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Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down

(Mother of the New Pentecost:: taken from the wonderful site St. Andrei Rublov Icons)

I’ve been reflecting today on the wonderful interview given by Matthew Fox, regarding the publication of his new book, The Pope’s War. Fox is also one of the keynote speakers at the ongoing American Catholic Conference in Detroit. Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism for alerting us to this interview and for her own insightful comments, and thanks to Betty Clermont’s posting below, with her provocative question about possible reform, which prompted these reflections: I am waiting for anyone to suggest a path to reform of the Roman Catholic Church which would be more effective than Catholics staying away. )

I’ve chosen several passages from Matthew Fox’s interview which particularly struck me as very prescient of the future of Christianity, and have followed them with my own reflections:

As a theologian I am trying to ponder how the recent events of Catholic history can be seen through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Is there some good that come out of so much anguish, so much betrayal, so much disappointment with the false direction the church has taken under Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger? And I come to a clear conclusion that Yes, the Holy Spirit is still at work in the events of deconstruction and reconstruction that are at hand. It is time to restart the church. Let many of its forms go; let them die as they are doing.

With the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 [most likely by assassination], I felt that we were being given a sign by the Holy Spirit that we were not meant to have a ‘reformed Church’ along the lines proposed by Vatican II, as so many of us of the Vatican II generation were longing for. In a way my hope for meaningful ‘reform’ of the Church died along with the saintly, gentle, collegial and open-hearted Albino Luciani, who reined for only a short 33 days, and who died in such mysterious circumstances which have never been adequately explained to this day. If one ventures down into the crypt beneath St. Peters, which contains the remains of past Popes, John Paul I’s coffin has been placed on the side of the central aisle, the least significant location for any pontiff. Pilgrims rush past it, oblivious to this genuinely saintly martyr to reform of the Church, in their haste to get to the far more dramatic and spacious alcove which contains the remains of his successor, John Paul II, with the ‘eternal flame’ burning to the side and the permanent guard standing by. I always bring a bouquet when I visit Papa Luciani’s tomb, but I have never seen any other evidence of tokens of devotion and affection for this most ‘perfect’ of collegial minded Pontiffs. If the Spirit had intended us to have a reformed Church, without any radical reconstruction, John Paul I would have remained alive to have fulfilled that destiny. His death must be read as a sign of the Spirit that a much more radical purging of the Church was intended and that we were being asked to ‘let go’ of the forms of the old Church, to surrender our longing for renewal itself, even to cut the umbilical cord to Mother Church herself (in her present institutional structure) and to find the courage in the Spirit to venture out into the unknown, living in trust that the Maternal Spirit of Wisdom would find a way to preserve the lineage of Catholic Christianity outside the present, moribund institutional structure. However, I could not have imagined a more terrible or more profound purging and deconstruction than that enacted, albeit obliviously, by Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. Such is the irony of history that the genuine saint is ignored and (taking my cue from Matthew Fox) the ‘schismatic’ Polish Pope in his spacious alcove down the aisle is honored beyond belief. Using the “S” word will be seen as contentious, but I am in agreement with Matthew Fox here when he says:

The “S” word rarely gets used these days but I think that Schism properly summarizes what the past two papacies have been about. They deliberately turned their back on a valid Ecumenical Council and in doing so are in schism. This means that its appointed cardinals and bishops are in schism. They do not represent the lineage of the church. This opens up whole new possibilities of seeing the church anew. All the Yes men and sycophants that have lined up at the papal trough for a piece of the power these recent decades are seen for what they are in their transparent reality.

An ecclesiastical system in schism? Is that too strong a word and does it not make us similar to those ultra conservative Catholic sects (St.Pius X), who consider Vatican II itself to be in schism and every pope elected after Pius XII? A contentious issue and a very strong word, but sometimes honesty, courage and directness in language are necessary instruments to pierce the boil that is infecting the Church. However, rather than hurl invective, I prefer to follow Fox’s inspiration and ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us through these powerful and painful ‘signs of the times.’ It is my own view that we cannot understand the present crisis in the Church without taking into account the overall shift in religious and spiritual outlook in the culture at large. Sincere spiritual searchers are no longer so dependent upon or so trustful of large religious institutions, but are finding alternative sources of nourishment in a variety of places and religious communities. The time for the great institutional structures has past, and what is to replace them remains a mystery and perhaps a cause of anxiety, as we fearfully contemplate fragmentation, splintering, chaos. But I feel such fears must be faced and overcome in the peaceful, interior conviction that the Spirit is leading us towards a radical reconstruction of the whole Catholic tradition and to forms of community which are at present beyond our imagining. Fox continues:

I have tried to sketch out some directions for new versions of Christianity that are needed today with of course the primary emphasis on lay leadership. We do not need another Council (after all the last one was totally stuffed); what we need is a rise and indeed a take over of the church by lay leaders. Jesus was not a clericalist. He never heard of the Vatican (or of cardinals) all of which developed centuries after his death. Time to start over. And with the courage and imagination and generosity that characterizes all authentic spirituality.

These words themselves need to be deconstructed and their implications laid bare. A “take-over” of the church by lay leaders ultimately must mean a take over of the sacramental system, and a refusal to be intimidated by the monopoly of control the hierarchy presently maintains over the sacraments through the myth of ‘apostolic succession.’ (Readers of Terrence Weldon’s blog, Queering the Church can find an abundance of documentation for exploring the justification for calling this doctrine a myth.) And here I am in complete agreement with another key note speaker at the Detroit conference, theologian Anthony Padovano, who is simply following the great Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by insisting that a ‘validly ordained’ minister is not an absolute requirement for a genuine celebration of the Eucharist. In the absence of ‘ordained priests,’ communities must find the courage within themselves, through the most profound and heartfelt prayer and discernment, to bless their own lay leaders and celebrate the sacraments independently of episcopal approval. This is a radical act that requires the utmost trust in the Spirit, because ‘the real presence’ is among the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Such communities will find themselves under fire and will endure censure and ‘excommunication,’ but it is already happening in increasing numbers of breakaway communities. Until increasing numbers of communities are willing to take this painful step – in the absence of ‘officially ordained’ priests – no real revolution within the church is possible. Lay leaders must rise up and take back the church and that means listening to the interior movements of the Spirit, experiencing the peace and joy which are the signs of the Spirit, when and as they celebrate the Eucharist on their own. The Holy Spirit is already imbuing communities with the fire of Pentecost, the interior joy and consolation that bring with them the assurance of conscience that this step is the right one. We are already being blessed, we are already being assured, we are already being led into the new Church of the Holy Spirit. It simply requires more and more laypersons to listen to this interior call. This will not happen overnight. It is too radical, too frightening, it calls for too great a sacrifice, too painful a wrenching from the security of the Mother Womb, but in my opinion it is way the Spirit is leading increasing numbers of us. The official organizers of the American Catholic Conference in Detroit are ‘following the rules,’ but I would not be surprised to learn that informal Eucharists on the periphery of the conference are fulfilling Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s worst fears. To take such a step, however, requires the most prayerful discernment and this brings me to Matthew Fox’s final points.

I believe, the most important direction that religion needs to go in its reconstruction—that is spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion. The mystical-prophetic tradition I have been recovering including the Cosmic Christ, Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, Julian and others, together with today’s post-modern science, offers new and deeper expressions of healthy religion. They are among the treasure to take from the burning building.

Let us remember what Thomas Aquinas taught about religion. That it is, he felt, primarily a virtue, that is a habit that persons carry within them. Indeed, for Aquinas religion’s essence is Gratitude. Gratitude for existence. This means that institutions are NOT what religion is primarily about. What goes on in the heart and mind and gives birth to outer form is what is at the essence of religion. This means that social constructs like basilicas, cathedrals, churches, vaticans, popes, cardinals, bishops, canon laws, etc. are on the periphery of real religion. And they render themselves religiously irrelevant when their thrust at certain times of history is very far from the love and compassion and service that Jesus preached. They have more to do with accumulation of power and prestige and institutional and personal ego.

