Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Black Legends and the Light of the World

The War of Words with the Incarnate Word

(Remnant Press, 2011)

[Paperback version available from publisher.]
“Christ said ‘I am the Truth’. He did not say, ‘I am custom’.”

-Pope St. Gregory VII, citing Tertullian

There are times when an elevated spirit is a true infirmity. No one understands it. It even passes for a kind of mental limitation.”

-Chateaubriand, Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe

Now battle had to be joined, and therefore men were needed to restore a new order, and new theologians as well, to whom the evil was manifest from its outward phenomena down to its most subtle roots; then the time would come for the first stroke of the consecrated sword, piercing the darkness like a lightning flash. For this reason individuals had the duty of living in alliance with others, gathering the treasure of a new rule of law. But the alliance had to be stronger than before, and they more conscious of it.”

-Ernst Jünger, Auf den Marmorklippen, XX

With many thanks to my father, mother, and sister, Mrs. Carol Palmieri, for their constant encouragement; to Linda and John Cuff for the initial inspiration for this work; to Christopher Ferrara and Michael Matt for intellectual support; to Richard Dunn and George Sanseverino for financial aid; to Jeanne Barrett for editorial assistance; to Pasticceria Rocco in New York City for a congenial working environment; and to all the friends of the Roman Forum, from New York to Gardone Riviera and Estonia, for their love of the Incarnate Word---the Light of the World---and their Catholic pilgrim spirit.

Table of Contents


On Weaponry and Terrain

Chapter One

First Blood

Chapter Two

The Attack of the Word

Chapter Three

The Turbulent Battle for a Christian Imperial Order

Chapter Four

The New Ascent of Mount Tabor

Chapter Five

Counterattack and Resistance on the Cheap

Chapter Six

The War of All Against All or the Peace of the Reinvigorated Word

Chapter Seven

The Global Battle for Nature: Modern Naturalism

and the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo

Chapter Eight

The Naturalist Revolution, the Implosion of the GCSQ,

and the Troubled Beginnings of the Ninth Crusade

Chapter Nine

The Ninth Crusade: Retrenchment and Renewed Assault

Chapter Ten

Firestorm in the Kingdom of the Word

Chapter Eleven

When the Salt Loses its Savor:

Mindless Rout and Voluntary Enslavement to the Words


My End is My Beginning


On Weaponry and Historical Terrain

A. A War Between “Words” and “the Word”

The following pages offer a number of reflections on ecclesiastical history, based upon lectures given for the Roman Forum’s Summer Symposium at Lake Garda in Italy between 1993 and 2011. Although these meditations do, at times, focus upon rather specific events in the two millennia long life of the Church, they nevertheless do not represent an academic presentation of the Christian record and its theological underpinnings as such. Instead, their purpose is to provide the interested layman with a general, readable, thematic and bibliographic guide through a mass of otherwise daunting historical data. This guide is intended to inculcate the message that the essential issues, fundamental difficulties, and precise details of Catholic History can only properly be grasped with reference to the irrepressible, unending, and ever more global war that the genesis, birth, and growth of the Catholic Faith have everywhere provoked.

What, exactly, is the nature of this war? Several giants of nineteenth century Catholic apologetics offered the clearest description of it. They argued that the struggle in question was a conflict waged over acceptance or rejection of the fullness of the Way, the Truth, and the Life brought into the world through the Incarnation of the Eternal Word: the only truly “new” and “different” event that has ever really taken place in the history of mankind. This clash, they added, was rendered inevitable, permanent, and monumental due to the existence of the Mystical Body of Christ—the Church—as the visible, organized, active continuation of the Incarnate Word and His teaching through the ages. And that struggle, they concluded, was intensified still further given that the Church more and more became a powerful, effective, rage-provoking “sign of contradiction” not simply to the opponents of Christian Truth, but to the enemies of each and every kind of Truth—rational, scientific, and aesthetic truth included.

Basic Church power and effectiveness come from the fact that fully awakened and practicing Catholics understand their need to struggle for individual salvation through her living, authoritative reality. But the actualization of the Church’s provocative potential in the natural realm has varied greatly over time in proportion to the seriousness of her commitment to two goals of the Incarnate Word possessing immediate, practical, historical and sociological importance.

The first of these aims is the correction of sinful men and the flawed natural order in which social beings of flesh and blood must live and work out their salvation. Despite its supernatural foundations, such a project has precise contours and can even be spelled out in transparent legal language. The second aim, on the other hand, is much more difficult to capture in limited human terms. It is centered round a spiritual reorientation of both man and nature to the exalted task of giving glory to the God who created them; to a renovation of the entirety of Creation; to a transformation of all things in Christ. Exactly what this means entails a complex learning process that has unfolded over time, and has only done so in union with individual and social progress in sanctification.

Whenever the Church takes her examination of and commitment to the full significance of the Incarnation of the Word seriously, she more vigorously proclaims the fact that her Christ-centered Faith, which is undeniably focused primarily on the work of individual salvation, nevertheless must also inevitably toil to perfect the whole of the created universe. The fully conscious Bride of Christ sees and exuberantly rejoices in the truth that Catholicism cannot help but mobilize all the diverse riches of the cosmos and place them at the service of distinct persons; that, in doing so, it enables human beings to obtain everything that life offers temporally, upon the earth, to the greatest degree that its mortal, dependent character permits; and that in transforming the incomplete and subordinate natural order, it actually sharpens the individual man’s yearning for God, thereby providing him with further tools to labor more vigorously for a complete and eternal life with the Trinity in Heaven.

An increased celebration of the treasures of the Catholic path to perfection is necessarily accompanied by a much more firm repudiation of any determinedly anti-incarnational, anti-Word message. That kind of teaching, represented most powerfully in modern times by the man-centered naturalism promoted by the Enlightenment and its various interpreters, is understood to cheat and diminish the individual. Naturalism is seen to do so through its acceptance of the earthly status quo, marred by sin, as though it provided a self-evident, common sense, and truly practical guide to life. Such an outlook is recognized as actually putting men to sleep regarding the multiform character and full potential of the universe that God intended human persons to inhabit and enjoy. Closed to correction and transformation in Christ, naturalism—along with all the other anti-incarnational positions taught throughout the ages—is therefore condemnable not only for blocking men from that fruitful temporal use of Creation which acutely sharpens their desire for eternal life. It is also reproachable for encouraging the individual to embrace earthly “goods” which unfailingly turn out to be peripheral, ephemeral, or even utterly meaningless and repulsive shadows.

A sleeping, inactive Church is already an irritant to the supporters of the natural status quo. After all, even such a half-dead body still suggests the possibility of an alternative to the guidelines for human existence that they wish to remain totally unquestioned. On the other hand, a fully awakened, militant Church; a Church stirred by a proper ecclesiology to a complete consciousness of her character and mission, is a truly much more threatening phenomenon. Defenders of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” must inevitably view her as launching an intolerable assault on the good life as they conceive it. It is therefore logical that they feel the call to meet an active Catholic challenge in one of two ways: either by unleashing a total war to eradicate what is perceived to be an intrusive and unnatural monster, or, failing to break her back directly, to deconstruct, subvert, and radically dilute the Church’s depraved historical and sociological influence. Hence, that perennial conflict carrying us from the time of Christ until the present; from the sophists of the later Roman Empire to the personalists, pluralists, neoconservatives, and libertarians of our own era, whose basically unchanging battle plan and weaponry must now be addressed.

B. Word Games

Mars has not been friendly to the Church and to Catholics in their struggles on behalf of the cause of the Word in recent centuries. All the strong points on the battlefields of this endless conflict seem to lie in the hands of their well-outfitted opponents. The enemy’s overwhelming strategic advantage can be explained with reference to two points: the character of the arms that he carries into the fray, and the unwillingness of believing Catholics both to open their eyes to the weaknesses in their own line of defense, as well as to employ the most powerful weapons at their disposal on the terrain most suitable to gaining them a victory.

The best of the arms shouldered by the anti-Word enemy are not always the ones that directly draw blood. For, potent as the swords and guns aimed against the Church throughout the ages have admittedly been, such weapons generally pale in long-term effectiveness next to the damage that has been inflicted through written and spoken words. I am referring here to the words eventually shaped by gifted enemy rhetoricians into two related types of myth: “black legends” designed to ridicule the Mystical Body and Catholic efforts to correct and transform the world in Christ on the one hand, and alternative “good stories” mimicking the language of the Faith, while stripping it of all substantive Christian meaning, on the other. So important is the broad role of these black legends and substitute narratives in the imposing array of forces battling the Faith through the centuries that the entire clash of the opponents and supporters of Catholic Christianity can legitimately be discussed as this book treats it: as a war between “words” and “the Word”. Let us briefly examine both types of myths in turn.

Strictly speaking, the term “Black Legend” refers to the complex of yarns invented in sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch, English, and German circles to defame Catholicism in general, but the Spanish Habsburgs and King Philip II (1556-1598) in particular. However, I am employing it in a much wider sense here, to indicate the entire body of half-mythical tales that has been used throughout the ages to attack the Catholic Faith and Catholic believers. We shall see that this arsenal of rhetorically effective cannon balls already began to be assembled in pre-Christian times, in the midst of the battles of the sophists against the Socratics, when proponents of “nature as is” grasped the threat to the demands of “business as usual” emerging from the philosophical hunt for the deeper meaning—the logos—that lay behind immediate surface appearances. It was augmented, bit-by-bit, even through the seemingly most Christian of centuries. Modern naturalism ultimately filled the rhetorical anti-Catholic arsenal to repletion in the period stretching from the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748 down to the present.

Black legends shaped by talented rhetorical artisans playing critical word games have marched into battle against the message of the Incarnate Word from crisis to crisis and from age to age throughout the history of Christianity, with no final settlement of their quarrel ever being reached. Even at the apparent nadir of their anti-Catholic fortunes, the black legends have always maintained a basic strength and potential for vigorous counterattack. Unfortunately, their periodic successes in the past, and their continuous and ever more widespread victories in contemporary naturalist times, are to a large degree due to the very credibility the distortions that they perpetrate seem to possess. And this credibility, in turn, owes much to the extremely clever manner in which the black legends are presented: majestic in vision, while starkly simple, popular, and often quite vulgar in form. Although we shall have manifold opportunities to illustrate these effective characteristics in the chapters immediately to follow, a full explanation of the structure and scope of the black legends as I am defining them must await the complete formation of the anti-Catholic camp by the first third of the twentieth century.

Less needs to be said about the “word merchandising” involved in the creation of good stories, even though these have frequently proven to be much more seductive and effective than openly hostile black legends. Whichever type may have the final edge in their anti-Catholic competition, the two certainly grew in tandem, with the former generally emerging out of the work of the very men responsible for the latter. For hatred of the substantive teaching of the Christian Faith, followed by bitter admission of the reality of its success in establishing a hold over large and varied populations, caused a number of the supporters of black legends to retreat from an apparently losing strategy of open opposition to Catholicism to another approach that was much more subtle. And it was precisely this change of tactic that dictated an assault on the religion of Christ by means of its “deconstruction” and replacement with “friendly” alternative interpretations that could be of danger to no one dedicated to a continued life of “business as usual” in the service of “nature as is”.

C. A Self-Destructive Catholic Disdain of History

Rather than entering into a premature discussion of the brilliance of the black legends and alternative good stories at this juncture, it is much more fruitful for us first to examine an infinitely more distressing reason for the successes enjoyed by the rhetoricians inventing them: the Catholic contribution to their triumph. The very many factors entering into this strange assistance that believers give to their enemies’ cause will be explored in the following chapters—all of them dedicated to uncovering the complexity of the Truth needed to correct the picture painted by what is an often understandable, clever, but, in the final analysis, painfully unsatisfying reductionism. For the moment, I should like to discuss the suicidal aid given by many of the faithful to the victory of the reign of myth with reference to their stubborn and self-destructive disdain of Church History.

Admittedly, disregard for the past is a widespread modern disease, especially in countries that pride themselves on their “newness”, like the United States. This modern malady has badly infected the large number of believing Catholics who treat a serious study of anything other than the Church’s past devotional life as something positively frightening; even intrinsically dangerous as well. Rather than viewing the complete record of a Faith necessarily grounded in history as a jewel-box filled with invaluable treasures, many believers—Catholic academics included—often build a thick wall between themselves and a thorough consultation of their own religious tradition. Construction of this wall has had disastrous repercussions on their ability effectively to fend off the assaults of the black legends and alternative good stories. It is a wall to which militant Catholics committed to the full message of the Incarnation can come only to wail over the loss of the memory of past glories.

This is not to say that such disdain arose from nowhere. Catholic nervousness regarding history is partly due to terror over the potential side effects of exposure both to the sheer volume of historical data chronicling human errors and stupidities, as well as to the seemingly endlessly insane reactions to them from age to age. For many people, all that this historical data appears to do is to offer infinite nuances and caveats unacceptably diverting minds away from the clear supernatural truths taught by the Eternal Word active in time. Moreover, the complex historical record also seems capable of creating a sense of existential pointlessness, depicting life as a peculiar Hegelian dialectic of twisted theses, antitheses, and syntheses, with no sure exit from its dead end of false alternatives ever visible on the horizon. If nothing else, a visit to Data Mountain can look like an enormous waste of time better spent on the study of pure theology. Why—to take but one commonly expressed conservative American Catholic complaint—bother to rummage through the biographies and developing ideas of the Fathers of the Church, whose path to truth was filled with the inevitable potholes accompanying all such groundbreaking work? Are not the polished dogmatic treatises of the greatest medieval scholastics—men who inherited all of the Fathers’ achievements, but purged them of their errors—immeasurably superior and sufficient unto themselves?

Then, again, many believing Catholics have also turned against history because of the influence of historicism. Historicism can be attacked on similar grounds as data mongering, for its unacceptable introduction of the principles of flux and changeability into our appreciation of the unchanging God and His purposeful Providence. It naturalizes and perverts all theological and philosophical efforts to reach the unquestionable, bedrock meaning of life, and in a much more open fashion than mere data grubbing. Why, therefore—so the impassioned believer’s argument often goes—open an examination into something as sacred as the development of the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist? Historicists would only use such a study to feed the impression that the doctrine of the Real Presence emerged through a natural evolutionary process rather than from a meditation upon a direct and eternal revelation of the God-Man.

It is not my purpose to downplay all the potential perils of my own discipline. Historical data-peddlers who calmly bark out their giddy catalogues of pointless human follies, oblivious to the deep feeling of futility and ultimate absurdity this anecdotal chatter may evoke in their hearers, do indeed exist. I am myself quite conscious of a personal professional temptation to indulge in blithe, data-rich recitations of the errors, sins, and madness of clergy and laity which do not in the slightest disturb my cocktail hour, much less my Faith, even as they send some of my historophobe Catholic comrades straight into the nearest alleyway to slit their wrists. Also, there is simply no denying history’s ability to indulge that modern penchant for wasting attention on petty detail that swallows up all time for devotion to more noble tasks. And, finally, the fear of a very real, very seductive, naturalist, Faith-killing historicism is no idle one indeed.

Nevertheless, Catholic suspicion of history has to be quieted through acceptance of the simple fact that life affects different people in different ways. Those men and women who experience real perils to their souls when exposed to intoxicating spirits, films, or novels should certainly be encouraged in their desire to avoid them. Similarly, it may honestly be the case that the spiritual well being of some Catholics actually does compel them to headlong flight from all prolonged contact with data-rich historical accounts of the truth and development of the Faith in time that they find disturbing. But palpably negative as exposure to history can sometimes be, I still insist that it reflects a spiritual problem that affects individuals. It is not an existential dilemma that can be turned into a universal guideline for eliminating history from the education of the Catholic faithful—as it is so excised in a number of contemporary conservative religious curricula—especially when the instruction of the Catholic clergy and lay Catholic activists is at stake.

And what, exactly, is there for believers to fear in the annals of mankind? Yes, history does reveal man’s seemingly endless record of comical and tragic disaster; his failure to harmonize his actions with his stated aspirations. But why should Catholics, of all people, fear exposure to a chronicle of dysfunctional behavior? A record of failures should simply confirm, drive home, and draw out for them the consequences of some of the Church’s central dogmatic teachings: that individuals are unique; that they all possess a free will which prevents their being approached as mechanically predictable automatons; that their actions may be conservative or innovative, good or bad, logical or illogical, rigidly consistent or highly contradictory; that their reactions to fresh and often disturbing developments can be as flawed and unpredictable as the decisions that brought these developments on; that “stuff happens” in history and has to be confronted with both courage and a great deal of humor if one is successfully to tackle new and changing conditions in the temporal realm.

Moreover, believers ought to be perfectly conscious of the fact that no given individual Catholic’s path through life can be fully and accurately understood or foreseen through abstract, rational, and scientific studies of theology, philosophy, and the laws of nature alone. They should thus not be surprised to discover that the day-to-day effort of imperfect Catholics to understand how the perfect God works in time has never been totally devoid of ambiguity or scientifically complete. Neither should they marvel over stumbles and fruitless detours in Catholics’ attempts to relate their understanding of God and His Providence to familiar as well as to changing historical circumstances, nor their application of these judgments to daily decisions crucial to their own personal lives.

Besides, believers’ acceptance of the reality of human freedom and the ever-attendant possibility of sin should readily prepare them for making the acquaintance of an ample number of individual members of an otherwise divine institution who publicly confess their commitment to Catholicism while ignoring its practical consequences and engaging in precisely the sort of immoral behavior condemned regularly by it. Scripture itself indicates that these sinners can include quite significant individuals, the Apostles themselves among them. That alone should steel the faithful for discovering many other Catholic reprobates, some holding positions of importance inside the Church and even dominating her affairs over long stretches of her history.

Similarly, the faithful should in no way be stunned that the broad effects of the Fall have produced even well-intentioned Catholics who have been seduced into intellectual errors and practical behavior of breathtaking self-destructiveness. For they must know that in a world weakened by sin, nothing infallibly assures the choice of men of wisdom, courage, and prudence to wield authority within the Body of Christ. Nothing mandates that a Church leader will have the intelligence and energy to use his Faith and Reason to deal effectively with fresh temporal dilemmas in sensible and well-considered policies, or, for that matter, that he will teach and act in any serious manner at all. In fact, nothing ensures that popes, bishops, priests, and their flocks, through ignorance, laziness, and spiritual weakness will not be tempted to believe the most blatant distortions of alternative good stories, conclude that their false recipes for the Christian life are reconcilable with and beneficial to the cause of their supernatural Faith, and act accordingly.

Finally, believers confronting the ecclesiastical record should expect many instances of confusion and madness if for no other reason than the immense complexity of raising natural “spaces” and institutions to fulfillment of their mission in Christ. After all, this difficult work, essential as it is to facilitating the individual’s spiritual journey, nevertheless lies precisely in his own weak and sinful hands. Understanding exactly how to accomplish such an exalted labor has to entail a great deal of painful sifting, judging, and practical maneuvering. This, in turn, requires the calming of numerous negative spiritual instincts and intellectual judgments shaped by previous experiences with an as yet unrepentant and unreformed nature. It also risks offending personal, deeply ingrained, individual sensibilities. More importantly still, it demands the courage to confront many vested and overwhelmingly powerful worldly interests that can inflict immediate and intense bodily harm upon anyone threatening them.

Transforming nature in Christ thus calls for a realistic understanding of existing secular conditions, along with an appreciation of what the outside world actually ought to be and could be through changes effected by the alliance of faith, grace, and reason. Such a two-pronged understanding is not easy to gain and translate into mechanisms for change under the best of circumstances or even under the guidance of the greatest of the saints. When sought out by weak, ignorant, foolish, or hypocritical sinners—that is to say, basically all of mankind—it would be surprising were it not regularly misconstrued and thrown into the greatest chaos and contradiction. If the difficulties of thinking about and living the Drama of Truth as presented by the deepest of ancient pagan thinkers were already formidable enough, how much more would this then have to be the case when their character and the stakes involved were highlighted in Christian terms? In sum, no believer should be shocked to find Catholic History replete with perhaps the most extraordinarily tragic and comic figures of all. For any fall from the vision of the transfigured life of Christ as seen by the Apostles on Mount Tabor must inevitably be more horrible or ridiculous than those from the heights of human aspiration identified even by the finest of Greek dramatists and Socratics. All this should be obvious. If so, then history, where is thy sting?

Be that as it may, whatever the evils and confusions that Catholic History may uncover, the failure to plumb its depths is deadly. It amounts to a voluntary and unilateral disarmament, leaving believers with only crippled arms to deploy against the supporters of “nature as is”. Why? Because without consulting the historical record the seductions of the alternative good stories, the lies of the black legends, and the real message of the Incarnation can never be completely and accurately illuminated. In shutting their eyes to the full teaching handed down to them from the past, believers indulge their own parochial limitations, focusing on second-class problems and weak apologetics that actually ignore Catholicism’s true nature and strengths. Meanwhile, they parry assaults of their enemies that ought not to concern them, neglect their substantive follies and contradictions, and give their foes a semblance of superiority that they do not in any way deserve.

Yes, once again, breaking down the iron curtain between Catholics and their inevitably troubled history does mean confronting crimes and shortcomings that have helped mightily to give the black legends just that sufficient tinge of verisimilitude to survive and prosper. But this is absolutely necessary in order to understand three much more important truths: first of all, that one is, precisely, speaking here of “crimes and shortcomings”, owed to the failure of believers to grasp and implement the full Catholic vision, rather than adherence to its precepts; secondly, that such real crimes and shortcomings are regularly the product of Catholic acceptance of alternative “good stories” that distort both Faith and behavior, and actually reflect the kind of world that the proponents of the black legends long desperately to create; and, finally, that the historical record, even at the nadir of Catholic fortunes, everywhere offers hopes and guidelines for regaining the sure path to union with the Word active in time.

A serious study of Church History must necessarily identify shortcomings and crimes for what they are, through the simple expedient of directing the believer to all the sources of Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching and practice. Such an investigation propels him to a consideration of Scripture, councils, papal pronouncements, the work of the Fathers, and similar founts of full orthodox enlightenment. It points him towards the stuff of what is referred to as positive theology. And it is positive theology that provides the nutritious food guaranteeing speculative, systematic theology protection from mythmaking or pontificating in thin air. Examination of Catholic History thus directs the faithful to a careful reading of the complete record of all of the Church’s positive thoughts and actions through the centuries—our chief means of learning how Christ works in time. This has the further benefit of demonstrating what has and has not had substantive pastoral value in spreading Christian Faith and practice. Moreover, examination of the roots and daily chronicle of the Church’s message, structure, and actions shows that there has indeed been a growth in Catholic understanding, defense, and practice of the Way, the Truth and the Life; and that the consequences of that grand intellectual growth translated into the formation of a highly sophisticated Catholic Christendom populated by many great and holy men and women in whom the faithful can take deep and justifiable pride.

A plunge into the unexpurgated fullness of the Church’s past story thus offers one of the most splendid paths for earth-bound souls to open themselves up to the music of the spheres and judge what is and is not in harmony with it. I am convinced that this is the case, because it performed such a service for me. It was history that indicated to me that I had to look beyond the flux of mere historical experience to the ultimate source and seat of an eternal wisdom that might place the daily ecclesiastical horror show in its proper perspective. It was history that fueled an unexpected longing for deeper instruction in the superior disciplines of philosophy and theology, which at first confused and even repelled me. It was history that unwrapped for me the priceless gift that Christianity offers: a life-and joy-filled, body-and-spirit-exalting phenomenon, testified to by armies of great minds and souls; a Faith that gives the lie to the cheap, parochial, and often scurrilous depiction of Catholicism by men who have no “eyes to see or ears to hear”. Finally, it was history that also identified and denounced to me the impact that the age-old, word merchandising spirit makes: that of a strait jacket seeking to limit or crush the deepest aspirations of the human mind and soul—my own included; that of a permanently effective sleeping pill guaranteeing an existence equivalent to a life-long euthanasia in a toneless universe. In short, history pointed the way far beyond its limited self, and for this I am forever grateful to it. It gave me four goods—history, philosophy, theology, and love of life in general—for the price of one. And all three of these, laboring in tandem, form a mighty battering ram to break down the outwardly impressive house of cards built up by the black legends and alternative good stories to devastate or defuse Catholicism.

It is its work in uncovering the latter fraud that is most significant to my argument at the moment. For confrontation with the full historical record reveals just how frequently clergy and laity have not listened to the music of the spheres, accepting pale, alternative tall tales regarding the Faith in consequence. And acceptance of this mess of pottage, in turn, explains why Catholics have so often appeared to be nothing other than drugged actors in a two thousand year performance of theater of the absurd. Time after time they trot in and out of history to play a role worthy of Ionesco. There they are, again and again, chastising zealous defenders of Christ’s mission as traitors to God; praising purveyors of false but alluring words as the real heroes of the Faith; demanding modifications of Christian thought to accommodate the demands of their deadly opponents; pursuing policies which are detrimental to the short and long-term profit of the Church, nature as a whole, and the individual in particular. Devastating as it is to admit, there are some points in their history when so many Catholics have given such credence to erroneous good stories that little further reason for the successes of their enemies need be provided. The tragic reality of such twisted assistance has played its part in rendering the war between “words” and “the Word” the highly baffling conflict that it often is.

Catholic apologists need to know if they are defending Catholicism or a caricature thereof. A true supporter of the Word Incarnate must be sure that he is getting the substance of a heartfelt obedience to His Savior’s wishes from Catholics he seeks to defend as opposed to a purely pro forma song of praise from their lips. Pointing solely to a man’s recitation of the Creed does not give the loyal soldier of Christ all the information he requires to make a proper judgment regarding past reality. An honest study of history most helps in identifying whether one is dealing with men who were, in practice, exactly what they said they were. My fellow B.A. recipients in 1973 all sang hymns praising the crushing of heresy that, on the surface, made them sound like several hundred manifestations of St. Athanasius. But anyone familiar with their daily history understood that they had no interest in Christian doctrine at all, and that they were belting out their song only because they had been told to do so by the school authorities, who had made singing it with gusto a condition for awarding them their degrees.

Catholics who disdain study of the reality of the vast number of “curveballs” which individual believers have thrown to Church History by their replacement of the fullness of the Faith with a good story emasculating it, allow for the victory of precisely that evil which they claim to fight: the distortion, naturalizing, and minimizing of the effects of supernatural truth and grace operative in time. For unwillingness to probe and expose the many bad, mistaken, and often unpredictable actions that were taken by fallen Catholics in a fallen nature is an open invitation to placing a blessing upon everything that they did as somehow “god-fearing” in character. It is an open invitation blindly to baptize the grotesque use of Christ’s message by either the ignorant or clever strong men, whose illogical or hypocritical hosannas to the Son of God masqueraded their erroneous or self-interested purposes.

What is perhaps most troublesome about neglect of serious investigation of the past crimes, blunders, and intellectual seductions of erring believers is the way that it has blinded many contemporary Catholics to the precise means used by the modern naturalist enemy who dominates their lives today to forge his path into the heart of Christendom. For we shall see that naturalism’s dangerously anti-Word argument to a large degree slithered onto center stage in disguised form, with an especially “nice”, alternative, effective good story, using seemingly faith-filled, nature-friendly language to make its ultimately harmful case. We shall learn in Chapters Seven through Nine just how many beguiled Catholics were lulled by familiar-sounding words into giving their support to a set of naturalist beliefs and practices that actually aimed to destroy the message of the Word. We shall witness how they surrendered the citadels of the Faith to their deadly foes before they had any real sense of what was happening to them. Catholic man cannot live by words alone; by means of a good story that is actually a lie. It is through an historical examination of what naturalism did—and does—in practice, rather than an unquestioning acceptance of the truth of what it blithely says that it does, that its anti-Catholic character and path are most easily revealed and combated.

A study of Church History serves one final purpose: it offers profound hope and thought-provoking guidelines for future recovery from our current spiritual and temporal nightmare. Once he consults the full ecclesiastical record, the startled believer is awakened to the long-lived character of the problem facing Catholicism. He learns how seriously and successfully the supporters of “nature as is” have contested the Christian achievement in every stage of its development. He sees how they have done so in a fashion that has periodically involved Catholic loss of consciousness of the fullness of the Incarnation’s mission to correct and transform man and society in Christ. But most importantly, he encounters innumerable heroes who understood what was truly “practical” from a Catholic standpoint, and how a road back to implementing the full message of the Incarnate Word can effectively be paved.

Allow me once again to stress the fact that the entirety of the historical record is essential to this task of fighting the alternative good stories and the black legends. Failure to investigate all of Catholic History, each and every one of its facets, condemns men to an arbitrarily limited self-defense and rearmament in the fight against the enemies of the Faith. Believers who think that it is sufficient to know the “end result” of Catholic History in 2011 without respecting the contribution made by the faithful in all past ages are infinitely more likely to fall prey to the particular temptations fought off so valiantly by the special efforts of previous bands of Christian warriors. They deny themselves knowledge of what “experts in the field” did or did not do “back then” to parry unique shades of error with which they might not be so familiar in their own time. Should such problems reappear once again to trouble their own life—and this is always a possibility in a world inhabited both by free men as well as artisans of black legends and good stories on the lookout for any “angle” that works—they would thus be sitting ducks for destruction by them.

Believing Catholics who persist in disdaining the value of history have an unfortunate tendency to hunt for protection from the enemies of the Faith behind a wall of well-intentioned, Word-friendly, but rhetorically-bloated good stories of their own. However nice these stories may be, they are in no way rooted in the history of Christ and His Mystical Body: neither in the Gospel narratives, nor in the Acts of the Apostles, nor in the work of the Church Fathers, nor in the hard-won teachings of councils and popes. Such well-intentioned good stories can sound orthodox in a number of ways, such as in their attribution of temporal Catholic victories solely to supernatural interventions or in their linkage of historical defeats to the seemingly superhuman evil of one particular “scapegoat” individual or conspiratorial group. But insofar as these tales are totally untrue, severely flawed, or as marred by false stereotypes as anything their opponents produce, they cannot ultimately shield the Christian front from a sophisticated onslaught launched against it.

In fact, when believers seek protection behind the Maginot Line of their own myths alone, they are sorely tempted to operate by the rules of victorious naturalism as soon as they emerge from the citadel walls to confront “reality”. With little or no knowledge of how Catholics solidly rooted in the truths of the Incarnation should behave and defend themselves in their daily dealings with the natural world, they are no danger to their sworn naturalist enemies. Supporters of an uncorrected “nature as is” can even praise the Christianity that they represent, since, in practice, it is nothing other than the harmless, personal or group sport of a religious fraternity—a Catholic Club, which demands precious little, if anything, of this world in practical terms.

In any case, such behavior explains why one frequently finds firm believers who speak with the voice of a Torquemada while inside their “Catholic clubhouse” yet espouse eighteenth century “common sense” principles once they emerge into the “real world”. And it clarifies why such men can continually make political and economic alliances with individuals and groups who truly mock their substantive corrective and transforming Faith. Less reliance on seemingly orthodox tall tales, and more willingness to consult the historical record, would demonstrate the bitter truth that much of the standard operating procedure of ill-informed believers throughout the ages, the present one included, has, in practice, been dictated by opponents of Catholicism who have been accepted as friends; that this accords badly with true Catholic doctrines; that it seriously promotes only those alternatives to Faith that are praised by the sculptors of the black legends and the good stories; and that, ironically, it then allows the word merchants to criticize the Faith for wrongful actions of the faithful that have little or nothing to do with the message of Christ whatsoever.

Allow me to conclude with a word in favor of certain “good stories”—true ones. Christianity can never wage war versus anything aesthetically pleasing. It needs the beautiful much too much to do so. Men are not creatures of pure intellect, hermetically sealed off from the manifold messages of a world of flesh and blood and the innumerable envelopes in which these can be sent. Catholic man cannot live by syllogisms and dogmatic formulae alone. The Son of God came to redeem, raise, and “divinize” the entirety of nature. Created nature involves human communication, which has an enormous and demonstrable impact on the individual. A talented, aesthetic development of the rational use of words is, in the long run, as natural to man as efforts to perfect his mind, and often much more immediately important. The enmity of the faithful must be directed only against that form of rhetoric which seeks to “close life down”; to put men to sleep regarding a full philosophical and theological understanding of its meaning; to prevent attempts to grasp the True and the Good lying behind the Beautiful; to manipulate words to bury the profound longing of the human soul for definite, eternally-significant knowledge under one, large, oppressive, but golden-tongued wet blanket. A rhetoric used in union with good philosophy and theology is, on the other hand, a weapon of nuclear force. It provides a “good story about a true story”.

This is where history also plays a significant role. The historical profession has been allied with rhetoric since its origins, given its clear concern, from the very outset, for engaging men’s attention to move them to practical action. Sadly, this alliance has meant that history has frequently been abused, serving primarily as a sophistic propaganda tool on behalf of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is”. But when united with good philosophy and theology, a knowledge of history can capture the human imagination and move men to intelligent, informed action in the service of the greatest story ever told. And it is to such a goal that the present work is dedicated, in its effort to demonstrate that many false friends have repeatedly flown the most impeccable Catholic banners while literally getting away with murder, to the detriment of the name of Christ and His Church.

For a Catholic who cannot overcome his distaste for history, a study of the war between “words” and “the Word” may appear to offer nothing more than another near occasion of secularizing, intellectual sin. For an opponent of substantive Christianity shaped by those black legends and alternative good stories whose nefarious influences we shall be attacking, this book may seem to be doomed from the very outset by its dogmatic leitmotif and a presumed temptation to twist historical data to its service. Even the indifferent may be tempted to join in the critical fun, quite accurately noting that the author of a general, reflective history of this kind, whatever his sense of having satisfactorily researched his work, regularly stands in need of corrections provided by experts in specialized fields. Believers, non-believers, and neutral observers alike could well join hands in a one-time display of camaraderie to toss the present tome into the rubbish heap without permitting it the slightest chance to work its magic on them.

I must once again insist that I admit that all the dangers outlined above are real. But my abandonment of this work would entail a renunciation of a much needed depiction of a thematic forest that the trees of the specialist, however true and essential their cultivation undeniably is, often badly obscure. It would also be an indirect admission that recounting the experience of Catholic Christianity’s impact upon my life plays no legitimate role whatsoever in explaining the influence that that Faith has had on human history in general. Finally, abandoning the writing of a general, reflective book of this kind, whose inevitable flaws of detail I shall always be happy to correct, would bring with it an effective acknowledgment that the only writers permitted to interpret Christianity’s significance are those men and women whom I firmly believe to be precisely the ones who have arbitrarily closed themselves off from seriously grasping its real consequences and import. Accepting that thesis would be a morally repugnant decision. So let us allow the words to flow and see if this work, with all its obvious limitations, can nonetheless tell something of a “good story about a true story.”

Chapter 1

First Blood

The dominant forces of the contemporary western world actively stimulate the blithe acceptance of the lessons of immediate sensual and emotional experiences. In varying ways, some open, others disguised, they all insist that voluntary abandonment to the teaching of surface phenomenon, far from being a frivolity, is actually the only realistic approach to existence. Anyone seeking meaning, fulfillment, and joy in life must energetically fight off that temptation to deeper thought and reflection which prevents “closure” and “moving on” to satisfaction of the ever changing and evolving messages of immediate sensation.

Study of the roots of the militant modern preference for the shallow over the profound must begin in the ancient, pagan world. For the conscious encouragement of a spirit favoring “closure” and “moving on” over “stepping back” and “reflecting” is already noticeable in the Classical Greece of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., especially in the eye-opening period of the Peloponnesian War and its dismal aftermath (431-336 B.C.). This is because Greece, as the home of the first insightful discussion of the meaning and practice of education—of paideia, as they called it—inevitably provoked the original open battle between those men primarily valuing the lessons of surface phenomena and others insisting upon the hunt for their underlying and more nuanced truths.1

Epic, lyric, and dramatic poets were the first teachers of Hellas. They sought answers to the basic issues of life by asking aesthetic questions; i.e., queries regarding the meaning of beauty. Aesthetic preoccupations led them to tackle the problem of how best to educate for a knowledge and possession of “the Beautiful”. Their hunt for the tools essential to a primarily aesthetic formation gradually became “holistic”. It slowly uncovered the need for consultation with, and guidance from, a variety of different sources: the individual and his immediate desires, the family and its long-term requirements for stability, and, perhaps most importantly, the demands of the polis, the city-state, in its search for attainment of a common as opposed to a merely individual or familial “beautiful” life.

The reputation of the polis as an aesthetic, educative, guiding force was enormous at the end of the Persian Wars (490-479 B.C.). Athens and Sparta, its two greatest contemporary representatives, had assured their polis’ prestige by winning a victory over the most impressive power in the world—a force before which, in startling contrast, a number of important individuals and purely family-dominated Greek lands had humiliatingly cowered. Such an unexpected but clear triumph made it appear that the community-focused polis could, in effect, accomplish absolutely anything. It was for this reason that Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.), in his Oristeia trilogy, has an unending cycle of superhuman vengeance and counter-vengeance concluded through polis-shaped (i.e., political) judicial action. Beauty, education, and the polis, one might have said; now and forever; one and inseparable.

Unfortunately, however, it was precisely the same cherished polis of Athens and Sparta which revealed insane, self-destructive passions and limitations during and after the Peloponnesian War, thereby stimulating further debate regarding the basic tools required for a proper education designed to gain possession of the beautiful. Control of the renewed dialogue passed out of the hands of the poets alone, who had seemingly said everything that they could possibly say on all sides of this issue of paideia by the time of the plays of Euripides (480-406 B.C.). Greece, even before this moment, had witnessed the emergence of a quite different approach towards education, along the lines suggested by the first philosophers, the so-called pre-Socratics, who wished to replace an aesthetic understanding of man and nature with one founded firmly upon knowledge of the material structure of the universe itself; knowledge of its constituent “scientific” elements. But pre-Socratic approaches to life and education proved to be too radical a break with the traditional aesthetic vision for the mainstream Greek world to accept. They were rejected, in particular, by two schools of thought, both active in the war and post-war period, which were themselves destined to lock horns in mortal combat.

One of these schools was that of the Sophists, men concerned with rhetoric, the successful use of language. Sophists, in effect, argued that the old-line aesthetic approach to hunting for the Beautiful was correct, but that it needed to be organized, taught, and followed much more rigorously if it were to become a sure foundation for the individual, the family, and society. The other school was that of Socrates (469-399 B.C.), who, while also retaining much of the traditional aesthetic approach to education, felt a call to critique, transform, and elevate it. The battle that this entailed was related for us not by Socrates himself but by his most brilliant pupil, Plato (427-347). And Plato reveals the nature of the conflict in his debate with Isocrates (436-338)—perhaps the most self-conscious and instructive proponent of the opposing, sophistic, rhetorical approach.

Plato’s great achievement as a philosopher and as an educator was one of demonstrating that the classical Greek formation of an individual for the possession of the beautiful required an understanding both of the nature of goodness as well as of the underlying truths of the universe for which the pre-Socratics were groping. He presented Socrates, his model teacher, as a “soul doctor”, a man who sought the cure of moral and intellectual flaws in his continued hunt for aesthetic perfection. Education for beauty in the fullest possible sense was indeed a holistic project, Plato insisted, but an exciting and dramatic one, drawing the individual closer and closer to God, the measure of all things, shaping his soul as an image or icon of the divine as he advanced. Every tool that the Greeks had come to consider to be important—the polis included—had a crucial role to play in this all-encompassing, life-long enterprise. Nevertheless, those valuable tools were flawed, each and every one of them. Paradoxically, the means of education themselves required correction and improvement at the hands of the individual “icons” that they helped to shape. Soul doctoring could thus be a perplexing, immensely difficult, exhausting task, involving much meditation and self-questioning. And such an enterprise could not help but appear to be a pointless, frustrating detour to those on a perpetual hunt for “get possession of beauty quick” schemes; those interested in “closure” and “moving on”.

“Pointlessly frustrating” was certainly the criticism attached to Platonic education by Isocrates, who claimed the title of philosopher with as great a sense of justice and fervor as his fellow Athenian did. Still, apt student of the Sophist Gorgias (c. 485-c. 380) that he was, Isocrates understood philosophy to be a wisdom that only the trained rhetorician could possibly grasp and use properly. This inevitably meant that his definition of any Good or Truth underlying the Beautiful would differ considerably from the one given to it by Socratics eager to pass beyond the borders of rhetoric alone.

For Isocrates, there was no question of seriously critiquing, transforming, and possibly even rejecting the immediate emotional and sensual experiences and preoccupations of the ordinary man. Man was the measure of all things, and unquestionably correct in his urgent, common sense appreciation of the importance of obtaining the riches, power, and fame that he obviously knew would yield the beautiful life. The average individual’s sole problem was a technical one: he could not relate one, justifiable, obvious, common sense experience to another, and thereby understand how best to exploit and satisfy them regularly and comprehensively. His efforts to explain his reactions to daily problems, both to himself as well as to others, proved to be “dumb” ones. It was effective words, and the arguments shaped through them, which were lacking to the average man. Only the well trained rhetorician, the master of words, could clarify the full depth of immediate feelings and experiences, show where they were headed, and stir people to do what was necessary to fulfill their promise. The Good and the True were, therefore, ultimately nothing other than “appropriate explanations” of reality, and developments of those obvious and common sense reactions to the raw stuff of daily life that are themselves absolutely infallible guides to the possession of Beauty.

To take but one simple example, the average person might be said to have an eminently justifiable, positive, common sense reaction to the powerful feeling and experience of sexual passion. Nevertheless, without the right words and arguments to explain his “opinions” regarding this formidable force de la nature, he is not able to relate the meaning of his reaction to experience properly; not even to himself. Pragmatic efforts to gain the full promise of sexuality and cause it to work together with other deeply felt experiences about which he has positive “opinions” are even further out of his reach. It is the rhetorician who illuminates Everyman through the use of appropriate and stimulating words, demonstrating the key to sexual understanding and its link with the multitude of other desirable goals.

But how will Everyman know that the rhetorician is “speaking appropriately” about reality? The answer to this question is also an obvious one. For the master rhetorician’s advice will not only “sound right”—clearly, consistently, and self-assuredly responding to the average individual’s personal sense of the obvious truth of his own preoccupations, and where, more or less, those concerns are headed. Beyond that, it will prove itself by being crowned with clear success. Hence, Isocrates’ recognition of his need to underline the simplicity, lucidity, harmony of purpose, confidence, and material achievements of his pupils, while contrasting them with the cranky and ultimately unfathomable detours, self-criticisms, bitter divisions, and practical failures of the Socratics.

Isocrates longed to prove rhetoric’s ability to gain possession of the Beautiful on a grand, world scale. In order for him to find the key to such great success, the philosopher/rhetorician had to begin with the study of the raw experiences and the common sense reaction to them not merely of an individual, but of an entire people, since only a city-state or nation could conceivably become a long-term driving force in global events. The work of Herodotus (484-424), Thucydides (mid-400’s-c. 403), Xenophon (c. 430-c. 355) and others offered guidelines as to how such historical data might be collected. Rhetoricians like Isocrates saw one of their tasks as being that of explaining to a population the appropriate greatness to which its otherwise “dumb” historical experiences were calling it. History thus came very early under rhetorical purview and influence: partly to its profit, since it became more readable, dramatic, and effective, but very often to its severe detriment, by being transformed into a tool of pure propaganda.

From the raw history of his environment, Isocrates claimed to learn a number of important principles: that there actually was a Greek people, united by a shared culture, Hellenism; that the essence of Hellenism was the development of the illuminating, life-giving, and unifying “word”; that the universal value accruing from appropriate use of “the word” gave to a Greece which possessed knowledge of its significance a world-wide cultural mission; and, finally, that this universal vocation had been shown to involve the sea, struggle against Persia, and imperial expansion.

Fulfillment of future Hellenist destiny would require two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it was crucial to maintain a constant respect for the “good old days” of the foundation of the Greek spirit and the institutions giving clout to it. On the other, it was necessary to shape a loyal population obedient to any vigorous strong man who might guide that spirit to the discharge of its contemporary mission. Moreover, the institutions embodying the spirit of the good old days, the strong man giving them clout, and the populations obedient to his fiat were to be stirred to their appropriate political roles through the vital words of the creative rhetorical genius.

But “philosophy”, as defined by Isocrates, can easily constitute a gigantic circle, manipulated by the rhetorician who, through the clever use of appealing words and images, may seize control of the familiar concerns of the average man or State and run with them where he wills. Common sense experience is pronounced the infallible basis for action simply because the experience appealed to is arbitrarily declared “common sense filled” and thus an infallible basis for action. Successful attainment of riches and power is said to prove the appropriateness of the rhetorician’s understanding of the beautiful life and guidance of Everyman to its promise because possession of riches and power is presented as unquestionable, axiomatic proof that beauty has indeed been grasped. Respect for the “good old days”, contemporary strong men, and obedient populations are essential because denial of such esteem to any one of these elements would rip apart the “beautiful” rhetorical image tying together ancient roots with present hopes and future destiny, mass popularity, and elite power. And all those aspects of “the vision” were necessary since experience had proven them essential to the construction of the career of the master of words, whose personal success worked to guarantee the validity of their union.

Absolutely no questioning of “obvious experience”, “common sense”, “success”, the “historic mission”, and the consistency of the tools required for its realization could be contemplated, lest this lead to the unacceptable argument that obvious experience, common sense, success, the historical mission, and its vital tools were themselves somewhat problematic. Isocrates, as Werner Jaeger notes, makes a virtue out of abandoning any deeper investigation of the meaning of life once he has shaped what for him appears to be a rhetorically beautiful “point of view’ with a chance of obtaining a successful outcome. That “point of view”, if attractive and potentially useful, must be accepted as though it were Truth itself.2 With this, the debate is over. Closure has been achieved. One must move on to accomplishment of the Great Promise, or face the wrath of the rhetorician and the outraged nature whose unerring voice he has infallibly proclaimed himself to be.

And the rhetorician is powerful. He knows that his words do have “the ring of truth”. He is sure that he can count on the support of immediately felt, individual, family, or polis-wide “common sense” passions in his call for their immediate satisfaction. He senses the understandable and well-neigh universal fear that acceptance of Socratic self-criticism would paralyze swift action, thus preventing exploitation of favorable opportunities to fulfill desire, thereby causing men to “lose out” on success, perhaps even up to the very moment of death. The rhetorician, with his mastery of words, can paint the profound, life-determining, “either-or” option offered to men by Sophists and Socratics in all of its dramatic colors, though clearly weighted to his advantage. After he has skillfully organized the picture as he wishes, any Socratic who calls the average man to logical, painful soul-searching at the possible expense of satisfying urgent passion becomes a sitting duck for his rhetorical abuse. A Platonic philosopher would all too easily lend himself to the accusation of representing both a crackpot idealism, indifferent to the obvious demands of human nature, as well as a cynical opposition to the successes of “real men”, whom he cannot emulate, bitterly envies, and wishes to destroy in consequence.

Plato was not just a Socratic philosopher but a literary genius in his own right, sensitive to the power of purely rhetorical arguments over the average man, and the need to respond to them “beautifully” to demonstrate their flaws. He did so reply, by depicting the pure rhetorician as an ultimately self-deluding failure. Yes, Plato argued, the Sophist rhetorician was influential. But contrary to his claim that that influence came from his role as a wise man, teaching individuals and states the meaning of the beautiful and how to get possession of it, his impact actually and ironically emerged from something quite different: from his total inability to educate those whom he prided himself upon illuminating. For the “word” spoken by the rhetorician styling himself to be a philosopher could itself never rise above “dumb” opinion, and merely illustrated the trained man’s ability effectively to flatter peoples’ fancies. Rhetoricians possessed what Plato called a “knack” of appealing to a particular appetite, like that of a cook in a fast-food restaurant, ignoring entirely the question of whether they ought to have indulged in such an admittedly successful flattery and knack in the first place.

The successful rhetorician deceives himself into thinking that he is superior to his “wordless” audience, but he is simply more effectively “thick” than it is. His words resemble an overbearing and endlessly repeated rock rhythm in a room filled with impressionable but musically illiterate hedonists. They fail to elevate, just as any tool that uses man rather than God as the measure of all things falls miserably short of its pretensions. Anyone responding to the “either-or” option confronting him by choosing for the rhetorician would, therefore, be voting for eternal mediocrity and blindness. Sadly, precisely due to the rhetorician’s observable knack for maintaining power over the vulgar mob, the pathetic outcome of such a wrong choice could conceivably be hidden from its victims forever. False rhetorical “philosophers” needed only to do two things: 1) enthusiastically to invent ever “new” surface variants on the proven appealing slogans to keep men thinking that fulfillment of the brilliant promise of the Empty Life lay just around the corner; and, 2) constantly to drill into a benumbed population’s mind the fear of the “dead-end” impotence that the Socratic hunt for a more profound goal would ensure.

One of Plato’s painful labors was that of explaining embarrassing instances of this seeming Socratic impotence, with the disasters of his own political missions to Dion in Sicily in 388 and 367 primary among them. Such shipwrecks, he insisted, were not attributable to true philosophy’s innate inability to navigate effectively. Rather, they were simply another confirmation of the difficulty and very infancy of the task that the real lover of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth had set for himself. Yes, he admitted, philosophy needed the aid of rhetoric, of the lesser “word”, to explain itself successfully to a world filled with ambiguous though powerful passions and convince it to change its ways. But that secondary “word” must always be subordinated to a deeper Word—that Logos towards whose ultimate knowledge the talents of the rhetorician should be directed. Alas, at least in Plato’s own day, it had proven to be “hard to find the creator and father of the universe”, and “impossible to describe his nature publicly.”3 Men could not yet be guided properly to the divine imitation that would definitely perfect them and give them possession of the Beautiful. As dilemmas went, this certainly was a killer, and Plato feared that it would remain an unresolved one unless “some God” came to the earth to unravel it.

Faulty or not, the ideas of his opponents did more than those of the Socratics to form that mixed Greek/Middle Eastern/Latin civilization which we call the Hellenistic World. This new reality certainly did demonstrate the literal value of the Greek language, whose superiority in transmitting manifold, complex concepts became universally recognized. It also reflected all of the potential practical consequences of a cosmos shaped by a purely rhetorical “word” alone. For Hellenistic Civilization was one that did indeed work for the “common sense” benefit of those “vigorous strong men” praised by the rhetorician as essential for the fulfillment of its mission. These leaders learned to create and manipulate powerful state machinery for the purpose of keeping the “dumb” mass of the population in obedient submission to their will. Such “doers of great deeds”, from Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) through to the Caesars and the Senatorial Aristocracy of the Roman Empire that worked together with them, were even willing to tolerate satisfaction of certain specific, immediate desires of the multi-cultural, pluralist world over which they ruled, so long as its constituent elements accepted “closure” regarding matters that might disturb what really counted: the personal power, wealth, and fame of the victors. And rhetoricians in abundance gained a decent income justifying the order thus created.4

Rhetoricians were very active from the 300’s B.C. through the 300’s A.D. providing the Hellenistic cosmos, the ecumene, the arguments proving that the debate over who possessed the things that made life beautiful and what those things were was over. They also contributed mightily to efforts to overcome “parochial” religious “superstitions” whose concerns might threaten the status quo. Such integration of divisive elements involved publicizing the need to submit to and adore the divinity of the State apparatus and the self-made men who dominated it. “Closure” had been achieved in the realm of the gods as well as that of men, and the “word” could now “move on” to “get the ordinary job of living done”.

That “word” moved on by devoting itself to legal and civil service careers, and to sickly praise or boring, encyclopedic chronicling of the existing, unchangeable order of things. Manipulators of the “word” thereby shared in any trickle-down benefits that the Divine Masters supposedly serving the Great Visions they rhetorically identified awarded them. They moved on by finding substantial employment producing that esoteric, archaic, and pointless heap of pretty sounds and properly placed commas adulated by exclusivist literary circles. Aside from that, they also moved on by churning out pornographic material for the gross diversions of a rabble ever tempted to accept subordination and abandon true enlightenment for cheap material satiety.

The spiral downward from the more sophisticated “apologetic” writings and literary achievements of earlier Hellenistic regimes to the servile, pedantic, and vulgar oeuvre of much of the powerful and widespread “second wave” of literary Sophism of the second through fourth centuries, A.D. is instructive. Plato, for one, would not have been surprised by the decline, since he had argued that rhetoricians indifferent to true philosophy were destined to a low-class butchering of even their own legitimate art and talent. One need only consult the biographies and stories to be found in Aulius Gellius’ (123-165) Attic Nights, the 2nd Philostratus’ (c. 170-248), Lives of the Sophists, Eunapius’ (346-414) Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists, Diogenes Laertius’ (no later than 200’s) Lives of Eminent Philosophers, and Athenaeus of Naucratis’ (200’s) Doctors at Dinner to test the validity of his hypothesis.5

But what can one say about the Socratic opposition? What about their war with immediate appearances and superficial judgment? Did not the materialist passions of the Hellenistic Monarchies far surpass those of Athens and Sparta at the time of the height of the Peloponnesian War and its aftermath, when Socrates himself had shown that the call to possession of a flawed Beauty could never, in the long run, satisfy either the population or the dominant forces misleading it? Was there not a fraud to be identified and corrected here? Or had some mystery of iniquity done its job, quieting the outrage of the true philosopher?

Alas, philosophy had generally been tamed, adapting itself nicely to the depressing, conformist, “common sense” rules established and rhetorically-justified by a combination of power-worshipping adventurers and Sophists. This was partially due to certain innate weaknesses of the Socratics, as well as subsequent, powerful, related schools of thought like Stoicism. Aristotelians retreated into their cubbyholes of knowledge, working in spheres that did not necessarily have to bring up the big questions disturbing to the daily status quo. Neo-Platonists, even while conducting a truly exalted discussion of the Hierarchy of Being leading to clarification of the final, divine, unchangeable principle of the universe, also became propagandists for the powers that be. They were fearful that any disorder and alteration in the political and social world around them could open the path to what they considered to be a totally unacceptable conception of change, willfulness, and unpredictable action affecting one’s notion of the proper character of the very Godhead itself. Stoic insistence on the purpose-filled structure of the universe tempted it, in the absence of a concept of sin, to treat accommodation to the successful status quo as though it were obedience to the will of God. Acceptance of the idea that meaning lay behind every aspect of natural life also convinced many Stoics that crude popular experiences of reality, including truly offensive superstitious practices, should be treated seriously alongside more profound ones. Plato’s effective rhetorical use of allegory could be called upon, though in reverse, to show the more “sophisticated”—dare we say “appropriate”?—significance expressed through their vulgar exterior peculiarities.6

But none of this would work if the populations thus “guided” by the rhetoricians and their political allies did not in some way respond to the song that was sung to them. This, the majority of them seem to have done, dealing with the bewildering change backed by willful men and their propagandists by going on vacation to a Never-Never Land where native beliefs and customs which did not shake the established order could still be maintained. Many ancient Greeks, Romans, and Near Easterners took this holiday of denial, stunned as they were by the innovations accompanying the multicultural empires shaping their world beginning with the conquests of Alexander and continuing down to the eve of the victory of Christianity.

Once arriving in Never-Never Land and establishing their clubhouses in its Japanese gardens, they often even denied that anything new and dangerous had actually entered into their lives at all. In order to obtain permission for traditionalist Never-Never Land games, however, the visitors to these varied ancient playgrounds had to collaborate with the existing system and its rulers on those matters that really guided their practical lives. Forget about simply avoiding anything that might give offense to the powers that be. Personal security required that they enthusiastically praise the divinity of the establishment oppressing them. And this they readily did: over and over again. Acceptance of Divine Oppression was engraved over the entrance of each native clubhouse door as the price for permission to open it up to its members.

Beyond that, collaboration, for truly significant subordinates, might entail the shouldering of active obligations to the great monarchs of the age before rushing home to the more pleasant task of cultivating impotence. Collaboration, for the weak mass of men, might mean just working, paying taxes, and never transgressing the sacred wall separating private fantasy from social and political reality. Most collaborators kept the wheels of the regime machinery going because they did not wish to risk their necks by openly opposing it; some, since they had become so used to its gears that they took them for granted as an unquestionable given, maintaining ties with their own oppressed traditions through pure inertia alone. A few of those who collaborated were fully co-opted by their masters. They became fervent propagandists for the new order, alongside the official rhetorical class, even hoping one day to be accepted into its inner circles.

Of course not everyone confronted by bewildering, force-backed change, justified by rhetorical bombast, went down the escapist-collaborationist path. A respectable number reacted to such transformations by militantly taking up arms against them, and this often outside of those customary structures of their societies which had cowardly or unthinkingly opted for an accommodating posture. But such a path was fraught with danger as well. On the one hand lay the overwhelming power of the existing order of things to punish such a frightful choice. On the other stood the tendency of initial opponents of the status quo who burned with desire for victory so to adopt the same successful approach as their enemies as to become indistinguishable from them—even as they masqueraded their transformation by cloaking themselves with the respectable name of “defenders of the faith”. One can think of the transformation of the Maccabees from martyrs and confessors into typical Hellenistic tyrants in this regard.7

All of which is not to say that tyrants and their propagandists were necessarily “fulfilled” human persons. How could they be, unless one truly believes that their pathway is indeed the route to individual perfection? Plato himself insisted that the tyrant had to be the least contented of all men. In point of fact, the elite of the status quo was permeated with discontent, and not just that expressed by material dissatisfaction. Some members of the elite themselves retreated into the Never-Never Lands of the ineffectual philosophical clubs. Others “went native”, seeking meaning in the local gods of conquered lands; gods whose labors could be construed, through Hellenism, to signify something much more universal than Egyptians or Mesopotamians had ever thought possible. A few even went so far as to adore the strangest god of all, the god of the Jews. But the status quo remained unchanged through it all.

Something “other”, a miracle, the intervention of some god, as Plato indicated in the Timaeus and the final words of The Laws, was needed in order to fight this unchangeable beast. Only the intervention of a force from the outside could inject new strength into sufficiently large numbers of the “dumb” population—which, by this point, included not only ordinary individuals but philosophers as well. Only this could elevate and stiffen men’s awareness of the real Drama of Truth in which they were the actors, and thus strike some fear into the Sophist opposition. Only this would have the means to reach everyone effectively, and therefore teach a “good story about a true story” with eternal significance. Only then would the proponents of “business as usual” be fully stirred to conscious, bitter resistance, and the war between the “words” and “the Word” truly begin in earnest.

In sum, as Werner Jaeger explains, it is the desire for a knowledge of God that would assure a universal knowledge of man that represents the real longing of the Socratics.8

The culmination of this system is the systematic knowledge of values, is the knowledge of God; for God, as Plato taught us, is the measure of all things…The continuation of Plato’s metaphysics in the theology of Aristotle and others of his pupils…proves that behind the significantly vague hints of those final words [of The Laws] there lies the outline of a great theological science which would be the understanding of the highest things in the universe and would be the crown and culmination of all human knowledge. Here there is nothing of the difference between knowledge of reality and mere educational knowledge which some modern philosophers have tried to establish: for in Plato’s there is no possible educational knowledge which does not find its origin, its direction, and its aim in the knowledge of God… And thus, after a lifetime of effort to discover the true and indestructible foundations of culture, Plato’s work ends in the Idea of that which is higher than man, and yet is man’s true self. Greek humanism, in the form which it takes in Plato’s paideia, is centered upon God. The state is the social form given by the historical development of the Greek people to Plato in which to express this Idea. But as he inspires it with his new conception of God as the supreme standard, the measure of all measures, he changes it from a local and temporary organization on this earth, to an ideal kingdom of heaven, as universal as its symbol, the animate gods which are the stars. Their bright shapes are the divine images, the agalmata, with which Plato replaces the human forms of the Olympian deities. They do not dwell in a narrow temple built by human hands; their light proclaiming and manifesting the one supreme invisible God, shines over all the nations of the earth.

The hunt for this knowledge constituted the substance of Plato’s prophetic vision and ensured his readiness to “educate for combat”. It was this hunt that made him and his followers the noblest of ancestors of all who would not accept “nature as is”. And it was this hunt that made their work the providential prelude for what was to come into the world through the work of the Word Incarnate, the Catholic Church, and her crusading, transforming mission.9

As long as we try to conceive his educational system as a state, we feel it strange and unnatural. But if we think of the greatest educational institution of the post-classical world, the Roman Catholic Church, it looks like a prophetic anticipation of many of the essential features of Catholicism… At the opening of the book {The Laws}, he said man was God’s toy. If we take that image together with the remark in the prologue to the law, in which he said that God was the measure of all things, we may think out his real meaning. He means that human life is not worth taking seriously. In reality only God is worth taking seriously, and what is divine in man. But that is the logos, the word by which God moves man. Man at his best, is God’s plaything; and the life he is trying to attain consists in playing so as to please God. If humanity is not seen in that divine perspective, it loses its own independent value. In particular, war and strife are not the really serious things in life. They contain ‘neither play nor culture of any importance: therefore we must try as far as possible to live in peace’—just as we say that one makes war to live at peace. All life should be a festival for God, with sacrifices, songs, and dances, in order to win God’s favor. And yet the duty of resisting the enemy remains, and is inevitable. No one is better fitted to fulfill it than the man who has been trained in that spirit during peacetime. Perhaps those who came closest to fulfilling this ideal were the religious orders of knights in the Middle Ages.

Chapter 2

The Attack of the Word, the Seeds of the Logos, and the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo

A. The Attack of the Word

It was during the first decades of that dramatic transformation of the Roman State from Republic into Empire that history’s greatest spiritual and intellectual “curveball” was tossed into the closed cosmos of the Hellenistic World. The Divine Light that Plato said would have to intervene in human events to resolve the seemingly insoluble dilemma of exactly how the individual and society were to aid one another to gain possession of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful did just that: it entered palpably into history, with the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, as Jesus Christ, the God-Man. Through this act, the Eternal Word of God Himself went on the attack. In doing so, He gave to the Socratic hunt for the logos—the essence of things; the life-giving “word” lying behind the mere surface phenomena dogmatized by the sophist—a strength that it could never have had on its own. For, as the masses listening to him recognized, Christ spoke as no mere founder of a school of thought, however didactic his words might be. He spoke as one in full possession of a divine authority.1

Readers might perhaps object that, based upon what I just finished saying in the previous chapter, possession of an aura of divine authority would not have seemed particularly unusual to anyone. After all, if Christ spoke “divinely”, He did nothing more than any divinized Hellenistic monarch would have done. And that would indeed have been true if the God-Man had spoken as an authority that was divine in the pagan sense of that word—that is to say, as the possessor of some admittedly mysterious, sublime, and frightening power that was far beyond the reach of ordinary mortal men, but, ultimately, nevertheless, still part of that same natural world in which lowly human beings were active, alongside more potent “godly” beings.

This was precisely what Christ did not do. Rather, He spoke as one possessing a supernatural authority; that of the omnipotent Creator God, now given flesh to redeem the realm that He Himself had first called forth into being from nothingness. This meant that the character of “the word” that He uttered—the word of the Eternal Word— must necessarily surpass that of a “divinized” this-worldly monarch, who was but a much more powerful part of the kingdom that the Creator of the world had fashioned.

Christ’s action as one possessing omnipotent supernatural authority also meant something else as well: namely, His right to claim the last authoritative word on any given subject of central importance to man and nature. The fact that He took such a claim for granted, without feeling any necessity to spell it out and plead for it like a suppliant in court, can readily be seen throughout his ministry. For, although He was always willing to explain His “word”, He would not subject its merits to a debate with those who refused all openness to accepting it. He was there to teach, to command, and to be obeyed; not to be Himself corrected.

All this stands to reason, because it was only possession of the final and unchangeable word in human affairs that could give to a truly different supernatural authority a serious distinction from any merely worldly “divine” power, and thereby make it worthy of belief. A supernatural authority that was willful and could conceivably alter the firm decisions it revealed to men to guide their path to eternity was seemingly subject to passions that it either could not foresee or simply did not choose to resist. Moreover, a supposedly supernatural word that might always potentially be overridden by yet another, equal or higher pronouncement from an as yet silent ethereal realm—a supernatural word that always had to look over its shoulder in anticipation of possible second-guessing or rebuke from something as powerful or still greater than itself—destroyed its own “omnipotent” pedigree.

In practical terms, a force of this kind would represent only a naturalist vision of an omnipotent, otherworldly authority, and, as such, would be in no way detrimental to the interests of those men determined to ignore its decrees. The entry into history of a King of Kings who either could not or would not tell men what He would think or do tomorrow, and, even worse, whether or not another authority would emerge to contradict or correct Him in the future, would change absolutely nothing whatsoever in their earthly environment. The willful reign of other “divine” monarchs, aided by the purveyors of manipulative words providing them their justifications for the exercise of their power, would never seriously be threatened by a supernatural being whose behavior appeared exactly to mirror their own. They could continue their normal practices in “nature as is” while waiting for new pronouncements from a King of Kings who was “better informed about reality”, or the appearance of yet another messenger from still another supernatural realm with precepts and an “appropriate explanation of strongly felt desires” more to their taste. Under these circumstances, the question that legitimately could be posed by someone like a Plato, excited, in theory, by the concept of a life-changing temporal guidance emerging from a truly “other” source would be easy to predict: “Is that all there is”?

Thankfully, to the everlasting chagrin of the proponents of “business as usual”, the answer to that query, from the Sacred Tradition of the Catholic Church and in the writings that she attests to tell the true story about Christ, is a resounding “no”. And it is precisely because Christ and Catholicism are truly different from anything else in the experience of mankind that they are the obvious and eternal “sign of contradiction” unfailingly targeted with the greatest fury by everyone accepting “nature as is”.

The final, unchanging, authoritative “word of the Eternal Word” was also a patently nature-loving teaching emphasizing that exultation in Creation that God, the author of love in addition to being the author of the cosmos, wished all men to feel. Appropriately enough, this nature-loving teaching was frequently uttered in the context of a joyful dining experience of the type that Socrates and Plato also cherished, whether in the company of a large crowd of common people at the time of the Sermon on the Mount, at a more private wedding banquet, or in the home of a single, rich, and even highly unpopular urban host. These varied, convivial, dining venues brought together individuals representing a wide range of personalities, talents, and problems, and the God-Man addressed His word to each of them. Each of them, in turn, therefore had to see that what He said was meant to have an impact on all the different aspects of nature that they represented. His redemptive mission was thus revealed “to all who had eyes to see” as one that engaged everyone and everything in a spirit of overflowing love and joy in life; a mission that provided an earthly foretaste of the exuberant eternal banquet in heaven to which all men in the fullness of their diversity were equally called.

On the other hand, Christ’s final, unchanging, authoritative, nature-loving word did not pronounce a blessing upon “appropriate explanations of strongly felt desires”. This word was also a truth-drenched word. The full, joyful life that Christ came to offer was something quite different from that encouragement of unquestioning acceptance of the immediate passions to be found in the writings of sophist rhetoricians skilled at stoking the ambitions of their powerful patrons. For such passions could never be indulged properly, nor could they yield good results, without first understanding their true purpose and their correct relationship with one another.

This understanding had, tragically, been marred by sin—the free rejection by man of God’s plan for His Creation—the very malady that Christ came to provide a medicine to cure. The Word made flesh thus authoritatively taught an awareness of the existence of self-produced evil obscuring man’s vision of the universe around him, causing him blindly to chase after self-destructive, unnatural delusions that he mistakenly perceived to be natural and valuable. The consequent need was for everyone accepting Christ to correct everything that had been corrupted through the embrace of sin and its delusions.

Correction of such a monumental disorder would obviously not be an easy matter. Men could only examine life correctly if they viewed the world through God’s eyes. But seeing the world through God’s eyes could only be realized if individuals themselves were literally “divinized” in Christ, incorporated into the life of the Incarnate Word through acceptance of His message, imitation of His behavior, the eating of His body, and the drinking of His blood. Not only did such a transformation mean that individual men would have to change themselves, but, given their social nature, the entire environment around them as well. For, as Christ’s example clearly indicated, whether an individual liked it or not, even the pain occasioned by sins of others in some way fell upon him as well.

God’s loving Providence ensures that if this difficult work of correction were to be accepted, every individual and social aspect of the splendid Creation presided over by men would shine forth in ever-greater glory. Creation as a whole might then be rendered fit to give man more abundant peace and temporal joy than ever before. And it could provide this greater peace and joy as it aided the human person to attain the one supreme goal that really counted in his and every other individual’s life: an unending and loving union, through Christ, with the Triune God; a reward much more splendid than the blissful earthly existence first promised to Adam; a prize that he would share eternally with other distinct personalities, together with all their own unique perfections, in a resplendent, fraternal, Communion of Saints.

Christ’s call to a correction of an unnatural evil that would thereby offer to all of Creation a more glorious mission and destiny than before Adam’s sin was also extremely militant in character. Correction of this kind was a summons to recognize that the “Kingdom of God”, gained by seeing life in and through Christ, was not the apocalyptic gift of some indefinite “end time” but a reality that had already definitively arrived with the appearance of the Eternal Word made flesh upon the earth. The consequences of the arrival of the Kingdom of God—which was to be very different in character than the uncorrected Kingdom of David that men of an “old Israel” without eyes to see and ears to hear had envisaged—had to be made manifest in everyone’s daily existence... now. This was an immediate call to arms if ever there was one.

The purgation and supernatural transformation of all institutions, public “spaces”, and aspects of daily customary life that such a message entailed was good in and of itself, as a means of praising the one, true, supernatural God. Still, let us remember—especially given modern preoccupation with this point—that that social labor was primarily intended by God to work for the divinization of the individual human persons presiding over nature as its stewards. Society and individual were called upon mutually to complete and divinize one another “in and through the Word”, but for the ultimate advantage of the human person and his union, together with his brothers, with the Triune God. Reason was helpful in aiming man’s mind and heart to attainment of this goal, but grace was the efficacious medicine through which the Platonic circle of individual and social corruption was really to be squared—and the intellect itself mobilized for serious action.

Here was an “either-or” option that turned the sophists’ vision on its head. Isocrates claimed that we must either opt for the Platonic Great Detour that deprives the individual of the obvious joys of earthly life while leading him on a goose chase after an unreachable Truth or his own, common sense based, nature-affirming message. Plato, however, had said that “where divine goods are cherished, human virtues appear of their own accord” and that “those who try only for the latter, lose both”.2 And now Christ confirmed and enhanced that prophetic Socratic vision, telling us that we must either accept the need for a militant correction of a natural world made unnatural through sin, and gain, as individuals, all that earth and heaven could offer in the process, or remain with “obvious, common sense, nature as is”—thereby losing both the temporal convivium provided by this life and the eternal banquet of the next.

If Christ made militant demands on everyone with respect to everything, so that human persons could win both a God-given earth and a God-promised heaven, He also did so with supreme awareness that the life He was calling men to lead is a highly complex matter. That life might be compared to an intricate dance that requires different steps at different times in order to correct, harmonize, and exalt all the innumerable aspects of Creation contributing to its proper choreography. As a divine Person, Christ saw this dance in all its incomparable natural beauty. As a divine Person with a human nature, He knew that limited mortals, marred by sin, had to struggle to dance it well, and that they had to do so in an environment that also had been disfigured by evil. In effect, He knew that individual men had to labor at gaining the fruits of their redemption while at war with themselves, and in a magnificent but dilapidated ballroom studded with obstacles that could easily reduce the intended beauty of the dance of life to a chaotic free-for-all. Hence, His invitation to individual men to become part of His body, to take the corrective and transforming medicine of grace and thereby join in the complex dance of life, came along with the promise of an overwhelming supernatural patience and compassion as they slipped and fell in an inevitably clumsy whirl-a-gig.

Contemplation of this “messy” truth once again leads us back to the fact that Christ did not shirk from inviting to the mysterious dance of life even those whom He knew to be capable of wreaking havoc within it. Such risky guests included men and women generally considered to be the least acceptable members of contemporary society. Even more importantly for the future, they numbered in their ranks the very apostles whom He called to be His closest collaborators. The ability of these colleagues in evangelization to do evil as well as good was obvious to Him from the outset. It was made still more manifest after their call by the mutual jealousy and envy tempting each of them to grasp for recognition as the principal recipient of His supreme love and authority.

Much more will have to be said to flesh out all the dilemmas such problems pose in the chapters to come. At the moment, however, it is necessary simply to note that they become all the more complex and dramatic with the appearance in history of each new and distinct individual person equally capable of embracing good and evil. Indeed, the good and evil actions of fresh personalities in the ballroom of life can be seen as innovative contributions to the choreography of the dance of all to sanctity, capable of either enhancing its beauty or damaging its smooth and harmonious flow. Hence, those already whirling along about the dance floor must need to be ready to adjust their movements accordingly—for the sake of their basic survival on the one hand, as well as for that of their positive personal and fraternal growth and development in obedience to Christ’s message on the other.

In pastoral terms, what Christ demands of those He has chosen at any moment in history is a readiness to accept appropriate change in that changeable earthly realm where permanence in every respect is utterly impossible. Every one of His followers is, in a sense, called to “pick up his pallet and walk”; to flee from paralysis and move on, under the guidance of what probably is best referred to, broadly speaking, as “a pilgrimage spirit”. Even if each and every one of Christ’s disciples is not expected literally to take to the open road, all are certainly called upon to do so with their hearts and minds. This is absolutely necessary, since man’s familiar everyday surroundings, which do not provide the setting for his eternal banquet and his eternal ballroom, can easily enslave him, hindering and destroying his work of self-correction and transformation.

Without the proper pilgrimage spirit, enslavement to the familiar can block the learning of new steps in the complex dance of life. It can make a man perform a clumsy and ever more ugly dance that he may nonetheless persist in calling Christ-like and beautiful. Taken to its extreme, it can ultimately blind one to the very need for corrective change at all. Enslavement of this kind provides an Elysian Field for the machinations of the worshipers of “nature as is” and their word merchant priesthood, who can exploit the average man’s paralysis to work for their own benefit alone. For paralyzed men and women cannot turn to face the many new directions from which these enemies may advance to destroy the followers of Christ—and themselves (in their self-deluding enterprise) in the process.

Let us note that the need for new steps in the dance of life does not prove the existence of some innate willful element in the structure of the universe. Instead, one can say that it demonstrates, first of all, the necessity of finding inventive pastoral strategies for shielding believers from novel unnatural actions on the part of the sinful, and then, secondly, the value of discovering fresh means of assisting the return of the wicked to both natural and supernatural health. All acceptably different steps in the dance of life can thus be seen logically to follow from the message of the Savior as new circumstances demanding novel applications of His teaching arise.

Once again, the difficulties of this call to accept appropriate change as part of the unchanging plan of God are evidenced by the example of the apostles themselves. Their own temptation to nurture a “stand pat” mentality deadly to the pilgrimage spirit is clearly depicted in the eagerness of their designated leaders to build tents on Mt. Tabor at the time of the Transfiguration, and thus avoid the trials, known and unknown, of the unfamiliar and dramatic highway that almost all of the them were literally summoned to trod. Our Lord rejected their request for a permanent encampment. Participation, through Christ, in the transformed life of an eternity with God was the unchangeable and final goal to which the Eternal Word had ordained them. The moral behavior required to reach that unchangeable goal was equally fixed and final. But that fixed and final path towards the unchangeable goal was a highway filled with ruts, detours, road works, and surprises. A new and more dramatic ascent of Mount Tabor was what was demanded of the faithful, and there would be no fixed tents upon its summit until entry into the exceedingly different realm of supernatural eternal life.

Finally, in speaking His final, unchanging, authoritative, nature-loving, compassionate, and militant word, Christ did so in a way that was designed to reach the hearts and minds of all men. Therefore, like Plato on the natural level, the supernatural Savior of mankind could not and would not disdain the use of rhetoric. Instead, He completed the purgative and transformative oratorical work of the Academy, showing rhetoric its proper value and use, enticing the men and women around Him through the telling of a “good story” about His true story. He spoke in gripping parables to crowds, and probably in a similarly approachable fashion to smaller groups at table. He offered people a good story about His true story in all the many ways that human persons were disposed to hear that tale and capable of listening to it. Even the explanations of His teaching that he gave privately to the apostles were a “good story” about the true Christian story of a more direct and more comprehensive kind.

But there is a second crucial reason why the Blitzkrieg launched by the Word could do what no mere natural school of thought properly employing rhetoric would ever have been able to accomplish on behalf of the Truth. This is the fact that the divine commander responsible for that militant assault never disappeared from the battlefield. Jesus Christ was a Plato who remained ever present in His Academy. He undertook the threefold task of individual and social affirmation, correction, and transformation in His physical body for a little more than three decades alone. He actively invited men to participation in His life for merely three short years. But with His death and Resurrection, His teaching and His invitation to participation in the life of God moved ceaselessly onward through His Mystical Body—His Church.

This Church was integrally Christ in a sublime, mysterious way, and pursued His activity in a fashion that human persons could clearly see, hear, and touch. As a result, the truth about the individual, nature as a whole, and their eternal destiny in God could still be taught in a human manner. It could continue to be presented with the same self-assured sense of being the final, unalterable, authoritative, supernatural Word, engaging everyone and everything, with a simultaneous recognition of human potential and weakness, and the necessary pilgrim spirit to confront life in the changing earthly realm. An unchanging affirmation of all of nature, a “boat-rocking” demand for its supernatural correction, and its “lifting up” to a higher destiny could thus continue until the end of time with exactly the same militant but humanly nuanced intensity.

And indeed the Church did emerge as an agmen, an army on the march, with chains of command that swiftly became as elaborate as those of the Roman legion and the Roman state. This was an agmen on the march beyond the boundaries of the old Kingdom of Israel and the Jewish ethnos, and even, in the long run, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire as well. This was an agmen commissioned to carry on the attack of the Word to the very ends of the earth. Powerful and effective word merchants working for the benefit of their “divine” patrons had shut down the debate over the meaning of life and the tools necessary for achieving its promise. But that debate could now be reopened. All the arms capable of revealing the inadequacy of “appropriate explanations of strongly felt desires”, the fraudulence of “fulfillment” as defined by the rhetorician, and the need for a Platonic Great Detour from the path indicated by mere surface judgments in order to enter onto the true highway to perfection could henceforward much more successfully be deployed. For through the Church, all the tools for a new ascent of Mount Tabor lay readily at man’s disposal.

Furthermore, they could be deployed in a way that reached beyond an intellectual elite and into the hearts of the average man and woman; into the hearts of all of us. And, in truth, all of us are “ordinary” at certain moments, perhaps even at almost every moment of each and every day. This is why the parables, in the final analysis, are as necessary for the instruction of the most convinced apostles as they are to the “average” man in the largest crowd of simple folk, and repeatedly so throughout their entire lives. Every human being needs the retelling of the true story in dramatic, gripping ways—including those whose developed minds must hear it in complex intellectual form as well.

One great “if” stood behind the successful propagation of this good and true story. Its telling was very much dependent upon whether or not the Church did her work properly, in full consciousness of her innate strength, which came solely from her life as the continuation of the Eternal Word Incarnate in history. This, alas, proved to be a very shaky “if” indeed. Endowed with the supernatural vigor of Christ, the Church’s practical daily life was, nevertheless, in the hands of limited and potentially very sinful men. Hence, her development of a complete consciousness of what she actually was; of the unchanging character of Christ, the ground of her being; of what exactly she was called upon to do; of what type of activity was required of her to perform that mission; of a courage actually to fulfill her responsibilities, and a capacity to pass all her wisdom and daring down to future generations to imitate: none of this was to be the work of a single or particularly easy day, year, or millennium.

Strictly speaking, that development can never come to an end. The truths that it concerns are supernatural ones, ultimately beyond any total human comprehension. The courage required to do the full work of redemption is superhuman, while the labor involved is constantly subject to disruption in a world whose flux brings repeated attacks of confusion and fear. And, once again, the successful performance of the Church’s tasks can unceasingly be thwarted in a universe where the reality of endless individual free choice may habitually result in deadly, sinful consequences, both personal and social.

Nevertheless, despite all of its haphazard twists and turns, regardless of an irrational and sinful backsliding sometimes even lasting for generations at a time, it is possible to identify a maturation process in the life of the Church and her recognition of the demands of transformation in Christ. This maturation process can be seen to continue down to the present, providing her, along the way, with ever more effective means of triumphing over the illogic and evil constantly threatening to stunt her growth in self-consciousness and mission. Once again, however, the following basic point needs constant emphasis. Although the maturation process is palpable, individual and social awareness of that ever-clearer teaching, and the practical pastoral implementation of an awareness of the implications of the Incarnation of the Word in history, by no means must reflect this growing clarity. Alas, they all too frequently have not done so, and with the enthusiastic complicity of Christians themselves.

In the remainder of this chapter and the whole of the next, we will focus upon both the enormous accomplishments and the failures of perception and behavior of what can be called “Imperial Christendom”: the Christendom, broadly speaking, of the first millennium. A three-fold task lies before us in discussing the impressive exploits and unfortunate shortcomings of those thousand years. We must first of all examine the kind of knowledge the Church and Christians gained through these centuries concerning the Incarnate Word and their relationship and responsibilities to Him. Secondly, we shall need to describe the way in which the life-changing consequences flowing from the physical activity of the Word in history provoked the varied proponents of the acceptance of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” to begin constructing a powerful anti-Christian alliance; an alliance that drew especially heavily on the enormous strength that comes from the love of inertia and the potency of cleverly crafted words in the work of the divinization of mere custom; an alliance whose victory always ensures the triumph of the will. Our final task will be to illustrate just how much the unwillingness of Christians to take increased knowledge of the Word seriously, and to conform their behavior to all of its demands, has marred their harmonious, pilgrim-like participation in the dance of life, thereby mightily assisting the obstructionism of their opponents. Discussion of all three of these topics must, to a large degree, be undertaken in tandem. And that discussion will ultimately focus upon the difficulties of pouring into the “old skins” of Greco-Roman society, the Roman State, and their often stubborn and unyielding “foundation spirit”, the new wine flowing from the Incarnation of the Eternal Word in a makeshift pilgrim shelter in Bethlehem.

B. Stumbling Towards Knowledge of the Word and His Kingdom

Anyone reading the Gospels today would think that Christ, before His Ascension into Heaven, had left a transparently clear militant pilgrim program for his immediate followers to carry out: that of going forth to teach and baptize all nations. And yet the book of the Acts of the Apostles presents us with the picture of a rather bewildered Church leadership, bumbling its way through decisions regarding what it was actually supposed to do next when left on its own. This fundamental document for the study of the first decades of Church History shows us that even after Pentecost and the supernatural enlightenment provided by the Holy Spirit, basic questions involving what we would consider to be the most obvious and essential aspects of the Christian pilgrim mission continued to trouble the apostles and their disciples. Should the evangelical message remain the property of the Jews alone, or was it intended for the Gentiles as well? If it was intended for the Gentiles, was it necessary for them to adhere to the ritual practices of the Old Covenant? Attempts at resolution of these questions lay behind the conflict of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and the early battles over their apostolate in Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Asia Minor, and Greece. In the midst of the tensions they aroused, any willingness to remain open to the complex dance of life and the pilgrim spirit required to respond to the new steps needed to perform it properly appeared as though it might be decisively strangled in its very cradle.

These basic mission questions provided the crucial framework for Christianity’s first growth in self-awareness. Ironically, although the conflicts they engendered were quickly resolved in favor of a pilgrim mission to Gentiles who would indeed not be called upon to live like Jews, this early zeal for the conversion of new peoples was short-lived. Evangelization inside the boundaries of the Empire clearly did take place—through appeal to existing Jewish communities, with the quiet but fervent aid of certain spiritually-awakened members of the Greco-Roman elite, and in many other fashions about which we know precious little. Evangelization outside the borders, after the initial labors of the apostles, their disciples, and men like St. Mari in Persia, apparently soon became the work of pure accident alone. Occasionally, it was due to the influence exercised upon their masters by especially devout slaves, or by an entire captive and enslaved community that remained stubbornly loyal to its Christian beliefs. We hear something of this sort of “foreign” evangelization in the case of Georgia and among the Goths. But for open expressions of the specific kind of missionary zeal so vibrantly reflected in the writings of St. Paul in the first decades after Christ’s Death and Resurrection, one has to wait for the fifth century and the appearance of St. Patrick—a truly self-conscious and determined pilgrim to a pagan Ireland that was never part of the Roman Empire at all.3

Instead, once the initial clarification imparted by the Holy Spirit and the vibrant enthusiasm of the apostolate of Paul and of Peter to the Gentiles began to wear off, the most fundamental “mission question” seemed to be a quite different one. This was the query concerning whether so much human effort for correcting and transforming souls in Christ ought really even to be expended in the first place. After all, was it not the case that a dramatic appearance of the purifying Spirit, or even the return of the Incarnate God Himself, might lay but a moment away? An event of that magnitude would alter the conditions of human life and action both swiftly and completely. With such a prospect in mind, would it not be the Church’s task simply to prepare those who had already been won to the Gospel for imminent, definitive, earth-shattering change—or final judgment? Why put together superfluous plans for an expansion involving energetic action in novel situations that would never have time to bear fruit anyway?

On the other hand, what if the Millennium or the Second Coming were not to be expected for tomorrow or the day after? What if troubling oneself too much about the time and the place of “the end” were itself a dangerous game, reflecting a presumptuous curiosity that was actually displeasing to Christ; a frivolous sport deadly to the task of making men realize that the Kingdom of God was already at hand? Under those circumstances, guidelines for Christian survival and even for possible expansion might eclipse panicky discussions of when and how to circle believers’ wagons round to await the inevitable cataclysm.

Despite many Gospel supports for this second—and true—position, temptations to believe in the imminence of “something big” that could easily render missionary activity pointless were indulged by many if not perhaps the majority of early Christians. Millennial temptations reached their peak with the movement stimulated by Montanus, a self-mutilated priest of Cybele, who lived in the vicinity of Ancyra in Asia Minor in the second century. After becoming a Christian, both he and his prophetess assistants attracted many believers to a site somewhere in present-day Turkey called Pepusa, there to await the looming arrival of the Holy Spirit. So strong was the appeal of this millenarian Montanism that it even appears to have attracted sophisticated members of the Christian intellectual elite into its ranks.4

Thankfully, the Church—as she must, if she is truly Christ continued in time and destined to make the Kingdom of God a life-changing reality—routed this untenable Montanist onslaught. Explanation of the differences between a Montanist and a non-Montanist vision of Christianity, and the grounds for rejecting the one as heretical and accepting the other as truly faithful to the message of Jesus Christ, made an enormous intellectual impact in the second century. It helped mightily to fuel the growth of Christian theology—the absolutely necessary intellectual component to the telling of a good story about the true story of the Savior. Moreover, that deeper, anti-millenarian, theological meditation then inevitably brought with it a treatment of two other concerns: 1) the practical guidance of Christians more and more expecting to live an entire life in a problematic and potentially hostile environment; and, 2) a better understanding of the nature and structure of the Church responsible for governing the catechesis of that believing population.

The importance of the first of these two tasks needs no explanation. The latter work was required because differences in Church structure seem to have been the rule in the first century. Divergent organization was probably owed to the inevitable problems caused by the Blitzkrieg of the earliest wave of evangelization, the swift disappearance from the scene of the apostolic founders of the new local churches, and the well-known efforts of various opposing groups to destroy or co-opt them. Hence, the existence of base-oriented communities, some where power was firmly in the hands of men we would call “ordained”, and others where it rested with charismatic lay prophets and prophetesses. Hence, also, the simultaneous presence of so-called monarchical churches, dominated by a given Greco-Roman city’s chief priest: a bishop.5

Practical labor on many of these issues had already begun before the Montanist controversy. Much of that work is as unknown to us as most early evangelization. Once the foundations for such practical activity were questioned, however, a more serious theoretical examination of the underpinnings of what might have been a merely “felt” Faith was unavoidable. This inevitably brought with it a more profound realization of the day-to-day consequences emerging from acceptance of the life that comes from Christ and in Christ alone.

Deeper thinkers saw that there could be no accurate guidance of the individual, or better understanding of the nature and character of the Church guiding him, without further investigation of who, exactly, Christ—the ground, model, and “fuel” for all Christian action—actually was. If Christ were somehow an enemy of the material realm, then the proper behavior of the Christian would indeed involve wholehearted flight from the world and from the flesh. If, however, working out one’s salvation were based upon what did, in fact, take shape from the decisions of the early Church concerning Trinitarian and Christological doctrines, a different kind of life affirming the value of Creation would be required.

Similarly, if Christ loathed the material world, His Church would be obliged to flee from the thought of her own physical organization. She would inevitably become a much more inward and purely spiritual force, her “body” being nothing more than a symbol for the future heavenly community of Christians. On the other hand, the more that one accepted the idea that Christ was a real man with a real body pleasing to a God who loved and wished to redeem His physical Creation, the more a Church possessing a material structure analogous to His own would be appreciated. With this appreciation would also come greater concern for the unity of that body with its source in Christ, His apostles, and the episcopal successors chosen directly through the election of the latter; a confirmation of the need for the existence of a monarchical Church of the kind already mentioned above. With it would emerge also a more profound interest in that Church’s cohesive bodily union, and a greater outrage at the thought of “dividing Christ”—whether this might be through laity and priests separating themselves from their chief priest—the bishop—or bishops cutting themselves off from their fellow shepherds.

Furthermore, one could not focus on the exalted nature of the Incarnate Word and the magnificence of His redemptive sacrifice without thinking both of the horrible human flaws calling forth that Incarnation and that Redemption in the first place as well as the urgent need to deal with them now that the Kingdom of God was definitely “at hand”. This meant that deeper study of Christ and Christ’s Church intensified a consciousness of a continuing battle with sin in the daily life of individuals; a battle that would not be brought to a swift and happy conclusion by the imminent end of the world as a whole. Such battle awareness also fed the spirit of militant “crusade” against whatever personal and social behavior assisted a spirit of sinful indulgence and thereby mocked the graciousness and patience of God’s redemptive action.

