one often ended up feeling like Lewis Carroll's beaver among the snark hunters: "But it fairly lost heart, and outgrabe in despair, / When the third repetition occurred."
Similarly, on reading another writer about "the priestly caste" "playacting" at mass, with "some magic words to say" in "the sacral language, Latin, [which] had more efficacy because the faithful did not understand it"--this priestly caste wearing "ornate vestments" from a "distant culture no longer alive" (2) to distinguish it "from the ordinary mortals outside the communion rail": on reading this kind of thing, one was tempted to cry out with Newman to Kingsley, "Why, man, you are writing a romance!"--in fact a romance or novel whose hero might have been the most radical of Protestant reformers, Thomas Müntzer, who in a comparable fulmination described the Eucharist as "a painted puppet conjured up by priestly incantation." (Though, when one read in this same author that, "hedge after hedge was added to isolate the physical reality of the eucharistic host," one at least may have had an intimation of what the apostle's cryptic "two-hedged sward" might signify.)
All of the above description had to have been written about the mass as celebrated in the church after the reforms of the second Vatican Council, since it was published in the year 2000. The following is by the same author, writing thirty years earlier on the Tridentine mass which had been prevalent until the late sixties: "The Mass became a hierarchic dance arranged around the host, bowings, blessings, kneelings, liftings, displayings and hidings of it....a light disk balanced on the tongue by the priest, then lifted to the palate by the tongue, there to stick, hard and alien..., plastic dew fallen from heaven.... The hosts were hard currency, negotiable stuff of salvation..., and each capable of purchasing a soul." Same author, same language--but two different forms of worship. Apart from the fact that Catholics with a memory will find both paragraphs as hard to swallow as the author's imaginary host, there remains the paradox that a reformist author remains as embittered after liturgical reforms as before them--which puts into question whether any improvements in Catholic life and worship would ever for him be adequate. (3)
Of course all ritual acts, from a medieval mystery play, to the "Magic Flute," to the opening of Parliament, (4) tend to succumb to perfunctoriness and routine. But regardless of the encrusted detritus accumulated over the centuries or the decades, the mass never became the travesty described above. It entailed a shekinah, a "real presence" dependent on consecration (whether or not with congregational intent), and it maintained continuity with that "presence" literally from time immemorial. So, it was difficult to account for an attitude toward the heart of the liturgy, the mass, that treated it with the raillery of a stand-up comedian, not with the reverence owed something sacred, however falteringly and inadequately achieved. Again, a factor that concentrated the mind. Moreover, the notion that Catholic worship before Vatican II remained virtually identical with that of today contradicts the experience of anyone witness to both--except perhaps amnesiac reformers. (5)
There was also a problem with factual errors, not all that unusual in studies of grand historic sweep, and certainly not unusual in any work about the kinds of controversial issues suggested by my title and by the titles of several of the books I will assess. But when the error seemed to have had as purpose the glorification of the author as a living--and therefore incontrovertible--witness, then one instinctively began to doubt or question innumerable other utterances that might be made. A shadow is cast over an entire book by such self-exaltation as the following which related to "the Vatican" connecting "the image of Pius XII as a saint" with its efforts to prove Catholic opposition to Nazism: "As a boy, I saw how this worked. In a letter to the bishops of Bavaria in August 1945, Pius XII praised 'those millions of Catholics'..., who had resisted Nazism." Unfortunately, this author making his own dubious "connection," had earlier told the reader, "I was born in 1943, the year before the jurist Raphael Lemkin coined the word 'genocide'." So, at the age of two our witness saw how the Vatican "worked" its multifarious wiles. Perhaps--one is tempted to suggest--someone should have coined the word, "vericide." (6)
Authors who focus unremittingly on hierarchic and clerical antisemitism often seemed dismissive of the spirit or letter of the following by a Protestant scholar, "The tirades against the [Catholic] clergy have to be taken with a grain of salt. The accusations of lechery, usury, and oppression were virtually identical with those hurled against the Jews. In both cases the objects of criticism are being scapegoated. People projected on to the clergy their own unresolved personal problems as well as society's structural crises." This is not by a defender of papacy much less a condoner of prejudice, but by a balanced interpreter of primary historical data, Peter Matheson, in The Imaginative World of the Reformation (Edinburgh, 2000). Nor do our Catholic authors take anything with a grain of salt, as every esoteric oddity of practice or doctrine is ferreted out to prove such things as that "in a new form of idolatry, the Pope becomes a substitute for the Spirit," Mary becomes "semi-deified"; and by the time of the Reformation she becomes the "idol-goddess."