(All the more reason, then, for alternative communities to branch out of their own, while maintaining their ties to the larger community through prayerful discernment, counseling, advice, and listening to the authentic voices of wisdom within the community, born of contemplation and prayer. Nothing could be more important than the spiritual witness in peace and joy of lay led communities, celebrating the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The time for waiting upon ecclesiastical leaders for change has past. The ecclesiastical system must be bypassed, and only when increasing numbers of lay led communities are forced by circumstance to take this painful step, and discover within themselves the Pentecostal peace and joy assuring them that the Spirit is with them, will the real revolution of the Holy Spirit within the Church have begun. For this to happen, we need increasing numbers of genuine prophets and mystics who are attuned in the depths of their being to the life giving movements of the Spirit.

At the bottom, the crisis in Roman Catholicism is a crisis in spirituality or the lack thereof. Real people want spirituality. The church as we know it today is the last place they go looking. We are talking about the future of religion, the future of spirituality and very likely the sustainability or unsustainability of our species on this planet. This is why the issues at hand are of deep importance to us all, whether within or outside of organized religion.

I would like to close these reflections with these moving words from another contemplative teacher of the Catholic mystical tradition:

DIARMUID O’MURCHU: There’s certainly a part of me as a human being, a part entirely of being a Christian, that feels I don’t want to abandon any sister or brother on the journey of life and the journey of faith. But this is a very real question for me and for people who are like me who facilitated for renewal programs and chapters of religious congregations, because this one comes up often. What do you do with the people who don’t want to move, that want to keep things as they always were, and are so rigid and frightened and scared, and you can’t get them to move without badly damaging them, which I don’t feel I have any right to do or anybody else has a right to do. And so I think the delicate balance has to be something like this and for me Gerry Arbuckle is the person who has named this very, very clearly. Supposing you have this group…and let’s put this into percentages…and you have 50% that are totally rigid and stuck, if you like, and you have 50% that are yearning to go. Insofar as there are people that are committed primarily to life and to the evolution of life, the primary energy should move with the 50% that want to move. And then we keep a secondary energy to try and help and maintain the others in a meaningful way. So this principal is that you go primarily where the life is! I think the tendency, particularly in churches, is that we try to keep everything at the lowest common denominator to please those who want to keep things the way they are. That, in my opinion, is not what Jesus would do. That is not Christian gospel. I think we need to go where the life is, primarily, without abandoning the others. And we need to try and bring them with us, in so far as we can, in love, in charity, and also in challenge! And ok, if they choose to remain totally stuck, or totally where they are – let me not be too judgmental about it – ok, that is their freedom, that is their right if you like, but I think in the overall sense of things, whether at the human level, at the religious or spiritual level, I think this commitment to life always has to be honored. And so go where the life is primarily, put your energies primarily there. And then also spare some to try and maintain, in kindness and dignity, those that pretty much want to remain. And a corollary of that, of course, which is much more difficult and this requires a lot of skills, we do not allow this subgroup to dictate. And I think that’s where leadership has a huge responsibility. Leadership has to put it’s commitment with the new primarily.

Website for Fr. Diarmuid O’Murchu : http://www.diarmuid13.com

Cohabitation, and the Church’s Redefinition of Marriage

Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe has written a strongly worded pastoral letter about Catholics who are living together in cohabitation, those who are married, but only by civil law, and those who have remarried after divorce. He writes:

First of all, we ourselves must be firmly rooted in the Gospel teaching that, when it comes to sexual union, there are only two lifestyles acceptable to Jesus Christ for His disciples: a single life of chastity, or the union of man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Archdiocese of Santa Fe

There two totally extraordinary things hidden in this statement. The first, as Jamie L. Manson has observed at National Catholic Reporter, is that this is emphatically not the message of the Gospels.

In fact, there is only one passage in one of the gospels on marriage, in Matthew 19: 1-12. Sadly, the rest of Jesus’ teachings in the four gospels seem lost on Sheehan.