In sum, historical efforts to grasp the character and demands of the Christian mission soon merged together with many other profound questions: What must the individual do to live his daily life properly? How should the Church guiding him be structured? Who was the Christ of history and what was the “body” He left behind? What was the nature of the sin calling forth the Incarnation and the terrible sacrifice of the Word made flesh? How extensive was damage caused by rejecting God’s plan for man? How and with what tools might that damage be repaired? And, finally, what kind of spirit of urgency and crusade on the part of both individual and society was needed for effective damage control?

Under the impact of such queries, Christian thinkers gradually saw that believers were called to a much deeper and laborious transformation of the inner and the outer man than anything envisaged by the rituals of the Mosaic Law. Guidance of this transformation meant nothing less than the creation of a comprehensive system of Christian education; a Christian paideia that had to be as well organized as that secular paideia held in honor by the elite of the Greco-Roman world. And the attempt to promote such a paideia in a closed society that already thought that it had all the answers that it needed to live life properly entailed demonstrating that it possessed the hallmarks that the outside world expected from a respectable educational program: an ancient pedigree; a set of documents that its students must consult; and accredited teachers to interpret just what it was that these documents signified.

Formation of a Christian paideia of this sort was the work of the men we call the Greek, Latin, and Syrian Fathers. Systematic study of their labors is the task of Patrology, a term popularized by Johannes Gerhard in his book, Patrologia, of 1653. Patrology is divided into examination of a variety of writers: the Apostolic Fathers, namely, those who had direct contact with either the Twelve or St. Paul and lived through the beginning of the second century; the Apologists, much of whose defense of Christianity was inspired by the battle against the Millenarians and Montanists discussed above; and, finally, the Ante-and Post-Nicene Fathers, whose line continues down to the time of St. John of Damascus (c. 676-749), and whose teachings best explain to us the whole of the maturation process characterizing the entire imperial age. It is important to note, in passing, that some of the truly great men whose meditations are crucial to an understanding of the growth of a Christian paideia—impressive figures like Tertullian (c.160-c.220), the first of the major African thinkers, who apparently became a Montanist—are denied the title of “Father” because of their association with heretical ideas or groups. Such theologians, despite their enormous significance, are, for better or for worse, commonly referred to merely as “ecclesiastical writers”.6

Christian proof of their possession of a body of sacred texts representing the fulfillment of a vision more venerable than anything Greek or Roman—the creative program of a God existing before and outside nature, and first revealing Himself to the acceptably ancient Jews—was already offered by the time of the Apologists. But everyone agrees that the third century was the era of the Great Leap Forward in the full creation of this Christian paideia, both in the Greek and Latin-speaking parts of the Empire. It was in the 200’s that the Catechetical “School” of Alexandria began seriously to function, gaining its most famous representative in Origen (c. 185-253): a passionate, Achilles-like “thinker of Christian thoughts and doer of Christian deeds” long overdue for poetic celebration on the part of modern Catholics. This student of Plato and Neo-Platonism was the creator of ecclesiastical Greek. His work was to be of overriding influence not just in Egypt, but also—due to his lengthy sojourn in Caesarea (232-244) and the achievements of the students who came to learn from him there—in Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor as well. It was really only through Origen’s labors that the language and categories essential to discovering and explaining most basic and complex theological questions—even his own manifold errors of genius—were developed.

Hostile reactions to the vibrant Origen were inevitable, with gifted opponents rapidly becoming active in the very same regions that were influenced by this theological giant. One highly important center of criticism of Origen eventually emerged in Syria and its great metropolis, Antioch, although his opponents were active everywhere, Egypt included. Their greatest venom would be felt centuries after this brilliant theologian’s death, when he was no longer capable of defending himself against assault. Attacks upon him were often uncharitable and sometimes highly dangerous theologically in their own right, about which more anon.

But opposition to Origen, sound or exaggerated, was by no means his opponents’ sole claim to fame. Places like Antioch were to contribute positively to Christian doctrinal and pastoral growth as well, particularly in the realms of philology (the study of written language in its historical context), scriptural exegesis, and homiletic expertise, counting men like St. John Chrysostom among their later, distinguished “alumni” (c. 349-407).

Meanwhile, in Africa, Tertullian, the creator of ecclesiastical Latin, was also active at this time. Despite his apparent conversion to Montanism, Tertullian’s work provided the linguistic framework through which Western Christianity could grow, theologically, eventually finding both points of contact and serious contrast with what was being discussed in the eastern part of the Empire. Third-century Africa offered the Christian world the work of St. Cyprian (200/210-258), Bishop of Carthage, as well. The Africans in general were more interested in discussing the practical problems of living the Christian life in a sinful world than in that final transformation in Christ offered to the blessed in heaven that so captured and stirred Origen’s Platonic spirit. Rome sneezed whenever Carthage caught cold, lending the budding intellectual activity of the Eternal City the flavor--both positive and negative—of the pragmatic African approach in this difficult springtime of theology.

Different though these Egyptian, Syrian, and Afro-Roman emphases might be, their protagonists were united with each other and with early believers in general by one thing that marked them off decisively from the vast majority of their non-Christian counterparts. This was a sense of the immense divide separating truth and error, the need passionately to embrace the first and reject the latter, and the dramatic practical consequences of the either-or choice that lay before man. Once again, it was not an “appropriate explanation of strongly felt desires” that interested them. It was concern for the essence of things—what they really were in and of themselves, and what a life in union with them demanded from mankind in terms of a changed daily behavior—that guided the thought and action of all these heroic teachers and their followers alike. Settling for anything else, for them, was tantamount to introducing tainted meat and sour wine into the banquet of life. It meant wearing blinders while whirling through the magnificent dance to eternal bliss.

Christian Fathers and Church leaders thus began, in differing degrees, to understand that the massive catechetical enterprise they were undertaking underlined the holistic character of all existence. Many of them therefore came to see precisely what was asserted at the beginning of this chapter: that nature in its entirety is a gracious gift of God designed to work harmoniously to fulfill the divine plan. This they understood to be essential to the message of the Savior, along with the need to separate out nature’s true meaning and function from its sinful misuse. Christ’s mission of lifting up the hearts of individuals to grasping and attaining their essential supernatural goal was more and more recognized as one involving a central, positive role for each and every aspect of natural society and the natural world as well.

Such being the case, most Fathers and prelates realized that the need to address day-to-day life inside the Greco-Roman ecumene, and the teachings of the Greco-Roman paideia guiding its governing elite. This growing awareness taught them that alongside the clear evils of classical thought and behavior were real merits reflecting a certain appreciation of the goods of God’s Creation—“Seeds of the Logos”, as the Apologist, St. Justin Martyr (103-165), called them—that they, too, must continue to cherish.

Moreover, it clarified for them the still more astonishing fact that Christians could actually nurture and bring to fruition these non-Christian seeds better than their initial pagan supporters. Their argument in this regard was analogous to that of Plato with respect to the relationship of the rhetoricians to philosophy. Pagans, they insisted, lacked the fullness of divine light, and were incapable of completely understanding even the natural goods they claimed to love, much less of placing them in their proper perspective and hierarchy of importance. What Socratic philosophy was to rhetoric, Christianity was to Greco-Roman Civilization as a whole.

If secular history were in some way also part of God’s initial plan, then, given this truth, Christianity had a second means of indicating a pedigree more ancient than that of Greco-Roman paideia—one that even surpassed its being rooted in the venerable Jewish experience. It could show that all that was natural came from the hands of the “Christian” God and was therefore intended to be Christian from the very outset. It was for this reason that Christianity alone could fulfill the brilliant promise of ancient history for the benefit of both the Church and the as-yet uncomprehending world around her. Christians, as the Apologists already argued, were not only not the enemies of the Greco-Roman ecumene but in fact the sole men who could keep its best and most ancient achievements alive, preventing them from contradicting and destroying one another. They were the only individuals who could truly bring them all, together, to unity and full fruition. It is worth quoting the entirety of the relevant passage in St. Justin Martyr to illustrate this straightforward claim:7

We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God and we have declared that he is the Logos, of whom every race of man were partakers, and those who lived according to the Logos are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists, as among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.

Whatever all men have uttered aright is the property of us Christians. For we worship and love next to God and Logos, that which is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since it was even for us that he became man, that he might be a partaker of our sufferings and bring us healing. For all writers through the implanted seed of the Logos which was engrafted in them, were able to see the truth darkly, for the seed and imitation of a thing which is given according to the capacity of him who receives it is one thing, and quite a different one is the thing itself of which the communication and the imitation are received according to the grace from God.

For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated by finding and contemplating some part of the Logos. But since they did not know the entire Logos, which is Christ, they often contradicted themselves. And those who by human birth were more ancient than Christ, when they tried to consider and prove things by reason, were brought before the tribunals, as impious persons and busybodies. And Socrates, who was more zealous in this direction than all of them, was accused of the very same crimes as ourselves. For they said that he was introducing new divinity and did not consider those to be gods whom the state recognized…But these things our Christ did through his own power. For no one trusted in Socrates so as to die for this doctrine but in Christ who was partially known even by Socrates, for he was and is the Logos who is in every man.

The labor involved in bringing about a transformation in Christ can be imagined with reference to rhetoric and the exalted role assigned to the manipulation of words by Greco-Roman paideia. If this were already a difficulty for the Socratics, what could be more representative of the seemingly unnatural old skin into which the new wine of transforming Christian Faith and Grace now had to be poured? Here was a discipline whose historical development led to a limitation of human horizons to the concerns of the moment alone, and prohibited use of the data of life as a springboard for grave and long-lasting meditation. Here could be found a force that had historically encouraged an obsession with that petty, changing stuff of existence that, from the Christian standpoint, was intrinsically unhealthy—a source of psychological illnesses aiding sinful man’s penchant for fleeing from the exalted and permanent to the vulgar and ephemeral. Here, in the theories of the rhetoricians, one found guidelines for preventing the individual and society from ever gaining insight into their specific mistakes, much less correcting them and conceiving a destiny more elevated and fulfilling than the passions of the moment indicated. Through their guiding principles one obtained instructions for prohibiting the hunt for a medicine which would cure individual and social sickness and nourish a healthier and ultimately much more satisfying life on earth that was also of immense assistance to one’s passage to eternal bliss. Here, in short, was a recipe for burial in familiar custom deadly to any kind of pilgrimage through life, both literal and figurative.

Still, this totally unacceptable rhetorical spirit was passed down together with the potentially valuable rhetorical skills that Plato himself had not only come to appreciate but also to recognize the need for philosophy to understand and perfect. Yes, any attempt to “dive into” a rhetorical discipline dominated by an evil spirit was dangerous. Yes, the daily experiences one generally had had with this, as with all the pillars and institutions of ancient life, were negative, repellent ones. But we have already recounted how Christ Himself sat down to banquet with men that “proper society” had solid rational grounds for studiously avoiding…when His purpose was to convert them. And we have already repeatedly indicated that He Himself cultivated rhetoric to be able to tell all the varied kinds of people inhabiting the world a good story about His true story.

Ironically, similar difficulties could emerge even when contemplating use of that Greek Socratic philosophical thought that was highly critical of ancient rhetoric and its obsession with the power of mere words. For how far, really, might one travel down the Platonic pathway praised and developed by Origen and his disciples in Alexandria and elsewhere, with their exploration of some of the Academy’s more fanciful themes? Had this not led them into certain speculations concerning reincarnation and universal salvation deemed destructive to the substance of the Faith by everyone who remained free of the Platonic spell? Moreover, was it not possible that such a philosophizing of belief created exaggeratedly simplistic hopes for the ease of transformation in Christ? Perhaps Origen’s Platonic-inspired and high-minded dreams of divinization in heaven obscured a sound estimation of the more mundane but fundamental problem of how to awaken Christian men to fight the relentless temptations of sin coming from the immediate world around them—not to speak of the real possibility of their eternal damnation.

On the other hand, was it not possible that failure to follow in Origen’s direction would also risk a serious loss—the loss of the broader and more complete picture of the connection of the Old and New Testaments necessary for a proper understanding of the call to the transformation of nature and the deification of the individual? It was this connection that emerged so grandly from the application to Scripture of the allegorical, Platonic, Alexandrian method. Such a failure could throw Christianity into the hands of enemies of Origen from the rival school of Antioch. And at least some of the students of this “anti-Academy” cultivated a literal scriptural exegesis that pulled supernatural spiritual concerns down to that purely earthly realm of linguistic and historical analysis so easily manipulated by the ancient rhetoricians for their own arbitrary, uninspiring, and basically naturalistic “business as usual” purposes.

If rhetoric and philosophy were potentially troublesome, what about the petty, practical difficulties emerging from the painful effort to confront the gamut of customs taken for granted by one’s pagan neighbors at each and every moment of daily life within the Greco-Roman ecumene? What would the practical effect of hunting for “Seeds of the Logos” among these practices actually be? Would it not entail an opening to the influence of powerful, ingrained beliefs and modes of behavior that might actually subvert and ultimately destroy the Christian ideal that was supposed to transform them? Was it not better to flee from such dangers for once and for all? A model for a flight of this kind was certainly close at hand. One could embrace the life of renunciation of the world advocated by those teachers of the monks of Egypt and Syria, active from the late 200’s onwards: men like St. Antony (c. 251-356), whom we call the Desert Fathers.

But a life of monastic renunciation was not without its potent dangers either. Ascetic emphasis upon the hard individual labor required to avoid hell and become transformed in Christ could be a recipe for despair for the average man. Moreover, it could blind a monk puffed up by the virtuous character of his flight from urban centers of imperial corruption to the deeper sins of the individual heart, with personal pride at the top of the list. It could also conceivably divert attention away from the urgent need to change that sinful and oppressive pagan society that most people would never have the slightest chance to escape from anyway. This society might at any moment strike violently even at the splendid isolation of the monks themselves. Besides, the life of renunciation might hide the truth that the monk in his monastery could also develop attachments to place and routine similar to those experienced by men still active in “the world”, and that these needed to be crushed with a similar fervor. Then again, historical events would soon indicate that a number of heroes of the life of renunciation were regularly tempted to “cash in” on their reputation for holiness. All too many of them used their air of sanctity among believers as a tool for becoming active participants in political and social affairs. Wandering about the Empire, they sought and gained the unsavory but all too

familiar rewards that “nature as is” could give in the form of worldly power and fame.8

Meditation upon such topics also brought with it questions regarding whether or not the idea of fighting sin and “working out one’s salvation”, either through flight from the world or participation in it, placed too great an emphasis upon man’s freedom as opposed to the grace required to make the individual pleasing to God. Perhaps, some thinkers argued, the doctor’s aid was everything and the patient’s cooperation insignificant. Perhaps that agmen called the Church was meant only for those who recognized that they were personally incapable of offering anything useful either to themselves or to her communal march through history by means of their own labor, and that they were merely passive recipients of her supernatural gifts. And then again, even if individual cooperation did play a role in this enterprise, just how many times could a man who was either in or out of the world leave the path of rectitude, return to a life of sin, and still be welcomed back to take a fresh and credible part in the Christian enterprise? Maybe the fruits of transformation in Christ were intended only for athletes of the Faith who never broke rank after enlistment, with weaklings cashiered mercilessly, thrust into the outer darkness to live out the rest of their hopeless existence.9

C. The Mystical Body of Christ and the Sacred Imperial Order

In short, each reflection emerging from the basic question of how to function in a world that might not imminently be approaching its end brought still further and often deeper considerations along with it. Inexhaustible these might indeed seem, even without asking how the individual Christian and the Church as a whole might maneuver successfully through the minefield presented by the most powerful “Seed of the Logos” in their ancient environment—the Greco-Roman polis. This institution was by nature disposed to treat any independent-minded individual or society with deep suspicion. It had already proved to be an obstacle to philosophical hunters of the logos, with the execution of Socrates being the preeminent case in point, as underlined by St. Justin Martyr. The polis of a pagan society with only a natural frame of reference had to be troubled by the proclamation of a supernatural institution that transcended local and ethnic boundaries. It had to be especially disturbed when such an institution also possessed a body and structures more and more parallel to its own administrative organs and legions. Moreover, the Roman State’s metamorphosis during the first centuries of the Christian era looked, at least in theory, as though it would strengthen its hostility to another body in its midst—namely, the Mystical Body of Christ.

Let us examine this Roman political transformation in some detail, by first noting that the imperial order as created by Augustus took the form of the tightrope-walking act that we call the Principate (from princeps senatus, first man of the Senate, a traditional title held by Octavian). This was a Bonapartist mélange whose proper functioning required the active collaboration of the highly conservative senatorial-equestrian oligarchy in Rome, along with its aristocratic equivalent in the provinces. It sought to rule through as many of the old republican forms as possible and thus hide the truth that the real backbone of the system was the support that the commander-in-chief, the imperator, could always count upon from the army. Tricky and occasionally explosive as the imperial organism from the very outset clearly was, its correspondence to an existing historical need meant that it basically managed to work for two centuries and more: an impressive achievement for any temporal structure whatsoever.10

Armed force as the real mainstay of the regime finally became obvious in the course of the third century, due to succession squabbles, the impact of Persian and barbarian incursions, disastrous economic disruption, and other unsettling contemporary developments. By the time the situation was brought under control again in the 270’s, the Roman State was transformed into that quite different institution that historians refer to as the Dominate. This name came from the increased work and quasi-totalitarian clout given by it to the emperor and his central governmental organs. The Dominate did what it did—namely, dominate—openly and unabashedly. Its taxes and other exactions made the innate aspiration to omnipotence of the Roman State under both its republican as well as its imperial forms infinitely more vivid to its subjects than anyone had previously dreamed possible. Under its sway, the power of the older aristocracy, in Rome and in the other cities of the Empire, was considerably weakened. New men, often from lower classes, replaced the representatives of the venerable, conservative elite. The latter sometimes grudgingly cooperated with the Dominate. If not, they retired to indifference on their vast country estates, where many members of an overtaxed and conscripted peasantry sought potential refuge under their still powerful protection from the crushing demands of the new State authorities.11

Christian problems with the Principate stemmed chiefly from the government’s erratic approach to this novel religion. Officially, Rome labeled Christianity a superstition along the lines of the ancient cult of Dionysius, thereby suggesting that it was potentially capable of encouraging the vicious anti-social behavior associated with the Bacchae. In practice, this translated into a basically friendly indifference, punctuated by periods of persecution, generally brought on by non-governmental groups insisting upon the reality of Christian political and moral vice. Writers from the Apologists onwards took the State’s general unwillingness to hunt down believers whom it did not really deem to be serious disturbers of the peace as a major proof that Roman Law might itself be another “Seed of the Logos’; a valuable natural tool whose evils merely reflected the illogical or sinful actions of individuals failing to live up to its innately more sensible and noble principles. Still, victims of the Principate there were, and the Acts of the Martyrs joined the accounts of the heroic deeds of the monks of the desert and the paideia of the Church Fathers in enriching the variety of the good stories told about the true story, its progress, and its tragedies in the imperial era.

Vexations from the transformed system were potentially much more substantive. The Dominate’s divinization of the State, represented most vividly by “emperor worship”, was more rigid under its aegis than through the earlier Augustan settlement. Its rough army spirit and an accompanying willingness to appeal to force to clear away all obstacles in its path were more blatant, allowing for much more consistently brutal policies than under the Principate. Anything was possible with such a patent justification of the rights of brawn. On the other hand, the new men replacing a conservative civilian aristocracy filled with the pompous self-assurance of the old paideia brought with them a “pilgrim” willingness to experiment with society and social beliefs. This, too, could ultimately lead to anything. But that “anything” also perhaps included an opening to the Church more positive in character than the mere toleration she often experienced in the Principate centuries.12

Unquestioning acceptance of benevolence on the part of the new imperial government would have been foolhardy. Signs of friendship for Christianity arising from the Dominate could, after all, be the product of ignorance or purely willful opportunistic considerations. They might reflect a failure to understand what the new Faith really entailed in the way of changed human political and moral behavior. They could therefore be founded solely or chiefly upon a conviction that a legalized Christianity might prove to be somehow useful, so long as its spiritual energy could be channeled to the service of the openly totalitarian system under construction, which maintained an underlying, unchanging acceptance of “nature as is”.

Still, a gruff dismissal of marks of State benevolence would mean rejection of the help of a natural tool that St. Peter and St. Paul themselves had both praised and exploited for the benefit of evangelization. Cooperation with the imperial authorities would offer obvious and immense assistance to the transformation in Christ of those public “spaces” so crucial in the work of taming open temptation to individual sinful behavior. Moreover, it would be a gratuitous insult to the role that the imperial government had already played at most times and in most places in providing protection for the Christian population from the animosity of demagogues and mobs. Support for a “libertarian” vision in the Greco-Roman ecumene would have been tantamount to unleashing forces ensuring the unregulated slaughter of the believing population.

As with all other natural phenomena, the only proper and realistic approach that the Church authorities could take under such circumstances would be the admittedly difficult one of grateful but cautious acceptance; the kind of attitude that would gain for her the advantages the State could provide while saving her the freedom to criticize its innate pagan flaws and its individual human abuses. Openness to the friendship of the State flowed automatically from acceptance of the teaching of the Word about the value of all the tools of created nature. But the fullness of that teaching required that the Church retain the ability to criticize, correct, lift up, and transform the State in Christ, harmonizing its mission together with that of other natural forces that she alone could appreciate fully and place within the proper hierarchy of values. As always, a pilgrimage spirit open to the risks of the dance of life necessarily had to work together with a complete docility to the Word, both supernatural and natural. This need could not help but fuel a yet more militant hunt for a still more profound knowledge of who that Word made flesh actually was, how the Church that mystically continued His body in time had to be structured to reflect His true character, what, exactly, she was called upon to teach for the salvation of the individual and the guidance of the world in which he danced his way to sanctity, and how, precisely, Christians could put that teaching and the medicine of grace to practical use—in union with the imperial Roman State.

D. The Grand Coalition of the Status Quo

Men of all classes hungry for more out of life than the unquestioned gratification of immediate passions and the “appropriate explanations of strongly felt desires” justifying such indulgence were clearly ready to listen to the message of the Mystical Body of Christ. These included members of the governing elite itself, who, possessing all that could be owned on the natural plane, were perhaps more aware than any other group in the Greco-Roman ecumene of the inability of the existing system to satisfy the demands of the human mind and heart. Many honest seekers of wisdom from every strata of society could see that non-Christian philosophical “wise men” spoke to them ultimately only as representatives of different and narrow “schools of thought”—some decent, some cynical, but all ultimately crippled by an inert and smug society’s practical treatment of the hunt for truth as a frivolous parlor sport. All such schools of thought were active because none really was willing or able to exclude the others, thereby reflecting that terrible, deeply rooted, and paralyzing sense of “going nowhere” that a world sealed off from the full embrace of its Creator inevitably must display.

Religious wisdom transcending philosophy was required to break out of this crippling straitjacket. This explains why the “hunt for the highest God” gained more and more active participants, especially as the fortunes of the Empire tumbled in the third century, A.D. The Church, with her supernatural, authoritative, “final word” on God and man, eagerly offered these spiritually hungry truth hunters a tantalizing game that was quite different from anything they had previously encountered in the jungle of Hellenistic life. She did not “suggest”. She knew. She made it clear that she knew. And her followers were ready to die in defense of that patent and life changing knowledge.13

From the standpoint of anyone willingly wrapped up in the familiar ancient rhetorical cocoon, however, the militant attack of the Incarnate Word could only mean that a revolutionary Monster had entered into their eternally frozen but peaceable kingdom. This Christian beast rejected the very idea of “closure” for closure’s sake. Yes, it did tell men that they had to “move on”, but not under the old rules; certainly not by merely accepting existing natural conditions as unalterable givens. Instead, it informed them that they had to “move on” by bringing the Kingdom of God into all the closed calculations of the existing Establishment, thereby transforming the entirety of life in Christ. If the Socratic hunters for the higher “logos” wreaking havoc with “the appropriate explanation of strongly felt desires” were already dangerous, the agmen we call the Mystical Body of Christ, with its universal, popular “touch”, endowing it with the capacity for telling a good story about a true story, was infinitely worse.

For this crime the Church-Monster had to be destroyed. Hence, the emergence of a powerful but internally tense alliance dedicated to the maintenance of the existing order of things that I should like to call the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo. Although never a completely conscious union, either now or later, this force would eventually come to include in its ranks all men and women who, for immensely varied reasons, were contented with the old rules of “closure” and were repelled by boat-rocking rabble-rousers who would not allow men to “move on” to “get the job of real life done”.

During the imperial era, the number of participants in this federation was already legion, with the Jewish opponents of Christianity opening the subscription list. Jewish leaders, like the Greeks and Romans, saw themselves as representatives of something old, venerable, and intellectually sound—qualities they in no way attributed to the “new” religion. Despite the great intellectual work done by Jewish inhabitants of cities such as Alexandria, no Platonic-inspired allegorical reading of the Old Testament with worldwide implications was to play a long-term role in their calculations. The Jewish rabbinic establishment condemned Christianity at the so-called Council of Jamnia, soon after the destruction of the Temple in 79 A.D. It also condemned most of its own prophetic history in the process.

One of the new religion’s greatest crimes in rabbinic eyes was that universalism that stood in stark contrast to an ever more parochial post-Temple Judaism. Emphasis upon the evils of that revolutionary universalism was not only valuable for protecting oneself against the prophetic teachings that an open mind would have seen to be an integral part of the Jewish Tradition and a direct road to the Christian vision. It was also useful as grounds for poisoning reactions to the new Faith on the part of pagan populations and the Roman authorities. After all, everyone shaped by a parochial mindset could unite in considering such a cosmopolitan monster to be dangerous—not just Jews.

Following closely behind the Jews came the body of men whom we broadly call the Gnostics. These were people who rejected all thought of the goodness of nature or the possibility that nature’s flaws were susceptible to any correction, whether natural or divine. Judaism, with its parochial vision of a good Creator God, was already a problem for Gnostics. Christianity, in teaching that that God took flesh of woman to redeem His fallen Creation and extend a general offer of an eternal resurrection of wicked bodies, was infinitely more loathsome. Gnosticism was particularly dangerous to budding Christianity through the form given it by the Persian thinker, Mani (c. 216-276). Mani taught his followers to co-opt the new Faith and use its sacred texts and language to instruct men on the need to flee all contact with matter in search of the hidden Gnostic God. Manichean principles were thus rhetorically “deconstructionist” in character, and destined to prove particularly successful in confusing and subverting the beliefs of the proponents of the most nature-friendly force in human history. They provided new and effective guidelines for all who were eager to put obstacles in the path of the life-changing message of the Word because they loathed nature and did not believe that it could be corrected and transformed.14

Violently different from the Gnostics, but equally anti-Christian, were a wide array of pagan opponents from everyday imperial society. Their opposition generally took the shape of a closed-minded and very angry dismissal of the new religion on the basis of the infallibility of tradition and custom alone. In fact, at least to begin with, the bulk of Greco-Roman society seems to have been largely at one in reviling the obstinate Christians as an incomprehensible and alien force, neither pagan nor Jewish, that had to be eliminated from influence over a truly human society. An army of “common sense” crusaders on behalf of the founding customs of whatever the society in question—all of them confirming the raw pagan rejection of Christianity as the enemy of cut-and-dry “business as usual”—thus took the field inside the borders of the Empire.

This included, as one might expect, the tribe of word merchants that was active in both literary and legal spheres. Contemporary rhetoricians, such as the highly admired but painfully pedantic Marcus Fronto (c.100-170), Marcus Aurelius’ tutor and friend, firmly called for political action against a Faith that demanded a substantive correction of personal and community belief and behavior. It is interesting to note that if we depended on many of the great men of letters of this era for our understanding of the life of the Empire, we might actually conclude that there was no such phenomenon as Christianity that was active in it at all. For numerous rhetoricians conducted their anti-Christian campaign without even mentioning their religious opponent by name, horrified as they were to acknowledge the reality of such an offensive intrusion into the Greco-Roman cultural realm. In fact, they tried to conjure away the barbarian threat in the same manner, thus demonstrating that unwillingness to deal with new steps in the dance of life can be deadly to one’s physical as well as spiritual health.15

Also entering the fray were many scholars, scientists, philosophers, and statesmen. Admittedly, some of these expressed perfectly rational grounds for taking umbrage with a Christianity that was itself only just learning how to explain its message in the first place. The great physician, Galen (129-200/217), for example, articulated one common learned apprehension: the fear that Christian adoration of a God freely choosing to create the universe brought an arbitrary “willfulness” into an ordered cosmos that had been freed from the crudities of the most vulgar pagan myths through the work of generations of Greco-Roman thinkers; the fear, in short, that Christianity meant what William of Ockham (c. 1288-c. 1348) and his followers would much later suggest that it taught.16

Of course, these critiques missed the heart of the Christian message: the unchanging and innate truth, justice, and love at the center of God’s plan. They also ignored what has been noted above: namely, that the justification of an earthly order whose divinized princes mirrored the character of the gods actually did require, in practice if not in theory, precisely the sort of willful divinity that many philosophers reproved and that the Christians were the first to abhor. And yet this was the very order that Galen, whatever his personal self-delusions about its true nature might have been, actually participated in and accepted as unquestionable.

It is quite understandable, on the natural level, that concerned pagans would wonder why something that struck them as totally “new” should be so swiftly accepted to the detriment of what was old and venerable. And as we have seen, the Apologists took this complaint seriously as early as the second century, responding to it in innovative and convincing ways. Moreover, the fear that Christians, with their eyes fixed on eternal salvation, were not shouldering their share of the burdens of a public life providing an ordered existence that benefited them as well as everyone else, is by no means an eccentric one. Many Greco-Roman critics uttered this latter complaint, including the most famous early enemy of the Christians, Celsus, the great contemporary of the Apologists, in a work called The True Word. Irritation over a Christian failure to participate in the life of the State also may explain a number of the fitful persecutions under the Principate, such as that of the Emperor Domitian (81-96), who severely punished suspected believers among civil authorities for their manifest dereliction of duty.17

Early defenders of Christianity eagerly addressed complaints of this kind, pointing out that the sole reason for their apparent lack of participation in government was the pagan sacrifices that active public life required them to make. Beyond that, however, they insisted that the Empire only remained alive and strong because of the prayers and the moral strength of Christian believers. It was their Faith alone that gave to the concept of “public order” the respect for truth and morality that it needed to become both substantive and effective in securing the “common good”.18 In fact, as St. Augustine’s complaints about pagan behavior later indicated, Christians were unconvinced that the painfully obvious self-serving opportunism of actively participating Roman “patriots” was a blessing for the State in any way whatsoever.19

Still, one finds even in more serious pagan arguments a strong tone of exasperated resentment over the intensity and sheer audacity of the Christian project. Educated gentlemen concerned for the proper performance of the pagan rituals handed down by tradition were just as convinced that these should be “kept in their place” and not translated into any “immoderate” religious “passion” or “exaggerated” love for their “deeper teaching”. Such a passion and love could enter into all aspects of an ordered life where everything had already been hung securely on its accepted peg, move its comfortable furniture around, and thereby become terribly divisive and disruptive. Christianity brought such divisive and disturbing passion into daily existence. And the fact that this Faith was taught by fishermen and slaves thinking that they actually had something to add to the study of God and man undertaken by respectable members of society made the “uppity” character of its revolutionary enterprise still more repellent. Knowledge that even members of the senatorial aristocracy had been won over to such impassioned madness proved that Christianity was not only detestable in theory and practice, but also a kind of disease that was “catching”.20

In short, the idea that the foundations of Greco-Roman life could be re-examined and corrected was blasphemous in the extreme. The idea that members of one’s own class would engage in such a re-examination along with the men who washed their feet, mined their minerals, and could not even physically look “upwards” at their superiors without impudence was nauseating. Even those finest of the late ancient philosophical “hunters for the highest God” that we call the Neo-Platonists wanted to rid themselves of this overly-zealous and messy Christian army that shook the pillars of the ecumene and introduced the lower orders into the closed fraternity of acceptable thinkers. It was sad if not surprising that a number of Neo-Platonists were to be found among the most convinced and influential proponents of State persecution.

Finally, ordinary men, always terrified by the potential consequences of thinking, and fearful lest satisfaction of their customary pointless or lewd appetites and entertainments be disturbed by an exhortation to avoid sin and strive for higher rewards, stormed the recruitment centers of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo. Personally vicious though they often were, they were nevertheless the first to believe that the Christian “superstition” involved hideous ceremonies and indescribable orgies. In their moral outrage, they provided the bulk of the troops for the anti-Christian riots that periodically took place in the era of the Principate. They would, perhaps, also have been the chief members of the parallel, mass, pagan “church” that the Emperor Julian (360-363) “the Apostate” sought to create during the Dominate, in imitation of and for the purpose of opposing the Christian agmen.

Interestingly enough, the actions of Julian, as well as those of earlier persecutors such as Decius (249-251) and Valerian (253-260), indicate that the highest representatives of conservative, cultivated, Greco-Roman society themselves often became “ordinary men” where the Christians were concerned. Such “traditionalists” were ready to accept the most absurd of the pagan superstitions anathematized by gentlemen like Galen and prepared to unleash the most frenzied mobs in their repeated efforts to mobilize every otherwise disliked “friend” to block the militant Christian advance. Even the Jews were cultivated in this regard, as was demonstrated by the Emperor Julian’s abortive attempt to please them by reconstructing the Temple, thereby giving the lie to the Christian vision of a New Covenant permanently replacing the Old.21

Our Grand Coalition of the Status Quo thus obviously contained numerous internal contradictions and weaknesses. Its varied members can be compared to so many “Soviet Unions” and “United States of Americas”, temporarily linked together in a “United Nations Alliance” for the purpose of a world war against a common foe. Still, these disparate groups remained ever poised to fight out irreconcilable differences should their joint combat someday cease. Jews were on their guard against pagans; Gnostics against a State that was itself a central loathsome feature of an intrinsically evil nature. One group of rhetoricians supporting a particular “appropriate explanation of desires” useful to the established authorities was girded to oppose colleagues who might be paid to militate for another set of passions on behalf of a differing group of willful masters. Neo-Platonists unwilling to see their philosophy manipulated purely to serve ornamental purposes could chafe under a deadening rhetorical domination preventing Reason from completing its own hunt for the anti-Christian logos of things. “Practical” men who saw the “thinkers of great thoughts” as “losers” might be ready to jettison the intellectuals at the first moment their boring speculations interfered with their own common sense, pragmatic activity. Have-nots, envious of the people who had “made it” in imperial society, could easily rise up against the existing elite should their momentary alliance prove successful in putting believers to flight, thereby giving them time to satisfy the fullness of their own uncontrollable libido.

“Time Bomb” might be a better name for the GCSQ, since—the exaggerated fancies of future conspiratorial theorists notwithstanding—no absolutely reliable, indissoluble glue held its members tightly together. Ironically, only someone viewing life through the eyes of God, from inside the Mystical Body, and on the path to transformation in Christ, could really understand what the Grand Coalition and its strengths and weaknesses truly were. But the question of whether Christians would “put on Christ” to undertake such an examination was another matter entirely.

Chapter 3

The Turbulent Battle for a Christian Imperial Order

A. A Good Story With a Happy Ending?

Leaders of the Dominate did indeed prove to be ready to experiment. Unfortunately, their pagan totalitarian tendencies at first led them to innovation in the direction of a more vigorous confirmation of the traditional, conservative, “founder-friendly” concept of a divine State servicing the demands of “business as usual”. State worship brought with it the nightmare of Diocletian’s Great Persecution, which was all the more horrifying to Christians in that it followed so unexpectedly upon decades of peaceful—though admittedly rather badly documented—growth.1

It was the failure of this most organized of imperial harassments, along with the attendant questioning of its effective value, which then turned subsequent emperors to the fourth century settlement with Christianity. Beginning with Constantine (306-337) and ending with Theodosius (379-395) and his descendants, East and West, this entente moved swiftly from a simple recognition of the Church as a legal entity to her adoption as an integral cornerstone of the Greco-Roman Establishment.

Given the fact that the emperors were themselves but novice Christians, and could not be expected, even under the best of circumstances, fully to appreciate the meaning of their new religion, benevolent and cooperative imperial action would depend upon a basic spirit of openness and good will in performance of their new role. And the practical consequences of that openness and good will, in turn, would rest upon two other factors: 1) the character of the imperial administrators most responsible for counseling the emperor and implementing whatever State policies were adopted by him; and, 2) the faith and courage of the Church leaders called upon not only to obey the just commands of the legitimate civil authorities but also to correct and transform them in Christ. With openness to a real conversion on the side of powerful rulers and their advisors, and a combination of both a courageous, authoritative steadfastness in the Faith and a pilgrim spirit on the part of the politically still rather helpless and naïve Christians, mutually advantageous results might gradually be achieved.

But where these necessary pre-conditions to cooperation were lacking, the emasculating consequences for the message of the Word would be horrendous. State support for Christianity would then lead to the subversion of true religion, and the elaboration of a doctrinal and moral revisionism useful primarily to the attainment of the secular goals of “nature as is”. Under these conditions, Church reliance upon the backing of a powerful civil authority would become nothing other than the lazy Catholic’s easy way out. It would reflect a satisfaction with the outward pomp and mere appearance of a Christian order that abandoned the immensely harder work required for a truly substantive transformation in Christ. Such a situation would favor the unseemly career building of “Uncle Tom” popes, bishops, abbots, monks, and priests, all of whom would then shape the catechesis of an Uncle Tom laity. It would encourage a social-climbing, perk-seeking, and more and more cynical Christian population which would grasp the truth that its stale bread was buttered on its secular side; the development of a “Christendom” that saw that its secular master’s will was to be baptized as eminently Catholic in order for even this insipid morsel to be swallowed in peace and quiet; a “Christendom” slavishly accepting of a life that was once again based upon “business as usual”.

That attempts to secure such a perversion of the mission of the Word in history were likely from the government’s side was due to the fact that some emperors and many civil servants clearly remained tied to a pagan appreciation of “nature as is” long past the time of official State conversion to Christianity. While ruling as they had always done, but under changed circumstances that required at least an outward commitment to the new official religion, all such men could consciously or unconsciously continue to sabotage the real work of the correction of natural evils and transformation in Christ.

Similarly, rhetoricians belonging to the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo did not disappear from the Roman scene in the fourth century. They understood that the Church, despite her newly established legal status, could still be tamed and diverted from her substantive mission. One highly effective way of assuring this was by dulling her awareness of her own emasculation; by telling “a good story with a happy ending” about the full conversion of the Empire to Christian beliefs and action, all the while that its foundation vision and related behavior remained unaltered. As with the Manicheans before them, their sabotage could be better promoted through an outwardly enthusiastic embrace of the institutions and the language of their “fellow Christians”, now co-opted for their own quite different purposes. Use of Christian media would block immediate suspicion of their motives, as they, in practice, supported and reinforced the spirit and standard operating procedures of ancient pagan institutions and ingrained custom.

The fact that there were emperors, civil servants, and rhetoricians who could go about their customary work while masquerading as believers, or even actually convincing themselves that they represented an enlightened as opposed to a vulgar Faith, was, of course, at least partially due to failures of perception or courage on the part of good willed Christian leaders of Church and State. Many of these men desperately wanted to believe the “good story with a happy ending” and could easily identify what seemed to be a number of serious reasons for embracing its teaching. After all, the faithful were no longer in fear for their lives. Who, therefore, but a madman would not revere the Roman State for the peace and security it now provided? Who could deny that, with persecution ended, and all public spaces opened to possible Christian penetration, an opportunity had arrived to bring the good news of Redemption freely to everyone on every level of social life? Rome herself, as the great Christian poet, Prudentius (348-c. 413), exulted in his famous response to Symmachus on the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate, could now finally come to understand the true universal mission that the Providence of God had prepared her to fulfill. Through her change of heart and soul, this international empire would now work together with a Church called to the evangelization of the entire world for the greater glory of God and the salvation of all nations.

It cannot be sufficiently stressed that early imperial Christians, from emperors to peasants, grew to maturity in an environment where complete obedience to a prestigious, omnipotent State was generally taken for granted and where those well placed to serve its interests could gain handsome rewards of money, political influence, and fame for everyone around them to appreciate and envy. All that was needed for a believer who was either overwhelmed with awe before the majesty of Rome or himself tempted to bless the “converted” Greco-Roman Establishment in its “business as usual” activities for the sake of insuring himself a life of peaceful enjoyment of power and riches, was a solid, Christian-sounding cover for his adulation or his crime. A “good story with a happy ending” allowing an “appropriate explanation” for the satisfaction of one’s own strongly ingrained illusions or deeply felt passions was often too seductive for contemporaries to contest and correct.2

Among prelates who—to give him the benefit of the doubt—seem perhaps to have been more overwhelmed with awe than personal desire for riches and glory was the first great Church Historian, Eusebius, the Bishop of Caesarea (c. 263-339). His Vita and Laudes Constantini helped mightily to create an aura surrounding the Christian Emperor that was crucial to the transformation of his responsibility from one of mere protection of the Pax Christi to that of playing an unacceptable “apostolic” role in shaping it. Eusebius expressly rejected discussing anything in Constantine’s Vita that could be unedifying from a Christian standpoint, even though the full story might have sent the orthodox believer hunting for a much more certain shield and buckler. Having assured us of Constantine’s beneficence by suppressing any evidence that might contradict its validity, he then moved on, in the Laudes, delivered on the thirtieth anniversary of the Emperor’s reign in 335, to set a tone in praise of the faith-friendly ruler destined for a long history of imitation down to the present day:3

Eusebius begins with the assurance that he intends to avoid any display of rhetoric. He believes that the Emperor is a human being set apart from other human beings in that he is ‘perfect in wisdom, in goodness, in justice, in courage, in piety, in devotion to God: the Emperor truly and he alone is a philosopher, for he knows himself, and he is fully aware that an abundance of every blessing is showered on him from a source quite external to himself, even from heaven itself’. Eusebius compares him to the sun: ‘Thus our Emperor, like the radiant sun, illuminates the most distant subjects of his empire through the presence of his Caesars, as with the far piercing rays of his own brightness’. His Empire is ‘the imitation of the monarchical power in heaven’, because he has consciously modeled his government after that in heaven.

‘Invested as he is with a semblance of heavenly sovereignty, he directs his gaze above, and frames his earthly government according to the pattern of that Divine original, feeling strength in its conformity to the monarchy of God. And this conformity is granted by the universal Sovereign to man alone of the creatures of this earth: for He alone is the author of the sovereign power, Who decreed that all should be subject to the rule of the one. And surely monarchy far transcends every other constitution and form of government: for that democratic equality of power, which is its opposite, may rather be described as anarchy and disorder.’

Throughout the rest of the oration Constantine is praised for his achievements, and for the blessings resulting from the freedom which he gave to the Church. In the last chapter Eusebius refers again to Constantine’s own sermon: ‘Discourses and precepts and exhortations to a virtuous and holy life, are proclaimed in the ears of all nations. Nay, the Emperor himself proclaims them: and it is indeed a marvel that this mighty prince, raising his voice in the hearing of all the world, like an interpreter of the Almighty Sovereign’s will, invites his subjects in every country to the knowledge of the true God’.

This imperial aura was enhanced still further through the work of those less savory and much more openly political and self-serving personalities whom we refer to as “court bishops”. Certain third century prelates, like that Paul of Samosata (200-275) who served the rebellious Zenobia of Palmyra (240-after 274) in the Middle East, already prefigured the type.4 Nevertheless, court bishops became much more common from Constantine’s day onwards, once being a prelate anywhere in the Empire really began to “pay”.

It is hard to decide exactly where to place another Eusebius, the Bishop of Nicomedia (d. 341), an advisor to Constantine and a friend and strong supporter of the Egyptian heretic, Arius (250/256-336).5 Was he a hidden member of the GCSQ, using his influence over imperial policy to twist Christianity to serve the cause of “business as usual”? Or was he a clever, though heretical Christian, himself manipulating the machinery of a State still fumbling towards an understanding of how it should act with regard to the demands of the Faith? Whatever the answer, the kind of violent, politicizing measures that he advocated and enforced were representative of the general approach of the court bishop, and the many prelates that followed his example are equally representative of the same spiritually destructive phenomenon. So numerous were they in the years to come that St. Basil the Great (330-379) could, with accuracy, respond to an imperial messenger startled to find a successor to the apostles who would not willingly agree to sign on the dotted line of yet another politically-motivated “religious” document that, perhaps, he had never actually met a real bishop before.6

Through the work of all three groups—disguised members of the GCSQ active in both governmental and rhetorical professions, overawed or venal prelates, and court bishops—the obedience of the Church to a State that proclaimed itself her “friend” began to be presented as the sole path to the creation of a peaceful and ordered Christendom, as God Almighty wanted it to be structured. The Mystical Body of Christ was thereby expected to accept everything ordered under its traditional aegis as normative, not simply from a customary Roman standpoint, but, much more importantly, from a Christian one as well. Obedience was due to the Empire because she was sacred and apostolic in and of herself, in addition to possessing the glory that came from being Roman and ancient. Isocrates himself could not have devised a better appropriation of a grand theme for a purpose of justifying unquestioned political power.

Despite the fact that the unconscious and conscious authors of this pleasant deception intended their ideas to apply only to the Roman imperial order, they produced a model that could be—and was—used to mould Church-State relations in Persia, Armenia, and Georgia also.7 In fact, they produced a model, mutatis mutandis, useful to anyone interested in defending the natural actions of the political and passionate powers-that-be from a supernatural Christian standpoint at any time or place in history. And this includes a contemporary America that has found that claiming that it is interested in doing nothing of the sort is more useful to working for “business as usual” against Christian interference with “nature as is” than any other previous willful approach to life. But in pointing to that truth, I am getting much too far ahead of the bad uses of this “good story” than is suitable for illustrating its immediate dangers in the imperial era.

B. The Good Story Goes Awry

Great doctrinal difficulties regarding this “good story with a happy ending” immediately arose during the reign of Constantine himself. This need not have been the case if the State and its advisors had acted properly, or even known what “acting properly” meant. Church leaders could not logically deny that there were many reasons why any political authority might legitimately be concerned with various disputes regarding the nature of the Faith. After all, Gnosticism espoused an anti-nature ideology denying the State’s very reason for existence. African Donatism, which based the exercise of ecclesiastical authority upon personal sanctity, could easily be applied to the civil sphere and become as threatening to the smooth functioning of the machinery of the government as to that of the Church.8 Men like Bishop Priscillian (d. 385) and his followers, rightly or wrongly accused of being members of a secretive, charismatic, orgiastic cult, could reasonably arouse the interest of all conscientious political officials.9 Neither the bloodshed on the streets in Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria that accompanied Nestorian and Monophysite battles from the fifth century onwards, nor the bad morale of eighth century troops convinced that military problems at the front were connected with public appreciation of sacred images, could be looked upon as matters of little or no community interest.10 Any State that refused to treat such issues as serious matters would not be worthy of its name or its God-given mission to maintain natural peace and public order. A Church that imperiously prohibited the State from asking questions regarding its duty in this realm—as many would insist appertains in our own time—would unjustifiably be overstepping the proper boundary between religious and political authorities.

Similarly, there ought to be no surprise that Church leaders might also be positively happy with active State involvement in such disputes. Both Scripture and theological logic argued the need for a symphonia of Church and State. Almost all contemporary believers grew up in a Roman world where the emperor was responsible for the Pax deorum. It would have been quite natural for most of them to presume that, once converted, he would be equally responsible for guaranteeing the Pax Christi. And what was the alternative? Should Christians be condemned to look on helplessly as Gnostic interlopers and heretical mobs forcibly took over dioceses and parishes that a friendly Empire might be willing to aid the orthodox to keep under their own control?

Assistance in maintaining the ecclesiastical peace in union with the dictates of the proper apostolic authorities would thus have been justifiable and profitable for both Church and State. In fact, a desire to offer just such a mutually justifiable assistance seems to have been the primary motive behind the first of Constantine’s interventions in Church affairs, with respect to the Donatist Crisis in Africa.11 Unfortunately, however, innovative and manipulative forms of interference in doctrinal matters very swiftly became the norm. Court bishops were actively associated with this interference from almost the very outset, from the moment that Eusebius of Nicomedia began his relentless efforts to win the emperor to a revision of the decisions of the Council of Nicaea (325) condemning the teaching of his friend, Arius of Alexandria.12 Government officials immediately realized that the ambitions, envies, and fears of such bishops could easily be stimulated and directed to the support of the primarily political goals—once again, the goals of “nature as is”—that they believed required changes in Church teaching.

Perhaps the greatest basic structural victory for the State in this politicizing enterprise was its molding of the idea of the special importance of a number of imperial bishops—those who came to be referred to as “patriarchs”—into a tool for the more effective exercise of its “sacred” influence over the Church. If it won this victory on the practical level by stirring up ambition, envy, and fear among court bishops, it achieved it on the intellectual plane by relating the significance of a patriarchal See not to its apostolic origins but to its urban political role within the Empire. It was in this way that the Bishop of Constantinople gained entry into the camp of super dioceses forming the so-called Pentarchy, which, in its completed state, included the Bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. While it is true that there was a general, subsequent ecclesiastical acceptance of the utility of dealing with Church affairs through the structure provided by its various “patriarchates”, this fait accompli cannot masquerade their origin in the machinations of men who were eager to secure through them the predominance of traditional political considerations.13

In any case, the number of court patriarch, court bishop, and direct government ministerial campaigns involving unjustifiable and reprehensible paths to defining, changing, and obstructing religious doctrine of central importance to the work of correction and transformation of nature take us from Trinitarian through Christological to Iconoclast Controversies with depressing regularity. Rather than governing their dioceses, bishops complicit in these matters wandered the Empire, presiding over kangaroo courts that persecuted orthodox prelates and laymen openly critical of the secularization of religious affairs. Rather than focusing on their primarily political tasks, state bureaucrats aided such court bishops by “going clerical”—doing dubious, threatening, and often outright subversive service as officials at religious councils derailed for governmental purposes.

Every tool imaginable was utilized in such proceedings, with personal libel and slander—such as the accusation that St. Athanasius of Alexandria was conspiring to cut off the Egyptian grain supply to Constantinople and that he was guilty of manslaughter—often at the top of the list.14 Even the intellectual historical record was brutalized, with the reputations of long dead theologians who were incapable of defending themselves blackened in the process.15 The consequence was the exile, imprisonment, and death of many good prelates, the disruption of normal diocesan life, and—ironically but not surprisingly to the man who sees the world through the eyes of Christ—damage to the long-term security of the imperial order itself. For unwarranted state religious policies adopted by men with a political tunnel vision often actually aided and abetted local parochial-minded forces totally indifferent or hostile to the survival of a cosmopolitan Empire.

Unwarranted interference in doctrinal affairs was always reprehensible. But it is only right to indicate that a number of Church Fathers and solid believers found even the justifiable assistance offered by the newly Christian Roman State to be often somewhat problematic. St. Augustine (354-430), who openly favored the use of government authority for peacekeeping purposes, made it clear that he himself never actually liked dealing with the civil authorities.16 His reasons are not difficult to grasp. After all, anything “new”, like the Church, confronting a force and a set of standard operating procedures as ancient as those of “Eternal Rome” was bound to be at something of a disadvantage even in the best of situations.

A major difficulty inherent in this interaction was that one could never fully predict what would come of Roman State involvement in the long run. Libertarians would argue that such a comment speaks clearly on behalf of the abandonment of all governmental interference in religious concerns. If so, it would also argue for the abandonment of any help from any individual or any institution in any religious endeavor whatsoever, perhaps all the more especially in this springtime of Christendom. The fact is that human action in and of itself is “dangerous”, and those who insist that this danger can be avoided through the separation of Christianity from whatever natural force is brought into question by them are merely concocting another “good story with a happy ending” hiding the real truth about the facts of life. By, in effect, abandoning living due to the dangers of life, they simply create a different kind of situation wherein the impact of the Word in history will inevitably be severely limited. They euthanize the message of the Word for the sake of supposedly maintaining its purity. Still, there is no denying that imperial unpredictability was indeed a fact of life, and that this was to a large degree due to the second problem stemming from a merely rhetorical proclamation of the State’s full Christian conversion: the reality of the continued hold upon it of that pagan moral vision that precisely needed to be corrected and transformed—with all the tools at one’s disposal.

In addressing this issue, let us give credit where credit is due. There is ample evidence that the imperial State rather swiftly recognized a need for at least a theoretical public commitment to truly substantive Christian moral change. Various revisions of the Law Code from the 400’s onwards incarnated an awareness of the consequences of this dedication quite vividly. Moreover, governmental support for Church control of numerous public spaces did allow for a great deal of influence over communal and individual human action conducive to effective, practical, long-term moral change.17

But the penalty-rich clauses of Law Codes, along with formal Church control of public spaces, are no absolute indicators of what people were actually doing in daily life to enforce or respond to their theoretically powerful impact. Examination of contemporary evidence thus reveals what should be obvious: the enormous amount of work that still needed to be done in the moral sphere, both in instilling a general sense of Christian justice and charity as well as in awakening a specific consciousness of what was and was not acceptable State and individual behavior in the eyes of the Church.

Hence, the traditional pagan severity of the Rome State at times easily overcame all of its professed Christian sentiments. This was especially noticeable when it engaged in practical “defense” of a Faith that was both eager to display compassion and also quite aware of the complexities of the human comedy. Government implementation of justifiable anti-heretical policies often lacked all nuance, dismayed orthodox leaders, and created bitter animosities among their victims in consequence. The imperial authorities’ ingrained pagan willfulness, and their tendency arbitrarily to change their spiritual policies for some perceived—and quite temporary—secular good, often wreaked further havoc. Whenever such changes suddenly led to an end to persecution and an opening for heretical vengeance, bitterness then overflowed from the inner to the outer realm. The results were almost invariably detrimental to orthodox belief and believers. Periodic State attack and retreat in dealing with the Donatists of Africa in the 300’s and 400’s offer a major illustration of the evils experienced by faithful clergy and laity from the combined flaws of such exaggerated severity and unexpected tolerance.18

Any serious investigation of the Donatist controversy also must bring with it mention of another broad area of imperial moral failure that certainly played a major role in that particular struggle: addressing what modern theologians would call the economic “structures of sin”. Shabby treatment of the poor and the powerless at the hands of a fabulously wealthy senatorial aristocracy was endemic to the Roman system. Any supposed conversion of the imperial order to Christianity that did not confront the moral problem of social injustice risked arousing people against the Faith, when their argument was really with an Establishment that was as yet but “baptized” in name only. Politically useful manipulation of the language of religion thus served to obscure the real teaching of the Word in history with respect to economic social issues, turning men against the Church instead of the deconstructionism of the storytellers. Alas, as our own daily experience teaches us, it would not be the last time a shameful political use of religion in this realm would cause similar mistakes to be made.19

A list of further woes stemming from traditional perceptions of acceptable State behavior is easily compiled. Theodosius’ indiscriminate massacre of innocent and guilty Thessalonians in the wake of a seditious riot in 390 reflected customary political wisdom in desperate need of Christian moral correction. Moreover, to say that court marital and sexual practices were less than satisfactory from the standpoint of transformation in Christ would be a “howler” of an historical understatement. If the women of the Theodosian Dynasty were the models for Christian marriage and motherhood, what possible change could one say had been effected in upper class, familial “business as usual” through the Incarnation of the Son of God?20

Not that one should idolize the ordinary man’s behavior in these matters either. Generally, of course, aside from periodic explosions in politically significant mob action, the story of the average individual’s comportment in any sphere of life remains imperfectly recorded. Nevertheless, it appears to be obvious that the most historically significant moral problem of the Late Empire was the seemingly total indifference of most of the Roman population, low as well as high, to any sense whatsoever of the greater common good. This indifference combined nicely with a desire to satisfy momentary and rather pointless pleasures whenever opportunities to do so arose.

It is for this reason that the powerful had no problem stirring up the vile passions of the popular horse racing factions in the circus in order to shore up a longed-for or endangered imperial political position. Hence, also, men of all classes were ready to risk the very survival of the State for protection or enhancement of their political and financial position, as the maneuvering surrounding the Gothic invasion of Italy in the first decade of the fifth century so amply indicates. Who thinks of the Empire, St. Augustine wondered aloud, absolutely bewildered that refugees arriving from Rome in 410 were more interested in the theater schedule and the successes of their favorite stage actors in Carthage than they were moved to any anguish over the unprecedented sacking of the Eternal City. And Salvian refers to a similar phenomenon in southern Gaul somewhat later in the same century, noting that the individual members of the population somehow had “a smile” on their faces, happy with the satisfaction of their base passions, even though anyone with eyes to see could realize that they were rapidly dying as a viable Roman community.21

Christian failings once more helped to aid and abet these moral flaws. Yes, there were powerful voices from among the faithful that were raised to forward the work of correction and elevation of minds and spirits. Some, among them St. Ambrose (c. 340-397), Bishop of Milan, who lashed out at Theodosius over the Thessalonica issue, were actually even successful in their intervention. Others, like St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), Patriarch of Constantinople, who vigorously fought injustice to the poor, conspicuous consumption, marital abuse, and general lasciviousness, endured public humiliation and exile as the price for speaking out.22

Sadly, however, all too many Christians were themselves uncertain trumpets in the war for a change in moral behavior. Some, of course, could not bring themselves to say or do anything in this realm because they were overawed or venal prelates and court bishops of the type discussed above. Others were simply not yet themselves fully awakened to the revolutionary moral consequences of their transformed life in Christ. Unaware of just how deeply revelation and grace were meant to touch them, they were thus incapable of changing their own behavior sufficiently to serve as an example to others and palpably to affect their entire social environment.

This is certainly true with respect to marital concerns. An early example of the problems caused by the influence of the power of mere custom can be seen within the ranks of Church officials themselves, including holy ones. Hippolytus (d. c. 236), an antipope and yet a saint, brutally attacked his fellow hero of the Faith, Pope St. Calixtus (d. 222), as an immoralist. What, exactly, was the nature of Calixtus’ “crime”? It appears to have been merely that of violating traditional Roman practice by permitting the marriage of slaves with freemen. But difficulties in the marital realm were much broader still. In fact, one has the impression that many and even most of the Church Fathers could not bring themselves joyfully to admit the full, sacramental beauty of sexual union in a marriage open to children—and this, despite the fact that their own fundamental theology ought to have led them to embrace such a concept with understanding and joy.23

Christian embrace of the struggle for social justice was another palpably weak spot. Yes, others beside St. John Chrysostom were deeply concerned about this important issue. Still, it does not appear to have been as important a matter as its significance in daily life ought to have made it, especially when one considers the misery of the mass of the Roman rural population. Perhaps influential orthodox Christians may have not concerned themselves with rural poverty due to the continued paganism of much of the peasantry. Perhaps they may have been frightened off all serious treatment of moral questions concerning wealth and indigence given that both Pelagius (c. 354--c. 420-440), as well as a number of heretics from Africa, where we have seen that the problems of social injustice were very pronounced, openly expressed interest in them.24

It is also conceivable that a focus on such social issues was deflected by notable changes in the character of the higher clergy from the late fourth century onwards. Clearly, with the legalization of Christianity, members of the senatorial aristocracy began to occupy major positions in the Church. This was partly due to the fact that obtaining a prelature became ever more socially acceptable. Fairness, however, dictates indicating that it was also owed to significant pressure from below, since the average man, accurately judging contemporary realities, often encouraged acceptance of the rich and the powerful as bishops. After all, only they had the education granting them an ability to “tell a good story” in defense of the Church and her true needs, as well as the wherewithal from their families to pay for houses of worship and ecclesiastical activities in general. Whatever the reason for their investiture with Church authority, such prelates would quite naturally have been tempted to bring with them their own customary vision—religiously, politically, and socially—when they entered upon their episcopal tasks. And such a vision took for granted the need to focus their attention more upon cementing the advantages and honors given by the imperial government to the clergy as a social class than upon the perennial sufferings of the poor.

Co-option into the existing establishment was also effected through State policy regarding the lower clergy. Christian priests were an administrative godsend to Rome. One of the greatest problems of the Dominate had been the increasing flight of those elements of the local urban population responsible for maintaining civil services—the so-called curiales—from their traditional duties. These tasks were swiftly handed over to the clergy in exchange for their exemption from taxation and certain other public burdens. But whether positively sought after or unwillingly foisted upon it, the greater the clergy’s devotion of attention to traditional corporate class concerns, the less the time and inclination available to them to probe the full meaning of a corrected and transformed Christian social order and to work to achieve it.25

Finally, yet a third problem emerged from the “good story with a happy ending” regarding the “obvious” conversion of the Roman State, turning it into a trustworthy, sacred, and apostolic guide for the faithful. This centered round the rather important matter of the imperial government’s actual ability to perform its tasks as defender of any kind of order, Pax Christi or otherwise. If the Roman State were somehow divinely written into the very nature of things, then it must be supported and invoked for proper protection under all circumstances. No one could be permitted to look anywhere else for political and military assistance than to the Sacred Empire. But if, in practice, it were not an absolutely unalterable element in the eternal plan of God, and could be subject to decline and even actual collapse, such unquestioning support would be a dangerous delusion. Church failure to maintain the proper pilgrimage spirit and remain open to the new steps regularly required to dance the ever-changing dance of life on the political level would be tantamount to flirtation with physical disaster.

To the great sorrow of many Christians of good will, the question of the real power of the Empire became an immediate and demoralizing issue from the late 370’s onwards—precisely the moment of its full public “conversion”. Interestingly enough, the initial reason for this development stemmed directly from the moral flaws discussed above. Goths terrified by the approach of the Huns had begged permission to cross the Danube, and were robbed and humiliated by the self-serving imperial officials responsible for their admission into the Empire. Desperation drove the despoiled barbarians to a rampage, ending in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 with the unexpected, disastrous defeat of the Roman Army and the death of the Emperor Valens—ironically, another political manipulator of the Faith—himself.26

Through a number of twists and turns in the following forty years, aided, once again, by a self-serving short-sightedness on the part of imperial officials, this victory led the Goths to a development of their knowledge of Roman military discipline and strategy, a ravaging of the Balkan Peninsula, a migration to Italy, and a final settlement further westward, in southern Gaul and Spain. Complications related to the Gothic advance into the West brought the withdrawal of Roman forces from Britain and their all-too predictable diversion from public service to private empire building on the Continent. Angle and Saxon mercenaries hired by the unwarlike British population to shield its now unprotected cities soon exploited that island to their own advantage. Roman Britons retreated to the far west and an ever more impoverished and ultimately quite pathetic parochial existence. Withdrawal of Roman forces from the northern frontiers on the Continent also precipitated a massive invasion of a mixture of Vandals, Sueves, and Alans across the Rhine in 406, an assault which led to an advance all the way to Iberia and North Africa. Rome was sacked twice in the course of these various incursions, in 410 and 455.

Although the Roman State in the West broke down in its attempts to deal with such an absolutely unexpected and unprecedented disaster, its eastern machinery seemed, at first, up to the task of coping with it. German Gothic forces near Constantinople and in Asia Minor, though very threatening indeed, were brutally and thoroughly destroyed in the course of the fifth century. By the 530’s, the western-born Emperor Justinian (527-565) felt strong enough to conduct a massive campaign to assure the re-conquest of North Africa, Italy, and Spain. While partly successful in the short run, this effort nevertheless had many unintended negative consequences.

For one thing, the Empire in the East found that its campaigns far afield left it exposed to military problems closer to home. Slavic and Bulgar incursions into the Balkan Peninsula now became regular, and a major Persian invasion in the early 600’s almost brought the Empire to its knees. Even though the Emperor Heraclius (610-641) brilliantly repelled this latter attack, bringing disaster to Persia rather than Rome, his victory proved to be bittersweet. It was quickly followed by defeat after defeat at the unexpected hands of the upstart Arab Moslems, who not only took over the crushed Persian realm but also stripped the Empire of Egypt, North Africa, the Holy Land, and Syria. The loss of Egypt by 642 was particularly painful, since it meant an end to the distribution of the food supplies that had arrived for centuries from this granary of Mediterranean wide significance.

Roman power, therefore, was by no means an absolutely certain divine pillar upon which the Church could base her hopes for defense of the Pax Christi. On the other hand, Rome’s apparent inability to protect any political and social order meant that the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo could not be shielded by it either. Patronage for hidden pagan bureaucrats, sophist word merchants, and court bishops was threatened. Even the bellies of the easily suborned mobs that had counted upon government handouts for survival since the days of Gaius Gracchus under the old Republic could no longer be filled.

But the GCSQ really did not need to despair. Ironically—if not really surprisingly—each and every frighteningly new force that menaced the Greco-Roman ecumene brought fresh recruits into the ranks of that multi-faceted alliance. The short-lived but highly disruptive Persian invasion of the early 600’s aided it chiefly by temporarily unchaining the long repressed parochial wrath of the Jews of the Levant. Thrilled by this obstacle to the relentless progress of Christian evangelization, they actively assisted Persian Zoroastrian persecution.27 Permanent Germanic and Slavic penetration from the late fourth century onwards, on the other hand, insured long-lasting assistance to the GCSQ through the reinforcement their peoples offered for the whole of the pagan vision of nature as the realm of “business as usual”. They provided such assistance even when they had converted to Arian Christianity. After all, this heresy, with its emphasis upon descending levels of divine persons, supported the concept of a great chain of being that, in practice, allowed a continued space for other gods of nature, divinized secular customs, and sacred pagan kingship to flourish. In fact, one might conjecture that it may have been for this very reason that men like Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia promoted its victory in the first place.28

Despite its semi-Christian flavor, Islam also gave solid aid to the cause of the GCSQ. Yes, the Moslems, reflecting definite Christian influences upon Mohammed, seemed to be concerned for a life of moral change in service of the one true God, with the final purpose of obtaining eternal life for both body and soul. In reality, however, their description of eternity was quite simplistic and carnal in character. It itself appeared to be shaped by natural desires rather than possessing a distinct supernatural character capable of correcting and transforming the everyday mental conceptions and passions of a fallen world.

Similarly, Moslem doctrines could be seen to have provided a noble sounding masquerade—a higher “point of view”—for the furtherance of the interests and successes of a variety of “super clans”, first Arab Bedouin, then those of other ethnic groups as well. Such self-interested manipulation took place everywhere, from Spain to India. These super clans shaped the “appropriate explanation” of what was true, good, and beautiful for the Moslem community—the Umma—as a whole. Many Moslem beliefs and behavioral patterns, and even the accepted text of the Koran and sayings of the Prophet, thus underwent changes according to the specific demands of each of these willful forces, according to place and time. In short, a “good and noble foundation story” was molded to the needs of the strongest factions in classic, Isocrates-friendly fashion. Needless to say, those clan interests, in practice, do not appear to have been particularly concerned for a “boat-rocking” correction and transformation of natural life truly threatening to the standard operating procedures of the status quo.

Yes, there is no denying that certain ideas and labors analogous to Christian ones can indeed be found inside the Moslem community. This is especially true with respect to two phenomena: 1) the hunt for union with a supernatural God pursued by a number of Sufi mystics, and their desire to pass on an understanding of its consequences through their many varied “brotherhoods”; and 2) the speculations of Shiite thinkers in trying to guide daily life in the absence of the true ruler of the Umma, the Hidden Imam. Nevertheless, I would argue that all such highly interesting and often laudable enterprises do not represent the kind of life-changing force rooted in the truly supernatural vision of Christianity. Their value is of the “Seed of the Logos” genre, enhanced, in the case of Islam, by the impact of those Jewish and Christian elements that did form a major component of Moslem beliefs and behavior. But, once again, as St. Justin Martyr indicated, it was only the Catholic Faith that could properly understand and bring such noble endeavors to safe and profitable port.29

C. The Troubled Progress of the True Story

Great theological progress in understanding the “true story” regarding the meaning of the Incarnation occurred throughout the various stages of the imperial era, even amidst the seemingly endless turmoil and the political manipulation masqueraded by the “good story” of the sacred State and its protection of the Pax Christi. This progress, as briefly indicated above, took place in the context of intense discussions concerning the nature of the Trinity (Arianism), of Christ (Nestorianism and Monophysitism), of the character of the Church and her ministers (Donatism), of the relationship of grace and freedom (Pelagianism), of the created universe as a whole (Iconoclasm), and of proper Christian behavior and the path to perfection (sacramental theology, monasticism, mysticism, marriage, social justice). Through this progress, believers gained an ever-deeper knowledge of the Word Incarnate in se and the Word Incarnate continued in time—namely, Christ and His Church. They also advanced in understanding both the meaning of individual “divinization” in and through mankind’s Redeemer as well as the proper use of the natural environment in which we perform our pilgrim dance through life to eternity.

Although a myriad of thinkers played important roles in ensuring this magnificent growth in supernatural wisdom, the key figures in Christian progress in the Faith are St. Athanasius (c. 296-373), St. Hilary of Poitiers (d. 368), the Cappadocian Fathers—St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory Nazianzen (c. 325-389), St. Greogry of Nyssa (d.c. 386)—St. Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375-444), St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662), and St. John of Damascus. Their work was reflected in the decisions of almost all of the initial ecumenical councils—Nicaea, First Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Third Constantinople (687-688), and Second Nicaea (787) —and in that of numerous secondary, local synods as well.30

In The Whole Christ, his seminal work of the 1920’s on the concept of the Mystical Body and individual Christian deification, the Jesuit writer Emile Mersch catalogued this historical development in knowledge of the consequences of the Incarnation in powerful detail for western readers.31 And it was one of the finest accomplishments of Werner Jaeger, in his somewhat later studies of Greco-Roman and Christian paideia, to have demonstrated the increasing awareness on the part of the Church Fathers of just how much Christian revelation could and did work providentially together with the best fruits of ancient natural wisdom.32

Theological development, as we have seen, was not assured without serious struggles and limitations. One of the most instructive battles illustrating this problem-laden progress concerns the reception of the teaching of St. Augustine, which was seriously resisted not just by friends of Pelagius but also in a number of quite distinct monastic circles. Many monks saw in the Bishop of Hippo’s emphasis upon the central importance of grace a condemnation of their efforts to labor for personal salvation. Here, once again, both an appreciation of the complexity of the individual human dance to sanctity, as well as an intellectual openness to the varied insights of distinct personalities, did a great deal to overcome such misunderstanding.33 We will have something more to say about such perception and openness in the final section of this chapter. Furthermore, much of the labor leading to theological progress was pursued under the pressure of combat with heretical enemies whose thorough defeat and unconditional surrender heroic fighters for the Faith judged to be essential to Church survival. This conviction was indeed correct. Nevertheless, progress through difficult combat against highly specific, frightening, and often extremely gifted opponents over long stretches of time had unfortunate as well as happy consequences.

Two nefarious side effects are especially important to mention, the first of which was the encouragement that a number of orthodox victories gave to certain understandable but unfounded conclusions regarding the way in which the Faith should be protected. Unfortunately, these included the hope that the mere reiteration of words—even meaningful doctrinal words---along with an exaggerated reverence for the work of heroes—even real heroes in justifiable battles versus error; the pronounced demonization of heretics—even true heretics---along with an excessive reliance on force—even when the arm of the State could and should be legitimately applied—were sufficient in and of themselves for a complete defense of the Christian vision.

A second unhappy side effect was the fact that progress through combat against very specific heresies and heretics frequently diverted attention away from a global presentation of the whole of Christian doctrine. By this, I do not mean to say that some already existing, complete, and calm endeavor of this type was somehow stopped in its tracks by the more specific Trinitarian, Christological, and manifold other battles that actually did take place historically. Nor am I arguing that the task of probing the import of each and every aspect of Revelation simultaneously is a painless enterprise, or even, in the short or long run, that it is humanly possible.

What I do wish to illustrate is the simple truth that the path to doctrinal clarification was historically piecemeal and, as such, often so concentrated on narrow issues as to lead to the neglect of other problems that would return to haunt men, often in the very near future. In the midst of battle, new “good stories” and “appropriate explanations of a passionately desired victory” of dubious character were all too readily concocted. Individual theologians, given ethnic groups, and certain monks, all of them of real merit in one set of conflicts, were lent an air of infallibility and unquestionable holiness that masqueraded dangerous errors and moral failings in other, subsequent clashes. Alliances formed to fight one narrow group of heretics proved to include thinkers harboring contrasting but equally heretical positions. Partisan spirits were cultivated and base actions embraced to ensure what amounted to tainted victories. Maginot Lines built to fight off one enemy ignored the fact that all of their weapons were turned in a single direction, encouraging outflanking maneuvers emerging from different starting points, and even from unrecognized troublemakers already subverting the orthodox camp from within.

All of this disheartened men of sounder doctrine and Christian charity. It fact, it sometimes drove them away from involvement in battles that desperately required their more balanced participation. It also inevitably led to eventual surprises and disappointments for the heroes of the latest, exaggerated “good story”, once their own failings were exposed for everyone to see. Such men were then often tempted to vent their outrage over the “injustice” perpetrated against them by turning against the Church whose sole real defenders they had unquestioningly considered themselves to be. Many even ended their careers by entering, for their own varied reasons, into the already terribly complicated and conflicted ranks of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo.

Theological eyeteeth were cut during the Trinitarian conflicts, the most important of which was the long-lived and variegated Arian Crisis. Still, a good argument can be made that the most difficult matters and the most fruitful long-term developments emerged from two other doctrinal battles: the seemingly innumerable combats over Christology and the subsequent Iconoclast Controversy. Let us look at each of these two struggles in some detail before turning our attention to the equally painful—but comparably productive—question of Church response to the Roman State’s political and social decline.

Christological quarrels were an inevitable corollary of the earlier Trinitarian fray. Once the Church had somewhat satisfactorily clarified the relationship of the Word to the Father and to the Holy Spirit, the study of the relationship of Word and man in Jesus Christ had to rise to the fore. Grave public strife over this topic was first engaged over the supposedly all too humanized understanding of Christ promoted by Patriarch Nestorius of Constantinople (c. 386-c. 451), whose views and person were condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It then exploded into a centuries-long fury regarding the beliefs of Nestorius’ enemies, the Monophysites.34

Monophysites were deeply attached to St. Cyril of Alexandria’s doctrine of Christ as the “one incarnate nature—monophysis—of the Eternal Word”. They argued that the definition by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 of Our Lord’s possession of two natures, human and divine, united in the single Person of the Divine Word, blessed a dogma that actually “divided Christ”. Such a division, Monophysites claimed, lessened a proper sense of Christ’s overwhelming “otherness”. And thus, they asserted, it promoted the dangerous naturalist tendencies lurking in the bowels of the Nestorian vision.

Intense struggles over Monophysitism had already begun in the discussions at Ephesus concerning the true import of Nestorius’ teachings. Some of that quarreling was, quite frankly, embarrassingly silly—a combat over mere words that could have been explained in a variety of acceptable fashions, had Nestorius’ arrogance, the general party passions on both sides, and a mutual desire to destroy one’s opponents rather than understand their meaning not dominated the “debate”. Much of the discussion, on the other hand, was very significant indeed. Still, one really has to await the seventh century Monothelite flip on the basic Monophysite argument in order to get a sense of the full consequences of adopting or rejecting the substantive doctrines of the pro- and anti-Chalcedonian partisans.

Before doing so, however, it is necessary first to return to the problem of the Roman State’s responsibility for the maintenance of public order. However much the imperial government might have wished to avoid interfering in ecclesiastical dogmatic definition, Monophysites, their prelates, and their local supporters in Egypt, Syria, and Constantinople—militant and sometimes quite brutal monks prominent among them—made it difficult to resist that temptation. Devout followers of St. Cyril proved themselves ready to ally together with and even imitate the vices of men driven by more specious spiritual and secular considerations. They then became dangerous disturbers of the peace and agents of official corruption. Any State qua State would have been shaken by the tumult these Monophysites caused. Effective Roman control over whole provinces was brought into question by it.

Hence, the manifold efforts by the Emperors in Constantinople, starting with Zeno (474-491), Anastasius (491-518), and that ambivalent reconciliatory document called the Henoticon (482), to find some kind of rhetorical play on words—some “good story”—to overcome the divisions that the Chalcedonian definition had sharpened and come to symbolize. These endeavors continued with various projects of the Emperor Justinian. The most despicable of his “pacifying” doctrinal interventions once again involved the condemnations of deceased thinkers disliked by the Monophysites and unable to defend themselves against charges of heresy. Such game playing came to a conclusion with the work of the Emperors Heraclius and Constans II (641-668) in support of the last of these rhetorical flights of fancy—the one developed by Patriarch Sergius I (610-638) of Constantinople.

Sergius’ theology was first built upon Monoenergism. This argued that the doctrine of Christ’s two natures as defined by Chalcedon did not destroy His unity because the Savior’s “oneness” was manifested by His possession of a single divine energy. Various reasons led Sergius to modify the Monoenergist approach, substituting divine will for divine energy as the unifying principle. It was this “one divine will” or Monothelite vision that Heraclius promoted through a document known as the Ecthesis in 638. The Typos (648) under Constans II came out of the inevitable turmoil created by the Ecthesis, and sought to ensure acceptance of the Monothelite position by the simple expedient of prohibiting all discussion of its doctrinal purity from the orthodox camp. Once again, “pragmatists” thought that the time had come to deal with a substantive religious issue crucial to the meaning of the Word by declaring its “closure” for the sake of “public order” and the need to “move on” to the “real life” concerns dictated by “nature as is”.

Every stage of the politically and socially troubled Christological debate provides ample lessons to learn. Still, there are two chief reasons why the Monothelite flip in particular offers one of the best ways of tackling the whole of the tumultuous imperial advance in knowledge of the full impact of the Word as the redemptive force in history. First of all, on the practical level, the resolution of this controversy clarified the position of the pope, the so-called Patriarch of Rome, more sharply than ever before. Secondly, in the speculative realm, the struggle against Monotheletism provided a means for “summing up” the thrust of the entire Christological battle. Both of these reasons are best discussed in tandem.35

Roman Pontiffs repeatedly fade in and out of the life of the universal Church in the early centuries of Christian History.36 Yes, Pope St. Clement I (88-97) powerfully outlined the nature of the agmen we call the Mystical Body of Christ. And, true, the roles of Popes Julius I (337-352) and Liberius (352-366), the one positive and the other negative in character, are important to confront in any attempt to grasp the complex story of the Empire-wide battle over Arianism. Nevertheless, most of what we hear concerning Rome in those first years of ecclesiastical growth involves issues important to the Eternal City herself or her relations with the Church of Carthage in North Africa.

Temptations to parochialism were intensified in Rome by the political problems of the Empire in the West from the early fifth century onwards. These crises led to the domination of Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain, and Africa by various German tribes. The paganism and Arianism of the tribesmen concerned then dragged western bishops in general into difficult battles with forces that, from the standpoint of the rest of the Empire, were more and more anachronistic in character.

All this changed as the Papacy’s universal role grew in significance in the context of the Monophysite Controversy. Let us begin discussing that growth by remembering that it was Pope Leo the Great’s (440-461) Tome (451), with its formula teaching of Christ’s possession of “two natures in the unity of one Divine Person”, which dramatically shaped the dogmatic definition adopted at Chalcedon. Hence, the Papacy understood its own honor to be on trial in the post-conciliar campaign against that teaching’s ecumenical acceptance. Luckily, the Roman Pontiffs were in a better position than anyone else to defend the decisions of Chalcedon. And this was precisely due to the otherwise parochial effects of the barbarian domination of the Italian peninsula and the protection it offered from the possibility of imperial retribution for failure to heed the Henoticon. It is no surprise that it was with reference to the fight against this imperial word merchandizing and for the complete victory of Chalcedonian orthodoxy that Pope Gelasius (492-496) produced his famous “two swords” argument. In this he elaborated and distinguished the roles of the “ordering” State and the “correcting and transforming” Church in the life of Christendom.37

Ironically, papal defense of Chalcedon and the very prestige of the Holy See itself were to become still more significant due to a stimulus arriving from outside of the Eternal City. From the second third of the sixth century onwards, an increased eastern “pilgrim” involvement in Italy not only counteracted the effects of the barbarian incursion but also brought with it an overwhelming increase in papal self-awareness and power. Such Greek-speaking influence then proved to be of crucial significance in fighting against unacceptably pro-Monophysite policies promoted by the supposedly “sacred and apostolic” imperial State.

This is not to say that events seemed propitious from the start. Heightened eastern participation in Italian affairs began with the Emperor Justinian’s re-conquest of the peninsula from the German Ostrogoths, who had first been dispatched as imperial agents under Theodoric in the 490’s. The Ostrogoths were now to be destroyed in a terrible war extending from the 530’s through the 550’s. Bloodshed continued through the subsequent need to defend imperial gains against a new wave of Germanic Lombard invaders first arriving in Italy in 568. Due to the never-ending conflict, Rome and other imperial-ruled sections of the peninsula found themselves playing host to administrative and military personnel from the East, many of them totally ignorant of Latin. These new arrivals could be counted on to support whatever religious word games the Empire might wish to play. Such games were played not only with respect to the doctrinal life of the Church but also with regard to her structure. This could be seen through exaltation of the roles of the bishops of the two imperial centers East and West, Constantinople and Ravenna, to the obvious detriment of that of the pope of “provincial” Rome.

As important and potentially dangerous as such a major bureaucratic and military migration might be, it was overshadowed in future significance by the positive impact of the highly cultivated Christian Hellenists who arrived in one impressive wave in the early 600’s. These later colonists were Greeks or Greek-speaking Syrian, Palestinian, and North African migrants coming to Italy for two related motives. One was to escape the disastrous invasions of the eastern parts of the Empire mentioned above—first by the Persians, and, immediately after their crushing defeat at the hands of imperial forces, by the much more successful Arab Moslems. Another was to flee imperial, pro-Monothelite religious persecutions.38

Many Greeks and Greek-speakers headed to the more culturally related Sicily and southern Italy. Some went on to work as missionaries in the northern part of the peninsula, where, under the name of decumani and pellegrini, they played a definite but little known role in the evangelization of the fearful Lombards. Those who went to Rome tended to settle at a spot that had already become a small Hellenic neighborhood beforehand: the foot of the Aventine Hill. Traces of their presence remain imprinted on this spot still today. The Roman immigrants included numbers of very energetic monks who were formed by a spirituality best represented by St. Sophronius (560-638) of Palestine and his great disciple, the former civil servant and friend of emperors known to us as St. Maximus the Confessor.

This spirituality, among other things, gave open and intense support to the idea of life as a pilgrimage, one of those core principles we have identified as being supremely important for rendering more effective the Church’s labor as the Body of Christ continued in time. St. Sophronius and his followers started with the general monastic recognition that the baggage we carry with us in the form of property and other possessions can very much obscure our vision of our eternal destination. They took this valuable insight still further, noting that ties to one’s home and all the customary aspects of life within it—even though this might be an ascetic monastic center—can be the biggest piece of extra luggage blocking passage to our eternal fatherland. True abandonment to God and His providence thus required a spirit of pilgrimage reflected most palpably in a physical break with everything personally familiar. It involved a taking to the roads and the high seas; a wandering and ever challenging “exile” for Christ’s sake. Wander these men and their spirituality did: from the Holy Land to North Africa; from North Africa to Spain; and perhaps from Spain to Ireland, whence their heirs were destined to wander to Britain and then back to the European Continent—enriched, by then, by yet another, different, but complementary spirituality to be addressed below.

For the moment, let it suffice for us to make two points: first of all, that this spirit of pilgrimage could not help but open up its adepts to that variety and flux of existence, that ever changing dance of life, which would play such a prominent role in the future activity of papal Rome; and, secondly, that these same pilgrim spirits nevertheless insisted that the world of diversity that they encountered must uniformly dance to the tune sung to it by the unchanging Word. As men solidly rooted in the truth, they understood that none of this diversity would be lost through union with and submission to the correcting and transforming grace of Christ. All that would be lost were those aspects of fallen nature truly worth abandoning.

Having reached the Eternal City, the “Greeks”, those from the Holy Land in particular, took over and transformed some already existing monasteries and built many new ones. Greek-speaking monks and clerics then swiftly rose to importance in the seventh century Roman Church. Abbot John Symponus became a kind of “Secretary of State” to Honorius I (625-638) and John IV (640-642). Pope Honorius sent the deacon Sericus to Constantinople as papal ambassador—apocrisiarios—to the imperial court. By the time of the reign of Pope St. Martin I (649-653), Sericus held the key position of Archdeacon of the Roman Church.

Greek officials were henceforth omnipresent: in Rome, as papal envoys abroad, as bishops scattered throughout Italy, and as representatives to General Councils, freely and fluently translating from Latin into Greek and back again. St. Maximus the Confessor, who arrived in the Eternal City at that same time, found that there were so many Greek-speakers active in the Roman clergy that he could even play a central role in Church affairs without knowing any Latin whatsoever. So numerous were these local and peninsular “Greeklings” that “the biographer of St. Wilfrid of Hexham noted rather disapprovingly that when his hero presented himself to a synod in Rome in 704 to argue his case against deprivation of his see, the bishops present chatted and joked amongst themselves in Greek”.39

Still more importantly, Greeks and Greek-speakers soon became popes themselves. Although the first of these, the Palestinian refugee Theodore (642-649), was elected in the beginning half of the century, and Pope Agatho (678-681) from Sicily may also have been of eastern Greek origin, it was not until 685 that the “Hellenic Papacy” really took flight. At that time, the Archdeacon John V (685-686), born in Antioch in Syria, ascended the papal throne after a normal career in the Roman clergy. Conon (686-687, a Greek speaker from Sicily), Sergius I (687-701, Syrian/Sicilian), John VI (701-705, a Greek of unknown origins), John VII (705-707, another Greek), Sissinius (708, Syrian), Constantine (708-715, Syrian), Gregory III (731-741, Syrian) and the extremely impressive Pope Zacharias (741-752, Greek as well) followed thereafter.40

If we were to speak of that pilgrim-spirited Greek domination of the Roman Church using modern terminology, we might say that it presented a multicultural success story. It showed that “multiculturalism” can be a positive force for good, so long as it allows one culture to serve as a “pilgrim” fuel, giving needed backbone to and thereby raising the level of another one that is in trouble. Perhaps Greek Rome is not so well known precisely because it does not fit the pluralist multicultural call for civilizations to melt into some least common denominator shaped “mush” susceptible to mass commercial word merchandizing. This was a multiculturalism that was valuable because it was a rooted multiculturalism; rooted in a deeper understanding of the consequences of correction and transformation in Christ coming from a committed union with the teaching and grace of the redeeming Savior. The new steps in the dance of the life that it taught the Romans were, therefore, brilliant ones indeed.

Eastern influence in Italy, whether under Greek-or Latin-speaking pontiffs, was felt in a variety of specific ways. One of these, the spirit of pilgrimage for the love of Christ, we have already amply discussed. A second eastern influence came in the form of the popularity of certain practices bringing the reality of the changed life stimulated by the Incarnation of the Word into many spheres of daily existence. Easterners were very much active in creating xenodocheia, hospices for foreigners and pilgrims, of whom there were, of course, many in Rome. These were frequently related to diaconia—charitable organizations, often monastic in character, providing aid to the poor and the sick, and attached to Greek churches and chapels in the Eternal City such as St. Maria in Cosmedin, St. George in Velabro, Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saints Sergius and Bacchus, St. Theodore and St. Hadrian.

Additional eastern influences were important in developing the Church’s ability to “tell a good story about a true story”, with significant contributions to liturgical life at the top of the list. For it is no insult to indicate that properly rooted liturgy focused on true worship of God is solid, effective theater as well. It tells the good story about the true story with a power and a range that nothing else can imitate and match. Such eastern liturgical impact took shape in three clear ways.

One was through music, and not simply because of the appearance of Greek-inspired hymns in Latin translation for use in the Mass. Music was much more affected by eastern influence through the greater honor that it now received from high Church officials. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-603), for all of his association with chant and his creation of a schola cantorum, was worried about the clergy’s over-involvement with singing and sought ways to control and limit it. From the time of Pope Vitalian (657-672) onwards, however, the new, eastern-inspired spirit dominated. That spirit so exalted the role of music that musical accomplishments were soon seen as providing superb preparation for still higher ecclesiastical office. Men like John, Archcantor of the Roman Church, were sent on important diplomatic missions under their cultural cover as musicians. Gifted singers such as Sergius I became popes themselves.

Secondly, the Greek-speaking presence also enhanced liturgy through the impact of elaborate eastern ecclesiastical and court ceremonial on the various rites of the generally more sober Latin Church. Imperial splendor was especially noticeable in those ceremonies emphasizing the sacred role of the Papacy, rites that were enshrined in the mass books of the Latin-speaking Pope Gregory II (715-731). These more splendid and formalized liturgical practices were then carried out in churches beautified in the magnificent and icon-friendly eastern manner.

A third eastern liturgical contribution to the “good story about a true story” came through its development of the Church’s devotional life. Eastern festivals, such as those of the Exaltation of the True Cross and the Nativity, Annunciation, and Dormition of the Virgin Mary were introduced to Rome. The cults of saints popular in the East, including those of the martyr St. Simeon, the doctors Cosmas and Damian, and a battery of warrior heroes like Saint George, who was venerated by the army, also took root. Saint George became so popular that Pope Zacharias himself carried his head in a grand procession from the Lateran to install it in a place of honor in the Church named after him.

Finally, the Greek-speaking migration also had a significant impact on Roman ability to root the “good story” of the Christian God in learned theological studies. This rekindled the deep concern for the old and new paideia that could be found both in the work of Italians of the fifth and sixth centuries like Martianius Cappella, Cassiodorus, Boethius, and Bishop Ennodius of Pavia as well as in the labors of large numbers of Gallic prelates from the senatorial aristocracy. The influence of these men, especially their emphasis upon maintenance of the structure of a Liberal Arts education and the need to translate into Latin the Greek classics that westerners were no longer able to read in their original language, was overturned by the unfortunate anti-scholarly tendencies favored by Pope St. Gregory I.