Several authors' errors were so manifold that one was compelled to conclude that they
just simply hadn't done the research that their detailed annotations were intended to validate. Or, in other instances, the errors were so egregious that one was driven to conclude that to escape detection and thus censure, a given author was relying on an electronically produced verbal smokescreen, was relying on the sheer volume of wordage being generated; (7) or possibly on a previously earned reputation for diligent research; or, as a last resort, on the flagging attention of the reader when encountering such repetitive excesses. In many cases the notes were as inaccurate as the text, and the indexes were frustratingly useless.
Finally, and also stemming from that irrepressible bias previously mentioned, were the errors in interpretation. Their frequent recurrence suggested an unrestrained prejudice manifesting itself in almost compulsive rhetorical twitches, or involuntary argumentative shudders, like a kind of out-of-control compulsion beyond the reasoned guidance of its author/victim. Thus one writer began a paragraph on the subject of the church in Italy being "comfortable with recent Fascist measures against the Jews." She then introduced "a report" which supplies "additional evidence" for this "comfortableness." After a lengthy exposition, she concluded the paragraph by noting, "The report, of course, is not evidence of Vatican approval...." For this psychological affliction a clinical term has been coined, pseudologia fantastica.
Frequently, the possibly involuntary tweak is seemingly trivial, a mere matter of nuance like a verbal grimace, maybe just an implicit elision of a phrase or two subtly to suggest falsity or at least ambiguity--like that obnoxious, universal, and often compulsive automatic hand gesture signifying quotation marks--or, as in the very quotation above, the construction of author/reader complicity in coming to an inevitable point of agreement by the seemingly casual insertion of "of course." Much of this spin when looked at discretely was almost indiscernible, but when envisaged cumulatively it could tilt the scales of a reader's judgment toward acceptance of what in the end was unmitigated deception. And, of course, as one read more and more and got more and more vexed, one had to say, Enough!--and so we have little books like this.
The book begins with a wide ranging discussion of works pro and con about the papacy, and more specifically about Pius XII. It then distinguishes among his various denigrators and supporters. Within both groups there are authors who seem ideologically favorable or unfavorable to the pope, and there are historians who share one or the other of those two views, but presumably write from a balanced and objective point of view. I dismiss briefly the ideologues favorable to the pope, since they are unquestionably not only motivated by piety but writing works of piety that do not meet even the lowest standard of analytic theological and/or historical research. The ideologues antagonistic to the pope and implicitly or explicitly to the church, though usually writing from a Catholic perspective, I examine in detail, and point out factual errors and interpretive biases. (For what it is worth, I was utterly unprepared for the enormity of such bias and errors.) As to the historians who one assumed had come to their particular position without any a priori assumptions--so far as that is possible--and based their conclusions on the inexorable logic of facts discovered by dedicated study, the surprising element was that they, too, turned out to be manipulators of data, and little different from their ideological counterparts. The one well-researched book favorable to Pius, though not written by a "professional" historian, I treat briefly but with ungrudging admiration.
Chapters two and three are severe critiques of errors of fact and interpretation in several books on the papacy covering roughly the period of the last two centuries. Because of its central importance chapter four considers the Holocaust, particularly in its relation to Pius XII. There I point out the flawed arguments of his "hanging judges," while emphasizing the difficulty of coming to any definitive viewpoint about his role. Chapter five puts much of the preceding treatment into the context of the last two centuries of confrontation between the center and the periphery, that is, between papacy and curia--"the church teaching"--and the reformers or insurgents from the ranks of "the church taught." The final two chapters while drawing on historical illustrations mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are studies respectively in the personal and the institutional dimension of reform in the church of today.
The overall perspective of the book is one of cautious optimism. Any reading of history, even by the most bigoted anti-Catholic or anti-Romanist, makes clear that the state of the present church is purer than the church at the end of the Dark Ages, purer than during the Babylonian Captivity, purer than during the high Renaissance, purer than during the reign of Pius IX. And even the most prejudiced historian would have to say that the evils embodied in the church have been less apparent as each new age dawned, so that what would have been tolerated during the reign of Leo X would have been abominated during the reign of Pius IX, and what was tolerated during the reign of Pius IX was in fact abominated by John XXIII.