National Catholic Reporter

That one passage from a single Gospel may be taken as a condemnation of divorce, but there is definitely nothing, anywhere, to suggest a prohibition on any state other than full marriage or total chastity. Our bishops, sadly, are remarkably fond of claiming authority from “the Gospels” for views which are in fact rooted in nothing other than their own tradition.  (In this case, he is not even being true to the full tradition- as I will return to later). Continue reading

JOHN MCNEILL ON BENEDICT IN PORTUGAL

Once again, John McNeill has posted a very wise, compassionate and insightful response to Pope Benedict’s recent oblique reference to gay marriage as one of ‘the greatest threats to the human race.’ John reminds us that ‘gay marriage’ isn’t just about fairness and justice for gay people, it constitutes an essential gift to the culture at large by helping to heal the imbalance and defects of patriarchy. Therefore, gay people have an ethical responsibility to press for  equality of marriage that goes beyond our own personal needs and rights. We are called to offer a new paradigm of human relationships, one that is more human and fulfilling because both partners remain in touch with the masculine and feminine aspects of their psyches. Against all of the opposition and hatred, intolerance and bigotry, LGBT people must offer a service of love and justice to a wounded, confused and imbalanced world. However, as Terence Weldon reminds us frequently with his numerous stories at Queering the Church, LGBT are making advances each day in the most unlikely of places. The tide is turning and from the point of view of history, the recent intransigence of Church leaders towards gay marriage, however painful to contemplate, is just one small bump on the road.

Below are three paragraphs from John’s inspiring article, the beginning, middle and end. Please go to John’s website to read the whole article: John McNeil: Spiritual Transformation

On his recent pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal, Pope Benedict XVI used the occasion to announce that he thought the greatest threat to the human race, apart from abortion, was gay marriage! To my knowledge no mention was made of the nuclear arms race; no mention of the destruction of the environment; no mention of disease, poverty and starvation which afflict the vast majority of humanity; no mention of the decrease in respect for the sacred value of the human person which has led to a remarkable increase in genocide, violence, murder, torture and enslavement. Which leads me to wonder what alternate universe the Pope lives in; what alternate reality is he dealing with? ….

Jesus Christ’s message of equality and love has been contaminated by the institutions of patriarchy, male privilege, and the repression of the feminine. The time has come for the Church to cleanse itself and throw off these aberrations. Gay spiritual groups, I believe, are leading the way for the whole Church to bring about this transformation. The primary example of this liberation can be found in gay marriage. ….

Which brings us back to the question : Why is Pope Benedict XVI so consistently over the top with his homophobia and so out of touch with the reality of the LGBT world? He was willing, at least unconsciously, to destroy the celibate gay priesthood by forbidding gay men the right to ordination. The only explanation I can reach to understand the ferociousness of Benedict’s attack on the LGBT community is that unconsciously he is a self-hating gay man who projects out his fear and loathing on the gay community at large!

THEN AND NOW: JOACHIM OF FIORE And JOHN MCNEILL

Contrast the  following three statements: The first is a report of Pope Benedict’s address on March 10th of this year.

The Pope’s address to the weekly audience continued the reflections on St. Bonaventure that he had begun the previous Wednesday. In this second talk, the Holy Father concentrated on St. Bonaventure’s response to Joachim of Fiore and the “spiritual” Franciscans, who had taught that a new phase of history was beginning, in which the Church hierarchy would disappear and the enlightened faithful would be guided only by the Holy Spirit. “St. Bonaventure opposed that error, the Pope observed, and in rebutting it he upheld the true teaching of St. Francis of Assisi. The faithful should not follow radical new teachings, but should recognize that “there is no other Gospel, no other Church to be awaited.” The Franciscans, St. Bonaventure insisted, should work within the structure of the hierarchical Church.

The second reading is from John McNeill’s recent posting, Theology of Fallibility Part IV

There is no doubt in my mind that we are at present in a new stage of the collapsing Temple and the emergence of a new form of shepherding. Joachim of Fiore in the 13th century saw three stages in the development of God’s church. The first was the Church of obedience to the Father, the Church of Israel; the second was the Church of the Son, Jesus, which he identified with the hierarchical Catholic church. He prophesied that there would come the day when the hierarchical church, becoming superfluous, would in time dissolve and in its place would emerge the Church of the Holy Spirit. I believe that time is now. Ministry in the Church of the Holy Spirit will come from a direct call of the Holy Spirit to any baptized person from within their spiritual self-awareness. The task of authority will be to listen prayerfully to what the Holy Spirit is saying through the people of God. All authority will proceed from the bottom up and not from the top down. Every community should prayerfully discern spirits to select among their members the one whom God is calling to leadership. That individual could be a man or woman, married or single, gay or straight! The Church of the Holy Spirit must become a totally democratic church with no caste system, no higher or lower, totally equal, women with men, gays with straights; everyone possessing the Holy Spirit within them; everyone an authority.