Not that Gregory, as we shall soon see, would have been in any way hostile to the pilgrim spirit and openness to the reality of the ever-changing dance of life also entering Rome with the eastern disciples of St. Sophronius. Nor was he opposed to telling a good story about the true story himself. Quite the opposite is the case. Nevertheless, his chief concern for the newly Christianized western Roman population was its protection from ancient pagan influences and fresh barbarian ones. He thus denounced the classical training of the older intelligentsia as an obstacle to the effective catechesis of common people. From Gregory’s standpoint, the ancient paideia was at best a simple waste of time, engaging bishops in literary word games and the preparation of sermons that no one in their congregations understood anyway. At worst, it was an introduction either to pagan intellectual and moral perversions or to heretical hair-splitting in dogmatic theology cultivated by subtle Greek word merchants. And if such were the case, it was a danger to the Christian soul in general.41

Gregory’s impact was reversed through this eastern influx, first and foremost because the Greek language and Greek theological arguments became well known in Rome once more. Whereas men like Popes Vigilius (537-555), Honorius, and probably Gregory himself, could not understand Greek, this was no longer the case in the late 600’s. By that time, an “elitist” classical training had once again become a ticket to higher office and deep esteem. One sees this in the election to the Papacy of a scholarly man like Zacharias who, ironically, translated the anti-Hellene Gregory’s Dialogues into Greek. Hence, also, the praise given by the Liber Pontificalis to Pope Leo II (682-683), who rendered the Greek proceedings of the Sixth General Council into Latin and who was honored for both his scholarly and catechetical successes.42

By this point, we are ready to turn back to the question of Monophysitism and the importance of the Monothelite stage of its history. We must examine this era, first of all with reference to the role of the Papacy in the life of the universal Church and then in terms of its value as a time of “summing up” the entire sense of the Christological battle. Eastern influence in both these realms was to prove to be a long-term blessing for Rome in particular and the cause of the Word in general—even if that lasting blessing had to be paid for through short-term suffering and abject humiliation.

An all too familiar “shock and awe” in the face of imperial power on the one hand, as well as a venal ambition to exploit that strength for personal benefit on the other, had entered Rome in the 530’s along with the troops from Constantinople. It did so to the great detriment of the reputation of the Holy See. A huge gap soon separated the energetic demeanor of Pope Gelasius and other defenders of Chalcedon at the turn of the fifth and sixth centuries from Pope Vigilius’ ambivalence and pusillanimity at the time of the Emperor Justinian’s reconciliation efforts. Justinian’s endeavors involved the unseemly badgering of prelates into pro forma acceptance of “appropriate” conciliatory “words” at the Second Council of Constantinople (553), and that shameful condemnation of long dead theologians disliked by Monophysite thinkers already mentioned above.43

Shortly thereafter, Gregorian anti-intellectualism began to take root, giving all theological speculation a bad name in Roman eyes. Anti-intellectualism made it seem as though dogmatic theology were a rhetorical game played by pointlessly subtle snobs. It was almost as though someone with a Platonic spirit could be chastised as being a follower of Isocrates. This anti-speculative outlook did not take the issues that were still at stake in Christological disputes all that seriously, and thus, at least at first, missed the significance of the substantive points being made by participants in the Monothelite struggle. Hence the confusion of one of Gregory’s most loyal followers, the hapless Pope Honorius, who dismissed the whole battle over energies and wills as the work of “croaking frogs”.44 Rather than freeing him from that “elitist” conflict, however, his air of contempt made him an unsuspecting agent for encouraging seriously “frog croaking” attacks on Chalcedon, along with broad Monothelite attempts to overturn the work of St Leo the Great. Would that such an outcome were the last manifestation of the dangers of an anti-theological position in the life of the Church!

Seventh and eighth century Greek-speaking monks, clerics, and popes reversed this emasculation of the Papacy as they also ended papal disdain for theology. They did so in two ways. First of all, they strengthened Roman recognition of the Holy See’s responsibility for the universal Church and its spirit of independence vis-à-vis the State. Secondly, they used the power and prestige of the Roman Pontiff as the legitimate, authoritative, sacred and apostolic voice in the concluding battle for a complete and proper understanding of Christ as God-Man against its illegitimate sacred and apostolic imperial competitor.

Eastern efforts to enhance the role and prestige of the Roman Pontiffs were conscious ones. Everything—from treatises regarding the fullness of papal authority to Pope Sergius I’s symbolic translation of the body of St. Leo the Great to a new and more splendid and prominent tomb—testifies to this fact. Despite occasional setbacks, owed more to the advanced age and personality of one or two Greek and Latin-speaking popes than to anything else, the reputation of the Papacy was infinitely higher by the end of Pope Zacharias’ reign than at the beginning of Pope John V’s. The words of St. Maximus the Confessor then rang visibly true:45

The extremities of the earth, and all in every part of it who purely and rightly confess the Lord look directly towards the most holy Roman Church and its confession and faith, as it were to a sun of unfailing light, awaiting from it the bright radiance of the sacred dogmas of our Fathers according to what the six inspired and holy councils have purely and piously decreed, declaring most expressly the symbol of faith. For from the coming down of the incarnate Word amongst us, all the Churches in every part of the world have held that greatest Church alone as their base and foundation, seeing that according to the promise of Christ our Savior, gates of hell do never prevail against it, that it has the keys of a right confession and faith in Him, that it opens the true and only religion to such as approach with piety, and shuts up and locks every heretical mouth that speaks injustice against the Most High.

Shortly after the reign of Honorius, wandering Greek-speaking monks, St. Maximus prominent among them, began to transform Rome intellectually through the influence of Eastern learning.46 They brought along with them a passion to use that wisdom to fight against the Monothelites. Anti-Montheletism, as St. Sophronius had made crystal clear, was a position that emphasized the impact of the Word on absolutely every aspect of life, demonstrating that even such natural human qualities as “energy” and “will” had to have been assumed by Christ if all that was human were fully to be saved by Him. Far from being rooted in some naturalist enterprise, as the Monophysites claimed that Chalcedonian insistence upon Christ’s simultaneous humanity and divinity inevitably was, St. Sophronius underlined the fact that the Council’s teaching was central to any proper appreciation of the ultimate divinization of the whole of the redeemed individual.

It was this outside eastern stimulus that inspired Pope St. Martin I (649-653) to call the Lateran Synod of 649 to attack both Monothelites and their sacred imperial political supporters. Easterners were most active at that Synod, through the primicerius notariorum, Theophylact, the senior notaries—Paschal, Exuperius, Theodore, Anastasius and Paschasius—the four Greek abbots long time resident in the city of Rome—John of St. Saba, Theodore of St. Saba in Africa, Thalassius of Saints Maria and Andreas, and George of Aquae Salviae—and, most significantly, a memorial signed by thirty-seven monks demanding pro-Chalcedonian action on the part of the Papacy. It was St. Maximus who most nobly responded to complaints from Constantinople that the synod was invalid since it had been held without the sacred Emperor’s orders. "If it is not pious faith but the order of the emperor that validates synods,” he thundered, recalling previous imperial intrusions in Church affairs, now generally recognized as noxious by everyone: “let them accept the synods that were held against the Homoousion at Tyre, at Antioch, at Seleucia, and the robber council of Ephesus.”47

Emperor Constans II retaliated by having imperial representatives in Rome kidnap St. Martin and bring him to Constantinople. When the pope still refused to accept the state’s approval of Monothelitism, he was shipped off to a harsh exile, dying a confessor/martyr in the Crimea in March of 655. St. Maximus was also captured and subjected to terrible personal humiliation and bodily suffering, including severe mutilation of the flesh whose dignity he had done so much to defend. He died in 662, seven years after St. Martin. But he left behind him a very modern sounding testimony to the real meaning of the Word as a corrective and transforming force on earth totally destructive to the “good stories” of a “sacred” secular system more concerned about matters of “inclusivity”, “divisiveness”, and “public order” than truth.48

If, to realize an economy {a compromise} one suppresses the salvific faith at the same moment as heresy, one does not do anything other by that supposed economy than amputate God rather than maintain His unity. Tomorrow, the Jews…will say to us: let us arrange a peace among us and unite. We will suppress circumcision on our side and baptism on yours and we will cease to combat one another. The Arians proposed the same when they wrote to Constantine the Great: let us suppress the words ‘consubstantial’ and ‘different substance’, so that the churches may unite. That was not the judgment of our Fathers, inspired by God: they preferred to be persecuted and put to death rather than to keep silent one revealed word of the unique divinity, superior to all substance, the divinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And that happened when Constantine the Great allied with the authors of this type of proposition, as those who scrupulously related all that happened then have testified. No Emperor could persuade the Fathers, inspired by God, to consent to a rapprochement with the heretics by compromising expressions. They employed clear and precise expressions corresponding perfectly to the dogma placed in question, and they proclaimed loudly that only the bishops had the right to search for and formulate salutary dogmas of the universal Church.

‘You then say: What? Is it not true that a Christian Emperor is also a priest?’ I respond: No; since he has no place at the altar; he does not consecrate the bread and does not say thereafter on elevating it: ‘Holy things to the holy!’ He does not baptize, does not anoint with holy oil, does not choose and does not create bishops, priests, and deacons; he does not sanctify liturgical sites; he does not wear the distinctive signs of the priesthood, the omophorion and the Gospel, but those of royalty, the crown and the purple. ‘And why does Scripture say that Melchisedech is king and priest?’ (Gen., 14, 18; Heb., 7,1), you say. I respond: he is the sole natural king, the God of the universe, become for our salvation the sole High Priest, of whom Melchisedech is the unique type. When you affirm that another is king and priest according to the order of Melchisedech, dare to cite the text that follows: ‘…who is without father, without mother, without genealogy, whose days have no beginning and whose life has no end’ (Heb. 7, 3). And see what will be the false consequence of your affirmation: (that other ‘king and priest’) will be another incarnated God, working for our salvation as a priest in the order of Melchisedech and not in the order of Aaron. But what good is it to multiply the arguments? During the holy sacrifice, at the sacred altar, it is after having mentioned the bishops, the deacons, and the whole of the clergy that one recalls the emperors, with the laity, when the deacon says: ‘and the laity who have fallen asleep in the faith, Constantine, Constantius, etc’. Again, he recalls the living emperors after having mentioned all those who have been consecrated to God. At these words, {Patriarch} Menas cried out: ‘your words have caused division in the Church’. Maximus responded to him: ‘if he who cites the texts of Holy Scripture and the Fathers causes division in the Church, what treatment will he {the emperor} who suppresses the dogmas of the saints, without whom there would not even be a Church, inflict upon the Church’?

A Rome strengthened by such powerful eastern influence did not retreat, despite the fate of Martin and Maximus. Greek-speakers like Theodore, Bishop John of Philadelphia, Theophanes of St. Caesarius ad Baias, George, priest and monk of Saints Maria and Andreas, along with Conon and Stephen of the Domus Arsicia Monastery, continued to deal vigorously with fall-out from the Monothelite Controversy down through the end of the century. By that time, however, the Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus (668-685) ruled over a territory in which the Monophysite population had been reduced to a negligible minority and therefore ceased to be a major political problem to be resolved by “business as usual” doctrinal manipulation on the part of the sacred and apostolic government. He therefore called for a new empire-wide synod to bring the battle to an official conclusion. Pope St. Agatho sent representatives to the Third Council of Constantinople, in November, 680, with the Emperor presiding and the papal legates in the place of honor at his right hand—both “sacred” authorities now, seemingly, in full accord.49

Monotheletism, and with it Monophysitism, were condemned. All the developments in Trinitarian and Christological thought taking place until this point were effectively “summed up” through this condemnation. Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man, as the Incarnate Word divinizing every aspect of the human individual, including his energy and will, had won this long raging theological conflict. In the process, the Holy See had much more clearly than ever before been confirmed as the final, authoritative, sacred and apostolic voice of Christ’s Body, continued in history as His Church. But it was a Rome whose confidence in its right to rule that Church and whose ability to tell a good story about the true Christian story in doing so had been strengthened from the “outside”: through the spirituality of wandering Eastern pilgrims and pilgrim pontiffs of Greek blood and language, all of them committed to the use of each and every human talent for the benefit of understanding the Faith. Once again, this was a multicultural, “Word-drenched” success story if ever there was one.

By now, however, the struggle over Iconoclasm was ready to explode. It was logical that it should do so, since that conflict was destined to aid the summary of the flaws of the “good but false story” about the relationship of the Sacred Empire and the Church, and complete that magnificent advance in knowledge of the full meaning of the Word in history discernable throughout the whole of the turbulent imperial period. It did so by bringing up questions regarding the sacred character of the entirety of nature emerging logically from discussion of the tools needed for a complete deification of all the varied aspects of an individual human personality.

While not as complex or enduring as the conflict over Christology, the Iconoclast Controversy does divide neatly into two distinct stages.50 A first outburst took place in the early eighth century when a variety of natural and military disasters befell the Empire, and commanders of the army along with ordinary soldiers sought out viable reasons for all these setbacks. Two “appropriate explanations” immediately came to the fore. If campaigns against image smashing (i.e., iconoclast) Arab Moslems were going badly, might it not be the case that the image friendly (i.e., iconodule) Romans were engaged in an activity displeasing to God and being suitably punished for their sins? And should that be true, was it not the case that the supporters of such blasphemy must be chastised?

Who was it that actually made and promoted the use of these blasphemous images? It was monks, whose influence over the religious and political life of the Empire had always been enormous. Yet these same blasphemous monks gave to the Empire neither service under arms nor children for the armies of the future. What possible grounds could there be for those who recognized such obvious, common sense evidence not to punish these fraudulent ascetics for their anti-social and self-interested uselessness? What possible reason for not tossing both them and their idolatrous icons onto the bonfire of the vanities? Even the supposed miracles that had once taken place at the feet of such diabolical images had ceased occurring anyway, thereby adding further naturally-discernable proof of God’s displeasure at their veneration by deluded Christians.

Supporting the message recounted by such well-constructed tales, the Emperors Leo III (717-741) and Constantine V (741-775) pressed the Church for acceptance of an anti-image policy. Governmentally-backed Iconoclasm was pursued most openly and authoritatively through a Council at Hiereia in 754. Interestingly enough, not a single member of that Pentarchy so deeply cherished by past imperial ministers, court bishops, and word merchants was present at the gathering. Consultation with the Pentarchy was discarded as a prop for sacred imperial action, since it was no longer trustworthy and therefore politically useless. Instead, the State resorted to cultivation of a concern for “original intent” in support of its entry onto the iconoclast path. It claimed to be defending an Apostolic Christian Tradition that firmly and openly rejected the use of images against the innovations of the monastic iconodules and their fellow idolaters. Hiereia hurled anathemas against the chief villains among them: Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople (715-730), George of Cyprus (the author of the Admonition of an Old Man on Images), and St. John of Damascus—the last of whom wrote, ironically enough, from the safety provided him by his own iconoclast but tolerant Moslem rulers. Assaults on iconodules, especially monks, a large number of whom were forcibly married off to female religious to provide future soldiers for the Empire, intensified. Refugees fled imperial wrath to the traditional places of exile, with an iconodule Rome, under the ever more effective control of a Papacy reinvigorated with Greek assistance, at the top of their list of secure destinations.

Iconoclast pressures began to ease under Leo IV (775-780). After his death, his image-friendly wife, Irene, along with Tarasius, an ally from the imperial bureaucracy whom she made priest and patriarch (784-806), took advantage of her regency for her young son, Constantine VI (780-797), to begin to put Imperial Christendom back in order. Despite the continued hostility of the Roman troops, who for a time successfully blocked it, she finally managed to open the Second Council of Nicaea on 24 September, 787. This reversed the decisions of the preposterous gathering of politically and rhetorically minded prelates at Hiereia. Nicaea was clearly a more acceptable synod from any canonical or even merely customary standpoint, since representatives of the once favored Pentarchy, including those of the Patriarch of Rome, were all present and accounted for.

Unfortunately, the military situation of the Empire did not improve under the succeeding iconodule rulers. Soldiers, fondly recalling the victories they had won under image-smashing inspiration, followed commanders who were happy to exploit their sentiments and lead them into open rebellion. Leo V (813-820) then called yet another synod in 815 to begin the attack on images anew. Assaults on icons and iconodules resumed. They continued under Michael II (820-829) and his son, Theophilos (829-842), with the theological support of a scholarly Patriarch of Constantinople, John the Grammarian (837-843). This prelate’s more learned Iconoclasm was nevertheless accompanied by a still more brutal persecution. Icons were now even tattooed on the bodies of their supporters as punishment for their belief in the importance of using images in the worship of the Creator of the universe.

Despite the disturbance of normal ecclesiastical life, a fruitful doctrinal development nonetheless took place yet again in the midst of this two-stage period of turmoil and sorrow. Iconoclasts themselves brought up serious arguments as fuel for debate. They pointed to indisputable statements by a number of early Church thinkers that did indeed seem to require the rejection of images as objects of idol worship. In doing so, they helped to stimulate historical and philological studies with long-term consequences for the future of learning in the Eastern Empire. Iconoclasts also spoke of the need to follow the true image of Christ, which was said to be found in the words of Scripture, the dogmatic teachings of the Church, and, most importantly, in the Holy Eucharist. They called for “painting” the image of Christ, not in picture form, but through the formation of individuals more dedicated to the cultivation of good behavior and the rejection of wicked deeds. The more moderate among them even engaged in significant discussions of catechetical methodology, admitting that icons might be useful as teaching tools, but only if placed in such a way as to avoid their illicit worship by the faithful.

Confronted intellectually, the orthodox defenders of icons were somewhat slow in deepening their own understanding of the truth of their position and their ability to teach it. Yes, a sophisticated defense of icons was to be found in the work of St. John of Damascus, and the dogmatic pronouncement of the Second Council of Nicaea made that crucial distinction between the veneration and the adoration of images that remains essential to the proper understanding of their use down through to the present. Still, first stage iconodule apologetics were more emotive in character than anything else, reflecting a hunt for a ‘good story” that was not necessarily pertinent to the issue or sometimes even true at all. Vitriolic attacks on iconoclast Jewish and Moslem tendencies often dominated its approach. These were accompanied by moving accounts of supernaturally produced icons of apostolic pedigree, along with catalogues of the miracles brought about through appeals to their holy assistance. Such stories gave to images the prestige of relics and a noble lineage as ancient as that of Holy Writ. But could miraculous tales, true or false, hold up against the theological objections presented by the iconoclasts?

Although accounts of supernatural icon production, along with catalogues of the miracles associated with them, continued to be a major source of future iconodule defense, a much more profound understanding of the real meaning of image veneration finally took root. Yes, the iconodules admitted that the Eucharist, as the Body and Blood of the Savior, was the greatest “image of Christ”. And, yes, that greatest of images had to be painted on the souls of believers who rejected evil and cultivated good deeds. On the other hand, the friends of images came to see that the strength of their position lay in the fact that they possessed a broader and more accurate grasp of the sacred mission of nature as a whole than the iconoclasts did. Unlike the latter, who generally sought to limit the sacred in nature to a narrow liturgical space that could, in practice, be shaped and controlled more easily by the Sacred Emperor and his court bishops, the iconodules extended it to encompass the entirety of a universe that was destined for correction and transformation in Christ.

Thinkers such as Patriarch Nicephoros (806-815) and St. Theodore the Stoudite (759-826), building upon the work of St. John of Damascus, thus related all of Creation to God as an image to its source and painter. They insisted that everything natural was meant to speak to man of things divine. They held that a nature corrected and exalted by supernatural grace spoke infinitely more fully and effectively than one that was struggling along with only its own valuable but stunted Seeds of the Logos. Moreover, they continued, failure to recognize that Christians learned of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty from sources other than ancient written documents, and that knowledge of Christ’s message could actually grow and develop through the ages, was part and parcel of a critical limitation of mind and spirit that also narrowed the effects of the Word made flesh over time and space. Victory over the iconoclasts thus meant that Christ’s Church recognized the rights of the Eternal Word as King of all of Creation, with individual men and their communities as His standard bearers and stewards. It spelled recognition of the fact that the march of Christians through history could be one that actually deepened their grasp of the Faith and its significance—in this particular case, precisely with respect to icons and their veneration.51

Such developments were also important in weakening the continuing hold of dangerous aspects of Neo-Platonic thought over the Christian mind. Neo-Platonists and their Christian followers saw all of existence as a “great chain of being” stretching from the highest rung—God—down to man and the varied component elements of the universe. The vision of a Great Chain of Being as such was not the problem here, nor the conviction that that Chain was structured according to a “hierarchy of values”. Difficulties emerged chiefly with the belief that greater corruption entered into the created universe the more earthly and fleshly the element involved, and that ultimately the entirety of this material cosmos was shut off from any real union with its all too sublime and unreachable spiritual center. Truly substantive Monophysites, as opposed to those merely quibbling over the definition of words, were all subject to Neo-Platonic temptations. So were many iconoclasts. These temptations were made manifest in their psychological fear of contaminating the Godhead through too close a contact with anything natural, human or otherwise. It was just this type of overly friendly embrace that both Chalcedon and iconodules together were accused of stimulating.

Opponents of Monophysites and iconoclasts effectively countered such a vision. They showed that each and every level of a Great Chain of Being organized according to a true, Christian grasp of the hierarchy of values had intrinsic worth. And, corollary to that, they demonstrated that the more earthly and fleshly aspects of Creation were not essentially more corrupt than those that were more spiritual. In fact, all of nature could truly be corrected and transformed. Jesus Christ was King of the universe: not just certain parts of the universe, but the entirety of the cosmos, and, with it, the entirety of that microcosm that we call the individual human person. Membership in Jesus Christ, both God and man, gave to the individual steward of Creation the hope of an eternal union with the fullness of the Light—not just entry into the “suburbs” of an unreachable spiritual center. A “good story with a happy ending” divinizing the business as usual of the sacred Empire did not teach Christians these truths. It was the “word of the Word” that did so. And that “word of the Word” came through the agency of the evolving wisdom of the ancient Church Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, along with their later, pilgrim minded Greek representatives, working ever more consciously through the authoritative voice of the Roman Pontiffs.

D. The Good Imperial Story, Political Reality, & Pilgrim Change

Already at the time of the Persian debacle, the Emperor Heraclius illustrated at least a practical recognition that Roman power was really not the eternally unalterable force that the “good story” promoted by men like Eusebius of Caesarea depicted it as being. Energetic in all spheres, the emperor began to make major changes in imperial administration and policy that would ultimately be very effective in maintaining and even turning the tide against the external enemy. This willingness to deal with a changed reality through political transformations that did not compromise Catholic truth was a sign of health in the Roman East. It came to involve three specific developments: a more acceptable cooperation of Church and State on doctrinal matters; a recognition of the contemporary necessity for a further militarization of political and social life; and, finally, the growth of a deep crusading spirit—long before the reign of Pope Urban II (1088-1099), the Council of Clermont (1095), and the recapture of Jerusalem (1099).52

On the other hand, these pilgrim changes resulted from a profoundly serious “reality check” and therefore represented a long-term process. In the short term—that is to say, the whole of the horrible seventh and the eighth centuries—serious Christians could easily wonder whether the Roman Empire would honestly be able to cope with an altered reality without disturbing the substance of the Faith. As the crisis with the Persians gave way to disaster at the hands of the Arab Moslems, and the Monothelite stage of the Monophysite battle to the Iconoclast Controversy, Roman Imperial Christendom could readily appear to them to be both politically doomed and spiritually incurable.

This foreboding was perhaps more palpable still in the West than in the East. St. Augustine had already posed the basic question in The City of God after the sack of Rome of 410. It could not help but be asked yet again as Justinian’s gains crumbled swiftly under combined Germanic and Arabic pressure. Roman forces had made their initial victorious headway in Italy only at the cost of massive devastation of the peninsula, and they could barely hold onto a few coastal areas and roads in the north and the center against an unending Lombard onslaught. The Eternal City herself was regularly in danger of being taken by these much-feared and little-trusted barbarians. Spain fell rapidly into the hands of the Visigoths. North Africa held out longer, but only because of the absence of a foreign foe. When this foe appeared in the form of the Moslems, Africa was also severed from the Empire. Meanwhile, Roman Gaul and Britain, both of which had been dominated by Franks, Angles, and Saxons since the fifth century, had never at any moment been threatened with serious re-conquest by Roman armies dispatched from Constantinople.53

“Eternal” Rome was obviously falling apart. A concern for what to do in response to this changed political reality first produced a major practical transformation in the collapsed western imperial sphere. Domination of seventh and eighth century Rome by “foreigners” from the East must have fostered the process of Church willingness to adapt to undeniable change. It may not be at all fanciful to argue that the “multiculturalism” occasioned by the Greek pilgrimage westward contributed to Latin openness in other matters as well. And this included, in the final analysis, a readiness to switch temporal allegiance from sacred and apostolic Roman Emperors in Constantinople who were incapable of protecting western Christians to newly converted Germanic rulers in the West who could potentially do so. This switch of allegiance, sealed, symbolically, by the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, was built upon a Triple Alliance conceived in the 490’s in the former Roman province of Gaul.

Germanic allies of Rome had settled within the borders of Gaul during the fourth century. A number of German enemies invaded soon thereafter. All these various tribes began battling among themselves for supremacy as the imperial government collapsed. Their conflicts were watched with a certain pained indifference by the urban Gallo-Roman population, presided over by bishops from families of the old senatorial aristocracy, proud of their heritage of both culture and blood. The Gallo-Romans must have felt that they would lose in this tribal contest, regardless of the group of barbarians that triumphed. None of the Germans were Catholics at the time of the invasions. All of them were either pagans or Arian heretics. None had a real sense of the spirit of classical civilization or a grasp of the laws, art, and philosophy of the imperium. War was their occupation, just as war was their sport. Both Greco-Roman and Christian paideia together were the inevitable victims in this reign of the gladiators, though there was one silver lining in the midst of disaster: both “teachings” also became more intimately bound in a sacred union as they awaited the common axe to fall.54

Clovis (c. 466-511), the King of the Franks—a tribe, many of whose members had first moved into Gaul as Roman allies—began to transform this picture radically. He may or may not have had religious sentiments; he may or may not have appreciated the fullness of Roman culture. Clovis definitely did want one thing, though. He wished to see the strength of his tribe increase. He may have felt that he had found a key to satisfaction of this desire in an acceptance of Catholicism. Catholic Baptism would signify association not simply with orthodoxy, but also—because of Christianity’s connection with the Empire, and the growing intimacy of the Faith and Greco-Roman paideia—union with prestigious imperial and classical ideals as well. The result might well be to galvanize an indifferent local population for the support of his particular German tribe as its friend and protector. Whatever the motivation, Clovis and the Franks did enter the Church; many Gallo-Romans did, thus, rally to their cause; a Triple Alliance capable of uniting things Greco-Roman, Christian, and German had indeed been conceived.55

Conception is not birth, however, and the Triple Alliance conceived by Clovis subjected Western Europe to a long and difficult pregnancy. Rome was not built in a day; it also proved to be impossible to construct either Rome or a Catholic sense of things in Frankish Gaul overnight. Neither Clovis nor his descendants were able to create a legal, cultural, and religious order that might begin to please a serious student of Greco-Roman paideia or a practicing Catholic. Barbarous concepts swiftly began to corrupt Christian teachings and practices. The character and authoritative self-confidence of bishops plunged, their spirit seemingly maintained only for the vulgar purpose of constructing family-run dioceses whose resources served to augment clan prestige and wealth: in other words, for the “business as usual” concerns of those taking the “obvious” demands of “nature as is” as their definitive guide. There was no development of a state administration worthy of the Roman name. The Merovingian Dynasty, as Clovis’ line was known, could not even sustain itself, and became more inbred, more vicious, and more incompetent as time went on. Assistants to the king, called Mayors of the Palace, coming from the ranks of that Frankish family from the area around Metz that we call the Carolingians, soon found that they were hard at work performing the tasks their useless Merovingian sovereigns could not carry out.56

Before moving on, let us once again return to the theme of the pilgrimage spirit and its importance for fulfillment of the plan of God in history. The Franks had settled in the provinces of a deeply Romanized Gaul which had grown fascinated with personal pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the latter fourth century, when such undertakings were still physically possible. Two Gallic writings of the 300’s, the Peregrinatio ad loca sancta and the Itinerarum Burdigalense, described a well-trod pilgrimage circuit that involved not only sites in Palestine but visits to the pioneer monastic communities of Egypt and Syria, whose influences had penetrated westward at the time of St. Athanasius’ exile to Trier earlier in that same century. These works provided valuable information on everything from church discipline, liturgy, devotional life, and architecture to the imperial transport system and the amenities available to the first pilgrims. In addition, they were yet another introduction to the concept we have already treated in depth: the need for each of us to recognize that we are all wanderers through a fleeting earthly existence, and that even a brief moment on pilgrimage enables us to treat this basic but easily neglected truth much more seriously.57

Unfortunately for the newly Catholic Franks of the late 400’s, the shattering of the Pax Romana limited their own pilgrimage goals to local destinations. Nevertheless, pilgrimages to the shrines of men like St. Martin of Tours (c. 316-c. 397) and St. Julian of Brioude (300’s) aided mightily in the development of popular understanding of Christian doctrine. Pilgrims often came to such sites to benefit from the miraculous powers derived from a touch of the bones of the saints. They could not help but see in the wondrous cures obtained in such humble locations and through such lowly means the broad consequences of the Word Incarnate transforming nature in Christ. All space and time appeared to have been stirred by the fleshly entrance of the Almighty into history and His offer of supernatural grace. Pilgrim exaltation was so great on the feasts of the saints whose tombs were visited that these were days, as one Frankish source noted, when the whole of the holy Catholic Church rejoiced and “danced together”.58 It was the dance of life adapted to the Gallic environment; the good story told in a way that specifically touched the Gallo-Roman-Frankish soul.

A spirit of pilgrimage was kept alive even in the darkest of Merovingian times. Appropriately enough, given what we have seen happening in Rome, this strengthening came from the work of still other wandering foreign monks. Some of these heroic figures, such as St. Columbanus (540-615) and his fellow Irish ascetics, represented that vision of a pilgrimage for Christ demanding the kind of self-exile that had also been taught by St. Sophronius. They may have received this teaching directly from St. Patrick, who had felt himself driven by it as much as any eastern monk. On the other hand, due to the manifold contacts of Ireland with Visigothic Spain, and Visigothic Spain with the Mediterranean at large, there are clear grounds for believing that the Irish also imbibed it from the wandering followers of St. Sophronius themselves, some of whom may even have made it to the Emerald Isle.59

Whatever the origin of such a salutary influence, Irish exiles nurtured the ideal of abandonment of all things familiar amidst a population where Gallo-Romans and Franks were now hard to distinguish one from the other, both in blood as well as in semi-barbarous and semi-pagan behavior. But they were not alone in doing so. Self-exiled Britons worked alongside them. These British wanderers were themselves the beneficiaries of Irish monastic influences, but bred together with another kind of pilgrim spirit, complementary but different, coming to them from Rome. I speak here, of course, of Benedictines like St. Boniface (c. 672-754), whose personal career as evangelist led the Roman pontiffs to give him the title of Apostle to the Germans.60

British Benedictines brought to Gaul not just that sense of individual Christian pilgrim mission so keenly cherished by the Irish but also a feel for a pilgrim mission organized as a social venture; one with a clear authoritative structure, provided for the sake of constructing a militant new polis, a branch of the universal Christian agmen on its boat-rocking march through history. This latter sentiment was imparted to them from that supreme representative of a union of things Christian and Roman, individual and social, natural and supernatural, St. Benedict of Norcia (c. 480-543). Every aspect of this Patron of Europe’s famous Rule, with its emphasis upon a variegated life of work and study inside a monastic polis supporting that commitment to prayer that was the chief labor of his monks, reflected a considered application of Greco-Roman wisdom to the supreme Christian end of sanctification. Benedict’s balanced and harmonious monastic regimen gave birth to Christian achievements of Greco-Roman flavor of crucial significance to the future in too many realms, aesthetic and scientific, to be catalogued fully at the present juncture.

Benedictine Christian and Greco-Roman syncretism was promoted by a masterful pilgrim commander who pressed one of its Italian followers, St. Augustine of Canterbury (early 500’s-604), unwillingly onto the path to Kent: Pope St. Gregory the Great. Gregory was pastor par excellence, and his courage in confronting new steps in the dance of life was as fruitful as his discomfort regarding theological sophistication was disruptive. He was destined not only to initiate this unpredictably vast Benedictine pilgrim enterprise but also to guide it with prudent and tolerant instructions for confronting its initial potential pagan converts. Interestingly enough, the mission to Britain that he stimulated was then significantly strengthened through the work of vigorous proponents of the classicism that he himself disparaged: the seventh century Greek-speaking immigrants to the Eternal City. In fact one of these Hellenists, St. Theodore of Tarsus (602-690), himself became the eighth Archbishop of Canterbury, contributing mightily both to putting the new English Church on an even keel as well as to encouraging its own indigenous commitment to fashioning a learned Christianity.61

Despite the inevitable tensions and temptations to excommunicate one another that emerged out of the meeting of these different pilgrim monastic enterprises, Irish and Benedictine, in Britain, the fusion of their visions and labors in the northern province of Northumbria proved to be formative on both sides of the Channel. Our chief source regarding this second evangelization of Britain is St. Bede the Venerable (672/673-735), one of the greatest racconteurs of a “good story” in history. He describes in detail the manner in which the Benedictines and the Irish carried out their work, the organizational talents of the first, the scholarly and artistic merits of the second, how their union eventually was cemented, and the many obstacles placed in the path of both forces. These obstacles included the enmity of the remaining Romano-British Christians, whose parochial blindness left them uninterested in leading the hated barbarians to salvation under any circumstances whatsoever. Not all pilgrims for Christ have been so fortunate in having the history of their sacrifices so well documented. Thankfully, Bede’s account of their tale was more than an historical project. It followed Gregory’s example and provided guidance to anyone who might seek to imitate such missionary work in different lands in the future. And it well demonstrated, in doing so, how a good story about a true story might be supremely useful to the spreading of the Gospel in any age and under any circumstances.62

Grand visions of a special, pilgrim mission entrusted to the tribe of the Franks emerged with the rise to kingship of the Carolingian Family under Pippin the Short (751-768). It was he who was responsible for finally “delivering” the Triple Alliance nurtured in the early medieval European womb. By the 740’s, Pippin, one of the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace, was eager to gain for himself the title of King of the Franks. He was, after all, doing the basic work that merited this honor anyway. Pippin knew that the prestige of his father, Charles the Hammer (717-741), who had thrown back a threatened Moslem invasion of Gaul in the 730’s, had given his family great stature among the Frankish warriors. Still, something more than military prestige was needed to secure the title from an already reigning chieftain-king presumed to be descended from Clovis, the very man who had led the Franks to Baptism in the first place. That something else, he felt, was a still more serious and explicit tie with the Roman Church, the Eternal City, and their sacred and secular mission than even Clovis himself had assured.63

St. Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) was another giant in the effort of harnessing Greek and Roman wisdom to the Christian chariot. A man whose encyclopedic knowledge was passed to the Franks both by means of refugees from the Moslem invasion of Spain in the early 700’s as well as through the teaching of the Irish-English monks, St. Isidore was to be of enormous help in justifying a change of dynasty. He had already been of yeoman service to the Visigothic rulers of the Iberian Peninsula in the previous century in dealing with precisely this kind of problem: by providing them with the theoretical underpinnings for an exchange of authorities and by defending their claim to total independence from direct Roman control. In doing so, he also mounted a deadly assault on the concept of the one, single, sacred, imperial State as developed by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea.

St. Isidore went about this task by demonstrating that the word rex, or “ruler” came from just the kind of action it described—the ability to rule. A man called “ruler” who could not actually govern was a fraud. He was doubly dangerous due to the fact that his incapacity not only prevented him from performing his proper function but also because it hid the real possessor of daily authority from both sight and accountability. Moreover, a valid Christian ruler had to govern in union with Christ in this last age before the end of time, the age of the Regnum Christi. Visigothic kings palpably did so, he argued, while the Roman Emperors in Constantinople had repeatedly discredited themselves by giving succor to heretics. Indeed, they were active in St. Isidore’s own time in supporting erroneous Monosphysite doctrines. In short, the sacred Roman imperial cover story was a bad one—not only erroneous but also dangerous in the masquerade of real power that it ensured, to the detriment of the common good of the Christian people.64

Followers of the Carolingians could readily claim that Pippin was in an analogous position. Was he not the real ruler of the Kingdom of the Franks, standing in for a Merovingian non-entity? And was this failure to clarify the true possessor of authority not responsible for aiding and abetting all manner of corruption and mayhem, Christian and pagan, in the life of both the State and the Church? Luckily for Pippin, the most vibrant elements in the Western Church were more than predisposed to hear such arguments at the moment that he and his supporters enunciated them.

St. Boniface, to take a prime example, had for some time been seeking protection from the tribe of the Saxons, which was placing serious obstacles in the path of his work of conversion beyond the eastern borders of Gaul. He also was desperate for a chance for the Benedictines and the Benedictine spirit to reform the flaws of the Church of the Frankish Kingdom, giving it a truly substantive Catholic sense of things. Such a reform would inevitably strengthen Roman influence among the Franks, since St. Benedict’s Rule was a model of classical concepts of education, law, and balance, and the Benedictines themselves a proven arm of the Papacy. It was clear to Boniface that it was only the Carolingians, with whom he had begun to work under Charles the Hammer, who had the real power to respond to both of his desires more fully. Anything that transformed their actual power into openly recognized and legitimate authority seemed profitable for the cause of the Pax et Regnum Christi in the West.

In addition, Rome, which was ever more under the direct political control of the popes as the seventh century moved into the eighth, was desperately in search of a new military shield and buckler. The Lombard King was threatening the independence of the Eternal City. Rome’s former protectors, the Roman Emperors, were incompetent defenders, thus explaining why the pope himself had to take responsibility for her physical survival. St. Gregory the Great, with his keen sense of reality, had already recognized this at the beginning of the seventh century, and got into serious trouble with the State authorities in trying to undertake defensive and diplomatic measures on his own. The situation was now infinitely worse, troubled as the East was by almost constant Moslem incursions, requiring the bulk of its military strength for labors on its porous Asia Minor frontier.

Besides, the Roman Pontiffs were no longer certain that they even wanted the sacred emperors to perform this defensive function. Gregory the Great still professed a firm loyalty to Constantinople, but imperial mistreatment of St. Martin I and St. Maximus had begun to effect a serious change in attitude. Moreover, papal opposition to image smashing had brought down various imperial punishments, economic as well as spiritual, upon the Eternal City. Popes and their advisors wondered whether a German tribe like the Franks that seemed willing to bind itself openly and humbly to a Roman and Christian corrective and transforming ideal might not be much more trustworthy than an imperial government that had repeatedly joined battle with the Papacy over issues that were not properly part of its jurisdiction anyway.

Carolingians, St. Boniface, Frankish Romanophile bishops like Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766)—himself a member of the family of the Mayors of the Palace—and the Papacy seized their common opportunity. The Carolingians provided Boniface assistance outside the borders of the kingdom, while the Benedictine and Roman spirit were encouraged to work to reform the Frankish Church. Rome gave Pippin permission to replace his Merovingian predecessor on grounds established by St. Isidore. Pippin promised to deal with the King of the Lombards in filial gratitude to the relieved pontiff.

Amidst the greatest drama, Pope Stephen II (752-757) left Rome and made the long and perilous pilgrim journey to the court of Pippin to give ceremonial form to the deposition of the Merovingians and the Carolingian assumption of authority. The new King of the Franks was anointed in the manner of David, who had been marked out by Samuel as the suitable replacement for the older but unacceptable monarch, Saul. Pippin swore an oath to defend the Faith and, with it, therefore, also the Roman order that Christianity had accepted and sought to correct and transform through grace. Frankish warriors expressed their approval when the ceremony was concluded. The alliance conceived by Clovis, but left floundering in its womb by his descendants, had been brought into the light of day.65

Immensely self-confident, but highly conscious of at least a public need to submit to the teachings and practical demands of the True Faith, the character of the Carolingian Frankish spirit is passionately outlined in the Prologue (763 A.D.) to Pippin’s revised version of the Salic Law. This was the basic "constitution" of the so-called "Salty" Franks—i.e., those who lived close to the North Sea—of which a relevant excerpt is given below:66

The illustrious people of the Franks was established by God himself; courageous in war, steadfast in peace, serious of intention, noble of stature, brilliant white of complexion and of exceptional beauty; daring, swift and brash. It was converted to the Catholic Faith; while it was still barbarian, it was free of all heresy. It sought the key of knowledge under divine guidance, desiring justice in its behaviour and cultivating piety. It was then that those who were the chiefs of this people long ago dictated the Salic law...

Long live Christ who loves the Franks! May he protect their reign; may he fill their leaders with the light of his grace; may he watch over their army; may he accord them the rampart of Faith; may he grant them the joys of peace and the happiness of those who rule over their age... After professing their Faith and receiving Baptism, these Franks enshrined in gold and silver the bodies of the saints and martyrs whom the Romans had burned with fire, mutilated with the sword, and delivered to the teeth of ferocious beasts.

Charlemagne (768-814) was Pippin’s son. He took it upon himself to complete his father’s labor. This he did with a fury, about which more—in the negative sense, along with other unfortunate features of the Carolingian order—below and in the next chapter. Charlemagne thoroughly subdued the still restive Lombards and made himself their king. He crushed the Saxons and presided over their baptism. Much of what had been the western part of the old Empire was gradually reunited under his aegis. Even Charles’ failures, such as his inability to penetrate deeply into Moslem Spain, provided Western Christendom with some of its greatest chivalric legends—the best of its “good crusading stories”—for the future. It was thus only fitting that his work be rewarded by his coronation as Roman Emperor in the Eternal City at Christmastide, 800. And it was thus only fitting that that coronation be seen as the final confirmation of the Triple Alliance conceived by Clovis and delivered by Pippin.67

What was it that distinguished Charles the Great, Pippin, Clovis, and the Franks as a whole? What was it that set St. Boniface, the Benedictines, and the Irish apart? What was it that characterized the popes active in the work of the alliance they all had forged? What did they all symbolize? They symbolized courageous affirmation, commitment, and militant action; courage in the midst of brutal realities that would have led others to despair; the courage of pilgrims.

For courage in abundance was definitely needed. The conditions for creating a new civilization, for giving life to what would eventually become known as the Christian Roman Empire of the German Nation, were horrendous. The still half-barbaric Frankish soldiery had little idea of the real significance of the classical cultural outlook at the time of Charles’ coronation. Greco-Roman conceptions of the State as an organized, administrative entity that provided for the common good and continued beyond the lifetime of a given conquering chieftain remained quite alien to most of them. A full sense of exactly what Christian love and Christian morality meant for the correction and transformation of their individual lives was in no way part of their primary Order of the Day.

St. Boniface, more than anyone, knew the crudity of this people and the arbitrariness of its leaders, and it is thus also extremely worthwhile to dwell for a moment on the informed courage of his actions as a guide to that of his fellow pilgrims. The Apostle to the Germans shows that the cooperation of the powerful and the powerless does not inevitably have to produce religious slavishness. He understood that the Carolingians, like the Merovingians, were not to be treated indiscriminately as though they were knights in shining armor. Some of the members of this dynasty might be honestly committed to sponsoring the Catholic cause. Some were potential manipulators of religion for the benefit of their personal “business as usual”, still interpreted according to the unrepentant terms of “nature as is”. Pious and impious Carolingians alike were both subject to the temptation to make an exact equation between the continued spread of the Christian message on the one hand and the extension of Frankish borders, along with the satisfaction of the political and financial needs of the ruler and his noble supporters, on the other. Hence their combination of solid support for the Church with the confiscation or misdirection of ecclesiastical property for military purposes, their appointment of unworthy but politically influential men to key bishoprics, their campaigns of forced baptism among conquered peoples, and their imposition of tithes upon those forcibly converted before they even were taught what their new Faith was making them pay to achieve.

What should a Catholic do under these circumstances? The extensive correspondence of St. Boniface gives us a pretty sound indication of the proper response. The Apostle to the Germans was well aware, as his close friend and confidant, Bishop Daniel of Winchester, had taught him, that pagan man was truly impressed by power and riches, and that mobilizing both to aid the cause of the Truth could initially open barbarian minds and hearts to a Faith that would require serious long-term catechesis to confirm. His realization of the dependence of the weak Christian missions upon the aid of the Frankish State was clearly outlined in his letter to Grifo, a son and possible successor to Charles Martel, in 741, wherein he begged “that in the event of your coming to power you will help the clerics, priests, monks, nuns and all the servants of God in Thuringia, and that you will protect the Christians from the hostility of the heathens, so that they may not be destroyed by them.” 68

Nevertheless, knowing as he did the worldly temptations indulged at the Frankish court, the venality of its bishops, and the rapacity of its nobles, the Apostle to the Germans was disgusted by the corruption that his prudent, realistic working with the system could easily seem to condone. He burned with a passionate desire to end this cause for scandal. In consequence, St. Boniface exploited every opportunity he could find to change the “structures of sin” of the Frankish Kingdom and the mentality of his frightening and often perverse guardians. Hence his fight to enlist the two sons who did actually take up Martel’s legacy—Carloman (Mayor of the Palace in Austrasia, the eastern section of the Frankish realm) and Pippin (the Mayor in Neustria, the western area)—to push through drastic Church and social reforms. These were decreed at the First Germanic Council of 742 (site unknown), and at follow up synods at Leptine and Soissons in the following year.

St. Boniface’s crusading spirit earned him the undying hatred of many degenerate prelates and laymen. Courageous Catholic that he was, he could care less. What else could he possibly do? He took the risks in incurring their wrath that a Catholic dedicated to corrective and transforming action must always take. And he did so just as he accepted that danger of potentially being viewed an accomplice to Frankish crimes, which was an inevitable occupational hazard for a realist of sound pilgrim spirit.69

Contemporary popes were all too aware of the dangers that might result from Frankish domination and barbarization as well. They might have done nothing, the risks being what they were, and given the opposition to change on the part of a strong, pro-Constantinople party within the city of Rome itself. Men often have preferred to go down to destruction rather than alter even one aspect of a familiar picture rendered sacred by custom. Germanic stupidities could easily have been taken as an excuse to avoid contact with the Franks entirely and to yearn for some future, corrected, eastern Roman aid. Romans might have gathered in St. Peter’s during a Lombard invasion and waited for an angel to save them, as the population of Constantinople huddled in Hagia Sophia during the Turkish sack centuries later. Frankish opponents of the Triple Alliance could then readily have used a display of such Roman traditionalism and the reality of the general weakness of the Christian position to justify rejection of co-operation with both these potential partners. After all, strong men have frequently crushed what was indecisive, fragile, or simply difficult for them to understand. But Charles and Leo, Pippin, Boniface, and Stephen were men of courage, of affirmation and of action. They did not deny the magnitude of their problems; they simply chose to confront them rather than to run from them.

Frankish vision and courage can be seen, among many other things, in the willingness of its warrior kings to move beyond mere conquest and promote the spread of education in general. Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard, notes that the King-Emperor could never master the alphabet, much less grasp the full import of the wisdom of the ages. His Frankish subjects were overwhelmingly still more limited. Few places could have offered a more dismal prospect for intellectual development than the Kingdom of the Franks, and few rulers might have seemed less likely to risk their warrior prestige in demanding it than those of the Carolingian Dynasty.

And yet Pippin, Charles, and their descendants placed their warriors’ “bet” on learning—encouraging the merging of the disparate elements emerging from the Greek East, Rome, Visigothic Spain, Ireland, Britain, and even Lombard Italy into a fresh, brilliant, and long-lasting Catholic imperial culture of great potential: a Christendom that was apparently cognizant of the changing steps in the dance of life but remained firmly loyal to the unalterable demands of the Eternal Word who was its primary choreographer. Their assistance allowed Benedictine-inspired monasteries to be founded throughout their domains. They encouraged attempts to provide serious education for the clergy and to raise the moral and cultural level of the active population as a whole. In fact, Charles called the most famous scholar of his day, the English Benedictine Alcuin (735-804), to head a school at Aix-la-Chapelle, the Frankish capital. Alcuin responded to the invitation of the warrior King-Emperor by presenting a breathtaking vision of what might thereby be achieved: 70

If your intentions are carried out, it may be that a new Athens will arise in France, and an Athens fairer than of old, for our Athens, ennobled by the teaching of Christ, will surpass the wisdom of the Academy. The old Athens had only the teachings of Plato to instruct it, yet even so it flourished by the seven liberal arts. But our Athens will be enriched by the sevenfold gift of the Holy Spirit, and will, therefore, surpass all the dignity of earthly wisdom.

In other words, Alcuin envisaged an expanding intellectual universe in the center of what was, at the moment, nothing more than a kingdom of gladiators—and at the invitation of its warrior chieftain to boot. The present realities of this world of “blood and iron” would have made other wise men tremble rather than act. But the “realists” were to prove to be correct only in the short run; the future would show who was actually right. And even in the short run, the literary and artistic glories of what we call the Carolingian Renaissance were real enough to inspire lasting pride and a solid base from which to make that new ascent of Mount Tabor that was to follow.

Spirits ran high. Support for centers of learning--such as those at Fulda, Reichenau, and Saint Gall—demonstrated the King-Emperors’ expansion of their commitment to the training of ever more educated clerical leaders. Patronage of magnificent works of art illustrated their desire to tell a good story to the faithful, by presenting the orthodox vision to the eyes of the ordinary inhabitants of Christendom in vivid and beautiful painted form. This fresh batch of sacred monarchs also took their daily administrative tasks to heart, seeking to create Christian order out of chaos through their laws, their admonitions to their subjects, and the work of their emissaries in the form of their counts and trouble-shooting inspectors called missi dominici—“messengers of the lord”. Creation of the zoo at Aix-la-Chapelle symbolized the fact that the world that the Carolingians were making was one in which they intended the lion to lie down with the lamb. And the area to which the Peace of Christ was to be applied was extended through active support of missionary work among the Slavs and the Scandinavians. Outsiders—that is to say the Franks themselves—had been called into the pilgrimage to God through the courageous leap of faith of Roman Christians; other outsiders were now to be welcomed into it by their own native Frankish labors.

Prelates like Archbishop Agobard of Lyons (c.799-840), during the reign of Charlemagne (768-814) and the early years of his son and successor, Louis the Pious (814-840), expressed the hope of the educated elite that the imperial structure, reinvigorated by the alliance of the Romans with the Germans and strengthened by the legal and administrative translation of Christian principles into practical guidance of all aspects of daily life, would provide a stable future for the Empire of the Romans in the West.71 They thought that the message of the Word was being recounted in too many fine ways not to have some impact in changing the world around them for the better. Would that they had been rewarded more immediately for their noble hopes! But the true story ended by being more complicated than the good story actually indicated it was.

Before concluding this chapter, let us turn back eastward, to the long-term developments mentioned in conjunction with the courageous realism displayed in military affairs by the Emperor Heraclius. The first of these developments was a more acceptable relationship of Church and State, at least with respect to dogmatic issues. Greater harmony was signaled on March 11, 843 by what is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy”. With the ceremonies and the procession from the Blachernai Palace to Haghia Sophia taking place that day under the aegis of Emperor Michael III (842-867) and Patriarch Methodius (843-847), the Empire recommitted itself to the value of icons, the acceptance of the iconographic understanding of the universe, and the Kingship of Christ over the whole of the cosmos.72

It was clear to many contemporary churchmen that, with this Triumph, Eusebius of Caesarea’s good story regarding the role of the Emperor in shaping the Pax Christi had undergone something of a revision. Too many tyrannical false steps involving too many heresies promoted with the aid of too many arrogant bureaucrats and pusillanimous or corrupt court bishops had harmed the State’s reputation in the dogmatic realm, and that of its clerical allies along with it. The sacrifices of innumerable monks, along with some of those very Patriarchs of Constantinople who were supposed to have been the chief agents of a political domination of religion, gave the Church a new vigor in asserting herself. This limited the imperial role in defining the action of the Word in history, forcing it back onto a more legitimate rung in the hierarchy of values. With a solid internal symphonia of Church and State over basic Christian doctrine seemingly restored, Civil and Canon Law were then reformed to ensure still greater harmony of the secular and religious spheres concerning other aspects of daily life as well.

Historians can point to many positive developments accompanying this eastern doctrinal peace in the years to come. Episcopal confidence grew. Monastic religious life flourished, with the Stoudite monks and the budding Athos community both playing a crucial role in the progress of eastern spirituality. A massive cultural renaissance, a glimpse of which we catch already at the time of the intellectual battles characterizing the second stage of the Iconoclast Controversy, came to full fruition, with great impact on both secular and sacred learning. Classical and encyclopedic in character, this renaissance produced such erudite figures as Patriarch Photius (d. 891), the learned circle around the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-959), and the so-called “universities” of Constantinople and Thessalonica. The laity was not to be outdone in such a period of general revival, and it complemented its liturgical and iconodule devotion with a generous funding of all manner of pious and charitable organizations.

A second development emerging from the work begun by Heraclius and perfected in the years after the Triumph of Orthodoxy was a reform of the Empire emphasizing the need for a much more militant defense of its borders. This reform created the administrative units known as Themes. Themes were basically military districts. But the soldiers who fought within them to protect the Empire’s security when foreign incursions threatened also lived and worked there with their families. Professional soldiers they were, but military men with an added stake in the survival and prosperity of what were in effect their homelands.

Through the firmer backbone that the thematic structure gave to the Empire, its frontiers were indeed more effectively protected than they had been for a long time, and this effectiveness was destined to continue for several centuries to come. Despite recurring problems with the Bulgars and other northern neighbors, the Empire could count numerous and sometimes resounding victories against them. Remaining imperial provinces in southern Italy were also solidified. Much more importantly, Roman administrative and military revival led to stunning successes against the Moslems in the east. The weakness of this enemy, ever more badly divided since the days of the Sunnite-Shiite and Ummayad-Abbasid caliphate disputes, was exploited to win back territories long lost to Rome. Many people even entertained hopes for the reincorporation of all of the Christian regions lost to Islam since the 630’s. Moslems were anxious for the safety of the holy city of Mecca itself.

Finally, the military victories of the Emperors Nicephoras II Phocas (963-969) and John I Tzimiskes (969-976), along with the literary celebration of the achievements of frontier soldiers like the legendary Digenes Akrites, made Byzantium in the 900’s appear to be the prototype not just of a militant Roman society but of a militant crusading Christian society as well. In other words, popular misconceptions notwithstanding, Eastern Christianity developed the image of the crusader long before it became a central one in the life of Western Christendom. A martial Christian spirit was its spiritual and artistic brainchild from the moment that Heraclius put icons onto the banners of the Eastern Roman armies. Whatever the story of the origins of medieval crusading may be, the renewed, reformed imperial order of the ninth, tenth, and early eleventh centuries seemed to be alive, thriving, and much more rooted in Catholic Truth than ever before. And this Christian imperial order demonstrated an ability to tell an effective tale about its activities, through the use of everything from the intellect to the image, as it moved from one impressive victory—and conversion of powerful neighboring peoples like the Kievan Rus—to another.

E. Either the Unexamined Words of the GCSQ

Or the Word as King of a Christian Imperial Order

It is now time for us to take final stock of all of the developments concerning the imperial era noted in both the current chapter as well as the previous one, but with specific respect to the central theme addressed by this book. The framework for our discussion should not be a surprise to the reader, since it emerges from the “either-or” option already outlined in the first chapter in dealing with the confrontation of the Sophists with the Platonists. For the problems, failings, and yet ultimate growth of the imperial era merely reflect a more charged variation on the same choice: in this case, either the necessity for “closure” in life and “moving on” in obedience to the unexamined words of the many members of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo, or the need to probe the full meaning of existence, learned through the complete message of the Word of God made flesh, and then to correct and transform Christians and the imperial order in which they lived in union with the commands of Christ the King.

We have seen that part of the critique of Christianity offered by the differing components of the GCSQ before its legalization and rise to official State religion was based either on ignorance of what it actually taught or anger over Christian failure to participate in the system. This more substantive assault, while understandable, was, however, tainted by a spirit that constituted the essence of the anti-Christian argument. That spirit was based on two underlying principles: 1) the obvious, “common sense” need to accept the foundation vision of whichever member of the GCSQ was rejecting the new Faith; and, 2) the refusal to confront the fact that the interpretation of that foundation vision was based on the willful choices made by the most powerful elements active in its camp.

Hence, to take but a single example of this type of critique, one can point to the Roman judge who, when faced with Christian prisoners attempting to explain the moral demands placed by their Faith upon them, stopped up his ears and announced: “I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion”—meaning, of course, a “faith” intertwined with the idea of an eternal and unchangeable political and social order closed to the corrective and transforming message of the Word Incarnate.73 Such a Tradition, which, for the Christian, was a natural datum like any other, filled with both Seeds of the Logos to nurture and transform as well as human error and evil to repudiate, was for the judge a fetish object. And treating that Tradition as a fetish object had its undeniable benefits. For one thing, it saved him the painful spectacle of investigating just how much the practical meaning of the Roman Tradition changed if a Cato the Younger or a Caesar or a Diocletian were using his pen or paying his word merchants for an appropriate explanation of its particular blessings.

After the rise of Christianity to the position of State Religion, and the beginnings of the interpretation of the Tradition in line with the will of Constantine, Theodosius, and the latter’s descendants, the critiques of Greco-Roman members of the GCSQ had to settle on a different tone. Now their authors had to make believe that they themselves were Christians and find, if St. Justin Martyr will forgive us the twist on his argument, “Seeds of the words of the Word” that they could turn into tools useful for the maintenance of “business as usual” according to the demands of “nature as is”.

For them, the real answers to the problems of life still came solely from inside their foundation vision, with its natural, “common sense” passions and desires. Nothing substantive was to be gained from this strange, outside, and truly supernatural Christian interloper. Instead of trying to understand, correct, and transform what might be learned from the Christians, their approach—as the case of the Gnostics so clearly illustrates—was that of deconstructing, subverting, and ultimately stripping away any significant meaning from the Faith in Christ that now formed a central—and loathed—part of their political and social environment.

A religion that was new, distinctive, and yet willing and able to find common grounds of cooperation with Seeds of the Logos had to be incorporated into the Establishment. Seeds of the Logos had to be retrieved from their Christian captors and hurled back into the darkness of the cave, while unique teachings based on Revelation were to be ridiculed or ignored. The well-chosen words of rhetoricians could disguise the fact that “faith” in the message of the Incarnate Word was to be nothing other than a more effective religious cover for natural “business as usual”. Many Christians themselves could be counted upon to join in this labor, either because the overwhelming power of custom made a serious consideration of a teaching that was truly different intellectually impossible and materially uncomfortable for them, or because they were quite understandably terrified by the thought of exile, imprisonment, or death.

Critiques of true Christianity, of the full, real message of the Word, now had to take a quite different form from those offered beforehand, when opposition to its teachings could be more open and honest. Christianity now had to be attacked as itself actually being anti-Christian, and this due to the fact that important aspects of the Faith and its practice “rocked the boat” of religion and its daily consequences as the “Sacred Christian Empire” “willed” and “chose” them to be. Business as usual required the dismantling of Christianity…in the name of “real” Christianity. We shall see by the time this work is finished that the proverb, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, is deeply appropriate to the history of the war between “words” and “the Word”. For the imperial rhetoricians would find their skills highly useful in our own time, perhaps more inside the United States of America, with the cooperation of conservative and even traditionalist Catholics, than anywhere else on Earth.

Certainly, an ample stock of black legends, seemingly noble in conception and popular in form, designed for the delectation of the upper and lower classes of the imperial ecumene alike, already began to be stored in the armory of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo in the days before Constantine. The Christians were “atheists”, destroying appreciation for the god that was the cosmos in and of itself, along with the manifold other local pagans divinities through whom his glory was popularly expressed. None of these objects of worship would ever rock the boat of nature since, one or many, they were all just part of the crew that kept that hermetically sealed ship called “here and now” on its pointless voyage. The Christians were also “enemies of mankind”, dangerous to public order and private happiness, but not because the State believed that they were actually guilty of the Bacchic crimes their “superstition” presumed them capable of perpetrating. They were condemned as misanthropes simply because they would not allow the government to do precisely what it wished, and since they placed obstacles between the ordinary man and the satisfaction of his customary passions—all of them truly destructive to both the well-being of the community and the individual. Proclaimed to be ignorant and illiterate in the extreme, Christians were deemed guilty of blocking implementation of the wise decisions of emperors and a conservative aristocracy ready to accomplish the work of reason in rather dubious form: with the information given to them from consultation of sheep guts and magical spells on the one hand; and with the inspiration provided by pornography and pompous, pedantic epic poems celebrating the transfer of wealthy senatorial families from Rome to the Bay of Naples for a fortnight of summer amusement on the other.

Post-Constantinian black legends often continued to emphasize the same themes---though now from a “Christian” imperial standpoint, together with the good religious story that it related concerning its apostolic labors. Here, the insult to God and man supposedly came from that which Sacred Tradition has identified as essential aspects of Orthodox and Catholic belief and practice. The Empire’s borders, public order, and individual human well being were said to be threatened by anti-imperial and ipso facto anti-Christian evils perpetrated in various ways: through the political machinations of the Bishops of Alexandria or Antioch or Rome and their lazy and unproductive monkish allies; by the “inconvenient” adoption of the word homoousion on the part of the Council of Nicaea and the Tome of St. Leo through the decision of the Council of Chalcedon; by hostility to the rhetorical game playing represented by the Henoticon, the Ecthesis, and the Typos; by the veneration offered to icons. True love of God and man was apparently to be found in believers who could accept both the Henoticon and its subsequent condemnation; both an imperial exaltation of the role of a non-Scriptural Pentarchy and its later abandonment as a means of preserving “Primitive Christianity”; the embrace of “up as up” and “up as down”, once the apostolic voice of the imperial court was raised on behalf of both these “common sense” positions, adopted primarily on the basis of immediate, superficial, natural political and material considerations, the one in blatant contradiction to the other.

It is interesting to note that the later black legends popularized by Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) got almost everything substantive that took place in the imperial era concerning Christianity dead wrong. The problems involving the relationship of the new State Religion to the imperial order that they catalogued were indeed real ones, but their interpreters completely misconstrued their true nature and origin. It was the continuing influence of the naturalist Roman foundation vision, linked together with the combined sinfulness of pagans and Christians alike, that caused the religious crises of that era—not the Catholic Faith as such, which merely sought to defend its teachings in the midst of efforts to politicize what were essentially spiritual disputes.

Yes, there were bad mixtures of political policies and belief that regularly characterized the period in question, but these were the product of the machinations of government ministers and court bishops eager to maintain the control of all matters civil and religious in the hands of the infallible polis conducting “business as usual” according to customary standard operating procedures. There was not the slightest possibility that a “Church” and a “State” would ever become separate entities with different spheres of primary concern until there was such a phenomenon as the agmen we call the Mystical Body of Christ. Only this could create the reality of a truly unique spiritual authority possessing the full means to act upon the world at large through its own laws, its own administration, and its own, supernatural esprit de corps.

Yes, there were ignorant Christians, as well as believers whose ideas on certain important matters such as marriage were not those that many modern thinkers—orthodox Catholics included—appreciate. But the ignorant were either men who loathed the idea of working together with the Seeds of the Logos, and were thus looked upon by the developing Magisterium as being out of tune with the message of the Incarnation, or they were writers who were illogical in following through on their own clearly stated theological precepts. “Hidebound” Christians of the imperial era were “backward” only in so far as they allowed ancient customary practices and prejudices to guide them, in contrast to the logic of the Catholic Faith, the teachings of its Scriptures, its growing sacramental theology, and the clear lessons offered through its liturgy.

It seems to me to be especially important to emphasize the misconstruction of the great Trinitarian and Christological battles one finds in later Enlightenment arguments. Men like Gibbon claimed to see the hand of the insanely zealous truth-seeker in all of the twists and turns of doctrinal conflicts, with their undeniably torturous consequences for imperial social peace. But these complex developments did not have their political and social impact because of an exaggerated concern for theological Truth. They had the effect that they did because of that game playing with profound questions and phraseology, mocking and distorting the Truth, typical of the sophist word merchant on the hunt for a gimmick to support the “business as usual” concerns of the powerful.

Truth-seeking Fathers at the Council of Nicaea arrived at words defining the relationship of the Father and the Son with surprising ease and lack of rancor. Their opponents, men like Eusebius of Nicomedia, used their own words not in order to appreciate the strengths or weaknesses of the Nicaean doctrine but rather as tools to build up powerful political alliances, bully their opponents, and push through drastic revisions of the dogmatic affirmations that offended them. In typical word merchant fashion, rhetoricians and the politicians they served then prohibited believers from properly examining the full meaning and consequences of these revised dicta. In effect, the faithful were told that it was time for “closure” and “moving on”, because, for heaven’s sake, the hunt for the obvious goods of power, fame, and riches would be neglected if they did not accept this truth!

Clear and substantive discussions regarding the nature of the “words” in question—a debate that a sophist like Edward Gibbon would naturally consider to be intellectually meaningless—were thus authoritatively silenced. After all, they reflected a spirit of disobedience to an unquestioned traditional imperial authority now declared ipso facto Christian and apostolic in character as well. “What could I do if the Emperor thought otherwise?” the Patriarch of Constantinople asked an orthodox critic during one of these periods of triumphant word merchandising.74 In posing this query, he illustrated both the effectiveness of such efforts to divinize imperial power as well as the frequently pathetic, obsequious response of otherwise often conscientious prelates to it. Once again, Gibbon would have been accurate if he had attributed the disruptions caused by doctrinal dispute to a failure of Christians to live up to their duty rather than to some innate danger lying at the heart of Christianity’s concern for truth in and of itself. It was this failure to live up to that duty that contributed mightily to allowing the discussion of sublime matters of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to become so much humbug serving nothing other than the cause of “nature as is”---as the strongest imperial wills and their rhetorical spokesmen defined it.

In fact, any serious study of Church History demonstrates just how much the zealous truth-seekers engaged in the formulation of orthodox doctrinal teaching loathed and dismissed superfluous word games. The Fathers lamented the presence of wordmongers of all sorts on the streets of Constantinople in the late fourth century, describing for us a contemporary religious version of a very modern public indulgence in pointless babbling on the latest “inside” subject.75

No less an authority than St. Gregory Nazianzen has described how, if you went into a shop in Constantinople to buy a loaf, ‘the baker, instead of telling you the price, will argue that the Father is greater than the Son. The money-changer will talk about the Begotten and the Unbegotten, instead of giving you your money, and if you want a bath the bath-keeper assures you that the Son surely proceeds from nothing’.

Great warriors of the above-mentioned battles, men like St. Athanasius and St. Basil the Great, repeatedly reviewed the arguments of their moderate, so-called Semi-Arian opponents in order to determine whether or not they were battling over substance or mere packaging backed by personal whims and ambitions. Through such painstaking endeavors, they were able to disassociate themselves from “friends” whose insufficiently developed words hid terrible disagreements and build bridges with “enemies” whose complex language disguised real substantive agreement.

One saw something similar when the Catholic mind, living a life of Catholic charity, set out to understand the battle between the early theologians of “grace” and “free will”. Here, as Quasten notes in his study of Patrology, a pastoral spirit, ready to grasp the spiritual warfare of different personalities, went a long way toward overcoming what at first seemed to be deadly divergences.

A Church Father like St. Augustine had to engage in long and painful struggle with himself before he accepted the Faith. He brought this experience of the pain of Redemption to his work as a theologian, emphasizing the horror of the sin that had made Christ’s sacrifice necessary. The author of the Confessions tended, in consequence, to underline the need to escape from an otherwise impossible perplexity and seemingly unforgiveable original flaw through gratitude for the free gift of grace from God.76

Belief came much more easily to a Church Father such as St. John Cassian (c. 360-435). His conviction that progress in the Faith could steadily be made through personal effort was confirmed by his direct contact with the lives of prayer and sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. He tended, in consequence, to emphasize the value of individual labor in the dance to sanctity and to presume that a methodology of growth in union with God could be taught to others. This he did, in the renowned and highly influential conferences on monastic spiritual life that he offered in both Rome and Gaul.77

Not even that much time, charity, and openness were required to bring to center stage yet other Christian teachers eager to put both approaches together for the benefit of the Church at large. Hence, one can look to the work of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390-c. 455), a theologian who was prominent in the promotion and acceptance of St. Augustine’s doctrine in southern Gaul. Here was a man devoted to the permanent things in an age of collapse; a time when a Gibbon-like pagan elite chastised real, substantive learning as the obsession of frivolous minds and confused true intellectual pursuits with entertaining word games. Prosper did yeoman service for the cause of transformation in Christ by demonstrating how free will and grace labored closely in mysterious union with one another. Yes, this great thinker argued, our freely offered works are indeed highly profitable to gaining our salvation. But he insisted that they are only able to have this efficacious redemptive effect because their service to that end was purchased at the heavy price of the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. And the fruits of that divine sacrifice were then offered to us, as St. Augustine taught, as a pure gift of God.78

Again, one cannot stress this basic fact enough: it was the hidden members of the GCSQ, court bishops condemned by Christian heroes, and the sophist talents of both these groups that were primarily to blame for the evils deplored by Gibbon—not the zealous truth seekers we call the Fathers of the Church and their activist fellow travelers. Whenever Christians primarily took their cue as to how to defend Christianity and promote evangelization from the accepted wisdom of the world around them, they merely offered themselves as cannon fodder for the proponents of “nature as is”. It was playing their game that made cementing the privileges of the clergy as one of the upper “social orders” within the Empire the chief project of many prelates. It was following this path that created religious bulwarks that may have appeared strong to the servants of the foundation vision of the Greco-Roman ecumene but which amounted to nothing other than so many Maginot Lines that the true enemy of God and man could easily outflank.

Despite their many failings, the turbulent centuries of the growing Christian Imperial Order were replete with innumerable achievements, incalculably enhancing knowledge of the Incarnate Word and its consequences in history. Developments of the fifth through the ninth centuries drew on earlier accomplishments, stimulating a deeper spirit of independence on the part of Church leaders and encouraging them to offer a stiffer resistance to the tyranny of mere custom over the true Christian Tradition and the clever words used to subordinate the Word of God to the passions of willful men. They thus prepared the ground for that qualitative leap forward in loyalty to the fullness of the message of the Incarnation taken from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries; that extraordinary moment in time, as one author has noted, “when values descended to the earth”;79 that age when a new ascent of Mount Tabor was mounted.

Let us conclude this chapter by underlining two special points regarding the achievements of the imperial era. The first of these is the fact that the ancient Seeds of the Logos were very valuable indeed. Fetish though the foundation vision and tradition in which they were planted might be, the Mystical Body of Christ nevertheless was obliged to accept and then correct and transform these natural springboards to Truth. They were, after all, planted in God’s own Creation, and lovable in and of themselves. And aside from the specific Seeds of the Logos to be found in rhetoric, philosophy, the State, civil law, and the classical aesthetic outlook, it seems to me essential to mention one other crucially important example of the same useful natural tool: the general Greco-Roman sense of the holistic and cosmopolitan character of the entire human enterprise. This overarching Seed is especially important to mention given the dangers to the Faith destined to arise in later ages from a narrow, nationalist, and reductionist vision of life; a vision that continues in our own, much more parochial—though painfully imperial—era.

Christianity is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, free nor slave: it is supranational and aims at the conquest of the entire globe. It needs an international natural environment for its work to thrive, and needed it perhaps all the more at the beginning of its seemingly impossible missionary enterprise. It got that environment through the help of an Empire whose vision was also universal in scope. Christianity requires the transformation of all aspects of life; it began its labors with the aid of a political entity that itself needed guidance regarding how religion, politics, and society were to be intertwined, but nevertheless wholeheartedly recognized the absolute necessity for a Pax deorum that could potentially be elevated to a Pax Christi. Would that the modern, parochial—though equally imperial—vision of life, with its division of existence into compartmentalized spheres, was as open to proper correction and transformation of its errors as its flawed Roman counterpart.

Secondly, the imperial era was one when the pilgrim spirit required to deal with the changeable earthly realm reappeared regularly to the benefit of Church and society. The danger of a fetish-like traditionalism was real enough, even in a cosmopolitan Empire, and yet custom-bound, naturalist, Greco-Roman culture had sufficient pilgrim spirit, as St. Ambrose and Prudentius exulted, humbly to abandon its false gods and embrace Christ. A similar pilgrim spirit emerged, when needed, to send St. Patrick, St. Sophronius’ progeny, the Irish monks, St. Augustine of Canterbury, and St. Boniface, the Apostle to the Germans, on their various journeys. An analogous pilgrim spirit allowed for the Eastern Empire to make some required changes in its “immutable” structure when changes were clearly mandated. Finally, a comparable pilgrim spirit brought the Triple Alliance of Christians, Romans, and Franks into being in the West, as confirmed by the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800 at the Basilica of St. Peter.

Christmastide was a symbolically appropriate season for that western, early medieval confirmation of the pilgrim spirit. Why? Because the “good story” of Christmastide demonstrates that courageous affirmation, commitment, and action in the midst of changing and sometimes brutal realities are built into the character of the dance of life as a whole. There are innumerable fearless “leaps” indicated in the events surrounding Christ’s birth and earliest days themselves. One example of courageous affirmation and commitment that forms part of the Christmas story stands out as most germane to my present argument. This is the fearless dedication to the Christ child of the Three Wise Men of the Orient, who represented both regal authority and learning.

It is one of the great ironies of existence that those most ambitious for power often refuse to take the steps that can make their strength endure for generations. The military man and the statesman often reject contemptuously the serious wisdom that would root their work in a truly substantive great mission and give it staying power, turning for support, instead, to “appropriate explanations of strongly felt desires” that turn out to be nothing other than “creatures of a day”. Christians believed that the Three Wise Men were in some way kings. As kings, they could be seen to have risen above the temptation to rely on brute force and sophistry alone. They allied their strength with a desire to be taught the truth, and it was this that led them to the Eternal Word made flesh.

Another of life’s great ironies is the fact that those most interested in the search for truth are often the least willing to commit their lives to wisdom when it is discovered. The life of learning is all too often accompanied by a paralysis of the will. This is partly due to the scholar’s knowledge of the complexities of reaching definite conclusions, and it is partly owed to a fear that his own importance as a hunter would diminish should truth be actually attained. Paralysis frequently ends in bringing ridicule upon the whole concept of truth seeking, especially if the teachings that have been entertained by the truth seeker are shown to have arisen from humble and non-academic sources. We have already seen this in the reaction to Christianity of some of the educated ancient members of the GCSQ, horrified that men of their own class could be waylaid by the Faith of insignificant fishermen.

Such considerations make the actions of the Three Wise Men all the more brilliant. Arriving from the cradle of civilization, they carried with them the esoteric wisdom of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. Given that the East had been partially Hellenized after the conquests of Alexander the Great, they might be taken as symbols of ancient Greek wisdom, with all its promise and problems, as well. These men could have been expected to stay at home, continue their research, and await workshop reports after noticing the Star of Bethlehem. In the meantime, they would certainly have enjoyed the power that they possessed and the support of rhetorical sophists eager to justify and give it a noble pedigree in exchange for three square meals a day.

A pilgrim spirit triumphed instead. The Three Wise Men took to the road. They may have had endless discussions over the meaning of it all on the way to Bethlehem. But when they arrived at their destination, these representatives of the often quite paralytic and elitist academic enterprise bent their knees. These emissaries of the cradle of civilization eagerly paid homage before the cradle of a new, higher, and decisive civilizing force. The Wise Men, violating all of the best principles of academic objectivity, abandoning all the arrogance of political, social, and military might, placed their wisdom and strength at the service of a helpless child; a helpless child cared for by poor, dishonored parents, who were away from home at the bidding of a distant emperor. Not even the son of a scholar. Not even the son of a conqueror. What of the ridicule of fellow kings and fellow wise men before their action? What of the possible conflicts of human knowledge and faith? What of the potential quarrels of State and Church? “Later”, the Wise Men, in a sense, answered. “We will work them out later. The Truth is there before us in human form, and He has promised not to reject what we have to offer, so long as we accept Him. Our future difficulties must not prevent our present abandonment to the Truth.” Here lay a major defeat for the budding Grand Coalition of the Status Quo; a trouncing that can and must serve as a continuing inspiration for Christians still today.

Sometimes one sees paintings in which the Three Wise Men are depicted as being joined by others in their homage to the Christ child. I should like to think that their entourage consisted of men and women who had been tempted by life’s risks and horrors to run, to hide, and to despair. I should also like to think that these men and women were encouraged by the courageous commitment of the representatives of power and learning to embrace life’s risks in the Truth. After all, three kings stood before them who had not been deterred from combining knowledge and power, despite the obvious problems involved. These same kings were now ready to unite such explosive forces with courageous affirmation of the helpless Christ child. If they were not afraid, either of the world or of God, why should anyone else be? Why flee from love, because of the dangers of loving properly, or marriage, because divorce and cynicism are everywhere to be feared? Why hide from song and dance, from art and beauty, from the table and the vineyard, simply due to the risk of their misuse? Bring them courageously into the sight of the living God, who will not reject them, so long as He and his corrective, transforming teaching are accepted. Embrace the world in Christ, and begin the adventure of life. The future difficulties will be worked out along the road. It was this that Plato had longed for. It was this that the Wise Men had found.

I would paint an extremely crowded canvas of the visit of the Wise Men to Bethlehem. I would draw behind the Magi the awakened faces of representatives of all aspects and walks of life; the joyous faces of all those who had realized that courageous commitment to the Son of God gave them the chance—their only real chance—to embrace life, despite life’s brutal realities. In the distance, I would draw the coronation of Charlemagne, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and, behind these scenes, the fruits of the brave affirmation of life that they symbolized, and Christian civilization in all its glory. Finally, far away from the rest, I would sketch in the Heavenly Jerusalem. I would do so, because God’s reward for courageous affirmation of life in the Truth here and now is possession of life in the Truth for all eternity.

The Christmas story need not have taken place at all. The Wise Men might have been frightened by the risks entailed for their reputation and power and never set out on their journey. No crowd would have gathered to follow them. Joseph might have abandoned Mary: too much trouble and little happiness with that woman. Mary could have asked for some type of insurance policy from God. The Father might, with full justification, have admitted that His Creation was a cynic’s delight and left it on its own. There would have been no painting, no coronation, no Christian civilization, no Heavenly Jerusalem. For the prize for failure to affirm life in the Truth in the here and now, with all its risks and hardships, is eternal death.

One final “word of the Word” is essential to the conclusion of this chapter. Christ’s affirmation of the value of Creation in its entirety is also an affirmation of the value of history in its entirety. Everything that “was” must remain eternally present to us as a heritage to consult. In ignoring it, we treat everything that “is” today as only passing, and, thus, quite frankly, ultimately pointless for the future. This means that an ever-living appreciation of all that happened in the era of imperial Christendom is incumbent upon anyone who would take Christ’s message seriously and put it to fruitful use in his own time.

Rigorous study of the Fathers and intense investigation of the history of the Church in the first millennium as a whole offers us many lessons of absolutely essential contemporary importance. We neglect that study in literal peril of our spiritual lives. For we have seen that the growth of Christian self-consciousness is not something that has happened or necessarily will continue to happen logically; that one does not always grasp the consequences flowing from attempts to deal with immediate questions of great importance; that the hold of custom and the lure of the bag of tricks manipulated by the GCSQ with its budding black legends and seductive, alternative good stories tempts all people, believers included, to put on blinders and ignore weapons lying right there before their eyes capable of curing their most pressing woes.

Thus, reading theological treatises of a later age, however brilliant, however logically-structured, and however more pure in the sense of being free from the earlier errors of the pioneering Fathers, cannot and must not entirely replace the testimony of on-the-spot witnesses to this or any given period of Church History. Attempts to do just that can cause some of the most gross and early heresies of the Christian experience to reappear unexpectedly, with the support of people who imprudently thought they were better armed than anyone else for avoiding their impact. We will have all too many examples of exactly what this means for war between “words” and “the Word” in the remaining chapters of this book. Thankfully, for the moment, despite the troubles intertwined therewith, we still have a bit more of a “good story about a true story” that lies before us to recount.

Chapter 4

The New Ascent of Mount Tabor

A. A Reality Check, East and West

Exciting developments in understanding the Word Incarnate and the meaning of Christ’s message for individual and social life continued to unfold within the context of the Roman imperial system from the time of Constantine down through the establishment of the Papal-Carolingian alliance, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the years following thereafter. The vision of a Sacred Christian Empire protecting the Pax Christi had remained basically intact through all of these centuries, though altered sufficiently to accommodate Catholic doctrine and changed realities in the dance of life, both in the East and in the West.

But was the “good story” regarding a Christian imperial order really true enough to allow the mission of correction and transformation in Christ to proceed freely? Could that “good story” be used to confront new problems effectively as they arose? Or did it continue to allow forces promoting nature “as is” to survive and prosper, and by so doing aid and succor the momentarily “hidden” Grand Coalition of the Status Quo? Examination of the situation in both Eastern and Western Christendom from the mid-ninth through the eleventh centuries yields a worrisome response to both queries.

Again, as noted briefly in the previous chapter, the history of the Eastern Empire under the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056) in the two centuries after the Triumph of Orthodoxy seems in many respects to be a brilliant one. Great patriarchs, emperors, theologians, monks, scholars, missionaries, saints, and skilled storytellers loyal to the Faith accomplished numerous deeds of permanent value in those two hundred years, many of which were also marked by triumphs for the crusading armies of Eastern Christendom. Looking back at these accomplishments continues to inspire those eager to learn of the full consequences of the Word operative in time. Once more, however, dark sides to this splendid picture of a triumphant Christian Byzantium were not only present but all too easy to identify as well.1

For one thing, the symphonia emerging out of the Triumph of Orthodoxy with respect to dogmatic issues was still often very seriously troubled when dealing with practical moral and jurisdictional matters. A new ecclesiastical feistiness in resisting unacceptable governmental behavior, born of Church outrage over incursions into her proper sphere of action in the previous centuries of intense battle, may in part account for this. Interestingly enough, it was not just memories of iconoclast synods like the Council of Hiereia that still rankled. Even the elevation to the patriarchal throne of iconodules like Tarasios and Nikephoros through the non-canonical fiat of an image-friendly imperial court also gave grave offense. The monastic communities of St. Theodore the Stoudite remained highly vigilant in maintaining a close watch on such illicit maneuvers on the part of State authorities. They also kept their eyes open for dubious acts of economia—dispensations from proper Christian behavior when a fait accompli made their acceptance appear to be politically and religiously prudent—granted by prelates whom they viewed as being more interested in serving the cause of “nature as is” than in pursuing the pastoral correction and transformation in Christ of fallen men.

Stoudites frequently criticized patriarchal decisions as well. But it must be admitted that Patriarchs of Constantinople were themselves often equally alert in defending the Church as a whole and insistent upon due recognition of their own particular prerogatives in doing so. Their position in the Eastern imperial order was now much more exalted than in past centuries. The revised code of laws called the Eisagoge referred to the Patriarch as the living image of Christ in a society ruled by an emperor stripped of at least some of his previous sacred aura. Aided by the decline of other urban episcopal centers, the presence in the “Queen City” of large numbers of bishops united in what was called the Permanent Synod, and often by their own personal reputation for scholarship as well, patriarchs such as Photius (858-867, 877-886) Nicholas Mysticos (901-906, 912-925), Polyeuctes (956-970), and Michael Cerularios (1043-1058) were keenly conscious of their power and perfectly willing to use it. In consequence, both Stoudite monks and patriarchs together offered opposition to the emperors in many conflicts regarding moral issues: skirmishes involving questions ranging from political murders and scandalous marital affairs to an imperial desire to secularize martyrdom through the canonization of all those soldiers falling in often purely secular battles against the “Moslem” enemy.2

Still, as the divided dates of certain patriarchal reigns suggest, imperial efforts to defeat such opposition—which the court generally regarded as more political than religious in character—were not insignificant. State hostility was not expressed in attacks on the patriarchal office or the extent of Church powers as such. There was no Marsilius of Padua advising the Macedonian emperors. Rather, opposition took the form of jockeying to place close associates or immediate family members on the patriarchal throne in order to provide emperors with comrades and not competitors in leadership. Caesaro-Papism thus continued to flourish, even if different both from its earlier and rather more brutal Eusebian form as well as from the legalist and naturalist version that triumphed in the West in later centuries.

Cultural achievements also brought new problems—religious, political, and social—in their wake, badly shaking the traditional pillars of Eastern Roman life. The ancient learning championed by the fathers of the Byzantine cultural renaissance gave to its sons a deeper knowledge of the meaning and diversity of classical learning than they had possessed beforehand. Much of this learning could thus seem quite new and exotic to its admirers, old and venerable though it actually was. It therefore understandably engendered mighty challenges to existing perceptions of the past and the customs that were firmly tied to them.

The avalanche of imperial military victories in the East also stimulated similar challenges to established beliefs and traditions. Conquest brought non-Greek ethnic groups as well as Moslems and Christian heretics in sizeable number back into the Empire. Moreover, the successes of imperial arms strongly affected the Byzantine concept of nobility. The military virtues responsible for eastern successes overtook civilian—and religious—justifications for aristocratic pedigree. Meanwhile, both external victory and greater internal security aided the growth of a new urban and rural wealth. In practice this meant four things, none of which, in the long run, was compatible with a healthy Catholic political and social order obedient to the full corrective and transforming message of the Incarnate Word.

First of all, an intensified antiquarianism was one not particularly surprising reaction to intellectual tumult and multiculturalism. It is always wise to keep a clear idea of just how unchangeable all of the foundations of the Byzantine system were in the minds of many an imperial thinker. Even though realistic political reforms saved its life, Byzantium at the beginning of the Macedonian period was still guided by the theoretical vision of an unchangeable Rome. Despite the historical facts of life, maps of the Empire continued to include provinces that were only under its control at its greatest height in the second century. Political antiquarianism of this sort was bad enough, but it was also accompanied by the effort of many scholars to ossify the Hellenist learning championed by the authors of the cultural renaissance in an encyclopedic strait jacket.

Ossification extended into the realm of Church thought and practice. The strait jacket thus fashioned was then utilized to try to nip all speculation in the bud, even such as might actually solidify imperial power or enrich a proper understanding of orthodox teaching. Most importantly, antiquarianism and ossification together worked to chastise all non-Greek national cultures as both barbaric as well as innately anti-traditional and anti-Christian. Heresies, for men subject to such a mania, were not ideas; they were simply non-Greek, national, ethnic vices. This parochial mentality, so hostile to the full, pilgrim-spirited, Christian embrace of the true diversity of the world, was highly troublesome in dealing with the Armenians in the East. But it was especially deadly with respect to relations with the Latin West and the Holy See.

It must be noted that anti-Latin sentiment had already begun to intensify in the immediate wake of the defeat of Monothelite Monophysitism. Despite their crucial significance to the victory of Chalcedon, no mention was made of the contribution and sufferings of Pope St. Martin or his chief advisor, St. Maximus Confessor, when the orthodox teaching was officially “restored” in the late seventh century. The eastern Council in Trullo, held in 692 under the Emperor Justinian II (685-695, 704-711), made it painfully clear just how much the Byzantine world now considered Greek liturgical custom and the concept of economia in matters such as the loosening of the bonds of clerical celibacy as normative for the Church at large. Latin practices that differed from those of the Greeks were correspondingly ridiculed, either as being too rigorous, too boorish, or simply manifestations of obvious inbred western heretical tendencies.3

Furthermore, even though Greek-speaking monks had been central to the elaboration of the role of the Roman Pontiffs in the life of the Universal Church, and Greek-speaking popes had themselves dominated the Eternal City in much of the seventh and eighth centuries, the anti-Latin reaction turned into an attack on the powers of the Papacy as such. The eighth century papal alliance with the Franks was viewed in Constantinople as an act of outright treason. The involvement of Popes Nicholas I (858-867) and John VIII (878-882) in the dispute between Photius and Ignatius over possession of the patriarchal throne also rankled. Their role in the work of the conversion and ecclesiastical organization of the nearby Bulgars was viewed as similarly invasive and arrogantly overreaching. Although there were long moments of calm in patriarchal-papal relations in the 900’s and 1000’s, these were not in any sense due to a proper appreciation of their respective roles in the life of the Universal Church. Such tranquility was chiefly owed to the growing political strength of the Eastern Empire and the disasters befalling the Carolingians and Rome by the time of the tragic death of John VIII, the last of the great early medieval pontiffs.4

Secondly, an opposite and equally problematic reaction to cultural and military developments in the East involved an embrace of novelty for novelty’s sake. Supporters of this approach “dived into” the “new” with uncritical enthusiasm—most especially when what was “new” happened to possess the more ancient pedigree noted above. An uncritical dive into the “freshly ancient” thus eventually gave to the Byzantium of the eleventh century influential scholars and statesmen who were really Hellenes of the old school; i.e., full-fledged pagans, with a special loathing for monks and monasticism, and an admiration for ideas that could never be reconciled with Christian teachings. This uncritical approach also helped to rekindle in “progressive” religious circles a marked sympathy for a variety of heresies, including both the ancient Gnostic beliefs promoted by the contemporary sects of the Paulicians and the Bogomils as well as early Christian ideas concerning the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul of the mystic, such as those found among the so-called Messalians.

Next, as in all periods when an apparently irresistible flood of changes is met with a strong tendency towards an immovable ossification, many confused or frustrated spirits took refuge from spiritual, intellectual, and social turmoil in an internal “exile”. Everywhere in Byzantium, one notices a growing flight from the public to the private sphere. This took place in ways that range from burial customs to the search for individual sanctity. In the secular sphere, personal family concerns began more and more to take precedence over State matters. In the religious realm, private devotions and paths to perfection began to be cultivated over public liturgy and reception of the sacraments. Perhaps most importantly for long-term ecclesiastical developments, the Stoudite emphasis on a social-minded, cenobitic monasticism began to give way to the more personal approach to union with God championed by St. Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022), the potential dangers of which will be addressed in greater detail in the next chapter.5

Finally, all pretensions to Christian economic and social health were abandoned through the revival and strengthening of the battle of the Powerful versus the Powerless, a conflict that regularly alarmed far-sighted Byzantines. The availability of new wealth, both urban as well as rural, fed a seemingly mad passion on the part of all of the more potent forces in Eastern society, from dioceses and monasteries to aristocrats and merchants, to increase their riches at the expense of those unable effectively to defend themselves. The personalizing of life in the East meant that the battle for wealth was fought as much among the more powerful groups as against the poor. In both cases, it was fought with serious lack of concern for the well being of the State as a whole. Church authorities used marital legislation to prevent combinations of private families detrimental to her financial interests; civilian aristocrats tried to choke military competitors by cutting off funding for the army; noblemen from the military sought to circumvent the civilian administration and build still more securely the property and wealth of their individual clans.