As for the reign of John Paul II, its achievements have been many, particularly as evidenced in the definitive repudiation of age-old antisemitism, in the frequent denunciation of weapons of mass destruction resulting in total war, in ecumenical overtures to other religious bodies, in the rehabilitation of such Catholic theologians as Congar, de Lubac, and von Balthasar; and in his vigorous and consistent condemnation of capital punishment (8) On the other hand, there has been an almost ruthless preoccupation with conformity even on open and unresolved issues; and with centrality of governance even in relation to national bishops conferences. Regarding the former, the words of Cardinal Newman during the reign of Pius IX--and to be frequently cited in the pages that follow--offer a pertinent analysis of causes and consequences: "There was true private judgment in the primitive and medieval schools,--there are no schools now, no private judgment (in the religious sense of the phrase), no freedom, that is, of opinion. That is, no exercise of the intellect. No, the system goes on by the tradition of the intellect of former times." Regarding the second issue, governance, the words of Cardinal Manning--several years after Vatican I where he had been a leader of the pro-infallibilist party--are pertinent to the present excessive centralization enforced by the Roman curia. Manning said it resulted in "a Catholic presbyterianism" which reduced "the episcopal college to only the pope's vicariate": also a text that will recur in the pages that follow.
The "cautious optimism" of which I speak is based on the historical data summarized above. For several of the denigrators of papacy and church whom I will criticize ("our authors"), John XXIII is both a hero, and an inimitable exception. But the reform of Catholicism from Leo XIII on is an exception; its reform from the Council of Trent on is an exception; its reform from the Council of Constance on is an exception; its reform from Hildebrand on is an exception. Ultimately the Incarnation is an exception, history is an exception. Spirit emerging out of the primordial planetary mass is an exception.
There is no rule for relating insurrection and resurrection, renewal and reversal, reformation and counter-reformation. In some instances, perhaps as in the reign of Pius IX, the periphery is condemned by the center; in others, perhaps as with the Council of Constance, the center is condemned by the periphery. Whether one conceives this process as a kind of Hegelian dialectic (with Bernard Häring), as a Spenglerian cycle of growth/decline (as possibly with Cardinal Suhard), or as Toynbee's historical interchange of stimulus/response--all that matters little. What matters is that "salvation history" is defined as nothing less than the history of exceptions. The existence of a kind of self-regulating principle, a homeostatic principle, which maintains an equilibrium between center and periphery is historically evident. There is in the institutional church, in this mystical/historical body, a kind of immune/suppressive mechanism
(called "providence") that comes into play when the equilibrium is threatened.
One might think of the reign of Innocent III as the beginning of the infection known as the imperial papacy, and the counterbalance to that centralizing impetus in the emergence of the mendicant orders and the universities. Closer to home--and intentionally a more controversial example--is the reign of Pius XII; controversial, because the single lens through which he is now viewed is the Holocaust, which as I indicated above will be subject to scrupulous examination in the chapters that follow. But Pius, in contrast to all his twentieth-century predecessors believed in subsidiarity. He recognized in a fashion unknown since, the important role of national bishops conferences, and he created the majority of the cardinals who elected John XXIII. In the midst of the war he wrote the revolutionary Divino afflante Spiritu-known in the land of Loisy as l'encyclique libératrice-the charter of biblical study, which in the broadest theological scheme of things was responsible not only for doctrinal renovation in the postwar period but also for the wholesale regeneration of moral theology during the second half of that century. Two years after the war he authored Mediator Dei, the first papal encyclical to address liturgical reform. But Pius's own conservative reaction to the reforms he had generated--like his condemnation of advocates of the misnamed "nouvelle théologie"-- was as noted above counterbalanced by John Paul II in the elevation of several of them to the cardinalate. This notion of a structure of equilibrium in salvation history is what warrants in the present age a cautious optimism about the future. It cannot be stressed enough that salvation history itself is the chronicle of "exceptions."(9) And as Newman has said: "Heretical questionings have been transmuted by the living power of the Church into salutary truths."