(A 1573 fresco depicting Gioacchino da Fiore, in the Cathedral of Santa Severina, Calabria, Italy)

The third is by German spiritual master Eckhart Tolle and is taken from his book, A New Earth

SPIRITUALITY AND RELIGION

What is the role of the established religions in the arising of the new consciousness? Many people are already aware of the difference between spirituality and religion. They realize that having a belief system – a set of thoughts that you regard as absolute truth – does not make you spiritual no matter what the nature of those beliefs is. In fact, the more you make your thoughts (beliefs) into your identity, the more cut off you are from the spiritual dimension within yourself. Many “religious” people are stuck at that level. They equate truth with thought, and as they are completely identified with thought (their mind), they claim to be in sole possession of the truth in an unconscious attempt to protect their identity. They don’t realize the limitations of thought. Unless you believe (think) exactly as they do, you are wrong in their eyes, and in the not-too-distant past, they would have felt justified in killing you for that. And some still do, even now.


The new spirituality, the transformation of consciousness, is arising to a large extent outside the structures of the existing institutionalized religions. There were always pockets of spirituality even in mind-dominated religions, although the institutionalized hierarchies felt threatened by them and often tried to suppress them. A large-scale opening of spirituality outside of the religious structures is an entirely new development. In the past, this would have been inconceivable, especially in the West, the most mind-dominated of all cultures, where the Christian church had a virtual franchise on spirituality. You couldn’t just stand up and give a spiritual talk or publish a spiritual book unless you were sanctioned by the church, and if you were not, they would quickly silence you. But now, even within certain churches and religions, there are signs of change. It is heartwarming, and one is grateful for even the slightest signs of openness, such as Pope John Paul II visiting a mosque as well as a synagogue.


Partly as a result of the spiritual teachings that have arisen outside the established religions, but also due to an influx of the ancient Eastern wisdom teachings. a growing number of followers of traditional religions are able to let go of identification with form, dogma, and rigid belief systems and discover the original depth that is hidden within their own spiritual traditions at the same time as they discover the depth within themselves. They realize that how “spiritual” you are has nothing to do with what you believe but everything to do with your state of consciousness. This, in turn, determines how you act in the world and interact with others.


Those unable to look beyond form become even more deeply entrenched in their beliefs, that is to say, in their mind. We are witnessing not only an unprecedented influx of consciousness at this time but also an entrenchment and intensification of the ego. Some religious institutions will be open to the new consciousness; others will harden their doctrinal positions and become part of all those other man-made structures through which the collective ego will defend itself and “fight back.” Some churches, sects, cults, or religious movements are basically collective egoic entities, as rigidly identified with their mental positions as the followers of any political ideology that is closed to any alternative interpretation of reality.

But the ego is destined to dissolve, and all its ossified structures, whether they be religious or other institutions, corporations, or governments, will disintegrate from within, no matter how deeply entrenched they appear to be. The most rigid structures, the most impervious to change, will collapse first. This has already happened in the case of Soviet Communism. How deeply entrenched, how solid and monolithic it appeared, and yet within a few years, it disintegrated from within. No one foresaw this. All were taken by surprise. There are many more such surprises in store for us.

Editorial comment: Eckhart Tolle’s statement is significant, I believe, because it provides an interpretive framework or context within which to understand current events within the Roman Catholic Church. We are at an unprecedented moment in Western history in which the formal institutional forms of religion are losing their accustomed authority and increasing numbers of sincere spiritual seekers are searching for spiritual sustenance outside the institutional forms – and finding it! The church will certainly ‘survive’ in one form or another and will weather this crisis, but it will be profoundly transformed by this tectonic cultural and spiritual shift currently underway. One cannot go back  two hundred years or four hundred or six hundred for precedents of similar crises which the church has managed to survive. One must go back to the very origins of Christianity and the crisis that propelled it from being a minority Jewish sect into a worldwide universal religion open to all for an example of a comparable paradigm shift of similar magnitude. St. Bonaventure may have been ‘right’ for his day, the church and the community of believers were simply not yet ready for the implementation of Joachim of Fiore’s radical vision. But times have changed more radically than he could have anticipated, making Joachim of Fiore’s visions seem prescient indeed. And John McNeill joins the company of grand prophets who are pointing the way forward for all of us.