Grasping and ambition also had their nefarious impact at the highest level of eastern life. Political machinations surrounding the rise of a given candidate to the imperial throne and attempts to strengthen or thwart a man’s ability actually to exercise State power gave new meaning to the word “Byzantine” even in these seemingly “happy” centuries. Despite the yeoman efforts of some of the greatest of the emperors to stem personal lusts in all social strata, the victory of private powerful interests at court was certain by the middle of the eleventh century. The resulting damage to the common good was enormous, as the failure of the Empire to resist dangerous foreign incursions so well demonstrated. Hence, the disastrous Roman defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071 and the subsequent occupation of Asia Minor by their Moslem families. Hence, also, the successes simultaneously obtained by vigorous steppe peoples penetrating the Empire from the north and the sustained and powerful Norman advances in southern Italy.6

All these developments were destructive to the implementation of the full corrective and transforming message of the Word Incarnate. That message could never be reduced to a parochial, ethnic possession. It could not accept the presumption that everything that might be said about God had already been catalogued on library shelves. Neither could it remain uncritical of either ancient or non-classical wisdom, nor tolerate indifference to the destruction of the State’s ability to work for the common good of everyone—including and especially the poor and the powerless. Every one of these developments was a godsend to the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo, providing new recruits for its underground army in the very centuries when the sacred Christian imperial order seemed in some respects more secure than ever before.

At this point we must turn to Carolingian Christendom and its representation of the Roman imperial ideal. The Western Empire also nurtured a deep theoretical confidence in the solidity of its own sacred religious and political mission. A great influence shaping its sense of special purpose within a fixed, unchangeable cosmos came through the writings of the man known to us today as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. These Neo-Platonic works, including On the Celestial Hierarchy, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, The Divine Names, and The Mystical Theology, apparently emerged out of fifth century Syria. Two errors accompanied them on their journey to prominence in the western imperial sphere of influence.

First of all, as in the East, they were falsely attributed to that Dionysius the Areopagite whom the Acts of the Apostles indicates as having hearkened to the message of St. Paul on his missionary visit to Athens. Such a scriptural pedigree gave them a greater significance in the traditionalist mind than they otherwise might have had. Secondly, this “Pauline” author was then associated in the West with St. Denis (Dionysius, d. c. 250), the proto-martyr of Paris, a man who was deeply honored by the Christian Kingdom of the Franks in general and by its Carolingian rulers in particular. The corpus of Pseudo-Dionysian writings was presented by Emperor Michael II (820-829) to Emperor Louis the Pious in 827 and kept at the Abbey of Saint Denis near Paris. Abbot Hilduin (d. 840) translated it into a Latin whose accuracy was improved slightly later by John Scotus Eriugena (815-877).

Westerners gained a twofold lesson from the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. On the one hand, they learned from them of the majesty of a hierarchically structured order of existence that was operative throughout God’s supernatural Creation, from the life of the angelic hosts on down. They drew from this omnipresent supernatural order the necessity of its logical extension to the temporal, historical realm as well. What this meant was that life in a Christian world that was engaged in a pilgrim journey to God had to be organized as a hierarchically ordered procession paralleling the highly structured eternal act of divine adoration in the heavens.

On the other hand, western interpreters of Pseudo-Dionysius argued that God in His Providence had entrusted the task of hierarchical ordering of the pilgrim procession to a Church specifically protected by the Franks and their Carolingian king-emperors. The Carolingian ruler was said to play a central role in guiding mankind’s earthly journey to its supernatural destination. He himself had been “ordained” for this task through the ceremony of anointment. His whole being was changed through unction, and his intellect along with it, making him a teacher—or, to use the old rhetorical term for his function, an orator. Guarantor of the Pax Christi, like Constantine before him, he was thus called upon to work vigorously to shape the “wholeness” of existence, aided by his fellow orators, the bishops. Once the Carolingian king-emperors and their bishops took their responsibilities as hierarchical organizers of the dance of life through nature seriously, all that could humanly be accomplished to ensure the successful completion of the pilgrimage of Christians to the Father of Lights was finished, unchangeably and for good. God could ask no more spiritual engagement from mankind.7

Here, certainly, were all the elements necessary for a “good story”. But accounts of this sacred, Roman, Frankish Carolingian task took on more and more of the characteristics of an “appropriate justification” of personal power and riches rather than a description both of an historical reality as well as the substantive and flexible application of the corrective and transforming message of the Word to political, social, and individual life. Manifestations of the dangers flowing from such a flawed and ossifying western imperial “truth” were apparent even as the “ink” signing the Franco-Papal alliance had not yet fully dried.

For one thing, the Emperors in Constantinople, who stubbornly considered Byzantium alone to be the legitimate heir of Roman power, could always contest any assertion of an eternal Carolingian role in the sacred imperial mission of guidance of the procession to God. The East was outraged by Pippin’s alliance with the Papacy, although that anger was more focused on the traitorous Roman Pontiffs, whose position the imperial government consistently sought to undermine, than on their boorish, upstart Frankish friends. Eastern irritation with the Carolingians increased, however, with the adoption by Charlemagne of the imperial title. Byzantium’s annoyance also grew as westerners highlighted the Greek as opposed to Roman character of the regime in Constantinople. The Empire’s Hellenic flavor had indeed become more pronounced from the days of Heraclius onwards, when Greek officially replaced Latin as the political and legal language of the State. Frankish leaders called attention to this fact and taunted exasperated eastern rulers as Roman emperors who did not even know the tongue of the city on which they based their legitimacy.8

Despite the modus vivendi that generally maintained civility between Constantinople and the Franks, tension between East and West remained constant. This made it clear that the supposedly unified earthly procession of the Christian people to God actually involved two imperial Roman lines of march that might, in theory, come to blows with one another. Ingrained hostility and fear of potential conflict worked mightily to politicize all religious questions, with missionary campaigns at the top of the list of affected matters. This made pagan peoples’ final decision to convert to Christianity often less of a religious than a secular one: an issue of whether the Slavic peoples of Central Europe, the Bulgars, or the Kievan Rus wished to accept a “Roman and Christian” influence that was either more Frankish or more Greek in character. Missionaries whose desire to evangelize was motivated by a proper pilgrimage spirit were thereby troubled in their immediate endeavors, while new nations entered Christendom with political and cultural “doctrinal” baggage that might not be crucial or even acceptable for a properly prepared journey to God.9

A second problem emerged in the West due to Carolingian manifestations of an all too familiar Caesaro-Papist mentality. Already under Charles the Hammer, the closer Carolingian embrace of things Roman had proven to be a bear hug, accompanied, as it was, by a conviction that ecclesiastical temporal possessions were there to serve the secular order, justifying an open robbery of Church property. Besides this, Charlemagne, Louis the Pious, and the Roman Pontiffs had differing opinions regarding what the protective role vouchsafed the new Frankish guides of the western dance of life actually meant in practice with respect to the internal affairs of the Papacy, the Eternal City, and the surrounding areas of central Italy. Worse still, Charlemagne horrified Rome by expressing painfully iconoclast sympathies. These were emphasized in a parochial-minded royal synod rejecting the canons of the Second Council of Nicaea and intimating Frankish independence in other serious doctrinal and liturgical matters as well. After all, if “Frank” and “Catholic” were synonymous, a papal Rome and a patriarchal Constantinople in disagreement with the Carolingians had ipso facto nothing to teach this true People of God.10

Yet another western problem was the Carolingian approach to the work of conversion, which clearly emphasized military, financial, and ethnic submission more than it did achieving a substantive religious change of heart. Alcuin bitterly lamented the forcible measures used against the Saxons by Charlemagne.11 Such tactics may, perhaps, have become somewhat subtler over time, but they nevertheless continued to illustrate the same basic inversion of religious and secular values. Papal support for missionaries like St. Cyril (827-869) and St. Methodius (815-882), the Apostles to the Slavs, and that of Pope St. Nicholas I (858-867) for the conversion of the Bulgars, remained as sensitive to the nuances required in dealing with different peoples’ paths to Christianity as that of St. Gregory the Great in suggesting how to approach the evangelization of the Angles and Saxons in past centuries.12 But such nuances were lost amidst the immediate dynastic and ethnic politics of the western powers-that-be. And this lack of flexibility in spiritual matters, as usual, tended to work to the detriment of the long-term progress even of Carolingian military goals as well.

Finally, there remained the much more broad and troublesome question of the actual commitment of the Frankish people, high and low, to realization of the grand worldview asserted by their political and religious leaders. It was quite understandable that the tribe as a whole would need a great deal of time to digest the heady concepts of ordered, hierarchical, governmental, and spiritual mission taught to them by Charlemagne, Alcuin, and the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius. Unfortunately, divisions within the very Carolingian Family itself did not permit this luxury. Already under Louis the Pious, filial disputes regarding the treatment of the Empire as a shared family property rather than an indivisible Greco-Roman polis had led to civil war. Upon his death, and after further conflict among his progeny, imperial Carolingian Christianity found itself with three anointed kings rather than one. They were presided over by Lothair (840-855), the eldest of the lot, who also kept the title of Emperor but lacked the substantive powers thereof. Still further warfare, along with predictably unexpected births and deaths, provided sometimes more, sometimes fewer in the way of ordained leaders of the “single” earthly procession to eternity. The Emperor Charles the Fat (d. 888) proved to be the last of the Carolingians to unite—quite ingloriously, we might add, given his inability and even apparent unwillingness effectively to confront external Viking threats—the entirety of the realm under an illusory and ineffective control.

Frankish counts, as well as the soldiers who served them, expected personal rewards for their efforts. A divided realm, with a variety of kings competing for their labors, allowed warriors to play one Carolingian ruler against another for increasingly higher stakes. Even worse, it permitted some to usurp illegitimate powers on their own behalf. Persistent, new, and often unforeseen Viking, Saracen, and Magyar onslaughts wreaked much further havoc with the established, “eternally-fixed” hierarchical order. These, in turn, encouraged parochial responses to complex local dilemmas, increasing the need for hasty, haphazard, on-the-spot military recruitment. Such recruitment encouraged the rise to power of self-interested castle keepers and often quite brutal soldiers of fortune with no theological or philosophical bonds tying them either to the earthly imitation of celestial hierarchies or to the building of a New Athens in the forests of Gaul and Germany.13

Hence, the grand Christian-Roman mission of the Franks under Carolingian rule lay in ruins. The organized Pseudo-Dionysian pilgrimage to the Father of Lights disintegrated, its participants shading their eyes from the glare of all too complicated truths and running for cover to the simple, obscurantist verities scratched onto the back wall of Plato’s cave. All seemed lost. The late 800’s, 900’s, and, in many places the 1000’s as well, presented the picture of an almost totally disordered, violent, purposeless jungle that only a libertarian or neo-conservative warmonger could find appealing.

In fact, western imperial Christendom had dissolved into a classic example of Thomas Aquinas’ definition of a chaotic state of existence: namely, a situation where there was complexity without order.14 As Bishop Adalbero of Laon (died c. 1030) remarked in the beginning decades of the eleventh century: “The laws are dissolving, all peace is evaporating, the customs of men are changing, and the order {of things} is changing as well”.15 “Laws are silent in the presence of arms”, Gerbert of Aurillac (c. 955-1003), the future Pope Sylvester II (999-1003), noted.16 Willful, illegitimate force had overruled proper, organized, God-given authority. Sin-driven villains rode roughshod astride the virtuous and the representatives of legitimate rule. “Divine and human law are confused because of the enormous greed of excessively evil men”, Gerbert lamented; “and only what passion and force can extort in the manner of brutes is considered as one’s right.”17

What had happened, more specifically, was that half-barbaric, half-pagan, familial, personal, and customary concerns for the satisfaction of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” had triumphed over Christian and classical understandings of how the Word and the natural “logos of things” were to be understood and made manifest. Tenth century documents and literature give us a good idea as to just what this meant in individual and social life. Much of what they tell us may appear to be indifferent or even childishly amusing in character, such as the exaggerated pride exhibited by contemporary strong men in their possession of appealing carpets and large numbers of horses and dogs, as well as their success at maintaining a spirit of jollity while drinking among their subordinates. Most of it is definitely not innocent or comical, with the bulk of the problem flowing from the unending and violent hunt of soldiers high and low for the earthly wherewithal to continue and augment their military careers.

In the environment of economic collapse accompanying the external invasions and the internal free-for-all of the age, what this signified, in practice, was an obsessive and aggressive hunt for land for one’s family and for oneself. Religious and secular clerics were by no means free of this “obvious” demand of Mother Nature to place the search for private control over the means of production above all other considerations. Monks, such as those at the great abbey of Farfa, north of Rome, actually began to think of dividing up the communal patrimony for the benefit of their illicit, individual families. They would have been lucky to do so, however, for lay soldiers regularly robbed church lands if the abbots and bishops nominally in charge of them could not themselves be lured away from their proper tasks to serve the work of blood and iron directly. The result was that many monasteries, parishes, and whole dioceses ended up by as private, military-minded, proprietary holdings. Bishops and priests were named, and monastic livelihoods endowed, chiefly in order to serve family military ambitions. Clerics were sometimes even enslaved if this proved suitable to the designs of any particular clan.18

One important victim of the rampage was the ideal of clerical celibacy, which weakened along with the entire Benedictine concern for a life of poverty, prayer, study, and work. Men already convinced of the supreme and unquestioned value of family and personal affairs could not be bothered with the counsel of chastity. Bishops Rather of Verona (890-974) and Adalbert of Bremen (c. 1000-1072) were by no means alone in dealing with the consequences of the abandonment of celibacy by appeals to prudence rather than obedience to Canon Law. Abandoning principle in face of the “common sense” realities of the times, such bishops begged clerics who could not abstain from the commerce with women forbidden by Church law at least to have the decency to marry their concubines.

In fact, everything that Canon Law had prescribed was ignored. Bishop Rather bitterly lamented that “no one in Christendom… from the lowest to the highest, from the most ignorant to those who fancied themselves the wisest, from laymen to the pope himself, bothered himself about the canons.”19 “The entire population”, Dr. Fichtenau, the great German historian of this era observes, “lived in a state of dichotomy,” rhetorically praising Christ and His Mystical Body and yet regularly violating in practice all of the holiest and most ancient dictates of God and the Church.20 In short, the rules and the “common sense” of a fallen nature had pushed aside the superior claims of the message of the Word in history. Contemporaries might tell a good tale about their Christian character, but practicing followers of Christ they certainly were not.

Even the Roman Pontiffs were eventually dragged into this chaotic and effectively naturalist black hole, although not, at least early on, without admirably kicking and screaming in protest against their own humiliation. At first, throughout much of the ninth century, they had worked energetically to keep the Carolingians moving along the respectable pilgrimage route these Frankish leaders were themselves supposed to be guiding. A string of impressive popes, including the aforementioned Nicholas I and John VIII, regularly exhorted Charlemagne’s descendants to attend to their proper duties as armed defenders of the Pax et Regnum Christi. Better still, they encouraged a strong but legitimate exercise of imperial authority while at the same time openly opposing Caesaro-Papist dogmatic and political distortions of the Church’s spiritual mission.

Unfortunately, the Papacy could not resist engaging in unacceptable rhetorical games of its own in support of its labors on behalf of the Word. In doing so, it joined in an activity that became a western European parlor sport during this age of growing chaos. For what the popes did, on the one hand, was simply to appropriate the work of bishops in the Kingdom of the Franks who had sought to protect their own local powers with reference to a set of Church canons emphasizing episcopal prerogatives. Known today as the Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals, these canons were actually written in the ninth century under the name of Isidore Mercator but claimed an elegant pedigree rooted as far back in time as the first six hundred years of Church History. But since they founded French bishops’ rights on grants from the still greater authority of popes ranging from St. Clement I to St. Gregory the Great, they proved not only useful for emphasizing episcopal authority but also for what would soon be described as the “plenitude of papal power”. The implications of that doctrine, which insisted upon the papacy’s practical as well as theoretical control over the affairs of the Universal Church, was to be at the center of much of the history and many of the struggles of the whole of the remaining medieval era.

Another flimsy rhetorical weapon in the contemporary armory of the physically ever more helpless Papacy was the so-called Donation of Constantine. Forged by Roman officials of that same prolific ninth century, this document transformed Constantine’s real gift of various properties to the Holy See into a fictitious grant of extensive powers that supported papal claims to independence in Italy and supremacy over all other authorities in the western part of the empire. “Any port in a storm” rather than “back to the message of the Word Incarnate” seems to have been the Church of Rome’s marred and all too human response to the dilemmas of the moment. She was to pay an embarrassing price for her abandonment of good judgment in exchange for a good story. This payment eventually came when Renaissance humanists uncovered the mischief underlying the “donation” and passed their findings into the hands of the anti-Roman Grand Coalition of the Status Quo.21

Whether through the memory of past deeds or the momentary success of present forgeries, papal prestige did remain high among western Christians in the midst of the current crisis, especially outside Italy. Its “good press” was to prove immensely valuable, since those believers who lived on the spot, in the midst of the Roman Pontiffs reigning in the era of chaos, knew just how badly their structural situation as well as their own personal integrity had deteriorated by the turn of the tenth century. Papal independence and ability to perform the exalted spiritual role that St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Martin I had died to delineate were by that point continually under threat from a host of enemies. Some troublemakers were foreign, like the Saracens. Others were closer to home, such as the local Carolingian Kings of Italy and their successors: the Dukes of Spoleto, Roman families of dubious “nobility”, and the manifold, unseemly forces that all of these could mobilize to in aid of their mundane “common sense” projects.22

Failures of appeals for imperial help in maintaining the Pax et Regnum Christi, the last under Pope Formosus (891-896), led to the domination of Rome by the Theophylact Family: first of all under Theophylact the Vestararius and Magister militum and then through his daughter Marozia (890-937), who eventually ruled together with her son, Pope John XI (931-935). A second offspring, Alberic the Younger (923-954), overturned Marozia’s regrettable dominion. The happily rebellious Alberic, referred to as Glorious Prince and Senator, passed his power down to his own child, who then united both secular and ecclesiastical authority in one set of hands as Pope John XII (955-964). Alberic left behind him a credible record of decent civil and religious actions, especially impressive given the nature of the times. John, however, despite the possible exaggerations of his opponents, has never been defended by anyone as a badly misunderstood model of commitment to exalted communal and spiritual ideals.

Perhaps the greatest evil of the age was a widespread confusion over who was actually legitimately entitled to the power that he possessed; a power from which the ability to effect corrective change for the better might someday arise. Ancestry meant much less under these strange new circumstances, and success due to military prowess and cunning—something that the Germans referred to as Heil—correspondingly much more. Marks of honor, ranging from who sat where at a meeting of warlords to who might be handed his sword first when that gathering was concluded, were scrutinized carefully to determine the levels of presumed entitlement of given troublemakers. As always, monks, priests, and bishops were also seduced into participation in this pathetic carnival. The hunt for marks of honor amidst the confusion of authority led to the invention and intense cultivation of highly fanciful, Isocrates-like foundation stories stretching back to ancient Roman times “proving” why a particular diocese, parish, or monastery was more important than another. Even prayer life—the daily performance of the Opus Dei—was marred by the humiliation of less powerful clerics by more noble colleagues who demanded various forms of deferment from the lowly while offering a common worship to Almighty God.23

Confusion regarding who was warranted exactly what level of authority made substantive treatment of real problems concerning the common good of both Church and State seemingly impossible. It was this that led Gerbert of Aurillac to comment that “to take part in public life is madness today”.24 If a man tried to be loyal to a given set of proscriptions he would certainly violate another, or, barring that, become subject to the even more pressing whims of the strongest local warmonger—for however long his particular willful writ would run. “Laws are silent in the presence of arms”, the long-suffering Gerbert sighed; “if someone deviates a bit from the holy canons, it is not out of wickedness but out of necessity.”25 At the Synod of Trosly in 909 “the assembled bishops complained that people were fearlessly swearing by God and all the saints, by the relics of the saints, by their own souls or those of their parents and friends”, all of this, obviously, in order to find a way to save their constantly threatened skins.26 One consequence of such madness was a comical succession of mutual excommunications. “There was hardly anyone in the Kingdom who was not excommunicated for having been in contact with another excommunicate”, the Abbo of Fleury (c. 945-1004) bemoaned.27 Still, the more that everyone began to excommunicate everyone else, and with ever more virulent accusations, calumnies, and curses, the less such actions seemed to have any practical effect.

Calls to end the chaos were regularly made through arbitrary insistence upon the need for universal obedience to what really amounted to one batch of potentially appropriate rules as opposed to another. Well-meaning efforts to overcome disorder merely led to new bewilderment. Abbo of Fleury, pointing to the variety of competing “authorities” engaged in such activities, complained that “what is prescribed by one ecclesiastical synod is proscribed by another.”28 Hence the irritation of the monks of Monte Cassino as to why “some in rough arrogance and in proud contempt presume without reflection to substitute an admittedly good custom for another which is perhaps just as good if not better.”29

Disarray at the heart of Christendom helps to explain the less than pious response of a number of pagan peoples on its borders to the missionary efforts directed at their conversion. Potential Danish converts seem to have treated catechetical sessions merely as occasions for milking profitable gifts from competing Christians pursuing their obvious parochial political agendas. Notker the Stammerer (c. 840-912) relates the following incident illustrating the “rules of the game” as Danish candidates for baptism were concerned:30

Each received a white robe from the Emperor’s wardrobe, and from his sponsors a full set of Frankish garments, with arms, costly robes and other adornments. This was done repeatedly and more and more {Danes} came each year, not for the sake of Christ but for mundane advantages. They used to hurry over on Easter Eve to pay homage to the Emperor, more like faithful vassals than foreign envoys. On one occasion as many as fifty arrived. The Emperor asked them if they wished to be baptized. When they had confessed their sins, he ordered them to be sprinkled with holy water. As there were not enough linen garments to go round on that occasion, Louis ordered some old shirts to be cut up and tacked together to make tunics or to be run up as overalls. When one of these without more ado was put on a certain elderly envoy, he regarded it suspiciously for some time. Then he lost control of himself completely and said to the Emperor: ‘Look here! I’ve gone through this ablutions business about twenty times already, and I’ve always been rigged out before with a splendid white suit; but this old sack makes me feel more like a pig-farmer than a soldier! If it weren’t for the fact that you’ve pinched my own clothes and not given me any new ones, with the result that I’d feel a right fool if I walked out of here naked, you could keep your Christ and your reach-me-downs, too!’

Chieftains did, of course, still actually become “believers”, though this, as elsewhere previously, essentially meant merely that they fit one more divinity into their generous array of gods and goddesses. And how could more ancient believers effectively criticize them for their religious syncretism anyway? For the entire western Christian world itself seemed to be slipping back into idolatrous and magical practices that it most likely had never been effectively weaned from in the first place. Such weaning would have required the honest labor of truly practical Christian men—not participants in the fun and word merchandising that passed for natural and supernatural wisdom in this awful mid-medieval time and cave.

From what we know, the truly believing part of the Christian population was deeply troubled by the deck games on their ship of fools and desperately wished to break them up. If the faithful were still on pilgrimage, they seemed to sensible Catholics to be assembled along a line of march that was as lost in the woods as Dante was to find himself at the opening of The Divine Comedy. At best, their average fellow Christians appeared to view God as the supernatural equivalent of a secular patron who permitted basic survival in exchange for unreflective obeisance to the demands of a ritualistic “business as usual”. At worst, they displayed signs of panic, paralysis, anger, disbelief, and desire for vengeance against their oppressors, all as earthbound and ultimately mindless in its character as their tormentors’ ambitions and unmerited successes. Blind chance—tyche—looked as though it ruled a universe that perhaps only manipulative magical spells might bend slightly to one’s favor. A hopeless and basically naturalist cynicism had grown so widespread that real reformers of truly exalted spirit often found themselves accused of hypocrisy, their call to sanctity treated as a sanctimonious, rhetorically appropriate explanation of their own hunt for satisfaction of secret passions and perversions.31

Only one serious path to correction of all the ills described above lay open, and that was definitely not the path of beating the enemy at his own “common sense”, “business as usual”, “nature as is” game. A Catholic common sense required a totally different mentality; one formed by a solid reliance on the corrective and transforming Word in history, backed by an authoritative whip scattering the currently powerful, warmongering, and perhaps unconscious members of the all too familiar Grand Coalition of the Status Quo. Individual and social health could only be found on the road that led back to the acceptance of the fullness of nature’s truly God-given gifts, along with their purification and regeneration in Christ.

Would regaining that highway also effect a return to the original intent of the founders of the sacred imperial Carolingian order and a strengthening of unquestioning faith in the ability of its structures eternally to set things straight? Would it reaffirm the fundamental principles of the founders of the Byzantine concept of a symphonia of Church and State under the authority of the emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople? Or would the changed conditions of the dance of life teach men who were enlivened by the proper pilgrim spirit new steps to be executed in a somewhat differently appointed ballroom than was customary; a ballroom wherein the full message of the Word might actually be better understood and the path to eternity more suitably paved than beforehand? The history of the High Middle Ages gives us the intriguing answer to these crucial questions.

B. Rooting the Good Story in the True Story

Tenth century Frankish adherents of the vision of an ordered, historical pilgrimage to God could not give up devotion to their worldview without admitting permanent cosmic consequences too dreadful for them even to begin to contemplate. Nevertheless, they were divided in their understanding of what needed to be done to recall the believing community and individual pilgrims back onto the line of march that led heavenwards. Two distinct approaches to this difficult pilgrim enterprise and what it might or might not entail gradually came to debate the basic shape of the project in question.

One of these approaches accepted and addressed the reality of the changed conditions of western life head on. While in no way opposed to “tradition” as such, its pragmatic spirit ultimately came to recognize the inadequacies of the “good story” regarding the Carolingian system. It began to understand that the “tradition” that this embraced and exalted was not fully the Christian Tradition with a capital “T” at all, but one adjusted to fit a set of long established “customs”. In fact, it saw that the arguments used to defend those customs disguised as the Tradition actually prevented an accurate understanding of the full meaning of the Eternal Word Incarnate and His impact on history, both in theory as well as in changing practical reality. Seeking to root the message of the Word more profoundly in daily life, this pilgrim-spirited approach, ready to contemplate new steps in the dance of life, unleashed a spiritual revival creating that moment, from the 1000’s through the 1200’s, when, to quote once more the vivid and useful phrase mentioned at the end of the previous chapter, “values descended to the earth”. And that revival would spur a pilgrimage that amounted to a new ascent of Mount Tabor.

Many of the supporters of this only superficially “non-traditional” approach were energetic bishops who came from the more disturbed southern Frankish lands where the authority of the two most important successors of the Carolingians—the German and French Kings—was either unknown or meaningless. Raoul Glaber (before 1000-c. 1050), the renowned contemporary chronicler, tells us of men like the Bishop of Narbonne, who had to deal with local renegade counts whose already illegitimately usurped power itself then disappeared easily into the hands of castle keepers and other aggressive riffraff. Instead of looking to the “good story” of a fixed hierarchical order guided by impotent emperors and kings to re-launch the proper procession to God, such pastors turned to an immediate and total mobilization of the entirety of their various flocks against the numerous disturbers of the peace around them. Gathering the faithful outside of their old Roman towns in fields that were large enough to host their number, they pressed the Catholic population at large to take public oaths to work for tranquility in their region.

Although fasts and other penitential practices aimed at personal spiritual development were part of such bishops’ modus operandi, one does sniff more than a touch of liberation theology at the heart of their strategy; a sense that a “diocese in arms”, marshaled behind the relics of its favorite saints and then hurled into battle against the forces of evil, would necessarily ensure the movement of men back towards God; a conviction that the Silent Majority would somehow be less subject to temptation and sin, were this truly noble force to replace the wicked strong men currently brutalizing their territory. “Good stories” of their own were enlisted to back the call to populist social activism, with a Holy Letter fallen from Heaven in 1024 cited before the tribunal of the Christian People as one of the many supernatural proofs that God was on its side.32

A variation on the same approach came from out of a number of different Frankish monastic communities with influence in England and Italy as well as at home. St. Gerald of Brogne (d.959) and John of Gorze (900-974) were two figures central to this development. But most celebrated in its rise were men working out of the Burgundian abbey of Cluny, founded in 910 with the backing of William the Pious, Count of Auvergne and Duke of Aquitaine (875-918). A succession of powerful Clunaic abbots, from Odo (927-942) through Aymard (942-948) and Mayeul (948-994), to Odilo (994-1048) and Hugh the Great (1049-1109), rapidly extended that monastery’s vision and influence. They took advantage of William’s initial grant of independence to construct a network of reformed Benedictine houses. These monasteries were then supported by an equally extensive and eclectic grid of friendly political authorities, from pacific castle keepers to counts to the new king-emperors who emerged from out of Germany in the course of the tenth century.33

Cluny had no essential quarrel with the Dionysian concept of the need for a hierarchically-organized public guidance of the pilgrimage to God. Nevertheless, what counted most in its eyes was not who the hierarchs were but whether they wanted to carry out their tasks properly and had real power to do so. For Cluny, the transformation in Christ of whoever constituted the effective leadership of a given land was the primary key to success in setting a population on the path to eternal union with the Father of Lights. This, ironically, was the same theme that the first Carolingians had themselves happily taken over from St. Isidore of Seville to justify their replacement of their incompetent Merovingian predecessors. The Clunaics and their allies were to adopt that fruitful principle anew and deepen its significance and impact considerably.

Central to the Clunaic plan for re-launching the pilgrimage to God was the awakening of all men, individually, to their need to work actively for its success. Each and every human person in the line of march, the Christian agmen, was called upon by it to pray, to fast, and to do penance if the entire enterprise were to prosper. Such tasks were not the province of anointed king orators and their consecrated episcopal advisors alone. Everyman was called to holiness as well. This general invitation to dance the dance to sanctity was symbolized by the Feast of All Saints, which quickly became a Clunaic favorite, demonstrating as it did that Heaven’s population included more than the highest princes and prelates. The success or failure of any one individual who accepted such an invitation to enter the Christian ballroom was therefore seen to impact mightily upon the viability of the whole communal pilgrimage of the People of God. Although they did not say so openly, the Clunaics obviously implied that Carolingian inspired efforts to guide that procession failed precisely due to their blindness to this need for a general participation in the dance of life. Renewed calls to pilgrimage would fail again miserably if the unchanging procession were resuscitated without making this needed change.

Nevertheless, inchoate mobilizations of “dioceses-in-arms” were also equally doomed. All men were sinful, and failure to recognize that fact would make any attempt to correct one’s own flaws correspondingly more difficult. The recruitment of the silent majority under the banner of their local saints for the violent overthrow of bad authorities would prove to be utterly useless if unaccompanied by a painstaking, life-long dedication to attainment of the personal sanctification in and through Christ of each and every member of the Christian community without exception.

In order to achieve the cherished goal of a proper reordering of the pilgrimage to God, spiritual militants had first and foremost to be formed. Where else could one do so but in monasteries, the traditional school for saints in the Christian world? Forming such men required the creation of other monastic polis like Cluny that possessed the same freedom to treat the attainment of personal sanctity as their primary task. But the formation of militants was not an end in itself. Men are not isolated atoms but communal beings, and this meant that spiritual militants would also have the social responsibility to reform others; to go back into the darkness of Plato’s cave to lead those chained within it away from their contentment with “nature as is” and towards the fullness of the correcting and transforming supernatural light of Christ.

Social responsibility involved the true conversion, in practice and not in name only, of everyone, from monks in houses that were still subject to corruption all the way up to kings and emperors and their courtiers. Still, for immediate prudential reasons, Cluny placed a premium upon the need, first and foremost, to arouse the wretched mass of renegade counts, castle keepers, and soldiers of fortune that had usurped authority in much of Western Europe to some spiritual sense of the responsibilities their illegitimate but de facto political power demanded of them. If they, the worst of the troublemakers, could be made to take up their Dionysian task of “pilgrimage ordering” in the full and proper Clunaic understanding of what this entailed, the peace necessary for the rest of the population to make its own commitment to spiritual progress would be provided.

Cluny did not attempt to obtain influence over what people referred to as the malitia (the evil force) instead of the militia (the soldiery) by giving an “appropriate explanation and justification” of their hideously disordered, passion-filled lives. The bands of soldiers in question were tragically dedicated to the pointless “business as usual” demands of “nature as is”. Cluny went about its work by seeking to control and redirect the malefactors’ passions and wills; by taming these wild beasts; by, as the saying then went, “binding the rhinoceros”.34 Two tools for achieving the goal of putting such unnatural naturalist upstarts in their proper place were employed; two weapons for ordering or “ordaining” them to their truly natural and supernatural Christian roles; two modes of correcting and ultimately transforming them in Christ.

The first, a via negativa, involved pressuring them to take a public oath to work for the Truce and the Peace of God— the tactic that activist bishops had already used in creating their “dioceses-in-arms”. Monks of Cluny appealed to the threat that could indeed come from a united and mobilized silent majority if someone were revolutionary enough actually to evoke it. Abbots of the Burgundian monastery traveled widely. Wherever they went, they celebrated solemn masses attended by the whole population of a given region. Odo of Cluny, filled with the wisdom of serpents, milked such occasions to deliver fire and brimstone sermons regarding the sins of warmongering and the social injustices flowing from them.35

How then are these robbers Christians, or what do they deserve who slay their brothers for whom they are commanded to lay down their lives?

You have only to study the books of antiquity to see that the most powerful are always the worst. Worldly nobility is due not to nature but to pride and ambition. If we judged by realities we should give honour not to the rich for the fine clothes they wear but to the poor who are the makers of such things—nam sudoribus pauperum praeparatur unde potentiores saginantur (for the banquets of the powerful are cooked in the sweat of the poor).

Odo and his fellow monks adopted this tone in order to arouse the mass of peace loving men to a fever pitch and aim their impassioned ire at the troublemakers present. Some of the latter were sincerely moved to repentance by the preaching; most were alarmed by the violence that could potentially be unleashed against them or the long-term stigma of being branded contumacious public sinners. The result, in both cases, was often the agreement to take the solemn public oaths to support that Peace and Truce of God that the bishops had already sought to promote. Such oaths, in effect, defined combatants and non-combatants, separating them out from one another, and giving some hope for a limitation of the consequences of previously uncontrolled and totally self-serving warfare.36

Cluny’s via positiva centered round a correction of the disordered existence that seemed so “natural” to these actually unnatural human beasts; round a growth in Christ that led them to a life conformed to virtue. Here, liberation theology gave way to transformation theology. This entailed placing soldiers in an “order” based upon a real recognition of the primacy of the spiritual in shaping their peculiar group activity that would be as thoroughgoing for them as it was for the monks. Living a liturgical, prayerful, and penitential routine modeled on the “customs” of Cluny, the reformers were convinced, would be exceedingly helpful in achieving this goal. Still, it had to be a model appropriate to—“ordained” to—their own particular natural vocation, which was obviously one that was dedicated to arms. Thus, it had to be a model open to the modifications that the idiosyncratic character of that life demanded.

The traditional theme of the pilgrimage provided an innovative means of shaping a general need for growth in holiness to fit their particular earthly vocation. In this case, the pilgrimage in question was the increasingly popular procession to the tomb of St. James the Greater at Compostella in western Spain. What better way of guiding unruly warriors in love with physical coercion to a correct fulfillment of the function of authority than by giving them a soldiering mission that was truly justifiable—that of defending unarmed pilgrims against marauding bandits and Moors? What better context for “binding the rhinoceros”, for transforming their “profession”, for teaching them to pray, to fast, to do penance, and to see all of life as a meaningful wandering towards God than the rather lengthy “time out of time” that the pilgrimage to Compostella offered? Such warmongers were trapped in a rut from which they might only escape by means of this startling and quite exotic break with their daily low-level routine.

Lessons taught through the two Clunaic approaches ultimately had their effect. Renegade counts, castle keepers, and their soldiers were shown the path to a Christian knighthood that Abbot Odo’s biography of Gerald of Aurillac (c. 855-909) well describes. Families of re-ordered soldiers, focusing spiritually on Cluny and its offshoots, praying for the souls of their dead ancestors, and using their example as a beacon light for their children, developed a sense of nobility—of Christian nobility. And this would be expanded upon and infinitely more seriously refined on those “armed pilgrimages” called the Crusades, which we will discuss later in this chapter.37

Two final points must be made about the value of this activist, episcopal and Clunaic approach to dealing with chaotic western Christendom. First of all, its lack of concern for the traditional legal status of the men it targeted made it especially appealing to “outsiders” of all sorts. Transformation theology gave everyone from downright criminals to Danish invaders of the British Isles to recent Slavic and Hungarian converts the means to fit both theoretically and practically into the otherwise seemingly eternally closed sacred, imperial, Roman Catholic order of things. And, secondly, as historical precedents had already well demonstrated, “outsiders” could themselves help revive and deepen an incarnational sense among “insiders” who had tragically lost it. That is to say, “outsiders” could help “insiders” trapped in the rut of a “natural order” ruled by long-standing but inadequate or corrupt customs disguised as “traditions” and actually divinizing mere “business as usual”. This had happened with the Greek wanderers into Rome in the seventh century. Something similar had taken place through the aid of Frankish and English enthusiasts for Christ, Rome, and Roman culture a bit later in Merovingian Gaul. And it would now happen again with the “outsider” influence of Cluny and its supporters on the “insiders” in the corrupt tenth and eleventh century city of Rome.

Clunaics and fellow reformers ready to accept new steps in the dance of life designed to deal with a changed historical reality were harshly criticized by supporters of the second approach to overcoming chaos. These critics accused them of being dangerous innovators engaged in a monstrous overturning of true Tradition. Most prominent among the detractors were Bishop Adalbero of Laon (d. 1030/1031), who outlined his critique in his 434-line poem, Carmen for King Robert (1025), and his fellow prelate, Gerard of Cambrai (c. 975-1051).38

Very conservative in outlook, such men saw the pilgrimage to God as indeed being fixed in the mode indicated by the earlier Carolingian interpreters of Pseudo-Dionysius. The task of reconstruction for them was, in consequence, one of simply getting the traditional political hierarchy firmly back into the saddle. It was for the consecrated bishops and the anointed kings of Germany and France who worked in union with them—the oratores—to do the job of leading that pilgrimage. It was also up to them to undertake the prayer, fasting, and penance that were its spiritual sustenance. The task of the bellatores—the anointed rulers who were the link with the spiritual leadership, along with counts whom they designated and the soldiery that they and they alone recruited—was to maintain the order of the pilgrim line of march. Everyone else’s job—that of the agricoltores and the laboradores who made up the vast bulk of the Christian pilgrim population—was limited to physical labor and reproduction. Certainly, they were not meant to rule, to guide, or to fight. Their spiritual purification was to be achieved indirectly and inertly, in that it required no particular extra penitential effort on their part. Sanctification, for them, came through the sanctification of their political and spiritual superiors, defined as such by their family heritage and noble pedigree. In short, God did not intend the average man to dance the dance of life openly and with all the energy that lay within him. Only his social betters were meant to do so.

Given this vision, men like the activist orator Bishop of Narbonne were turning the world upside down, taking over the bellatores’ role, and, in effect, that of the king in particular. Moreover, by transforming agricoltores and laboradores into bellatores in requiring them to take the oath to insure the Peace and Truce of God, and then by pressing them to pray and fast as well, they were also inspiring invasion of the proper realm of the oratores. This did not permit the “form” required by the recognized hierarchy of the pilgrimage to do the work demanded of it. Those going down such a pathway were thus at war with the heavenly defined order as much as the earthly structure of things.

Monks were even worse offenders in such a twisted enterprise. Not only were they, like “liberation theology” bishops, not anointed for the work of achieving peace; most of them were not ordained clergymen at all. Even those who were ordained insisted upon being recognized as going about their task qua monk, not priest. This made lay monks into oratores who then had the audacity to associate illegitimate warriors into their topsy-turvy oratores-bellatores scheme of things. And, most alarming of all, these revolutionaries had proven so charismatic as to seduce and gain the approval of men at the highest levels of society, from consecrated bishops such as Fulbert of Chartres (952/970-1028), to Roman Pontiffs, to the very anointed kings of France and Germany themselves.

Mention of the latter authorities brings us to an examination of the situation as it was developing in the Kingdom of Germany. This provides a unique and interesting example both of the continuing nobility of the Christian imperial vision and its own openness to the pilgrimage spirit as well as its tragic inability to deal with certain undeniably changed historical realities. While failure seems to have the edge over success in the following story, aspects of it are so moving as to remind us that it, too, like the events recounted in the previous chapter, offers us a message of permanent value to consider even today. The truth of that permanent value is something that will not fully emerge until the last, nationalism- plagued chapters of this book.39

Openness in Germany to a pilgrimage spirit cognizant of changing historical circumstances is perhaps not all that surprising. The Romanization promoted by Pippin and Charlemagne had never proceeded as far in this, their eastern realm, as it had in Gaul. Instead of many counts active in as many counties, the direct subordinates of the King were a smaller number of more powerful leaders, closely tied to their specific tribes, whom we refer to by the more militarily-charged Roman title of dux, or duke. German dukes were already independent-minded enough not to feel compelled to invite Charles the Simple (898-922), the legitimate Carolingian heir from the Kingdom of France, to take his seemingly appropriate place as their ruler upon the death of the last direct descendant of Charlemagne’s grandson, Louis the German (840-876), in 911. They chose Duke Conrad of Franconia (911-918) instead.

Conrad, however, did not feel that he possessed the proper charism—again, the proper Heil—to assume the title of King of Germany. On his deathbed, he urged that his power be passed on to a man who seemed to merit it: the Duke of Saxony, Henry I (919-936). Henry indeed proved capable of rebuilding royal power and prestige in Germany, transmitting it to his still more illustrious son, Otto I (936-974), who gave his name to the whole of this extraordinary line of rulers: the Ottonian Dynasty. His descendants continued to rule Germany under Otto II (973-983), Otto III (983-1002), and Henry II (1002-1024). The Ottonians and their early Salian Dynasty successors, Conrad II (1024-1039) and Henry III (1039-1056), built a system that “worked”, at least for a while, which is certainly all that one can hope for from any political order in the ever-changing earthly pilgrim realm. They did so by invoking the help of both the approaches discussed above: the conservative vision of Adalbero as well as the innovative outlook of the bishops and monasteries like Cluny. These they then modified to fit the specific Germanic circumstances of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

On the one hand, the German kings of the Ottonian system exploited their anointed character and sacral role to the fullest. With military successes indicating that they definitely possessed Heil, their spiritual aura demonstrated to their subjects that they were additionally endowed with Heiligkeit. As anointed rulers, they were living images of Christ, and, as such, defenders of the Pax et Regnum Christi. This sacred role compelled them to make the most of opportunities to rebuild the collapsed Western Empire, leading them to intervene in the affairs of Italy and Burgundy and, as a logical consequence of their labors, to obtain the imperial crown as well. That crown, and the accompanying Holy Lance that was presumed to contain a nail from the Cross of Christ and date from the time of Constantine the Great, symbolically emphasized sacred imperial responsibilities of all kinds. Not the least of these were the defense of the Papacy, the general encouragement of Greco-Roman culture—the Seeds of the Logos—and assistance to missionaries working to build a family of new Christian nations united with and subordinated to the universal Emperor.

Here, innovative ties with episcopal and monastic reformers entered into the German dynastic enterprise. Yes, it is true that in one sense the Imperial Church, the Reichskirche, with clerics trained in the Royal Chapel to become bishops closely linked with the work of the king-emperor, seems to reflect nothing other than Adalbero’s idea of how the oratores should cooperate with the legitimate ruler. Such cooperation was appreciated by both the Ottonians and the early Salians, and not only for theoretical reasons. A primary reliance on the help of celibate prelates with a broader vision than that nourished by purely family and tribal oriented dukes offered more practical hope for loyalty and flexibility in a governing elite with Christendom-wide responsibilities to fulfill.

Nevertheless, in order to obtain committed, celibate prelates with the requisite broader vision, from the Roman Pontiff down to the local bishop, the assistance of reformers who wanted priests to break with their enslavement to “business as usual” to serve the correcting and transforming message of the Word was required. This entailed soliciting the advice of men who, in Adalbero’s eyes, were not oratores; men like the monks of St. Odilo, Abbot of Cluny from 994-1048, and, even worse, individual hermits alongside them. In fact, the work of politically and socially shaping Christian order was regularly given over to abbots of important monasteries as well as to bishops. Moreover, both abbots and bishops were expected to perform functions that went beyond advice and prayer. The Servitium regis often involved exercising judicial authority—what was called the ban—and even raising troops for the army. If need be, it also entailed going on military expedition in aid of the imperial image of Christ, whenever he needed to fight on behalf of His community as a living, political reality on the march towards eternity.40

Perhaps the best way of grasping the full character of the Ottonian and early Salian approach to restoring Christian order is by examining the story of Otto III, whose half German and half Byzantine blood gave added substance to the imperial vision from his very birth. King of Germany by the age of three, his premature death at twenty-two cut off his plans for a marriage which might have helped him fend off his constant temptation to sins of the flesh. It left him heirless as well. Personal problems aside, he possessed both an undeniable piety and an excellent classical education, both of which gave him the chance to put his superior military training to work on behalf of a broad, meaningful understanding of the full message of the Word, the nature of Christendom, and how the latter ought to be guided.41

It was his visit to Rome in 996, at the age of 16, in answer to the call of Pope John XV (985-996) for help against the local familial pest—at that time, the Crescentii brood—which turned out to be the single most formative experience of Otto’s life. Accompanied by many of the great Church leaders of the day, most importantly, Gerbert of Aurillac—master scholar, Abbot of Bobbio, and sometime Archbishop of Rheims—the king’s march looked more like a religious procession than a regal train. At its head was the Holy Lance. In Italy, the young king met a number of charismatic figures who further confirmed his already strong sense of political-religious mission: men like St. Romualdo (950-1027), the founder of Camaldoli, and St. Adalbert of Prague (956-997). The former was a hermit who understood how to translate zeal for sanctity into an effective tool for quieting the social disorder unleashed by the restless counts, vassals, and other assorted “common sense” hoodlums of the day. The latter, adored by Otto as a model of both humility and love for the Church, and certainly a quite unique personality from any man’s standpoint, was destined to end his life a martyr while on mission among pagans still pointlessly worshipping “nature as is” in the north of Europe.

Finding Pope John XV dead on his arrival and the Papacy indeed the slave of local factionalism, the King installed his young cousin Bruno on the papal throne as Gregory V (996-999). Gregory then presided over Otto’s imperial coronation at St. Peter’s on May 21, 996. Here, the emotionally overwhelmed king-emperor was cloaked with a robe and a crown portraying the magnificence of the cosmos, evoking the Old and New Testament, and clearly focusing the meaning of his reign within the context of the divine plan, at the service of the greater glory of God. Otto now understood still more fully the mission that his passion and education had shaped him to fulfill: the need to secure the order of an all too fragile Western Christendom, and to do so by exalting Christ’s Church, with her visible center in Rome. According to the document through which he would later appoint his chaplain and enthusiastic supporter Leo (d. 1026) as Bishop of Vercelli, the Emperor’s task was one of making certain “that the Church of God remain free and safe; that she prosper throughout our Empire…that the power of the Roman People be extended and the State re-established, so that We might merit from living in this world honorably and thus fly more honorably from the prison of this life…”42

Returning to Germany, our emperor-on-mission was soon to learn that the swamp of Roman politics was deeper and much more murky than he may originally have guessed. The Crescentii, aided and abetted by an eastern imperial authority in Constantinople irritated by this youthful competitor for Roman glory, quickly exploited Otto’s absence from town. They tossed Gregory V out of Rome and placed the young man’s former Greek tutor and disloyal friend, John Philagathos, on the throne of St. Peter as the Antipope John XVI (997-998). The emperor’s first stab at correction and transformation in Christ of the popes and the Patrimony of St. Peter had proven to be an all too fragile endeavor.

Otto and his many scholarly, reformer friends now saw that their work of revival required a lot more muscle behind it to make it stick. A new and fully armed procession set forth to Italy at the end of 997, with men like Gerbert of Aurillac, the above-mentioned Leo of Vercelli, the great Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim (960-1022), and St. Odilo of Cluny on hand to emphasize the ultimately spiritual aim of this temporarily clenched, German fist. Rome was reached in 998 and the head of the Crescentii Clan, who held out for three months at the Castel Sant’Angelo, finally captured and decapitated. Antipope John was disgraced, rather brutally punished, and imprisoned. Gregory V regained his throne. The re-entry of pope and emperor into St. Peter’s, and their joint responsibility for rule, reform, and the growth of the Roman State and Church were celebrated in a prayer-hymn written by Bishop Leo:43

Refrain: Christ hear our prayers; cast your glance upon your city of Rome; in your goodness renew the Romans, awaken the forces of Rome, permit Rome to revive under the Empire of Otto III.

VI. Otto, rule yourself; be attentive and vigilant, you who according to the Apostle have charge of the bodies of men; it is for the punishment of sinners that you bear an invincible sword.

X. Rejoice, Pope, rejoice Caesar; let the Church exult with happiness, let the joy be great in Rome, let the imperial palace rejoice. Under the power of Caesar, the Pope reforms the age.

XI. O, you two luminaries throughout the lands, illuminate the churches, put darkness to flight. May the one {the Emperor} prosper by the sword, may the other {the Pope} give resonance to his word.

Our young missionary, the better to fulfill his responsibilities, both natural and supernatural, decided to take up permanent residence on the Palatine Hill, the home of the old Roman Emperors. There, he began to adopt Byzantine imperial customs, to seek for himself a bride from his eastern imperial colleague, and to preside, together with the pope and the bishops, as a thirteenth apostle at reforming Synods throughout Italy. When another temporary absence from the city led to a revival of the old, parochial, Roman shenanigans and perhaps even the poisoning of Pope Gregory V, the emperor’s determination to renew and transform his era grew but greater still.

Otto named his impressive scholar friend and fellow visionary, Gerbert, as his cousin’s successor. Gerbert took the name of Sylvester II, apparently to emphasize his desire to cooperate loyally with the new Constantine---just as the first Sylvester had worked in tandem with Constantine the Great. An Ottonian document of January, 1001, probably prepared by Leo of Vercelli, once again clearly spelled out the imperial commitment to extricating the Papacy from the sewer of Roman politics, while, interestingly enough, also denouncing the exaggerated papal political ambitions outlined in the “good story” recounted by the fraudulent Pseudo-Donation of Constantine discussed above. This latter document, readers will remember, was a bit of ill-advised word merchandising seeking to prop up papal authority in the years after the Caesaro-Papism latent in Carolingian imperialism became obvious:44

Otto, slave of the Apostles and according to the will of the Saviour God, august Emperor of the Romans. We proclaim Rome capital of the world. We recognize that the Roman Church is the mother of all the churches, but also that the carelessness and incompetence of her pontiffs have for a long time now tarnished the titles of her brightness. In fact, these pontiffs have not only sold and alienated through certain dishonest practices the possessions of St. Peter outside of the city, but—and We do not affirm this without sorrow—the goods that they possessed from our own imperial city. With still greater license, they allowed these goods to pass into common use at the price of gold; they despoiled St. Peter, they despoiled St. Paul and their altars themselves. Instead of restoration they have always sowed confusion. In disdain of pontifical precepts and disdaining the Roman Church herself, certain popes so pushed their arrogance as to confuse the greater part of our Empire with their own apostolic power. Without caring for what they lost through their fault, without preoccupying themselves with that which their personal vanity caused them to waste, they replaced their own squandered goods…by turning towards (exploitation) of foreign ones—that is to say, ours and those of our Empire. {Hence} the lies forged by them, by means of which the Cardinal-Deacon John (surnamed Mutilated Fingers) drafted in gilded letters a privilege which he fallaciously rooted very deep in the past and placed under the name of the great Constantine.

Otto appears to have been the primary captain of the revived ship of Church and State, a man who took his role as thirteenth apostle quite literally. However, lest one think that his position was questioned by the great spiritual leaders of the day, St. Odilo’s testimony is there as a corrective. So enamored of Otto and his work was the reform abbot that he penned an enthusiastic poem exulting in the extent of the emperor’s glory, giving no hint of any fear concerning where such exaggerated adulation might possibly lead.45

Magnificent as the work of the Ottonians was, historical realities, as some of the incidents described above already readily indicate, did not quite fit together with the Romano-German imperial vision. Liutprand of Cremona’s (c. 922-972) account of an embassy of Otto the Great to Constantinople shows that relations with the Eastern Empire were neither particularly fraternal nor even respectful. Involvement in Italy left room for problems to develop in Germany and among newly converted Slavic peoples. Outbursts of violence in the north regularly required a return to the homeland stimulating a recrudescence of difficulties further south.

And, indeed, by 1002, the grand vision of renovatio was finished. In the year 1000, while Otto was away on a truly exhilarating political-religious missionary expedition which took him as far away as present day Poland, and through which he also tightened the bonds linking Hungary with the family of western Christian nations, revolt brewed back in the peninsula. The emperor returned, only to find the malaise spreading to Rome by the beginning of 1001. Even though soon quelled, the experience of being so easily trapped on the Palatine Hill made it clear that the Eternal City was unsafe for Otto and his imperial-reformer entourage. The poignancy of his disappointment is captured by the speech to his rebellious subjects that Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim puts in Otto’s mouth on the third day of the siege: 46

Listen to the words of your father, pay attention to them, meditate upon them carefully in your hearts. You are no longer my Romans. Because of you I left my fatherland, my family; through love for you I neglected my Saxons, all the Germans, those of my own blood. I have led you into the farthest regions of our Empire, into places where your ancestors, when they submitted the world to their power, never placed their feet. And why have I done this, if not to extend your glory to the ends of the world? I have adopted you as my children. I have preferred you to all others. Because I have raised you up from your fate, because of you, I say, I have aroused jealousy and hatred against myself. And you, in exchange for all this, you have rejected your father; you have caused many of my intimate friends to perish by a cruel death; you have rejected me. But you cannot reject me since I would never allow anyone to remove from my heart those whom I paternally embrace.

Emperor and pope nevertheless fled to Ravenna. There they consulted some of their closest supporters, Odilo of Cluny and St. Romualdo among them. The latter warned against any attempt to return to Rome as tantamount to an act of suicide. Otto ignored the great founder of Camaldoli, moved back southwards, and reached the very outskirts of the Eternal City, only to die from what was perhaps a recurrence of malarial fever. St. Bruno of Querfurt (970-1009), Apostle to the Prussians and beneficiary of Otto’s missionary vision, described his death on 24 January, 1002 as that of a true Christian monarch. “Cry world, cry Rome, and let the Church lament”, Leo of Vercelli sang in a poem capturing the misery of all of Otto’s friends. “Let the chants in Rome fall quiet. Let sorrow scream out to the palace, since, through the absence of Caesar, trouble extends across the world”.47

The men of that first decade of the new millennium would have known that this announcement of great trouble was no exaggeration. Sylvester II experienced it without delay. Returning to the Eternal City, he saw the Crescentii fortunes immediately rise. The pope had the good luck to die just one year later, 63 years old, still a noble figure, but broken by the Waiting Game—the wait for a revival of the Papacy, of Rome, of the Empire, of Christendom, of the whole correcting and transforming message of the Word Incarnate in history. His second and Crescentii-tormented successor, Sergius IV (1009-1012), who knew him well, wrote an epitaph for him and for the work of Otto III on his tomb at the Lateran, praising their cooperative vision and lamenting that, with their passing, “the world was chilled with horror”.48

These years were indeed not happy ones for Rome, the Papacy, and their friends. It is true to say that many details are lacking to our knowledge of the whole of that decade, and that several of those that survive are even thinly positive. Nevertheless, in general, the first decade of the new millennium was part of a less than optimum slice of time wracked with plague, renewed Saracen activity, and contest over the kingship of Italy between St. Henry II of Germany (1002-1024) and an ambitious nobleman named Arduin of Ivrea (955-1015). Much more importantly still, at least from our standpoint, it was a decade of intense Church humiliation. This was due to papal subservience to the strong-arm tactics wielded with depressing effectiveness through the continued influence of the local Crescentii gang. And that band of hooligans was inspired by a self-serving and intensely parochial vision of the role of the Papacy in the life of a Christendom wretchedly enslaved to the demands of “nature as is”.49

Sad to say, worse was yet to come. The Crescentii managed to bully one more decent Pope, the same Sergius IV mentioned above, into basic helplessness. Yes, the Crescentii finally lost their grip after 1012 due to several untimely family deaths, an all too brazen attempt to bulldoze their own candidate onto the papal throne without even the semblance of an election, and the loss of prestige coming from their backing of several unsuccessful antipopes. But their place as masters of the Seven Hills was then taken over by a branch of the Theophylact Family, the Counts of nearby Tusculum.

These Tusculani, as they are generally styled, had enjoyed such a domineering position once before, and had sometimes even exercised it with more respectability than their debased predecessor. Unfortunately, they were soon to provide one of the worst of the possessors of the papal dignity, Benedict IX. Probably only twenty years old at his accession, Benedict sat three distinct times on the throne of St. Peter (1032-1044, 1045, and 1047-1048). This was due not only to political pressures but also to a corruption so great as to permit him literally to sell his own position and then try to steal it back after pocketing the dough. Vividly attacked as a demon from hell in the disguise of a priest by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) in his aptly named Liber Gomorrhianus, Benedict was dismissed much more off-handedly by a future successor, Blessed Victor III (1086-1087), as being simply utterly unspeakable. Rome might still retain her prestige to good purpose in far-off Christian lands, but her closer inspection by pilgrim crowds could not help but make them realize that in many respects she stank zum Himmel.50

Thankfully, help was on the way. Some of the disappointed believers in the papal and Roman mission who had waited so many years for a revival they had hoped to witness as a result of the reigns of Otto III, Gregory V, and Sylvester II, survived long enough to experience practical earthly proof that broad hopes can eventually overcome enormous obstacles and become realities. In fact, they survived to see the beginnings of a longer-lasting reform of “head and members” destined to mount a hugely important attack upon the supporters of “business as usual” that would retain its impact down to our own day.

Renewed reformation continued to involve the work of the sacred emperor. Otto’s immediate successor, St. Henry II (1002-1024), understood the realities of imperial strengths and weakness and focused his attentions on improving the situation in the north of Europe. But by the time of Henry III (1039-1056), under the stimulus of another generation of innovative reformers and with reference to his traditional legal role in Rome, the king-emperor, the living image of Christ, was ready to intervene anew in Italian affairs. That involvement led to the Synod of Sutri in 1046, the deposition of three simoniac popes, and their replacement by German pontiffs: Clement II (1046-1047), Damasus II (1048), and, most importantly, St. Leo IX (1049-1054). “Outsiders” filled with the pilgrim spirit had once again found their pilgrimage leading them to save Rome. When they arrived in the Eternal City, they were to add a new step to the Christian dance of life. And this was destined to veer the agmen we call the Church onto a different and in many respects quite unexpected highway on her pilgrim journey to her same unchanging goal.

C. The Second Wave of Reform & the Plenitude of Papal Power

After a century and more of generally embarrassing, uninspiring, or impotent figures on the throne of St. Peter, Leo IX was a radically new kind of pope. He and his successors, Victor II (1055-1057), Stephen X (1057-1058), Nicholas II (1059-1061), and Alexander II (1061-1073), now took charge of the movement of innovative Christian restoration. The local Roman nobility began to be unseated with the help of a collective cosmopolitan leadership including Hugh the White of Remiremont (c. 1020-c. 1099), Humbert of Moyenmoutier (d. 1061), Frederick of Liège (d. 1058), St. Peter Damian of Fonte Avellana, Desiderius (c. 1026-1087), the Abbot of Monte Cassino, and the subdeacon Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII (1073-1085).51

These impressive men built the remnants of the crumbling papal administrative machinery into that more serious apparatus that by the end of the eleventh century finally deserved the title of “Roman curia” as we understand it today. Most importantly, Rome’s continued prestige was exploited in order to enhance the power of the Papacy. Leo IX practiced a form of itinerant kingship, traveling outside the Eternal City to effect reform at synods in Salerno, Pavia, Vercelli, Mantua, Rheims, and Mainz. He thus enhanced papal esteem by bringing the person of the pope directly before the eyes of the European Catholic population. Priestly and monastic simony, the abandonment of celibacy, and the general failure of the clergy to understand the primacy of their spiritual mission were chastised severely at the hand of the highest authority in the Church---personally, in a way that masses of people could witness. The consequences were nothing less than electrifying.

In effect, what had happened was that the Papacy had shown that it, too, was ready to take up its staff and go on pilgrimage throughout Christendom for the cause of the Word. It thus began vigorously to extract itself from its parochial rut and its own depressing enslavement to the demands of “business as usual”. But it proved to be a different kind of reform movement that took shape around it, one that was more conscious of current feudal political realities than its predecessor had been. Hence, it was skeptical of both the viability as well as the suitability of an imperial revival of the kind envisaged by Otto III. This was a reform movement that, while grateful for the aid given to it by the Empire, decided that the Church needed more independence than the customary sacred imperial concept had ever proven willing to allow her, at least up until the present moment.

Always committed to the crucial importance of joint Church-State labors for the construction of Christendom, this second wave of the reform movement placed its most profound hopes for the success of the corrective and transforming message of the Word in the struggle for personal sanctity and sense of responsibility not just of emperor, pope, and bishops but also of every Christian without exception. For it, too, like the monks of Cluny before it, insisted that only the liberation of all of us from the tunnel vision of materialism and sin; only the willingness of all of us to see the world from the perspective of the Creator and Redeemer God could build the society of which holy tenth and eleventh century victims of “complexity without order” had so long dreamed.

This second wave built up steam rather swiftly. With the death of Henry III and the regency of his wife Agnes over their infant son, the Papacy declared its independence from direct control by the emperor. Stephen X (1057-1058), one of the reforming members of the Curia noted above, was elected without reference to the wishes of the imperial government. The Lateran Synod of 1059 transformed the cosmopolitan leadership of the budding Roman curia into the College of Cardinals, entrusting this body with the election of future pontiffs. Emperors, now viewed as simple laymen and no longer the extraordinary living images of Christ, were rather unceremoniously shunted off to the religious sidelines. As though this were not enough, outspoken figures like Humbert of Moyenmoutier began to insist that the entire Reichskirche, with her bishops and abbots chosen by and in aid of the throne, was actually herself part of the problem that the Church as a whole faced; that she herself was guilty of massive encouragement of what he called the “heresy” of simony. The implication was that the sacred Empire, rather than being a God-given secular aid to the work of the Word, actually stood in the way of the corrective and transforming mission of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Although the actions of St. Leo IX already clearly emphasized the Papacy’s readiness to utilize what was to be referred to as the “plenitude of papal power”, there has never been any doubt that Pope St. Gregory VII most vigorously expressed both the specific theme of the fullness of Roman authority as well as the entire spirit of the second wave of the reform movement in general. Elected by popular acclaim, Gregory was the darling of both reformers and the city when he began his reign. Insistence on the plenitude of papal power in the life of Christendom and the political independence sufficient to be able to utilize it, was, for him, the absolute, scripturally-grounded precondition for further reform. Papal authority and its religious justification were the real keys, practically, to serious work for individual and social improvement. For the pope was Peter, qui nunc in carne vivit, and Peter was what later Roman Pontiffs would call the Vicar of Christ.

In Lenten Synods between 1075 and 1078, as well as in the famous Dictatus Papae, practically every aspect of the theme of the plenitude of papal power—from the ultimately subordinate position of local bishops, who simply “shared” in his responsibilities, to the need, for the sake of the victory of spiritual truths, for secular powers to bend to higher, supernatural authority—was enunciated. Questions involving heresy, simony, celibacy, and marriage problems, according to this doctrine, were now to be resolved under the ultimate supervision of Rome. More than that, all of life was to be touched by her decisions. For if God gave the Apostolic See the power to judge spiritual matters, then, given man’s existence as a social creature of flesh and blood, her rulings must also impact upon worldly matters.52

Legates were sent to proclaim the message of the plentitude of papal power throughout the whole of the Christian world. Outsiders of all kinds—whether the activist, reform minded, lay group called the pataria of Milan, the Normans, or the representatives of distant and quite recently converted Catholic peoples—were called to the Papacy’s support in its struggle to protect its ability to perform its Christ-given duty. The assistance that they gave to it, as Leo IX indicated and St. Anselm of Lucca (1036-1086) explained later in greater detail, could even justifiably involve a help that was armed and warlike in intent. For if anyone needed knights to defend him in his work to secure a successful pilgrimage of the People of God to Heaven, who more so than the successor to St. Peter?

The result of all of this was a short-term disaster. A renewed sense of papal primacy and plenitude of power ran head on against a Greek world filled with that intense sense of ethnic self-importance and patriarchal power discussed at the beginning of this chapter. How could Patriarch Cerularius (1043-1058) not be expected to react violently against an embassy of Pope Leo IX filled with outspoken papalists like Humbert and Frederick? After all, let us remember that eastern imperial law referred to him as the “living image of Christ”. Cerularius was the representative of a Greek national spirit that by this point saw in the liturgical customs of other peoples, such as the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist in the Latin world, heresy plain and simple. How was a man who as patriarch was closing Latin churches and confiscating Latin monasteries to accept commands from a barbarous upstart in the German dominated world? The very concept was unthinkable---on religious and unchangeable, classical Roman grounds. Schism ensued; a schism that has proven to be almost impossible to eradicate, despite the numerous attempts to resolve it that we shall address in the pages to follow.53

Moreover, not all reformers appreciated the hardening of tone that was represented most clearly by Humbert in his famous work Against the Simoniacs. St. Peter Damien and St. Hugh of Cluny were convinced that cooperation of Mother Church and Sacred Empire could continue to be as fruitful in the future as in the past. The validity of their criticisms of the second wave of the reform movement will be confronted in detail in the next chapter. For the moment, it is enough for us to indicate that the chief shock of this change in tone involved the fact that it brutally contradicted traditional language accepted by large numbers of contemporaries regarding a Christian order that was thought to be both God-given as well as eternal in character. For many good and decent contemporaries, including a significant number of the most fervent believers, it represented a horrifying innovation that was also a recipe for a divisive rocking of the ship of both Church and State. How could it therefore be anything other than highly anti-Catholic and perhaps even diabolical in inspiration? Hence the complaints of the author of De Unitate Ecclesiae Conservanda:54

Peace, says the Lord, I leave to you, My peace I give unto you. Wherefore, whenever the sons of the Church are compelled to make war, they do this not by the teaching of Christ and the tradition of the Church, but from necessity, and by a certain contagion of Babylon, the earthly city, through which the sons of Jerusalem journey during their earthly life.

What a mystery of iniquity is now being worked by those who call themselves monks and, confounding the Church and the state in their perverse doctrine, oppose and set themselves up against the royal power…{so that} for seventeen years and more, everywhere in the Roman Empire there are wars and seditions, the burning of churches and monasteries, bishop is set against bishop, clergy against clergy, people against people, and father against son, and brother against brother.

But for St. Gregory VII, it was the defenders of the imperial order who were the real innovators, their novelties disguised by the fact that their vision of the relationship of Church and State had, in one form or another, been the dominant one since the days of Constantine. Having become a “custom” and been treated as a given for the constitution of a Christian order, this vision’s centuries-old existence was then cited as proof positive of its unquestionable holiness. Unfortunately, cooperation on this basis was a fraudulent abuse, no matter how ancient the pedigree of the error involved. When “the Lord says ‘I am the Truth and the Life’”, Gregory noted, citing Tertullian, “he did not say ‘I am custom’ but ‘I am Truth’ (non dixit sum consuetudo, sed Veritas)”.55 The Eternal Word trumped words, no matter how many times these were solemnly reiterated. His triumph now required a determined break with the familiar, whatever the human pain involved.

Had Gregory known of it, he might also have made reference to the battle of Plato and Isocrates and the hunt for a full understanding of the Logos as opposed to an “appropriate explanation” of a “foundation vision” rooted in the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” in support of his argument. Still, even though the essence of the contemporary struggle was indeed similar to the earlier conflict on the intellectual level, it was not precisely the same on the practical plane. For the imperialists were not necessarily the die-hard supporters of the natural status quo that the second wave of reformers generally made them appear to be. And, unfortunately, it was to prove to be through the exaggeration of otherwise solid principles and in their elaboration by means of a “good story” arguing for the resolution of all problems by excessive appeal to papal authority that future tragedy would lie.

D. The New Ascent of Mount Tabor

Conflict between the supporters of Gregorian reform ideals and their opponents was thus inevitable. It began immediately. Nevertheless, a discussion of that conflict must wait if we are to keep the main themes of this set of reflections on Church History marshaled properly in line. Contemporary struggles forming part of that broad and long-lasting counterattack leading to the emergence of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo from the early medieval shadows and the modern-day dominance of the appropriate explanations of reality its talented rhetoricians were to produce are more suitably addressed in the next chapter. It is of greater importance first to complete our reforming pilgrimage in what was to prove to be a new, Christendom-wide ascent of Mt. Tabor. What needs to be done now is to bring the medieval reform movement, with its profound concern for the unfolding of the meaning of the Incarnate Word in history and its desire to see all things through the eyes of Christ, to its full fruition.

Rather than attempting to discuss this growth chronologically, it seems best to summarize it as a unit from the standpoint of two pontificates: that of Innocent III (1198-1216) primarily and, to a lesser degree, that of Blessed Gregory X (1271-1276). This is because Innocent most firmly dotted the “i’s” and crossed the “t’s” on the character and goals of the reform movement, both as man and as pontiff. It is also because Gregory repeated this labor, having set himself the task at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 of reaffirming all that Innocent had sought to accomplish—and at a moment when the obstacles to achieving reform goals that his predecessor had already identified had become much more ominous. Innocent was aided in this dramatic enterprise by a century and more of predecessors in reform; Gregory by men like St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Bonaventure (1221-1274), who were themselves brilliant beneficiaries of Innocent’s manifold labors. The work of these two popes, therefore, fixes our attention on the authoritative, accepting, correcting, transforming, compassionate, and pilgrimage-minded character of the Incarnate Word unfolding His meaning in history in all its ineffable complexity. Meanwhile it simultaneously introduces us to the very forces that have worked to arrest the new ascent of Mt. Tabor and create the tragically limited world that we see around us today: a world that is trapped in a naturalist journey to nowhere and yet uses certain high minded themes from its Christian past, deconstructed to serve the cause of “business as usual”, to celebrate its fall into meaninglessness.56

Lothair dei Segni (1160-1216), the future Innocent III, was born at Gavignano, near Segni, south of Rome. We know of him through many sources, including his own Gesta and letters, along with numerous other official and private documents of the age. Educated both in Rome as well as at those new centers of higher learning in Bologna and in Paris that he would do so much to promote, he also traveled, while a student on the Left Bank, to England. Here, as he himself tells us, a visit to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket (1118-1170) left an especially powerful impression upon him, important to the regenerative work he would later undertake as Roman Pontiff with regard to the relationship of Church and State.

Varied is the word one must use to describe the intellectual and cultural interests of Lothair. He had a taste for music, literature, and poetry. His own rhetorical skills were so appealing that his sermons and books were collected and much used by believers throughout Europe for centuries after his death. As pope, he developed a reputation as a major legal thinker, even though there is some uncertainty regarding the exact character of his studies at the faculty of law in Bologna. But he himself looked upon an interest in theology, pursued still further while working in Paris, as the most significant concern of his life.

Subdeacon in 1187, and both deacon and cardinal by 1190, Lothair was elected and installed as pope on the very day of the death of his predecessor, Celestine III (1191-1198). He was then swiftly ordained a priest and consecrated as bishop. His rapid advancement to the highest position in the Mystical Body of Christ at the age of only thirty eight seems to reflect a feeling on the part of the College of Cardinals that a younger man was needed after a number of pontificates that were either too short or led by octogenarians. In addition, it demonstrates a clear conviction that Lothair was the most obvious available candidate for the post. So extraordinary was the character of his election that the new pontiff felt obliged to explain it in his first missive to the Christian world. He then set about the work that so brilliantly summarized the spirit and goals of the entirety of the medieval ascent of Mt. Tabor and its effort to see all things in the transforming light of God.

Every act of Innocent’s pontificate exudes that spirit of confident and yet humble authority marking it off as supremely Catholic. The confidence came from an absolute conviction that the sole ground for the validity and use of papal prerogatives arose from the firm union of the Papacy with the life and teaching of the God-Man. In fact, Innocent was the first pope to popularize the claim that the pontiff was the Vicar not of St. Peter but of Christ. The humility came from his personal intelligence and piety, his sense of political and historical reality, and his never-failing prudential spirit—in short, from the fact that he was in no way the man that later black legends would make him out to be. And he was authoritative because he possessed the unfailingly militant crusading mentality that was the most visible characteristic of the whole of the contemporary reform movement.

At this point, it is incumbent upon us to emphasize the significance of that crusading mentality. Yes, the movement for reform was firmly rooted in the recognition of the primacy of the hunt for spiritual perfection in each and every individual’s life. Still, that sense of the primacy of things spiritual emerged as a practical force for change in the precise historical way that it did through the specific stimuli provided by the need to form zealous crusaders and then define the nature of the armed Crusades they were called upon to undertake.57

As we have already noted, this development flowed from the recognition by reform-minded monks that to follow the Rule of St. Benedict freely they must first find a way to tame the lawless soldiers ravaging much of contemporary western Christendom. Hence, the restraining of the soldiery reflected in their promotion of the oath to the Peace and Truce of God. Hence, also, the training of the representatives of this “bound rhinoceros” as monks-in-arms, concerned, simultaneously, for prayerful growth in Christ and various defensive services in aid of just causes: as guards for pilgrims on the road to Compostella; as Knights of St. Peter at the command of St. Leo IX, guided by the advice of St. Anselm, Bishop of Lucca; and, most famously, as noble warriors fighting, from the eleventh century onwards, for the re-conquest of Spain and the Holy Land from a long-lasting but illicit Moslem control.

We all know the enthusiasm that this “Way of God”—as the Crusade in the East was called—unleashed, most potently, to begin with, among the noble families of the Franks and the “outsider” Normans. With the seemingly miraculous fall of Jerusalem to the Crusaders in 1099 and the need to succor the Crusading States established in the Levant, such enthusiasm eventually spread to the soldiery of western Christendom as a whole. Emperors and kings joined in crusading enterprises, with the French Capetian Family in particular gaining for itself a reputation for commitment to the movement. More intense associations dedicated to prayer and soldiering took shape in the process—communities of the sort that Werner Jaeger argues Plato himself longed to see. Knights of the Temple and the Hospital, Teutonic Knights, and numerous other innovative “military orders” were created for work in the Holy Land, Spain, and the pagan Baltic regions, all of them judged proper spheres of crusading activity.

Crusading in the Holy Land brought manifold spiritual consequences in its train. Jesus Christ as an active historical figure became much more real to those who walked the same roads and passed through the same villages that He had done. Christ, Mary, and the Holy Family seemed more human and approachable, and the Divine work of the God-Man more achievable and therefore all the more pressing. Through Crusading on Christ’s own home territory, the immediacy of the Kingdom of God was made palpable in a way that even the finest of sermons in churches north of the Alps could never match.

Moreover, discussion of the nature of the sacrifice shouldered by those who went on Crusade promoted a deeper understanding both of penitential practice as well as the ineffable solidarity achieved through membership in a Mystical Body of Christ quickened by God’s gracious love. For it was out of the Crusading Movement that the doctrine of indulgences was clarified. This doctrine, far from reducing spiritual concerns to the mechanical calculations satirized by later generations, was utterly sublime in its central vision. It taught that any sacrificial act on the part of a repentant sinner would be met by a still greater outpouring of love from a God who sacrificed His only begotten Son for mankind; and that an integral aspect of this overwhelming love was that it allowed the merits of those heroes of charity whom we call the saints in heaven to spill over in aid of those in need. Just as a mother’s superabundant love and self-sacrifice could overflow to the benefit of an errant child through the mediation of the Redeemer, that of the saints could overflow to the help and perfection of the lesser works of their weaker brethren in the Body of Christ.58

Friends of the Crusading Movement soon came to see that “taking up one’s cross” and going on armed pilgrimage ennobled more aspects of an individual soldier’s life than his military vocation alone might indicate. This was true even on a purely natural level. After all, a man exchanging shoddy footwear for the finest shoes cannot ignore dealing with the rest of his shabby wardrobe without appearing ridiculous. On the spiritual plane the consequences were still more significant. In order to avoid becoming “a house divided”, a penitential soldier could not focus on fighting morally acceptable wars while sinning against truth, beauty, and goodness in non-military matters. Hence, the recognition on the part of heroes, poets, and theologians of the Crusading Movement that the dedicated crusader had to be a unified whole: a just soldier and a fighter for culture in general, all under the aegis of that Incarnate Word who alone could harmonize every aspect of life in the proper hierarchy of values.

In short, a true crusading soldier had to be “an officer and a gentleman”, constantly striving for sainthood even as he sought for military victory. King warriors like St. Louis IX (1215-1270) of France enthusiastically taught such a message. In varying degrees, it was also instilled in the hearts of medieval man by the composers of the many so-called Chansons de geste—“Songs of the Deed”—ranging from that of Roland to the Arthurian Cycle and the tales of the Cid, all of them celebrating the accomplishments of “armed pilgrims”. Its most important theological standard bearer was St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), mystic, preacher, and propagandist for the work of the knight-monks of the bright, new, Christian and “Platonic” crusading orders. This message entered into the education of all future crusaders. As a result, a real change indeed did take place in the vision of the mission of soldiering as a whole; one similar to that regarding the mission of Rome in ancient times.59

It is useful for us to glance backwards to that ancient change to underline, through yet another Seed of the Logos, what now happened once again in medieval times, after the Word Incarnate had arrived on the earth. Ancient Rome had conquered the Mediterranean world for a wide variety of less than elevated motives. The logic of its self-interested actions can be demonstrated through the confusion of events, just as the logic of the coronation of Charles the Great can be traced back to the many different decisions of Clovis and Pippin. How did the literal motives responsible for Rome’s conquests actually influence the general movement of history? They affected it little at all. But one cannot say the same for the symbolic meaning of its victories.

This was outlined by Greek historians like Polybius (200-118 B.C.), who emphasized Rome’s character as a place of law, order, and justice, along with her task of bringing the blessings of peace to an unruly world. An ecumene pacified by Rome, Polybius argued, would then benefit from the fruits of Hellenic culture. Rome’s mission would be accomplished. The works written by such historians were used to educate the children of Roman notables. Subsequent generations thus publicly spoke as though this law-and-order-giving duty, which rendered worldwide cultural growth possible, were indeed the real cause for the growth of the Empire. Rome became a concrete model for international organization and justice by no means warranted by her original intentions and activity. And it is in this form that Rome continues to have meaning for us today---an eternally valuable, correcting, and transforming meaning.

Similarly, soldiers brought up on the vision presented by the preaching of St. Bernard, the example of St. Louis IX, and the message of at least certain aspects of the Songs of the Deed, would feel ashamed publicly to admit motivation by other, contrary goals—even if they actually did see soldiering merely as an opportunity for unrestrained cruelty and pillaging. It required but a fraction of a behavioral change on the part of even a small number of influential military commanders and their men to set in motion a long-term substantive transformation for the better. For it is through such small changes on the part of even the tiniest minority that most progress combating the “business as usual” mentality of the vast majority of mankind accepting “nature as is” has taken place in the past and will continue to take place in the future. Anyone comparing the transgressions of the developed crusading soldiery with the evils perpetrated by their forefathers of the 900’s—or their wayward heirs in the twentieth century—can note that a change of the sort did, at least for a time, begin to take root. And even if end results are not what we wish, beginnings are often enough, in the mind of God, to gain the men engaged in them an entry into His eternal kingdom.

Once again, I am now only discussing the positive aspects of the new, medieval ascent of Mount Tabor. Enormous problems plagued the actual military Crusading Movement, just as they did every other fruit of the crusading mentality. It is sufficient for us at this point merely to indicate that the practical military failures of crusading by the time of Pope Innocent III were symbolized by the fall of Jerusalem to Saladin in 1189 and the inability of the Third Crusade under the combined leadership of the emperor and the kings of France and England to recapture it. These disasters formed the background landscape of Innocent’s reign and made a basic impact upon the whole program of his unique pontificate. Again, responding to the needs of the failing crusading movement was not the ultimate ground and explanation of the pope’s actions in all of the many fields of transformation in Christ in which he labored. But it was most certainly the strongest stimulus pressing him into motion.

Ultimate grounds for Innocent’s actions can be found in his books. His most famous work, On the Misery of the Human Condition (1194-1195), is not sufficient to this task because he intended to complete it with another “positive” volume that he never had a chance to finish: On the Dignity of Human Nature. A much more complete guide to the spirit of Innocent’s thought is his Fourfold Character of Marriage. For Innocent, all of life is symbolized by marriage. In this book, he shows that the marriage of man and wife is one of the glorious, sacramental tools raising the individual to eternal life with a God who is married to the soul because of the marriage of the Logos with human nature and of Christ with His Church. Through these marriages, the fruitful, sublime, corrective, transforming union of nature and the supernatural can take place and have its effect upon the world. Unfortunately, however, because of the misery of the human condition after the sin of Adam, rendering them fruitful requires a great deal of difficult and humbling effort on our part.60

It was here, Innocent thought, that one could identify the problem with the contemporary Crusading Movement. If it were not succeeding, it must be because Christians were not correcting those sins in their daily lives that prevented marriage of the soul with God. This left them in a wretched, uncorrected natural condition rendering them unworthy of success in any of their endeavors. Victory in the external crusade for the defense of the Holy Land was therefore intimately connected with victory in an internal European crusade against the individual sins preventing this transforming marriage from taking place. If sham Christians—both among the fighting men abroad and that vast majority of believers who remained at home—could honestly be turned into true Catholics, then the success of the external Crusade would perhaps be guaranteed. Victory in such an internal conflict could only be achieved by intensifying an awareness of the primacy of the spirit in every vocation in life, not just that of soldiering.

This intensification brought with it two further consequences, the first of which was the universal application of the militant crusading spirit. Medieval Christian culture might have taken on a different flavor if bakers had been the initial problem for Clunaic monks rather than the malitia. As it was, however, once the redirection of the soldier’s vocation to proper Christian goals became the first object of the reformers’ attention, it was inevitable that a certain military “feel” would serve as a model for similar endeavors in other spheres of life, working smoothly together with the basic human sense of being engaged in a battle for daily survival. Hence the adoption by St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) of the language of a crusading knight committed to deeds of derring-do on behalf of his Lady, Apostolic Poverty. Hence, the soldierly and chivalric character of his mission to Egypt to convert the Sultan, and that of his fellow Franciscans crossing the Silk Road alongside Mongol warriors in the hope of evangelizing the Great Khan. Hence, also, the militant crusade against heresy undertaken by St. Dominic (1170-1221) and his followers.

A second consequence, also already obvious in the work of reformers in the generations before Innocent’s appearance on the scene, flowed from the acceptance of the need to bring spiritual correction to so many varied natural spheres. This underscored the importance of developing pastoral strategies appropriately proportioned to the different character of each specific human activity. In the same way that the essence of soldiering had to be identified, corrected, and transformed, the “logos” of every other activity shaping the daily lives of men and women had to be pinpointed and raised more militantly to God. A pastoral theology highly conscious of the value of making distinctions depending upon “who” was targeted doing “what” was of particular concern to Peter Cantor (d. 1197), who was an influential teacher in Paris at the time of Innocent’s studies there. The young Lothair seems to have been powerfully affected by its precepts.61

Innocent’s spiritual, militant, and pastorally variegated summary of the medieval ascent of Mount Tabor is most fruitfully discussed by dividing his own labors into two distinct parts. One of these concerns measures that were aimed primarily at strengthening the backbone of the Church, the State, and Christian individuals in general in their crusading battle against the obvious sinfulness preventing true marriage of souls with God. The second illustrates his fervent embrace of that pilgrim spirit open to the unexpected twists and turns of the dance of life, and therefore ready to experiment to attain the same unchanging goal of transformation in Christ dictated by the fact that the Kingdom of God was now at hand. Both types of labor were visible in the decrees of that magnificent “summary of the summary” of the path leading to a new ascent of Mount Tabor—the Fourth Lateran Council, called by Innocent to meet in 1215.

In strengthening the backbone of the Church, Innocent did nothing other than build on what St. Leo IX had begun with the tightening and internationalization of a Curia designed to make the plenitude of papal authority felt throughout the Christian world. This, by the late twelfth century, had involved the construction of a large, sophisticated, administrative apparatus in Rome, with representatives traveling the length and breadth of Christendom. Curial machinery was both difficult to pay for and to supervise, two problems at the root of manifold evils destined to prosper in the centuries to come and to serve as the meat for much of the sad tale to be recounted in the following chapters.

Innocent added immeasurably to the standard operating procedure, strength, and efficiency of the Roman administrative machine, especially with respect to tax collection on behalf of new crusades and other papal undertakings. But he did this while ruthlessly removing rapacious officials hungry for fees for expediting papal business. Both competent and scrupulous in his own Roman diocese, he wanted to insure the same high standards in the episcopacy that “shared his cares” as a whole. As he wrote in a letter to the Bishop of Liège: 62

It is proper that the pope should be irreproachable, and that he to whom the care of souls falls should shine like a torch in the eyes of all by reason of his learning in doctrine and his example. Thus, every time someone informs us that one of our brothers in the episcopate does not exude the perfume of pastoral modesty and ruins or tarnishes his good reputation in some way, we experience deep sorrow and trouble; in order to track down such faults minutely, and to correct them with the requisite severity, we force ourselves to apply the remedy of apostolic solicitude.

Oversight of the episcopacy involved a great deal of papal watchfulness. First of all, Innocent sought to supervise the choice of individual bishops. He expected that, once approved by him, these bishops had to be gently but firmly pressed to hold national and provincial councils and regularly visit their dioceses, all for the purpose of knowing and correcting the priestly and pastoral activities as well as the personal behavior of their own lower clergy. Periodic trips to Rome to report on successes and failures were also demanded of them. The sense of solidarity from the top to the bottom of the agmen that this papal guidance helped to intensify would then hopefully prove useful in fending off continued efforts to steal Church property or redirect its use to the primarily secular and even totally anti-spiritual purposes of the lovers of “nature as is”.

Innocent had a profound sense of the value of the State in the transformation of all things in Christ, and thus sought the strengthening of its activity to serve this noblest of purposes as well. It was the responsibility of the State to use its authority to insure the proper peace of the Church, especially by preventing contemporary heretics who denied the goodness of nature from insinuating their way into positions of influence over the political and social environment. It was the duty of the State to stand guard over economic justice as well. And this, Innocent realized, was a particularly urgent matter given the impressive twelfth century expansion in merchant enterprise, the increasing influence of money, the growth of usurious debt, and the discernable sense of uncontrollable and negative change beginning to be felt by large segments of the European population, both urban and rural. We will also address these matters at greater length in the dramatic chapters to come.

One of the reasons Innocent was so keen on building order in the States of the Church was that he wanted to provide an example for the rest of Christendom of just what a responsible government, guided by both Faith and Reason, was called upon to do. For Innocent, this clearly did not mean “anything that it could do”. For the pope was also acutely aware of just how easily even a State under papal control could be led astray from its proper tasks to serving those of a “business as usual” mentality. It was because of this awareness that he disliked hearing his own officials indulge in flights of rhetorical humbug, attempting to concoct “appropriate explanations” of their exaggerated and erroneous administrative and policing actions with reference to the “sacred” work they were performing for the Holy See.63

Future black legends to the contrary, Innocent insisted that the Church’s labor with respect to “toughening up” the State was basically an indirect one. Yes, the pope did claim a direct role in imperial affairs, in confirming or rejecting a candidate for the position of emperor, but this in no way emerged from any dogmatic teaching on his part. As far as he was concerned, the papal-imperial connection was merely an historical fact of life, rooted in the action of the Papacy in transferring control of the Western Empire from Constantinople to the Carolingians. Aside from this peculiar responsibility, the Church’s role was that of a teacher who interfered politically and socially only when correction was required, de ratione peccati, by reason of sin. Such correction most often concerned the behavior of rulers or officials as individual members of the Body of Christ, with—not surprisingly, given Innocent’s concern for marriage as a symbol the whole of man’s relationship to God—the marital infidelities and attempted divorces of various kings and princes at the top of the list.64

Strengthening the backbone and correcting the behavior of all individual Christians, through Church, State, and pastoral strategies varying from those aimed at crusaders all the way down to others designed for rescuing prostitutes, was a central focus of the whole of Innocent’s pontificate. This can be seen most clearly in Fourth Lateran Council’s legislation concerning parish life. Innocent, in effect, asked the Fathers of the council to consider the difficulties believers would face in changing their lives if they did not belong to a parish community where the moral consequences of their supernatural Faith were regularly offered to them, according to their different vocations in life. He pressed them to work to transform the Old Adam into the New by giving all of the faithful a clear teaching of what each of the Seven Sacraments was meant to accomplish and of the practical context in which each was to be used. It is interesting to note, in this regard, that the pope’s and the council’s hopes were pinned upon stimulating Christians to at least one parish confession and communion per year. Clearly, at least in a sacramental respect, the new ascent of Mt. Tabor was truly only at its beginning—and this, more than twelve hundred years after the appearance of the Word in human history.