This book is, then, basically a study of the interplay of periphery and center, of responses and condemnations; condemnations by Rome, but also--and possibly even more so-- condemnations of both periphery and center by authentic and would-be reformers. The literature of such condemnations is not a novel genre: though much of it, as Newman said, does read like a novel. Almost from the very beginning Christians were accused by pagans of devouring children and of incestuous unions: both based on legends accruing from dramatic representations (the "romances" or "novels" of that time) of the house of Atreus; in these two instances the banquet of Thyestes, and the marriage of Oedipus. Then occurred the attacks by philosophers like Celsus and Porphyry, followed by that last noble pagan, Julian the Apostate--all countered by such Christians apologists as Origen, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Soon came the Gnostic onslaught of Valentinus and Marcion; then heresiarchs, like Montanus and Novatian, and on into the medieval period when a reformer like St. Peter Damian would decry clerical abuses in The Gomorrah Book. This culminated in the Reformation when the focus was as much on beliefs as on their politics, represented by the Peasants War, and the wars among rival princes for both religious and political domination. In the age of secularization, and anticipating the author of The Sword of Constantine, Thomas Hobbes, spokesman for the "English Enlightenment," wrote in Leviathan: "The papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof." In the nineteenth century Antonio Rosmini, founder of the religious society, the Institute of Charity, wrote a powerful reformist manifesto called The Five Wounds of Holy Church. (10) And, in the early twentieth century, like the early pagans vulgarizing classical tales, the largest publishing venture in North America--literally millions and millions of copies--was engaged in the production of "the little blue books" of Haldeman-Julius which condensed in pocket format three centuries of protestant anti-Romanist and anti-Jesuitical propaganda. (One may wonder whether our authors, in their childhood rummaging through the attic on some rainy afternoon, may have discovered, and furtively dared to read these subversive little blue books--decried in their parents' day from pulpit and lectern as the pornography of ideas.) But that propaganda, too, was countered by scores of popular works on Catholic apologetics and by widely read pamphlets published by the Knights of Columbus.
What distinguishes the current raft of books critical of all aspects of Catholicism--save what their authors approve--is that several of them are written by authors who profess an unquestioned loyalty to some notion of the importance and value of Catholicism in their lives. They affirm that they are writing as faithful to the essential principles of their church, however broadly or loosely they would define those principles. But one omnipresent theme runs through all their books: the failure of this church to live up to its mandate. One author writes of the church, even up into the reign of John XXIII, as "institutionalized and bureaucratized misanthropy," and writes of Catholics as "taking the weight of its world-hatred for granted." (Being more gifted, he naturally is not numbered among the "takers.")
Invariably left unexamined is precisely how to define that mandate which has not been lived up to. It is not the "gospel mandate" since the gospels are themselves sedimented with the very evil being exposed--for one author, antisemitism. It is not the "mandate of tradition" for the tradition itself is seen as corrupted--but a corruption of what, since the origins have themselves been described as tainted? From what pure source, then, could there have been a falling away? It is not the mandate of the body of the faithful ("the church taught," as it was known), since particularly in popular practices, and even in popular devotions, the most revolting aberrations and superstitions had crept in and been fostered--as two of our authors lavishly detail: a relic of Mary's milk, a nail used in the crucifixion, blood libels, various black madonnas, wood splinters from the cross, holy shrouds, etc. (11) --not to speak of such papally inspired "deceits" as the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. Lastly, it is not the mandate of the "church teaching," since if there is one topic all agree on it is that the hierarchy--whether local officials or the Roman curia or both--has been primarily responsible for all the evils described, dissected and, in several works, delightedly depicted.
So, given this catalogue of flaws from so many sources and over so many centuries, even from the very beginnings, what is it that these authors remain faithful to? What is it that they find important and valuable to their lives in this corruption-ridden body? If its outward signs are
so disfigured, where do they locate its inward grace? And moreover, how can there be such a location at all, if the outward signs are the inward grace? As every sacramental theologian from Peter Lombard to Marshall McLuhan recognized, the medium is the message. That being so, the question remains: what is the appeal, the hold, of an institution that one lives in while assaulting and demeaning it--indeed, that one makes one's living by such assaulting and demeaning?
