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The Nostalgic Dream of a Mythical, Constant, Monarchical Papacy.

In the comments thread to Frank Cocozelli’s post on “Carlism and the American right”, there are some observations by reader Eric Jones which deserve a more appropriate  response than simple burial in the comments.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious.

Holy Roman Emperor Louis the Pious

Frank’s post showed how so much of the thinking of the Catholic right is rooted in the philosophy of the Spanish Carlists, a philosophy which was “the pre-eminent political philosophy in Spain from the 1830s through the reign of Franco’s regime.” What drew me into the discussion was a comment in response to Franks’s reference to “theoconservatives such as John Neuhaus, Robert H. Bork and to a lesser extent, George Weigel”, which stated that  “most of the men that you cite (Fr. Neuhaus, George Wiegel, Mr. Monaghan, etc.) are really quite liberal when it comes right down to it”, and continued with the fairly common assertion

Since when, I’d like to know, does Catholicism, a coherent theological and philosophical belief system with explicit teachings, been open to question, or to dissent by its members? What gives a Catholic the ‘right’ to speak against a teaching, any more than the Americans had a ‘right’ to commit treason against their lawful sovereign before God and men in 1776?


Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century
Robe of Hply Roman Emperor Henry II, IIth Century

This suggestion to me is like the proverbial red rag to a bull: I entirely reject and resent the notion that “Catholicism” requires blind obedience to anything, so I replied accordingly:

Catholicism has always been open to question. It may well be a “coherent philosophical system”, but that does not mean we are expected to switch off our brains and bow down to the voice of the Catechism. This is just as well, for history shows that the official teachings have frequently been wrong. (on slavery, usury, and the “dangers” of democracy, for example).

This is where it gets interesting, because Eric has since replied, with an argument entirely new to me: that the Church has not in fact rejected slavery, except in it’s abusive forms; that usury remains sinful, but is tolerated as a necessary evil; and that the Church in the 19th century was right to have rejected democracy.

The Church’s teaching on slavery is that it is not intrinsically evil, but nevertheless is almost never conducive to the salvation of souls … The morality of slavery has not changed a whit from Roman times until now —something which could be tolerated in the fairly benign and customary form it took in ancient Rome…..

Usury is still sinful, too, despite the fact that its practice is virtually universal today

Likewise, democracy, while not, strictly speaking, evil in itself, is an inferior form of government ………… it is very dangerous for the faith.

He then presents the more familiar arguments that Vatican II was “demonstrably wrong”, as shown by its subversion of the “constant teaching” of the Church’s long tradition.

I reject Eric’s observations pretty well in their entirety, but they deserve to be taken seriously, because they clearly illustrate, in an extreme form, the assumptions and loose thinking that underlay so much of the arguments of the Catholic right that Frank Cocozelli tackled in the first place.

The first assumption, of course, is that there is such a thing as the Church’s “constant” tradition.  The simple truth, as should be obvious to anyone who looks at Church history, is that the only “constancy” in Church tradition, has been its regular process of change. This is to be expected:  all of nature, all of humanity, all of society, is constantly changing.  It would be quite extraordinary if it were otherwise.

One of the areas where this change has been most evident , is in the institution of the papacy itself.  The modern papacy, likes to present itself as a model of continuity, in unbroken succession from Peter, and always at the head of the Church, in a monarchical model as absolute ruler and guide.  I leave aside the question of the “unbroken succession”, which I have discussed before (in “The Bishops of Rome”).  However, the idea of the pope as a quasi- monarchical, absolute  ruler also does not stand up to scrutiny. As the pictures alongside show, the dress and pageantry of the modern papcy bear some startling resemblances to those of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, but it was not always so.

Cardinal George Pell
Cardinal George Pell

In the very beginning, in the first century of the Christian era, not only was there not a “pope”, there was not even a bishop of Rome.  The name and office of  “bishop” began to be applied by around the end of the first century – but only in the Eastern church.  When Ignatius of Antioch, on his way to martyrdom in Rome, wrote to the leaders of the scattered churches, he addressed by name the “bishops” of each local church: except in Rome, where there does not appear to have been any bishop, and where the church was governed by a college of elders. Even where there were “bishops”, the office was dramatically different to the one we know today. Instead of the monarchical figure of authority we are used to  now, he was much more like a team leader , supported and advised by his college of “elders” – or “presbyters”.  Note that the term “priest” was not widely used until the end of the second century – and was first applied as a synonym for “bishop”.  only later did it come to apply to the “presbyters”.

