Papal Hangover

I am continuing to power through Why I Am A Catholic and have made it to Vatican II, and not a moment too soon! I don’t know if I could have taken much more of the papal power plays. I am virtually seasick from all the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the papal fortunes. These lines sum up what might be called the imperial period, from Constantine to the modern democratic era:

Rome escaped from the Eastern empire only by ceding power to Charlemagne and the West. It escaped the Holy Roman Empire to become the prey of rising secular states. It fled from councils into the harsh embrace of absolute monarchs.

Finally with the fall of the papal states and the rise of democratic states, the Church ran out of powerful allies but gained new heresies to be paranoid about: a vague constellation of objectionable ideas labelled as “modernism,” which to a large extent amounted to democracy, including (most notoriously) separation of church and state, leading to freedom of religion, conscience, expression, and the press. (Though the campaign against modernism was supposedly killed by Vatican II, Ratzinger’s last homily as a cardinal suggests that it was just resting.)

Wills’ chapter on the “reign of terror” of Pope Pius X (1903-1914) and his legacy seems to be the most painful for him as an intellectual (he suffered from its after-effects as a seminarian) and indeed it is painful to read, even if it was was carried out with the pen rather than with the sword. Wills describes the measures taken by the Vatican to censor and cleanse the Church of “Modernist” and related ideas (including science), and to prevent the faithful (including seminarians) from even knowing they existed or had been suppressed. This was the Church’s version of McCarthyism, with the tenet “error has no rights” justifying its abuses and its “structures of deciet” (Wills’ Papal Sin goes into more detail on that). It slammed the door shut on theological advancement and indeed denied that such advancement could take place or had ever taken place. It was the dumbing down of the Roman Catholic Church, all in the name of preserving the centuries-old dream of absolute temporal papal power, which at this point was on life-support.

After all this I am more than ready to get some “fresh air” from Vatican II. The fact that it even happened and had the result it did is astonishing after reading about the lengths the papacy had gone through to prevent such a thing.


I must add that I am in awe of the faithful who stuck with the Church through all its corruption over many centuries and kept the Christian faith alive and growing, despite persecution even from their own “superiors.” Indeed it was the faithful that originally gave Rome much of its prominence and influence through their pilgrimages and devotions to Peter (not his “successor,” the pope) whose shrines are of course in Rome (where he and Paul were martyred). Catholic apologist John Henry Newman (1801-1890), when writing about the fourth-century Arian crisis, believed that the faithful could sometimes be more faithful than the hierarchy:

In that time of immense confusion, the divine dogma of our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved far more by the “Ecclesia docta”than by the “Ecclesia docens,” that the body of the episcopate was unfaithful to its commission while the body of the laity was faithful to its baptism…

Marsiglio of Padua (1270-1342), a man way ahead of his time (who I must read at some point), echoed esteem for the people of Christ when he wrote:

The church means the whole body of the faithful, who believe in and invoke the name of Christ, and all the parts of this whole body in any community … Therefore all the Christian faithful, both priests and non-priests, are and should be called churchmen according to this truest and most proper signification, because Christ purchased and redeemed all men with his blood … And for the same reason, those ministers—bishops or priests and deacons—are not alone “the church,” which is Christ’s bride, but they are rather a part of this bride, since it was for this bride that Christ gave himself.

To be continued…

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8 comments on “Papal Hangover

  1. Jodie says:

    That book sounds interesting. It's strange how I've had an education strongly influenced by history and yet I can't remember one instance of being taught pure religious or church history without it somehow being tied to ideas of monarchy.

  2. Talmida says:

    Sounds like agreat read, Sylvia! I just picked up Thomas Bokenkotter's Concise History of the Catholic Church from the Library and it's looking fairly promising. Trying to cram 2000 years of history into one summer. ;-D

  3. Sylvia says:

    Hi Jodie! The papacy was indeed tied up with ideas of monarchy in recent centuries, in order to justify its own claims to absolute worldly power. At one point the church declared that all human beings should (theoretically) be subject to one man, the pope, both spiritually and temporally. The papacy lent its support to monarchies in hopes of reciprocity, but instead got 'played.' It's kind of pathetic, really, that the Church tried for so long to gain worldly power and was instead controlled by world powers until democratic revolutions put an end to the idea of monarchic rule. We'll see how long the Church can resist the power of its own people!

  4. Sylvia says:

    Talmida, let me know how you like that book. It looks like it might be one for the permanent collection.

  5. deb says:

    Well said. One does wonder what the Church will do with an educated people. I am most afraid of the people who educate themselves on the rather biased Catholic media–radio, tv, press–believing they are getting the whole story. And the voices speaking against Vatican II are rising–at least in my corner of the Church. The books used in the seminary here are books that do not help young men think on their own–IMHO. I would call it the dumbing down of the seminary. Lay men and women who push the envelope of broader thinking are accused of pluralism.

  6. Thanks for the discussion and critical comments from within the Catholic Church. If your position as set out on your personal page were to become the generally held position, there would be some hope of unity between my Anglican/Episcopal Church and yours. But then again the Anglican Communion is tearing itself apart at the moment, so perhaps it's all a dream, and unity will be experienced only in heaven.
    Thanks also for your link to the ARLT blog. Best of luck with your Latin studies.

  7. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for visiting, David. The book also covers how the Popes bungled the Henry VIII annulment and England in general. As usual they weren't acting on principle (at least not Christian principle) but were playing for power and influence, and lost as usual. 1700 years since they were first seduced by worldly power and they still haven't learned that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” But maybe a civilly enfranchised and independently educated laity can change all that.
    Incidentally, near where I live there is a (progressive) Catholic parish “in covenant” with an Anglican parish. I'm not exactly sure what that means but I suspect it was the people's doing.

  8. Sylvia says:

    By the way, the mission statement for that Catholic parish I mentioned is:
    “Let us be open accepting individuals, sensitive to change and willing to take courses untraditional, unknown to us.
    Let us live as examples of God's love.”
    Vatican II lives!

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