One professedly faithful Catholic speaks of "the great truths of faith--the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Mystical Body of Christ"--this latter truth, though implicit in the tradition, was explicit only in the last century--and certainly is not as central as resurrection, whether of Jesus or "of the dead," as the creed says. Another writer, equally as demonstratively faithful, says of the "disciples' notion that after Jesus' death he was still among them": "That intuition is what we call Resurrection.... To imagine Jesus as risen was to expect that soon all would be.... His love survived his death--which is what the Resurrection means." But comforting expectations and benevolent teachings are universal in all the great world religions. The one singularly unique trait about the Jesus of the Church is belief in the fact of resurrection. So maybe the "great truths of faith" are not really so important. Why not embrace the Buddha, the Tao, selective Hinduism, since any or all of them offer comfort and, to a greater or lesser degree, fulfillment of expectation?(12)
Surely it would be simplistic to suggest that the answer to that question can be found in the mere power of custom. It could not be that mere ethnic, social, and cultural familiarity explains this attachment to so flawed an institution; an attachment that results in the trite--but possibly actual--fact that one simply decides to talk most about what one happens to knows best. And because the shocking and the épatant-every trafficker in triteness soon discovers--have more consumers than do the nullities and dullities of daily life, and moreover because nothing is more shocking than the spectacle of vice masquerading as virtue, nor more appealing to that vast world of nonbelievers freed from the shackles of religious superstition--then, so would go this relatively naive supposition, all those factors explain the subtle and maybe unwitting seductiveness of ecclesiastical matters among authors who contemn the spirit that animates the very life within those matters.
But that is admittedly simplistic--even though we had earlier exhausted the other possible appeals Catholicism might have: the gospel message (contaminated and mythic), the traditions (corrupted), the devotions (exaggerated), the doctrines (incredible), the authority (abusive). So, in the interest of finding something more valid, however subtle--and maybe in the name of Teilhardian complexification-one is driven to conclude that the solution to the conundrum must come down to something immeasurable and intangible. Perhaps it is merely a phenomenon as universal as a feeling of being at home, or being at ease (through a kind of otium insanctum) with an undefined reality whose outward expressions, nevertheless, are often found almost hilariously contemptible--as the comments on liturgy above exemplify. But what then can this homely Catholicism be? It can only be something akin to a socio-psychological "drift" or "mood": (13) words necessarily vague and even vaporous; but not entirely unexpected among critics who manage to find something seriously flawed in every other aspect of their church, in its approach to dogma, worship, morals, and above all, governance. And, again, when one seeks the solution to these serious flaws--apart from the faithful standby of returning to some equally primitive, and thus almost undefinable, kerygma--one necessarily encounters a slippery paradoxic lingo (like resurrection as "intuition"), and that latter, simply because the gospel itself has been vitiated in its composition and transmission.
Perhaps a more concrete and precise but still not entirely exact term, for the attraction of a church which by all these accounts is in its public manifestations worthy of disdain, would be "style." There is a kind of idealized Catholic style of belief, acceptant but skeptical; a Catholic style of living, (14) unostentatious, but "solid" and cosmopolitan (it is, after all a global church), a Catholic style of ruling, consultative but decisive. Words like "drift," "mood," "gist," are too colorless and neutral to capture this Catholic sensibility, but "style" stands for bon ton; for a trait which is admirable though not demonstrable; which suggests rather than declaims; which indicates a "fit" between the institution and its members, without implying rigidity or any kind of undeviating attachment. In the populist lexicon, its counterpart is "cool."
"Style" is discerned and then determined by what we ordinarily call "good taste," an intuitive recognition of excellence which leads one to shrink from all blemishes, whether institutional or personal, as from a physical disfigurement. (One author in the context of Humanae Vitae speaks of Paul VI's "sad sunken eyes in their smudgy Italian sockets"--adding the mandatory commendation that "he was a good and noble man.") Since according to à Kempis it is better to practice a virtue than to define it, I will offer a couple of practical illustrations of the exercise of this "good taste" written by an acute psychologist of
religion:"Accordingly, virtue being only one kind of beauty, the principle which determines what is virtuous is, not conscience, but taste." The person of "taste" is "at liberty on his or her principles, to pick and choose out of Christianity what he or she will; he or she discards the theological, the mysterious, the spiritual." "It matters not that, instead of planting the tree, he or she merely crops its flowers...."
Such would seem to be the bond between some of our authors and Catholicism. Whether that is in fact true can only be determined by reading the pages that follow. But first, I note that this "style" may be the scriptural two-edged sword (met earlier in one author's description of eucharistic magic); since from these books, one soon learns that it is a "style" which allows one vigorously, perhaps even sincerely, to attack virtually all aspects of Catholic life and thought. And yet in that undertaking one employs the same invective and slipshod methods, and exercises the same duplicity one professes to be exposing. "Vigor" and "sincerity," are certainly acceptable traits so long as they are not in the service of deception and fraudulence.