Local churches operated essentially autonomously, with several of them (not only Rome) recognized as “apostolic sees” (that is, founded by one or other of the apostles).  In time, the see of Rome came to be recognized as having a special status as first among equals, but that applies originally to the diocese, not to the office-holder.  Gradually, certain sees became recognized as holding authority over neighbouring areas. Rome was one of these – but with authority recognized only over only Italy and Gaul.  Even Spain was subservient not to Rome, but to Carthage, while Alexandria looked after Egypt and Libya, Antioch Syria and Cilicia, and Ephesus Asia Minor and Phrygia.

As the term “pope” came into usage, even this term was not applied uniquely to the bishop of Rome – other senior bishops also adopted the title. For many centuries, the story of the papacy was of a continuing struggle by the see of Rome to assert power and control over the rest of the Church – and continuing efforts by the rest of the Church to deny and resist these claims. The ultimate ascendancy of Rome over the other major sees did not come by agreement or by force of argument – but simply by the Islamic ascendancy, which swept away strong Christian churches in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandra, and later Constantinople.  Note that in those parts of the East where Christianity was able to survive, it was in the form of the Orthodox church – which has still not recognized the primacy of Rome.

Eric’s extraordinary dismissal of “democracy” is also entirely misplaced:  it was the default procedure of the earliest church, which routinely took decisions collectively. For many centuries, bishops were often elected, not appointed, and many pope’s themselves recognised that their authority did not exceed the collective wisdom of the other bishops.  The easy dismissal of the second Vatican Council is equally unjustified.  It is a complete myth that this council swept away long-standing “tradition” and so lacks authority.  On the contrary, the first Vatican Council, which was called precisely in defence of the monarchical principle and against the tide of democracy then spreading across Europe, was the one which brushed aside much that had previously important in the established tradition of the Church. Vatican II, in assessing the situation of the Church in the modern world, did not simply assert new principles, but re-asserted older ones that had been forgotten.

Imposing_the_Cardinal's_Berretta
Imposing the Cardinal’s Beretta

Even one of the most visible and obvious reforms, to replace Latin in the liturgy with the vernacular, was not a revolutionary principle:  Latin itself had been introduced, a millennium and a half earlier for precisely the same reason:  because Latin had become the common language of the people of the Church, who were excluded by the Greek of the existing Scriptures   (Jerome’s famous Latin translation of the Bible, the “Vulgate” was so called for excellent reason:  “Vulgate” meant of the common people).

Eric states: “These doctrines cannot change: what was true in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died, 1198 (accession of Pope Innocent III, arguably the height of the Middle Ages) 1565 (Council of Trent) and 1962 (first year of Vatican II) is still just as true today.”

If we are to accept this at face value, and to apply to the Church today what was true “in A.D. 33, when Our Lord ascended into Heaven, 100, when St. John, the last apostle died”, we would not be seeking to impose a grandiose, autocratic papal monarchy, but would be practicing church democracy, without an exclusive professional clergy, meeting and worshipping in small, domestic spaces.  Truth endures, but doctrine and church practice do  not.  To believe that they do, is as fanciful as the bizarre notion that Roman slavery was “benign”.  That was certainly not the view of the slaves who experienced it, nor of the historians who have noted that in (admittedly exceptional) cases, some wealthy slave-owners thought nothing of having them killed for sport, as hunters do wild animals, for the entertainment of their guests.

Far from being the “constant tradition” of the church, the imperial, autocratic model described by Eric is a medieval hangover,  modeled on the Holy Roman Empire. The attempts to extend, fossilize and preserve the model at the first Vatican Council had nothing whatever to do with the Gospel’s the teaching of the Church fathers, the practice of the early church, or with authentic Catholic tradition. Instead, it was quite simply a clear attempt to increase papal power still further, in total contrast with the movements towards democracy sweeping across Europe.

Vatican II did not so away with Catholic tradition – to a large degree, it was reasserting it, undoing some of the damage of Vatican I.

Further Reading:

Priesthood: Medieval Mythmaking

Davidson, I: The Birth of the Church: from Jesus to Constantine, AD30 – 312

Duffy, E: Saints and Sinners (A history of the Papacy)

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4 Responses

  1. I think it is a little disingenuous to identify the “Catholic right” with those who reject Vatican II. They may be right wing somethings, but, if they reject an ecumenical council of the Church, they are certainly not right wing Catholics.

    I don’t think that anyone imagines that the papacy hasn’t developed from the beginning. The question is whether we should reject what it has developed into, as taught by the first and second Vatican councils.

    One can have, of course, an extended discussion of the preferred types of ecclesiastical government. The Protestant churches have of course all in one way or another come out of the rejection of Rome as a center of unity. All have comparatively been more subject to decline and schism. If we are to go into the topic, we cannot ignore the consequences to those themselves who believed that they were going back to the roots.