Innocent’s encouragement of a pilgrim’s attitude to the unpredictable and ever-changing dance of life is both highly significant and illustrative of the spirit of the second wave of the reform movement in its entirety. His pilgrim testimony is best summarized with respect to two measures in particular: support for institutions of higher learning and backing for the new mendicant orders. Both were especially dear to the pope as tools for tackling manifest deficiencies in the already existing ecclesiastical structure and for providing superior teaching and guidance for the dance of life of the Christian community in general.

Historians today are more aware than ever before just how much continuity there was between ancient and medieval culture. Still, everyone admits that there were losses, some permanent and many temporary, regarding knowledge of specific skills, themes, and venerable authors. The Carolingian Renaissance had provided a valuable reinforcement to sagging classical studies. The subsequent Ottonian Renaissance worked to the same positive effect. Although learning in monastic centers declined thereafter, a number of the cathedral schools first encouraged by Charlemagne and Louis the Pious remained quite active, while the study of Latin literature was enhanced and remained strong far into the High Middle Ages, especially in such important French cities as Chartres.

One realm in which western loss of ancient wisdom was clear was that of Roman Law. Knowledge of the fullness of this law, as embodied in the Code of Justinian, had indeed suffered. The early Middle Ages generally worked with that shortened version of the earlier Theodosian Code contained in the so-called Breviary of the King of the Visigoths, Alaric II (d. 507). But this gap was filled from the eleventh century onwards, through the efforts of men such as Irnerius (c. 1050-after 1125) and Gratian (1000’s-1100’s). The consequences of a deeper understanding of Roman Law for both Civil and Canon Law, which were numerous and serious, are best discussed in the following chapter in union with the highly charged debate over the nature of Church and State that it also nurtured.

Lacunae in philosophy were confronted in the era of the new ascent of Mount Tabor as well. Interest in Neo-Platonism, especially due to the influence of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite, was primary at the beginning of the age. Nevertheless, the intense study of logic, and the rush of Aristotelian translations that took place in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, accompanied by the commentaries of the Moslem scholars Avicenna (c. 980-1037) and Averroes (1126-1198), ended by at least temporarily eclipsing the sway of the Academy and its offshoots.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Peter Lombard (1100-1160) were the most well known figures active in the early stages of this move towards logic and Aristotle; St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Blessed Dun Scotus (c. 1265-1308) dominated its latter days. Whatever the current popular understanding of the respective attitudes of these varied thinkers to Aristotle might be, all of them, without exception, found the use of peripatetic arguments to be indispensable to their work. And we shall soon see that through their labors, the Seed of the Logos provided by this, the greatest of Plato’s pupils, was separated out from the dangerous uses to which it might be put, harmonized with the Faith, and stored in the corrective and transforming armory of the agmen of the Word marching splendidly through history.65

Due to any number of factors—including the presence of already existing schools, geographical and political utility, and the fortuitous combination of certain vibrant teachers and enthusiastic pupils—Bologna and Paris rose to the forefront of the legal and philosophical studies thus enriched. In these two cities there developed those new corporations of masters and students, along with such innovative practices as the insistence upon a basic curriculum and the awarding of degrees, which guaranteed the creation of the first true historical universities. With the birth of the universities, for the first time in history, a well-defined scholarly “polis” operating within the larger political and social community, became a palpable reality.66

Lothair dei Segni studied in both these academic commonwealths. We especially know a good deal about his love for his teachers and his time in Paris. As Innocent III, he provided them much assistance, granting papal protection to their corporate freedom so that they could work in peace and quiet. He did this for two reasons. The pope nurtured universities, first of all because, as a paladin of a Christian and classical culture that grasped the importance of social and individual cooperation in all spheres of life, he understood that only a social environment could provide the proper framework for successful individual intellectual activity. It was solely through membership in a scholarly polis that the individual mind could be steered away from madness and self-destruction to fruitful, human, fraternal achievement. And, secondly, Innocent gave his consistent assistance to the growth of the scholarly polis because he recognized the promise that universities held for the future, as “think tanks” preparing warriors for the battle against “nature as is” on behalf of the correction and transformation in Christ of the whole of Christendom. If the flaws of crusading were to be addressed by toughening up the militant crusade for transformation in Christ in all vocations in life, the marshalling of scholarly resources in just such militant camps of higher learning had to be pressed forward with special papal fervor. Only thus could the beneficial results of human thought successfully be put to the service of struggling Christians in all their varied endeavors.

Let us now turn briefly to the question of the relationship of Innocent to the mendicant orders. We must begin this task by noting once again that the general spiritual awakening, together with the greater diversification of the social order accompanying the growth of material wealth in the twelfth century, had also enriched awareness of the distinct temptations of varying social groups in western Christendom and the differing religious remedies required to overcome them. The reform movement had simultaneously called attention to the deficiencies of the clergy of the western Christian agmen, along with its inability to respond militantly to all these dangerous seductions and positive needs. Efforts to deal with clerical insufficiencies led to the numerous and sometimes quite contrasting liturgical and preaching concerns of Clunaic, Carthusian, and Cistercian monks. They also had engendered formation of the many types of so-called Canons Regular, designed to provide a more organized spiritual direction and preaching focus to the daily activities of secular diocesan priests.67

Recognition of the new dilemmas of a wealthier society, the possible sinfulness accompanying the accumulation of riches, and the insufficiency of the current spiritual response to the problems of affluence and luxury was central to the emergence of the movement in favor of living and preaching a life of Apostolic Poverty as well. As its name indicates, this movement praised a form of existence that was thought to be in special conformity with that taught by Christ, practiced by his immediate disciples, and somehow lost in the course of time. It took many forms, a number of them seemingly or openly heretical, in ways that will be addressed more fully in the following chapters. Let it suffice to say at the moment that the errors of some of the proponents of Apostolic Poverty had made the whole movement so suspect in the eyes of the Church by the time that Innocent was elected pope that it appeared highly unlikely that he would have lent his support to any of its followers and their projects.

And yet this is precisely what he did do, reviewing and accepting the Apostolic Poverty of the already existing Umiliati in Lombardy and, most importantly, enthusiastically approving the new Mendicant Orders of St. Dominic and St. Francis. Here, as with the Universities of Paris and Bologna, Innocent saw an initiative both innovative and yet better suited to completing the pastoral work of the unchanging Eternal Word under changed and changing circumstances than anything available to him through the aid of the existing secular clergy and traditional monasticism alone. In taking them under his wing, the pope began the alliance that would make of the mendicants the chief Christendom-wide arm of the Holy See for the correction and transformation of all things in Christ for the remainder of the Middle Ages.68

Innocent’s labors, both in giving backbone to Church, State, and individual Christian life as well as in promoting pilgrim solutions for dealing with new steps in the dance of life, did not go uncontested. Universities, the nature of the studies cherished therein, and the intrusion of these upstart Dominican and Franciscan beggars into academic and pastoral enterprises all proved to be repellent to many of his contemporaries. Their opposition, as the following chapter will make clear, grew ever more intense as the thirteenth century advanced. Opposition was accompanied, every step of the way, by the hold that the spirit of inertia always has over all men if it is not fought forthrightly with every weapon at their disposal. Still, despite the many and often quite intense problems connected with Innocent’s initiatives, the Holy See’s support for all of them continued unabated in the immediate following pontificates. Blessed Gregory X was to offer especially emphatic confirmation of the mendicants in the face of often thunderous condemnation by bishops and abbots at the second greatest of medieval councils, that of Second Lyon, in 1274.69

Appropriately enough, he was to do so in the context of calling for yet another external crusade. For Gregory, like Innocent, and like the whole of the age of the new ascent of Mount Tabor, was a crusader, stimulated by the same crusading spirit that stirred the entire second wave of the reform movement. He was on mission in the Holy Land at the time of his election to the throne of St. Peter, and was deeply conscious of the crisis threatening to bring an end to the Christian presence in the region at any moment. Bringing that awareness of crisis back to Rome with him, he set about preparing for a new “armed pilgrimage” just as his great predecessor would have done—by insisting upon an intense internal struggle against the personal sins of Christendom threatening the success of any external crusading enterprise.

Following still further in Innocent III’s footsteps, Gregory believed that the greatest of these internal Christian sins was the Schism of East and West. Second Lyons was therefore also called by him for the purpose of healing this scandalous wound, and negotiating with the Byzantine Empire, recently re-established in its traditional capital of Constantinople under the rule of Michael Paleologus (1259-1282), to do so. Through the graces obtained by restoring firm unity to the Body of Christ, Gregory hoped that a lasting victory over the Moslems controlling Jerusalem would finally be merited. A solidly united Christendom would then move forward from strength to strength, completing the work of the Word Incarnate in history.70 The sad reality of what actually did transpire is, thankfully, not the task of this chapter, whose purpose, which was that of outlining the high medieval understanding of the equipment needed for a new scaling of Mount Tabor, must now be fulfilled and summarized.

E. The True and the Good Story United

The underlying greatness of the western medieval reform movement lay in its initial recognition that the Christian pilgrimage to God in the changing earthly realm can never be totally organized in some complete and unchangeable form. It was this that enabled it to see the deficiencies of the admittedly great “words” and glorious vision of Imperial Christendom and move on to accept the need for innovative steps in the performance of the always dramatic dance of life. As it analyzed the changed contemporary situation in the light of those aspects of the message of past ages that were of permanent value, it added its own eternally valid contribution for the necessary instruction of future pilgrims who might themselves face yet other, different problems and socio-political conditions.

For high medieval Western Christendom, like its imperial predecessor, indeed had something of unchanging significance to pass on to posterity. It had come to understand the fact that the message of the Eternal Word had meaning for every single individual person and aspect of Creation, and that communicating this message required an authoritative, militant, compassionate mobilization of each and every tool that could give pastoral guidance to the myriad of different “chapters” taking part in the general Christian pilgrimage to God. In short, the underlying spirit of the High Middle Ages taught Christian posterity that the true story of the dance of life was a more complicated and dramatic tale than perhaps even the Church Fathers themselves had recognized.

On the intellectual plane, this achievement was the work of the great thinkers noted above who confronted the dilemmas presented by Aristotle through the commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes in that packed, logic-rich, “question, objection, and answer” style that we identify as the scholastic method. Although much of what these scholastics had to say has to be approached in the context of the crises to be detailed in the following chapter, let us nevertheless identify three brilliant, Word-friendly contributions of permanent value in their labors at this particular juncture.

Most important among these contributions was a pronounced emphasis upon the glory of the individual. This grew in response to Averroes’ presentation of Aristotle as teaching an eternally necessary universe in which there was no room for the Christian doctrine of personal immortality. For the Seed of the Logos to be found in Aristotle, as a St. Thomas Aquinas cultivated it---in the light of Faith---yielded insights into individual human personality of extraordinary clarity: 71

A capital text of the Summa contra gentiles draws forth the double consequence that the acceptance of a personal God, creator and savior of human persons, brings with it. The first is that divine Providence, and, in consequence, universal order, does not seize individual humans through the species, but equally as individuals. The second is that the human person participates in universal order, not only as all other realities in submitting to the law of the species, but on addressing himself directly to God.

Yes, the debates within the scholastic camp were profound ones. We shall soon see that they were tragically all too divisive as well. But nevertheless, at least in the work of the thinkers we are discussing at the moment—that of men like Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Scotus, all of whom left something of permanent value for awakened Christian minds to digest— the common emphasis upon the importance of individual personality is quite pronounced. The objections of the two Franciscans to their Dominican colleague, whatever their strengths or flaws, are rooted in individual and personal concerns that point to a universe of incredible diversity. In the concept of the inexhaustible richness of the multiplicity to be found in God’s cosmos, both Aquinas and Scotus are in union with one another. The Creation that they depict for us is the total antithesis of a laborious, unthinking, and involuntary machine. It is a universe of real, distinct, human beings on the highway to perfection in Christ.

Secondly, the true story of distinct, free, individual human action as told by the scholastics—although in this case, in the work of Aquinas and his followers much more than in that of their colleagues—is one in which the positive role of the State and its ability to aid men in their endeavors is fearlessly embraced. An embrace of the State and its authority as innately beneficial forces, through which the overall order of the cosmos and the real mechanisms that are at work in the universe might be investigated and put to use for temporal as well as supernatural goals by free Christian men, reveals the powerful influence of Aristotle’s Politics alongside a Catholic concern for validating every aspect of God’s created nature. God’s eternal order is shown to have a positive temporal counterpart that guides man’s pilgrimage not only with the laws of heaven but with laws built into the structure of nature itself that thinking men must learn to grasp and use as well. Contrary to what any continued Neo-Platonist enthusiast might think, “human persons are not fallen gods”, somehow caught in “the snares of a material world” in which they are ultimately strangers. Quite the contrary. “They insert themselves into the world, which responds to their own nature; they must take sides with it to raise it to the commanded dignity that is in its nature, and they have a mission to bring it to perfection”.72 Nature had its laws, but these were meant for men to use to achieve a common good. The common good was different from that which each of them as individuals might seek, and yet it was beneficial to them as distinct persons nonetheless. Even if such a teaching might unleash an enthusiasm for projects dealing with temporal life that, in the hands of men like Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), could seem technocratic and exaggeratedly elitist in character, such side effects were compensated by the general sense of meaningfulness that it gave to all of thinking man’s endeavors.

Finally, the opening of scholastic eyes to the reality of a temporal order, guided by natural laws, that must be studied in all of its unique, God-given complexity, allowed for their witness to the existence, the rights, and the riches of a multiform, medieval, corporate society that a man like Aristotle could never have imagined. Having accepted the reality---and also the actual beauty---of a world of distinct corporations interacting with one another in God’s multiform Creation, scholastics sought, with the use of Aristotle’s Politics, to discuss how such societies were to work for the specific common good of their members while simultaneously taking part in the hunt for the higher common good guided by the State. Most importantly of all, these thinkers underlined corporate need to submit to the supernatural Word and gain the supreme good emerging from His law of love. For they did not provide an “appropriate explanation of the deeply felt desires of medieval corporations” and thereby bend their knees before the “business as usual” demands of a new swarm of supporters of “nature as is”. Instead, scholastic students of the satisfaction of individual man’s temporal needs and his ascent to God through the positive aid provided by a praiseworthy network of medieval social institutions understood that none of this could take place without the corrective and transforming teaching and grace that comes from the Mystical Body of Christ alone:73

Let us conclude that an entire class of theologians knew how to understand the teachings of the corporate order that they were witnesses of. They drew its philosophy from it without sacrificing to its excesses while doing so. As the Church had tried to sublimate the feudal order, they tried to elevate above itself the corporate order, penetrating it with the divine sense of justice and charity. To these collectivities jealously closed in their particularism, they taught the sense of the universal. To these corporate authorities, often more ferocious than individual signories, they recalled before Shakespeare that they must not ‘separate goodness from power’. Gilles of Rome tells us: “Love and charity have the maximum unifying and conjoining strength’.

The light that is shed by the Word on all of nature and on nature’s mission to glorify God might, at times, be obscured, and therefore “missed” by limited human persons weighed down by the burdens and sufferings of daily life. Nevertheless, the same underlying spirit of intense interest in the full meaning of the Word in history also gave to the age of the new ascent of Mount Tabor an ability to tell a good story about this complex, true story. So well did it do this, and so much did that good story enter into the marrow of high medieval culture, that it may be that only those who actually lived its life fully, from birth to death, would ever adequately be able to explain the sublime truths their world came to take for granted as obvious givens.

Clearly, high medieval culture told this good story to the mind, through its encouragement of the life of the universities of Paris, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere. Extremely important speculative thought in theology, philosophy, and law was to be produced through these organs for the unending enlightenment of believers. The work that was accomplished by a man like St. Thomas Aquinas in his great Summae gave to the Christian world an ability logically to tie its beliefs together and explain them systematically that far exceeded the accomplishments of past generations of the most admirable thinkers and apologists. One must say the same thing about their achievement that we insisted upon in discussing the contribution of the Church Fathers: namely, that their labors have eternal significance, and that no one learning and defending the Faith in any future age can ever neglect them without exposing himself and all of Christendom to pointless risk—as well as to the unnecessary labor of painfully having to rediscover what they already had grasped and offered to posterity. The proof of this point will, sadly, become all to clear in the chapters to follow.

Medieval man in his new ascent of Mt. Tabor also told this good story—not an allegory fit for lesser beings but the exact same tale—to man’s heart and soul, through the preaching and poetry of St. Norbert (c. 1080-1134), St. Bernard, and St. Francis of Assisi. He also recounted it through the buildings that he constructed, especially those designed for the daily worship of the Triune God. How many of these masterpieces testified to the unending diversity of nature in its union with grace in lifting man’s mind, heart, and soul to his eternal goal! One sees some aspects of this cornucopia in the playfulness of the floral and animal elements entering into the supports of the pulpits from which the Word of God was preached in Romanesque churches like the cathedral of Ravello outside Amalfi. One sees others in the stained glass windows of the subsequent Gothic style of architecture, encouraged by the Abbot Suger (c. 1081-1151) through the renovation of his monastic church of St. Denis and imitated in so many of the principal houses of worship throughout Christendom in the years to come. Here, especially, the riot of gorgeous light that those church windows brought before the human eye reminded men that God’s Creation offered more than either the unaided sinful soul could perceive or the word merchants limiting “philosophy” to “appropriate explanations of desire” for securing the dominance of “business as usual” wanted it to perceive.74

How can one complete this chapter without reference to the epic that summarized the character of the new ascent of Mount Tabor as brilliantly as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid captured the spirit of archaic Greek and Augustan Roman culture: the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). Steeped in the corporate society of his day, deeply attached to the concept of the State in its imperial manifestation, and awed by the scholastic achievement, this greatest of medieval poets presented in his threefold epic the whole of the drama of God’s relationship with man and that of men with one another.

What does he tell us? He explains that all of us, wandering through the confusion of life, must look to the Seeds of the Logos in our environment for guidance. These he introduces us to in the form of Virgil, Dante’s ancient Roman predecessor, who shepherds us to wisdom first of all by demonstrating nature’s misuse at the hands of the suffering souls in Hell. But “nature as is”, even at its best, cannot lead us to eternal life with God. That can only be accomplished through the law of love and the life of grace, which, in Dante’s poem, is, of course, represented by his beloved Beatrice.

And what is it that we see when we finally reach Paradise and the souls—obviously still without their bodies, whose resurrection must await the end of time and the Final Judgment—in union with Almighty God? We see the promise of the Word fulfilled, to the benefit of all of the distinct individuals whose divinization the Church Fathers preached and whose personal dignity the scholastics, in a quite different but complementary way, so profoundly emphasized.75 In Cantos thirty and thirty-one, through the use of the image of a rose, Dante struggles brilliantly to demonstrate how all the varied forces of mind, heart, and will, corrected and transformed through the grace of God, work together to ensure the ecstasy of the blessed. He depicts everyone firmly fixed on the adoration of God, with the consequence being that all are divinized in their proper place, true to nature, but completely surpassing natural limitations and its insufficient modes of expression and explanation. A more magnificent medieval hymn to the multiplicity arising from unity in Christ can hardly be imagined.76

So, ranged aloft all round about the light,
Mirrored I saw in more ranks than a thousand
All who above there have from us returned.
And if the lowest row collect within it
So great a light, how vast the amplitude
Is of this Rose in its extremest leaves!
My vision in the vastness and the height
Lost not itself, but comprehended all
The quantity and quality of that gladness.
There near and far nor add nor take away;
For there where God immediately doth govern,
The natural law in naught is relevant.

Human hopes for scaling Mt. Tabor anew had thus been aroused as never before. Unfortunately, the anger of the supporters of “nature as is” had also been greatly stimulated along with the opposing passion for finding and fulfilling the deeper meaning of Creation. The potential for such underground anger to erupt into the public arena was growing all through the period under study in this chapter. Individual Christians, the corporate “chapters” in the pilgrimage to God to which they belonged, and the decisions for good or ill that they took in guiding the Church and human society were to play a central role in determining whether that eruption would be staunched or the fires behind it encouraged and even more warmly welcomed than the embrace of the Redeeming Word.

Chapter 5

Counterattack and Resistance “On the Cheap”

A. The Long March to the Triumph of the Will

External and internal crusaders of the period stretching from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries laid out a fundamental network of routes along which future soldiers of the Word could bring its full message of natural and supernatural fulfillment more swiftly and effectively than ever before. Without reference to the more familiar modern term “transformation of all things in Christ”, Catholic heroes of the High Middle Ages acted as though this were indeed the goal of their militant activity. They had propelled the Mystical Body onto a much more authoritative, self-confident march forward. Due to their cultivation of the proper pilgrimage spirit, they had also learned new steps in the dance of life as their understanding of their mission expanded. Moreover, their ability to tell a “good story” about their noble enterprise proceeded accordingly. Plato’s vision of the proper union of rhetoric with the deeper hunt for the Logos was thus becoming a reality, since the “good story” that was being told and propagated was finally one in aid of a “true story” as well. And this true story, through the philosophical and theological work of men like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Blessed Duns Scotus, had been ordered systematically in a way that would have been the envy of the founder of the Academy as well as many of the early Church Fathers.

But the friends of the corrective and transforming message of the Word in history were not without their limitations, self-destructive fears, and flaws. Moreover, they were met by resistance from the partisans of acceptance of the rut of an unchanging and unchangeable life every step of the way. Over the course of the centuries of the new ascent of Mount Tabor, the efforts of the latter to transform the dance of life into a “Long March” away from the teaching of Christ were to grow. And, as always, they would once again come to involve all of the tactics employed by Isocrates when drawing first blood in this war of the words and the Word.

Readers will remember that these strategies included a hunt for noble ideas and aspirations that might be redirected to serve as appropriate explanations of the need to satisfy the immediate passions of “the natural man”. The rhetorician repeatedly emphasized two points once some such appropriate explanation was found. First of all, he insisted that men could find this teaching regarding “nature as is” clearly manifested in a society’s “foundation principles”---but as these principles were interpreted by the inspired “words” of the rhetorician himself and the powerful, successful actions of heroic leaders. Secondly, he argued that individuals had before them a dramatic “either-or” choice they could never escape: either an embrace of “nature as is”, with all the rewards that came from an acceptance of the world on its own obvious terms; or entry onto the tedious dead end path of the corrective and transforming message of the supporters of the search for the Logos.

Such ancient strategies were now to be resuscitated, but in the new and much more intellectually and spiritually charged environment created out of the successes of the servants of the Word made flesh. Through their redeployment, the armory of the soldiers of the rut of life would be stocked with arguments of proven value in blackening the labors of all those men, women, and institutions undertaking a new ascent of Mount Tabor. An alternative vision to one that was solidly Catholic would be constructed in the process. We shall be the tragic witnesses of the step-by-step advance of this counterattack of the supporters of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is”. We shall see that with many noble words of concern for the foundation principles of Christianity on their lips, they would step-by-step construct a death camp guided by one consistent law alone: that of the triumph of the will.

B. Apocalypse Now?

It might seem to Catholics of our own time that the age “when values descended to the earth”, giving a mighty stimulus to a renewed effort to ascend Mount Tabor, would have been the least likely of any to fall for the kind of simplistic tales regarding the imminent arrival of the Holy Spirit that would render serious labor on behalf of the Word in history superfluous. After all, many zealous believers continue to argue today that the centuries in question were the greatest in human history. Ironically, however, apocalyptic beliefs of a millenarian nature, dangerous to positive work for Christ, returned with a particular fury precisely at this very moment.77

Historians know that such a development had nothing to do with any “panic of the year 1000”, which is yet another legend invented by later mythmakers from the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo.2 In any case, the reasons for a recrudescence of millenarian and apocalyptic concepts were deeper and ultimately much more destructive than any crude superstitious terror could explain. Two different and seemingly contradictory sentiments fed this longing for an immediate and radical change in the human condition from inside the Catholic camp itself.

Even though one of them appears to betray Gnostic tendencies, it is probably best to identify it much more simply, as the reflection of a certain degree of spiritual timidity and fearfulness. It pointed to a deep, nagging feeling on the part of some Christians that each new manifestation of Church influence over the material world might not be as positive as authorities seemed to believe; that seeming victories for Christ could actually represent a dangerous collaboration with evil aspects of the natural environment; and that this sleeping with the devil would bring on a spiritual disease crying out to God for vengeance.

A second sentiment was fundamentally more solid, even while leading to terribly flawed conclusions: the demoralization of strong supporters of the concept of transformation in Christ in the face of each fresh display of self-interested parochialism and humbug on the part of individuals and corporations publicly claiming to serve the Church’s cause. Such dismayed and disillusioned Catholics ended either in a despair that paralyzed their desire to act vigorously for the good or in hopes for an all too swift and simple solution to the problems of dealing with the natural world, achieved through the irresistible aid of the Holy Spirit. Both these spiritually timid as well as rationally dismayed religious sentiments sought, for quite conflicting reasons, a common and definitive “closure” in all natural realms where serious problems had arisen in the work of transformation in Christ.

Popular Catholic hopes that any coming sea change would definitely be one for the better were given intellectual form through the writings of the biblical exegete, Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202). Joachim associated all of human history, divided into three parts, with different Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Each of these eras, he argued, was characterized by its own kinds of institutions and spirit. Joachim claimed that the age of God the Father was over, and that that of God the Son was to give way to the final and liberating reign of God the Holy Spirit beginning around 1260. This third historical era was to be somewhat of an Age of Aquarius, where all need for authority and punitive law would disappear, as would the institutions associated with them.

Joachim’s ideas were condemned at the Fourth Lateran Council. Despite this, they continued to spread and prosper. His apparently accurate prediction of the creation of an innovative religious order committed to an Apostolic Poverty crucial to ushering in the new age of the Spirit made what he had to say especially appealing to many of the so-called Spiritual Franciscans, about whom more anon. Peter John Olivi (1248-1298), a southern French friar from the Spiritual camp, offered important intellectual support to Joachim’s thesis, allowing its influence to continue into the later thirteenth century and beyond. He was by no means alone in this enterprise.3

In any case, heroic Catholic activists of the High Middle Ages were the first to admit that much more still needed to be said and done on behalf of the profound Drama of Truth that they themselves played a splendid part in carrying forward. They also knew that there could never be a full and absolutely unshakeable development of the meaning of the Word active in human history. So long as time lasted, the appearance of new, free, individual persons, together with their distinct ability to aid or hinder the understanding and progress of a supernatural intervention in man’s affairs, made perfect growth theoretically impossible at the same time as it rendered existing levels of achievement precarious. For we must repeatedly remind ourselves that a terrible reality of the dance of life is that it is precisely a Drama of Truth. One aspect of drama is tragedy. And part of the tragedy of the Christian Drama of Truth is the fact that any given generation can totally forget what its predecessor had seemingly already learned and even come to accept as a “common sense” given; that a later age might need to engage in what amounted to a painstaking “crawl” back to an earlier but nevertheless higher rung on the ladder leading to the fullness of Light.

Aside from recognizing the need for more work on the part of future generations, our Catholic heroes were also painfully aware of the limitations of their own labors amidst their flawed contemporaries, as magnificent as these achievements may now seem to us to have been. Unfortunately, they were all too correct in their assessment. Not only was it the case that ordinary human sinfulness marred the splendid icon painted by Christians in the High Middle Ages. Even well-meaning Catholic thinkers and activists themselves placed new obstacles in the path of a complete understanding of the full message of the Word in those splendid centuries---and at the very moment that they themselves were contributing mightily to developing it.

Perhaps it is the case that some truth lurks behind every intellectual and popular rumbling. For, even if a millenarian change did not arrive in 1260, an apocalypse in miniature did make itself more clearly felt at just that precise moment. A seemingly endless succession of calamities, arriving by the mid-thirteenth century, lasting throughout the whole of the fourteenth, and continuing, fitfully, down through the 1500’s, signaled a seemingly conclusive end to the authoritative, self-confident, broadly conceived, nuanced, pilgrim-spirited reformed medieval vision of transformation in Christ.

More importantly still, the determined enemies of the Word Incarnate were able to tap into the malaise that had fed millenarian expectations in the first place. As these opponents began to leave their private hiding places and move back into the public forum, they played upon Catholic sinfulness and failure of imagination, built upon the deep disillusionment of believers who recognized the inadequacies of an otherwise impressive fresh ascent of Mount Tabor, and began the rebuilding of that Grand Coalition of the Status Quo that now dominates our own time and place. One might once again appropriate the argument of St. Justin Martyr to tragic purpose and say that “Seeds of the words” were effectively planted in the era under discussion in this chapter and the next. These seeds, all of them immensely valuable to the proponents of “business as usual”, were to emerge definitively into the full light of day with Martin Luther’s public proclamation in the years after 1517 of his doctrine of the total depravity of a nature devastated by Original Sin: a cornerstone of our modern death camp and the triumph of the will.

Adversaries of the Word were thus able to begin putting together that counter “story” concerning the character and the impact of the Catholic outlook in history already rooted in the ancient attack on the Socratics. In doing so, they were able to count upon continued Catholic weaknesses and disappointments that worked to prevent the friends of the Word from fully recognizing and employing their own true and good story in their defense. Catholic failures in this regard meant that the faithful were offered partial explanations and incomplete or hypocritical excuses for problems of both theory and practice. Believers were thus directed away from that full lifting up of hearts and correction of the natural man and his social order that were essential to the achievement of a truly Christian victory.

A detailed review of this minor apocalypse can do much to help us come to terms with the troubled Catholic present. It is useful for a variety of reasons. It shows us—as do all historical studies--that crises do not emerge out of nowhere, and that a given generation’s miseries generally have been prepared in a previous age suffering from perhaps more fundamental, even though insufficiently recognized woes. Furthermore, it demonstrates, once again, that resolution of the specifics of any given ecclesiastical disaster may not proceed precisely “by the book”, especially if the problems involve new elements in the pilgrim dance of life that have not adequately been confronted by theologians and canonists beforehand. Last, but not least, it points to the fact that the Church’s full awakening from a nightmare which diverts her energies away from her real mission is a very difficult enterprise indeed; that it cannot be accomplished “on the cheap”, by playing with mere rhetorical phrases shaped into myths of her own; that if it is to take place at all, it must be built not only upon a humble digestion of the lessons taught by recent adversity but also on a deeper inspection of all of the wisdom that the treasury—the jewel box—of her entire Tradition contains. Only thus can she truly arouse herself from her doctrinal and pastoral slumber and prepare better arms for the next inevitable battle with her innumerable outer and inner demons.

Our work in recounting these historical developments will be a tripartite project. First of all, we shall delineate all the problems and failures within the ranks of Catholics conducive to the rebuilding of the ancient coalition against the Word. Next, we must discuss the series of disasters afflicting Christendom from the middle of the thirteenth century onwards, each of which aided immensely in weakening the organs through which “values descended to the earth”, further stimulating the already threatening revival of the old enemy alliance. Finally, continuing into the next chapter, we shall examine three major consequences of this mini-apocalypse: the emergence into the open air of the “Seeds of the words” in ecclesiastical, political, and social life, ending with the first serious historical “incarnation” of the anti-Logos position; the effective public propagation of the initial batch of black legends concerning the whole of the Catholic Faith; and, in the midst of disaster, the first suggestion of hope that the damage done might still somehow be reversed. Such hope was desperately needed. For the entire story of the Long March away from the work of transformation in Christ and towards the modern death camp and the triumph of the willful is a dismal one to tell.

C. Catholic Tunnel Vision and the Seeds of the Words

Most prescient prelates, preachers, and men of letters of the High Middle Ages, conscious that their era was no Golden Age definitively breaking the Catholic mold, repeatedly chastised the horrific anti-Christian behavior that they recognized everywhere around them. They, of course, did so primarily for the sake of stirring an awareness of personal sinfulness and obtaining immediate moral reform. Our concern is a different one. We are not interested here in assessing the extent of individual guilt on any given issue but in broad failures of Catholic spirit and action. We are interested in such an assessment for the purpose of determining exactly how a movement for transformation in Christ that was innately good lost its momentum and ultimately was forced to compete with a belief in a totally depraved universe. One highly useful way of coming to grips with such a tragic historical development is by turning our attention to an innate problem of fallen human persons, much intensified due to the increased self-consciousness of the men of the era in question: a self-destructive “tunnel-vision”.

Tunnel vision can have a variety of conflicting causes, some of them seemingly good, with love itself at the top of the list of the positive factors. Human love almost always begins with an obsessive focus on the one, adored, object of affection. Perhaps this is necessary in order to ensure the permanent commitment that should go along with appreciation of the intrinsic value of that which is beloved. Thankfully, many lovers eventually do learn to put their sentiment in perspective over the course of time, admitting the intrinsic beauty of other objects of affection—those cherished by their fellow men among them—in the process. But if they do not do so, tunnel vision sets in, with nefarious results for the lover, the beloved, and everything else that is lovable in the outside world.

High medieval tunnel vision was in one sense very much a product of this kind of intense love—a love engendered by the feeling of intimate association with a particular idea or social institution, its past achievements, and its future possibilities for glory. And such love was stimulated, whether consciously or unconsciously, by the general Catholic awareness of the value of all the different aspects of the natural world redeemed by the Word and their corresponding utility as tools for living properly and reaching God.

Objects of affection included a wide diversity of theological, philosophical, devotional, and legal concepts, as well as that myriad of corporations representing distinct vocations in life that were analyzed so brilliantly by some of the scholastics. Almost all of these ideas and corporations laid claim to an ancient history—a foundation story—often much older than they actually deserved and sometimes even totally mythical in character. This gave them still greater prestige in the eyes of their already smitten admirers. Whatever the truth of their pedigree, people fell passionately in love with the principles and institutions concerned, as well as their most renowned paladins. Unfortunately, for many, the initial and highly understandable infatuation definitely did not wear off, bringing tunnel vision, sophistic word merchandising on their all too parochial behalf, and inevitable conflicts with other ideas and corporations—and the full message of the Word—in its train.4

Tunnel vision was nourished by a negative and many-headed terror as well as by a positive love. Men were fearful that the object of their affection, whatever it might be, would not be offered the honor that was its proper due. Their dread was also shaped by an avarice that grew amidst the commercial boom of the twelfth century and the downward spiraling economic “correction” that characterized the thirteenth. Avarice manifested itself in a given social group’s single-minded determination to exploit all opportunities for gain while denying them to others. It was increased still more by bewilderment and terror over the laborious, Christian pastoral work involved in reconciling one idea, one association, and one set of desires with a kaleidoscope of others, as identified by men such as Peter Cantor, Pope Innocent III, and St. Thomas Aquinas. Hence, fear as well as love could lead to conflicts with the full message of the Word. And this, once again, is a teaching that should inspire affection for the accomplishments of all ages, ideas, corporations, and persons, harmonized together in a proper hierarchy of values that then lifts Creation heavenwards to the greater glory of God.5

One last point regarding tunnel vision needs to be made. Yes, this primarily concerned a destructive infatuation with certain specific ideas, corporations, and their leaders. Nevertheless, given the growing Catholic perception that everything natural was ultimately designed for the benefit of individual human persons who were destined to be divinized through Christ, another object of exaggerated love was emerging ever more clearly from the shadows: the infatuated love of self. Ironically, it was becoming more and more possible that the idea or the corporation divinized to the exclusion of all others was being adored not primarily for its own sake but because the self-loving, self-obsessed individual had desired and chosen to adore it. In other words, it was the individual’s will in and of itself that was threatening to become of greatest importance in daily life. This should have been a shrill warning bell in the ears of the followers of a social-minded religion; a religion demanding the true supernatural correction and transformation in Christ of men and women always sorely tempted to accept the willful demands of “nature as is” to conduct their petty “business as usual”.

Let us tackle the consequences of infatuation the way that Popes Innocent III and Blessed Gregory X might have done, by first examining their possible impact on the external crusade. Were there signs of the sickness and distortion caused by tunnel vision noticeable in the Crusading Movement, even in the centuries of its greatest glory? Did these lead to earthbound actions, encouraging unredeemed nature rather than its correction and transformation? And were the stories that crusaders told the world about their activities true ones, or merely good yarns appropriately justifying intense passions that masqueraded actions detrimental to the cause of honest Christian progress?

Some might argue that the greatest example of tunnel vision in this realm was the failure on the part of reformers from the time of Cluny down to that of Blessed Gregory X to see that the “idea” of the external Crusading Movement that they cherished was really itself ultimately only secondary in importance. That criticism is undeniably true for most individuals, although the growing insistence of popes and councils upon the internal preparations that Christendom had to make in order for its external labors to be successful seemed to indicate a progressive development of a proper appreciation of the hierarchy of values on the part of the leadership of the Mystical Body. Moreover, it is clear, both from St. Francis’ evangelical visit to the Sultan in Egypt as well as from much of the high-level mendicant advice given to the popes during the course of the thirteenth century, that a number of the most influential Christian activists were increasingly thinking of external crusading with reference to militant missionary work rather than outright military maneuvers.6 And, then again, events in the not too distant future—namely, the arrival on the European scene of the Ottoman Turks—would begin to make it seem as though the problem of Christendom regarding crusading involved a different kind of tunnel vision: a national and local parochialism committed to blocking out serious consideration of the outside dangers threatening the independence and survival of the entire believing community.

Still, it ought to come as no surprise to anyone, especially Catholics, that all warfare exposes men to unhealthy, narrow, corporate and personal temptations, even as it calls them to self-sacrifice, honor, and glory. Any examination of the facts as opposed to the theory of external crusading reveals that the crusades were no exception, and that self-interested tunnel vision troubled the movement every step of the way. Desire for fame, envy, squabbles over political power, property, and immediate advantage, exploitation of defenseless peoples, and the settling of scores with perceived enemies at home and abroad who really had little or nothing to do with the ultimate crusading vision, mar the whole of its history. No one escaped the temptation to indulge such passions entirely: neither popes, nor emperors and kings, nor commercial powers such as Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, nor the leadership of the Crusading States of the Levant, nor military orders, nor individual crusaders, whether noble or common in background.

Historically, the hideous sack of Christian cities during the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople in 1204 chief among them, stands out most vividly as an example of self-destructive crusading activity.7 Nevertheless, misappropriation of funds for parochial purposes was the most consistent problem, and probably did much more damage to the credibility of the whole movement in the mind of contemporaries. Unfortunately, such misappropriation became all the more tempting and embarrassing to the reform movement the more that the Papacy made collection of taxes for crusading purposes both general and efficient.

Sad to say, minds were also misappropriated along with funds. The stories told to stir up crusading emotions often played fast and loose with theology and human passion. Popular rabble-rousers in the 1090’s presented crusading as a response to a supposed appeal from the crucified Christ to take up weapons to avenge Him through the brutal destruction of His enemies. Many enthusiasts, preying upon economic hardships, promoted each new call to Crusade as a means of reaching not the earthly but the heavenly Jerusalem. Dubious and all too familiar letters from heaven, along with tales of the glory of charismatic charlatans, were regularly evoked to arouse increased participation. Teutonic Knights justified a crusading movement in the Baltic that struck at Christians as much as pagans by insisting that “Lithuania was Mary’s dowry”, and that everything done on “her” behalf there was good. All of these words encouraged and camouflaged a violence and rapine having little if anything to do with just warfare but a lot to do with corporate and individual willfulness. In fact, the word merchants behind such sinful behavior were often bitterly attacked by popes, saintly crusading preachers, and representatives to church councils, even at the very moment these regrettable abuses were first propagated. Still, the damage was done, and popular appreciation of the trickery involved can be identified in later medieval vernacular idioms equating “calling a crusade” with “telling a whopper”.8

We have noted how much the thirteenth century Papacy came to consider the healing of the East-West Schism dividing the Body of Christ as the essential foundation stone of the Internal Crusade. Here, again, failings on both the scores mentioned above may readily be noted. Everyone, Greek and Latin, seems to have recognized that Blessed Gregory X, along with a number of Franciscans engaged as intermediaries in East-West negotiations, had the interests of the Church as a whole at heart. One could make the same case for Patriarch John XI Beccus (1275-1282) as well. But this was certainly not the spirit motivating the many western contenders for the throne of the captured and sacked imperial city of Constantinople, including, most importantly, the Normans of Sicily, their French successor, Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), and the rapacious Venetians, Genovese, and bands of mercenaries eager to ransack the remnants of a troubled Byzantium at the drop of a crusading hat. Neither was religious zeal particularly noticeable in the ecclesiastical policy of the various eastern rivals contending for the recapture of Constantinople from the Latins, with the victorious Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus at the top of the list. All of them seem to have viewed religious union basically from the standpoint of its political and military advantages or disadvantages, and this regardless of pronounced outward shows of piety.

Good stories frequently replaced true stories in both the hunt for and the opposition to Gregory’s proposed East-West Union. On the western front, these were constructed around the idea that the easterners really were everything that the pejorative word “Byzantine” indicated: namely, purely political-minded beings, whose Caesaro-Papist emperors could bring about union through personal edicts backed by the prestige of imperial prerogatives and military strength alone. Hence, the fundamental Latin failure to take seriously the strength of the theological, mystical, ecclesiastical, and lay opposition to repeated efforts to obtain a solid union. Similarly, most eastern “Unionists” apparently believed the “good story” of the all-powerful pope, capable of winning unquestioned military support for a precarious East after the signing of a purely formal “paper” end to the Schism. And, finally, convinced eastern enemies of reunion popularized and seemingly came to believe their own flawed account of events. This rightly chastised the West for the evil done during the sack of Constantinople of 1204. Nevertheless, it conveniently neglected incidents that had helped to embitter westerners against Greeks in the first place; incredibly brutal acts of violence---the mass slaughter of the Latin population living in the imperial capital in 1182 chief among them.9

Tunnel vision manifested itself in the intellectual and spiritual labor crucial to the guidance of the Internal Crusade as well. This is true even in the university think tanks nurtured with great hope and enthusiasm by Innocent III. Such institutions proved to be as much breeding grounds for contending parochial-minded scholars as they were sources of help for the complex cause of the Word Incarnate. This became especially true once academic talents became entangled in the political battles of the age of Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII, to be discussed below. Hence, instead of just enlightening believers, they also aided mightily in the sowing of a deeper confusion and cynicism in their ranks, both clerical and lay.

Part of the problem was corporate and psychological in character. If the hunt for the truth had taken first place in the minds and hearts of the masters and students at the universities, clerical distinctions and troublesome personality differences might have been held in greater check. Ideas would have been judged more upon their merits rather than their source, and both the wariness of defenders of long accepted philosophical arguments as well as the sense of legitimate discovery on the part of pilgrim spirited speculative thinkers would have been much more seriously appreciated. But, as it was, a good number of the secular clergy greeted the arrival of the mendicant friars onto the university teaching scene with a great bitterness that spilled into the intellectual arena. Anger over disagreements in the philosophical realm and their consequences in theology was often purposely provoked for extraneous reasons, to the detriment of a calmer dialogue that might have produced a more profound common understanding of the truth.10

Nevertheless, ideas were involved, especially those reflecting that commitment to the use of logic in conjunction with the works of Aristotle that had stirred the imaginations of so many brilliant minds. Logical and Aristotelian studies had taken deep root in the embryonic University of Paris already before Innocent’s regularization of its legal status. Enthusiasm for them is associated with the arrival among the faculty of extremely charismatic and self-confident teachers like Peter Abelard. We have seen that they also grew in tandem with the first wave of translations of peripatetic writings, accompanied by the Arab commentaries of the man known to the West as Avicenna. A second wave of translations intensified their hold, this one escorted by the commentaries of Averroes.

Averroes’ work was still more problematic than that of Avicenna in that it emphasized those Aristotelian teachings that underlined the eternity of the universe and the rational impossibility of accepting the Christian concept of personal immortality. We know precious little about the Parisian logicians and Aristotelians who, while openly proclaiming their belief in a Creator God and eternal life, insisted upon the need for probing ancient philosophical positions that actually contradicted their Faith. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that they made their voices heard. And some of them espoused an “all or nothing” approach towards dealing with the pagan and anti-Christian guides whom they had passionately embraced. Hence, the following sentiments, expressed toward the end of the thirteenth century:11

Do we not read in {Averroes’} works that nature shows us in Aristotle the pattern of the final perfection of human nature? That Providence gave him to us that we might know all that can be known?... Aristotle’s writings are a whole, to be taken or left, they form the system of the written reason, so to say…{All} that we now need to do is to study again the master’s theses as Averroes interprets them.

All open-minded men, especially those convinced of the immense value of the Aristotelian achievement for elucidating principles of central importance to the Christian life, found this mentality to be not just highly dangerous to doctrinal purity but also irrational. In fact, it is safe to venture that it was recourse to the name of Aristotle rather than any real familiarity with his philosophy that many of those who evoked it counted upon to gain support for their own positions, hoping thereby to gain the aura of higher wisdom accompanying the Greek thinker’s well-earned intellectual prestige. Whatever their philosophical or theological expertise may have been, however, it certainly cannot be denied that such a spirit of exclusivity worked against that open consideration of all of nature’s messages that the full teaching of the Word Incarnate dictates and men like Aquinas had clearly taken to heart.12

But an equally stubborn, closed-minded resistance to the use of logic in general, and Aristotle in particular, also emerged, both inside the University of Paris and without. Although this opposition was primarily concerned with their impact on theology, it also affected attitudes towards the innate value of Reason and philosophy as a whole. Resistance began along with the very first manifestations of the Parisian love affair with the ancient contributors to the world of thought. It grew in intensity through St. Bernard’s often quite brutal assault on the work and person of the admittedly often equally bristly Abelard. The tragedy of such resistance lies in the fact that the anti-logic, anti-Aristotle, and ultimately anti-philosophy camp became ever more influential precisely at a dramatic moment in time: precisely when those highly nuanced cathedrals of thought, crucial to harmonizing Faith and Reason and elaborating, through both, the complementary nature of the Church, the State, corporate society, and the perfection of the individual human personality, were in the process of construction at the hands of the greatest of the scholastics.13

An anti-rational “tunnel vision” mentality was able to strengthen its grip by taking advantage of the clashes of the disciples of St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus over the differing use of Aristotelian, Augustinian, and Neo-Platonic ideas to be found in their masters’ writings. Many of these followers were more concerned with the use of the logic-drenched scholastic method to expose weaknesses in their opponents’ positions and score points against them than to uncover natural and supernatural truths. Meanwhile, they ignored, or rather did not even contemplate the possibility of undertaking the battle that really ought to have concerned them: one of a common defense against the infinitely more deadly enemies of any union of Faith and Reason.

It was just such enemies who were to benefit from their uncharitable squabbles. These anti-philosophers were to prevent the further construction of the truly pilgrim spirited cathedrals of thought begun by the scholastics, to obscure and distort knowledge of the work that their architects and builders had already accomplished, to move into the perceived gaps, and to dismantle the entirety of their intellectual contribution to the new ascent of Mount Tabor. What they were then to do was to add their muscle to construction of the coming death camp: the one whose “order of the day” was to be a mind-obliterating triumph of the will.

Anti-rational tunnel vision struck a major blow with the Great Condemnation of philosophical studies promulgated by Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris in 1277. This hasty and haphazard Blitz hit not only at the Averroists but also at the reputation of the recently deceased Aquinas. Historians have differed in their interpretation of the full effects of the bishop’s intervention, with some of them stressing the positive stimulus that it gave to the seemingly less risky studies of the natural sciences. Friends of speculative philosophy and theology can point to the fact that the document’s flaws deprived it of much of the impact it might otherwise have had, thereby actually strengthening the long-term prospects of logic and Reason. An outraged St. Albertus Magnus (1193/1206-1280), the great teacher of Aquinas working in Cologne, swiftly took up the case for the defense, as did the cantankerous Roger Bacon in Britain. Moreover, the omnibus Condemnation of 1277 did nothing to stop either the rise of Dun Scotus, who had not yet even entered onto the scholastic stage when it was released, or Dominican acceptance of St. Thomas as the primary philosophical guide of their Order, which would only come sometime afterwards, in the first half of the fourteenth century.14

On the other hand, 1277 gave at least some aid and comfort to that anti-rational spirit that was to become the most important weapon in the armory of the enemies of a meaningful philosophy with practical impact on man and society. It was that spirit that gave the greatest clout to the more extreme supporters of the Nominalist position in the medieval intellectual conflict. Masters of critical logical thought in their own right, extreme Nominalists were to develop what is referred to as the via moderna in philosophical studies. The via moderna specialized in rigorously drawing forth the meaning of words (nomina) and their usage. It took pleasure in critically employing logic to uncover flaws indicating that the speculative thinkers of the via antiqua—which was concerned for extracting real, substantive, significant, universal concepts from philosophical labors—explained less about the world than they thought that they had done.

The general Nominalist call back to a critical focus on the meaning of the words themselves and the weaknesses in the speculative theologians’ systems was in and of itself a highly valuable endeavor. In some respects, it might be viewed as differing little from the practical Aristotelian’s task of reining in some of the wilder fancies of the brilliant Platonic vision. Moreover, the via moderna’s eagerness to discredit philosophical humbug was linked together with one project that all the speculative thinkers of the via antiqua could equally appreciate: hostility to Averroes and his vision of a universe where everything was dictated by an ironclad necessity.

Unfortunately, however, the extremists’ mode of attack would bring terrible long-term harm to the entire cause of the Word in history. In their war against the evils of belief in a necessary universe, they so emphasized the freedom of the divine will as to reject all “capturing and binding” of reality by speculative reason in any way whatsoever. Universal concepts, for them, were impossible, since these implied a subordination of the omnipotent supernatural God to dependent natural minds. If Reason had any function at all, which they thought it did, it had to focus on knowledge of individual existing beings and objects—whose character and truth Nominalists seemingly believed must impose themselves infallibly upon human minds created to receive their message.

Extreme Nominalists insisted that the whole purpose of their logical assault on the system building of the great speculative philosophers and theologians was that of exposing its fragility. Through this spiritually meritorious project they would cement man’s commitment to the only solid ground of unchangeable universal Truth, which was faith in Divine Revelation. Faith seeking rational understanding had led to interminable battles threatening to the very belief that the use of philosophy was supposed to strengthen. Faith in Faith alone—in other words, Fideism—was subject to no such religion-threatening danger. For the Faith was simply the Faith, and, therefore, the via moderna suggested, clear and obvious in all regards. Yes, extreme Nominalists mischievously hinted, the omnipotent God, through His irresistible divine will, could, from one moment to the next, change the rules of Faith, and the character and significance even of those individual existing realities that supposedly imposed themselves irresistibly upon human minds. In effect, He could make today’s “evil”, tomorrow’s “good”; today’s pathway to eternal salvation, tomorrow’s highway to perdition. But having ventured this horrible possibility, they then went on to assure men that God’s promise of fidelity guaranteed that such a psychologically devastating change of program would never come to pass. Faith in Faith was, therefore, a “no lose” proposition.

However, by playing the extreme Nominalist game ourselves, and imagining a world in which a man trained in its precepts were, per impossibile, to lose his faith in God, we can see that he could readily turn into a dangerous disturber of the peace of Christendom and become useful to the cause of “business as usual”. In the case of conflict with his fellow men, and in the absence of an authoritative God whose divine will must unquestionably be followed, he would be left with his own intuitive knowledge alone to make decisions of all kinds. This knowledge could never produce universal concepts that his Reason might claim to be definitive for forming laws existentially valid for the natural world around him as a whole. Conceptual knowledge of the via antiqua sort was a blessing for the godless individual, for it could, after all, like ancient Seeds of the Logos, eventually lead a man back to the Faith. Be that as it may, the ex-believer’s knowledge under the Nominalist dispensation would be that of specific, individual bits of potentially changeable data alone. And this meant the individual “facts” of “nature as is”, shut off from the hunt even for their natural corrective logos, much less that of the transforming Word Incarnate. If clashes with his fellow man, under these conditions, were to arise, which they inevitably would, they would become clashes of earthbound, individual human wills, each of which would be absolutely certain that it was operating with infallible intuitive information. In such clashes, it would be the strongest man with the strongest faith in the obvious truth of his immediate perceptions whose views would win the day.15

Tunnel-vision judgments opposing logic, Aristotle, or the hunt for real, meaningful, natural truths to be found in the great scholastics of the via antiqua, were matched by other willful choices exaggerating one or the other specific spiritual path to knowledge of God and union with Him. Once again, the question at issue here was not that of seeking a “space” for a certain approach to play a role in the life of Christendom—or, for that matter, even the overriding role in the work of a given individual or group. There were, of course, at this moment in history, as at all times, serious and holy spiritual writers and mystics who understood that truth and were doing nothing other than adding new tools to the rich armory of believers seeking the correction and transformation of their souls in Christ. Some of these men and women, like Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-c. 1327), appreciated the intellectual achievement of the great scholastic system builders and used it in their own labors. Continued cooperation of spiritual and intellectual endeavors would have been valuable to their work, since trained scholastic philosophers and theologians recognized the often dangerously ambiguous character of mystical language. They understood the ease with which its pronouncements, distorted by limited or fanatical followers, could end by serving a wide range of unwanted heretical purposes. As Philip Hughes, a brilliant commentator on all such late medieval foibles, explains:16

It is not hard to understand that, once out of the hands of men really masters of their task, really theologians as well as holy men, such an apostolate could easily go astray. The subtle explanations of the soul’s mystical union with God could, and did, give rise to idle and mischievous debates among the less learned and the half-learned; the delicate business of the practical relation of the workaday moral virtues to the high theological virtues could be neglected, and men and women, who visibly reeked of pride, insubordination, injustice and intemperance of every sort, could ignore their sins while they busied themselves with the higher prayer. And, of course, the movement will not have been spared its host of camp followers, many times larger than the army of disciples—infinitely noisier and much more in evidence—whose main occupation was to exchange gossip masked in the phrases of high theological learning, to turn these into party slogans, and, in the devil’s eternal way, accomplish to perfection all the complicated maneuvers of the religious life while their hearts were wholly unconverted, their wills obstinately unrepentant.

Returning once again to the tunnel vision syndrome, it was the conviction of some thinkers that all Christians must recognize the paramount value of one specific spiritual pathway to God that was to imperil the future work of the Word in history. Often central to this conviction was a Nominalist-like frustration with the eternal squabbling and uncharitable inadequacies of those using Reason as a staff on which Catholic pilgrims to eternity could profitably lean. Thus, a number of influential writers began to insist that an ultimately non-rational and even anti-rational mystical union with God was the only thing that “really” counted in the life of those “truly” pious Christians eager to fulfill the message of the Incarnation and gain the promise of corrective transformation in Christ.

Many such men and women were mystics who entertained fewer theological pretensions than those of the school of Meister Eckhart. Mystical teachers of this camp attempted to describe an ineffable union with God in terms of that intimacy with the more historical-scriptural Christ that crusading contact with the Holy Land had nurtured and saints like St. Francis had popularized. These more “sentimental” mystics tended to explain themselves in a deeply passionate, emotive discourse that found logical and rational labors to be pathetically inadequate and pretentious. We will have a great deal more to say about such mystics’ anti-rational hunt for intimacy with Christ in the next chapter. But among those pursuing this approach by the late 1200’s were, as might well be expected, many Franciscans, including those numerous Spirituals who were especially disturbed by the philosophical endeavors of some of their own brothers in religion, like St. Bonaventure.17

Still, Spiritual Franciscan concerns in this regard were swallowed up by their more intense commitment to preaching the supreme and overriding value of a life of Apostolic Poverty in the work of complete transformation in Christ. Spiritual Franciscans were certain that they, with their concern for the full embrace of the life of voluntary impoverishment, were the only true followers of the founder of the order and, through their loyalty to his principles, guides for the life of Christendom as a whole. We shall have much more to say on this question as well, but our ability to do so must wait upon ecclesiastical and secular political developments yet to be introduced into the equation. Let it suffice to note for the moment that dedication to the doctrine of Apostolic Poverty so dominated the Spirituals’ vision that they ended by convincing many potential friends and friendly critics, alongside their truly ill-willed opponents, that they had entirely forgotten the need to cultivate the superior virtue of Christian charity.18

Meanwhile, no introduction to the problems of a tunnel-vision mentality of a spiritual character would be complete without some tentative reference to the eastern Hesychast Movement. This essentially quietist approach, which traced its roots back to the early Christian mystical tradition, looked for its immediate historical inspiration to Simeon the New Theologian. It would eventually gain its most influential expression in the work of Gregory Palamos (1296-1359). Many Hesychasts claimed to have found a method for achieving individual union with God based upon continual employment of a simple “Jesus Prayer”, along with a cultivation of the proper physical position and environment in which to recite it. Commitment to their method, they argued, allowed for a quiet divinization of its mystical practitioner, the depiction of whose sanctity, which glowed with the kind of light that illumed Christ on Mount Tabor, then provided a major subject for iconographers.

Hesychasm became very strong in eastern monastic circles, gradually driving the earlier, communal minded Stoudite monastic vision into the shadows. Although they generally looked upon all things western with suspicion, Hesychasts nevertheless shared with many Latin “mystics of intimacy” a similar dislike for scholastic theology and its intellectual pathway to an understanding of God. They were especially horrified that such logical, speculative thought had even begun to win some powerful eastern adherents. Hesychasts had good reason to be concerned. For Eastern friends of scholasticism united with their Latin colleagues in criticizing a spirituality one of whose main effects was to deprive man of the mental tools needed to separate an erroneous from an acceptable form of mysticism.

Criticism of Hesychasm generally focused on the form that this spirituality took through the teachings of Palamos. From the standpoint of opponents, East and West, Hesychasm, in Palamos’ hands, was a particularly potent recipe for a theological and spiritual nightmare. Critics were horrified by his apparent claim that the Hesychast could achieve a union with God while on earth that was equivalent to that to be experienced in eternity. Worse still, they insisted that the unity he spoke of was not a complete one. Rather, it was limited to a union with God’s so-called “operations”; his “uncreated light”; the light that shown down on Mount Tabor. It thus appeared to recoil from the idea that even the blessed in heaven could touch the actual “core” of divinity and see God fully, in His very essence.

Separating the essence of God from His uncreated light, critics argued, was tantamount to positing the existence of two divinities—one that man could somehow reach fully, even perhaps in this life, and through one particular path to transformation in Christ alone; and another “god” who would remain forever unknown and unknowable. Whatever the outraged objections of the undeniably passionately iconodule Hesychasts might be, this meant that they once again had thrown the doctrinal work completed with the defeat of Iconoclasm into jeopardy. The total divinization of man in Christ and the proper estimation of the glory of the universe were thereby precluded, with both the individual and the fullness of nature shut off from the truly inclusive, transforming embrace of God. Other complaints were to emerge over time, especially regarding the role of lay spiritual directors in the Hesychast Movement and the disdain its followers expressed for different forms of mysticism and transformation in Christ—including that of a St. Francis of Assisi who had actually won for himself many eastern admirers. But these objections are best left to a discussion of events unfolding in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to arguments heard in Russian émigré circles by the ears of the present author himself.19

Tunnel vision also manifested itself on the practical level in the endlessly expanding and intensifying quarrels over privileges and honors indulged in by the mass of corporate institutions active in the society of the High Middle Ages. Such conflicts took place from the lowest to the highest levels. In order to advance their position and mark themselves off more clearly from the common herd, the nobility armed the most basic of corporations—their families—with ever more precise crusading pedigrees stretching far into its highly savage barbarian past. Major and minor guilds in the growing cities of Italy and Flanders joined in the genealogical fun. Each of these two groups looked to its own individual benefit and stood on guard, one against another. On the other hand, both types of guilds, together, were conscious of their common distinction from the property-less “little people” working in their enterprises and increasingly enraged by their employers’ oppressive pretensions in their own right. Bourgeois communes created to deal with general merchant needs in growing commercial centers were at odds with local lords and bishops contesting their claims to autonomy. They were also angered by clerical insistence upon exemption from taxation and secular legal chastisement in the towns that came totally under merchant control. Nations—larger, corporate, ethnic entities of a potentially much more vigorous variety—participated in the hunt for distinctions as well, creating legendary histories for themselves that were highly entertaining but damaging to their commitment to the existence of an international Christian Roman community. Many contemporary thinkers---most famously John of Salisbury (c. 1120-1180), Bishop of Chartres, in his Policraticus---attributed the growing bitterness of these disputes, which were so destructive to man’s overall spiritual health, to the new avarice that twelfth century economic progress had encouraged; the avarice that Innocent III had sought to bring more consistently under the Church’s corrective and transforming purview.20

It is certainly true that the most noble of the orthodox proponents of the Apostolic Poverty movement—St. Francis of Assisi in particular, with his concern that his followers must always work and live as “little people”, ut sint minores—were, to a large degree, reacting against the new temptation to look to the protection of one’s own wealth, luxury, and distinctions above all spiritual and supernatural concerns. Still, there were many voices claiming that the Franciscans, as yet another corporate body, like the austere but industrious and now wealthy Cistercians before them, had also fallen prey to the avarice they had precisely been created to battle. Bishops and diocesan clergy complained bitterly about the competition for the spiritual guidance of parishioners offered by these mendicants, and we have seen that the equally self-conscious and defensive secular priests active in the faculties at the University of Paris joined them in their lamentations. We have also noted that such anti-mendicant complaints were voiced in the highest assemblies, at the Second Council of Lyons in particular. Here, as already mentioned, the Papacy staunchly defended the Franciscans and Dominicans, whose yeoman labors on behalf of the Holy See it cherished. In fact, Blessed Gregory X and the council he inspired openly chastised their critics for being driven by their own obvious obsession with honors and privileges; honors and privileges that were, in their case, pointedly identified as being palpably undeserved.21

This, of course, brings us to the painful question of the tunnel vision displayed in matters of the internal crusade by the social institution that had taken charge of the reform movement as a whole, claiming a “plenitude of power” in doing so—the Papacy. Ironically, papal tunnel vision emerged from an overwhelming passion to find guarantees for an independence that would precisely allow it not to become subject to tunnel vision. The Papacy fell prey to the tunnel vision syndrome in two ways: by placing too much emphasis upon the value of its administrative and legal machinery on the one hand and through its obsession with the threat presented by the Holy Roman Empire on the other.

Determined papal efforts to guide the universal Church, along with the European wide passion for backing up legal claims with judgments issued by the highly sophisticated and prestigious Roman courts, led to a vast increase in the work of the Holy See in the period between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. The administrative machinery of the Roman Curia, with its secretarial, financial, and legal arms, thus grew accordingly. Its obvious, undeniable value to the effective exercise of the plenitude of papal power seems to have inspired a corresponding belief that the refinement of administrative organs, canon law, and canonical procedures were the key to dealing with all day-to-day Church problems.22

Temptations emerging from basically naturalist delusions of such a kind were well described by a variety of thinkers, from John of Salisbury to St. Robert Grosseteste (c. 1170-1253) to Innocent III himself. St. Bernard summarized their thoughts most succinctly in his De Consideratione to his former pupil, Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), now master of the Roman administrative machine:23

I know the place where you now dwell: unbelievers and enemies of good order are about you. They are wolves, not sheep. Of such as these you are none the less the Shepherd. Before you lies the practical problem how to convert them, if this be possible, before they have perverted you…If I spare you not here and now it is that you may one day be spared by God. To this race you must show yourself a shepherd or deny your pastoral office. Deny it you will not, lest he whose seat you hold deny you to be his heir. Peter, that is to say, who had not learnt, in those far off times, to show himself decked out in silks and jewellery. No golden canopy shaded his head, nor felt he ever the white horse between his knees. There was no soldiery to support him, nor did he go about hedged round by a crowd of noisy servitors. Without any of these trappings he none the less thought it possible to fulfill the commandment of Our Lord: If thou lovest me, feed my sheep. In all this pomp you show yourself a successor indeed: but to Constantine not Peter.

The Palace resounds with the sound of laws, but they are the laws of Justinian, not those of the Lord. Is not the enriching of ambition the object of the whole laborious practice of the laws and canons? Is not all Italy a yawning gulf of insatiable avarice and rapacity for the spoil it offers? So that the Church has become like a robber’s den, full of the plunder of travellers.

Council after council, even now, even before the worst consequences of the papal bureaucratic explosion were felt, would vainly utter the same lamentations and warnings. Would that they had been heeded in time! For an exaggeration of the importance of the administrative and legal organs of the Mystical Body was to prove to be a direct highway to an enslavement to the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is”. This nature bound obsession would consistently steer the Church away from its true source of strength, which, once again, lay only in heeding and preaching the full message of the Word Incarnate in history and taking its prescriptions for long-term practical action seriously.

Unfortunately, the prestige and rewards of service at the papal court attracted many dangerously ambitious men into its ranks. These, alas, could be regularly counted upon to act basically on behalf of their own, personal, self-interested tunnel vision, just as much as anyone else in the increasingly avaricious society of the High Middle Ages. One sees the results at the very top of the structure, in the ever more bloated conceits, ambitions, and downright troublemaking of the members of the College of Cardinals itself. Self consciously important, rich, and tempted by possibilities for further wealth and power, these self-styled “successors to the apostles”—even when they were often only simple priests or laymen—were ready to block competitors for the papal throne by means of lengthy electoral maneuvers and the labors of reigning pontiffs through political obstructionism and open conspiracy. Their behavior was imitated, every step of the way, by the army of lesser bureaucrats and lawyers active in Rome, ready to promote or stall all business on the basis of profit considerations.

Perhaps the greatest of the problems connected with the growth of papal administrative machinery flowed from the need to find the tax money to pay for the entire project. Obviously, any tax collection enterprise, however worthwhile its purpose, inevitably engenders a certain amount of ill will. Tax collection for the sake of supporting arrogant and corrupt officials significantly adds to the potential anger. But the indirect taxation that the Holy See increasingly developed to pay for the administrative expenses connected with exercising “the plenitude of papal power” was destined to arouse the greatest fury of all. This involved providing salaries for men serving at the papal court in the form of parish, diocesan, and monastic benefices throughout Christendom. Such “papal provisions” of benefices encouraged a plethora of evils, including pluralism—possession of more than one See or abbey—and absenteeism, with all their negative side effects on local guidance of religious life and lay pastoral care.

Sad to say, the system of papal provisions, designed to facilitate religious reform, in effect underlined the worst aspect of the whole medieval Christian attitude towards a priestly position: viewing it not primarily as an office designed for the “cure” of souls but as one that gave to the man holding it a “living”; the aforementioned benefice. Moreover, the successful functioning of this system, given the immense number of different practical problems involved, often required compromises with local rulers, from princes to municipal councils. Secular authorities then exacerbated the potential for spiritual damage by demanding their piece of the ecclesiastical financial pie in exchange for secular compliance with papal will. Once again, council after Church council attacked such unfortunate developments, which were ultimately to prove to be as destructive to civic purity as they were to ecclesiastical honor and prestige.

Canon lawyers, trained in legal think tanks like the University of Bologna, were available in ever-greater numbers to take up the well paying positions the Papacy offered for their services. Their “appropriate explanations” of the law of the Church proved to be useful to an ecclesiastical life of “business as usual” on behalf of “nature as is” closed to correction and transformation in Christ in two immediately practical ways. First of all, they justified all such money grubbing with reference to deeply admired Roman Law principles, turning the popes into Caesars judged capable of running the Church through their personal fiat as princes alone. Secondly, they called attention to tax collection methods much more suitable for uncovering and gathering funds than those known up until now; methods concerned with workable efficiency rather than distributive and commutative justice.

But such “pragmatic” assistance was highly counterproductive, as it always must be when dealing with the life of the Mystical Body, whose vital principle is not technocratic in character. For one thing, the more that papal financial policies threatened the spiritual well being of the lands being racked for tax money, the more the reputation of those mendicants called to preach on behalf of its money grubbing machinery was jeopardized. The more that this was compromised, the louder and more frequently were Spiritual Franciscan calls for the Church to embrace the life of Apostolic Poverty to be heard on influential lay lips. And inasmuch as these calls resounded in an atmosphere where speculative thought continued to be deprecated, they discouraged a serious, systematic discussion concerning whether or not a life of clerical destitution was actually mandated by Catholic Tradition. Defense of the papal position in an anti-rational environment of this sort was also easily reduced to an appeal to its recognized “authority” and “will” alone: in other words, to an argument that was essentially Nominalist in nature, and (as we shall see) actually spelled out as such by the Roman courtiers of the fourteenth century.24

That brings us to the second issue, the obsessive concern of the Papacy for the struggle against the Holy Roman Empire. Admittedly, even under the best of circumstances, practical conflict would inevitably have accompanied promotion of the underlying theories of the second wave of the western medieval reform movement. Gregory and his immediate successors on the one hand, and the Emperor Henry IV (1056-1105) and his followers on the other, represented two conflicting visions of how to incarnate the sacred in the temporal realm. Both saw the Empire as being part of an order of things ultimately designed for the greater glory of God, but in different ways. It was not surprising that they thus were drawn mutually to condemn and excommunicate one another. Their words were often backed by the strength of arms, seriously disrupting political and social life in both Germany and Italy. Antipopes and anti-kings were chosen in the process, forcing prelates, nobility, merchants, and common people to take sides in this dramatic contest of Papacy and Empire, whether they wanted to or not.

Although the fury of the battle continued beyond the death of its first participants, their departure from the scene did mark the gradual initiation of calmer discussion of the manifold issues involved. This debate addressed the many practical problems of a world wherein local churches were very much dependent upon lay patrons for financial survival and physical protection and where rulers clearly required ecclesiastical good will and help for political stability and the maintenance of legitimate social order. Theologians and canonists of the stature of St. Ivo of Chartres (c. 1040-1115) examined more carefully the “non-negotiable” demands of a reform movement insisting upon the total independence of a supernaturally grounded Church that nevertheless possessed political and social responsibilities. They compared them with the requirements of a Sacred Empire whose very survival depended upon the cooperation of a spiritually grounded Church in the proper execution of its own historically rooted secular and spiritual tasks. Their hope was to find a way of satisfying the valid concerns of both.

A first solution to the problem was offered in 1111. It was radical in nature, proposing a total abandonment by the Church of the temporal goods and positions given to it by a State that understandably expected political services in return. This answer was rejected, awakening prelates, as it did, to a clear recognition of just what such a judgment of Solomon would entail in both theory and practice. Personal bankruptcy along with political and social impotence loomed large as factors in their rebuff.

Concessions on both sides then led to that second, more pragmatic compromise embodied in the Concordat of Worms of 1122 and ratified by First Lateran Council one year later. This agreement underlined how deeply rooted in theology on the one hand, and history and practical need for assistance on the other, the joint claims of religious and secular authorities on the labors of bishops and many abbots actually were. It confirmed that “fact of life” by giving to Church and State respective control over the ceremonies, documents, and symbolic objects investing prelates with their distinct spiritual and socio-political tasks. Deeds to the lands awarded by the emperor were thus presented through his authority; the bishop’s mitre and crosier through that of the Church. With this pact, an explosive situation--whose tensions could never really be eliminated unless and until a reliable, educated, and entirely lay source of governmental labor were to be made available to the Empire—was reduced to a considerably more manageable level.25

And it was extremely good for the Church that it did so, because the battle of Papacy and Empire brought with it many other unexpectedly embarrassing complications for the reform movement. Let us ignore for the moment the irony of Pope St. Gregory VII’s own spontaneous election by the whole of the population of Rome, which totally violated all of the recently established rules for choosing a new pontiff through the medium of the reformed College of Cardinals alone. Much more troublesome than this was the fact that the hunt for armed support for the papal reform cause was potentially causing as much spiritual and physical harm as help to the Holy See.

While many fellow reformers, like St. Peter Damien, disliked the concept of Knights of St. Peter theoretically, in and of itself, they could also point to the more obvious problem presented by the nature of the allies that political threats and actual warfare brought into the Pope’s camp. They wondered viva voce whether the Holy See really wished to encourage the kind of disruptive popular “strikes” against unworthy bishops that had characterized the work of the so-called pataria in Milan. For some of the arguments of this movement’s lay leaders suggested a medieval revival of Donatism, with its ironclad and heretical foundation of the Church’s practical exercise of authority not upon her life in Christ but upon the personal holiness of her ministers. Critics also asked whether the aid of the Norman conquerors of southern Italy and Sicily was truly worth both its symbolic and practical consequences. After all, the Normans of Robert (c. 1015-1085) and Roger Guiscard (1031-1101) were responsible for depredations that had long infuriated the Eastern Emperors, manifestly violated that same independence of the Church that the reformers were defending against Henry IV, and ultimately even “helped” the Papacy by sacking the city of Rome herself. And how could the generally narrow parochialism of German feudal opponents of the Empire—the new allies of the reformed Papacy—truly be viewed as a better basis on which to rebuild Christian order than an imperial government with a much broader vision of the needs of a universal Christendom?

Moreover, it could easily seem as though an uncompromisingly spiritual-minded reform movement was, in practice, often obsessed with quite mundane land and money issues generating another batch of peculiarly counter-productive results. The second wave of reformers claimed that independence from the Empire was intimately connected with the possession of certain contested territories in central Italy. But in order to gain these lands, the Papacy engaged in warfare engendering military expenses whose satisfaction required the non-canonical alienation of other Church properties. Fortunes of war then led to papal exile from Rome, the payment of unacceptable political debts, and heavy borrowing from dubious and usurious forces for basic survival. How did leaving the Eternal City over to the machinations of the old, grasping, Roman “noble” families, happy to be able to play Church against Empire, aid the cause of reform? In what way did the gaining of fresh territories justify granting to Normans—and many other “friends”—privileges that the possession of these lands was intended to assure the Papacy the means of resisting? And what good came from placing the Holy See at the mercy of moneylenders representing new and increasingly avaricious financial interests?26

On the other hand, even though it reduced the tensions creating the problems cited above, the compromise represented by the Concordat of Worms, along with a similar agreement with the Kingdom of England, was not itself without noticeable risks. Let us remember that it involved recognition of an historical fact of life and not the enunciation of an ideal. As such, it could never lead to a liberation of a bishop or an abbot from the constant difficulty of serving two masters simultaneously. Potentially, it could do damage to the interests of the one or the other, or even both of them together. In fact, the more the existing reality of State service was confirmed and then related to precisely delineated political responsibilities and property grants, the greater its latent threat to the boat-rocking pilgrim spirit that a Church true to her mission must always nurture. The “cuts” that everyone in this compromise got came with a backsliding in commitment to corrective transformation in Christ and a steady advance towards practical acceptance of “feudal nature as is”. And yet all of this took place in a world that outwardly spoke with a more devout religious voice than ever before.

Compromise did not even prevent further battles of the Papacy and Empire, which again emerged under the Hohenstaufen Dynasty during the reigns of Frederick I “Barbarossa” (1151-1190) and Frederick II (1212-1250).27 By the time of the latter conflict in particular the confrontation of Church and State had reached a peculiar fever pitch. This was due not only to the general increase in corporate and individual greed, jealousy, and rage but also to the passion unleashed by yet another example of the high medieval tunnel vision syndrome alluded to above: that involving Roman Law. For, with the recovery of the major texts offering westerners the full flesh on that skeleton of Roman Law that the Visigothic King Alaric II had provided for the use of his non-German subjects, there also came a disturbing entry into the potent legalist spirit that lay behind its standard operating procedures.

Georges de Lagarde offers an incomparable discussion of the whole of the explosive legal question brought about by this rediscovery in the first of his five volume series entitled La naissance de l’esprit laïque au declin du moyen age. Here, he explains that the Roman concept of a public authority that took its right to legislate for an entire society as an unquestionable given hit medieval intellectual circles like a mental thunderbolt. If contemporaries could adopt it to their use, it would, in effect, “liberate” legislators from an enormous burden. It would free them from negotiating with that intricate contemporary complex of testy representatives of endless corporate entities, parochial customs, and personal historical claims to jurisdiction over local populations and their individual lives, all of whose specific rights were enshrined in the varied oral and written statements that characterized “the law” in feudal society. Perhaps more importantly still, it would do so with reference to a prestigious theme that blinded many of even the most alert medieval thinkers to anything else of significance that lay plainly before them: namely, the majesty of ancient Rome.28

For just as modern men have tended to treat anything “new” as obviously “better”, so did the “common sense” men of the Middle Ages tend to transform their admiration for anything “ancient”, with a Greek or Roman pedigree, into an uncritical acceptance of its manifest superiority. We have already encountered this irrational flaw with reference to what passed for the teaching of Aristotle. The same psychological disorder now worked to the advantage of the gems of legal wisdom arriving from the treasure chest of Eternal Rome. Lovers of ancient sagacity were unshakeable in their affections and thought that they could easily justify them. After all, had not the second wave of the reform movement itself urged Christians to get “back to the roots” of Tradition when correcting ecclesiastical corruption arising through the ages? Where better to find traditional western legal roots than in a Seed of the Logos planted by the venerable Roman res publica? And, once again, had not the Holy See itself adapted Roman legal procedures to its own use in developing and exercising the “plenitude of papal power”?

In any case, what followed, in practice, was what always inevitably happens when uncritical excitement and enthusiasm take precedence over the use of Faith and Reason working in tandem: namely, an unthinking surrender of a higher vision to the demands of uncorrected Seeds of the Logos at best, and the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” at worst. Hence, rather than stepping back for a moment to judge how, and under what circumstances, and to what degree Roman Law and Roman legal procedures might be acceptable and useful in a corrected and transformed Christian society, greater familiarity with their august—but, when left to their own devices, totally naturalist—spirit inspired many thirteenth century legalists to grant them an unwarranted, total obeisance.

Let me add that this total obeisance to Roman Law could involve manifold results in the hands of that complex and potentially hostile mix of existing medieval corporate authorities. The first of the two most important of these consequences was the assistance that it gave to the demand for an untrammeled authority on the part of whatever ruler could make good a claim to public sovereignty in a given region. Yes, it is true that the fullness of the ancient legal Tradition based its authority ultimately upon the will of the “People of Rome”. But this “popular Roman will” had no literal resonance with medieval men. What the term signified to them was merely the final result of the sacrifices of that mass of half-mythical manpower responsible for conquering “the world” already before Christ was born. The “People of Rome”, in practice, by the time of Octavian Augustus, indicated the prince that guided them and, therefore, the dictates of the imperial will. It was in such form that the legal thinkers serving the Hohenstaufen Dynasty appealed to the concept, citing the self-evident “majesty” of Roman Law to back up imperial decrees, and claiming for their masters a “sovereign” power that could not be blocked by the merely historical, customary, and local “rights” of the extensive network of corporate powers active in the medieval world, from the Papacy down through to the bailiwicks of petty, rural, baronial families.

But we have already seen that the Papacy had entered the lists against imperial pretensions to an exclusive authority even before the entry of Roman legal theory into the arsenal of weapons wielded by the Hohenstaufen. We have noted that that same body of thought exercised an enormous impact upon the Papacy as well as upon secular authorities, with the former using it to justify the pope’s “princely” exercise of the plenitude of his power. Popular awe before the “obvious” specific laws and legal procedures dictated by the common sense of the “nature as is” authorities of the ancient past even forced the Church to bow to its wishes in a variety of regrettable ways. These included adopting overly brutal Roman anti-Gnostic methods for dealing with contemporary heretics that she would never have encouraged on her own steam—including the practice of burning at the stake.

Exaggerated defenders of the plenitude of papal power, such as the Augustinian, Giles of Rome (1243-1316), himself an admirer of St. Thomas Aquinas, used Roman legal arguments to, in effect, claim a total papal control over all matters temporal as well as spiritual. Giles placed everything, from ordinary property questions to the keys to the heavenly kingdom, in the hands of the chief shepherd of the baptized. It was merely for convenience sake, he argued, that the pope allowed secular princes to treat of temporal affairs in regular day-to-day life. One result of his outlook was that Giles saw no need for a Donation of Constantine to endow the Papacy with secular authority. Gratian had already paid no heed to this forged document in his earlier canonical writings. But more and more papal apologists followed Giles in openly disdaining its value as the twelfth century advanced. After all, the jurisdiction that the Donation supposedly deigned to assign to the Holy See already belonged to the Papacy by the law of God:29

In the same way that in the government of the cosmos there is only one source, one God, in whom lies all power, from which all other authorities derive, and to which all the other powers may be reduced; just so, in human government, and, in the Church Militant, it is necessary that there be but one source, one head, in which may be placed the plenitude of power…and which possesses the two swords, without which its power would not be complete. From that source derives all other authorities, to that source they all merge; and that unique source directs and shelters the whole Church under one unique law.

Attentive readers may also have guessed that it was not just the legal servants of the emperor and the pope who were ready to put the wisdom of the ancient Romans to work on behalf of their masters. By the thirteenth century, thinkers and administrators employed by the kings of France and England were busily laboring to demonstrate that their rulers were, in practice, “emperors” in their own lands—the obvious, clear, and therefore self-justified public authorities within their own more circumscribed realms. It was, therefore, to them that carte blanche for public sovereignty had to be assured. As might by now be expected, self-conscious municipal authorities appealing to a sovereign, public, Roman legal authority, were not lacking either. One finds them especially active in pressing similar claims to sovereignty in many parts of the Italian Peninsula, particularly where effective power already lay in the hands of the communal representatives of the local bourgeoisie.

A second major consequence of a total obeisance to the legal teachings of ancient Rome concerns the intellectual or spiritual basis on which the self-justified decisions of the obvious public coercive authority would be made. The “People of Rome”, certainly at their historical origins, were a notoriously pragmatic lot, not given to philosophical speculation. The result was that the “law”, whether in the hands of the Senate and the Popular Assembly to begin with, or emerging from the mouth of the imperial prince in later centuries, could simply mean whatever “worked” in order to achieve Roman “success”. In other words, a perfect recipe for the exercise of raw, willful power in a manner that an Isocrates and his imitators could take up and “appropriately justify” lay ready to concoct from the cookbooks of Roman Law newly opened up before medieval legalists’ eyes.

Thankfully, tunnel vision in the thirteenth century was not complete enough to reach this end result just yet. One sign of that happy truth was the conclusion drawn by many scholastics from their digestion of Aristotle’s broader philosophical vision and its application to concepts concerning law in general. For Aristotle, in discussing the State, brilliantly roots its character not in any vague hunt for what is “useful”, but in man’s nature, both individual and fraternal at one and the same time. He explains that men need the State in order to fulfill their very raison d’être as individuals who are simultaneously social beings. Hence, the greatest of the thirteenth century commentators on Roman Law, men like the Italian thinker, Accursius (1182-1260), who clearly looked to both Aristotle as well as to imperial decrees for guidance, recognized that mere possession of power was not enough of a justification for the action of the law giver. The will of the prince could only have the force of law if his actions ultimately served the common good.

Still, how did one learn the nature of the “common good”? Here, a truly dangerous tunnel vision already manifested itself in the pronouncements of certain contemporary legalists, leading some of them to argue for the total independence of the law-giving mind from the corrective and transforming mission of the Church. It is for this reason that Accursius himself could say that, having rediscovered Roman jurisprudence in its entirety, theological knowledge was no longer of any importance to the legislator, because “all things are to be to be found in the body of law”.30 Unfortunately, it was but a small step from this position to the definition of the “common good” as the mere maintenance of that “public order” that was the chief concern of the ancient imperial authorities and the historical Roman population itself. And that public order, without the aid of an outside philosophical and theological hunt for the “logos of things”, natural and supernatural, swiftly degenerated into whatever the “business as usual” demands of the most willful proponents of “nature as is” of any given time or place said that it was.

Thankfully, the same age also possessed geniuses like St. Thomas Aquinas, hard at work for the defense and teaching of the full message of the Word in history. He, and others like him, ranging from James of Viterbo, the Augustinian Archbishop of Naples (1255-1308) and one of the first authors on ecclesiology, to the State-friendly John of Paris (1255-1306) and the imperialist poet and essayist, Dante Alighieri, all, in varying ways, emphasized a happier and broader vision. Each of them, with Aquinas in the forefront, saw that Aristotle’s arguments, as Seeds of the Logos, necessarily led men away from the dark, back wall of the cave, demanding increasingly more light for understanding the essence of man’s individual and social nature. With the ever deeper grasp of the meaning of human existence stemming from this increasing knowledge, they also gained a correspondingly ever more accurate definition of the “common good”.

Aristotle—like Plato through his philosophical transformation and perfection of an otherwise “dumb” rhetorical science—opened to Roman Law an understanding of its meaning and purpose that its native founders never possessed. And, even though he himself could not have imagined it, Aristotle, following Plato, pointed the way to a supernatural revelation and an institution that would incarnate, correct, and transform his own magnificent labors to the still greater glory of God. He breeched a passage to a St. Thomas Aquinas, who, seeing everything through the eyes of Christ, drew forth from Aristotle and Roman Law a vision of Church and State working in tandem to gain a truly accurate understanding of the common good and the kind of public order that would permit it to triumph. Such, James of Viterbo insisted, is always the primary task of the Word with respect to all authority: not to usurp it, as Giles of Rome often suggested, but to “inform it”, spiritually, and by thus correcting and transforming it, to give it a greater sense of its own meaning and a deeper confidence in its own proper employment.31

Putting all this aside, what most concerns us now is simply whether or not the Holy See’s particular strategy in its conflicts with the Empire escaped the limitations of “tunnel vision” and accurately gauged contemporary as well as future spiritual dangers. Alas, one can safely say that it did not regularly follow the required high road. It did not always root its often quite legitimate and necessary public resistance to imperial abuses in its real source of strength as spokesman for the Word continued in time. Especially after the pontificate of Innocent III, it seems, step-by-step, to have abandoned efforts to root even its most justifiable measures in their proper theological and philosophical context. In consequence, it badly jeopardized its sense of the nuance always crucial to the proper performance of the Christian dance of life.

There is no doubt, for example, that the practical defense of the doctrine of the plenitude of papal power called forth use of the weapons of interdict, excommunication, and even crusading on an ever more extensive and exclusively political level, disturbing both to the community’s daily religious life as well as to individual Christian consciences. And it is certain that the hunt for support for papal demands once again entailed the cultivation of highly parochial German and Italian allies whose interests were not those of a general, stable, political and social order that worked for the benefit of the common good. In Italy, this fueled the already long-lasting Guelf (papal) versus Ghibelline (imperial) battle, which ended by pitting not only city against city but also each and every one of the internal urban factions mentioned above against its manifold competitors for power.32

Papal exaggerations aroused an equally ferocious imperial response. Frederick II and his advisors passionately excoriated the dangerous path the popes had taken. “They say that the Court of Rome is our mother and our nurse”, the emperor lamented, but “her acts do not come from a mother. It is necessary to recognize in them rather the excesses of a stepmother”. The Roman Pontiffs, he insisted, had become “devouring wolves”, whose legates were sent “to excommunicate, to suspend, to punish all those who hold an authority”, while, at the same time, “you see them dissipating the goods of holy churches, the shelters of the poor, the homes of the saints that our fathers, in their piety and their simplicity, founded for the sustenance of the wretched and of pilgrims and the support of religious”. Taking a cue from the Spiritual Franciscans, he argued that it “was in poverty and simplicity that the primitive Church was founded and that she gave birth to saints”, and that her contemporary successor should take guard “lest her riches shall soon have provoked her ruin”. Recognizing that the claims of exaggerated defenders of the plentitude of papal power and the coercive ecclesiastical actions individual popes had taken had offended even such deeply pious rulers as St. Louis IX, Frederick called upon all princes throughout Christendom to recognize that their own legitimate authority was threatened when the rights of the emperor were attacked:33

Raise your eyes, stand up, sons of men…Cry over the scandal of the universe, the discord of nations, the exile of justice. The ancients of the people who seemed to govern it now only produce the Babylonian Plague. Judgment is changed into bitterness, the fruit of justice into absinthe. Take heed, princes, peoples, hear our cause…Do not forget, above all, princes, that our cause is your cause. Run to your homes with buckets full of water when fire devours the wall of your neighbor…Take fear that the slyness of the pope does not turn against you. It will be easy to humiliate all the other princes and kings if he can bring to nothing the power of the Roman Caesar whose shield has received the first arrows…It is time for you to understand that the honor of all is at stake each time that one touches one member of the body of secular princes.

In making this appeal, Frederick also reminded his audience of the social revolution that the Gregorian reform had everywhere provoked, thereby adding to the pot of mutual envy that seemingly everyone in the age of the new ascent of Mount Tabor incessantly stirred. Hence, his reference to the competition for riches stimulating the avarice of all medieval corporate bodies, from the highest to the lowest, in an era of tremendous economic boom and bust:34

Those whom one looks to now as clerics, finding themselves insufficiently fattened by their alms, oppress the sons of the donors of these alms, and even the sons of our subjects, forgetting the condition of their fathers, and do not deign to give witness to any respect towards their emperor, neither towards their king, each time they receive the title of apostolic fathers…How can you display yourselves to be obedient to these men with a false exterior of sanctity, whose ambition leads them to hope that the whole of the Jordan River might flow into their mouth? Oh!...if the simplicity of your credulity looked to defend itself against this evil leaven of Scribes and Pharisees which is hypocrisy according to the word of the Savior, how abundant would be the revenues spared which now go to enrich them while impoverishing a crowd of kingdoms….

Neither did the emperor’s summons to a general “rising” against papal policies go unanswered. English barons, Italian municipalities, and even, as the following passage indicates, the greatest lords of the Kingdom of France in a forceful protest of 1245, all bitterly registered their discontent with the maneuvers of the Holy See. Once again, all the anger over the social revolution that the ecclesiastical reform of the High Middle Ages assisted entered into such calls for resistance to the clergy. Once again, such purely natural concerns were accompanied by high-minded references to the supposed superiority of the foundation vision of a primitive Church characterized by an Apostolic Poverty possessing no political or social pretensions. And behind it all, there lay the clear threat of the possible use of violent force to flay those wicked clerics who refused to heed the original intent of the Christian founders:35

Whereas clerical fantasies, failing to take into account that the Kingdom of France was converted from the error of the pagans to the Catholic Faith by the wars and by the blood of many men under Charlemagne and other princes, and at first seduced us with an appearance of humility when they actually came to us as foxes; whereas upon the very ruins of the castles which we founded, the clergy so absorbs the jurisdiction of secular princes that the sons of serfs judge according to their law the children and the sons of free men, when, on the contrary, according to the law of the first conquerors, they should rather be judged by us; whereas one should not take away by new constitutions the customs of our predecessors; whereas they create for us a situation worse than God intended the condition of the pagans to be, when He said: ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’: all of us, the Lords of the kingdom, reflecting attentively that the kingdom was acquired not by written right or by the arrogance of the clergy, but through the sweat of warriors, we lay down and sanction through the present decree, on the oath of all, that no cleric or lay person will in the future make a claim before an ordinary judge or his delegate, unless that be for heresy, marriage, or usury, under pain for the transgressors of losing their goods and being mutilated in their members so that our jurisdiction may raise up and breathe, and that the clerics, enriched up until now through our impoverishment…might be led back to the state of the primitive church, live in contemplation, while we shall lead as befits us an active life, and thus cause to be reborn the miracles of which the world is since long time deprived.