Paolo Sarpi, a Venetian Servite, and friend of the Doge, was at the beginning of the seventeenth century a vehement opponent of papacy and curia; a stance that was exacerbated when the newly elected pope, Paul V, excommunicated both Doge and Senate, and then placed the entire city under interdict. The pope, a Borghese, and relatively admirable in his personal life, was an upholder of the religious status quo (initiating the Galileo affair), and more concerned with the beautification of Rome (including the completion of St. Peter's) and with personal and family privilege than with theological disputes (taking no position, while definitively ending the public controversy, De Auxiliis, about grace and free will). His quarrel with Venice was over church privileges which, with Sarpi's support, were being revoked: among others, the exemption of clergy from civil courts, and of the construction of churches from approval by the Venetian government. In addition to religious and political motives, Sarpi had a personal investment in what evolved into a controversy over what might be called "church-state relations."(15) He was recognized as one of the most brilliant debaters of his time and was matched with two equally gifted and possibly more learned opponents, the historian Cardinal Baronius and the theologian Cardinal Bellarmine--who at one time had also barely avoided excommunication, and subsequently was canonized. After considerable deployment of various legal and canonical precedents, as well as much heated rhetoric on both sides, the schism was ended with minor face-saving gestures but little resolution of the specific issues. As is not unusual in ecclesiastical controversies, there were two parties with reciprocally justifiable causes in fierce opposition to one another.
But in the midst of all this, a murderous attack was made upon the person of Fra Paolo Sarpi. Who perpetrated the assassination attempt remains unknown, though Sarpi's cry, "Agnosco stilum romanae curiae," which has echoed down the centuries, does not leave his own verdict in doubt. The entire affair now evokes that contemporaneous dramatic genre known as "tragedy of blood," then flourishing in England--where Sarpi had Protestant friends, defenders, and publishers. Since in "real" life, few victims of bloody assault scream out in puns (the attack took place roughly around the time of the writing of Othello), the quibble on style/stiletto may also evoke Shakespeare's own fondness for wordplay--even, as Dr. Johnson noted, in the most inappropriate contexts.(16) Sarpi who was know for his friendship with English residents (like Sir Henry Wotton, diplomat-poet, and friend of John Donne and Izaak Walton) may have been crying out "Roman dagger" or may have been shouting for vengeance against the "Roman style" of attack--a style he would himself adopt even more outrageously than any curialist in the last two decades of his life.
Rome's "stile" like "Constantine's sword" is also two-edged. It can be the instrument of disclosing the flaws and scandals of the institutional church, and it can be the instrument which lays bare the lies and distortions behind many such disclosures. Sarpi himself, from a moderate critic of the papacy became one of its most embittered and venomous castigators, far out-protestantizing such incensed polemicists as another contemporary, John Milton, who described Paul V as "wearer of the triple crown, borne on men's shoulders, carrying with him his gods made of bread"--much like today's Catholic critics of the papacy and the eucharist.
It is quite possible that Sarpi began his attacks on Roman abuses out of honest anger at their shamelessness and prevalence. At an early age, he had been provincial of the Servites in Venice and Procurator General of the order for three years in Rome where he could certainly have witnessed the corruption of the papal court. Since the curia was the only constant in Rome--the average papal reign during his adult life was less than three years--it would have been the main target of his wrath. And that wrath would certainly have intensified when he was rejected on three different occasions by the "holder of the keys" for episcopal office--aspiration to which, according to Aquinas, was not a sign of worldly ambition, but of a justifiable desire for the "plenitude of the priesthood." Given this rejection, and the intensity of his passion when defending the Venetian republic, climaxing with the murderous attack at the age of 55, it would hardly be surprising if righteous anger turned into black hatred.
This he vented for nearly two decades becoming so abusive and alienated that he was far more guilty of the evils he was denouncing than were their alleged practitioners. Attacking all things Roman, he wrote or inspired innumerable pamphlets and six acrimonious volumes, including The History of the Council of Trent which could be published during his lifetime only in James I's England.. Even Leopold von Ranke, no defender of the papacy, found the work seriously defective.
The "moral" of the parable is not that old chestnut, "Qui mange du pape en meurt" (who eats of the pope dies of the pope), since clearly uncountable political and religious leaders as well as multitudes of reformers and protesters have had a bite at that repast--and flourished. No, the point is, if it must be spelt out again, that the "stile" is indeed double edged. On the one hand, it is the instrument "of choice" for attacking the church viciously and persistently; on the other, its intrinsic ambivalence means it may rebound on its wielder and destroy him or at least his credibility and reputation. Sarpi proved, both by the vehemence of his invective and by the self-destructiveness of his all-consuming hatred, the truth of that other French dictum, "the style is the man." In his rancor toward others, he destroyed himself: "Lo stile è l'uomo."
