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 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)


The Restorationist Moment: Collusion of the Catholic Religious and Political Right

The Traditional Latin Mass

In what I post today, I want to respond to some valuable observations from my colleague and fellow blogger Colleen Kochivar-Baker.  On February 26 last year, Colleen posted a comment on my Bilgrimage blog that started me thinking about a shift that took place in Catholic colleges and universities during the previous papacy and has continued under Benedict XVI.  In some significant ways, this present posting builds as well on the discussion that followed my recent Open Tabernacle postings about Edward Schillebeeckx, whose theology significantly influenced the Second Vatican Council.

In that posting, I noted a catechetical shift that occurred as a result of the council, in which less stress was placed on rote memorization of dogmatic and moral formulas and more stress was placed on internalizing theological insights and ethical values, as well as on the role of conscience and discernment in the Christian life.  The discussion that followed my first posting about Schillebeeckx’s theology focused on this catechetical shift, and its implications for how Catholics are educated in their faith. Continue reading

“The father who was milked”: A gender-rich Trinity from the 2nd century.

Sometimes, I come across an idea or image that is so remarkable, so fresh and new (to me) that it just has to be shared. This one is hardly new (it dates back to the late second century), but it is startlingly fresh, remarkable and new – to me.

Wall painting from a Syrian house church, showing the healing of the paralysed man.

I have been researching a number of themes from the history of the early church. While reading Ivor Davidson’s “The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine AD 30 -312”, I came across a passage which had nothing to do with the subject(s) I was investigating, but which I want to spread.

The context is a Chapter on Christian worship. After some discussion of the regular practice of community Eucharist on Sunday morning and Agape (“love feast”) on Sunday evening, he goes on to discuss the practice of regular fasting, prayer and praise. Services of “praise” incorporated psalms and hymns of praise into other Bible readings, as in the Divine Office. Davidson then goes on to refer to a less familiar from of praise for worship, lost for centuries and rediscovered in the beginning of the 20 th Century. Originating in the church of Easter Syria, these are Gnostic in flavour, but probably orthodox in origin. The extract quoted, from Ode 19, introduces an exaltation on the original conception. Davidson says the odes contain some “striking” language. The imagery of the Trinity as presented here, in its description of the conception of the Son, is not just “striking”: it slams one across the face with a force sufficient to shake up one’s brain, and with it all preconceived ideas of Trinity, and also of God and gender.

I present it here without comment: see what you think: Continue reading

The Bishops of Rome

(Originally published at Queering the Church onNovemebr 27, 2009)

Whenever I look at the institutional Catholic church, as represented by the Vatican establishment and local bishops around he world, at its centralised, totalitarian power structures, its despotic control of speech, and self-selecting methods of appointment and promotion, its wealth, flamboyance and ceremonial, I wonder how the small band of early Christians, so utterly different in culture, ethos and practice, could ever have developed into what we know today as the Roman Catholic church?

“All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the temple, and they had their meal together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts.”

-Acts 2: 44-46

This passage is well known, and clearly refers to a small group of people sharing possessions, as is feasible when a small group share strong beliefs. But what happened later? How did the sharing of possessions extend to the trickier issue of decision-taking? Later in Acts, we read, in connection with the journey of Paul & Barnabas to Antioch:

“Then the apostles and the elders, together with the whole church, decided to choose some men from the whole church and send them to Antioch with Paul & Barnabas.”

-Acts 15:22

Continue reading

“Welcome, Pope Benedict, To Prague”

(Originally written by our Prague-based team member, Jayden Cameron at The Gay Mystic, on the occasion of Pope Benedict’s visit to that city.)