D. The Welcoming Committee of the Grand Coalition

Although none of the many proponents of the various forms of the tunnel vision mentality noted above were ready to take a final, determined, and openly anti-Catholic step in the thirteenth century, thereby entering into full-fledged participation in the ranks of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo, temptations to do so lay all around them. For outright members of the GCSQ, horrified at the progress of the Word in that age of the new ascent of Mount Tabor “when values descended to the earth”, were already on the spot to urge them to cross the thin but still very real line from outraged believer or problem child to open enemy of the full message of Christ. Who, exactly, formed part of this unhappy welcoming committee?

Still active in the GCSQ were a number of those first trenchant enemies of the Christian name, the highly parochial-minded Jews of the post-Temple era. It was really only in the 1200’s that Church authorities themselves started to become aware of just what the Faith of these representatives of the first Covenant actually entailed. Up until that point, their presumption was that Judaism was simply an incomplete Old Testament religion. It was primarily converts from Judaism who made Catholic leaders conscious of the truly dominant elements in contemporary Jewish intellectual life: namely, the Talmud and the Cabbala. If the first of these influences was threatening simply due to the hatred of Christianity that it inspired, the second was much more dangerous because its magical components were couched in a pseudo-spiritual language masquerading their clear support for a willful manipulation of the fruits of “nature as is” that was potentially tempting to all. For the Cabbala’s offer of unmeasured physical power over the universe could easily play on the ordinary day-to-day passions of every sinful man and institution. And these, we have repeatedly seen, had already been stirred to fever pitch by the raging cupidity and corporate jealousies of the time.36

But the day of the Talmud and the Cabbala as major factors in the collapse of Christendom had yet to come. At the moment, a much more significant GCSQ problem was posed by the outright supporters of Gnosticism. Whether native-born or emerging from missionary activity out of heretical centers of Byzantium, a western Gnosticism of Manichean character and in close contact with the East had, by the twelfth century, become very strong in southern France, northern and central Italy, and sections of the Rhineland. Known by westerners much more under the names of Catharism—signifying the hunt for purification—and Albigensianism—with reference to the city of Albi, at the center of a region of particular Catharist strength—this movement was not concerned with correcting abuses in an enterprise otherwise recognized as praiseworthy in character. It rejected the very possibility of a political and social transformation of mankind through any tools, one or many, Catholic, Jewish, or evenly purely natural in character. We have already seen that it viewed such a project as a blasphemous attempt to baptize the inevitably satanic earthly realm; a horrifying whirl with the devil rather than a joyful dance of life, dramatic and risky though this latter inevitably must be.

One of the reasons that western Catharists made headway was the fact that, like all good Manicheans, they deconstructed solid Christian tools and redirected them to the advancement of their peculiar missionary enterprise. Organized in a parallel Church, the self-sacrifice of their preachers and “perfect ones” made them appear to be true practitioners of an Apostolic Poverty that was disdained by wicked popes, prelates, and priests. These “honest laborers” in the vineyard of the Lord then dedicated themselves to work in areas troubled by disorder and scandal, and frequently among “outsiders”, like women, who felt that their religious and local civil needs were badly neglected by the orthodox establishment. Far from appearing in any way dangerous, Catharists could thus seem to many ordinary believers to be nothing other than infinitely more admirable representatives of the primitive Catholic Faith than the “modernist” mainstream clergy.

Gnostic “Christianity” and “self-sacrifice” were, however, in reality, based upon a loathing for the material world dangerous to all institutions claiming to work for the correction of the evils of daily, natural life, with the Church and the State being simply the most immediately and obviously affected by it. It was thus of primary importance in fighting them to emphasize the essential difference of Catharist and Catholic visions of nature, along with the full consequences of accepting one as opposed to the other. Recognizing this, Innocent III and his successors wisely deployed the Dominicans and Franciscans in militant spiritual combat against the heretics.

Mendicants lived a way of life that could arouse the same kind of admiration felt by neglected believers for Catharist holy men. Nevertheless, they cultivated their vocation of self-sacrifice in order to direct the faithful to the Catholic teaching regarding the basic goodness of a fallen Creation and the corrective, transforming grace of the Incarnation. Even better, mendicants knew how to tell a good story about their true tale of Creation, Sin, and Redemption. Through such tools as the use of the crèche, men like St. Francis were able to show the Church’s love for women, children, and nature in general in a manner that vividly uncovered the hatred felt by the Gnostics for everything involving the body, childbirth, and the female as mother and nurturer. This hatred was so intense as to lead them to spit at the pregnant women they encountered in public, as well as to give them a prominent place in modern histories of contraception and abortion.

Unfortunately, force, whether in the form of regular armies, local vigilante groups, or an Inquisition backed by the authority of the State, was also clearly needed to crush medieval Gnostics. It was because of this that Innocent III called a crusade to eliminate their threat in southern France. While completely justified, the use of such force was subject to the same kind of physical abuses connected with crusading in other contexts. This meant that clever storytellers could deceive people into thinking either that every deed of an anti-Gnostic crusader was Catholic and good or, crossing to the other side of the barricade, that Catharists were totally innocent victims of a perverse Church and State unified in their torment of the just and poor in spirit. Both such “good stories” portended significant future troubles for understanding and defending the true progress of the Word in daily life. For both refused to recognize either the reality of a universal truth on the one hand or the ever-present danger of human sinfulness disgracing its precepts in practice on the other.37

Two other GCSQ squadrons active in this era are somewhat difficult to pin down precisely: pagan literati and atheist materialists. That their spirit was certainly alive is indicated by a mass of evidence from various sources. These include the pagan and erotic poetry composed by learned bishops benefiting from the cultivation of the Latin cultural heritage during the Carolingian and Ottonian Renaissance, and the naturalist, forest-centered tales, evocative of later, Rousseau-like concepts of “simplicity” and “sincerity”, cultivated by the Anglo-French Plantagenet Family in its opposition to the intensely religious, crusading imagery of the Capetian Monarchy. A naturalist spirit can also be noted in many aspects of even the most important troubadour Songs of the Deed, as well as in the practical and open mockery of Christian moral principles expressed in the verses of some of the wandering student “Goliard” minstrels of the age. Finally, clear indications of the Averroist vision of a universe built upon necessity and devoid of freedom, at least in the form that this mentality may have seeped into the popular student mind at the University of Paris, can be found in works such as the renowned Romance of the Rose.38

In any case, all the materialism and potential atheism noticeable in their many racy lines and speculations fed the lamentations of numerous contemporary preachers. These preachers also insisted upon expressions of actual hatred for the Faith to be heard from the mouths of both common people as well as influential laymen. What is hard to know, however, is who, among such “unbelievers”, were really anti-Christian by conviction and who were not. For many troubadours, Goliards, and bishops who wrote Latin poetry and romances antithetical to Christianity may simply have been following what were deemed to be unchangeable literary conventions handed down from the founders of the classical tradition. They may not have been expressing their true feelings, which might have basically remained those of honest believers. Some “pagan” literati may also have exaggerated their commitment to ancient literary conventions as a reaction to the tunnel vision and pedestrian prose of many of the supporters of logic, law, and Aristotle. These, as we have seen, were just as passionately, though more rationally, criticized by thinkers of unquestionable orthodoxy, such as John of Salisbury, the Bishop of Chartres.

Moreover, people mumbling what seemed to preachers to be materialist guides to action may have been driven to do so merely by the standard operating procedures of their professions, which inevitably focused their daily attention in temporal directions, without leading them to draw truly serious anti-religious conclusions from their “practical atheism”. In addition, what appeared to preachers as disdain for the Faith in the thirteenth century often revealed nothing more than a momentary—and perhaps frequently very well justified—rage over the kind of corporate clerical avarice chastised above. And, after all, the voices that exploded in anger over clerical immunities and ecclesiastical courts in commercial towns frequently belonged to the same men who actively supported the work of the mendicant friars and invested a great deal of money and physical labor into rebuilding the cathedrals of Europe.

By this point, however, all of the incendiary materials present in the era when values descended to the earth now lie before the eyes of the reader: tunnel vision; avarice; appropriate explanations of desire, ignorantly or hypocritically justifying the “business as usual” desires of “nature as is” in the name of the Apostolic Faith; Jewish parochial and magical influence; Gnostic denial of the value of Creation; a literary naturalism; and a practical atheism. These incendiary materials rubbed against one another in an atmosphere charged with millenarian expectations. All that was needed to set them off was the mini-apocalypse that did indeed now explode inside and outside Christendom.

E. Confrontation and Apocalypse in Miniature

Each and every one of the obstacles hindering success in the Internal Crusade grew still more formidable in the last decades of the thirteenth century. Although those barriers to unity intensifying the East-West division that Blessed Gregory X considered the greatest of Christendom’s open wounds must eventually be mentioned in the context of this worsening situation, the logical development of our story requires a preliminary focus on two other factors.

Initially more important was, once again, the continuing battle of Church and Empire. Already by the end of the twelfth century, this conflict had centered round the addition of Sicily to the imperial possessions of Germany and northern Italy and the effects that such an acquisition could have on papal independence of action. When Frederick II died, and his descendants, Manfred (1232-1266) and Conradin (1252-1268), emerged as imperial champions in the southern part of the peninsula, the papal hunt for a political solution to the Sicilian Question reached almost maniacal proportions.

Crusading paladins were sought everywhere. Despite the skepticism and reticence of St. Louis, the king’s brother, Charles of Anjou (1226-1285), took up the cudgel, brutally destroying the last of the Hohenstaufen Dynasty by 1268. After the uprising of the so-called Sicilian Vespers of 1282 successfully contested Charles’ own locally detested rule, and the Kingdom of Aragon ultimately gained control of the island, the Papacy pressed France herself into the “crusade” against the heirs of the Hohenstaufen and, thus, her own first and unjust imperialist war. Meanwhile, this seemingly endless papal-imperial struggle mingled with and was used for the appropriate justification of the all too earthbound quarrels, internal and external, of most of the growing cities of the entire Italian peninsula. Papal appeal to the weapons of interdict and excommunication in such Guelf and Ghibelline party strife thereby became an almost “normal” staple of everyday Italian urban political life. It is hard to overestimate, in consequence, the non-sacramental existence that many Italian Catholics were forced to lead, sometimes for years at a stretch, and this during the thirteenth, supposedly the greatest of Christian centuries.39

Before moving on to the second, spiritual front, let us note that as the “holy war” against Sicily took up more and more attention, crusading against the Moslems was faltering badly. The inability to get anywhere with what Blessed Gregory X at the Second Council of Lyons had expected to be the mother of all crusades, and then the misappropriation of the funds collected for its prosecution, were a mere foretaste of the troubles soon to arrive. But nothing quite prepared westerners psychologically for the reality of total loss of all direct control over the Holy Land. This came in 1291, when Acre, the last of the Latin outposts in the Levant, fell into the hands of the Moslems.

More than anything else, Acre’s fall was significant as a vivid symbol of a much deeper disease eating at the heart of Christendom. Defense of the Holy Land, believers thought, ought clearly to have been at the center of the Church’s concerns. But what were the popes doing with their plenitude of power as the infidel prepared his attack? They were occupied playing their centuries old anti-imperial political game. They were, in short, concerned with the petty obsessions of an earthbound spirit of “business as usual” while their higher labor on behalf of the salvation of the Christian People as a whole was left miserably unattended.40

Correcting the errors of a politicized Church blind to truly spiritual needs was very much a project of the Apostolic Poverty Movement, with those Franciscans who were eager for a full embrace of St. Francis’ vision of total renunciation of all possessions in its forefront. The battle of these Spirituals with the Conventual Franciscans, whose attitude towards mendicant property and its use was much more nuanced, was a dramatic and sometimes brutal one. It went through many twists and turns throughout the whole of the thirteenth century and beyond. Spiritual hopes that a radical change for the better, one indicating that the approach of the reign of the Holy Spirit predicted by Joachim of Fiore was imminent, were strongly encouraged by the election of Pope St. Celestine V in 1294. It was the enthusiasm aroused by his public blessing of the Spiritual Franciscan position and seemingly committed desire to support what they believed to be a central feature of the founding Christian vision that made the sting of his swift abdication all the more disruptive. Sorrow over the loss of this heroic “Angelic Pope”, ready to lead the return to the original intent of the Apostolic Church, was likely to cast suspicion upon his successor, Benedetto Caetani, Boniface VIII (1294-1303), even if the new pontiff had offered no further grounds for the Spirituals to attack him. Such grounds, alas, he immediately gave.

This is not to say that Boniface did not perform yeoman service for the Church in a number of respects, beginning with the role he played in urging Celestine to opt for early retirement. Cardinal Caetani realized that the “Angelic Pope’s” simple, monastic approach to governance was an open invitation to his sovereign, Charles II (1285-1309), the Angevin King of Naples, to manipulate the Holy See for his own all too “common sense” purposes. Moreover, Boniface knew how to tell a good story for the sake of the doctrine of the plenitude of papal power—a teaching which, when defined accurately and employed properly on behalf of the corrective and transforming message of the Word, was an enormous blessing for all of Christendom.

Celestine’s replacement gave witness to his valuable story-telling ability in two ways. One was through his proclamation of the Jubilee Year of 1300. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims flooded to Rome in response to the papal call to celebration at that dramatic moment, indicating to the world at large that the power of the head of the Mystical Body to motivate men without any appeal to the force of arms was clearly still immense. Secondly, Boniface knew how to express the true extent of Christ’s practical power over all individual believers in simple, palpable terms. He did so in what is perhaps the most famous of all papal documents, Unam sanctam (1302). The chief import of this work, which, despite the claims of its detractors, was a highly traditional statement of the papal argument, much more nuanced than anything to be found in the writings of zealots like Giles of Rome, was its emphasis upon the fact that values could not descend to the earth in some sentimental, ethereal way. They could only do so, as the pope insisted, by being firmly embodied in a vivid force of flesh and blood: first in the figure of the Incarnate Word Himself and then in the Body of a Church possessing the same kind of muscle and bone as the Savior; a Church firmly guided by the one, visible hand of the Roman Pontiff.

Unfortunately, the good story that Boniface told was flawed by the harm that he did through his own regrettable tunnel vision, revealed through his depressingly mundane fixation on his family’s personal power. This had the effect of weakening his otherwise magnificent statement on behalf of the legitimate corrective and transforming work of the Church, which could indeed only be made substantive and real through a proper appreciation of papal authority. Boniface, sadly, made it seem that the plenitude of papal power meant nothing more sublime than the universal jurisdiction and self-aggrandizement of the Caetani Family.

Caetani tunnel vision then benefitted the ambitions of the equally if not even more grasping Colonna Family. The pope’s pretensions permitted the Colonna to masquerade their opposition to Boniface VIII as being representative of a religious and spiritually inspired high road leading ultimately to the kind of poor, humble, primitive Church that alone would be pleasing to Christ. Such word merchandising allowed the Colonna to shine with the aura of heroic sanctity cultivated by the Spiritual Franciscans. Meanwhile, the apocalyptic and political naiveté of the latter tempted them to give encouragement to all of the enemies of Boniface: including precisely those who hid their “business as usual” obsessions under the slogan of a noble crusade for a rebirth of apostolic purity.41

However, Boniface’s reign is most remembered for another disaster for which he alone was not responsible. For it was during his pontificate that the Papacy really began to pay the price for devoting so much attention to the war of attrition with the Sacred Empire. Tragically, this obsession had caused it to ignore the way in which Roman Law, ethnic feeling, and outward expressions of religious piety could be manipulated to serve the interests of other political authorities, from municipal councils to nation-states, to the detriment of the cause of Christendom and Christ as whole. These authorities’ more parochial-minded time had now arrived. And although the Italian city-states and England regularly demonstrated their ability to inflict serious wounds, the first real blood in the battle of Church and Sacred Parochialism was actually shed in conflict with a totally unexpected opponent: the Kingdom of France.

France, like Germany, boasted of its rule by an anointed monarch who could claim to be an heir of Charlemagne’s Christian mission. Still, the Capetian Family, the French royal family since the tenth century, not being Carolingian, had to work, like the Ottonians, to overcome its rise through circumstance and election. It had to prove that it, too, possessed Heil. This it did by cementing an ever-closer relationship with medieval reform, peace, and crusading ventures. Abbot Suger of Saint Denis was particularly important in creating the religious and political symbolism accompanying this powerful and effective association of Dynasty and Faith. The work of sacralization of the French Monarchy was so fruitful, that by the time of Philip Augustus’ (1180-1223) great victory at Bouvines in 1214, the king could present himself as a Moses dispersing the enemies of a people that had become a New Israel. King Louis IX then added immeasurably to the already impressive Capetian aura by himself being universally recognized by all of Christendom as a saint.

Holy France was simultaneously digesting developments in imperial use of ancient political and legal wisdom, applying them to the work of the Capetians, who, as indicated above, were designated “emperors in their own land”. Her digestion was so perfect that imperial spokesmen began to dream that emperors might someday become “kings of France in their own Empire”. By this point, all that was needed for a first class ecclesiastical nightmare to begin was for ministers of government with rhetorical talent to follow up on the above-mentioned complaints of the highest lords of the realm from 1245. They could then offer appropriate explanations of passionately desired despotic State actions on the basis of both “infallible” Roman Law principles and the “obvious” sanctity of the French Monarchy. Should such a crisis come to pass, opposition to the monarch’s wishes would be depicted not just as hostility to natural political wisdom but also to Catholicism and the well being of Christendom as a whole. Words on behalf of French monarchical “business as usual” would then be able to overturn the influence of the Word in history in the name of Christ and of the Faith themselves.42

Precisely this did take place at the hands of King Philip IV the Fair (1285-1314) and his anticlerical legal advisors: enemies of a corrective transformation in Christ par excellence. Desperately in need of money as a result of a lengthy war with England, and eager to make of the French State the overall arbiter of European destiny, Philip’s court hunted for funds from every conceivable corporate and individual stronghold: Church, bourgeois, and international crusading order, with the Jewish community thrown in for good measure. Resistance emerged. And with that resistance came the decision on the part of Philip’s legal advisors to pit the sacred Catholic King against the “heretical and immoral” forces wickedly opposing him, no matter how highly placed they might be.

Both the pope, who protested the despoiling of French dioceses, and the crusading Knights of the Temple, rich in properties and gold, and correspondingly accused of all manner of revolting crimes, figured prominently in the ensuing struggle. Philip’s legalists summoned the aid of all “high minded men” to rid the Church and the world of two demonic forces: a papal villain who dared to stand in the way of a self-evidently pious king’s mission, and a group of false crusaders who had penetrated the sacred precincts of the Mystical Body merely to mock its sanctity through their hypocritical militancy, their blasphemy, and their immorality.

The alliance these servants of the Crown created and the tools that they used to achieve their goals represented a conglomerate of the aforementioned “Seeds of the words”. Philip’s courtiers mobilized for their campaign not only Roman Law thinkers justifying an absolute State power but also the proponents of a primitive Apostolic Poverty outraged over the worldliness of an all too fleshly Church, ambitious Roman families and cardinals eager to overturn the plenitude of the power of the Caetani pope, and democratic “public opinion” to boot. This last force was put to use to guide the first painfully rigged meetings of the Estates General as well as to facilitate the macabre proceedings of history’s original Purge Trials.

All such game playing was designed to create the appearance of an overwhelming swell of righteous indignation over the actions of unquestionably wicked criminals that no one other than the undeniably selfless sacred king could effectively enlist sufficient forces to punish. The physical attack on Boniface at Anagni in 1303, the demand for his condemnation for heresy during the succeeding pontificates, along with the demoralizing, Stalinist destruction of the Knights of the Temple (1307) under the bewildered and seemingly helpless eyes of Pope Clement V (1305-1314) were the chief practical fruits of this clever combination of sanctimonious propaganda and brute force. What is truly extraordinary is the way in which the specifics of that propaganda are still believed by considerable numbers of fervent Catholics, while the tyrannical violence of the monarchy, especially in the case of the actions taken against the Templars, is ignored, denied, or even passionately justified.43

Examples of the approach of the new storytellers are to be found in pamphlets such as the Disputatio inter clericum et militem, the Rex Pacificus, the Antequam essent clerici, and the official memoirs of royal officials such as Pierre Dubois (c. 1255-c. 1321) and Guillaume de Nogaret (1260-1313). One finds here the most arrogant and blatant claims to date regarding the State’s religious responsibilities and the Church’s need for obedience and humility in dealing with public affairs. Hidden threats lie everywhere in their pronouncements. These are often couched in a heavily prophetic biblical language, as in the second of de Nogaret’s apologiae for his attack upon Boniface VIII in Anagni. Here, he laments the fate of the Church:44

…the mother of piety, under the chains of such a brigand, displaying in the temple of the Lord the abomination of our desolation, all that which the Book of Daniel can say of Nero, or rather of Simon, or of all other ignominy of crimes still unknown. Where can one look for a sure place; where can one look for a refuge, if the venerable temples of the Lord, if the Roman Church is besieged by such avidities? Where will the wall of integrity, the rampart of the faith be found if the execrable thirst of riches invades the most venerable…Cry and shout, you who approach your lips to the sacred chalice…gird yourselves and groan, priests and ministers of God, cry over the Roman Church, your mother…Rise up, all you who sleep, behold that laws rise up and arms are unsheathed for vengeance.

Consistent statist attacks on ecclesiastical rights during Philip’s reign explain the Holy See’s preoccupation with conditions in his troublesome kingdom at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Popes who were fully aware of the spiritual strength coming from reliance on the Word, a power just recently confirmed by the response to the Holy Year of 1300, might have taken advantage of the general European indignation over the manhandling of Boniface to humble the French Monarchy for decades to come. Instead, their by now ingrained tendency to focus on the political factors that men of “common sense”, wise in the ways of the world, considered to be central to truly pragmatic ecclesiastical decision-making, dictated both a policy of temporary papal presence in or near France, as well as the selection of a line of Gallic popes suitable for handling French affairs. Pontifical absence from Rome contributed mightily to the spread of the chaotic conditions disturbing much of Italy in the 1300’s, where the breakdown of imperial authority had also aided the solidification of the power of autonomous, quarreling city-states. Increasing Italian instability then, in turn, confirmed papal resolve to stay at its “temporary” residence in the city of Avignon, the entirety of which was finally purchased during the reign of Clement VI (1342-1352). Here, directly adjacent to the Kingdom of France but on the road that led to Rome, the popes could make the best of their ever-longer Gallic political vacation.

Ironically, however, the “good story” presented by the supporters of Philip the Fair did not, at least in the short run, succeed. France was troubled by succession problems leading to a change of dynasty within a few decades of Philip’s death. French pretensions crumbled also as a result of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) with England. Fallout from this conflict brought a myriad of festering and bitter social problems still further to the fore, not the least of which was an intensification of the desire for riches on the part of the warring nobility and their bloody-minded malitia. All these problems delayed consistent furtherance of the monarchy’s potential totalitarian ambitions until well into the fifteenth century.45

But the Avignon Papacy could not rest in consequence. Fresh problems, confounding the performance of the dance of life as presently understood, swiftly arose, all of them only properly confronted by a fully awakened Mystical Body possessed of a solid pilgrimage spirit. One such horror was the Black Death, which appeared for the first time in 1348, returning repeatedly for some hundreds of years to come. Another was the arrival on European soil of the Moslem threat in the form of the Ottoman Turks. The first killed off as much as half or more of the population of the lands affected, with the clergy figuring prominently among the chief victims, bringing a myriad of nasty religious developments and still further social divisions in its train. The second threatened to sever the land connection with Constantinople, to conquer New Rome herself, to menace the European West, and, worst of all, actually to convert whole Christian communities to Islam. And the Hundred Years’ War, with all its attendant horrors, continually brought new destructive surprises that made it little in the way of compensation for its weakening of French governmental pressure on the Roman Pontiffs.46

Finally, the advancing fourteenth century brought with it another battle of the Holy See with the Holy Roman Empire that the Papacy vacationing in Avignon had to confront. Although this was actually one of its first serious problems in its new Gallic home, I have left its discussion till last because of its long-term spiritual, intellectual, and political importance. For even though the reality of the rise of the national monarchies, as well as the increasingly anarchic character of the three kingdoms of Germany, Burgundy, and Italy nominally ruled over by the man called the emperor, made this conflict in and of itself something of an anachronism, it nevertheless gave rise to a ferment providing more solid spiritual and intellectual meat for the proponents of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” than ever before. This meat was to prove to be of immense value for the growth of what we justly call “modernity” as such. But before it can profitably be introduced, we must, as so often in history, first return to a discussion of the failure of Christians to put their primary faith in the Word and their tendency to rely, instead, upon secondary words of their own making in dealing with the challenges of temporal existence.

F. Resistance on the Cheap,

Fundamental Truths, & Foundation Myths

Most Catholics somewhat familiar with the problems outlined above think of the post-Boniface VIII era as one of papal captivity and weakness. In almost every respect, this was not the case. French kings, as we have seen, had too many life-and-death quandaries over the course of the next century to pursue a consistent policy of papal humiliation. The popes ultimately came to and left France and Avignon at will. Moreover, the Church, as the Bride of Christ, was always in a position to strike back at the Seeds of the words and the new problems she was facing with the power of the full, substantive Christian vision.

Unfortunately, she did not do so, and, instead, tried to resolve her troubles “on the cheap”. She was content to use an arsenal stuffed with mere words rather than one filled with weapons provided by the Word made flesh. The Bride of Christ continued to try to make her case with overwhelming reference to the demands of an administrative power machine guided by canonists whose legal theories were in many respects not that much different from those of their secular counterparts. All this indicated a diversion from the Church’s understanding of her main mission and what was best suited to fulfilling it. It revealed a “preferential option for the low road”, a massive placing of her faith in purely earthly tools and gimmicks, a bow to the cynical preoccupations of those who did not really, in practice, believe in the strength coming from spiritual transformation in Christ but, instead, in whatever it was that “worked” in the eyes of men obsessed with “nature as is”—men who did not really have the Church’s best interests at heart.

For the men of Avignon refined therein the most centralized bureaucratic apparatus that the Church had yet possessed; one that both imitated and often surpassed in efficiency those of any of the more troubled secular governments of the day. Popes, cardinals, and officials of the Chancery and Apostolic Camera appointed bishops, collected taxes, and imposed disreputable political interdicts and excommunications throughout much of Christendom with greater abandon and less concern for the spiritual well being of the faithful than ever before. They did so in tight association with countless princes and other representatives of the late medieval Establishment. Bankers were particularly welcome in their entourage. As Alvaro Pelayo (c. 1280-1352), a Spanish canonist and himself a fervent supporter of the plenitude of power of the Holy See, noted in De planctu ecclesiae: “Whenever I entered the chambers of the ecclesiastics of the Papal Court, I found brokers and clergy engaged in weighing and reckoning the money which lay in heaps before them.”47

A myriad of astonishing abuses, many of them justified and even encouraged by pro-papal canonists influenced heavily by Roman Law and purely utilitarian power considerations, became associated with the Avignon administration. Charitable covers for raking in illicit funds were multiplied. Sees were left vacant or filled in ways that furthered the increase of gross curial muscle and wealth. Legal cases were painfully delayed so as to milk more loot from long-suffering plaintiffs and defendants. And, once again, all this was frequently done in dangerous cahoots with locally important political and banker hacks.

Even more destructive was the persistent treatment of diocesan matters as property rather than pastoral questions. Bishoprics continued to be assigned either to curial officials--to provide, from their endowments, salaries the Papacy could not otherwise pay--or to friends of political allies whose cooperative behavior needed to be rewarded. Since it was impossible for papal employees to leave their governmental positions in Avignon to tend to even one diocese—much less the two or more often entrusted to their misuse—episcopal charges inevitably entailed the same absenteeism now consistently practiced by the Roman Pontiff himself. Perhaps the most bizarre development from such unfortunate policies was to be the creation of nominal bishops who were occasionally not even priests. Such “bishops” got the revenues from their “property”, and then employed some consecrated hireling to do the episcopal tasks they themselves could not or would not perform. Meanwhile, once again, all of these abuses were justified with reference to a plenitude of Petrine power backed by a papal “will” that tragically resembled an application of Nominalist theological principles to the daily practical life of the Body of Christ. Hence, the words of the author of the anonymous Determinatio compendiosa of 1342:48

Especially is he, the pope, above every council and statute…; he it is, too, who has no superior on earth; he, the pope, gives dispensations from every law….Again, it is he who possesses the plenitude of power on earth and holds the place and office of the Most High….He it is who alters the substance of a thing, making legitimate what is illegitimate…and of a monk making a canon regular,…he it is who by absolving on earth absolves {also} in heaven, and by binding on earth binds {also} in heaven….Again, it is to him that nobody may say: ‘Why do you do that?’…He it is for whom the will is reason enough, since that which pleases him has the force of law (ei quod placet, legis vigorem habet);…he is not bound by the laws…etc (solutus est legibus). Indeed, the pope is the law itself and a living law (lex viva), to resist which is impermissible. This then is the Catholic and orthodox faith, approved and canonized by the holy fathers of old, from which all justice, religion, sanctity and discipline have emanated. If anyone does not believe it faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved, and without doubt will perish eternally.

Given such sentiments and actions, it is no wonder that political authorities, from national governments to municipal councils, eventually resorted to serious measures limiting or even prohibiting such papal misrule entirely. England provides major examples of successful actions of this sort, with its acts on Provisors that brought appointment to office under national control. The following instance comes from the generally still more troubled German world:49

In October, 1372, the monasteries and abbies in Cologne entered into a compact to resist Pope Gregory XI in his proposed levy of a tithe on their revenues. The wording of their document manifests the depth of the feeling which prevailed in Germany against the Court of Avignon. ‘In consequence’, it says, ‘of the exactions with which the Papal Court burdens the clergy, the Apostolic See has fallen into such contempt that the Catholic Faith in these parts seems to be seriously imperiled. The laity speak slightingly of the Church because, departing from the custom of former days, she hardly ever sends forth preachers or reformers, but, rather, ostentatious men, cunning, selfish and greedy. Things have come to such a pass that few are Christians more than in name.’ The example of Cologne was soon followed.

It is obvious that contemporary events seemed, in the long run, to favor the most extreme opponents of the Catholic vision. The true story of the Incarnation of the Word and the impact that this was meant to have on all of nature could easily now be made to look overblown or even completely wrongheaded. Gnostic and apocalyptic thinkers had merely to point to the wickedness of Catholic leaders and crusading institutions, the divisions in the Catholic ranks, and a world filled with the horrors of the Plague to gain effective support for their false but tempting story. Materialist cynics needed no intellectual argument to do the same. Surely now, critics of “giving flesh” to the consequences of the Incarnation might argue, anyone who thought that nature was meant to serve the greater glory of God had to see that he was battering his head against a brick wall. Surely now he had to realize that actively working to achieve such a goal made him either a fool or a conscious cooperator with malevolent forces far beyond his ability to control and master. This encouragement of cynicism was the major reason the Church’s scandals were so detested by orthodox believers, bringing forth the harsh, prophetic, and well-known attacks of St. Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303-1373) and St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), along with their saintly warning that worse was yet to come if evils were not put right.

It was just as the “low road” character of the Avignon period was first taking shape that the ecclesiastical-political peace was once again broken along the imperial front. The roots of this new hostility lay in the valiant though abortive efforts of Henry VII (1308-1313) to re-establish the imperial position in Italy. His labors, which stirred the Guelf and Ghibelline quarrel in the peninsula to a fever pitch once again, demonstrated that the ideal of the Empire, despite all of the blows that it had received, still was attractive on many levels. The vision of the universal peace and rational rule of law that it once provided in ancient times---and could conceivably provide again—a peace and order that might be pleasing to both God and man, permitting Church and State to operate justly, each in its proper sphere, was shared by intellectuals as well as ordinary men and women. That this was true can be seen, on the one hand, in the De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri, favorable as it was to Henry’s efforts, and, on the other, in the recurring popular legends regarding the arrival of an Angelic Emperor. Such prophetic myths generally focused on Frederick II, who was said now to lie concealed, like the Hidden Imam of the Twelver Shi’ites, but ready to rise again as Mahdi to lead the People of God to the establishment of a Christendom more holy and more just than that guided by the Avignon Papacy.

Henry’s early death led to an intensification of the budding clash. This took its definitive shape through the struggle of the Papacy against Louis IV (1314-1347) of Bavaria in his attempt to gain recognition as King of Germany and Roman Emperor. Although this conflict, like that involving Henry, did, indeed, cause bloodshed, its greatest significance lay on the intellectual plane, with respect not only to its indication of the future contours of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo but also to that alliance’s inner contradictions and weaknesses. For an odd, but by now somehow strangely familiar combination of distinct forces came together from 1324 onwards to provide Louis with powerful support in the midst of what might otherwise have been a much more traditional imperial political skirmish with the popes. The struggle that these forces waged on his behalf became one over the fundamental structure of Church, State, corporate society, and even all of nature as such.50

It is important, at this juncture, to note what has been alluded to repeatedly in the pages above: namely, the passion of a number of those groups afflicted by the tunnel vision syndrome to see correction of the evils of contemporary life in a return to the wisdom of the foundation elements of Christendom, both sacred and secular. These all came together in the battle now under consideration, and on behalf of a heroic, imperially guided return to the original intent of the founders of the Christian order. Battle was joined in opposition to a Papacy that was condemned for having gone far astray from the traditional principles of the constitution of the Church and for having recently rid itself of the one Angelic Pontiff ready to right its wrongs. What this conflict would show is just how powerful on the one hand, as well as sophistic and dangerously anachronistic on the other, such arguments could simultaneously be.

Apostolic Poverty did the work of the angels in the imperial “original intent” camp. This theme, readers will remember, lay at the heart of Spiritual Franciscan concerns. Spirituals claimed not only that such poverty was good, but also seemingly suggested that it was an essential mandate for the whole of the clergy, handed down by Christ, the apostles, and primitive Christianity in general. Spiritual Franciscans’ association of Apostolic Poverty with the Christian message as such was so strong that they even somehow equated the term “primacy”—an authoritative and administrative principle—with the abandonment of physical possessions. In any case, Louis IV’s Appeal of Sachsenhausen of 1324 transformed a familiar political quarrel with the Papacy into an overwhelmingly ideological battle; one that tied the mission of the emperor with the attempt of the Spirituals to bring the Universal Church back to the purity of the founders’ vision.

Michael of Cesena (c. 1270-1342), the Minister General of the Franciscans, who fled from Avignon to the emperor’s headquarters in Munich in 1327, brought to this aspect of the imperial project an even greater credibility. For Michael was no extremist, nor did he even have any particular political axe to grind in allying himself with the emperor against Pope John XXII. He was shocked into action due to spiritual decisions taken by that pontiff that he believed entailed a heretical attempt to tamper with an “infallible” proclamation of Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292) of crucial importance to all Franciscans. Michael had agreed with John in his attack on the Spirituals for their seeming elevation of the practice of a life of poverty above the virtue of charity. The problem now was that the pope, who entirely rejected the myth of the Founding Vision of the Primitive Church, had, by 1327, destroyed all Franciscan claims to living any kind of life of poverty whatsoever. He did this by abandoning Pope Nicholas’ assertion of the Holy See’s ownership of the goods that the members of the Order merely “used”. John thus publicly thrust legal title to property directly into the hands of the Franciscans as a whole, devastating the argument for a life of poverty of moderate friars as well as that of the more intransigent Spirituals. Surely, Michael of Cesena thought, the errors of the pope had to be corrected. And who else could correct them but the man whom “Apostolic Christianity” identified as the traditional defender of the Church—the Roman Emperor?51

Insistence upon imperial responsibility for Church affairs brings us to a discussion of an extraordinary figure with great influence in the imperial camp in the late 1320’s---Marsilius of Padua (c. 1270-1342).52 Little is known about his background, except his birthplace in one of the most troubled centers of Italian political life and his activity at the University of Paris during that period of terrible Church-State turmoil under the reign of Philip the Fair. There has long been intense debate over the precise nature of the Aristotelian, Averroist, legalist, and outright heretical influences on Marsilius’ thought and career. Georges de Lagarde insists that all of them together played some role in shaping the man’s vision, with the heretical element perhaps the strongest of the factors at work upon him, and the Aristotelian the least consistent in its impact. If this be true, it would mean that Marsilius emerged from the extreme Waldensian wing of the “original intent” camp, with its Scripture-based attack upon a fleshly, papal-guided Church and all the activities associated with her. In other words, he would have arisen from an environment that disdained the entire undertaking of a new ascent of Mount Tabor, all of it anathematized as a deviation from the primitive will of the holy founders, including, most importantly, Christ Himself.

Marsilius’ heretical background gives us the primary explanation as to why he might take for granted the continued “Christian” character of the new order he delineates, despite the fact that his vision, viewed as a whole, annihilates any distinctly supernatural spiritual influence over life and rejects all deeper philosophical investigation of existence along with it. The shocking nature of what he was saying may also literally have blinded even a man with Marsilius’ sense of unique personal mission to the logical consequences of his own radical arguments. Whether he was aware of these or not, the impact of all the above-mentioned factors, religious and non-religious together, led him to a political and social theory that replaced a spiritual correction and transformation of nature in Christ with the opposite endeavor: one that openly sought to correct and transform all things spiritual through the teachings of an unexamined natural order. Marsilius makes this absolutely clear in the tome that led to his condemnation by John XXII and his flight to the court of Louis IV, the Defensor Pacis (1324)—The Defender of the Peace—as well as in a follow- up piece entitled the Defensor Minor (c.1342).

As the title of his principal work indicates, “peace” and the kind of order needed to achieve it lay at the heart of Marsilius’ concern. However, “peace” is defined by him in such a way as to make the world safe for the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” alone. No internal struggle for peace against any evil inside a man’s soul or in the environment he inhabits figures into Marsilius’ study. Peace, for him, is the normal condition of any society so long as there is no outside disturbance violating man’s hunt to satisfy his obvious needs. The “outside disturbance” overturning a society’s regular state of tranquility comes from any attempt to compete with the civil authority—nature’s self-evident “defender of the peace”.

Although many such troublesome forces flourished in Marsilius’ day, due to the tremendous diversity of the medieval corporate order, the greatest threat came from the highly organized, Faith and Reason loving Church of Rome, ruled by pontiffs armed with the doctrine of the plenitude of papal power. In order to intensify recognition of the extent of the danger coming from this monster, Marsilius exaggerated the Church’s claims upon the aid of coercive authority far beyond the wildest fantasies of the most extreme of her defenders. But exaggerated or not, the Roman Church’s sin was crystal clear. Her evil lay in the fact that she had placed all manner of impediments in the path of the “defender of the peace” by daring to suggest that the civil authority’s actions might be in need of correction and transformation according to the demands of both supernatural and natural law.

A civil authority provides “peace” on the basis of the “majesty of the law”. But what enters into the ruler’s calculations in making majestic laws? Marsilius would call it Reason, but what that Reason amounts to is simply the ability of the defender to impose his will. For law, in Marsilius’ universe, is simply that which coercive force is used to impose. Ultimately, as Georges de Lagarde notes, the law, for Marsilius, is what a man must obey in order not to be hung. Any attempt to define it further would open up questions regarding justice that would bring competitive “outside” authorities and concerns into this peaceable Kingdom of the Will—with the pope in the front lines of the troublemakers.

Although the precepts of the Defender of the Peace are valid for any civil authority in any given land, they were designed to aid the cause of the fundamental Christian State par excellence, the universal Roman Empire. Marsilius promoted the vision of this State’s mission in his role as consultant to Louis IV, whom he urged on expedition to the Eternal City in 1328 for a dramatic coronation in defiance of the opposition of Pope John XXII. This coronation called attention to one of the inescapable aspects of the Roman Foundation, namely the need to show that the emperor’s ultimate legitimacy, along with that of the majesty of his laws, lay in the “will” of that by now mythically understood force identified as “the Roman People”.

Now the real Roman People in the fourteenth century were a particularly wild, unreliable, flighty, and downright treacherous bunch, but that was no particular problem for Marsilius’ theory. According to its precepts, “the prince”, aided by his intellectual advisors, was actually understood to be the only force that could effectively “create” the People in the first place and then awaken them to that popular will whose authoritative spokesman the ruler must always be. Besides, so long as he could hang the population, his coercive force would demonstrate that the People had already invested him with legitimate authority anyway.

Unfortunately for Marsilius, the Roman Church, with her mischief making Papacy insistent upon its plenitude of power, was actually alive and vigorous and had to be confronted. To this heretic taking for granted the truth of the call for a primitive, spiritual, Scripture based Church truly loyal to the Founder of Christianity, all that Rome claimed, from the reality of Peter’s presence in the Eternal City to the need for a hierarchical priestly order, was nothing other than papal mythmaking. A Church obedient to “original intent” simply had no right to exist as an organized, peace-disturbing body with an effective visible head. Nor could she legitimately call upon the use of any coercive force on her behalf. The fact that she did so exist in fleshly form, and openly did demand such physical assistance, identified her as an enemy of Christ as well as guilty of subversion of that civil order that alone was intended to defend concerns both sacred and secular.

Papal obstinacy meant that in the name of Christ and nature the defender of the peace—the Roman Emperor—was duty bound to summon a General Council representing the entire Christian population. Original intent, as Marsilius understood it, identified the Christian People as the source of all ecclesiastical legitimacy, in the same say that the Roman People were the fount of imperial authority. Of course they, like their secular counterpart, also had to be “created”, and their will awakened and shaped, through the presidency of the emperor and his advisors. This imperial-guided General Council reflecting the awakened popular Christian will was then empowered to punish the contemporary Roman Church’s blasphemy. Such an assembly, “prepared” by intellectual experts to give the answers expected of it, and backed by the coercive authority of the State, possessed the infallible majesty of the law and was therefore eminently suitable to the task of bring the fantasies of the papal beast to heel. First and foremost, this meant driving Jacques Cahors—a man who dared to call himself “Pope John XXII” and had proven himself to be a contumacious heretic by rebelling against the imperial authority and the bible—from his illegitimate and wicked bully pulpit.

Once we have reached this point, we can grasp the real meaning of the peaceful purified order of “original intent” for the future of the Church and Christendom as a whole. In this tranquil paradise, there would be no more Church-State problem for the simple reason that there would no longer be any distinct Church to cause any difficulties for the State. The “Church”, Marsilius claims, only existed as an institution due to the unfortunate work of Constantine permitting her a structural life, and then endowing her with property, in the first place. Everything that this unfortunate ecclesiastical disturber of the peace sought to do could and should, by rights, lie in the hands of the prince, who spoke for the Christian People. The defender of the peace must thus concern himself with man’s obvious spiritual needs, along with everything else affecting his wellbeing. The emperor must define doctrine, canonize saints, and punish heresy—most important of all, that form of heresy that consisted in even daring to contemplate a theoretical questioning of the rights of the civil authority to deal with sacred matters. Indeed, the thinking Christian gadfly had to be treated even more severely than his politically active counterpart. The defender of the peace already knew what was best for man—mind, body, and soul, in temporal and in supernatural life. In fact, eternal life, in Marsilius’ corrected and transformed version of it, was depicted merely as an unending extension of earthly existence and man’s temporal needs and responsibilities. In this realm, God would use His law—His coercive authority—to punish unceasingly the secular crimes that the emperor chastised during life as though they were sins against the Trinity.

Marsilius gives his ideal prince, the Roman Emperor, the self-evident right to conquer the entire world, so as to provide the blessings of peace to those who might otherwise disturb it from outside its existing borders. Nevertheless, any prince in any land could easily tailor his arguments to fit his specific situation. Therefore it should come as no surprise to the reader that Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540), the intellectual advisor of Henry VIII, immediately commissioned a translation of the Defensor Pacis as a powerful tool for crushing Roman troublemakers preventing the king’s construction of his own independent Anglican Church in the early 1530’s. Neither will it be shocking to learn that Marsilius’ recipe for fusing sacred and profane into one, absolutist, “peaceful” society—which he stated in his own twisted parody of Unam sanctam—was perfectly designed to whitewash all future political violations of religious and personal freedom. Let us hear Georges de Lagarde on these matters:53

The definition of Marsilius is particularly aggressive since he takes over, turning them to his own purpose, the very terms of the bull, Unam sanctam: ‘We declare all human creatures to be subject to the Roman Pontiff’, which become, through his pen: ‘All the Christian faithful, that is to say, the Church, must be subject to the princes of the world’, or ‘all men, of whatever state or condition they may be, in reality and personally must be subject to the jurisdiction of the princes of the world…’.

The modern State can successively make use directly of the social support of the Christian life, tolerate it while ignoring its social aspect, or condemn it as contrary to the life of the State through its social pretensions. These are all fashions of applying the fundamental principle of Marsilius refusing to the Church the right to live as a social reality distinct from the State and recognized as such.

No one reads Marsilius of Padua any more, but if his thought is still alive, that is above all due to the jealous zeal of political societies that consider themselves to be the most advanced to take away from Christian religious life all that could give it its own social support. Since the appearance of the first edition of our work, thirty years ago, the city of Marsilius has found new and intolerant sectarian disciples. The monism that he extols has a long life. A long future is still reserved for it.

Marsilius’ liberation of the otherwise innately peaceful social order from the divisive, corrective and transforming action of the Word in history, given practical clout through the power of the Roman Church, not only consigned the direction of everything, temporal and spiritual, to the “will of the political community”. It also delivered it over to the deadening materialist demands of the strongest and most willful interpreter of “nature as is” with a proven ability to hang those who defied the majesty of his particular version of sacred and temporal “law”. An open invitation to construct a world in which the most powerful defender of the peace ready to create the kind of People that would demand the imposition of his willful coercive authority was aided by the third of Louis’ intellectual supports: William of Ockham (c. 1288-1348).

This brilliant English Franciscan fled to the emperor’s camp along with Michael of Cesena in 1327. He did so after attempting to defend himself at the papal court in Avignon from the accusations of heresy filed against him by his Chancellor at the University of Oxford. Those charges concerned both his philosophy as well as the particular arrogance with which he promoted it. But Ockham’s potential problems with John XXII increased due to the outrage that he shared with his fellow Franciscans over the pontiff’s opposition to seemingly any opening whatsoever to the life of Apostolic Poverty. His indignation was intensified still further by that pope’s other, admittedly often quite dreadful sallies into theological disputes, especially his denial of the particular judgment experienced by the individual soul after death before the universal Final Judgment taking place at the end of time. These unfortunate pronouncements were as offensive to John’s most loyal supporters as to as his most violent critics.

In any case, once in open opposition, Ockham’s extreme Nominalism offered him yet another weapon useful to bringing low his loathed papal enemy. He regularly employed the logical tools provided by the via moderna to reveal what he considered to be the insubstantial humbug lying behind the speculative concepts justifying John’s demands for obedience. Given that this “humbug” included the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ and the plentitude of papal power through which she was governed, and that such teachings were simultaneously mobilized to undermine the cause of Louis IV within the Empire, Ockham quite naturally turned his anti-papal rhetoric towards ecclesiology and promotion of the contested imperial vision. And he did this alongside Spiritual Franciscans and a Marsilius of Padua whose other principles he did not necessarily share and often even fully rejected.54

We can best grasp the dangers emerging from Ockham’s crusade by first beginning with his discussion of the nature of the Church, her Magisterium, and the legitimacy of authoritative attempts to promote and defend them. In doing so, we must remember that Ockham took up these subjects in an age when ecclesiology was in many respects still in its perilous infancy. Yes, the Church was regularly called the “Mystical Body of Christ”, and was seen to continue the work of the Savior in time. Nevertheless, thinkers also simultaneously referred to her as the “union of all the faithful” and even equated her with “Christendom”—the joint religious, political, and social entity that Marsilius had exploited for his own secularizing purposes.

It was the confusion to which such lack of clarity could give birth that St. Thomas Aquinas and James of Viterbo had sought to end. They tackled issues like the role of Tradition, Scripture, and doctrinal development in the life of the Magisterium; the exact nature, rights, and limits of the Petrine primacy and the plenitude of papal power; the distinctions between men as individuals and as authorities entrusted with an ecclesiastical office to perform; and, very importantly for the current battle, the reconciliation of the possible errors of a pope as a private theologian with the infallibility of his guidance of Christendom when speaking on matters of faith and morals in the name of the Roman Church as such. Their labors provided answers that would really only be fully appreciated by latter generations.55

This was due to the fact that the digestion of their arguments, as well as the further studies that were required to complete them, were for all intents and purposes abandoned in the century following their deaths. Such abandonment was the direct result of the internecine philosophical warfare of the late Middle Ages and the corruption of the intellectual endeavor in the midst of the practical political conflagrations pitting Philip the Faith’s scholars against those backing Boniface VIII. Hence, real ecclesiological truths were improperly defended, ensuring that ill-prepared defenders of the papal cause would regularly make embarrassing arguments that logicians like Ockham, who specialized in revelation of the misuse of overblown theological terminology, could easily expose to ridicule and distortion.

In any case, spurred by his concern to attack the pretensions not just of John XXII but of his successor, Benedict XII, as well, Ockham, from 1327 onwards, put together another revolutionary criticism of the nature of the Church and her mission in history. The Church, for him, really was Christendom as a whole. But it was a Christendom conceived of as a mere collection of individuals living by the same faith, seeking salvation for the individual persons composing it, and providing itself the religious and political institutions that it required in order to achieve this ultimately atomistic goal. It was not Christendom as a holistic entity, different from the sum of its members. Such a vision of Christendom would, after all, in his mind, be nothing other than the equivalent of yet another “empty” universal philosophical concept.

Ockham did not deny that the historical “data” vouchsafed a major role for the Roman Pontiffs in the ordinary life of the Church and Christendom to date. Nevertheless, he insisted that the collectivity of the faithful, in seeking to respond to its changing, contemporary needs, could give itself a different kind of governance in the future. Just as it sometimes did without a pope for several years, as was the case with an interregnum, it might envisage a much more extended period of time when no papal leadership was required. In fact, it might face a time when two popes would serve it, or perhaps even one pontiff for each nation, diocese, or city.

Would this not wreak havoc with the Church’s practical teaching authority, as well as Christ’s promise to be with her until the end of time? Not at all, Ockham argued. Christian Faith was known with infallible certainty through a recognition of its foundation documents—the Holy Scriptures—assisted by that intuitive Reason appreciated by the via moderna and confirmed through its universal acceptance by the whole body of the faithful. What was at question in his own time, he claimed, was the addition to the Foundation Message of a novel doctrine concerning the plenitude of papal power that allowed for the so-called John XXII to treat his attack on Apostolic Poverty, as well as his other erroneous teachings, as though they were part of the Deposit of Faith. The only way such a dubious addition could be admitted would be by proving its absolute accord with Scripture, intuitive Reason, and by demonstrating its acceptance by literally each and every one of the Christian faithful without exception. And the only way all this could be ascertained was by openly critiquing papal actions and then publicizing such criticism rather than trying to deny and silence its existence.

In other words, Christ’s promise to prevent the Church from falling into error was in no way disturbed by a cacophony of voices contradicting papal teaching, because that teaching was automatically presumed to be a novel distortion of fundamental doctrine requiring criticism. Furthermore, Ockham argued, the promise of Church indefectibility would be maintained so long as just one person— perhaps unknown to all others, perhaps just a recently baptized child—refused to submit to papal change and distortion of the Faith. Thus, on the one hand, Ockham froze Catholic doctrine, denying any possibility of its development in time. Then, on the other, and in total contrast to a Catholic Truth that everyone to date seemingly had accepted, he rooted indefectibility not in the shared public teaching of the Body of Christ but in a personal maintenance of a pure faith that might actually remain forever hidden to the community at large. As de Lagarde complains: 56

Under these conditions, it would be more frank to say, as Luther would say later, that there is not and there cannot be any doctrinal authority in the Church other than the letter of the Bible as clarified by the Holy Spirit. Ockham only goes part of the way. He maintains the principle of authority, but so well ruins the substance of it that its recognition is nothing other than an occasion to organize a distrust, suspicion, and, if need be, the revolt of the Christian in the face of it. The doctor teaches, controls, and condemns the pontiff. The layman keeps things under surveillance and, if necessary, punishes the doctor, the cleric, the bishop, or the pope. In the name of the faith, one justifies an anarchic and disordered activism of the entire ecclesiastical body, and the logic of the system forbids any institution within it whatsoever from controlling it efficaciously. If there were any reforming ferment that Ockham set into motion in the Church, it was indeed through his theory of the doctrinal magisterium that, while claiming to safeguard the principle of all traditional institutions, irremediably undermines the base of them.

What would happen to the corrective and transforming mission of the Word in history under circumstances where there might be one pope, many, or none at all, and an eternally contested teaching authority? Ockham might well wonder what corrective and transforming mission one was suggesting in the first place. For to say that “the Church” had such a mission was precisely to make her into something “other”, as a whole, aside from her existence as a collection of individuals seeking personal salvation. Yes, Christ was indeed King of the Universe as its Divine Master. But in His simultaneous role as a man in history, attested to by Scriptures and illuminated by intuitive Reason, the Founder showed His intent to be one not of command over the world but of humble obedience to its existing authorities. In other words, the Church qua Church had no specific worldly mission other than one that her historically highly flexible government might fulfill by accident—as, for example, in the midst of the chaos of an invasion or the neglect of the maintenance of order on the part of the proper secular authorities. Aside from this, confusion had arisen over “the Church’s” supposed worldly mission precisely because the Roman Pontiffs, through their illicit ambitions, had falsely defined many activities that were purely temporal concerns as spiritual responsibilities, thereby usurping control of them from their natural overlords.

Nevertheless, Ockham, like Marsilius, had to contend with the fact that there actually was a powerful pope, speaking in the name of the Roman Church, with real hopes of calling upon the aid of loyal authorities to coerce men into acceptance of his manifest heresies. Under these circumstances, the whole Church, the community of the faithful, had to destroy him and take over the work of guiding Christendom. Would it be just for it to do so? Yes, because it needed to go down such a pathway in order to survive. Would its actions be infallible? Not unless all that it might teach in the course of its endeavors demonstrated an accord with Scripture and intuitive Reason, and received the consent of every single believer, the hidden ones included—something that, in practice, simply could never be ascertained.

Be that as it may, a General Council, representing all of Christendom, would be the most effective tool for achieving the immediately essential task of reining in a Papacy violating the original intent of the Founder of the Catholic Faith. But how would such a Council be called? The answer was patent. It had to be summoned and presided over by the emperor. Why? Because Scripture informed Christians that Christ was born under the Roman Empire and obeyed its laws, thereby identifying the imperial State as the sole political institution suitable for guiding Christendom until the end of time.

Interestingly enough, the same Ockham who began by treating the historical role of the Papacy as a valid but contingent one, and who gave the Church no special mission for correcting and transforming the world, then changes his tune once a Roman Emperor, presiding over a General Council, enters into the picture. Through such a Council, Ockham grants to Caesar an almost limitless physical coercive power to legislate in the name of God. In fact, he now says that Christ’s promise to be with his Church through all time would miserably fail if the Emperor and his assistants did not use such coercive authority and demand obedience to it, even from those still questioning the orthodoxy of a particular action; even without the approval of all believers without exception. “There will be no Church and State”, Lagarde explains, in describing Ockham’s ideal Christendom. “The two words are only two sides of the same reality: the community of the faithful, spiritually and civilly organized, for the temporal wellbeing and the defense of the Christian Faith”.57

Ockham himself seemed conflicted regarding exactly how to identify the ultimate ground and authority for the extensive decisions that this Imperial State-Church would make. After urging the secular authorities to listen to the spiritual “advice” of the learned clergy in shaping their actions, he admitted that they could actually base their commands on the purely earthbound needs of the individual members of the Christian community alone—an understanding of which the data of life once again imposed infallibly upon their own personal, rational minds. “One comes to wonder”, as Lagarde notes, “if the justification at all costs of the established order is not the first and last word of this rather poor philosophy of society and history”.58

But then, having reduced the foundation for judgments concerning human behavior to the innate, intuitive, “rational” feeling and desire of the existing rulers of society, Ockham immediately leapt back into an eternal world guided by the wishes of the Trinity. This allowed him to identify the personal, utilitarian judgments of the existing authorities with the will of God. Perhaps more astonishingly still, he then associated that will of God with the decisions of a permanently valid imperial Roman State; a “Roman State” whose pretensions were being rendered daily more laughable by the many contemporaries who completely ignored them, even in their German base of operation. “This apologist of empirical knowledge”, Lagarde marvels, “testifies to a total lack of knowledge of the reality of a social life in evolution. It did not seem unreasonable for him to explain the power of Louis of Bavaria by means of a reality that had disappeared at least ten centuries previously.”59

In short, Ockham constructed a Christendom founded simultaneously upon two pillars: 1) the earthbound data of a contemporary natural order, whose unchanging historical character he took for granted as a given, and whose decisions were transmitted through individual men; and, 2) a blind faith that this eternally valid and willful State, guided by willful individuals, reflected the Divine Will of God. He thus preached a political philosophy simultaneously pragmatic (though really quite anachronistic) and doctrinal in character; one that we shall see in many respects foreshadows that of the American pluralist system of the twentieth century:60

Since the civil authority is of human origin, since it flows from the exercise of rights conceded by God and by nature, it seems that one could found the legitimacy of established powers on arguments accessible to reason and the simple common sense. But when one does it, one perceives that nothing is decisive for removing all doubt. Only an undeniable fact can get us out of this tight spot (a charter, a privilege, a contract, a constitution, etc.)…And what a windfall to know that there is nothing to look for, since revelation has freed us from all care in testifying that the Empire is legitimate for at least fourteen centuries. It is in this sense that Richard Scholz is right in saying: ‘State, Church, Papacy, Empire…are placed by Ockham in the domain of truths of the faith and, in consequence, are necessarily justified by divine revelations contained in the Bible’. He is wrong in adding that ‘they are not free human institutions’, because the text of Ockham cries out the contrary, at least in that which concerns the State and the Empire. But it is indeed true that despite this conviction, the reference to Scripture (as a simple attestation of legitimacy) is so commanding that the theory of free human institutions becomes under the pen of Ockham, as Scholz well says, ‘a new theology of politics and the political order’.

It is here that Ockham’s realism lacks foresight. His extremely pertinent conception of the structure of the regime of estates in full expansion is associated with a theory of empire as anachronistic as it is unreasonable. How could he have convinced himself for one instant of the rights of an empire maintained inviolate since Christ through so many collapses, transfers of authority, and changes? How could he be satisfied with that supposedly universal authority that no one obeyed any longer?

Ockham’s explication {of his conviction} reveals a resignation of Reason before that revealed fact. Once again we have difficulty admitting that the sense of the text that he invokes is really that of revealing to us the legitimacy of the Roman Empire and still more conceiving that we are in a realm that concerns eternal salvation. The natural philosophy of authority ends in a theological positivism.

Let us review all these dramatic intellectual developments anew before moving on. Ascetic-minded Franciscans who had previously served as the right hand of the Papacy joined together with a Marsilius of Padua of heretical background whose Averroism leaned him towards the vision of a universe ruled by necessity. They joined too with a William of Ockham whose chief concern was assuring the victory of the free will of God and the Christian People as expressed through the personal choices made by Roman imperial authorities with ultimately earthbound concerns. Only two threads linked all three of these strange allies together. The first was a common opposition to Pope John XXII. The other was a firm commitment to one or the other version of a Foundation Vision whose original truth and eternal message an innovative and disruptive Roman Catholic Church was chastised for violating. This triple set of allies of Louis of Bavaria thus shared a “good story” that played on the wickedness of a detested pontiff who was proclaimed “heretical” for the mayhem his religious and civil policies brought to Germany, Italy, and the Catholic world as a whole.

What their good story hid—perhaps from them as much as from the rest of the Christian community—was that the success of its proponents would replace a pontifical mayhem that could still be corrected by reference back to that message of the Word Incarnate in which its authority ultimately was rooted with something much more horrendous. Their victory would replace it with nothing more than “appropriate explanations” for the triumph of the uncontrolled will of a civic despot posing as God’s unchanging temporal agent in a changing world. For the presence of proponents of Apostolic Poverty praising the heroic actions of an Angelic Emperor taking up the fallen standard of the Angelic Pope gave a nice ascetic cover to the reality of natural, willful, coercive power freed from any practical corrective and transforming guidance whatsoever.

This reality was assured by the materialism and totalitarianism of Marsilius’ theories, which nevertheless made constant rhetorical hay out of the words “Scripture”, “Rome”, “Roman Emperor”, “Peace”, and rule “not by men but by the Majesty of the Law”. And it was made certain by an Ockham who worked to the same end, using somewhat more recognizable Catholic language to carry out his subversion of Christendom. For despite his own adulation of an unchanging imperial authority reflecting the divine will, Ockham’s Nominalism pointed to a political world concerned purely with the satisfaction of the desires of the powers that be, manipulating individual bits of uncorrected natural data, presented as the dictates of irresistible rational judgments and the demands of God Almighty. Spiritual Franciscans, Marsilius, and Ockham may indeed not have “chosen” the triumph of the fallen will to follow as an unavoidable consequence of their call to return to the Foundation Vision. But, then again, “choice” and “truth” are two different words. “Choice” mistaken for “truth” can hide a great deal of humbug even from the eyes of those responsible for the equivocation.

Unfortunately for the immediate success of this curious alliance, Louis of Bavaria lost his bid for regal and imperial power. Germany and Italy were both embittered and worn out from the long-lasting struggles it entailed. Moreover, we have seen that the real, contemporary Empire as a whole lacked sufficient strength to back the universal aspirations that Louis proclaimed. Bowing to reality, it recognized, through the Emperor Charles IV’s (1346-1378) Golden Bull of 1356, the effective limitation of its “universal” ambitions to Germany alone. The independent-minded princes and municipal councils composing that still large and agonizingly unruly kingdom contested even this more restricted authority in the decades to come, basing themselves on the reality of those local resources and powers that reformers from the time of Cluny to St. Thomas Aquinas and James of Viterbo had sought to confront, tame, and sanctify.61

William of Ockham and the via moderna found many men ready to carry their torch in the immediate future. His words would not be forgotten. And even if Marsilius of Padua was too much of a unique composite to create a school of thought to follow through on his work, it is safe to say that the various Italian city-states, ever more at odds with one another, remained effective repositories of the whole contradictory mishmash of his Legalist, Averroist, Statist vision. They also continued to combine this together with Nominalism and the Spiritual Franciscan dream. And they did so until such time as the larger European nations, always open to a noble sounding but secularizing message, were ready and able to take the entire vision back under their own more powerful wing, gaining for it a seemingly permanent, European and worldwide victory.

One final force must be mentioned at the present, even though it was not itself connected with the imperial designs of Louis IV. This force was also obsessed with a “return” to the “foundation principle” of the “primitive Church” through a general renunciation of ecclesiastical property. Emerging from Britain, the force in question was shaped through the writings of the Oxford scholar-cleric, John Wycliffe (1324-1384). His influence, which was very pronounced in the so-called Lollard Movement in England as well as in the fifteenth century Hussite conflict in Bohemia, brought with it new elements absent from the mentality of the Spiritual Franciscans, but just as dangerous to the cause of the Word in history as anything coming from the mind of Marsilius of Padua or William of Ockham.62

Even at his best a cranky and disappointed individual, Wycliffe ended life with what appears to have been a pronounced persecution complex. Still, like almost every sensible educated man of the late fourteenth century, he was justifiably irritated by the misuse of the plenitude of papal power for the purpose of making unfortunate appointments to benefices in England in support of the Avignon administrative machine. A prolific and well-known writer, he was called to serve on a government commission engaged in negotiations with the Papacy over this matter and a battery of related issues, just before the outbreak of the Great Western Schism. Wycliffe’s increasing anger over the abuses of the Holy See, perhaps exacerbated by his experiences during his public mission, led him to embrace the idea of a total material spoliation of the clergy.

An exaggerated form of the philosophical Realism dominating the via antiqua was at least partially responsible for his doing so. This caused him to see a direct relationship between an existing temporal phenomenon and the universal concept to which it referred. To his way of thinking, Realism meant that God’s ecclesiastical kingdom on earth had to be a replica of His eternal kingdom in heaven. Of course, even a brief glance at the state of Christendom made it clear that this excluded any acceptable role for a corrupt institution manipulated by the Papacy and its property-hungry minions. Hence, he redefined the Church as the union of all those predestined to be with God for eternity. Such a Church would necessarily have to be invisible, since no one could know with certainty on earth which believers might be saved eternally. Parenthetically, evocation of the theme of predestination called attention to an increasing fatalism noticeable in Wycliffe’s thought; a fatalism that would lead him ultimately to say that all that happens had to happen and that God Himself could thus perhaps actually be considered the author of sin.

Wycliffe justified spoliation by combining his philosophical Realism with certain ideas that he picked up from Richard Fitz Ralph (1327-1377), the Vice Chancellor of Oxford and Archbishop of Armagh. Archbishop Fitz Ralph, an ecclesiastical reformer, was as horrified as any other concerned Christian by the state of the fourteenth century Church. But he was also a man of his age, and this was still ruled by feudal law. Fitz Ralph argued in a book entitled the Armachanus that God was like the king in the feudal system, the eternal possessor as well as the author of all property rights. Just as the king could withdraw property that ultimately belonged to him due to felony, the clergy’s property could be withdrawn from its possession due to felony to God. Such felony was manifested through sin. Wycliffe intensified the argument, claiming that no cleric could ever possess property without falling into sin. Having thus sinned by the mere fact of possession, the clergy was guilty of felony. Justice then demanded that the king, in the absence of a Church of flesh and blood that no one had the means of identifying, must stand in the place of God the Father and confiscate their ecclesiastical fiefs.

Such a call for a State guided coercive push to assert the foundation principle of Apostolic Poverty meant that the First Estate would be presented with an offer it could not refuse: spiritual perfection or destruction. In one fell swoop the complications of the clerical dance to sanctity would be eliminated. This charmed many noblemen and ordinary Englishmen who were fed up with their own seemingly unending economic woes. It proved to be especially attractive to John of Gaunt (1340-1399), the Duke of Lancaster, who appears to have been the representative of the “angry young men” of the age, who had been brutalized by Edward III’s (1327-1377) wars with France. These Young Turks also shared in the general spirit of mutual envies and ambitions that were repeatedly exacerbated by the consequences of the various recurring outbreaks of Plague.63

Why Wycliffe should not have held up the laity to the same high standard as the clergy, with personal sinfulness requiring spoliation of its property, seems to have been due to the fact that he saw no such demand in Scripture. It was also probably owed to the need to find some source of practical help in aiding the king to deal with what he perceived to be an infinitely greater clerical evil. And it also simply reflected the spirit of the new age that Lagarde’s masterpiece discusses:64

One perhaps will be astonished that religious spirits, justly alarmed over the deficiencies of the clergy and of certain spiritual authorities, might make an act of confidence so naïve and so imprudent in laymen and secular authorities whose insufficiencies were certainly not less openly clear. But nothing is more symptomatic of the turn of opinion that we have called the “birth of the lay spirit”. Two centuries previously, tired of feudal anarchy, one had turned toward clerics to assume tasks which would have been more suitably given to laymen, but which these neglected or sabotaged. A movement of reflux now carried laymen not only to retake the secular terrain that had been seized from them, but also to take over the role in the religious domain of clerics, whose failure was proclaimed.

In any case, the regal will, in the waning days of Edward III and its immediate aftermath, seemed as though it might conceivably mean whatever John of Gaunt and his angry young followers said that it meant. A spiritual Church might be Wycliffe’s dream, but the first consequence of it would inevitably be the satisfaction of the all too obvious “business as usual” demands of these lay proponents of “nature as is” serving as God’s—and their own families’—real estate agents.

Still, Wycliffe represented more than a desire for Apostolic Poverty. His Ultra Realism made him look upon the Bible as the only visible guide for Christians in the way that Moslems approached the Koran: namely, not as a mere sacred tool but as the manifestation of an eternal, divine entity. It was from the Bible and the Bible alone that a Church loyal to the original intent of her founders had to be fed. Such exaggerated Realism, in its insistence upon the need for an unchangeable connection of eternal concepts with their earthly avatars, also meant that the essence of bread and wine could never disappear from the elements consecrated for the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Wycliffe therefore opposed the doctrine of Transubstantiation and claimed that Christ’s Body and Blood were present in the Eucharist as an “efficacious sign” alone.

Faced with growing opposition from the orthodox clergy, and, through the defeat of John of Gaunt’s political faction, from the royal government as well, Wycliffe sent out apostles to preach his gospel. These priests of the Church of the Predestined quite predictably encouraged a vernacular Bible reading already popular with the English population. In doing so, they added commentaries expressing the “obvious” interpretation that had to be given to a Scripture true to the founding vision—namely, their own.

Wycliffe’s call for Apostolic Poverty, his new definition of the Body of Christ, his exaltation of the Bible, his attack on Transubstantiation, and a certain touch of that apocalyptic, millenarian spirit that never disappeared from late medieval Europe, became the hallmarks of the so-called Lollard Movement. Whatever the etymology of this name, its anti-papal, anticlerical equation of a spiritual, scripturally based Church with that of the original intent of the founders of Christianity exercised a wide appeal that did not effectively lessen until the passage of stringent anti-heretical laws in the first decade of the 1400’s. Even though in remission by then, Lollardy survived. It began to grow in importance again from the 1490’s onward, just in time to be able to provide a sympathetic hearing for the initial Protestant preachers in Britain. But before any of this could come to pass, the Church’s commitment to “resistance on the cheap” was to provide still more of the same scandals that had brought Christendom to this stage of degradation—to the horror of faithful believers but the overjoyed amusement of the welcoming committee of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo.

G. More of the Same

For our tale of apocalyptic woe is unfortunately not yet finished. Chaotic conditions in a France crippled by the Hundred Years’ War eventually threatened the security, both physical and financial, of Avignon. Italy beckoned. Still, before a return to Rome could be contemplated, the Eternal City had herself to be pacified. Pacification led to further political and military preoccupations burying still more deeply papal spiritual concerns. It required a calming not only of the power of a large number of local notables and their mercenary bands but also of many other troublemakers from central Italy, Naples, and as far afield as Milan.

Different popes tried diverse tactics. Innocent VI (1352-1362) relied upon the military-backed mission of Cardinal Alborñoz (1353-1363) and the aid of that curious, semi-utopian, republican adventurer, Cola di Rienzi (c. 1313-1354), while his Benedictine successor, Urban V (1362-1370), bet on a personal sojourn in Italy and peaceful persuasion. Gregory XI (1370-1378) returned permanently to Rome in early 1377 before the work of pacification was in any way complete. He died on March 27th, 1378, as the situation hung between negotiations and continuation of an ugly, unedifying, and very expensive papal war with the neighboring Republic of Florence.65

The conclave that met at Rome in April of 1378 was ill prepared and heated. Two Gallic factions, both of which disliked Italy, nevertheless felt compelled to promise the threatening inhabitants of the Eternal City that they would once again be given a pope who was at least Italian. So fearful were some of the electors of the possible reaction of the parochial-minded mob to their choice of the Archbishop of Bari, Bartholomoeo Prignani, as Pope Urban VI (1378-1389), that they temporarily passed off the half-dead Roman Cardinal Tebaldeschi as the new pontiff and then fled for their lives.

But the well-known Urban actually proved to be acceptable to the local citizenry, his coronation was performed without incident, and the frightened Princes of the Church returned. Unfortunately for them, however—and for the Church as a whole—this pure, austere, and learned man quickly alienated his electors and their corrupt entourage through reform measures that did not reflect a reliance on the full message of the Word but on his own “naturally arbitrary and extremely violent and imprudent” character.66

But instead of proceeding with the prudence and moderation demanded by a task of such peculiar difficulty, he suffered himself from the first to be carried away by the passionate impetuosity of his temper….The very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates who were sojourning in Rome, some of them for business, and some without any such reason. When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican, he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded….Urban also issued ordinances against the luxury of the Cardinals, and these measures were no doubt most excellent. Would only that the Pope had proceeded in a less violent and uncompromising manner! He certainly did not take the best way of reforming the worldly-minded Cardinals, when, in the Consistory, he sharply bade one of them be silent, and called out to the others ‘Cease your foolish chattering!’ nor again, when he told Cardinal Orsini that he was a blockhead….St. Catherine of Siena was aware of the severity with which Urban VI was endeavouring to carry out his reforms, and immediately exhorted and warned him. ‘Justice without mercy’, she wrote to the Pope, ‘will be injustice rather than justice.’ ‘Do what you have to do with moderation’, she said in another letter, ‘and with good will and a peaceful heart, for excess destroys rather than builds up. For the sake of your Crucified Lord, keep these hasty movements of your nature a little in check.’

There was to be no patience or compassion from this unruly personality. Urban remained intransigent, convincing many of the men around him, worldly or not, that he had gone stark raving mad. By August 9th, the thirteen Gallic cardinals had had enough. They condemned his election as coerced and correspondingly illicit. Then, on September 20th, at Fondi, south of Rome, with the quiet support of their three Italian counterparts, they elected Robert of Geneva—who had distinguished himself as the “Butcher of Cesena” in the pacification of the Papal States—as Pope Clement VII (1378-1394) in his place. The Great Western Schism had begun. The Christian world as a whole was to pay a just price for the Church’s ever more intense reliance on strategies designed to ensure it success of the kind appreciated by sophist word merchants rather than that promised by the message of the Eternal Word made flesh.

Rome had undergone a “mystic invasion” due to the return of the Papacy to the Eternal City. Saints like Catherine of Siena, one of the generals leading that holy assault, were scandalized by the action of the renegade cardinals and begged for their peaceful return to the allegiance of Urban VI. But the “Roman” pope, to the horror of the real servants of the Word, thought that he, too, could solve his woes through military force alone. He called yet another political crusade, this time against Queen Joanna of Naples (1343-1382), who had offered sanctuary to Clement. Urban did succeed in forcing his competitor out of Italy after the Battle of Marino. This initial victory did not, however, prevent Clement from returning triumphantly to Avignon (June 29th, 1379). Here, he was able to make immediate good use of the bulk of the abusive papal administrative apparatus, which had never followed Gregory XI to Italy in the first place.

By 1379, both sides, their bases established, began a fervent competition for political and financial support. Tax collectors from Rome and Avignon appeared almost everywhere. Bankers, with their usual concern for even-handedness, often served both pontiffs simultaneously. In many dioceses, two bishops and two cathedral chapters emerged, with the very validity of the masses offered by the opposing sides coming under theoretical and actual physical attack. Pro-Urban bishops were barred entry to certain Sees and pro-Clement prelates to others. Serious servants of the Word looked upon the spectacle with an equal mixture of confusion and horror. Archbishop Peter Tenorio of Toledo, a praiseworthy prelate, prayed simply, in the Canon of the Mass, for the man who was truly pope, since he himself could not determine who that might be. Still, at least he continued to offer supplication. In some places, public worship ceased altogether.67

Supporters of Urban included most of the States of the Church, the emperor, Flanders, England, and Portugal. Clement gained the backing of important sections of the emperor’s hopelessly splintered domains, such as Speyer and Mainz, along with Savoy, Scotland, and—after much soul searching and delay--Aragon, Castile, and Navarre. Many French prelates and the University of Paris were terribly troubled by the split. Nevertheless, the Kingdom of France accepted Clement in 1379 after an orchestrated public assembly of the sort perfected by the legalists of Philip the Fair to give that monarch’s crimes a broad respectability. The University’s coerced public stamp of approval in 1383 led faculty and students who disagreed with the decision to leave for new centers of higher learning like Heidelberg and Lerida. Many cities and some states, like Naples, really could not make up their minds concerning whom they wished to support or switched their allegiance due to dynastic changes. Even the army of mystics eventually divided in two along with the rest of Christendom, Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) remaining firmly with Urban, while Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419) and Peter of Luxembourg (1369-1387) were linked with Clement.

The Roman line of popes suffered due to its lack of administrative structures. It also has an inadequately documented history. We know that Urban’s situation remained forever troubled. He had miserable relations with his twenty-nine newly created cardinals, some of whom he imprisoned, tortured, and put to death under atrocious conditions. Difficulties with Naples pursued him throughout his reign, while he continued the very abuses that he had so vigorously condemned beforehand. Prignani’s successor was the sick, badly cultivated, and apparently impossibly simoniac Boniface IX (Pietro Tomacelli, 2 November 1389-1 October, 1404). Boniface was perpetually destitute and lived by dubious expedients, offering enough examples of sales of benefices and plenary indulgences, Jubilee corruption, and outright robbery to give credence to Nicholas de Clémangis’ claim, in his book On the Ruin of the Church (1401), that “money was the origin of the Schism and the root of all the confusion.”68 He was followed onto the Roman throne by Innocent VII (Cosimo Megliorati, 17 October, 1404-6 November, 1406) and Gregory XII (Angelo Corrario, 30 November, 1406-4 July, 1415). Avignon’s line is much better known. It is also simpler to memorize. Clement VII, who died on 16 September, 1394, was followed only by the Aragonese Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna, 28 September, 1394-either 29 November 1422 or 23 May, 1423). Nevertheless, this one superhumanly wily figure, ordained a priest only after his election, gave the Roman popes more than a run for their money for the prize of greatest irritant to prostrate Christendom.

As the original protagonists of the Schism died, more and more contemporary Catholics began to echo Archbishop Tenorio’s fear that there might not be any definitive way to know the identify of the true pope. Perplexity was accompanied by an expansion of local and national efforts to ensure self-protection, thereby promoting a shriveling of the universal spirit of Christendom to ever more parochial levels. Aragon very speedily organized its own Apostolic Camera to collect Church taxes. England soon re-enacted laws promulgated during earlier tiffs with the pre-1378 Avignon Papacy to fill the kingdom’s bishoprics. Others then followed suit, with certain rulers beginning to enjoy the benefits of the game so much as to remember William of Ockham’s arguments and suggest that there should forever be as many popes as there were political jurisdictions. Peter Suchenwirt (c. 1320-1395), an Austrian poet, related popular reactions to the situation in simple rhythmic form:69

In Rome itself we have a Pope--in Avignon another; And each one claims to be alone--the true and lawful ruler. The world is troubled and perplext—’twere better we had none; Than two to rule o’er Christendom--where God would have but one. He chose St. Peter who his fault--with bitter tears bewailed; As you may read the story told--upon the sacred page. Christ gave St. Peter power to bind--and also power to loose; Now men are binding here and there--Lord loose our bonds we pray!

Meanwhile, the number of apocalyptic-minded lamentations and expressions of heretical contempt grew ever higher:70

The preaching of a Saint Vincent Ferrer responded to the expectations of the crowds to whom he announced the arrival of the Antichrist. The whole labor of Gerson displays his horror before the peril that the schism caused the Church to run. It is to the people that the preaching of Wycliffe and Huss were addressed. The numerous prophecies of the epoch, Hildegarde, Saint Briget, Ermine, Telesphorus well illustrate the popular inquietude. The recluse, Marie Robine…saw ‘appear before Christ all the curates of the world, the priors, the abbés, the bishops, the pope and twelve cardinals; they were simply dressed, but their words were lying…Against them was raised the cry of vengeance of all those who died, through their fault, without being succored’.

Given the general failure to think on the higher supernatural plane, contemporaries again followed Ockham and hunted for whatever solutions simply might “work” to save Mother Church. Three “practical” and “workable” suggestions for exiting from the Schism were offered and toyed with by both the Roman and the Avignon Courts: the via facti, or reliance on military support; the via concessionis, which sought a solution to the problem through joint resignation; and, finally, the via conventionis, or resolution of the division through the meeting either of representative cardinals of the two papal courts or a General Church Council. Despite the early appeal to the via facti, employed both by Urban and Clement—the Avignon pope in alliance with France and its claims to the Kingdom of Naples—the future really lay with the latter two suggestions.

Jean Gerson (1363-1429), the great theologian and later Chancellor of the University of Paris, in both a discourse of 1391 and a treatise Super materiam unionis ecclesiae, saw the path to sanity in a joint resignation of both men for the common good of Christendom. The ten thousand graduates of the University of Paris who placed their comments regarding possible means for ending the confusion in a chest at the Church of St. Marthurin in January of 1393 thought the same. They urged the calling of a commission or a General Council only should mutual abdication fail. Others, however, were already mapping out the precise route that the via conventionis would have to take. These even included firm supporters of Urban VI like Henry of Langenstein (c. 1325-1397), Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Paris, who addressed the subject in his Proposition of Peace for the Union and Reformation of the Church by a General Council of 1381.71

Political pressure of some sort would be required to get either of these two approaches involving resignation or conciliar negotiation moving. Gerson and Philippe de Mèzières (c.1327-1405), a devout, crusading, and prolific spiritual writer of the day, argued that such pressure must inevitably come from the King of France. Charles VI (1380-1422) was certainly willing to play the role of royal nudge, though his increasing insanity ensured that any French activity would be sifted more and more through the conflicting influences of his brother Louis, the Duke of Orleans, his cousin John, the Duke of Burgundy, and his uncle John, the Duke of Berry.

Although Clement VII had enough influence with the French Court to deflect such growing pressures, and the good sense to die before they became overwhelming, his successor, Benedict, was under the gun from the very outset of his reign. The new Avignon pontiff had, after all, hesitantly taken an oath, along with the other papabili during the conclave, to resign if his Roman counterpart did the same. He repeated this solemn promise, voluntarily, after his election. When it instead became clear that he had repudiated his pledge and showed some preference for the via facti, the French government turned against him. A Council of Paris, in early 1395, presided over by Simon de Cramaud (c. 1345-1423), Bishop of Poitiers, future cardinal and a notable representative of that legalist and parochial spirit that was again very much active in its push for vigorous State interference in Church affairs, publicly called for the joint abdication of the two popes. The king’s relatives, accompanied by university experts, went to Avignon from May 22 to July 9th in a frustrating mission to get Benedict to agree to the via cessionis. Negotiators were dispatched to other countries, like England, to obtain governmental backing for the proposal there as well.

Benedict adamantly rejected requests for his early retirement. When his stubbornness became painfully clear, the University of Paris radicalized, its utilitarian-minded canonists above all others. Anti-papal writings multiplied. A new council, attended by three hundred archbishops, bishops, abbots of monasteries, and delegates from each cathedral chapter and university, once again presided over by de Cramaud, met in May 1398 to tackle the problem. Thoughtful, careful theologians like Gerson and his great teacher and friend, the future Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly (1351-1420), urged tremendous moderation in dealing with Benedict, if for no other reason than the need to avoid giving scandal to ordinary believers. Nevertheless, the council, stirred by the preaching of two proponents of national Church government, the Abbé Pierre Leroy of Mount St. Michel and Bishop Gilles Deschamps of Coutances, withdrew its support from the Avignon pope and established a new Church order for the Kingdom of France. A number of Benedict’s cardinals eventually joined in the action. Withdrawal of obedience was followed, in September, by an outright assault on Avignon and a lengthy siege of the Apostolic Palace by a royal army under the command of the brother of the most renowned marshal of the French Army.

But all did not work out well with this 1398 settlement. The anti-Benedict Blitzkrieg shocked even many of those people who were not disposed to be friendly to him. English policy changed with the death of the pro-French King Richard II (1377-1399). A national or “Gallican” Church in a semi-chaotic France proved easily controllable by ambitious noblemen and the lovely ladies whom they wished to please. Further disputes among the king’s close relatives, opposition from a clergy which discovered that corrupt and hateful Church taxes were being more efficiently collected by royal officials, and growth of precisely that scandal among the common faithful feared by Gerson and d’Ailly condemned the Gallican scheme to a swift death. The coup de grace came with the pope’s dramatic escape from his besieged palace on May 11, 1403 to freedom in Provence. On May 28th of that same year, an assembly of bishops gave up the rebellion and restored French obedience to Benedict and the Avignon line. Still, restoration of obedience did not mean surrender to Benedict’s obstinacy and perceived perjury. Jean Gerson, in a sermon preached before the pope in Tarascon, on New Year’s Day, 1404, continued to urge pursuit of every lawful means to end the schism. Moreover, the radicalized University of Paris remained exceedingly hostile to him and attracted to ever more heretical and legalist theories of ecclesiastical order.

At best, critics of the Papacy could be men who simply wanted to find a way to make the machinery of the Church work more justly and efficiently than was the case in the immediate past. Radicals could sometimes be Nominalist in outlook, inspired by the work of William of Ockham, who, readers will remember, did not view the structure of the Church as something written into the Deposit of the Faith, but, rather, as ecclesiastical furniture that could be rearranged according the character and needs of the day. On the other hand, they might be men who lived off another variation of the “Return to the Foundation” theme---the pleasant myth that a broader, more representative government of the Church reflected the spirit of a happier, collegial minded Apostolic Age that the ambitions of the See of Rome for a plenitude of power alone had sadly overturned. Both these approaches viewed the popes as simply useful instruments of the Church at large. Applying their suggestions meant that the Mystical Body of Christ, through the agency of a General Council, could judge pontiffs and limit or even withdraw their powers should necessity demand it. Still more radical thinkers, either directly influenced by Marsilius of Padua or accidentally touching upon the same themes that he had underlined, supported what became known as “Conciliarism” chiefly because it guaranteed local civil society a greater practical power to direct and subordinate religious affairs to secular “business as usual” concerns.

By this point, however, sincere and less radical supporters of the via cessionis were encouraged by hopeful noises coming out of Rome. Boniface had steadfastly refused all proposals for healing the split, profited from his competitor’s woes, and seen his prestige rise through the relative success of the Jubilee pilgrimage to the Eternal City in 1400. But now his successor, Innocent VII (1404-1406), claimed that he would never even have been elected had Benedict XIII shown some readiness to resign. Innocent thus pledged his full support to a swift and peaceful resolution of the dilemma.

Alas, Benedict had now once again given his heart over to the via facti. He was much too busy making military advances into Italy and pumping reliable financial resources to fund them to parley with Rome. Renewed indignation over his selfish inflexibility stimulated the radicals of the University of Paris and the Burgundian party allied with them to seize the advantage, open direct negotiations with Innocent, and declare a second withdrawal of obedience from Avignon in January of 1407. And their irritation with Benedict became more strident still due to his “change of mind” and odd tango with Innocent’s successor, Gregory XII.

This began in December of 1407, when both men agreed to meet to discuss the via cessionis at Savona. Benedict’s subsequent delays and hedging, along with his own second thoughts regarding abdication, led to Gregory’s abandonment of the project. That renunciation was followed by the Avignon pope’s renewed, but dubious, change of heart, his swift appearance at the designated meeting place, and the shedding of many crocodile tears over the absence of his Roman sparring partner. Dietrich von Nieheim, in a satirical Letter of Satan to Giovanni Dominici of Ragusa—Gregory’s advisor—expressed the nagging belief of many horrified observers that this comedy of contradictory moves may have been a fraud contrived from the very outset by two incomparably hypocritical pontiffs to stymie real efforts to obtain their resignations.

By 1408, all Christendom was in a via conventionis uproar, moderates and radicals alike. The Avignon and Roman popes were left dependent on local support, Benedict retiring to Perpignan, on the safer territory of his native Aragon, and Gregory to the cities of a variety of Italian patrons. Given these unfortunate circumstances, seven of Gregory’s cardinals and four of those from the Avignon line gathered at Livorno, in Italy, to begin negotiations for a way to end the farce on their own steam. Their number eventually reached nineteen, and, with the help of both political as well as theological and canonical backing, these princes of the Church called the Christian world to council in Pisa on March 25th, 1409.

Almost five hundred fathers sat at their assembly, twenty-two cardinals and eighty bishops among them, though scholars predominated, jurists most noticeably. Moderates like d’Ailly were present alongside more radical, heretical, extreme Nominalists. Legalist elements were there as well, including the president of the gathering, the seemingly ubiquitous Simon de Cramaud. All, whether reluctantly or jubilantly, knew that they were called to judge, rebuke, and potentially remove both claimants to the Papacy. Witnesses were heard testifying to papal cruelties, secret agreements, perjuries, and even dabbling in sorcery. Benedict and Gregory, both of whom refused to answer the council’s order to appear, were jointly condemned and excommunicated on June 5th, 1409. The cardinals who summoned the council were thereupon delegated to select the man whom the canonist Francesco Zabarella (1360-1417) now called merely the principal minister and servant of the Church. Their choice, on June 26th, 1409, fell on Peter Philarghi (c. 1339-1410), the Greek-born Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, who took the name of Alexander V. Alexander’s short reign was followed, in 1410, by the election of the man whom many contemporaries suspected of having poisoned him: Baldassare Cossa (c. 1370-1419), the governor of Bologna, thereafter styled Pope John XXIII.

Despite the fact that the Pisan popes were able to gain considerable European-wide backing, and John XXIII even to establish himself in Rome, their two competitors remained a permanent nuisance. Gregory and Benedict retained support in important countries. Both held or tried to hold councils of their own to back up their legitimacy. Moreover, the Pisan faction was itself very quickly plagued by internal disputes. Everyone came to loathe cardinals of all description as an extraordinarily venal, ambitious, quarrelsome, and incompetent body of men. Many Italians militating in Pisan ranks bristled at French influence and the spread of heretical and legalist ideals therein. While reform was on the lips of all, each national group had different ideas of what constituted a scandal requiring instant action: for some, it was the pro-papal teaching of the omnipresent Franciscan friars; for others, it was the failure of the Church to secure positions for the graduates of the vocal University of Paris. A new reform council, which his Pisan electors obliged John XXIII to hold, met just long enough in Rome to turn disgustedly against their new pontiff as the chief obstacle to purification of the Church.