" It became a rule of policy to praise the spirit when
you could not defend the deed."
1. Of course, context is everything. It is tolerable--when verifiable--for an Alfred Delp, S.J., murdered by the Nazis, to draw a comparison between himself and John the Baptist and Herod and Pius XII. Such rhetoric is acceptable from a martyr in a prison cell. It is less acceptable when voiced by an academician writing a polemic in a library.
2. This is a Protestant notion from the days of Calvin and Knox, and is in line with such other reformative acts as stripping the altars, whitewashing the walls, and smashing stained glass windows and statues. It is interesting that after Vatican II when Catholics were literally divesting themselves of priestly robes rich in religious significance through design and color, Protestant ministers were seeking a sense of ritual and solemnity by adopting the dress and colors of academic gowns. What was driven out of the churches in the name of evangelical simplicity was welcomed back in the name of university or seminary loyalties--with ornate vestments that had little symbolic significance. (At academic convocations, one assumes that this Catholic author/professor at a Methodist institution democratically wears street attire.)
3. For this writer everything emanating from Rome--whether reform or reversal, whether post-Trent or post-Vatican II--entails a self-protective conspiracy. Thus: "Vatican officials feared change in the liturgy for a very real and practical reason. If you take away the magical aura from the Mass, the existence of a priestly caste with ritual purity is hard to justify."
4. It is a British Catholic, undoubtedly at some time or other observer of the ostentatious grandiosity of parliamentary openings and other regal pageants in London, who manages to make of such spectacles in Rome a sign of sin and delusion: "...the wearing of robes and the use of outmoded titles--Excellency, Eminence, Grace, Lord--tokens of a mental split.... In such a 'hidden' state of mind, it is easy to fool oneself into believing one is holy, to disguise evil for good."
5. This is hardly to suggest that the post-Vatican II liturgy represented some ideal in worship. In its reaction to the Tridentine service, it often went to extremes of vulgarization and faddishness that were in their way as impairing as what they replaced. But in no fashion could they be described as having about them "a magical aura." Cf. Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (New York, 1992).
6. In The Decay of Lying Oscar Wilde speaks of an author who "had once the makings of a perfectly magnificent liar... [but who now] when he does tell us anything marvelous, feels bound to invent a personal reminiscence and put it in a footnote as a kind of cowardly corroboration."-- a prophetic judgment about many of this author's "inventions," several of which as we shall see are in footnotes; but not this one: it is bare faced in the text--though not bold faced.
7. This verbal flood, the result of too facile an access to word processing, results as we shall see in what is almost a silly con game with the innocent reader.
8. According to the dictum, judge a person by his enemies as well as by his friends, one might look at the internet links: "Religion > Christianity > Catholics > Not in Communion with Rome." The last entry will lead to scores of organizations in varying degrees of opposition to John Paul II. These may appear to be negligible fringe groups, but their numbers are not insignificant, particularly the Society of St. Pius X, though the latter is but a shadow of the Sodalitium Pianum, the Society of St. Pius V, a pan-European secret society which during the Modernist crisis denounced archbishops, theologians, intellectuals in general for not being "integral" Catholics--which meant for the most part not being sympathetic to heresy hunts and monarchists. The present admirers of St. Pius X (whose canonization was delayed while the secret society which flourished during his reign was investigated) attack John Paul II himself as being a heretic, a philosemite, an ecumenist, and above all, a defender of Vatican II. It is noteworthy also that whereas formerly, discontented Catholics looked for redress from a future council, in the twenty-first century they look for redress in the past, by calling up as models the heritage of Pius X and Pius V.
9. The clearest statement is the concluding chapter of Newman's Apologia where he speaks of "Authority and Private Judgment": ...it is the vast Catholic body itself, and it only, which affords an arena for both combatants in that awful, never-dying duel. It is necessary for the very life of religion, viewed in its large operations and its history, that the warfare should be incessantly carried on. Every exercise of Infallibility is brought out in act by an intense and varied operation of Reason, both as its ally and as its opponent, and provokes again, when it has done its work, a re-action of Reason against it; and, as in a civil polity the State exists and endures by means of the rivalry and collision, the encroachments and defeats of its constituent parts, so in like manner Catholic Christendom is no simple exhibition of religious absolutism, but presents a continuous picture of Authority and Private Judgment alternately advancing and retreating as the ebb and flow of the tide;--it is a vast assemblage of human beings with wilful intellects and wild passions, brought together into one by the beauty and the Majesty of a Superhuman Power...."