    And we have to be careful with our terms. In the strict sense, the United States is a monarchy, because executive authority is concentrated in a single person. It is not a hereditary monarchy, nor a monarchy for life, and, like almost all actual constitutions, it is really “mixed.” We are certainly no democracy, and our size alone precludes that.

    The Holy Roman Empire as a model? I doubt it. That was one of the weakest monarchies in history, occasionally subdued by a powerful individual (Barbarosa comes to mind), but more often verging on chaos among the member principalities, dukedoms, kingdoms and other semi-independent entities.

    If we are to think about Christian “monarchy,” I think we are better off looking at the ancient authority of the apostle, and the derivative meaning then of episcopal authority. The secular authority derives his authority from power or from those whom he is to serve. The Christian religious authority derives his office from the revelation of God in Christ, and his task is to confess, teach, and pass on that revelation. It is from that point, of view, I think, that we must judge the efficacy of our current arrangements.

    • Rick, you say, “I think it is a little disingenuous to identify the ‘Catholic right’ with those who reject Vatican II. They may be right wing somethings, but, if they reject an ecumenical council of the Church, they are certainly not right wing Catholics.”

      But, interestingly enough, that is precisely the issue right now re: SSPX and Benedict’s choice to rehabilitate this group. They have explicitly rejected Vatican II. But the pope himself wants to welcome them back into the fold. Though accepting Vatican II is a precondition for that re-entry to communion, one of their most controversial spokespersons continues to create obstacles to reunion, by stating (e.g.) that the dialogue of SSPX with Rome is ineffectual because Rome does not want to convert. (See the news link at this site for recent news articles about this.)

      I’m speaking of Archbishop Williamson, who also persists in denying the Holocaust. The leader of SSPX in Italy also held a Mass of atonement when Benedict recently visited Rome’s synagogue–a Mass of atonement for Benedict’s transgression.

      Point being, here’s a right-wing Catholic group, demonstrating in all its glory and horror where right-wing Catholicism has always trended (to anti-semitism, to fascism, to social theories that denigrate the poor and exalt the rich), which explicitly rejects Vatican II, but which is being wooed by the current pope. So it seems Benedict disagrees with your assessment that those who reject Vatican II can’t be called right-wing Catholics.

      For those of us who approach these issues from the standpoint of engagement–since they demand that we decide which movement is energized by the Spirit and deserves our support–what’s incomprehensible about the wooing of the Catholic right, even when it denies Vatican II, is Rome’s simultaneous ugliness towards some non-right-wing groups that embody Vatican II in an exemplary way.

      Case in point: the current investigation of women religious in the U.S. It would be hard to think of a group within the American Catholic church that more faithfully embodies Vatican II than the LCWR. And yet while Benedict woos Williamson, he slaps American religious women. And theologians who want to take Vatican II’s mandate to engage in fruitful dialogue with contemporary culture, in order to communicate core Catholic values to the culture . . . .

      Maybe the problem is inherent in the definition of “apostle,” with which your comment ends. I seem to remember Jesus defining the role of a true apostle, shortly before his death, as service: serving rather than ruling. What seems missing–and spectacularly so, to my eyes–in your definition of apostolic authority is its fundamental call to serve: the chief pastor of the church is called first and foremost to be Servus Servorum Christi.

  2. There is also this whole notion of love. Didn’t Jesus say something about knowing them by their fruit? It’s pretty easy to see what a person loves by their actions.

    Benedict’s actions would seem to say that he cares far more about Rick’s notions of “confessing, teaching, and passing on ‘revelation’ than in service based in love. Hence he welcomes SSPX while investigating the LCWR. SSPX’s insistence on authority trumps LCWR notions of service and love.

    To me the question isn’t about VI vs VII and their definitions of ecclesiastical authority. The real question revolves around authentic and divine notions of love and service vs inauthentic human notions of power and authority.

    For me this is best described in this sound bite: When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace. So will Roman Catholicism.

  3. Excellent thoughts all. I appreciated Frank reposting his article on Carlism. Interestingly enough, the entire movement started with a dispute over who would succeed Fernando VII, his brother Carlos (who was heir under Salic law) or his daughter Isabel. Isabel II won that squabble, but it gave rise to a political movement that far outlived its founder. Franco was reportedly cool to Alfonso XII and his family because they were descended from Isabel. That didn’t prevent Franco from deciding he would have Juan Carlos succeed him, and fortunately Juan Carlos buried Franco’s regime.

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