Catholic Martyr to reform and the father of the Czech nation, Jan Hus, being burnt at the stake, July 16, 1415

Before setting out this morning for the Church of Our Lady of Victories to welcome dear Pope Benedict, I will first walk over to Old Town Square, to lay a blood red rose at the statue of Jan Hus, the saintly reformer who died for many of the same issues of reform we are struggling for today some 600 years later. My apologies if this seems wearily familiar and even a little depressing, but somehow the memory of Hus fills me with peace and joy. After all, in the eyes of eternity, 600 years is less than an eye blink. I feel that Saint Jan is with us today as we welcome another representative of Petrus at the head of a church still struggling with the same issues which brought Hus to the stake in 1415. At the moment of his death, he was denied a confessor because it was deemed improper for a heretic to receive the sacraments (sound familiar?). Benedict, as a German, will no doubt be well aware of the fact that the Hussite movement of reform was one of the defining elements in the rising sense of nationalism among the Czech people, many of whom resented the German domination of greater Bohemia.

The doctors of the university required from Hus and his adherents an approval of their conception of the Church, according to which the Pope is the head, the Cardinals are the body of the Church, and all regulations of the Church must be obeyed.

Hus protested vigorously against this conception since it made the Pope and cardinals solely the Church. Nevertheless, the Hussite party seems to have made a great effort toward reconciliation. To the article that the Roman Church must be obeyed, they added only “so far as every pious Christian is bound.”

In explaining the plight of the average Christian in Bohemia, Hus wrote, “One pays for confession, for mass, for the sacrament, for indulgences, for churching a woman, for a blessing, for burials, for funeral services and prayers. The very last penny which an old woman has hidden in her bundle for fear of thieves or robbery will not be saved. The villainous priest will grab it.”

At the place of execution he knelt down, spread out his hands, and prayed aloud. Some of the people asked that a confessor should be given him, but one priest exclaimed that a heretic should neither be heard nor given a confessor. The executioners undressed Hus and tied his hands behind his back with ropes, and his neck with a chain to a stake around which wood and straw had been piled up so that it covered him to the neck.

At the last moment, the imperial marshal, Von Pappenheim, in the presence of the Count Palatine, asked him to recant and thus save his own life, but Hus declined with the words “God is my witness that I have never taught that of which I have by false witnesses been accused. In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, I will die today with gladness.” He was then burnt at the stake.

Dying prophecy
Hus’ last words as he was being tied to the stake were that, “in a hundred years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform can not be suppressed.” Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses of Contention to a church door in Wittenberg 102 years later.[3

The Czechs, who in his lifetime had loved Hus as their prophet and apostle, now adore him as their saint and martyr, a national hero.
(taken from Wikipedia)

Two hundred hears later, at the battle of White Mountain, the independent ‘Protestant’ Czech nation was decisively crushed by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor and the Catholic League, and Roman Catholic culture was re-imposed by force on the Czech lands. The Jesuits entered the city of Prague en mass and engaged in a massive building campaign which made Prague one of the most ‘churched’ cities in Europe, surpassed only by Rome for the number of churches per square mile.

As one looks over the skyline of the Old City, the evidence of this imposition is clear to see, giving the false impression of a very pious, religious city. But to the Czechs these steeples are simply a reminder of the profound humiliation of the Battle of Bila Hora when the Czech lands came under the domination of an imperial power that imposed it’s religious ideology through force.

If you think this is just a bit of dry history, think again. The impact of this profound humiliation for the Czech peoples is written in blood in the stones of this melancholic city and accounts in large measure for the supposed ‘atheism’ of the Czech peoples. In fact, the Czechs find their spiritual sustenance in nature and their salvation in music, and keep themselves far removed from religious ideologies.

When Pope Benedict steps inside the Church of Our Lady of Victories this morning, he will be entering a church first built by the Lutherns in 1613 and dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity. After the Battle of White Mountain, when most Lutherans were driven out of the city, the church was handed over to the Carmelites who re-dedicated it (ironically) to Our Lady of Victory.

Pope John Paul II, in a moment of genuine magnanimity in 1999, apologized for the cruel treatment meted out to Jan Hus and asked that an inquiry be opened into the possibility of removing the charge of heresy. I would go further and say the cause for his future canonization must begin.

Welcome to Prague, Pope Benedict, and may the spirit of Jan Hus inspire you.

(See also Jayden’s follow-up a few days later, “ Benedict XVI confronts the ghost of Jan Hus“)