Addendum: This just in from National Survivor Advocates Coalition (NSAC) News (thanks to William Lindsey at Bilgrimage for the link to this at Voice from the Desert Blog)

Received from A. W. Richard Sipe

Pope Benedict XVI is a good man. He has served the Church long and well. It takes nothing away from his goodness to suggest that he should resign his office. Nine of his predecessors have resigned, most for the good of the Church. The clerical sex abuse crisis that now exposes a corrupt pattern and practice of a system has escaped and confused many good, brilliant people and left generations paralyzed. There is no need to point fingers.

However, the Roman Catholic Church is in a period of Reformation as profound (and breathtaking) as any its history has ever recorded. The voluntary resignation of Pope Benedict XVI would be a gesture that would match the epic challenge that faces Catholicism today. Such leadership would break the pattern and practice that holds the church hostage to a past that no longer serves the Christian message. The monarchy that rules the church has outlived its service in the evangelization of peoples, an evangelization that Paul the apostle taught and that Pope John Paul II championed. The People of God, hierarchy included, are shackled by a secret system designed to control rather than free them.

The Unfortunate Death of Pope Paul II

I’ve been reading Martin Duberman’s anthology, “Hidden From History“, and in particular James Saslow on Homosexuality in the Renaissance. One of Saslow’s key points is that at this time, men who had sex with men were not exclusive – in modern terms, they w0uld more likely be described as “bisexual”. In a passage about how the rich and powerful freely made sexual use of their subordinates, I came across this throwaway reference:

Similar patterns prevailed among the clergy and educated humanists. Charges against Paul II and Julius II centred around their seduction of much younger men; Cellini’s autobiography records a beautiful and talented youth, Luigi Pulci, who made a career out of service to Roman bishops.

Now, I knew about Julius II  – and for that matter, Julius III – but this was the first sexual gossip I have come across concerning Paul II, so I explored further.  This is what I found: it seems he died while being sodomized by  a page boy.

Paul II died, on July 26, 1471 of a stroke, allegedly whilst being sodomized by a page boy. Continue reading

St Walpurga, Abbess

National Catholic Reporter reminds us today that it is the feast of the early English saint, Walburga, who entered the abbey of Wimbourne aged just eleven, then as a young sister was sent to accompany her uncle St Boniface to Germany, where they founded the “double monastery” of Heidenheim.

Read the full report , “Feb 25th, St Walburga, Missionary, Abbess,” at National Catholic Reporter. As you do so, pay close attention:  the text reminds us of so much that we have forgotten about the real history of women in the Church. Continue reading

Mary MacKillon: Aussie Saint and Troublemaker.

Australia is celebrating its first saint: Sister Mary MacKillon, a 19th-century nun who founded a religious order which ran schools and orphanages and clinics, is to be canonized on October 17th.

A Painting of Sr Mary MacKinllop, now in the Vatican museum

From The Independent:

Born in Melbourne to poor Scottish immigrants in 1842, MacKillop opened the first St Joseph’s School in a disused stable in the town of Penola, in South Australia. She died in 1909 and passed the first stage to sainthood in 1995 when she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

A teacher and social reformer, MacKillop founded a religious order at 24, and by the time of her death led 750 nuns who ran 117 schools, as well as orphanages, clinics and refuges for the needy. The work of her order, the Sisters of St Joseph, now extends to Thailand, Brazil, Peru and Uganda.

In Australia,Prime Minister Kevin Rudd  said

She was a pioneering woman who dedicated her life to working for the “homeless, the destitute and the marginalised. In a time when many children grew up in poverty and had little chance of gaining access to a decent education, Mary MacKillop changed the course of many young Australians lives

(Sydney Morning Herald).

What I like about her, is her clear rebellious streak, which for a while got her into serious trouble with the Church authorities. Continue reading

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)