10. Another indication of the fluctuating changes that can be effected by the election of a new pope is that Rosmini's writings--theological, philosophical, political, and pastoral--were the object of much criticism by the Roman curia with two titles briefly on the Index during the reign of Pius IX. But during the reign of Leo XIII, again after curial condemnation, they were subject to only the mildest form of censure--as was also true of Leo with regard to Loisy. In the reign of John Paul II, Rosmini, along with the equally suspect Cardinal Newman, was completely rehabilitated. An axiom of the latter, which will also recur in the treatment that follows is "What one pope can do, another can undo."
11. One author of what may be called a heartbreaking work of staggering length describes as occurring throughout the Christian era various religious hoaxes, aberrations, perversions, superstitions, fakes, etc.. Yet he concludes his long historical account--it is indeed the climax of the whole book--with a mawkish and superstition-ridden scene in Hitler's bunker, "a chamber of hell," where he disrupts his offspring's gamboling: "'No!' I screamed....swooping down on them, grabbing each one by an elbow and dragging them back.... My children looked up at me mystified... 'This was Hitler's place!' And I led them away." Thus disproving the dictum, "other times, other mores," and confirming Wilde's response to the maudlin expiration of Little Nell.
12. If one took all of the "reformist" doctrinal and devotional demands in the aggregate one would end up with a "church" with no unique revelation of deity; no Nicene creed, no resurrection, no liturgy, no episcopate and priesthood: a church which was neither one, nor apostolic, nor catholic--as to "holy," there is no reference anywhere I can recall to what is called "prayer life." In short, a church that would look very much like a unitarian assembly--and which would have about as much impact on the larger culture..
13. Again, Newman in the Apologia recognized the difficulty of defining the grounds of embracing Catholicism--with a significant reservation: "To that large class of minds, who believe in Christianity after our manner,--in the particular temper, spirit, and light (whatever word is used) in which Catholics believe it..." And here he introduces the anchor of those large vaguenesses. He is talking about dogma, here about the Immaculate Conception which two of the most cited "reformers," whom I will discuss explicitly, describe as a screen for papal deceit or as a subtle piece of antisemimtism.
14. One critic, occupant of the moral high ground in admiring Dorothy Day, and certainly in light of the following remarks even emulating her poverty, observes: "Priests may today be celibate; but--with some honorable exceptions--they usually maintain a comfortable life style, especially as compared with the poor they profess to be serving. We all know priests with refined tastes in food and drink, nice cars, expensive stereos" (like those comfortable archbishops with their Bösendorfers). This author then tells his readers that when the Jesuit general commanded "all Jesuits to stop smoking," he was disobeyed. "It was felt to be asking too much" of these men with vows of poverty. Then speaking of smoking bishops at the Council (white smoke over the Vatican? an auto da fé in the piazza?), he concludes: "They may be estimable men, but they are not convincing as desert fathers." The only commentary this deserves is another of Newman's responses to Kingsley: "So we confessedly have come round to this, preaching without practising; the common theme of satirists from Juvenal to Walter Scott." Newman then quotes from Scott's The Fortunes of Nigel: "O Geordie, jingling Geordie, it was grand to hear Baby Charles laying down the guilt of dissimulation, and Steenie lecturing on the turpitude of incontinence." --a biting piece of personal polemic on Newman's part who was told by a friend that "the prophet of muscular Christianity" (Charles Kingsley) was being referred to "by no other name than Baby Charles." And "it was grand to hear" our author luxuriating in his academic quarters "laying down the guilt of" stereos and smoking.
15. The overall issue was the power of the papacy over civil rulers. It was Paul V who canonized Gregory VII, five centuries after the latter's death, as a symbolic gesture of homage to the medieval pope who had consolidated papal over imperial power. In the event, the Doge of Venice, no more than Henry IV ("Paris is worth a Mass") of France, or even James I of England--all of whom Paul crossed--proved willing "to go to Canossa."
16. The irony is that Shakespeare's alleged violation of dramatic verisimilitude was, in the case of Sarpi, provedly "true to life." Johnson wrote: "Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition..., let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished.... A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it."