Finally, the perennial struggle for the Neapolitan throne having taken a perilous turn, the Pisan pope was forced to quit the Eternal City and petition the rulers of Europe for new political protection. Help, under the circumstances of that particular moment in time, was only available from Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor since 1410. Sigismund was personally eager to rebuild the shattered prestige of his realm and contribute to doing so by finding a definitive way out of the continuing papal horror show. He and his Empire had never accepted the results of Pisa, so their defense of John XXIII was a tricky one to say the least. It came to entail the summoning of yet another council, which opened at Constance on November 1, 1414, with the usual suspects from throughout Europe—practically all of them together at this point--in attendance.

John initially presided at Constance as the legitimate pontiff. Nevertheless, Sigismund and the Council Fathers, Gerson and D’Ailly prominent among them, soon saw the abdication of all three popes as an essential prerequisite to enjoyment of a single universally recognized head of the Church. Hopes for the success of this renewed appeal to the via concessionis were temporarily complicated by the fact that the erratic John, who swore to abdicate in March of 1415, changed his mind and fled the city for the Black Forest to try his luck anew. His efforts floundered, and, becoming aware of the desperation of his position, he ultimately threw himself on the council’s mercy. Its fathers found him guilty of being an unworthy and unlawful pope, removed him on May 29th , and popped him straight off into prison.

Events now took a dramatic turn. The aged Gregory XII spontaneously and unexpectedly offered his own abdication. Interestingly enough, though already considered deposed by Pisa, he managed to bow out in a manner that most subsequent writers argue to have bolstered Rome’s claim to possess the legitimate line of pontiffs. Ludwig von Pastor describes the abdication scene as follows:72

The way in which this was done is of the highest significance, and must by no means be viewed as a concession in non-essentials to the assembled Bishops. Gregory XII, the one legitimate Pope, sent his plenipotentiary, Malatesta, to Constance, where the prelates of his obedience had already arrived, and now summoned the Bishops to a Council. His Cardinal-Legate, who had made his entry into the city as such, read Gregory’s Bull of Convention to the assembled Bishops, who solemnly acknowledged it. Malatesta then informed this Synod, {i.e., the beefed-up Council of Constance} which Gregory XII had constituted, of his abdication (4 July, 1415). His summons had given the Synod a legal basis.

Only the Avignon pope, now in Aragon, was left. Personal efforts by Sigismund to obtain Benedict’s voluntary withdrawal, even under the same conditions as that of Gregory, delayed proceedings against him for some time. Negotiations having finally failed, the council tried him in absentia, declaring his deposition by July of 1417. Support for de Luna faded away, and he himself fled, along with three remaining Cardinals, to the fortress of Peñiscola.

The way was thus sufficiently well cleared for Odo Colonna to be elected the sole truly serious pope on November 11th, 1417, though by an innovative method involving the tallying of the votes of representatives gathered in separate national units alongside those of the cardinals united in conclave. He took the name of Martin V (1417-1431). The new pope confirmed the council’s grant to the ex-Gregory XII of the Cardinal Bishopric of Porto and made him permanent papal legate in the March of Ancona as well. John XXIII went from prison life to the position of Cardinal Bishop of Tusculum. Benedict survived, in opposition, until his death in 1422 or 1423, leaving two warring successors behind him. One of these, a mysterious Benedict XIV, lived and died somewhere in France. The other, Gil Muñoz, Pope Clement VIII, finally abdicated in 1429 and was rewarded with the Bishopric of Majorca. Clement VIII’s College of Cardinals then brought a final and rather unsurprising end to the Great Western Schism by entering into conclave in Peñsicola and formally electing Martin V as his successor.

But the Schism, so many decades in duration, had not, exactly, ended “by the book”, according to the crystal-clear rules of a canonical system that had previously acted as though it had all the infallible answers to every ecclesiastical problem. Just look at the complications involved in the solution to the problem once again. How “legal” was the pressure exerted by Sigismund and the other secular powers and university scholars in gaining the desired results? Had it not precisely been the contention of the Church, since the time of the reforms of the eleventh century, that such intervention in the affairs of the Papacy was nefarious? What rendered this particular involvement permissible? What was the legality of the strange addition of national electors to the College of Cardinals in the Constance conclave? And what about the man elected? If Gregory XII really were the legitimate Pope up till then, what did this have to say about the actions of Odo Colonna, the future Martin V, one of his own renegade cardinals? Colonna, after all, had fled Rome, taken part in the Council of Pisa, and helped to elect Alexander V and John XXIII. Why did he not have to do penance for his “schismatic” activity before becoming Supreme Pontiff himself? But, then again, how could he have humbled himself without rendering the abdication of his former master, Gregory XII, itself ludicrous?

Moreover, what should one think of Alexander V? The next universally recognized Clement and Benedict took up the numbering that had been used by the Avignon pontiffs of those names (VII and XIII), therefore, historically identifying the Frenchmen as anti-popes. On the other hand, the next Alexander, Rodrigo Borgia, who ought, by right, to have styled himself the fifth of that line, assumed that he was the sixth. Does this mean that he believed Alexander V to have been legitimate? Apparently. If so, then how could the simultaneously reigning Gregory XII have also been the true pope? And why was Alexander’s successor, John XXIII, not valid, as Angelo Roncalli perhaps clarified in 1958 by adopting the numbering previously used by Baldassare Cossa?73

What all this says is that the Church recognized that in dealing with the Great Western Schism she was confronting a specific historical problem for whose resolution she did not have all the answers at her fingertips. Under these trying circumstances she therefore had to rely both on her pilgrim spirit as well as her firm conviction that Christ would never abandon His Bride. Just because there was a confusion and division over the present identify of the pope, such perplexity did not signify that there could be no pontiff in the future. The immediate problem was obtaining a legitimate pope to whom virtually everyone would give his obedience. Just because existing, fallible Canon Law and its willful interpreters could not adequately and effectively identify the present pope did not mean that the Mystical Body had to presume that Ockham was right, and that she could, should, and would function with two, three, or maybe even innumerable local pontiffs. The Word was more powerful than the words of the law books and the dicta of the canonists, as St. Bernard had already insisted during the schism of the early 1100’s that he had helped to end by supporting the “healthier” candidate for the pontifical throne. And if keeping the Bride of Christ alive and well temporarily involved a bewildered respect for the otherwise problematic interventions of Parisian pedants, renegade cardinals, puppet electors promoting parochial national causes, and emperors evoking powers that had been rejected several centuries earlier, all could be forgiven in the end. What counted in the uncertainties of the perplexing moment was the certainty of the need for a unified Papacy; what counted was what James of Viterbo had called “thinking on the universal level”. Here was a supreme illustration of the pilgrim spirit in action in troubled times, dancing new steps in the dance of life that no one had ever imagined necessary or even possible beforehand. Here was an illustration of that rooted and principled pilgrim spirit, worlds apart from any policy shaped by the anchorless meandering that would be guaranteed by an Ockhamite Church.74

Judged in this context, the actions of Jean Gerson, Pierre d’Ailly, Pisa, Constance, Sigismund, and Odo Colonna to end the Great Western Schism come off fairly well. They bore little resemblance to other, more wickedly irregular maneuvers in the Church’s past, such as those that the famous Robber Council of Ephesus permitted itself in the fifth century at the time of the Monophysite Controversy. Does this mean that bad motivation and heretical, legalist, and opportunistic theories and behavior played no role whatsoever in the conclusion of the Great Western Nightmare? That would be inaccurate. There was plenty of bad to match the good. But a Church that had been deeply bewildered regarding precisely how to confront her many ills while seeking to emerge from her practical administrative labyrinth seems to have thought their judgment best left to history and Almighty God.

Nevertheless, all too much damage had been done to the Church and her ability to correct and transform all things in Christ throughout the entire era of “resistance on the cheap” stretching from time of Boniface VIII to that of Martin V. It is this unfortunate truth---along with the recognition of the powerful assistance that the long detour of the Body of Christ away from her real sources of strength and her proper evangelical mission provided for the further growth of the “Seeds of the words”---that required our dedicating so much space to the twists and turns of the period of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism. What would really be important for the long-term future as a whole was whether the road to recovery paved at Pisa and Constance was to be a “high road” or remain a “low road” reflecting a continued resistance “on the cheap” to a world filled with terrible dangers pulling men to a cynical acceptance of “nature as is”.

If the high road were taken—the path back to the corrective and transforming message of the Word Incarnate—the route that would lead to a new attempt to address the obvious lacunae in Catholic ecclesiology and pastoral activity would somehow be found. If not, the concatenation of forces and circumstances promoting an understanding of nature as the realm of inexplicable divine and human willfulness would be allowed to solidify. If the high road were to be taken, the pilgrim spirit tying the development of doctrine and experiment together with the unchanging Deposit of Faith would grow and prosper. Entering upon the low road would permit the accidentally Nominalist aspects of the Church’s contemporary flirtation with trying “whatever works” in new and difficult situations to become the essential guiding principle in her daily life. This would wreak havoc with the fullness of the Christian message, and embolden the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo to emerge from the underbrush into the full light of day. Unfortunately, it was to be the second of these itineraries that was to be the favored thoroughfare in the immediate future. And this made for a tragic continuation of the Long March to that camp of the willful in whose precincts we are still forced to pitch our own tents.

Chapter 6

The War of All Against All? Or the Peace of the Reinvigorated Word?

A. The High Road to Recovery

A restoration of papal unity, important though this was, was not a sufficient corrective to the problems weakening the Church’s ability to deal with her primary work on earth. That work, as the medieval reform movement had confirmed, was one focused on a redemption of individual human beings that simultaneously required the correction and transformation in Christ of the natural, social environment in which they lived. Unfortunately, it was precisely this transformative ideal that was the undeserving loser in the entire pathetic history of the Church in the years between the humiliation of Boniface VIII and the end of the Great Western Schism. “They say that the world must be renewed”, the friar Giovanni dalle Celle (1310-1396) cried out, giving voice to the enormous temptation of even the most orthodox thinkers to abandon commitment to the full message of the Incarnate Word in reaction to a sea of troubles; “I say, it must be destroyed”.78

If the reunified Church were to defeat such despair, then it was essential for her to regroup and reform, undertaking three projects simultaneously. First was the revitalization of the brilliant intellectual endeavor that promised to deepen her understanding of her own nature and structure as the Body of Christ: what is known as the study of ecclesiology. Sound ecclesiological investigations could not help but clarify the proper role of everything of significance to her teaching and administrative authority—the character, strengths, and real limitations of papal power included. With these investigations would also come a better appreciation of her relationship to the State and the whole of corporate society. A second task involved a commitment to serious pastoral activity that would inspire and aid the hunt for individual sanctity in the ranks of both clergy and laity. Thirdly and finally, the Church had to fend off further temptations to a resistance on the cheap that merely reflected the wisdom and the desires of the varied proponents of “business as usual”. These included not only the worldly “common sense” suggestions for dealing with the dance of life that openly led Christian men and society headlong into the abyss. They also involved those zealous and seemingly high-minded calls for a return to a foundation vision that actually served as a tool for a manipulation of the full message of the Word in history by the strongest and most willful elements in society. In short, true Christian reform of head and members demanded a “high road” to recovery whose signposts were provided by the Word.

Certainly, the century from the Council of Constance (1414-1418) to the advent of Martin Luther (1517) rang forth with many noble sounding “words” calling for a “reform of head and members” at all levels of Christendom. And, thankfully, many contemporaries were indeed laboring to effect serious corrective and transformative change according to the precepts of the greatest of the medieval reformers. A rush through events of fifteenth century ecclesiastical significance in order to get to the “big news” of the Reformation often blinds one to the intensity of the contemporary traffic on the high road to the understanding and fulfillment of the Catholic vision of the Word in history. Modern historians have published excellent studies illustrating the fact that practical reforms and substantive action firmly grounded in a solid hierarchy of values took place even in the deadliest of decades since the mini-apocalypse had begun. Far from ending at the time of Constance, these praiseworthy enterprises continued and even picked up impressive speed in the century to follow.79

Contemporaries on the high road well understood that the Church had been wasting time on a self-destructive low road towards implementation of the teachings of Christ; a low road that had paid overwhelming attention to fallible, political, legal, and administrative means of carrying out her mission. This low road had neglected the meaningful teachings of the scholastics, Peter Cantor, and Innocent III, and had cherished rhetorical slogans offering “appropriate justifications” of insufficient parochial strategies for the victory of the Word in history instead. The reformers of the high road saw that giving primary attention to secondary tools in effect overturned the hierarchy of values and blinded the Church to the source of her real strength. For Catholic muscle, as always, was built through recourse to that revelation and grace that gave her the power to transform all flawed earthly endeavors for the greater glory of God and the consequent benefit of individual men. Those on the high road by no means rejected the cultivation of ordinary political and structural tools. They simply insisted that these must always be used as a “fool for Christ” would use them: not according to the dictates of a limited tunnel vision, but in subordination to the exalted mission of making all of nature a conduit for transforming grace.

A number of the high road reformers fought the good fight by tapping into the uncompleted intellectual enterprise of the thirteenth and early fourteenth century speculative theologians and ecclesiologists. By the end of the 1400’s, Duns Scotus’ works were being collected and systematically studied, and a proper school of thought that would reach its peak by around 1600 was in formation. Men such as John Capreolus (c. 1380-1444), the so-called “Prince of the Thomists”, had always maintained loyalty to the thought of the Angelic Doctor, while Juan de Torquemada (1388-1468) applied Thomistic teaching to a variety of uses, including the struggles of Pope and Council, Church and State, and East-West reunion. Soon, the even more significant figure of Tommaso de Vio, known popularly as Cajetan (1469-1534), would also demonstrate the vigorous strength of this Thomist revival, working through it to address manifold problems, including those arising from an age of exploration and discovery of new worlds.

Members of monastic and mendicant communities worked zealously to bring their fellow religious back to an appreciation of their true foundation missions. Prominent among these were the so-called “four pillars of the Franciscan Observance”: St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), St. John of Capistrano (1385-1456), Blessed Albert of Sarteano (1385-1450), and St. James of the March (1391-1476). Preaching was a great strength of all these men, whose approach in many respects built upon the massive, highly organized “revival campaigns” organized by their Dominican predecessor, St. Vincent Ferrer (1350-1419). They dedicated much of their lives to reconciling bitter private and public disputes, convincing sinners to replace their faith in a worldly wisdom divinizing the hunt for power and riches with a primary devotion to Christ—whose Holy Name (and corrective power) St. Bernardino taught people to cherish above all other “words”. Meanwhile, the age especially abounded in pragmatic guides to living the Catholic life. An admirable work of practical catechesis was particularly notable in lands disturbed by heretical movements, as was England due to the impact of the Lollards. In some areas, high road reformers attempting to purify clerical and lay spiritual life received the vigorous aid of political leaders. The cooperation of Cardinal Francisco Jimenez de Cisneros (1436-1517) and Isabella the Catholic (1474-1504) in Castile is a major case in point, but certainly not the only one.80

Finally, a pilgrim spirit ready to deal with new steps in the dance of life different from those required at the time both of the Christian foundation as well as that of the new medieval ascent of Mount Tabor was also visible. Prelates like St. Antoninus of Florence (1389-1459), who aided in the scholastic revival encouraged by Capreolus and Torquemada and later taken up by Cajetan, built upon the earlier vision of Peter Cantor and Innocent III. Antoninus did this by applying central Catholic principles to the fresh problems faced by varied social groups each in their own specific spheres of action. Even if such vibrant, pastoral-minded bishops did not satisfactorily answer all the questions that they raised, they nevertheless did Origen-like service in providing the basic language and framework for studying and addressing them more effectively in a rapidly changing climate. Their situation, in short, was in many respects similar to that of the first scholastics when confronting Aristotle’s political and scientific writings and seeking to use their teachings to deal with the high medieval social order.81

All these initiatives encouraged the recovery and further development of an understanding of the full message of the Word in history. Nevertheless, two other forces illustrative of contemporary vitality, those represented by Renaissance Humanism and spiritual confraternities, must also be singled out to move our story forward. Examining them will help to explain both the brilliant explosion of Catholic thought and practice that would follow upon the Tridentine reform and also the dangerous revolution unleashed by Martin Luther. Double-edged swords these forces may have been, but that is the fate of every natural tool in our fallen world. Besides, the acceptable edge of the swords they wielded was sharply positive indeed.

Renaissance Humanism, as begun by Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), was, at its best, an invitation to Christendom to attend a highly necessary “finishing school”.82 It was in many respects simply a call to recognize the pressing need to complete divine and abstract disciplines—namely, fields such as theology, logic, and mathematics—with others that focused on human affairs and the skills essential to plumb their message—studies of literature, the languages used to produce it, and history being chief among them. Without the knowledge provided by these “human-centered” disciplines, one could not have a complete appreciation of how men succeed or fail to fulfill the demands of God and nature on the practical level. One could easily be “lost in space” in consequence, capable of forming theories about the essences of things but lacking in all perception of the specific problems individuals and societies face while performing the dance of life in our magnificent but sin-ridden earthly ballroom.

The studies that Petrarch developed and that we now call “humanist” lay at the center of the aesthetic approach to life nurtured by the ancient Greeks and their Roman imitators. This aesthetic outlook sought to understand the universe by grasping the character of “the beautiful” and perfecting the methodology for gaining possession of it. Cultivation of such subjects led humanists to a special regard for the greatest representatives of aesthetic achievement in various ancient fields of endeavor. These included Cicero and Virgil for Latin prose and poetry, Homer for Greek epic, and Plato for his success in presenting philosophical arguments in practical human settings with a fine feel for rhetorical style. Aesthetic heroes of the ancient artistic and architectural world were soon to join the ranks of humanist models. An impassioned hunt began for missing ancient literary texts and artistic objects, so that the fullness of the Greco-Roman genius might be revealed, its linguistic and creative skills imitated, and its spirit revived. That hunt also led to the cultivation of a Greco-Roman inspired devotion to physical education unknown to medieval man, justified by the need to develop a healthy body as a solid home for a sound mind.

Humanism proved to be immensely useful to the Church for the development of what is called “positive theology” in distinction to “speculative theology”. Speculative theology uses logic to draw forth the consequences of the primary data of Christian revelation in a systematic and therefore ultimately more intellectually comprehensible and applicable way. We have seen that St. Thomas, St. Bonaventure, and Duns Scotus were the chief representatives of speculative theology in the Middle Ages. But a careful reading of what they said should actually lead the Catholic to an appreciation of positive theology as well. This, in contrast to its speculative confrère, explores the root data in se. A positive theologian’s material includes the direct study of Holy Scriptures, liturgical texts, early canonical legislation, decrees of Church councils, and information regarding the historical behavior of the faithful through the ages.

With the greater facility in Latin and Greek (and an eventual familiarity with Hebrew) obtained through humanist schooling, examination of such source materials became more fruitful still. As humanists went about their work in positive theology, they began to realize the importance of understanding “contexts” to grasp the real meaning of the Latin and Greek words they loved so dearly. This proved to be yet another stimulus to interest in Church History and its valuable teachings regarding the practical problems of life. Fascination with history, in turn, made humanists even more aware of the significance of the Church Fathers. They looked to St. Augustine in particular, whose pre-scholastic style was, like that of Plato, especially appealing to their refined classical aesthetic tastes.

Prudence and reserve in approaching anything new—even when it is at root ancient—is perfectly understandable, especially when its impact on sacred studies is as yet unclear. Unfortunately, mainline schools and universities were not only slow to respond to humanist enrichment of the store of western knowledge; they were often openly hostile to its passion for rediscovery of neglected aspects of the ancient past. Such a display of scholarly tunnel vision helps to explain the need for humanists and their patrons to open their own academies, the best of which cherished the new studies alongside with and in deep respect for the old. The fact that a comprehensive Humanist education could be a Word as well as a word- drenched accomplishment of major proportions is shown to us by men of the caliber of Guarino da Verona (1370-1460), Vittorino da Feltre (1378-1446), John Colet (1467-1519), and many others. The following passages regarding Vittorino’s achievement in Mantua capture the spirit of their amalgam of secular and sacred studies most succinctly:83

He believed that education should concern itself with the body as well as the mind, with the senses as well as the spirit. Wrestling, fencing, swimming and riding alternated with hours devoted to Virgil, Homer, Cicero, and Demosthenes. Luxury was eschewed, and Vitttorino educated the poor with the rich. Nor was he prejudiced about the sexes; the Gonzaga princesses enjoyed the same extensive education as the princes.

A villa, formerly the recreation hall of the Gonzaghi, was transformed by him into an ideal schoolhouse. Because of its pleasant surroundings and the spirit that prevailed therein, it was called the ‘Casa Jocosa’ or ‘Pleasant House’. All the scholars were boarders and Vittorino endeavoured to make the school as pleasant and enjoyable as the ideal home…The instruction given was of the new Humanistic type but Christian in character and spirit. It was not merely a literary training but embraced the physical and moral requirements of a liberal education. Letters (Latin and Greek), arithmetic, geometry, algebra, logic, dialectics, ethics, astronomy, history, music, and eloquence were all taught there, and frequently by special masters. The pupils were directed also in some form of physical exercise, chosen usually according to their needs, but, at times, according to their tastes…He was an exemplary Catholic layman and as a teacher strove to cultivate in his pupils all the virtues becoming the Catholic gentleman. Every day had its regular religious exercises at which, like morning prayer and Mass, all assisted. He was a frequent communicant, and desired his students to approach the Sacraments every month.

One group of contemporaries that shared the humanists’ love for at least some ancient Christian ideas and practices that they believed had been neglected in the immediate past were the supporters of the Dutch reformer, Gerhard Groote (1340-1384), and the so-called modern devotion—the devotio moderna.84 Disturbed, like so many other pious Catholics, by the disasters of his own time, Groote blamed the mini-apocalypse of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries on the failure of the world around him to plumb the original roots and spirit of the Christian message. What was chiefly needed, as far as he was concerned, was not Apostolic Poverty but a firm focus on Christ Himself: Christ, both as the intellectually unadorned model for proper daily behavior presented to us in the Scriptures as well as Christ through His Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hence, the theme of the greatest literary monument to the movement, Thomas à Kempis’s (1380-1471) Imitation of Christ, with its call for a simple, intimate piety opening our hearts and souls to a struggle to incarnate Jesus in our ordinary day-to-day existence. Hence, also, the movement’s commitment to discovering a systematic spiritual methodology that would keep Christ permanently close to the individual soul and thereby avoid the religious torpor that all too regularly followed hard upon past eruptions of new fervor in the life of the faithful.

Groote, along with a friend, Florens Radewyns (c.1350-1400), was the most important figure behind the society called the Brethren of the Common Life that lived and prayed together according to the devotio moderna. Although they did not generally take vows, some of the Brethren did wish to follow a clerical rule and formed a congregation of Augustinian monks that spread throughout the Rhineland and beyond. Both the lay Brethren and the Canons Regular spiritually associated with them eventually became involved in schooling. Even though they generally had little interest in the secular literary pursuits of the humanists, those supporters of the devotio moderna engaged in education inevitably promoted their own “back to the sources” vision. As the decades advanced, this would in certain respects parallel the work being done by the Italians, but in a way that gave special encouragement to positive theological interests.

The Brethren were not without their enemies. However, the enthusiastic assistance of Cardinal Pierre d’Ailly and Jean Gerson—the latter of incalculable significance as a sage guide for all serious late medieval paths to sanctity and mysticism—enabled them to defend themselves successfully at the Council of Constance. There, they faced a variety of accusations, including that of entertaining heretical inclinations similar to those of the thirteenth century Beghards, whom they in many quite innocent respects did, indeed, approximate.

In the history of a period replete with so many dismal religious developments, the Brethren of the Common Life were one positive element. A second constructive factor needing emphasis here was the impressive contemporary expansion of the network of congregations, sodalities, and corporations that professed their spiritual responsibilities fervently and publicly. The later fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were especially rich in the creation of small, tightly knit bands of laymen or laymen and clerics together, all aiding attainment of that individual Christian perfection that was essential to the general elevation of public community activity, secular and sacred as well. The more the low road became the route of preference for the bulk of the powers that be in the life of Christendom, the more these Catholic high road cadres seemed to gain in popularity, particularly in the numerous cities dotting the Italian Peninsula. A Franciscan and Dominican spirituality, guided through the work of preachers as different from one another as St. Bernardino of Siena and Savonarola (1452-1498), was seminal in shaping many of them.

Another highly significant influence on such congregations was St. Catherine of Genova (1447-1510). Born into an old aristocratic family, St. Catherine was the recipient of a unique spiritual experience that gave her a life-long insight into the absolute purity of God and the corresponding horror of a failure, through sin, to fulfill one’s role as a Christian. This gave her an appreciation of the suffering of the souls in Purgatory, which she also described as an ineffable joy, given their realization that their punishment was the means by which they would be united with the source of eternal love. Anyone grasping the message of St. Catherine had to understand what it meant to become a true, reform-minded, soldier of Christ. For the vision that she received was akin to that of the apostles who saw Christ in all His glory, transfigured on Mount Tabor. And no one sharing such a vision could ever have the temerity to argue that having recourse to willful papal judgments or taking advantages of loopholes in canon law gave him the “right” or the “privilege” of staining the purity of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Whoever the guiding force upon them might be, spiritual firebrands organized in confraternities took the socio-political role that was part of their path to sanctification very seriously indeed. This is vividly illustrated in a startling variety of ways, including the aforementioned dedication to resolution of public and private feuds, the creation of the so-called Monti di Pietà as alternative sources of credit for poverty stricken men and women who were otherwise subject to the oppressive burden of usury, and Savonarola’s dramatic “bonfires of the vanities”.85

One example of the corporate embodiment of such spirituality was the Compagnia del divino amore, the details of whose history are instructive for the future in many ways.86 This was established in Genova on 26 December 1497 with a membership of thirty-six laymen and four clerics. The Compagnia’s chief aims were the stimulation of piety, the encouragement of frequent communion, the offering of spiritual aid to condemned criminals, and the promotion of charitable work among the poor. Also important among its functions was care for the incurably ill, especially those suffering from syphilis, an office which ultimately resulted in its funding of the Genovese hospice called the Ridotti degli’incurabili. A Rule provided for a prior elected for the brief term of six months.

Ettore Vernazza (1470-1524), a wealthy Genovese layman, appears to have been an animating force in the Compagnia. Vernazza, a spiritual pupil of St. Catherine, whose first biography he wrote, was a selfless apostle of the work of “divine love”. He died in the plague of 1524, after having inspired charitable activities in Naples similar to those of Genova and after having aided in the formation of a Roman Compagnia centered round the Church of Saints Silvestro and Dorotea in Trastevere.

This Roman Compagnia del divino amore, established sometime between 1513 and 1517, was to prove to be of enormous influence. The Church of Saints Silvestro and Dorotea probably was chosen as its seat due to its proximity to the Genovese quarter of Rome as well as to the sympathy of its Rector, the Florentine Giuliano di Domenico Dati, a penitentiary of the Basilicas of St. Peter and St. John the Lateran. Like its model in Genova, the Roman Compagnia founded a hospital—that of St. Jacopo degl’incurabili at St. Giacomo in Augusta. It was also responsible for the Monastery of the convertiti near Santa Maria Maddalena al Corso, which aided former prostitutes. Associated with the Compagnia, or, later on, with one or another of its various activities, were an entire generation and more of Catholic proponents of renewal: among them, Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), San Gaetano da Thiene (1480-1547), Gaspare Contarini (1483-1542), and Gian Matteo Giberti (1495-1543). Their regular gatherings in Trastevere encouraged both a positive direction for their piety and charity as well as a spiritual camaraderie in a common cause. The Catholic Reformation orders of Barnabites, Camilliani, Oratorians, Scolopi, and Somaschi were all, to a large degree, products of the Compagnia’s influence.

A direct offspring of the Roman brotherhood was also the Order of Clerks Regular. This was first born in the mind of Gaetano da Thiene and then put into effect with the aid of Carafa and several others. Thiene envisioned it as having a positive impact by promoting a union of simple diocesan priests living a common life dedicated to prayer, proper intellectual formation, sound liturgical performance, good preaching, frequent communion, and selfless works of charity. These were all lessons that he had learned in the school of “divine love” provided by the Compagnia.

Two practices of the Order of Clerks Regular seem to have been particular developments of such lessons. The first of these, based on the recognition of the greater efficacy of any solidly knit organization, was the clear intention of forming an elite corps. The “Theatines”, as they were commonly called, after the Latinized name of Carafa’s See at Chieti, were designed for exclusivity. Not only did they keep from their ranks insufficiently rigorous members but also excluded those who might be useful elsewhere for the work of religious renewal. They thus respected an evangelical division of labor. Hence, in addition to establishing particularly strict rules for the entrance of novices that showed no concern for how this would limit their expansion, the Clerks Regular blocked the efforts of even men of the highest merit to join them. Giberti, the Bishop of Verona, whose reform constitutions for that city’s clergy were later useful as models to Trent, was mercilessly excluded, despite his fervent entreaties. Joining the Theatines would have required an abandonment of his episcopal privileges, and, perhaps, brought an end to the good that he was doing in the Veneto. Indeed, if Thiene had had his way, Carafa himself would not have been admitted, since he, too, would thus be forced to retire from his work of reform in the diocese of Chieti. Only a passionate scene, during which Carafa apparently fell on his knees before Thiene, stating that he would hold the latter responsible for the state of his soul before God on Judgment Day were he not allowed to enter the envisaged Order, occasioned an exceptional bending of what was to be the otherwise inflexible rule.

A second development of the spirit of the Compagnia by the Theatines was their insistence upon an absolute Apostolic Poverty. But this poverty was not elevated above charity as the highest virtue, as it had been with many of the Spiritual Franciscans. Selfless expenditure of one’s energies for the sake of the poor was the rule of “divine love”, and total abandonment of one’s means of survival as a priest became the guidelines for the Theatines. They even rejected the model of Franciscan and Dominican mendicancy. Theatines simply “waited” for whatever aid came their way. Not only did such rigor complete their witness to the life of charitable self-abnegation; it also assisted the work for general renewal, demonstrating to the public the serious commitment of at least some priests in the midst of general clerical laxity. So sincere were the Theatines in this matter that they often lived in abysmal conditions, turning down any offer of steady contributions from regular donors, fearful as they were of anything that would compromise them and cause them to grow lax. Carafa, as required, retired from his diocese, retaining merely the title of bishop, and abandoned all of his revenues and his entire family inheritance. Even after having been named a cardinal under Paul III (1534-1549), he vigorously rebuked every effort to accord him episcopal privileges. In fact, fulfillment of the necessary duties of this princely office, for which he held the greatest respect, often forced him to appeal to the pope for defense from literal hunger. This high road was thus as difficult to negotiate as any that a man might imagine. And it was proof positive that the world that Giovanni delle Celle wished to see destroyed was not beyond redemption.

B. A Much Too Trafficked Low Road

However impressive the travelers on the Catholic high road may have been, the contemporary low road does appear to have been much more clogged with traffic. The voyagers pushing and shoving their way down this thoroughfare plodded along in their familiar mindless way, endlessly repeating their seemingly noble slogans regarding God, man, and “the reform of head and members”. As they did so, they continued to assure one another that they were on the right path to eternity. But the fact that their pleasant sounding slogans were disguising a hike away from transformation in Christ was about to be made clear for all who had eyes to see. For traffic on the low road would soon be openly identified as a march to a kingdom ruled by a doctrine of total depravity. And this doctrine would permit all of the varied “Seeds of the words” to deliver one common deathblow to the concept of correction and exaltation of the individual and his natural environment. Once again, this deathblow was to be delivered in the name of the Christian foundation vision, its apostolic doctrine, and the proper worship of God. It would prove, however, to be the most potent recipe for the victory of the strongest and most willful proponents of the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is” to date. Those partially awakened Catholics who trod this path with some trepidation were to discover that they could do nothing to quell their laudable fears until they ran back to the high road with their whole heart and their whole mind. Would that escape from the low road had not proved to be as difficult both to contemplate as it was to execute!

General treatment of “a reform of head and members” as a meaningless slogan meant that those men and women who were indeed able to climb above petty contemporary concerns to contemplate the world around them from the perspective of the Eternal Word had a pretty dismal view from their loftier heights. Many reformers, horrified by what they saw through the eyes of Christ, found it hard to escape the continued grip of the despair expressed by Giovanni delle Celle. It did not seem to them that there were a sufficient number of ecclesiastical or secular elements healthy enough to encourage the rest of Christendom and give their efforts to correct and transform nature any universally substantive effect. This was the conviction of John Nider (1380-1438), a Dominican thinker passionately dedicated to Church reform no matter what the obstacles in its path. His judgment regarding the hopelessness of a “general” as opposed to a painstakingly slow and piecemeal set of improvements was expressed in a work entitled, appropriately enough, the Formicarius, or the Ant Hill:87

Is there any hope for a general reformation of the Church in its Head and its members? ‘I have’, answers Nider, ‘absolutely none in the present time, or in the immediate future; for goodwill is wanting among the subjects, the evil disposition of the prelates constitutes an obstacle, and, finally, it is profitable for God’s elect to be tried by persecution from the wicked. You may see an analogy in the art of building. An architect, however skillful he may be, can never erect an edifice unless he has suitable material of wood or stone. And if there is wood or stone in sufficient quantity, but no master-builder, there will be no proper house or dwelling. And, if you knew that a house would not be fitting for your friend, or when built would be a trouble for him, you certainly would be prudent enough not to build it.’

Temptations to take the low road to reform and recovery of the grand medieval vision were three-fold. The first and most important of these was the perennial strength of the natural, customary, human “rut”. That rut was, of course, initially dug into man’s soul by Original Sin. Its repeated command to commit oneself to “things as they really are” was the “stuff” that every sophist word merchant counted upon to get on with his labors on behalf of an unchangeable natural order. This rut was deepened and widened still further with each unimaginative, routine response to the repetitive evils of late medieval life. What the age needed was to attack continuously identified evils from the ever-fresh perspective provided by viewing nature with God’s eyes, in and through participation in the life of the correcting and transforming Word. What the age got, for the most part, was the dull, cold shower provided by the wisdom of the rut. And, worse still, this was offered to it as though it actually were the complete, substantive message of the Catholic Faith, working in tandem with an obvious, pragmatic, common sense.

For the clergy, enslavement to the rut signified tunnel vision efforts to attend to immediate, “practical”, clerical matters. Such practical considerations, to begin with, involved doing whatever was necessary to replenish ranks horrifyingly depleted by the various bouts of Plague. Ravages caused by that hideous disease had the effect of opening the clerical estate to almost anyone available, clearly including men eager for nothing more exalted than obtaining three square meals a day with minimal harassment from either ecclesiastical or secular superiors. Rut-like pragmatism also entailed finding some kind of agreeable position once the gap in clerical ranks was eventually in some areas actually even overfilled. The emergence of an often desperate clerical proletariat and underpaid priestly lower class out of the superabundance of the ordained then fanned all manner of angry, materialist, and, ultimately, revolutionary passions. This was especially true when invidious comparisons could be made with the condition of comfortably settled monks, priests, and prelates, many of whom paid scanty wages to replacements from the ranks of the disadvantaged to carry out the functions they either could not legitimately perform or were happy to neglect.

For the laity—whose situation, once again, differed from country to country and from urban to rural areas—commitment to the rut often emerged as the potent downside to its otherwise quite positive corporate-and ritual-drenched spirit. Without reference to the Eternal Word, such a spirit inspired a conviction that one did what he did because that was what he was obliged to do on behalf of the group to which he belonged. It led to the belief that one received what he received from prescribed actions since that was what fulfillment of communal and individual ritual responsibilities definitively promised. Failure to extricate oneself from this rut meant that the fruits that flowed from one’s spiritual labors were viewed mechanically, as a kind of automatic “gift”, emerging necessarily out of the customary structure of things. Anyone interested in the limitations of such an outlook should take a closer look at the frustratingly repetitive problems faced by Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) in his grand tour of the German world in 1451-1452 on behalf of the joint cause of consolidation of papal power and general ecclesiastical reformation and enlightenment.88

One poignant example of the attendant danger to the Catholic vision can be seen with reference to devotion to the Real Presence, which grew ever stronger in the post-reunification era. Although Eucharistic piety is obviously an intrinsically good thing, many of the fruits that communities and individual believers seem to have expected from the display of the consecrated elements, either at Mass or in a monstrance in Church or on procession were secular, mundane, and highly fanciful.

But even when the fruits they awaited were of a higher character, believers generally lacked a recognition that the “seen” Real Presence was a consequence of a sacrifice offered by Christ the High Priest, first of all in the person of the ordained clergyman, but also with the laity united with Him through membership in His Mystical Body. Such a recognition, were it present, would have brought with it an understanding that the truly present Christ should regularly be received and used to make a sacrificial, corrective, and transforming offering of one’s whole life in its natural, social context to Almighty God. For a gift is not the same thing as a sacrificial offering, and Catholics needed a sense of both gift and offering for a complete grasp of the full meaning and methodology of Christ’s redemptive mission. A Christendom based solely on the concept of the gift was reminiscent of the Carolingian era—a time when Redemption for the many seemed to be a reward for the labor of the king-emperor and his clergy alone. It had discouraged that active participation in the pilgrimage to God that reformers of the High Middle Ages knew to be a vast advance on the skeletal work done to implement the Catholic vision before them.89 For a central problem of the “gift mentality” was this: while one waited passively for the gift to be delivered, the rut created by an unexamined cultivation of material desires and social hatreds continued to offer men their main, substantive guidance for the conduct of their daily lives. It was this rut that preachers like St. Bernardino and Savonarola— prudently in the case of the former and tragically impatient in the case of the latter—were vigorously trying to weaken or even entirely overcome.

As noted in the previous chapter, the passions deepening that rut were legion. They pitted rich urban merchants against their less successful comrades; the entire city bourgeoisie against a proletariat that had forcibly been prevented from gaining the higher wages they expected to come its way as a consequence of the labor shortage following the Plague; the ever more impoverished lower nobility against its higher lords, the money men of the cities, as well as a peasantry that had indeed gained the post-Plague privileges that town workers had not; and diverse local authorities mobilized against anyone threatening to impose a more centralized unity upon them. An Italian proverb of the time taught that no man was too poor to own a dagger. Whether the average individual literally owned a weapon or not, it seems all too clear that most men were not ready to drop the daggers they held so tightly in their hearts against their neighbors—even as they watched as many consecrations as time would allow in order to collect as many fruits that a given Sunday morning’s viewing might provide.

There is no better way to tackle the more detailed problems of this all too natural, customary, sinful rut than by focusing our attention, first and foremost, on the Papacy’s continued insistence upon grappling with its own mission in an overwhelmingly political and administrative fashion. Once again, it was not that such matters could or should have been neglected entirely by wise pontiffs. Rome’s power and reputation, along with that of those forces historically allied with it, had, after all, been dragged deeply into the mud by the political and financial shenanigans of the forty-year schismatic circus. A major consequence had been that the “reform” Councils of Pisa and Constance had left the Papacy bereft of a significant proportion of its earlier economic means of survival. Separate negotiations with the various nations that had demanded recognition of their special status at Constance had repaired some of the damage, but most of these had produced temporary concordats allowing for regular, energy draining discussions regarding future Church-State adjustments.90

Martin V (1417-1431) left Constance to return to a still troubled and half devastated Rome. He was practically penniless, unprotected, and even ridiculed by the street urchins along the way, happy to mock the hopelessness of the Homeric tasks lying ahead of him. Martin and almost every single one of his successors for the next century and more saw no other choice than to bury themselves in petty financial concerns, peninsular politics, military actions, and family alliances, merely to be able to ensure their basic economic and personal survival. Finding the means of pacifying and exploiting the resources of the lands directly under their theoretical control—a joint military, political, and business enterprise most popularly symbolized by the dubious exploits of the Della Rovere and Borgia popes, Sixtus IV (1471-1484), Alexander VI (1492-1503), and Julius II (1503-1513)—took up a much greater part of their daily schedule than any supernatural correction and transformation of Christendom as a whole. Unfortunately, it seems to have engaged the greater part of their spirit as well as their labor, making their own repeated reiteration of devotion to “a reform of head and members” a rut-like slogan especially offensive to men truly in love with the more substantive message of the Word in history.91

Rome’s political and military projects, difficult under the best of conditions, were made more so by the strength of the “vassals” of the Papacy, including feudal lords and bourgeois municipalities. None of these subordinates wished to be reintegrated into a seriously functioning Papal State, particularly one that might be firmly rooted in the proper hierarchy of values. Even more dangerous than rebellious subjects were the other rut-buried governments of the Italian peninsula, each of them practicing one form or another of civil control over spiritual activities. Such secular domination they justified with reference to the elegant sufficiency of arguments built up since the High Middle Ages to support mundane interference in the realm of the sublime.

Most perilous of all, in the long run, were the problems presented by what historians call the “new monarchies”: the nation-states of France, Spain, and England. These countries gradually overcame many of their recent, bloody, internal disputes and significantly rebuilt the central powers of their kings during the second half of the fifteenth century. New monarchies were in many respects more parochial minded than their “pre-apocalypse” counterparts. In fact, their mentality might be described as that of petty Italian principalities writ large. Nevertheless, when they set their mind to it, they were able to apply statist principles on a much greater scale than the Republic of Florence or the Duchy of Milan. And this then worked to the ultimate detriment of those fervent Italian models of “business as usual”, whose failure to think their way to a broader political vision ensured their conquest by such new—and much more powerful—self-interested, national entities.

New monarchies successfully blocked most papal efforts to regain a control over dioceses and taxes that had been lost during the Great Western Schism due to the maneuverings and incompetence of the three warring papacies. Monarchical demands and dynastic ability to recruit the parochial “words” of intellectuals on behalf of claims to be a “defender of the peace” were already amply clear at the time of the Council of Constance, when standard operating procedures were altered from those of previous synods precisely in order to represent more narrow national concerns. Praise of “a reform of head and members” coming from French, Spanish, and English lips actually entailed honoring a renewal that bent the Church slavishly to their local priorities—which might or might not be in conformity with the message of the Incarnation. Given that “reform” seems overwhelmingly to have been a question of nationalization of clerical benefices, it generally was not true reform. Full-fledged “national churches”, formally in union with Rome, were, therefore, well on the way to completion. Some of the most noble-minded churchmen of the age even praised these parochial developments as a magnificent display of concern for the original intent of the founding Christian vision. Let us return to Largarde on this subject:92

From the end of the Fourteenth Century, writes Johannes Haller, the Church of England became a Church of the State. With the practical tolerance of certain pontifical interferences alien to her essence, she resembles an already completed construction that is still surrounded by scaffolding. Thus disguised, the Church of the State was already perfected under Richard II. She persisted under the Lancastrians, up until the day that a more personal monarch {i.e., Henry VIII} would judge it good to pull down the useless scaffolding of theoretical privileges of the Holy See.

Approving, from his standpoint, after the Council of Constance, both the ordinance of 1407 and that through which the Dauphin confirmed it in March of 1418, Gerson congratulated the Most Christian King for ‘having solemnly, through a decree registered by the Parlement, promulgated the ancient and legitimate liberties of the Gallican Church’. He judged that the king was right in holding it to be an intolerable error, blemished by an inadmissible usurpation, that anyone should accept ‘any judgment of any pastor whomsoever, even the Supreme Pontiff, that might directly or indirectly oppose this decree. To protect himself against a similar audacity, the king must be able to count upon the support and obedience of his subjects, above all the clergy, who must conform to the prescriptions of the Apostle ordering us to obey the king as excelling all others, above all when he uses his legitimate power to carry out his own oath and protect ecclesiastical liberty’.

Outside political pressures would perhaps have been less troublesome had there been some unity inside Rome herself. Contemporaries might well have considered hopes for such a unity to be the utopian fantasy of men lacking in all natural common sense. For the bitter rivalries of influential families resident in the Eternal City returned along with the destitute but nonetheless still prestigious Roman Pontiffs. These heirs of the Crescenzii and Tusculani fought with one another for positions in the College of Cardinals and for election to the See of Peter with both partisan fury as well as pure pagan joy in combat. So much did both Roman and other noble families court outside assistance and financial support that the cardinals coming from them were accurately referred to as “Florence” or “Venice” or “France” to indicate the true root of their strength as well as the central focus of their “loyalty”. Of course, this supposed loyalty was often put seriously to the test. It could change in character from one moment to the next, depending upon two things: the finances and military fortunes of possible patron states on the one hand, and the political choices made by other “princes” of the Roman Church representing rival families equally committed to undermining the power of the reigning pontiff on the other.

Many of these less than noble-minded cardinals were also perfectly happy to support those decrees of the Council of Constance that emphasized conciliar supremacy. Instead of confirming papal power, they followed Constance in calling for the convening of regular synods to keep the “chief minister of the Church” in line. The Papacy had never really fully accepted the legitimacy of the legislation embodied in the decrees Sacrosancta and Frequens, but several of the councils Constance mandated were, indeed, convoked by the Holy See, and did, in fact, meet. It was in the name of Constance and its theories that the Council of Basel, which stayed in session from 1431 until 1449, soon went down the road of rabid anti-Romanism. In fact, it went so far down that road that it deprived the Papacy of literally almost every single means of material survival, deposed the “tyrannical” Eugene IV (1431-1447) who disapproved of its teaching---and was driven from the Eternal City by local opponents---and created a new schism under the antipope Felix V (1441-1449).

Although proponents of reform almost universally detested the Roman cardinals and the Roman curia, government by council soon took its place close behind these earlier villains in their ever-thickening black books. Already before Pisa and Constance, when the French Church had resorted to national synods to express her outrage over the behavior of Benedict XIII, the tendency of conciliarist theory to accomplish little more than merely cut off excessive papal funding and stop Roman nomination of unacceptable bishops and abbots had become clear. Even then, the idea of government by council and the slogan of “protection of the ancient local Church liberties” had lent themselves to appropriate explanations for the “business as usual” concerns of parochial political interests and the advancement of the careers of unworthy clerical and academic opportunists. It was at least partly due to recognition of this truth that substantial opposition to tampering with central papal authority rather quickly arose from the ranks of a French episcopacy and a University of Paris that had at first been tempted down the conciliarist path.93

Moreover, constant supervision of the Papacy was tedious, and the endless Council of Basel suffered badly from neglect by the “sovereign bishops repressed by Roman tyranny” who were supposed to rule the Church through its organs. Prelates basically left its conduct in the hands of ambitious scholars and benefice-hungry lesser clerics eager to exaggerate their role in the formation of Catholic doctrine and the administration of ecclesiastical affairs. Whatever prestige that synod might have possessed was squandered through the almost unbelievable money-grubbing of Felix V. Himself a secular ruler, the master of the Duchy of Savoy in his former life, Felix was painfully aware of just how little funding the “reforms” of Basel left him and just how much this ended by depriving the Council Fathers—whoever they might actually be—of any real impact as well. For in the final analysis, the Council of Basel, as the excellent, though embittered Strasbourg reform preacher Geiler von Kaysersberg (1445-1510) noted, was not even powerful enough to reform a single convent of nuns in the city in which it was still in session—once the local municipal council expressed its opposition to any change.94 Reform, in the hands of the conciliar opponents of the plenitude of papal power, might just as readily have been labeled a total sell-out to secular self-interest and an open proclamation of ecclesiastical impotence.

In sum, despite the constantly reiterated statements of devotion to a “reform of head and members”, the low road was the route of preference in the post-reunion era. Church life was characterized by a succession of unseemly secular machinations, guided by religious leaders chosen primarily for their political and financial talents or contacts. Popes, even the best of them, were simply too busy seeking political survival to take their supernatural mission to heart for lengthy periods of time. The bad pontiffs were often under justifiable suspicion for condoning the most despicable of crimes. Government by councils had proven to be a recipe for the rule of more parochial forces equally if not more deeply buried in the earthbound rut. Under these circumstances, no cynic could be blamed for identifying power and money as the main concerns of the Church or for citing indifference to the life of the spirit as positive aids to the success of a clerical career—whether in the service of Papacy or council.

No wonder, then, that the external crusading ideal that had been the chief practical inspiration for the medieval reform movement continued to suffer.95 We last discussed this vision with reference to the bad and costly joke that crusading seemed to have become after the resounding failure of the massive efforts of Blessed Gregory X to galvanize everyone behind a grand eastern assault in the 1270’s. Yes, there were a vast number of suggestions following the shock of the fall of Acre in 1291 regarding how best to move the whole enterprise forward, with calls for either one massive or many small campaigns, for the unification of the crusading orders, and for the designation of the King of France as commander in chief of the entire enterprise prominent among them. Unfortunately, however, the one truly impressive effort designed to clear the land route to Constantinople in 1396 under Sigismund (1368-1437), the King of Hungary and future Holy Roman Emperor, led to an embarrassing rout at the disastrous Battle of Nicopolis.

After that point, the movement appears to have become still more farcical. One cannot escape the conviction that for every man seriously engaged in crusading debates, there were a score of others who saw them either as merely highly entertaining rhetorical jousts or as opportunities for a storytelling useful solely for the further building of noble or merchant city prestige and privileges back at home. Certainly the work of the most active of the fourteenth and fifteenth century crusading orders, the Teutonic Knights, whose annual campaigns attracted soldiers from throughout Europe to their Baltic sphere of influence, overwhelmingly continued to appear to many reformers to be nothing other than self-serving humbug. And this became all the more obvious once the Lithuanians, whose paganism had served as justification for their “apostolate” in the region, converted to Roman Catholicism and joined in political union with the Kingdom of Poland.

Moreover, that aspect of the internal crusade that Innocent III and Blessed Gregory X thought most necessary for the success of the external one—namely, the reunion of the churches—was also impossibly obstructed by the strength of the customary rut. This is not to say that the reunion Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-1446/1447) did not involve the active participation of a number of serious “high road” personalities, East and West, as well as precisely that debate of major doctrinal issues that the Greeks had always wanted and the Romans, up until this point, had sought to avoid. In fact, practically everything, from Trinitarian questions to the nature of sanctity itself, was examined at Ferrara-Florence in some detail. Nevertheless, the entire venture clearly reflected major tunnel vision problems, along with a lack of Christian charity and solid pilgrim spirit.19

Greek and Roman Christians had discovered ever more grounds for division since Patriarch Cerularius founded his own disputes with the West chiefly upon the matter used by the Latin Church for confecting the Eucharist: a distinction that still rankled in eastern minds in the fifteenth century. Aside from other long-term disagreements regarding the Procession of the Holy Spirit, the recitation of the filioque clause in the Latin Creed, and mandated clerical celibacy, the atmosphere had been further poisoned due to newer debates over the fully developed concept of the plenitude of papal power, the doctrine of Purgatory, the validity of scholastic speculative theology, as well as teachings underlining the Hesychast spirituality discussed in the previous chapter. Given the increasing number and depth of the quarrels, many modern observers have quipped that perhaps the only thing that would have significantly contributed to a friendlier atmosphere would have been eastern joy at seeing Eternal Rome sacked, thereby avenging the savaging of the Queen City of Constantinople at the hands of a western “crusading” army in 1204.20

Interestingly enough, many contemporary Greek prelates, the venerable Patriarch Joseph II (1360-1439) of Constantinople among them, were deeply interested in Church reunion. On the other hand, most were so hardened in their positions that nothing would allow them to see the contradictions in their familiar apologetics, or to take the conclusions of an honest theological debate seriously. Their narrowness of approach allowed them to attack the tyranny of papal claims while treating the Patriarch of Constantinople as “Father of the Churches” and defining his relationship to eastern bishops in a way that seemed to parallel the Roman ecclesiastical theories they claimed to detest. Their disdain for “Latin” philosophy as something utterly destructive of Tradition blinded them to the central role that the Greek Fathers had played in adapting Platonic teachings and Aristotelian logic to explicate Christian dogmas. Finally, their flawed ecclesiology and political closure to the pilgrim dance of life was reflected in their continued commitment to the idea of a necessary and eternal union of the Church with the rapidly collapsing authority of the Roman Emperor. This comes across very clearly in the response of Patriarch Antony IV (d. 1397) to the growing pretensions of the Turk-free Grand Duchy of Moscow:21

If the Byzantine Patriarch is the Ecumenical Patriarch, this is, in effect, because he is the Bishop of Constantinople, the second Rome. Rome was once the first because she was the capital of the Roman Empire: since Constantine, the true capital of the Roman Empire is Constantinople: it is just that her bishop has received the succession of the Roman Pontiff, who nevertheless retained before the ‘schism’ (let it be understood that it was Rome that caused the schism) a primacy of honor and a role of judge. The universality of the Church coincides with the notion of a universal empire, which the imperial Byzantine ideology never renounced. John Kalekas expresses this without detours when he writes, in the text cited above, that Constantinople is ‘the seat of the Church of God and of the Empire that comes from him’. The most explicit presentation of this theme is nevertheless found in a much later text, one that is much closer to the disaster befalling the Empire: in 1393, Anthony IV writes to Grand Duke Basil of Moscow, who wants to suppress mention of the Byzantine Emperor in the liturgies celebrated on his territory. The letter reaffirms the universality of the Church, that of the Byzantine Empire (on which all other sovereigns depend, qualified as ‘local sovereigns’), and the indissoluble bond between the two: ‘The Emperor holds in the Church a place that no local sovereign can have. It is the Emperors who have confirmed religion throughout the universe, called together the Ecumenical Councils, sanctioned the canons, combated the heresies, established the primates, the division of provinces and dioceses: this is what justifies their dignity and their place in the Church. Of course the pagans created the power and role of the Emperor. Nonetheless, the sacred Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans receives from the Church today the same ordination, the same rank, the same prayers (liturgical commemorations) and great anointing. …For Christians, there is no Church without the Emperor; Empire and Church are tightly united’. In consequence, the Patriarch, who is the symmetrical correspondent of the Emperor, is the head of the Church. Anthony calls himself ‘the universal doctor of Christians’; he ‘holds the place of Christ’: in Latin terms, he is the ‘Vicar of Christ’, a title that in the West is reserved to the Pope. This astonishing text, almost anachronistic, takes up the ancient themes of the imperial ideology, elaborated in the first centuries of the Christian Empire: as there is only one Christ in heaven, there is only one Empire on the earth, where the Emperor takes care for bodies and the Patriarch for souls.

Admittedly, there were good reasons even for open-minded easterners to consider the Council of Ferrara-Florence a less than purely spiritual event. It was a political and religious “hot potato” from the moment of its conception. Deciding who would host such a reunion synod pitted the supporters of Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447) and the doctrine of the plentitude of papal power against the Council of Basle (1431-1444) with its call for a constitutional and synodal form of Church governance. Finding a home for the gathering stirred up international and interurban fears and rivalries, while its change of venues reflected the troubled state of a mid-century Italy plagued by the ambitions of the Duke of Milan and the ravages of the condottieri at his service. Besides this, the choice of the Eastern Emperor for a papal-guided council was understood by many to be a basically military decision, one that favored Eugenius over the conciliarists simply for being most capable of eliciting aid for a beleaguered Constantinople from western princes.

A determined imperial concern for gaining the succor of the West, together with the good will of the universally esteemed patriarch and the eagerness for a serious reunion on the part of the pope and a number of Latin and Greek prelates, ultimately succeeded in bringing the council to life in 1438. What then took place was a late medieval Blitzkrieg, with the Latins overwhelming their generally much less well-educated eastern counterparts on issue after issue. The Greek Acts of the Council record numerous debates in which the westerners clearly demonstrated four crucial points: that their supposed errors were actually essential developments of doctrine explicating the unchanging Faith under pressure of historical challenges to its teaching; that Church Fathers and saints honored by all of the synod’s participants could be shown to agree with what the Latins had said and done; that a number of the causes for division were due to exaggerated concern for purely local customs; and that failure to allow a pilgrim Church to deepen her knowledge and presentation of Catholic doctrine was tantamount to a declaration of paralysis condemning the Mystical Body of Christ to impotence in the face of fresh dangers to religion.

Men like Bessarion of Nicaea (c. 1403-1472), Isidore of Kiev (1385-1463), the lay imperial advisor George Scholarius (c. 1400-c. 1473), and the patriarch himself were deeply impressed by what they heard. Their realization that the grounds for the schism were to a large degree illusory, and that Greek adherence to an unexamined Tradition had blinded them to their own internal disagreements on many important matters, led them to support the Union of the Churches. As Scholarius noted:22

But you all see that the Latins have contended brilliantly for the faith so that no one with a sense of justice has any reason to reproach them….They brought forward from the common Fathers of the Church the six most renowned in dignity, wisdom and the struggles for the faith (I pass over the others) as witnesses of their doctrine, each of whom must be judged the equal of all the men in the world, and those not just incidentally and casually but as if they were for us judges of the present dispute. They argued so precisely and clearly, expressing the question in exact words as befits teachers, appending also the reasons and the texts of Holy Scripture from which they had drawn that doctrine as an inevitable conclusion, just as they culled others from other texts….Besides, they put forward others from the common Fathers, those of the East I mean, adorned with an equal wisdom and honour who said, they too, just the same as those others, though not so plainly, if their words are examined in a spirit of truth and wisdom, and they offered in proof of their doctrine no merely specious reasoning, no coercion, but everything straightforwardly and as flowing from the divine Scriptures and the Fathers. On our part nothing was said to them to which they did not manifestly reply with wisdom, magnanimity and truth, and we have no Saint at all who clearly contradicts them. If indeed there were such, he should in some fashion or manner be made to harmonise with the majority much more justly than that the multitude of the Teachers should be forced into his mould….Nor shall we say that the Doctors are mutually contradictory, for this is to introduce complete confusion and to deny the whole of the faith. Who is so simple-minded as to believe that the Latins wish to destroy the faith and to adulterate the trinitarian theology of all the Doctors? Surely a man who affirms this deserves nothing but ridicule, for no accusation would be disproved by more numerous, more weighty and more truthful arguments than this one.

Almost all of their colleagues joined these men in accepting Union in July of 1439, but seemly more out of bewilderment, frustration, and homesickness than any truly deep conviction. A few, such as Mark of Ephesus (1392-1444), remained adamantly and openly opposed to reconciliation throughout the council and its conclusion. Their grounds for rejecting it were based upon a mixture of their general parochial stubbornness with the particular accusation that the documents supposedly demonstrating the agreement of the eastern and western saints had been distorted at Latin hands. Hence, Bessarion’s justified lamentation:23

They brought forward passages not only of the western teachers but quite as many of the eastern…to which we had no reply whatsoever to make except that they were corrupt and corrupted by the Latins. They brought forward our own Epiphanius as in many places clearly declaring that the Spirit is from the Father and the Son: corrupt we said they were. They read the text mentioned earlier in Basil’s work against Eunomius: in our judgment it was interpolated. They adduced the words of the Saints of the West: the whole of our answer was ‘corrupt’ and nothing more. We consider and consult among ourselves for several days as to what answer we shall make, but find no other defence at all but that…

Patriarch Joseph died in Florence. Bessarion and Isidore went on to become cardinals. Mark, along with those of his compatriots who had opposed the Union in their hearts while voting in its favor, stayed on the offensive after returning home, maintaining an unchanging polemic that ignored the substance of what was discussed at the council. They continued to harp regularly on the same rut-inspired themes: that the Latins were ipso facto heretics; that they were indisputable manipulators of fraudulent texts; and that the Greeks who had accepted the Union had done so either due to unbearable political pressure or to outright bribery. So effective was this approach that, despite the best efforts of the succeeding patriarch, the emperor did nothing to promote the work of Florence. So effective was it that George Scholarius—an admirer of western theology, a translator of St. Thomas Aquinas, and one of the most scathing critics of the ignorance and parochialism of his fellow Greeks at the synod—repudiated his earlier acceptance of East-West friendship. This rejection of the Church Union translated into a general indifference to the outcome of the final conflict with the Turks in 1453. And it may not be far from the truth to say that the Sultan in effect rewarded Scholarius, now known by the monastic name of Gennadius, for his anti-western sentiment---by calling upon him to become the first Patriarch of Constantinople under Moslem rule. In short, another nail had been driven into the coffin of East-West understanding, burying hopes of Christian unity still further. Willful, stubborn, parochial-minded words had trumped a proper respect for the message of the Word.24

But no one should think that most westerners were particularly far-sighted in outlook either. Petty political and military goals designed to gain the power and riches that “common sense” told them were needed to keep the machine of “nature as is” on even keel were everywhere more important in the minds of most clergy, kings, princes, and merchant republics than unifying Christians and protecting Christendom from invasion. Italian maritime cities in particular judged the level of their support for the Christian East on the basis of the financial gains that might flow from its success. They had begun to weigh the greater profit that might be realized through active cooperation with the Ottoman Turks from the moment that ferrying infidel soldiers and families across the Bosporus from Asia into Europe proved to be lucrative. A public reiteration of old crusading themes was of significance to them—as it was to many a powerful Christian king or knight—only insofar as it could be effective in stalling for time as they eked out a bit more gold from their “business as usual” enterprises.

We have seen that when confronted with the self-seeking of the late Empire, St. Augustine had wondered aloud if there were anyone who was still concerned for the common good. When looking at the relationship of East and West from the standpoint of the Moslem threat, and with respect to the union of the Churches that would strengthen Christendom’s ability to respond to it, one is tempted to pose the same question. Was there anyone who put the cause of the Eternal Word and the defense of the lands where His message had taken root above the mystical, ethnic, or varied materialist demands of their own parochial tunnel vision?

Yes, some men were, such as those who took part in the Battle of Varna in 1444. It was here that one of the chief Latin Fathers at the Council of Florence, Giulio Caesarini, died, while serving as papal legate with the unsuccessful crusading army Eugenius had helped to raise for the defense of Constantinople. Clearly, however, most were not. It is little wonder then, that Pope Pius II (1458-1464), in the wake of the capture of Constantinople in 1453, when the need for a true military crusade was the greatest, lamented the western game-playing of his age, and placed greater hopes in the conversion of Mohammed the Conqueror than in aid from the hypocritical Christian population.25

In a long and eloquent letter he attempted to convert the Sultan Mohammed II to Christianity. If he accepted baptism, the Pope wrote, a second Roman Empire might arise in the East, with Mohammed at its head. Pius reminded the Sultan that Clovis had brought Christianity to the Franks, and Constantine to the Romans; he depicted a Europe once more united and, for the first time in centuries, at peace. The epistle…was widely circulated in Europe, but whether it ever even reached the Sultan is not known.

Despairing of both Turkish conversion as well as princely assistance, Pius assumed personal leadership of the crusade that he had called to liberate the East. His subsequent death in Ancona, while vainly awaiting the help of the flower of western chivalry—which had organized many a splendid banquet as pleasant venues in which to take the Cross—demonstrated how little even a pope could do when one was actually aroused to take his responsibilities as defender of Christendom from external assault seriously.26

The Duke of Burgundy now said that he was too old to come. The King of France, exasperated by the Pope’s recent support of the accession to the Kingdom of Naples of Ferrante of Aragon, sent word that he could join no Crusade so long as he was still at war with England. England—torn by the Wars of the Roses—sent a similar message. Frederick III was engaged in invading the Kingdom of Hungary, while the envoys of that country—which alone, in the recent past, had defended Europe against the Turks—bitterly complained of this new menace. No single voice was raised to echo the old Crusade cry: ‘Deus lo vult—it is God’s will!’ Of the Italian rulers, Borso d’Este declared that his astrologers forbade him to attend; Malatesta suggested the employment of Italian mercenaries, but only to get their pay for himself. The Florentines and Venetians both feared the loss of their eastern trade, but Venice promised to furnish sixty galleys, if every expense was paid from the general treasury and she was given the supreme command of the naval forces and awarded the spoils of the war. ‘To a Venetian’, the Pope commented, ‘everything is just that is good for the State; everything pious that increases the Empire’.

In all the history of the Crusades there are few episodes more pathetic than this journey of the dying Pope up the Tiber and across the Apennines—well aware that his enterprise was doomed. Often, as they drew near the coast, his attendants would draw the curtains of his litter, so that he might not see the bands of deserters who, scenting the prospect of defeat, were fleeing home before they had even begun to fight…The last Crusade was over, with the death of the only man who had believed in it.

Pius II was an exceptional figure even in Rome herself. His own cardinals and curia looked upon his crusading fervor as nothing more than so much madness. After all, it interfered with the more practical business of local political and financial gain. Their calculations allowed no role for “fools for Christ”, with their naïve commitment to the common cause of the Word made flesh. As Chateaubriand would later remark, there are ages when far-sightedness and commitment are taken as signs of dull-witted limitation rather than prophetic genius and virtue. This was definitely one of them. It was an era that belonged to the Rut Triumphant when what was needed for the cause of Christ was an age dominated by the Church Militant. In order for that to happen, however, a better ecclesiology explaining what the nature of that militancy truly ought to be was desperately required. In short, the Long March to the death camp governed through the triumph of the willful was definitively picking up speed.

C. The Progress of the “Seeds of the Words”

But let us remember that Christendom’s burial in mankind’s Original Rut was not the sole reason for the traffic on the clogged low road to “a reform of head and members” in the post-reunification period. “Seeds of the words” continued to grow after 1418 as fast as, if not even more swiftly than beforehand. These more conscious and thoughtful stimuli to the Long March to 1517 and beyond must be addressed in two separate steps. First of all, we need to look to the “seed” represented by the intellectual and spiritual forces that had emerged before the mini-apocalypse of the fourteenth century and had already once combined to chastise the Roman Church for “abandoning the Christian foundation vision”. Secondly, we must turn our attention to an examination of another such germ, emerging from negative aspects of the “back to the sources” movement encouraged in parallel but different ways by Renaissance Humanism and the devotio moderna.

Little more needs to be added to what has already been said about the influence of Marsilius of Padua. We have seen that he was too complex, innovative, and contradictory a voice to found a discernable school of thought to carry on his teaching. But, once again, the radical legalism that Marsilius represented and the spirit behind his vision of a single, secular-religious community guided by the civil authorities was certainly very much alive in the practical political activity of the Italian city-states of his home peninsula. Although Marsilius’ writings figured prominently in the Songe de Vergier, the collection of legalist texts commissioned by King Charles V (1364-1380) of France, and Niccolò Machiavelli’s (1469-1527) Prince (1515) seems to take up his concern for a monist, secular-guided society, Ockham’s more Catholic-sounding approach to secularization—his alternative good story—also played a role in both. Furthermore, a French and Machiavellian hunt for a secular-sacred State whose political decisions changed according to whatever “worked” to confirm and strengthen the sway of a given willful ruler certainly sounds more like Ockham than it does Marsilius. Nevertheless, it is only the continued presence of at least some Catholic faith or the total lack thereof that indicates whether the influence of the Englishman or the Italian was ultimately the greater.

William of Ockham’s extreme Nominalism continued to thrive. Eighteen new universities were founded in Europe between 1348 and 1506, and the via moderna in philosophy dominated most of them, including Innocent III’s great “think tank” of Paris herself. Men ranging from Nicholas of Autrecourt (c. 1299-c. 1369) to Pierre d’Ailly (1350-c.1420) and Jean Gerson (1363-1429) demonstrated its hold on the greatest minds of the age. The new (1477) University of Tübingen, with its admittedly somewhat eclectic luminary, Gabriel Biel (c. 1420-1495), was particularly important in Nominalism’s immediate pre-Reformation history. Everywhere that the so-called via moderna in philosophy ruled, the overriding importance of the divine will was stressed. Yes, men like Biel used divine willfulness to emphasize the arbitrary contract that God had made with men that happily---and irrevocably--- guaranteed that their good works would gain them eternal salvation. But other Nominalists feared that his position unacceptably limited God’s liberty, cheapened appreciation of His gratuitous gift to men, lulled them into a semi-Pelagian smugness regarding the value of their free will actions, and thereby contributed to the quid pro quo “rut” mentality poisoning the age. While struggling towards Luther’s God of absolute willfulness, unmoved by “good” human actions, they satisfied themselves with a basically willful and arbitrary Church. Hence, the approach of the influential and deeply pious theologian and reformer, Pierre d’Ailly:27

But we are not altogether without clues to the spirit that animated his reforming activities. And those clues point—unexpectedly perhaps, but certainly with no little insistence—to the centrality of his preoccupation with ecclesiastical authority. Even his early theological writings make unambiguously clear how very great an emphasis he was prone to place, in matters religious as well as moral and legal, on will, power, and authority. At its very deepest, according to him, the roots of obligation are engaged, not in the persuasive grounds of reason, but in the executive prescriptions of the will. It is not from the rational ends it serves, however compelling they maybe, that every law, divine and natural no less than human, derives its obligating force, but rather from the command or prohibition of the competent superior authority.

Of all the themes emphasized in the imperial coalition of the first half of the fourteenth century, the most high-minded was the summons to “return” to the life of Apostolic Poverty. When such a call does not dethrone charity as the highest of virtues and works together with a healthy pilgrim spirit accepting the reality of historical change and development of doctrine it can serve as one of the most noble of tools for remedying the practical conduct of life according to the dictates of “nature as is”. We have seen that the Observant Franciscan cultivation of Apostolic Poverty was just such a “high road” venture in the era under consideration, and one that did indeed avoid the false steps taken by its Spiritual forbears. So, also, was the path that was trod by the Theatines. But, unfortunately, banners tying Apostolic Poverty with a foundation vision filled with heretical implications for the structure of the Church as a whole were hoisted alongside those proclaiming more modest goals.

Remaining English Lollards continued to wave one such flag, but Czech supporters of Apostolic Poverty raised most of them.28 The latter had been stimulated by earlier developments in Britain following the marriage of King Richard II to a Czech bride and the subsequent quite close ties of Oxford with the new imperial University of Prague. Students returning to Central Europe from studies in England brought Wycliffe’s writings with them, where they influenced Jan Huss (c. 1369-1415), priest and preacher in Czech at the Bethlehem Chapel in the imperial city.

It was not really Wycliffe’s heresy that gripped this brilliant but somewhat inconsistent reformer’s mind and heart. Nor was it any desire to offer the laity an excuse to expropriate the clergy to satisfy its own equally earthbound ambitions. Rather, Hus was attracted by his perception of Wycliffe as a militant fellow traveler of an already potent Bohemian reform movement seeking both a pious secular society as well as a purified Church. Wycliffe’s symbolic appeal to Huss was so great that he began appropriating the Englishman’s heretical terminology in defending his own generally much more moderate outlook.

This was at least partly due to the fact that the atmosphere at the University of Prague was also heated by a bitter rivalry between German supporters of the Nominalism of the via moderna and Czechs who, like Wycliffe, were Realists of the via antiqua school. Whatever the reasons, Huss’ insistence on calling upon the English heretic’s arguments bewildered his judges at the Council of Constance—both Cardinals Zabarella and D’Ailly as well as Jean Gerson. Nevertheless, as good Nominalists themselves, the judges saw contumacy before an assertion of the divine authority of the Church as more than sufficient grounds for his condemnation anyway. Huss’ judgment and execution, despite the safe conduct provided him by the Emperor Sigismund, intensified Bohemian rage against a corrupt and unjust Church that the dead man’s preaching had helped mightily to arouse.

Still, the Hussite Movement that takes its name from him was highly complex. Yes, it exalted the role of the Bible in Church life, though not everywhere in the all-encompassing spirit that Wycliffe had encouraged. Moreover, rather than rejecting Transubstantiation, a large number of Huss’ supporters gave voice to the growing Eucharistic piety of the age, expressed, in their case, in a longing to receive Holy Communion under the forms of both bread and wine. And, far from favoring the imperial State authorities who were condemned for betraying Huss, it pursued still more vigorously the earlier Czech passion for a general reform of all of society, lay as well as clerical. Unfortunately, this passion, in the hands of its much more radical Taborite faction, evolved into a demand for the swift creation of a Republic of Virtue, participation in which was made dependent upon one’s public commitment to personal holiness—and apparently his ethnic background as well. Under such conditions, the painfully difficult confirmation, correction, and transformation of nature proclaimed through the message of the Word in history to all of mankind took on more and more of the characteristics of a willful, parochial, revolutionary Purge. Nuance and self-criticism in this zealous religious cleansing were as little welcome as any other satanic temptation. Besides, how could a Czech saint, an “obvious” servant of God, support anything that was wrong? Or a German sinner, an “obvious” tool of the devil, defend anything that might actually be right?

A joint Church and State crusade against self-proclaimed rebels to the Council of Constance and the Empire was inevitable. But insofar as that crusade failed to recognize and deal with the complexity of the natural and supernatural issues involved in the Hussite uprising as a whole, it threatened merely to intensify outrage over the pursuit of rut-inspired political and personal self-interests under the masquerade of service to the universal cause of Christendom. Failed or woefully incomplete efforts to separate the political from the religious elements active in the whole Hussite Movement occupied a good deal of the energy of the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire of the fifteenth century. Such efforts were stalled by the conflict of the Council of Basel with Pope Eugenius IV. They were also thwarted by the violent internal squabbles of the moderate Utraquists—those concerned primarily with the reception of the Sacrament under both species—and the more radical Hussite factions. The final result was two-fold. Frustrated radicals nursed a bitterness ready to explode anew when a stronger enemy of the complex and serious work required to assure true transformation of men and society in Christ appeared on the central European scene in the first decades of the following century. Meanwhile, the first purely local and parochial- minded “church” on European soil—that of the Bohemian Utraquists—was pragmatically “accepted” by Roman pontiffs who understood that its basic subordination of a universal religion to national religious feeling bode no good for the future.29

“Seeds of the words” nurtured in a millenarian and apocalyptic environment were soon to be powerfully fertilized by a general account of the whole of history highly detrimental to the Roman Catholic Church and her work of correction of nature and transformation of all things in Christ. For mobilization of the past, along with the power to define the “true” foundation stones of western civilization and identify their “real” friends and enemies, was about to slip more definitively from her hands. Both were to fall under the control of men literally more interested in “words” than in the substance of the Word; words that would then be shaped into black legends and alternative good stories manipulated by a Grand Coalition of the Status Quo that would now finally emerge from the underbrush into the full light of day.

Negative features of Renaissance Humanism powerfully assisted this unfortunate development.30 Problems arose partly because of the exaggerated reactions of many humanists to the admittedly flawed tunnel vision of high medieval logicians, Aristotelians, and legalists. There is no doubt that such men’s militant narrowness had indeed done much to weaken that western cultivation of literary culture that was still very strong in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Alas, humanist rage grew to the point of turning an understandable campaign for the proper appreciation of ancient rhetorical culture into a real historical vendetta against a stylistically barren and therefore supposedly totally barbaric medieval civilization.

Systematic, speculative theology, the kind of theology that leaned heavily upon logic and other philosophical tools to build the grand cathedrals of Christian thought characteristic of medieval scholasticism, was among the prime targets of their barbs. The theme of a blind Dark Age, guided by overblown and drably expressed dogmatic and canonical visions out of touch with natural human life, was created. Such a thesis could not help but appeal to varied representatives of that wide swath of the population outraged by the financial grasping of the Avignon Papacy, the two and three courts of the Great Western Schism, and the political, military, and social disasters of the fourteenth century in general. It also attracted those followers of the devotio moderna who felt that medieval Christianity had chained the Faith in soul-killing theological, philosophical, and legalist fetters, thereby drying up the literary sources of past religious inspiration, which would have provided a healthy stimulus to the intuitive and more solid spiritual sense of the simple human heart.

An anti-medieval vendetta was accompanied by an unquestioning cult of the ancient world, an adulation of its founders and their will, and a desire to return to a life shaped by the choices outlined by them in the past. In short, a passion was awakened on the part of certain humanists and kindred spirits for a Second Childhood, whose heroic interpreters and standard bearers the man of letters now became. All of the talent, wit, and literary feel for “turning an argument” that lay at the disposal of the rhetorician committed to such a Second Childhood was put to the work of praising the genius of the Fathers of Antiquity as an infallible given. Similarly, those who suggested any need for prudence and criticism of the distant past were mocked as impassioned but obscurantist cave dwellers.

It was to this preferential option for the ancient that later historians awarded the positive title of the Renaissance. Rediscovery and imitation of ancient man, its cultists insisted, would inevitably create a better world in all regards, spiritual as well as natural. On the one hand, a less intellectual, less structured, less legalistic, more scriptural, and more patristic-minded Christianity would thereby be fashioned. On the other, Greco-Roman philosophical, political, and social wisdom, expressed in that accessible literary form that the aesthetic spirit of classical culture considered to be the best way of spreading knowledge, would guide men to a more ordered and fulfilling secular life. Both, together, as the Neo-Platonist, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) indicated, would permit “man the microcosm” to put all the wisdom of the universe at his service to complete his emergence from the darkness of the cave into the fullness of the light, there to fulfill his superhuman potential. The discovery of a literal New World at the very end of the fifteenth century seemed to confirm the validity of a fresh hope for the dawn of a bright and better morn, built ever more firmly upon the wisdom of the ancient founders of Greco-Roman-Christian civilization.

Although the attack on the past was noticeable everywhere that the influence of the Renaissance penetrated, the bitterness of the battle of the cult of Second Childhood against medieval obscurantism was perhaps most harsh in the Lowlands and the German world. It was here that the satirical writings of the greatest of the proponents of a happier, more intuitive, ancient Christianity, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), had their most powerful impact. It was here also that that famous struggle of contemporary scholarly demands against criticism of the possible accompanying dangers known as the Reuchlinstreit burst out, firing up the passion for the religious revolution that was to follow literally hot upon its heels.31

This conflict pitted Renaissance Humanism in the person of Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522) and his supporters against the forces marshaled behind the Catholic theologian, Johannes Pfefferkorn (1469-1523). Reuchlin, a Hebrew scholar among his many other accomplishments, argued that a familiarity with the books of the Cabbala was essential to mastering a complete knowledge of the structure of that language and the proper meaning of its words. Pfefferkorn, a Jewish convert, was horrified by the anti-Christian, anti-Creationist, and pronounced magical spirit of the cabbalistic writings, along with the discernable impact reading them had on believers in both the New and the Old Covenants. Brilliantly satirized by men like Ulrich von Hutten (1488-1523) in the Letters of Obscure Men (1515-1517), Pfefferkorn was enraged by the flippancy with which many humanists, whether sincerely or cynically, were treating the dangers that playing with false ideas could pose to Christian Faith and morality. And it is indeed with his well-grounded rage and fear for Catholic Truth that we arrive at the central problem of the low road followers of the Renaissance.

That there was an immense value to Renaissance critiques of the hidebound character of the universities, the gross superstitions of many individual clerics and monks, and the sterile use of speculative logic in the hands of mediocre disciples of the great thinkers of both the via antiqua as well as the via moderna is undeniable. But much Renaissance cultivation of a Second Childhood mentality amounted to little more than a simplistic promotion of yet another depressing form of tunnel vision: one that adulated the ancient literary past and its sophist non-speculative elements. Many Renaissance men of tunnel vision insisted that the literary approach was the guide of man through earthly life to eternal union with God, and that only literati could lead this pilgrim enterprise. The rhetorician became the heroic key to an elevated temporal existence and to eternity as well. He was both political and social orator as well as theologian, philosopher, and preacher, all at one and the same time. Should the Church remain closed to his rhetorical preoccupations and endeavors, such blindness would signify that the Mystical Body of Christ was herself an enemy of man and God. In short, the spirit of Isocrates had returned with a vengeance.

Alas, the Church was all too open to the Second Childhood mentality in the era of the Rut Triumphant, when whatever “worked” to gain political and financial security seemed best for the cause of the Word Incarnate. She, like the State, quickly learned that the employment of a talented humanist as a spokesman was, as Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402) of Milan ruefully noted, worth a great deal more than a well-outfitted army for protecting the demands of “business as usual”. The blessings of “nature as is” that the humanist was capable of enumerating were legion; the noble sounding “appropriate explanations of the satisfaction of passion” that he could provide were inimitable. Active in Church service from the days of Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) onwards, humanist invasion of the papal court was especially assured when two of their number, Nicholas V (1447-1455) and Pius II (1458-1464), ascended to the throne of Peter.

An outline of all the specific problems born through abandonment to the Second Childhood tunnel vision of certain Renaissance humanists would be a Herculean task. Still, its general profoundly negative effect must be emphasized. Rather than a salutary liberation of Christianity from the deadening fetters of speculative scholastic and legal thought, all that such abandonment achieved was to tighten the grip upon the Church of the academic sophist, the unthinking pedant, the lover of words for words’ sake, and the murderer of a living Tradition that had actually been maturing in wisdom and in pilgrim spirit since its infancy. In the name of the blessings offered by Seeds of the Logos and the childhood of the Faith, this new parochialism worked to stifle the present existence offered by a pilgrim-minded Church that had corrected, transformed, and matured these ancient germs and that early youth more fully than any primitive Christian could have imagined.

Sad to say, such frivolous playing with words for words’ sake had more disastrous effects still. On the one hand, the supporter of a Second Childhood mentality ridiculed the brilliant achievements of medieval speculative theology, philosophy, and mystical thought, and mocked the canonical and administrative backbone of the Church—once again, her whole living Tradition and Body. On the other, he blithely presumed that nothing around him could ever undermine his simple, intuitive Christian Faith and behavior. But this was all too far from the truth. Even if the amount of humbug in the commentaries on the glosses of the tomes of the great speculative philosophers and theologians equaled their solid meat for the mind, a total destruction of the work of the intellect was no way to end the influence of truly obscurantist and secularizing dross. With substantive thought denigrated, the average priest, noble, merchant, or peasant buried in the routine of the era of the Rut Triumphant would not know what to say to defend Catholic Faith and morals should the day come that they would be subject to serious attack. At best, he would be able to point to his personal sentiments and passionate emotions, or call up the prettiest words he could string together from Scripture or pious, mystical writers to emphasize his intuitive feelings. At worst, the pressure finally to think through the rut of his daily routine might cause him to see that this, for him, was indeed based on sand; that the logic of a life that really required little or nothing in the way of any sacrificial change, perhaps actually demanded a frank acceptance of the vision of “nature as is”. All that was then needed was the opening of a full-fledged recruitment center for the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo to entice him to fly the Catholic coop and join in the open warfare of the “old time words” against the Eternal Word.

Once again, there is no better commentator on the dangers of this anti-intellectual Second Childhood approach than the great twentieth century English historian of the Roman Catholic Church, Philip Hughes. It is worth quoting at some length his joint critique of the work of the devotio moderna and of Desiderius Eramus—much of which he quite rightly appreciates—in order to get a complete sense of the suicidal disarmament their deconstruction of the medieval speculative achievement ensured:32

That goodness matters more than learning, that it is the mistake of mistakes ‘to prefer intellectual excellence to moral’ no one will ever contest; nor that the learned may need, even frequently, to be reminded of this. But of all forms of goodness truth is the most fundamental, and yet, while learning is the pursuit of truth, it is hardly deniable that the author of the Imitation—and others of this school with him—do continually suggest, at least, an opposition between advance in virtue and devotion to learning, even to sacred learning; and certainly the tone of such admonitions is far removed from the teaching of St. Thomas that learning—even the study of letters—is a most suitable ascetic discipline for religious.

The facts are, however, that to all but a very select few, knowledge, even of truths about supernatural reality, only comes through the ordinary natural channels—faith is by hearing. It is the natural human intelligence that must lay hold of the truths of faith and make the judgment that these are things it must believe. It is no part of Christian perfection to neglect the ordinary means of making contact with these truths—namely the teaching of those already learned in them—and to trust for a knowledge of them to the possibility of the extraordinary favor of a special personal revelation. And although it is most certainly true that theological learning is by no means a prerequisite for sanctity, such learning remains, nevertheless, a necessary instrument for those whose lot it is to journey towards sanctity by guiding others thither. Hence, when good men begin to suggest that the world of piety can manage very well—if not, indeed, very much better—without the presence of theologians acting upon it, there is surely something wrong; and when priests write books about holy living which suggest that the theologians are more likely to go to the bad through learned vanity than to save their souls through the deeper knowledge of divine truth that is theirs, there is something very wrong indeed. Once more, we are brought up against the all-important role of theological learning as the salt that keeps Christian life healthy. And what theology is to piety, metaphysical truth is to theology; for it is the natural condition, the sine qua non of healthy intellectual certitude in the mind of the theologian. Once the direction of so delicate a thing as the devotio moderna passes into the hands of those unlearned in theology, all manner of deviation is possible. It can become a cult of what is merely naturally good, a thing no worse—but no more spiritual—than, say, the cult of kindness, courtesy, tidiness and the like. And what the master, unwittingly, is soon really teaching is himself; he is the hero his disciples are worshipping; there are, in the end, as many Christianities as there are masters, and chaos begins its reign.

Once it ceases to be recognized that there must exist an objective rule by which to judge the whole business—theory and practice, maxims, counsels, exhortations, ideals, and criticism of other ways—of the inner life and the business of the director with the directed, and that this objective rule is the science of the theologian, substitute rules will be devised to fill the absent place, rules which, there is every chance, will be no more than the rationalization of a man’s chosen and preferred activities. Someone, somewhere, must be interested in compunction’s definition, or it will soon cease to be understood that there can be, and is, a certainty about what compunction is and what it is not; and if that certainty goes, very strange things indeed will begin to wander about, claiming the name of compunction in the lost land that once was Christendom.

The Christian mind, then, unable to think itself out of the impasse to which ‘thought’ has brought it, and mortally uneasy at the now unresolved fundamental contradiction that the teachings of Faith and the findings of reason may be incompatible, is bidden for its salvation resolutely to ignore the contradiction, to stifle reason, and to seek God in the interior life; again, to seek Him with what? With a mind accepting on Faith what it knows may be impossible? The eternal lesson recurs, that we cannot manage our religious affairs without true philosophy, however elemental; that the true religion does not survive healthily unless philosophy flourishes. For without philosophy, or with a philosophy that is false, the educated mind turns to skepticism—theoretical or practical; and assents to religious truth made by a mind that is skeptical about natural truth, produce in the end superstition; and from the educated mind the poison seeps down, until in time it corrupts the faith of the whole community.

Further gruesome developments accompanied the savaging of the medieval Catholic achievement, digging paralyzed Christendom’s grave still deeper. As unilateral Christian disarmament in the intellectual realm proceeded, the full character of the ancient world began more and more to manifest itself. This fullness had been hidden by the long centuries of Catholic effort to work only with the Seeds of the Logos to be found therein, to eliminate their inevitable errors, and to destroy their exaggerations by harmonizing them all within the proper hierarchy of values. A general adulation of the unadulterated achievement of antiquity meant that everything that was at worst unacceptable and at best disordered came back with a clean bill of approval. For the Second Childhood mentality insisted that the will of the founders of western civilization, as revealed through their great literary works and historical accomplishments, had to be obeyed lest the blindness of obscure men continue to darken Christian Europe.

The result was the same as if children, hearing a long lost relative with the gift of the gab praised by their parents for his unquestionable grandeur, were suddenly to meet him and discover that in addition to being a good storyteller he was also a committed and openly self-proclaimed pederast. Interestingly enough, the cult of Second Childhood actually did end by convincing a number of Renaissance humanists that this particular vice should be rehabilitated along with many others. But to my mind, symbolically at least, the worst of its rehabilitations stemmed directly from the games that it played as a consequence of its tunnel vision love affair with Plato.

As a man who himself prefers reading Plato to Aristotle, and believes that the rediscovery and cultivation of Platonic studies was an unquestionable blessing for Catholic culture, this development is a particularly painful one to discuss. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the cult of Second Childhood ended by adulating not only the real wisdom of Plato—the Seeds of the Logos to be found in his writings—but also the willingness of his careless followers to enter into the most far-ranging and ultimately anti-Christian speculations. Its chance to accomplish this unhappy labor came along with the teaching of the deeply interesting but clearly pagan Gemisthos Plethon, the translations of Plato produced by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), and the enthusiasm for Platonic and Neo-Platonic studies unleashed both at the Florentine Academy Ficino presided over, as well as elsewhere throughout Europe.33

In their efforts to probe every aspect of nature and thereby bring light into the darkest recesses of mankind’s cave, some ancient Platonic thinkers---Neo-Platonists in particular---had joined with the devotees of “nature as is” in the pursuit of magical studies. Many of their Renaissance admirers therefore did the same. They thus helped mightily to give to a magical tradition passed down only through the medieval underworld, in the books of the Jewish Cabbala and as the wisdom attributed to the mythical Hermes Trismegistus, a seemingly valid philosophical pedigree. This was then combined together by them in a syncretist hunt for a basic, perennial wisdom, a prisca teologia, that could conceivably reduce Christianity to merely one idiosyncratic expression of deeper truth among many.

Humanists who wished to remain Christian defended this study of magic and its naturalist bag of tricks as a tool provided man by the Holy Spirit in order to understand a universe that was indeed a highly mysterious Mirror of God. But the whole ethos of magic is based not upon an attempt to appreciate nature as an integral part of the divine plan but as a means of achieving an irrational manipulation of the cosmos for the satisfaction of uncorrected human passion. It was for this reason that the Church had publically and properly chastised it through the ages. Recourse to speculative logic would have been able to identify in the magical trade an abuse rather than a proper use of God’s Creation; an unhealthy “power game”. But, alas, such a scholastic tool was ridiculed as “ugly” and “obscurantist”. And therefore it was dismissed by wise men whose knowledge of life came through a return to a Second Childhood.

All those ready to encourage the rebirth of the willful totalitarian State that the founders of the ancient polis appeared to have taken as a “given” welcomed manipulative magical wisdom and the power over nature that it promised. Nominalists who had lost their Faith, sought “closure” with Christianity, and were ready to “move on” to impose their own whims on a universe that no longer had a loving God in charge of it were equally open to its charms. Hence, one of the great ironies of the Renaissance is the fact that some of its misled Platonist representatives cultivated “Seeds of the words” more representative of the central error of Isocrates than their master’s own truly liberating doctrine. And the two greatest consequences of this error were the fact that: 1) it helped to replace the hunt to know, love, and serve the Truth with a pursuit of the knowledge of the most effective path to the triumph of the will; and, 2) that it aided and abetted the handing over of the teaching of man’s end to those offering uncorrected and merely appropriate explanations of the willful and passionate manipulation of nature. The long-term effects of both, as Plato himself would have recognized, would be to silence the literary muse of man along with his Faith and Reason. Unfortunately, few humanists of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries chose to believe that such an outcome was in any way possible.

Moreover, the danger that the new world in the making would become a laboratory for cultivating a willfulness that could also mock the very past that Renaissance man now unguardedly adored was also threatening. In fact, a number of the rabid opponents of the medieval Dark Ages were already actively pointing out this possible disdain. Their passion for imitating the ways of the ancients was leading them so to abandon all concern for the correction and transformation of fallen man that even many of the teachings of their own classicizing heroes might happily be rejected. What then remained to guide them was a pure pagan naturalism. And this, in turn, was sharpened by an individualism fueled by a Christian exaltation of the glory of the human person now cut off from a sense of its dependency upon supernatural revelation and grace for its perfection. Hence, the career of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556), born in the year of Columbus’ first voyage to that truly “New World” that would one day see itself as the playground of the unchained individual. Let us hear him praised by an admirer of his spirit of total independence:34

Untrammeled by convention, dominated by instinct, swept along by his nature, fulfilling his fate with the agility of an acrobat, yet true to his inner essence, his mysterious virtù—this was the compulsive image which Renaissance man created for himself. Instead of the stage being the mirror of life, it seemed rather as if the characters of melodrama had usurped the true characters of men. In no other man of this age is the image more sharply mirrored than in Pietro Aretino—the first Bohemian.

‘I am a free man’, Aretino wrote, ‘I do not need to copy Petrarch or Boccaccio. My own genius is enough. Let others worry themselves about style and so cease to be themselves. Without a master, without a model, without a guide, without artifice, I go to work and earn my living, my well-being, and my fame. What do I need more? With a good quill and a few sheets of paper I mock the universe.’ And he did, riotously, splendidly, until in his vigorous sixties, he roared too vehemently at a bawdy joke, had apoplexy, and died. But what a life he had lived—shameless, selfish, magnificently free from humbug and splendidly creative.

D. Total Depravity Macht Frei

Where might a combination of revulsion over the Rut Triumphant, influence of the Seeds of the words, and cultivation of the cult of Second Childhood lead? To begin with, it was to lead to the convulsion of Western Christendom by a man with an innovative doctrine whose results he himself certainly did not completely foresee or really even fully want to unfold. The man was Martin Luther (1483-1546), the doctrine was that of total depravity, and its immediate consequence was the passage that it opened for the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo finally to emerge from its underworld and “take flesh” in the historic life of Christendom.

In the long-run, Luther’s doctrine has proven to be crucial to the construction of that death camp ruled by willful passion that now extends throughout the globe. Its open and comprehensive assault on the message of the Word in history began with reference to noble sounding words from the Bible. What made this biblical rhetoric all the more treacherous was that its summons to treat the world as a living hell was quickly identified as the arrival of a new age of freedom for all. For those who bring themselves to believe such an extraordinary claim, the entrance into the death camp of modernity should be topped with a luminous sign engraved with the motto Total Depravity Macht Frei. A greater self-deception concerning the individual, society, nature, and God is hardly imaginable. How could this have come about in the heartland of the venerable and Catholic Holy Roman Empire?35

Despite Germany’s brilliant Catholic past, the fact that the first solid political and social incarnation of a Grand Coalition built around Word- destroying words emerged here is not surprising. The Triumph of the Rut was in many respects a quite thorough one in Central Europe, with all of its pathetic effects on catechesis and the administration of the Mystical Body of Christ. Moreover, regardless of the efforts of the Emperor Maximilian (1486-1519), progress towards creation of a “new monarchy” in Germany was very slow compared to that in England, France, and Spain. The German world remained badly splintered. This made it a much more tempting target for papal efforts to milk its pious peoples for funds that could not be obtained as effectively in other lands. It also made it a cauldron bubbling with as many different critiques of exploitation—or mutually profitable negotiated settlements to keep it going—as there were princes and municipal councils of varying strength, will, and anticlerical feeling to give clout to them.

Luther himself became a monk and a priest in a typically confused late medieval fashion, after a hasty oath in time of danger, and without philosophical and theological preparation, all of which came only after his ordination.36 Having been given the standard anti-speculative Nominalist university education of the day, he was then won over to the humanist approach to learning. Humanist methodology focused his attention on Scripture and the Church Fathers, St. Augustine in particular. Repeating unceasingly his commitment to the Gospels—hence, the birth of the term Evangelical Christianity—Luther brought to the reading of those bible and patristic texts his own deeply-felt and willful choice of themes—exactly what one would have expected, given his Nominalist training. This choice was based upon his own personal spiritual problem—his profound sense of inescapable guilt—and an “obvious” message from the Holy Spirit regarding how to deal with it that his character already predisposed him to hear.

Like many a “simple”, pious, but learned man emerging from a Nominalist environment, Luther was psychologically prepared to equate his personal feelings with the will of God, and thus, as he himself admitted, to “force” the Scriptures to say what they really wanted to say---even to the point of tossing out those parts of Holy Writ that did not support his “Spirit-inspired” vision. That same Nominalist background prepared him to argue that Faith in God and the Scriptures demanded unqualified acceptance of this personal and willful doctrine---even though it was contrary to everything that councils and popes had historically taught and that a speculative, rational, and logical believing mind might conclude to be valid. In short, a deeply felt passion, negative and self-reproaching, was molded into the anti-natural, anti-speculative, and anti-Catholic doctrine of total depravity. And this became the grounds for Luther’s efforts to understand everything relating to God, man, and the pilgrim dance of life.

Luther’s conviction that human beings were completely corrupted and incapable of pleasing God after Original Sin was thus the centerpiece of his entire theological edifice. It was only because of his insistence that men could never be purified, either in this world or the next, that the concept of justification by Faith alone became necessary for him. For if man could not please God through good works, the sacraments, and sanctifying grace, then his only hope lay in complete abandonment to Divine Will. Moreover, it was only due to the total depravity doctrine that the “words” of Scripture, interpreted through the voice of the Holy Spirit, as deeply felt by Luther, became the sole possible teacher of individual Christians. For if the Church, supposedly the Word Incarnate continued in time, could be shown to have definitively opposed this teaching throughout her history, she thereby demonstrated the horrible impact of total depravity upon even the most revered of social institutions—in her case, that of wickedly rejecting the “obvious” Christian foundation Truth. The faithful individual could not trust her, and was forced to rely on the word of God---with the aid of the Holy Spirit and Luther---on his own. It was through this Lutheran doctrinal discovery that all of the Seeds of the words of the last few hundred years were finally joined together in an enduring compact. What was thereby created was a seemingly “Gospel-friendly” tool permitting the underground GCSQ to plant the banner of opposition to all notion of a corrective and transforming mission of the Word Incarnate openly and firmly in a Catholic land. Let us allow Philip Hughes once again to summarize the attendant horror:37

It is the surrender to despair—in the name of greater simplicity, which ‘simplicity’ is presented as the road back to primitive truth and the good life; to despair: as though true religion was incompatible with the two great natural necessities, the ownership of material goods and the activity of the speculative intelligence; as though material destitution and contented, uncritical ignorance were conditions sine quibus non for the preservation on earth of the work of that Incarnate Wisdom through Whom the Creator called the earth into being.

All those anti-intellectualist, anti-institutional forces that had plagued and hindered the medieval Church for centuries, whose chronic maleficent activity had, in fact, been the main cause why—as we are often tempted to say—so little was done effectively to maintain a generally higher standard of Christian life; all the forces that were the chronic distraction of the medieval papacy, were now stabilized, institutionalized in the new reformed Christian Church. Enthronement of the will as the supreme human faculty; hostility to the activity of the intelligence in spiritual matters and in doctrine; the ideal of a Christian perfection that is independent of sacraments and independent of the authoritative teaching of clerics; of sanctity attainable through one’s own self-sufficing spiritual activities; denial of the truth that Christianity, like man, is a social thing;—all the crude, backwoods, obscurantist theories bred of the degrading pride that comes with chosen ignorance, the pride of men ignorant because unable to be wise except through the wisdom of others, now have their fling. Luther’s own special contribution—over and above the key doctrines that set all this mischief loose—is the notion of life as radically evil.

Propagating his message with superb literary ability and bitter satire in a divided Germany angered by papal financial exactions and prepared by the Reuchlinstreit to view the critics of humanism as nothing but obscurantist fools, Luther was able to overwhelm his opponents. Yes, early enemies, such as Johann Eck (1486-1543), did respond to him with the proper tools, but they were not the dominant Catholic teachers of the day, and so they found themselves to be but voices crying in the wilderness. They were, in effect, the equivalent of present-day intellectuals contesting the dicta of well-constructed blogs offering ever more titillating though dubious information to those tuned into them. What was needed to fight Luther was not just consistent support from religious and political authorities but also a hard-hitting, theological and spiritual counterattack rooted in the use of all of the tools of the Mystical Body of Christ. And it was precisely this that was lacking in the era of the Rut Triumphant.

Thus, that which took place in the decades after 1517, the year that Luther’s doctrine “went public” through its application to the German Indulgence Controversy, was what had to take place: a full-scale rout.38 The condemnation of the Edict of Worms in 1521 was not enforced, partly due to anti-Hapsburg politics and partly because the King-Emperor Charles V (1519-1556) was too busy in his non-German domains to back its threat up personally. Sometime repression gave way to uncomprehending concessions, and both together to a justified impression of weakness and illogic. Princes and municipal councils were baffled as to what to do but sensed that that the attack on the structure of the Church in the name of the foundation Words of God might be useful to them. Perceiving that it could rid them of many obstacles to fulfillment of their own willful desires and save them a great deal of tax money in the bargain, they opted to take advantage of Luther’s destruction of ecclesiastical institutions. Both a clergy thirsty for reform of abuses, as well as corrupt bishops and priests who had always seen their positions merely as a means of obtaining three square meals a day, joined in the abandonment of the old order out of a mixture of sincere and totally self-interested motives. Since everyone agreed that the Word of God in Scripture was a holy thing, and since Luther hammered at the argument that he and he alone was concerned for what this was and what it meant, an improperly catechized population tended to decide that it should follow his “clear” path until things were finally “put right”. Local princely and municipal churches had long been prepared to make the decisions necessary to effect the change. Bishops themselves could not explain why they should oppose them. Tinder lay all around and Luther merely lit the match, throwing new and unexpected fireworks onto the flammable materials whenever his opponents thought they finally had him cornered.

Erasmus was the chief example of the impotence of most Catholic-minded voices in the face of the Lutheran explosion. His humanist “word games” could not match the energy unleashed by this bull in the vineyard of the Lord, as the papal encyclical excommunicating Luther labeled the heresiarch. Like many humanists, Reuchlin among them, Erasmus turned against the reformer when the direction of his ideas became clear in pamphlets such as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, the Appeal to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, and the Freedom of a Christian Man. There was simply no way that admirers of the ancients, inspired by the Renaissance vision of the dignity of man as microcosm, could accept the fatalist notion of the total enslavement of the human will to sin. Luther was willfully promoting a doctrine about the pointlessness of the human will. Nevertheless, uncovering this precise flaw in his teaching required the use of serious theology and philosophy. These were tools that Erasmus was incapable of employing. For, as the ever-perceptive Philip Hughes notes, Erasmus’ approach had always been one of an anti-intellectual, pious simplicity that was falsely supposed to be up to the task of conquering every obstacle in its path:39

Under all the varied activity of this most industrious scholar, the single persisting aim is always evident, namely to bring men back to Christ; and this, Erasmus is persuaded, can best be done by setting before men Christianity as it first existed. His method is that of the humanist who would reconstruct Ciceros’s Rome or Plato’s Athens, namely the critical use of the oldest literary monuments of the time that have survived. The one way back to Christ, in fact, is through study of the New Testament, and if our idea of Christ’s doctrine gains in simplicity the more we read, this is a sure indication that we are on the right way. Here, in this craving for simplification, in a violent impatience with whatever is not grammatically self-evident, we have one leading motif of Erasmus’s theological activity. He posits, in fact, of the inexhaustible content of revelation, the simplicity which belongs to the assent of faith through which the content is made accessible. This simplicity of statement for which Erasmus yearns, he does not find in the theologians. What has destroyed it there, so he thinks, is the theologians’ use of philosophy, of metaphysics, in their task of exposition. With the theologians as they face their eternal problem—the need to determine what doctrines actually mean, to solve the apparent contradictions, to resolve the seeming opposition between them and what is reasonably known—Erasmus has no sympathy at all. From such problems he shrinks; and he has a marked antipathy for those who face them, and immense scorn for their barbarous, unclassical Latinity, their carefully devised technical terminology, and their methods of logical analysis, and of strict definition.

His own method will not give any doctrinal precision, and he does not desire it from any other method. Doctrinal precision is, in fact, not necessary; zeal for it is a mark of Christian decadence, not of progress in knowledge of God. In the hands of Erasmus, Catholic dogma thins out until it vanishes to nothing; and he would meet the problem of the real need, of even the most ordinary of mankind, for knowledge of the mysteries appropriate to the level of their intelligence, by scrapping technical language on all sides. Precision in these matters, he thought, was not worth what it cost; and even, for example, such a vitally necessary tool as the term homoousion ought to go, ought never to have been devised. It is not surprising if, in his theology, there are mistakes, inexactitudes, contradictions, and this especially in the matters then so violently controverted, doctrines about marriage, confession, the monastic life, the Roman primacy.

Deficient in theological and philosophical instruments, Erasmus’ toolbox did include satirical commentaries lambasting medieval religious thought and practices. Many contemporaries understandably felt that these had paved the way for Luther’s focus on the importance of Scripture alone as a guide to the Christian life:40

…the moral is continuously pointed out that true religion is far different from all this, that what now obtains needs to be purified and simplified, and that what a man needs is to know Christ as the Bible speaks of Him and to follow His way. On its positive side the spiritual direction is that of the Devotio Moderna; but, allied now with the hostile critique of so many Catholic practices and institutions, and lacking the needed reference to man’s need of sacraments and of Church-taught doctrine, and with the seeming theory that private study of the Bible is all-sufficient, and given to the world under the author’s name barely two years after Luther’s condemnation and with all northern Europe now in convulsion, the book {The Colloquies}, henceforward, lined up Erasmus as Luther’s ally in the minds of a host of the Catholic partisans. Erasmus crying ‘Back to Christ in the Bible’ was too like Luther crying ‘The Bible only’. (Colloquies, 152.)

No wonder then, that his foray into anti-Lutheran polemics, in his work in defense of the freedom of the will, could not plug the Catholic dike punctured everywhere by the power of the Protestant tsunami:41

For his theological insufficiency, and his own unawareness of it, he paid again and again. Luther’s theories of the will as enslaved, for example, filled him with horror. Erasmus attacked the German unsparingly, but with what weapons? Here was a philosophical question, and the humanist had done nothing about philosophy all his life but ridicule the miserable philosophers of his experience.

‘Caught unprovided with any such technical formation’, says a theological historian of the controversy about Free Will, ‘{these humanists} had only their personal tastes to trust to, and their own powers of initiative, seeking shelter, for good or ill, behind such Greek writers as Origen and St. John Chrysostom, whose scattered views had never been formed into a systematic theory about these problems, nor enjoyed any appreciable prestige in the Church. The intervention of such improvised theologians had the effect of creating, inside the theological system of Catholicism, a new antithesis, whose consequences were to be far reaching indeed…’. And Mandonnet instances Erasmus who, ‘without any study of the classical theology of the Church, improvises solutions, and despite his circumspection…comes to affirm such enormities as this: ‘That nothing comes about without the will of God, I readily allow; but, generally, the will of God depends on our will’.”

Let us pause for a moment to reiterate that this Protestant tsunami only inundated the western Christian landscape through a contradictory mix of heretical reformist zeal, bewildered reaction to it, and self-interested manipulation on the part of perceptive proponents of “nature as is”. The contradictions began with Luther himself, for the father of Evangelical Christianity had a decidedly split personality and does not appear himself to have been logical in the development of his own teaching. How could he be? Once again, few men of his day and his background were trained to treat speculation on immediately and strongly felt principles seriously in the first place; logic was a weapon used simply for denigrating the value and pretensions of philosophically grounded theological meditation. Instead, one has the clear impression that Luther simply stumbled onto only a few of the consequences of his own thought, and these gradually and almost against his choice.

Moreover, despite his role as a new kind of humanist preaching authority, his early dependence for survival upon anti-Hapsburg princely and communal political support quickly limited the development of so-called Evangelical Christianity in any direction other than one that would be permitted by more traditional public Defenders of the Peace. After having given an appropriate explanation for the failures of medieval Christianity through a doctrine of total depravity that he attributed to the founding principles of the Faith; after having denigrated speculative reason, individual human freedom, society, and nature as a whole; after having posited his will as the divine will and thereby raised up the preacher as the hero defending the original intent of the founders of Christianity against the wicked machinations of the true friends of the Incarnate Word in history; after all of this, he shrank back in horror over the “enthusiastic” madmen who utilized his teachings to baptize their own much more radical beliefs and actions. And the consequence was that he willfully handed the arbitrary power to shape the religious world around him back to the State authorities and the “business as usual” considerations that their more conservative vision of nature represented. Luther openly proclaimed these authorities to be the “necessity bishops” of the Church that he had intellectually obliterated. The either-or option that he enunciated was one of accepting religious guidance from the State on the one hand or from either the papal Whore of Babylon or radical “enthusiasts” on the other. Very swiftly, kings, princes, and municipal councils throughout all of Europe heard his message and acted upon it. In the name of Gospel religion, they openly became the arbiters of the faith and morality that they had “pragmatically” been guiding in the name of Christian order and reform since the latter days of the Avignon Papacy and the Great Western Schism. Hence, the example of Zürich, “reformed” by Ulrich Zwingli, where the Mass was abolished on April 11, 1525, and obligatory Protestant worship was introduced four years later, in ways that Marsilius of Padua would have appreciated. “The last Mass was celebrated before a crowd of people”, Jedin notes. “Therefore something that was still entirely alive was abolished by official decree.”42

With the introduction in 1529 of the obligation of attending worship and the prohibition of attendance at Catholic Masses outside the territory, the city congregation completely controlled the lives of the citizens. In opposition to Zwingli’s spiritualism and to his thesis of the inherent power of the Gospel, but at the same time also in consequence of it, the secular authority had seized control of ecclesiastical government. The church congregation had been absorbed into the civil community.

Mention of the situation in Zürich calls attention to the fact that anyone looking for more consistent speculative development of the doctrine of total depravity has to turn away from Luther: to Ulrich Zwingli first, but, much more importantly still, to Jean Calvin (1509-1564), the founder of Reformed Christianity.43 Frenchman, lawyer, writer, and zealot, Calvin—and those following in his path—squeezed from the concept of total depravity almost everything that a man could eek from it while still believing in Christ. Calvin may not have seen how his own beliefs gave succor to the developing Unitarian Movement, but he was painfully aware of the dangers of entrapment in the Lutheran political labyrinth and determined that his own reform would, if anything, subject the State to religious controls rather than the other way around. This he sought to accomplish by creating a new kind of “Church”, built upon base communities of believers—congregations—guided by their preachers and capable of being elaborated on city, provincial, and nation-wide levels. His prestige thus rose among independent-minded men, and Reformed Christianity became the form of Protestantism that penetrated most of Europe. The charismatic preacher and the triumph of his will as God’s will were thus secured a heroic role for the future. Calvin’s option for Christians was to be centered round a choice either for the inspired Preacher of the Words or for the wickedness of nature—whether this latter evil was represented by the world-changing Word guided by a “satanic” Papacy or by some secular tyrant closed to the godly message of divine word merchants like himself.

E. A Renaissance in Black Legends

Persistent and enthusiastic work on the part of the many Evangelical and Reformed Christians conversant with humanist methodology transformed their literary talents into potent weapons in the anti-Roman arsenal. Labeled innovators by their Catholic opponents, and yet convinced, as they were, that the Church had introduced changes disastrous to the true message of the words of God in Scripture, these Protestants hammered at arguments drawn from positive theology to drive home their apologetic points. They knew how to uncover scriptural, patristic, legal and liturgical problems embarrassing to the Church of the era of the Rut Triumphant. They also learned how to weave these into broad historical assaults calling her whole mission as Christ-continued into question. Their feel for language, extended, by Luther, to an often inflammatory and obscene vernacular in addition to the ancient tongues, enabled them to present their accusations in gripping, often rude, but always crystal-clear ways to wide audiences. Publishing houses exploiting the new technology of printing and smelling a profit in such works aided mightily in their dissemination. Hence, with a sense of purpose, science, and style, they fixed the theme of medieval Catholic corruption and obscurantism ever more firmly in the minds of both the intellectual elite and the masses. And it was for this reason that they were also able to drill into the minds and spirits of the

inmates of their new death camp the notion that its prison guards were actually their liberators.44

Martyrology was one field of study of Christian behavior that Protestants used to build up black legends concerning the Catholic enterprise from a very early date. What they did was to link up the suffering of Christian heroes from the past with those of “Gospel Christians” of their own day, so as to show that the persecution of true believers was a specialty of the Roman Church from time immemorial. Catholics through the ages had prepared the way for them in this regard, claiming each new heretical appearance as a revival of an older one rather than attempting to discuss its own fresh substantive principles. Martyrologies of this new type appeared in many languages. Prominent among them were Martin Luther’s The Burning of Brother Henry in Dithmarschen (1525), William Tyndale’s Examination of Thorpe and Oldcastle (1535), Ludwig Rabus’ Stories of God’s Martyrs (1552), Jean Crespin’s The History of Martyrs (1554), Matthias Flacius Illyricus’ Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth (1556), Adriaen van Haemstede’s History and Death of the Pious Martyrs (1559), both the Latin and English editions of John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (1559/1563), Agrippa d`Aubigne’s poem, Les Tragiques (1580), and Simon Goulard’s more ambitious History of the Reformed Churches of the Kingdom of France (1580).

A sub-category of such literature involved a specific attack on the Inquisition. This was especially useful in places where it was at first difficult openly to condemn the Roman Church and where one might also tap into anti-Hapsburg and anti-Spanish sentiment. In this line were the anonymous On the Unchristian Tyrannical Inquisition that Persecutes Belief, Written from the Netherlands (1548), Francesco de’Enzinas’ History of the State of the Low Countries and the Religion of Spain (1558), and A Discovery and Plaine Declaration of Sundry Subtell Practices of the Holy Inquisition (1567) by “Montanus” (Antonio del Correo), translated into English by Thomas Skinner (1568). Though not a Protestant, the Venetian Servite Paolo Sarpi’s On the Office of the Inquisition (1615/1638) was a further addition to the genre. It was out of these and related attacks that the narrower use of the term “Black Legend” was born, through which figures like Philip II could be dehumanized, and people spared the—by definition—impossible task of finding serious reasons behind any action undertaken by a Catholic prelate or prince.

Again, as some of the titles noted above demonstrate, Protestant efforts went beyond using and drawing conclusions from merely one field of study of Christian behavior in the assault on Catholicism. A complete anti-Catholic history had to be written, with respect to individual nations as well as with regard to the life of Christendom as a whole. Martin Luther and Jean Calvin were both involved in this sketching-out of the broad Romaphobic landscape, the former tracing the roots of Catholic error to an ever earlier date, the latter adding the Carolingian Family and its insatiable ambition to the list of villains responsible for the deviation of the Church from its proper purely spiritual constitution.

But the most impressive Reformation-inspired Church History, because of the universal vision it offers, was the mainline Lutheran work produced by Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575) and his associates at the city of Magdeburg. This text was referred to as The Centuries (Eight Volumes, 1559-1574), its name clearly following from its manner of dividing up the material presented. Here one finds many of those spicy but erroneous tales, such as the story of Pope Joan, which still figure into the average “educated” man’s anti-Catholic repertoire. Here, one also finds praise of virulent anti-papists like Marsilius of Padua, despite their manifest secularism.

Hence, by the end of the sixteenth century, homelands where those opposed to the effort to correct and transform nature could openly go about their labors had been founded in various sections of Europe. Black legends and alternative good stories tearing to pieces the history of Christ’s Church and finding ample material for their libels in battles of previous centuries were being regularly broadcast about. They were being presented in the name of the “words of God” and in the name of the “primitive Christian foundation vision”. Through such legends and stories, the picture of a ceaseless Catholic assault on Reason and Freedom was being painted as well. The special irony of this secondary attack, was that the artists providing such a tableau were Christians who believed, as Luther said, that Reason was a “whore” and that human freedom was an absurdity.

It ought not to have been difficult for an awakened Body of Christ to respond to the contradictory “words” of what really amounted to an egregious, erroneous foundation myth. Still, to do so, it needed the energy that comes from the strength of the Word in history. It ought not to have been difficult for the Church to demonstrate that the Protestant obsession with the omnipresence of sin could itself, in the long run, totally deprave a world that was not, in fact, essentially entirely corrupted by evil; that it could unnecessarily construct a death camp ruled by arbitrary will. But in order to undertake this project, the Body of Christ had, precisely, to be so awakened. The power of the Rut Triumphant had proven to be very strong indeed. Catholic awakening, first and foremost, required that the Church be shaken free from its deadly, self-destructive, and self-blinding grip.

F. Liberation From the Rut Triumphant

We have already seen that many orthodox groups and individuals throughout Europe were outraged over the state of the Church Universal and had deeply wished for a major reform of Head and Members before the birth of Evangelical and Reformed Christianity. Unfortunately, as they were the first to admit, the bad angels seemed to be triumphing over the good in the life of Renaissance Catholicism. What this meant was what we have outlined above: that the explosion that took place in the Reformation found the Mystical Body of Christ unprepared to deal with a full-fledged attack on her raison d’être. She had nothing but insubstantial words, slogans, and “business as usual” methods to handle the revolution before her. What she needed, instead, was the arsenal of divine and divinely transformed weapons that would be available if she really trusted the full message of the Incarnation. Her self-limitation to the earthly and parochial realm prescribed by the proponents of “nature as is” had enabled her opponents to seize and run with the vision of an ancient Gospel Christianity more pure than that existing in Europe in the 1500’s —to the detriment of all truth, both supernatural and temporal.

One might have hoped for an immediate effective response to the devastating Protestant revolt. The sad history of the Sack of Rome of 1527 proves that this was not to be the case. That history has its origins in the French-Spanish struggle for hegemony in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its proximate cause was the clash between the political program of the harried Medici pope, Clement VII (1523-1534), and the ambitions of Charles V (1516-1558), King of Spain, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor. If its agents were actually mutinous, unpaid, imperial soldiers, these nevertheless could say that they were merely following the examples of their more illustrious clerical ally, the Cardinal Pompeo Colonna (1479-1532), who had already plundered the Vatican side of the Tiber some eight months earlier.

Whatever the specific responsibilities of pope, Catholic king-emperor, and prince of the Church might have been, the end result was indeed a nightmare. On May 6, 1527, Rome suffered the worst assault that she had ever known, far more serious than anything befalling her at the time of the barbarian migrations. Nothing was spared, sacred or profane. Clement VII’s escape to and confinement within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo until December, listening to the taunting of German mercenaries calling for his death and replacement by “Pope Luther”, were the least of the indignities. Various cardinals and prelates, including one future pope, Julius III (1550-1555), were humiliated and tortured, altars were ransacked, the Sistine Chapel used as a stable, riches confiscated, patients in hospitals and children in orphanages gratuitously butchered. Rape and rapine, exacerbated by raids of hoodlums under the direction of the abbot of the nearby monastery of Farfa, were followed by the onset of plague. Rome and the stench of death became one.45

Often, and with seemingly good reason, the Sack of Rome has been looked upon as a symbol of the boundary between the Renaissance and Catholic Reformation eras in Church History. Before this chastisement, the argument runs, control of Church affairs lay in the hands of the proponents of “business as usual”, men obsessed with politics, tied to corrupt and ineffective administrative methods, and insensitive to the significance of the Protestant revolt in Germany. After its visitation, however, the Great Awakening had definitively begun.

I, too, once took it for granted that the Sack of Rome was an eye-opener. Still, the more work that I did on the period in question, the more it became clear to me that this was not the case. Those whose eyes were open before the Sack may have had them opened wider still, but those with clear vision were still relatively few in number. With rare exceptions, men who were blind remained blind. An event of such magnitude, whose mere possibility in the abstract might have seemed apocalyptic beforehand, was digested when it finally did occur in reality as though it were simply another move on the chessboard of ordinary political life. Indeed, most Catholics, clerics and laymen alike, afterwards as before, went about their daily affairs, changing nothing, watching the collapse of the Church’s position in Germany, uninspired to lift a finger to arrest it, even when possessing the authority to do so.

One thing that united many of the proponents of “business as usual” was the conviction that they represented the “Tradition” of the Roman Church, by which, of course, they meant merely the standard operating procedures of papal and diocesan courts and curias. These “traditions” were under attack at the time, but not only by the men who, after the Diet of Speyer of 1529, would be referred to as Protestants. As noted earlier in this chapter, there were a limited number of fervent Catholics from reform circles, inspired by saints like Catherine of Genova, who also demanded a root and branch revamping of standard operating procedures and the canonical justifications for them. This they wanted in order more effectively to fight the brutal war for the souls of men and the health of secular society that they feared the Reformation portended.

In the minds of the defenders of “Tradition”, such Catholic critics of papal and episcopal courts and curias were, at the very least, the sort of deluded, destructive zealots that centuries of bureaucratic prudence and pragmatism had sought to tame. At worst, they themselves were seen to be the true problem of the day, unnecessarily aggravating that Protestant tempest-in-a-teapot that could be quelled through the tried laws and methods of practical professionals. This latter line of argument, which so rejected a closer examination of Catholic failings that it literally verged on the point of treating the Protestant revolt as a non-event, was particularly deadly. One can easily see from Herbert Jedin’s magisterial history of the Council of Trent that nothing favored the Reformation more than this widespread delusion regarding its lack of any real ultimate significance.46

Fortunately for the survival of the Church, these “conservatives” suffered at least a partial defeat, the “traditions” which they supported being exposed for what they were. These “traditions” were something that readers by now will readily recognize---namely, abuses fortified by many spurious, self-deceptive arguments, so old and familiar as to have taken on a sacred aura; crimes and betrayals covered by good stories that unfortunately bore no relation to the truth. Fortunately for Rome, an effort was made to rebuild its walls with something more suitable and more sturdy than whatever happened to be merely familiar: a reaffirmation of the authentic and eternal Catholic Tradition and its call for correction and transformation in Christ, a deeper understanding of which revealed the flaws of the immediate past and indicated a surer path to a better future.

It is instructive to investigate for a moment one major reason for this partial victory of real Tradition over false customs masquerading as an essential element of the Christian heritage. Successful Catholic reformers realized that they could not deal with problems facing the Church merely by a legalist cataloguing of the endless abuses to be noted practically everywhere in Christendom and precise remedies for the correction of each. Almost nothing could shake most authorities’ commitment to their standard operating procedures, corrupt and ineffective though these might be. Prelates had to be awakened to another and qualitatively different means of viewing their responsibilities, that advocated by St. Catherine of Genova. If churchmen could not endure a direct attack on the flawed practices to which they were devoted, or if they could always find inventive techniques for legally circumventing attempts to change them, then the path to improvement must be opened by trying to focus them on a second, more spiritual framework in which to judge their activities. This high road could, perhaps, “seduce” them to reform by the innate strength of its truth and beauty and avoid more predictable, customary, time-wasting, and ultimately futile efforts to refute them in the process.

In short, Catholic reformers understood that they could not fight their opponents on their own turf. Naïve as this approach might seem, rather than discussing in exaggerated and all too familiar legal detail the minutiae of episcopal duties and their innumerable violations, all of which would be met by the interminable counter-quibbles of the bishops’ own canonical experts, they thought that it was more fruitful to address prelates forthrightly on the plane of conscience alone. One needed openly to emphasize the mortal sin of an Ordinary who failed to be a good shepherd. A bishop who could be won over to a realization of what he was obliged to do by directing him to a vision of the day that he had to justify his behavior before the throne of Almighty God would eventually become a new man. He would contrast remarkably with one whose decisions were made on the grounds of whether or not the papal court in the course of the previous four hundred years had visited this or that immoral practice with the precise penalties prescribed under one or the other of fifteen extenuating circumstances. Bishops reformed in a qualitatively higher sense would see and use even a flawed law in a purer light. In contrast, even those who sought to correct themselves from a narrow, legalist perspective, and honestly did close the door to several wrong or inadequate practices in consequence, would nevertheless miss the higher spiritual meaning of ecclesiastical laws that were intrinsically good. It was the spiritual break with a corrupt past that was crucial. The legal change was secondary.47

There is no better way to discuss this summons “back to Christ” than to return to the extraordinarily illuminating history of the Theatines.48 Its earliest stages were not without their drama. Many members of the rut-bound Curia doubted the success of their rigorous insistence upon evangelical poverty. Apparently only the intervention of Giberti, a man of great influence at the papal court and a loyal friend, saved Thiene’s idea. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, the bull Exponi nobis approved the creation of the Order of Clerks Regular on June 24th, 1524. It was given some brief guidelines by Carafa, who became its first head, in 1526, and a more formal structure only later. A certain initial ridicule on the part of the cynical Roman population did not trouble its early life as much as did the 1527 Sack, which forced its members to flee, along with those of other religious foundations, to the security of the Venetian Republic. The Neapolitan Church of San Niccolo da Tolentino in Venice, beginning in 1533, and San Andrea della Valle in Rome later in the century became the first main foci for the Theatines’ activity.

It might be wise, at this point, to mention something about the two most important figures in early Theatine history, San Gaetano da Thiene and Gian Pietro Carafa. Although both came from noble families and were animated by extraordinary religious fervor, their resemblance ends there. Thiene was a northerner from Vicenza; Carafa was a Neapolitan. The former led a somewhat irregular life before his ordination in 1516. Carafa, on the other hand, shared a childhood vocation with his sister, who became a religious, and with whom he remained in constant, affectionate contact. Thiene, the man of more harmonious virtues, the officially canonized saint, was by far the more tranquil of the pair. His writings are almost all letters on spiritual topics. Carafa, the passionate, extroverted, active foil to the almost invisible Thiene, has left a mass of historical evidence behind him. It would not be an exaggeration to argue that Thiene upheld the soul of the Theatine movement but that Carafa was its driving force. Their combination was by no means an unfortunate one, as historians of the Order have contended.49

But it is indeed just to recognize that without the diplomatic ability of Carafa, and without his audacity, Gaetano would not have succeeded in giving life to and then maintaining his new institution. Providence paired the talents of the one with those of the other, and availed itself of the defects of Carafa, counterbalanced by the greater interior virtues of Gaetano, to give vigor to the new institution, which was to be then the model of many others.

So concerned for the cause of renewal was the Order of Clerks Regular that contemporaries are said to have applied the name Theatine indiscriminately to clerical reformers as a whole. “Renewal”, in the minds of men like Thiene and Carafa, meant primarily internal revivification, the attainment of sanctity. Nevertheless, the Theatines, like their Clunaic predecessors from the age of the new ascent of Mount Tabor, did not believe that they could fulfill their mission through prayer alone. Instead, they displayed a passionate interest in those admittedly secondary measures that still must be adopted to put the Body of Christ in better working order. This interest was founded upon the assumption that institutional order, like regularity in one’s good habits, is the mundane basis for the flight of the spirit.

Reference should be made to four specific sources in detailing the Theatine program for institutional reform. None of these sources involve Thiene, who again in this regard proves to be a somewhat elusive historical figure. One is a document, undated and unsigned, entitled Ricordi richiesti da Marcello II di santa memoria. This commentary on the initial phase of Church reform in the first half of the sixteenth century emanated from a Theatine pen in Naples, clearly sometime during or after the brief reign of Pope Marcellus in 1555.

The other three sources all concern Carafa. Carafa left behind him as an indication of the Theatine attitude his actions upon being raised to the See of Peter as Paul IV (1555-1559) and his many letters, but first of all a document addressed to Pope Clement VII on October 4th, 1532. This memorial, inspired by Carafa’s dismay over the inadequate treatment of the heterodox opinions and irregular behavior of several Venetian friars, was given by the Theatine to Fra Bonaventura da Venetia to relate personally to the Holy Father. The pope accorded Fra Bonaventura a polite but very brief audience. Clement was too preoccupied with really significant “business as usual”, particularly an impending meeting with Charles V at Bologna, to become involved with the Venetian issue. Carafa’s memorial, though without immediate impact, was of sufficiently broad a nature to live on as a model for the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, the first real effort to tackle Church reform, under Paul III in 1537. This latter report was prepared by a commission under the presidency of Cardinal Gasparo Contarini (1483-1532) including Carafa, Giberti, and a number of other men---several former members of the Roman Compagnia among them.

Three deeply-rooted evils aided and abetted by a mentality subverting the proper hierarchy of Catholic values were brought to light by all the written sources noted above: the confused and corrupt behavior of clerics, particularly religious; the venality of the Roman Court; and, finally, the unacceptably moderate approach towards dealing with heterodoxy and rebellion adopted by the Papacy. Religious life, especially that of friars, Carafa notes, “is already deformed and collapsed”.50 It was not unusual, he claims, to find lay friars hearing confessions, tempted by the prospect of monetary compensation for their absolutions. Priests were abandoning their habits and religious were apostatizing. An added difficulty was the fact that such men nevertheless often continued with their preaching in lay clothing. Indeed, some “wandering” religious and apostates had obtained positions as substitutes for absentee priests. Believers were being told that papal excommunications were of little importance, and that restrictions on their conduct were so few that many “excuse themselves by saying that their confessors gave them the license to do certain things which must not be done by good Christians”.51

The Pope’s conscience will surely allow him no rest, Carafa argues, when he grasps the fact that these confused and corrupted religious exercise great influence over the Christian population. Such “rogues” had long held the care of souls, been in charge of convent and noble chaplaincies, and run schools for children, everywhere disseminating pastoral poison. Even now, even after their clear abandonment of either their habits or their entire life as religious, their preaching still has an effect on all classes. Why? Due to the fact that such preachers retain the aura and mannerisms of religious, because their arguments have the appeal of novelty, and since they give to everyone, high and low born, the chance to justify his own specific form of licentious behavior.52 In short, they had learned how to use some remaining prestigious Catholic characteristics to tell a titillating alternative good story, presented as being “new”, but actually as old as the hills.

It is interesting to note here a certain educated irritation with the spread of error and confusion. One ought to mention that many of the men connected with the various Compagnie and their offspring were themselves tied to Christian Humanist circles. Vernazza had contacts with a number of those representative of the movement. Dati produced works on the American discoveries, Scipio Africanus, and mathematical tables useful for calculating the times of eclipses. Big scholarly guns like Giacomo Sadoleto (1477-1547) were fellow travelers. The Theatines applied scholarly rigor to the special task of revising the breviary entrusted to them by Rome, Carafa brutally attacking the “many foolish statements and dreams of apocryphal books” found in abundance in the older volumes. Such Catholic reformers, therefore, often depicted the struggle against their enemies as one of Christian enlightenment versus self-deluding ignorance, “considering that the heresies of these rogues are all old things already confuted and extinct from Holy Church for a long time…”. The spread of error, as already indicated above, was thus frequently attributed not to the intellectual strength of the concepts that were being propagated but, rather, simply to the fact that friars and others “are badly disposed and immediately receive that doctrine which conforms to their customs and their life…”53 Everyone was merely on the hunt for an “appropriate justification” for his particular passion.

The second enormous problem facing the Church was the venality of the Roman Court. This evil was said to be particularly blatant in the Datary and the Penitentiary. Both offices were potentially lucrative for those working within them, responsible as they were not only for the confirmation of many and varied petitions but also for the granting of dispensations and the lifting of penalties, all of which involved payment of certain fees. Weak or vicious clerics succumbed all too readily to the many temptations around them. Carafa, in a letter to Giberti, bemoans the evil impression left by:54

those most rapacious Cerberi that surround that poor prince, selling, at base price, the soul and the honor of His Holiness without his hearing one case out of a thousand. It is from this source that the immoderate favor comes which so many—not merely the most pernicious and criminal, but also those most heretical and hostile to Christ, His Holiness, and the whole of Holy Church—find and enjoy in that Court to the great dishonor and offense of God and His Church.

This brings us to the third problem, that of the Holy See’s moderation in the face of heterodoxy and rebellion. “Accidental” kindness, as a given method in a particular case, is one thing, Carafa explains, but leniency in principle is definitely another. The treatment accorded heretical and rebellious Venetian friars practically amounted to a passionate embrace, so much so that dissidents were wandering about claiming that acceptance of heresy was just the tactic required in order to be “honored and named and rewarded by His Holiness”. It was a notorious fact, he insists, that dispensations from sacred vows could easily be obtained in Rome, simply through payment of the requisite fees. When questioned regarding their status, laicized friars, for example, merely display the bulls that they have received, arguing that they were “forcibly placed in the monastery as a minor”, or that they no longer had “the spirit to stay there”, or that they have “contracted an incurable illness, and other lies”.55

Friars refused to purge their own order by arguing that the pope had not yet shown any concern for heresy and, hence, that they should not exceed his zeal. How could the rest of the Christian world be expected to move against error within the Church, Carafa and his fellow Theatines lamented, when the Eternal City was filled with heretics and nothing was being done to dislodge them? The lack of movement, the “unnecessary marks of respect and pusillanimity” justified by the fear that a harsh stance would drive the restless into outright rebellion, depriving the Church of sufficient ministers, was the “greatest favor” that heresy could expect. It made the heretic “more crafty and insidious”, harmed the reputation of the papacy, and “saddened the souls of faithful Christians who see themselves offended by these scoundrels…under the title of the authority of the Apostolic See”. Is it not a scandal, the Neapolitan document asks, that the papal power, supreme in the Church, is frequently utilized to relax discipline, but never to enforce it?56 In short, a bored, blasé, business as usual mentality totally unconcerned with Divine Truth was destroying the Body of Christ.

A two-fold approach to that institutional reform absolutely essential to the cause of renewal is suggested in these sources. On the one hand, as the Consilium later openly indicated, it is necessary to admit the false attribution of certain privileges to the Holy See; to recognize that “the fundamental cause of the ills of the Church is the immense exaggeration of the pontifical power occasioned by the refined adulation of canonists without conscience”.57 Carafa begs that the Papacy not interfere in the day-to-day operations of sound religious communities, such as those of Spain and Portugal, and, most importantly, that the traffic in apostolic dispensations be brought within some proper bounds. “And for the love of God”, he writes in his instructions to Fra Bonaventura, “entreat His Holiness to put a brake upon His Ministers, that such an abundance of Apostolic Bulls not be released for every most vile and alien thing”.58

On the other hand, the Theatines, and particularly Carafa, had the most exalted notions of that which the Papacy, acting in its proper sphere, might be capable of accomplishing. The future Paul IV writes that an active pontiff would have the ability to “make the giant mountains tremble down into the abyss”.59 What was required was simply vigorous, uncompromising application of reform measures. This insistence upon the futility of half-hearted reform was axiomatic in Theatine circles. The Neapolitan document, for example, notes that the decades-long commitment to the cause of reform on the part of popes, along with Fifth Lateran Council (1512-1517) and the first sessions of the Council of Trent (1545-1547, 1551-1552), had still, by the 1550’s, achieved practically nothing. This was because such reform had always remained within the realm of abstract discussion rather than leading directly to action. Escape routes were regularly left open by councils and the Holy See in that great care was exercised in delineating the conditions under which abuses might continue to flourish. These “where licit” clauses of reform constitutions demonstrated that problems were being treated not “according to what they are in fact and in practice, but by way of theory and in abstract”. Sanctity was the least of their concerns. They simply encouraged, or at least publicly tolerated, the practice of obtaining dispensations. Moreover, given the nature of men, the exception was inevitably elevated into the rule and then despoiled of its limited “justifying” conditions:60

Then, when they are put into practice, they are despoiled by men of those ‘legalizing’ circumstances and dressed, most often, in a totally different fashion; thus, if one wishes to end usury, it is not enough to say ‘such a contract made with such a condition is licit’, but it is necessary to see if it is made with that condition, or true that the disease is inflicted by the law. Therefore, I believe that things similar in themselves, even under certain licit conditions, when it is discovered that in fact and in practice they have for a long time been badly used, must be reformed by means of total prohibition, because it is not enough to say: ‘I have written a good law’; but it is necessary to see if it is used as well as it is written, the prudence required being almost impossible given the quantity of evil that reigns in the world.

The Church needed no more ecumenical councils, no more decrees, and no more pious sermons. Action alone could deal with the problem. Action was itself the best argument—action based on the strength that came from the life of Christ.

Carafa himself offered many specific suggestions for exactly how the Mystical Body should proceed. Preachers and confessors, he explained, must be examined carefully with regard to their orthodoxy, an office that he himself performed for a time in Rome. Permission to read heretical books ought to be restricted—once again, due to their appeal to the licentious, ever anxious to justify their wicked behavior on the basis of something “new”. A reformed, restructured, and strengthened Inquisition must be established under papal control. Creation of a military-religious order, directly subject to the Holy See and founded upon a Venetian fragment of the secularized order of Teutonic Knights, was also commended. It was only with regard to the religious orders that “half measures” were urged, “by reason of the great number of the worst types that are found therein, who so oppress the good that they can prevail in nothing”.61 Here, he claims, it would be best simply to set aside houses for observant religious, in order that they might possess some safe havens in which to fulfill their vows without hindrance. All useful steps, moreover, must first be taken in Rome, in the pope’s own garden. Only then, with a proper example given by the successor of St. Peter, could the movement for correction and transformation in Christ be expected to spread throughout Italy and the remainder of the Christian world.

Carafa was certainly true to his word upon obtaining the tiara in 1555.62 Proponents of a new session of the Council of Trent, which had first met under Paul III ten years earlier, were not surprised to see that it was not re-convoked during his reign. Instead, Paul IV sought to reform by means of unilateral actions, his ferocity in this regard becoming legendary. The Theatine Pope fell down upon the Datary with a sincerity that no man could question, cutting his own revenues in half when the “common sense” of the business as usual mentality told him that he could least afford to do so. “Wandering monks”, having failed to respond to his call to return to their monasteries, were rounded up and shipped off to the galleys. So certain was he of the importance of the work of the Inquisition that he attended its sessions even on the verge of his death. Paul’s discovery, after years of blindness, of the corruption of the Carafa family members that he himself had placed in positions of authority, led to so swift and complete a punishment that the whole of Italy, reformers included, were taken aback. Indeed, his greatest failure, his war with Spain, stemmed from his uncompromising desire to free the Church from the secularizing forces covering themselves with a Catholic cloak that he felt to be active in the court of a Philip II. It was ironic, however, as Paul himself may have realized by the last year of his reign, that he, of all men, should have been guilty of placing what many perceived to be a political issue above the cause of reform in more clearly Church-related matters.

What reformers of the Theatine variety were arguing was the general need for the Church to “get out of her rut”, and to do so by seeking freedom from the Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”. We have repeatedly seen that attainment of this independence is not an easy task, for the Zeitgeist always maintains certain advantages in its struggle with Christian Truth for control over man’s mind and will. The spirit of the times is always taken for granted, and its erroneous axioms are a man’s daily bread. So strong is it, so omnipresent its guiding hand, that it uses the average Catholic to penetrate the Church herself. It bends the theologian to its will by attacking him on two fronts. His need to oppose secularism is satisfied by directing his wrath against the dead Zeitgeist of yesteryear, while his acceptance of the present, living spirit of the age is encouraged by its convincing him that its embrace is dictated solely by intelligent reasoning. He, of course, could not be influenced by the purely atmospheric conditions around him! Once firmly ensconced in an ecclesiastical setting, it determines, to its own advantage, the battleground on which the Church may fight, the weapons that she may use, and the time that the conflict may begin. Counsel is given against taking the very measures most useful in freeing the Church from its grip, the work of the Zeitgeist being praised as the movement of the spirit of God. That which is easy to correct is depicted as being difficult and even impossible; that which is wise is ridiculed as the handiwork of the foolish.

Independence of the Zeitgeist is essential to the successful completion of the Church’s supernatural mission, and such independence the Theatines, to a large degree, possessed. What did they do to attain this freedom? Little more than devote themselves to the proper goals of Catholic priests, and call things by their proper names. For, despite the difficulty of avoiding the influence of the spirit of the times, the means of effectively battling it are always immediately available at the believer’s fingertips: honest dedication to the corrective and transforming character of the Christian life and straightforwardness in one’s dealings with society on the basis of Catholic teachings. The perspective won by the Theatines through their break with “accepted” clerical patterns of the day demonstrated to them the complete insignificance of and unwarranted importance granted to the cautions of time-serving prelates, the demands of well-entrenched bureaucrats, and the wishes of powerful laymen. No one was in a position to strike more boldly at the ways of the world and the petty illusions of daily existence than the single Catholic saint (or group of men struggling towards sanctity) plainly stating the simple Christian truths and the requirements of Christian morality. St. Catherine of Genova had understood this clearly. Renaissance popes had not.

Some have claimed that such freedom from the Zeitgeist did the Clerks Regular little good; that the Theatines, and especially Carafa as their most famous historical spokesman, were, like most reformers, too intense, and ultimately self-defeating. Was it really necessary, such critics ask, for the Order to go so far as to live in stables to demonstrate its embrace of Apostolic Poverty? Did Carafa truly have to send monks to the galleys? Could not his reaction to his own family’s corruption—for whose flowering his own blindness was chiefly responsible—have been a bit more balanced? And what, in the end, did his zeal for the independence and reform of the Church achieve? Defeated in a most unfortunate war with Spain, reviled by the Roman population, which entertained itself after his death by attacking symbols of his reign, treated by many subsequent historians as an obscurantist fanatic, Carafa’s pontificate is said to have been a double proof of both exaggerated Theatine rigor as well as its ultimate uselessness.

One does gain the impression that the Theatine attitude towards institutional reform, as represented by Carafa and some of his colleagues, lacked the prudence required to govern the Church over a long period of time. It may, however, be the case that a blood-letting, in the form of rigorous and even brutal house-cleaning, was, given the general enslavement to the Rut Triumphant, the corruption of the Church of the day, and the cynicism of much of the reform-minded Christian population, temporarily demanded to end Catholic torpor. It is certainly the case that once Carafa’s scythe had cut through the papal court and papal Rome, the props of the Renaissance Church were gone forever. Long-hallowed corruption was no longer sacrosanct. Old legends crumbled, as the Papal States did not collapse along with the powers of the Datary. Open abuses were obliged, to a certain degree, to go underground. And the next papal nephew to hold a position of great authority in the Church after Carafa’s reign was a saint: Charles Borromeo (1538-1584).

If Paul IV and the Theatines were not necessarily the best instruments for directing a long-term reform of the universal Church, they were nevertheless crucial as vanguards destroying the age-old barriers blocking the pathway of surgeons carrying the medicine of Trent. As travel guides indicating the route to that personal Christian renewal for which institutional reform was but a means to an end, their importance was lasting and unmatched. They showed that what Catholics need to do in order to fulfill the mission of the Word Incarnate is not to follow the “pragmatic” suggestions of enemies whose true wish is to destroy them but to be nothing other than what they really are.

G. Tridentine Reform, the Advance of the Word, and the Catholic Fight for Human Freedom

Despite torturous delays in responding to an increasingly bleak situation; despite continuous temptations to rely on “appropriate explanations of reality” to avoid dealing with it, the Catholic Church finally turned back to her one absolutely solid source of strength: the full doctrinal message of the Incarnation and the consequences to be garnered from it. She did so partly out of love for the truth in and of itself, and partly due to her recognition of the unhappy practical consequences of allowing erroneous belief to spread uncontested. Most importantly, however, she did so because nothing else was effective in combating the proponents of “nature as is”.63

It is interesting to note that the work of a return to the roots began underneath the guidance of Alessandro Farnese, Pope Paul III (1534-1549), a corrupt member of a self-seeking family that no one would ever have expected to lead a pilgrim march back to a Catholicism firmly based upon the Word. And yet it was he who set up the above-mentioned Reform Commission that courageously identified the chief source of the problem in the rut-drenched “traditions” of the Roman curia, and whose official report was so devastating that the Protestants themselves used it as a propaganda tool. It was he who was to approve the pilgrim work of St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and the Society of Jesus. It was he who convened an ecumenical council that finally did have some serious impact on the Catholic world at large.

For despite the disdain of Paul IV, the Catholic return to sanity is most popularly associated with the work of the Council of Trent, which met in three stages between 1545 and 1563. This synod did more than simply reiterate the teachings of the past; it also developed their doctrinal significance much further. In doing so, it gave to the word “Tridentine” a broader two-fold significance: first of all, as a symbol for every aspect of the Catholic vision most detested by that Grand Coalition of the Status Quo; and, secondly, as a real badge of honor for believers in the Incarnation and its corrective and transformative effects on man and nature.

Tridentine Catholicism’s Christ-centeredness was reflected in a joint concern both for authoritative doctrinal teaching as well as the more mundane specifics of daily pastoral activity. The spirit of the council informing this new era in the Church’s history was one that saw that ideas and action must work cohesively. Its pilgrimage fervor generated the development of innovative practical strategies for the application of objective Catholic truths to the diverse parochial conditions tossed up by the complex dance of life. These strategies involved strenuous efforts to harmonize the unchangeable, universal demands of the Christian vision with legitimate, changeable, local and individual human problems. Fresh clerical training and catechesis programs were initiated, speedily demonstrating their superiority to many of those of previous centuries. Critical assaults on past practices deemed openly harmful accompanied all such changes.

Diverse pastoral strategies were implemented with that militant sense of urgency always demanded of the faithful. Prompt mobilization of all social forces on every level of European life, aimed at the attainment of quick and palpable results, was recognized as absolutely crucial given the initial strength and scope of the Protestant assault. Fast, clear success was especially required to distinguish Trent from previous synods whose mountains of ineffective decrees appeared to masquerade that cynical commitment to “business as usual” which was so disturbing to Theatines like Carafa.

By the end of the 1620’s, this authoritative, pastoral, pilgrim-minded, and militant Tridentine Catholicism had indeed obtained many very positive results. A worldwide missionary expansion, begun with the discovery of the Americas and the opening of more extensive contact with the Orient, progressed ever more vigorously. This growth involved truly remarkable illustrations of the continued strength of a Catholic pilgrim spirit ready to accept new steps in the dance of life, especially notable in Jesuit recognition of the splendors of Chinese civilization and openness to the Seeds of the Logos that could be found therein. Calls to external crusade in a more traditional sense once again stirred Christian hearts, first in order to stop the advances of the Ottoman Turks in Europe, and then, by the late 1600’s and early 1700’s, to reverse them and regain lands once feared lost forever. Closer to home, much territory that had temporarily gone over to the Protestants in central and eastern Europe was won back for the Church, while a number of Eastern Christian communities in the same regions accepted papal authority and were reunited with Rome.

One major reason for these impressive Catholic results, already alluded to above, was that the model of the Roman prelate and priest was reinvigorated, nourished by roots grounded in the full, authentic Tradition, and aimed away from the merely customary, legalist, political, secularist obsessions of the late medieval period. That model was more powerful as a deterrent to abuse than more rigorously defined and enforced canonical penalties. Positive example trumped negative sanction. The fact that it had this impact is revealed somewhat by the difficulty historians now have in explaining to contemporary Catholics the failure of early sixteenth century bishops and priests to live in their own dioceses and parishes. Raised in a Church that has at least partly digested the spirit of the Tridentine reform, they automatically presume that residence is an obvious clerical duty, regardless of the existence of any canonical loopholes through which an escape from its demands might legitimately be upheld.

The Society of Jesus remains uppermost in people’s minds as a symbol of the change that had overtaken the Church, and with good reason. Ignatius of Loyola represents acceptance of everything that the Word Incarnate would have men respect to spread His message. He appreciated speculative theology, humanism, the devotional practices and methodology of the Brethren of the Common Life, sound doctrine, and good pastoral work at one and the same time. And there is no better example of someone literally picking up his pallet, walking, and then throwing himself into the hands of God, than Ignatius and, along with him, the men of the University of Paris who ended up everywhere from the rocks along the coast of China to the chopping blocks of Britain.64

Although the achievements of the Society of Jesus are justifiably cited as classic manifestations of the Tridentine spirit responsible for Catholic gains, it remains true that popes, nuncios, other international religious orders, national episcopacies, monarchs, and the laity of each of the three Estates can all be shown to have played their role in obtaining them as well. Numerous men and women, lay as well as cleric, in every sphere of activity, from architecture to mysticism, were involved in raising the sights of Catholics to a deeper sense both of how the “natural” individual achieved union with God, through Christ, His Church, and Creation as a whole, as well as what it was that that union ultimately entailed.

Aside from pointing to the global accomplishments of the Jesuits, historians generally look to Spain and Italy for examples of the practical application of the Tridentine spirit. It is more suitable, in this work, to turn our attention to France, and not only because of her importance in terms of numbers of Catholic faithful, her illustration of the nuances required by local conditions, and her significance for future revolutionary developments. Tridentine France should also be studied because nothing can better illustrate a contrast to our contemporary world’s vision of a society of formless openness dominated by word merchants serving the interests of the willful than the educated, systematic, Word-drenched alternative nurtured by many seventeenth century Catholics on her soil. The breeze wafting in from a tradition-soaked Gaul nudged people into that kind of pilgrimage towards a

distinct, splendid, and, hence, “divisive” goal that our own pluralist culture regularly condemns.65

A kaleidoscope of diverse and very committed Tridentini were at the forefront of the reformed French pilgrimage to God. What came to be called the dévot party in seventeenth-century France included bishops such as Cardinal François de la Rochefoucauld (1558-1645) of Clermont/Senlis and priests such as Adrien Bourdoise (1584-1665), active at the Parisian Church of Saint Nicolas du Chardonnet. Religious from reformed Benedictine, Carmelite, Cistercian, and Dominican houses, especially in or near Paris, added their fervor to the cause. Members of the new Capuchin, Discalced Carmelite, Fatebenefratelli, and Ursuline orders originating in Italy and Spain were also active, not to speak of the fathers of the Society of Jesus, who provided such dévot leaders as Nicolas Caussin (1583 -1651), confessor to Louis XIII (1610-1643). Orders founded by French-speakers, including St. Vincent de Paul’s (1581-1662) Congregation of the Mission and the Visitandines of St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) and St. Jeanne de Chantal (1572-1641), played a significant role as well. Moreover, organizations of secular priests, ranging from the network of Aa (Association d’amis) to Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle’s (1575-1629) French Oratory, Jean-Jacques Olier’s (1608-1657) Company of Saint Sulpice, and St. Jean Eudes’ (1601-1680) Congregation of Jesus and Mary offered many zealous foot soldiers for the movement.

All these prelates, priests, and religious were aided immeasurably in making their influence felt by an army of laywomen, among them Madame Barbara Acarie (1566-1618), who eventually entered religious life as the Carmelite Marie de l’Incarnation, and Louise de Marillac (1591-1660), whose work with St. Vincent de Paul led to the creation of the Daughters of Charity. Louise’s uncle, Michel de Marillac (1563-1632), was one of the most important political figures from the large pool of laymen in the dévot camp. While Jesuit Marian congregations, along with sodalities sponsored by other priests and religious, were often the locus for lay involvement, private homes also became dévot foyers. Nobles such as Henri de Lévis (1596-1680), Duke of Ventadour, created and fueled the lay Company of the Blessed Sacrament, which operated in France on behalf of a variety of different causes.

If one thing could be said to unite all these diverse elements, that cement, as indicated above, would have to be found in their joint concern for an education that taught, corrected, and transformed the human mind and spirit: education of the clergy, the average man, and society at large to the fullness of the message of the Word Incarnate in history. Education of the clergy to a sense of its dignity and its lofty responsibilities was the theme set by de la Rouchefoucauld in his De la perfection de l’état ecclésiastique (1597). From 1612 onwards, Bourdoise used his church to provide unofficial seminary training in a Paris still lacking clerical preparatory institutions. Creation of a new secular clergy, almost da capo, was the special mission of de Bérulle’s Oratory, and this spirit lay behind the work of Olier and Eudes as well. St. Vincent de Paul sought to instruct Parisian priests by means of a continuing series of Wednesday conferences. Meanwhile, colleges of Jesuits and Oratorians, the circles around the Cistercians of Port Royal, and, a bit later, the Brothers of the Christian Schools of St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), sought the elevation of laymen. Laywomen, whose education was more and more considered to be crucial to the improvement of family life, were formed, to begin with, by Ursulines and Visitandines, and later, with the encouragement of Louis XIV’s (1643-1715) second wife, Madam de Maintenon (1635-1719), and the great François de Salignac Le Mothe Fénelon (1651-1715), Bishop of Cambrai. General education was continued through the development of the episcopal pastoral letter and the perfection of the preaching art, which reached its apex by the end of the century with Fénelon, Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet of Meaux (1627-1704), and the Jesuit Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704). The Jesuits made innovative use of the theater as a teaching tool, while the period also saw the widespread dissemination of devotional and catechetical works. Jesuits, Eudes, and the Congregation of the Mission, convinced that France itself was a mission country in need of evangelization, organized highly sophisticated sweeps of the countryside to teach, preach, and firm up commitment to practice of the faith. Each sortie was repeated at regular intervals to make sure the good seed had not fallen by the wayside.

In the long run, of course, this was education of the soul in its approach to union with God, and mystical in its flavor. The mystical character of the movement was indeed aided by stimuli from Italy and Spain, but also by the rediscovery or republication of works of the early Christian centuries, such as those of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. A rich French strain of mystical writing soon emerged, including the Capuchin Benoit de Canfield’s (1562-1660) Règle de perfection (1609), Pierre de Bérulle’s Discours de l’état et des grandeurs de Jesus (1623), Olier’s Journée chrétienne (1670), and the posthumous (1694) compilation of the teachings of the Jesuit Louis Lallemont (1588-1635), the Doctrine spirituelle. Marie Guyard (1599-1672), an Ursuline active in Canada under the name Marie de l’Incarnation, and many others, taught mystical concerns by example. Different in their specific approaches, all urged some form of meditation on Christ’s Sacred Heart and His love for mankind, self-abasement before His majesty, grace, and goodness, imitation of the Holy Family, friendship with Mary, and specific penitential and Eucharistic practices. One type of devotion to the Sacred Heart received especially powerful support from the revelations to Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) and the writings of her Jesuit confessor, Charles de la Colombière (1641-1682).

But were personal and corporate prayer life alone sufficient for education and elevation of the soul to union with God? A resounding “no” came from different dévot circles. What was referred to as “devout humanism”, as found in the Jesuit Pierre Coton’s (1564-1626) Interieure occupation d’une âme dévote (1608), or the spirituality of Saint Francis de Sales’ Introduction à la vie dévote (1609) and Traite de l’amour de Dieu (1616), spoke volumes about the need for active individuals to raise themselves to God through their particular vocations in the world and their specific duties. Everything, from the theater to the State, had to be called upon, as any ancient Platonic proponent of paideia understood, in order to aid the passage of souls to God. All Christians, St. Vincent de Paul, Louise de Marillac, and their friends argued, had charitable responsibilities to perform for the sick and the poor. Social sins ranging from dueling to the neglect of agriculture and the peasantry to the disturbance of the peace of Europe in general were problems that dévots--from the time of St. Vincent and the Company of the Blessed Sacrament to Fénelon in his great work, Télémaque (1699)--believed that the Christian on pilgrimage to God had to tackle. In sum, social and political action figured into the dévot agenda perhaps as much as catechesis and direction of individuals.

Such successes were exuberantly expressed in the many faces of that culture which we call the Baroque. Tridentine, Baroque civilization, symbolized by the work of the Jesuits and directed by their devotion to the greater glory of God, lay particular stress on the grandeur to be found in the Creation. It did this to answer the Protestant disdain for the universe. Hence, it filled everything from dress to architecture with vibrancy, color, gold, and majestic beauty. Who could not think of the glory of God and of the possibility of Heaven when in a Baroque Church in the Baroque sections of Rome? Any visit to a Baroque city from the seventeenth century Catholic world yields a clear insight, even today, into the spirit of Tridentine Christendom, along with the varied means employed to urge believers on to accept and fulfill its promise.

That spirit, in its public manifestation, was nothing more than a further elaboration of the basic truth that all previous explosions of zealous Catholic spirituality and activity had emphasized, each in its own particular way: the conviction that nature had been mishandled by sinful man; that a Creation true to its God-given mission and responsibilities had more surprises to offer us than the naked faithless eye wished to admit; that it was intended to be an icon of its Maker; that the flawed world could be raised to the greater glory of God; and that through its redemption, it could give inestimable assistance to the individual in his central task of seeking transformation in Christ. But the Drama of Truth, as always, was that individual and nature had to be sanctified in tandem and that this joint sanctification regularly tossed up new challenges to add to perennial, unchanging, and therefore all too familiar dilemmas. And another and highly difficult act in that Drama of Truth was now about to begin.

Chapter 7

The Global Battle for Nature: The Grand Coalition of the Status Quo and Naturalism

  1. A War to Define the Meaning of “Nature” and “Natural”

Tridentine Catholicism was threatened from the outset along a variety of fronts, denying it sufficient time and strength to fulfill its Word-centered program for man and society. Threats external to Christendom played a certain role in limiting the global expansion of the vision it inspired. But these external threats pale in significance compared to the continued Christian religious divisions and reactions to them that threatened Christendom from within. Most importantly, however, the Tridentine movement was brought to bay by the final ascent of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo to dominance over the western world and the brilliance of the “words” used to disguise the true meaning of its triumph.

Discussing the rise to power of the GCSQ entails examination of three contributing factors, none of which can be ignored if a clear picture of its strengths and long-term weaknesses is to be obtained. The first of these is the broad internal Protestant development of the central principle of Reformation theology—the doctrine of total depravity. A second element is the movement referred to by historians as the Enlightenment, which emerged by the latter part of the seventeenth century and the beginning decades of the 1700’s. Its proponents were to argue that the means needed for attaining individual and social perfection could only be obtained by lessening or entirely eliminating guidance of the natural world by either the Protestant or the Catholic understanding of God and Faith. Finally, we shall have to turn our attention to the tragic stimulus to the growth of the GCSQ afforded by various battles over unresolved doctrinal and pastoral problems inside the Roman camp.

In the years following the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo, first incarnated in Christendom through the Reformation after centuries of hidden existence, finally came to term. Mobilizing arguments coming from Protestant, Enlightenment, and even Roman Catholic sources themselves, its word merchants “seized” control of the concept of “nature” with that “appropriate explanation of reality” we call “naturalism”. Global battle was then joined with the remaining defenders of a vision of life obedient to the message of the Incarnation. Both camps hoisted hostile banners bearing two opposing definitions of what was “natural” and “unnatural” inscribed upon them.

Alas, many believers once again abandoned their best weapons—the weapons of the Word Incarnate—in this global battle for nature. Once again, as so often in the past, they tried to defend their Faith on the grounds provided by enemies who wished to destroy it. Yes, it is true that some contemporary Catholics did awaken to the danger posed by radical members of the GCSQ who openly and violently persecuted them. Unfortunately, however, many others became so bewildered by the way the moderate faction active within the Grand Coalition used familiar Christian terms and themes to propagate its message that they began to think that its more subtle approach to accepting “nature as is” actually represented “the Catholic vision”. They viewed the moderate strategy as though it were the true Catholic alternative to the violent silencing of the message of the Faith. But whether through brutal or gentle means, the ascendancy of the GCSQ was equally assured. And with that victory came the inevitable deliverance of “nature” over to the triumph of the will—and the ever more bloody combats of the increasingly divided and battling ranks of the willful.

B. External Obstacles to the Expansion of the Tridentine Spirit

When one speaks of external obstacles to the Tridentine spirit in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the first thing that comes to mind is the seemingly invincible military might of the Ottoman Empire. And the threat of the inexorable march into central Europe of this Moslem representative of the divinization of willful power was indeed all too real at the start of the period under consideration. Concern for assuring a unified response to that threat was itself a powerful force both aiding the growth of Protestantism and also explaining the many painful delays in convening the Council of Trent. Armed Ottoman incursions into the Christian world continued down till the 1683 siege of Vienna, affecting the religious and political situation of Catholic Europe in a myriad of often disturbing ways.96

Two additional powerful external threats to the Tridentine Catholic advance were the new Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan (1600) and the Manchu Dynasty in China (1644). Both these forces were suspicious of the foreign Christian influence that had penetrated the lands come recently under their control, and ultimately acted strenuously against them. This was particularly true in the case of a Japan that looked, for a moment, as though its conversion to Catholicism were imminent. The Tokugawa closing of the Japanese homeland to Catholic proselytizing proved to be almost airtight in the centuries to come, cheering to the hearts of the parochial minded in both Asia as well as Europe.97

Nevertheless, such threats were by no means decisive in and of themselves in curtailing the external progress of the Tridentine program of correction and transformation in Christ. We have already noted the eventual Ottoman reduction to the defensive and the re-conquest of wide swaths of former Christian territory under Turkish control by the 1700’s, all of which was accompanied by an impressive revival of the old crusading spirit. Tragic events in Japan and China were not reversed, but this was really chiefly due to the complicity of “Christian” forces with nefarious European purposes in mind. Protestant states like Britain and the Dutch Republic were of some significance in frightening the shoguns into opposing what were presented as overbearing papal political pretensions in Japan, but for commercial as much as religious reasons. Even more importantly, it was the bitter, European-wide discussion of questions concerning Jesuit missionary work in China that was to prove to be of greatest significance in the simultaneous weakening of the Church’s expansion in Asia and the strengthening of the GCSQ at home. But that particularly sad tale may only be told in the next chapter, after first introducing internal Christian and Enlightenment developments into our story.

C. Christian Disunity and the Limitation

of the Effects of the Incarnation

Let us begin our discussion of internal problems leading to the global war over the relationship of God with nature with the most basic scandal of all—the continued failure to maintain Christian unity. Sadly, Christian divisions became even more entrenched, organized, and complex in the Tridentine Era. The final effect of the seemingly endless debates among groups all calling themselves Christian was to encourage the contempt of the enemies of the Word and to aid them as they disparaged thinking and acting upon the basis of any faith-filled concepts whatsoever. Even believers were badly affected by these demoralizing developments. More and more people began to wonder how anyone could take seriously the teachings of a religion whose many denominations all pointed to the same Christ as the one saving force in human life, but whose adherents could in no way agree regarding the character of His message. An either-or choice against the forces of disbelief simply could not be offered under such circumstances, for the “either” alternative was a house divided against itself that perhaps could not stand on its own very much longer. Worse still, the sight of the proponents of the religion of love butchering one another in the name of Christ did considerably more than any theological, philosophical, or scientific argument to facilitate the claim that Christian Faith endangered not only belief in the “real” God but natural life and the satisfaction of legitimate natural individual and communal desires as well.98

Despite the several Acts of Union noted briefly in the previous chapter, Western and Eastern Christianity remained almost entirely separated. Moreover, almost every one of the older centers of the Eastern Christian world lay under Moslem domination, with the energies of their clergy and laity generally dedicated to questions of basic survival. The already powerful temptation of Eastern Christianity to “freeze” the development of the Word, expressing its teachings in magnificent ritual but avoiding discussion of their theological meaning and thereby hiding real divisions regarding doctrine and practice behind a deceptive liturgical unity, was further encouraged. Under these circumstances, almost any belief could gain an influence over the Orthodox population, so long as the substantive and potentially dangerous teaching contained therein were masqueraded by the proper ritual gestures.

But Church leaders, forced to answer for their flocks’ loyalty, in some respects became yet more politically important than ever before. This was certainly true of the Patriarch of Constantinople, responsible as he became for the good behavior of the Christian population or “millet”. Political importance then tempted ambitious lay families and individuals from among the believing population to deeper involvement in Church affairs. Trapped inside second-class, ethnic hot houses, Eastern Christian flocks tended— most especially among the older, heretical denominations—to indulgence in the ever more intense parochial battles that losing factions are historically wont to cultivate. Ossification, secularizing political obsessions, and parochialism then rendered the hope of contemporary theological discussions fruitful to reunion an even more utopian project than in the past.99

Adding to Eastern Christian problems was the fact that its one major center that was free—Tsarist Russia—struggled under a variety of Word-limiting tendencies of its own. Aside from those inevitably connected with its great size and isolation, it was home to a peculiar mixture of traditional Orthodoxy and exaggerated monastic and lay influences. Moreover, it also nurtured a messianic parochialism that unjustifiably privileged the position of Russia in salvation history. When efforts were made by Patriarch Nikon (1605-1681) of Moscow to awaken the Russian Church to its need to reconnect with the broader Eastern Christian tradition, a predictable, narrow-minded schism resulted. This Old Believers Schism, while in some respects appealing because of the great courage displayed by many of its leaders in the face of persecution, was ultimately responsible for weakening ecclesiastical unity and social influence permanently throughout the land. Schism, in turn, made the Church more vulnerable to an intense political manipulation by the “sacred” Tsarist state. And that manipulation was especially dangerous because, from the time of Peter the Great (1689-1725) onwards, it was further corrupted by Romanov acceptance of the power-enhancing secularism characterizing political and social life in the outside Protestant world.100

Secularism as such was certainly not the aim of the original Protestant Reformers. We have seen that most of them argued that this was precisely the effect brought about by an arrogant, blasphemous, worldly Catholic Church that had strayed from the Christian foundation vision, arrogated to herself the prerogatives that belonged only to the supernatural God, and dangerously exaggerated the value of human works to the detriment of divine grace. Protestant reformers did not wish to destroy God’s law and an order of things in which that law was honored and obeyed. They simply sought to disabuse individual men of any belief that personal success or failure in following that law aided in the work of their own salvation. Only God’s will, expressed through his free offer of divine grace, could bring them to safe port. Recognition of all these truths would follow a Christian return to the original intent of the Apostolic Church as expressed in those fundamental documents of the Faith known as Holy Scriptures.

Moreover, one must also remember that the reformers operated in a world formed by centuries of Catholic efforts to transform nature in Christ. The power of custom, habit, and pure inertia over many of them was very strong, indeed. Certainly Luther, despite his vulgarity, obscenity, and pompous boasting, cannot personally be charged with wanting all the secularizing developments that will be catalogued below. Like Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish Soviet Foreign Minister of the 1930’s, who crossed himself while boarding airplanes “because he was a Russian”, we have seen that Luther often contradicted the consequences of his own notions “because he was still in many respects a Catholic”. Jeremy Bentham is said to have blunted suggestions that utilitarian, democratic rule might give birth to atrocities with the comment: “Englishmen do not act that way”. Luther could have attributed my little shop of Protestant horrors to a vivid papist imagination. “Reformers”, he might have said, “simply do not act that way”. He could not necessarily foresee the practical long-term historical outcome of those applications of his basic concepts that he himself did not wish to be made. His “choice” regarding what would happen through his Church of Original Intent was in many respects as Catholic as he still remained. And this was even more true of some his followers, starting with his closest associate, the systematic thinker Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560).101

While absolving Protestants, one must nevertheless anathematize Protestantism as such. Protestantism’s foundation doctrines stand on their own two feet, and they are in no way friendly to or compatible with that full message of the Word that was taught by Catholicism. They were unacceptable in 1517 and they grew even more so as their significance unfolded over the course of time. When one meditates upon the foundations of Catholicism, he irons out the dangerous human kinks corrupting its divine machinery. When one meditates upon the foundations of Protestantism, he ensures that its consequences contradict the continued good desires of its practitioners.

One of these good desires was that of avoiding secularization. And yet Protestantism made a secularization that was conducive to the triumph of the will logically inevitable. It did this for two specific reasons. First of all, it reduced the human person to his individual atomist state and thereby deprived him of his crucial, authoritative, social dimension. And, secondly, Protestantism destroyed everything natural that remained to man in this badly truncated and therefore inhuman condition.

Let us remember that Catholicism taught men that they were part of a community, the Mystical Body of Christ, guided by the Savior through the Church authorities and made capable of aiding one another in their path to God. Community and authority were thereby shown to be absolutely essential to man’s happiness and end. This Mystical Body was seen to be forever vital, death in Christ being no obstacle to valuable assistance from and to the living. Its cult of the saints encouraged daily contact with immortals and ensured a constant recognition of the existence and efficacious power of the supernatural. The world beyond was made a palpable reality in the world here and now. All legitimate communities and authorities were told that they, too, in their own fashion, could aid in the perfection of their individual members. They gave flesh to their goals and the virtues required to achieve them in the same concrete way that the Church gave flesh to the Christian message and the Christian way of life.

But with Protestantism, Christianity logically became a purely individual phenomenon. This is true even for Reformed Protestantism, whose congregations and national synods often wielded a practical power, but with no substantive spiritual or intellectual foundation. Communities and authorities like the Church and her bishops were, after all, no less depraved than man was himself. They were incapable of tempering the evils that their sinful character merely helped to encourage. Atomistic Christianity, founded solely on the Bible, became a lonely, individual, bookish religion, a religion of words alone, a phenomenon that lost its vibrancy on the date that the last scriptural passage was written. Reduced to this lifeless state, Protestantism ceased to be a sociological force of great importance. Human beings need to see things draped in flesh and blood if their nature is to be accommodated, and if they cannot observe a visible Church engaged in a flesh and blood pre-announcement of an invisible world, then they will not take Christianity and the God that it worships seriously. Protestantism could not be seen, and it thereby left its practitioners easy targets for secularists eager to wean them away from interest in all things divine.

Moreover, a logical Protestantism had to apply the same atomistic principles that had been used to destroy the Church to all authorities and communities. If the Church were pretentious in its claims to aid and perfect the individual, so were states, municipal governments, universities, guilds, and families. All such communal authorities had to be tamed in order that the individual might face existence alone, as he was meant to do. But since real men could not successfully face existence alone, and since they positively required communities and authorities to embody in manifold fashion the purpose of human life and the moral behavior demanded to achieve it, the results of this general dismantling of the western communal structure were to prove to be horrendous. All of that social assistance that aimed men towards correction of their purely material, fallen nature and might possibly even guide them back to God was removed. A downward, secularizing spiral was rendered logically inevitable.

Even if the individual, left to his own devices, might still meditate on the world and how he should act while living within it, Protestantism left him precious little to lean upon for help in reaching solid conclusions. For social institutions and authorities were not the sole natural forces presenting problems for the believer according to the Protestant vision. His Faith taught him that the whole environment in which he operated was totally depraved.

We have spoken of the religion of the Word Incarnate as one that understands life to be a dance to sanctity, involving a combination of firm commitment to unchangeable truth and pilgrim openness to the reality of historical change. But the vision of Catholicism can also be said to be one that sees the universe to be an Unfinished Symphony. It calls an orchestra together under the vaulted hall of the heavens and explains to its musicians that a composer has given them parts of a magnificent piece that he has prepared and now wishes to test their ability to play. It notes that the entire symphony will be given to them only after successful performance of the first movement. The musicians realize that this is a fraternal project, and they develop an ever more powerful esprit de corps as they grasp the quality of the composition that they are playing. They begin to polish their instruments more carefully, put on their finest clothing, and walk with individual and fraternal confidence and pride in their labor. They wait for the day that they will be given access to the rest of the piece with patient humility, but also with great joy. For they know that they can finish the Unfinished Symphony.

Protestantism shuns the dance to sanctity because it views the ballroom of nature as something wicked. It never permits a hope for the completion of the symphony of the universe because it never allows it to begin. The musicians who arrive to audition for it are told that there has been a dreadful misunderstanding. They are assured that men can never play the music of the spheres; that, even if they could do so, it could not be in union with one another, as a social group possessing its own unique esprit de corps, but only as lonely, isolated individuals; that they, even as individuals, are hopelessly incapable of sprucing themselves up to undertake such an impossible project, and that the instruments necessary for its execution are not available anyway. And even though they are then told that someday, a great orchestra will play whatever part of the symphony it might be given to appreciate, the immediate disappointment that the musicians feel is so great that they file out of the hall, and the heavens fall silent forever. In short, the downward spiral of outright secularization is accompanied by a rising appreciation of the inescapability of ugliness leading to the same result: abandonment of all higher vision.

Yes, the believer was told that he had to obey God’s law in this valley of tears, but as a schizophrenic, knowing that his doing so was of no practical significance for his eternal destiny. And what if he lost his Faith? What tools would be left available to him to judge how he was to act without it? He would have none. A Catholic who lost his Faith might still look to the help of natural beauty to steer his heart and soul upwards, but a faithless Protestant had no guidelines for discerning beauty in a depraved universe. Without Faith, he was left with no sense of balance and harmony to teach him. A Catholic who lost his Faith might still use his Reason, but the doctrine of total depravity disdained this along with the rest of Creation. The result was that the individual thinking Protestant who lost his Faith had no Reason left to guide him either. Abandoned on his own in a realm deprived of both Faith and Reason, he could play carelessly with his mind. Nothing—not balance, not harmony, nor Aristotelian logic nor Platonic vision—was there to bind him. A Catholic who lost his Faith might still find guidance in natural love, but for the Protestant love also lay outside the divine scope of things. Man remained unlovable even in Heaven, where he was granted droit de cité only through an extrinsic grace. How could nature enter where even God’s will did not tread?

In sum, human meditation and effort made of an untruth—the unrelenting evil of the fallen world—a “self-fulfilling prophesy”. A natural order that was not totally depraved seemingly became so. An atomized, secularized Protestant society would, indeed, be the abomination of desolation, and, ironically, the free human will of men loyal to the doctrine of total depravity would bring this into being. With nature turned into a savage free for all, a war of all against all, man’s environment was transformed from a music hall designed for the dance of life into one, boundless death camp, fit only for a danse macabre. And what made this hellish death camp more horrible still was the fact that its pathetic inmates continued to praise its willful architects and prison guards as though they were liberating angels.

At this point, however, we must return to the historical reality of the difference between Protestantism and Protestants. Yes, all of the consequences discussed above do, indeed, flow logically from Protestantism and the doctrine of total depravity. Nevertheless, a remaining Catholic spirit allowed a number of Protestants to return to solid theological and philosophical principles that had nothing to do with what was truly distinct about their own original religious position. These believers---and they are many---are not the targets of our discussion here.

Meanwhile, there were other Protestants who fled from all belief in a God who could allow for the existence of such a natural hell. When they did so, they had two possible directions to take. They could either continue to see nature as totally depraved, although now godless as well as hopeless. Or, like many rebellious children, they could insist that the universe was exactly the opposite of what their parents told them, and therefore spotlessly good. But regardless of whether their faithlessness led them into a natural jungle or a spotless universe, both were left free to deal with life as they willed, without reference to any rules of God or man. This victory of the triumph of the will, whether arising from an exaggeratedly hopeless or an absurdly hopeful starting point, does concern us a great deal.

Most important to our present theme is that large number of Protestants who opted to continue to live in a schizophrenic universe, theoretically retaining their basic religious principles, language, and attendant Bible-centered Faith while more and more actually ignoring their horrible meaning and unpleasant life-changing teachings in practice. For what this produced was a hybrid monster that lent itself, bit by bit, to manipulation by outside anti-Christian forces, so as to become one of the chief workhorses for recruitment directly into the ranks of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo. And when it did so, it eventually became a tool for channeling Catholic volunteers into its blithe acceptance of “nature as is” as well.

Pietism is the most important phenomenon to mention in presenting this development. The path of Pietism moved from Britain, through the work of Englishmen like William Ames (1576-1633), author of The Marrow of Theology (1627), over to the Dutch Republic, with that of Willliam Teelinck (1579-1629), Gisbertius Voetius (1589-1679), and Jadocus Lodensteyn (1620-1677), and into the German Lutheran world with Johann Arndt (1555-1621), Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), August Hermann Francke (1663-1725), and Nicolaus Graf von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Spener’s book, Pia desideria (1675), gave the movement its lasting name.102

Pietism’s essential concern was commitment to a Christianity that could visibly be recognized as a truly vibrant force in the lives of men. Such a Christianity, its supporters lamented, was lamed or even totally smothered by the highly creedal denominations, dogmatic theologies, and ceremonial practices of a politicized Europe, Protestant as well as Catholic. Hence, Pietism stressed the need to hunt for a “real” as opposed to a stultified and artificial faith, born of the experience of each individual’s soul and judged with reference to that faith’s obvious external fruits—a highly ironic conclusion, given the original Protestant disdain for human “works”.

Such guidelines could, given circumstances, end in very traditional territory. They influenced men like John Wesley (1703-1791), who gained from Pietism a general concern for an internal conversion active in the love for neighbor without shunning ordinary organized Church teachings, ceremonies, and structures. A Pietism of the Wesleyan Methodist variety could easily open a man to the practice of good works on a natural level while still retaining a central goal of mystical union with God that tapped into the mainline of Christian contemplative history. It was, in effect, on the road back to the full message of the Word Incarnate; in some respects, a Protestant “Seed of the Logos”.

Nevertheless, Pietism was a double-edged sword. Its abandonment of the corrective weapon of theological and philosophical thought for all intents and purposes continued the work of Erasmus, and, with it, his inability to respond effectively to strong willed men intent on changing what people “obviously” believe and how they “clearly” behave. It thus provided a disguised and seemingly Christian entry into the acceptance of “nature as is”. Along with this, it provided membership in a Grand Coalition of the Status Quo in which all of the worst consequences of the doctrine of total depravity would still prove capable of running riot. We can see this best by first turning our attention to important developments in the Kingdom of Prussia.103

Prussia, rather poor and insignificant in comparison with the major nations on the European scene, desperately needed an ironclad unity in order to survive. It feared religious controversy as an obstacle to this essential cohesion. Unfortunately, its population at the time of the proclamation of the kingdom in 1701 was divided, with its majority of Evangelical believers split in feuding factions and its ruling House of Hohenzollern Calvinist, and thus Reformed Christian in its faith. Unity under these circumstances could only be obtained by deemphasizing doctrine and insisting that “common sense” and “natural virtues” conducive to procuring the kingdom’s secular power and wealth were the sole true means of knowing, loving, and serving the Christian God in our world of sin.

Such a task would best be accomplished if religious leaders themselves could be enlisted in support of the redirection of man’s primary attention towards the attainment of natural goods; if a Christian blessing upon a central change of focus could be obtained, thereby providing a sign of supernatural approval for a secular project. Pietism, a movement that was already powerful within the Evangelical camp, thus became attractive to the Hohenzollerns as a valuable tool in the work of Prussian unification. Its continued ritual attachment to the customary themes of Gospel Christianity meant that scriptural “words” would be readily available to back up the “all for one and one for all” secular spirit needed to keep the Kingdom of Prussia not just alive but politically thriving.

It was not John Wesley’s approach that worked here but, rather, the quite distinct Pietism of Francke, the chief protégé of Spener. Francke was appointed Professor of Near Eastern Languages at the University of Halle in Prussia in l692. Francke’s Pietism, unlike Wesley’s, and, for that matter, unlike Spener’s as well, was very much tied in with the need to overcome a personal experience of despair and disbelief which struck with particular fury at one moment in his life and threatened constantly to return. He became convinced that God would give him the sense of His presence and the peace that indicates forgiveness of sin only if he developed an intensely disciplined and constant activity on behalf of the good of his neighbor. He would know that he was persevering on the right track if his labors were crowned with success. Success could not help but witness to God’s blessing. Lack of success, inactivity, and failure to maintain the inner personal discipline needed to sustain one’s enterprise promised a return of existential anxiety.

Francke’s Pietist labors, which he wished to serve as a model for a worldwide Christian renewal, involved the creation at Halle of what are referred to as the Anstalten or Frankesche Stiftungen, various institutions at whose core lay clearly charitable ventures, such as well-structured orphanages. Since, however, charitable endeavors required money to survive, Francke’s foundations also encompassed commercial organizations designed to procure needed funds. Educational projects intended to form men with the iron-like inner discipline that could sustain constant commitment to enterprise and the service of one’s neighbor also played a crucial role in his labor at Halle. Francke provided Lebens-Regeln to guide them, rules that emphasized the task of breaking the individual’s self-will and rebuilding it for social-minded tasks in the way that his own conversion experience demonstrated God unquestionably wanted.

Charitable, commercial, and educational Anstalten moved forward vigorously under Francke’s direction from the 1690’s onwards. They were fortunate in finding favor with King Frederick William I, who had himself undergone a similar conversion experience, independently of Francke. He, like his father Frederick I (1688/1701-1713) before him, sought some means of unifying religiously divided Prussians. Instead of attempting this through Lutheran-Calvinist creedal or ceremonial union, he thus began to place his hope in a Pietist-inspired commitment to common, practical Christian activism. By the 1720’s, the king was eagerly promoting the Anstalten and incorporating Francke’s educational ideals into his own plans for the general instruction of the entire Prussian population.

For Frederick William, as for Francke, a self-disciplined, constantly active citizenry, alert to the good of one’s neighbors in society-at-large, needed to be successful to demonstrate its retention of God’s favor. A man in Frederick William’s position, and with his responsibilities, perforce needed to see this success reflected in the growth and benefit of the Kingdom of Prussia. Christian action on behalf of one’s neighbor in society must, to him, to a large and indeed primary degree, mean the co-operation of all individuals and groups in the development of the Prussian State, whose every victory would mean a further confirmation of divine approval.

Prussia, like other German states, was already familiar with what was called “cameralism”—a set of studies designed to form administrators who could better manage governmental resources and performance. Halle Pietism taught the cameralist the divinely ordained duty urging him on to perform his task, while simultaneously passing down to all Prussians in their various stations in life an inner sense of personal responsibility for sharing in the bureaucrat’s labor. Pietism bestowed the blessings of heaven upon all the manifold endeavors undertaken by the active citizen in the City of Man, with its highest approbation for work on behalf of the State. This could now be baptized as eminently Christian work for a God-fearing Christian State. Francke’s educational methodology, with its complex system of surveillance of pupils and insight into their psychology, insured that the lesson of the moral importance of such labors would stick for life. Mobilization of the clergy as a teacher of morals and a morals police seemed to Frederick William to be the most suitable means of drilling the Pietist message into the population-at-large. The clergy, too, had to learn and utilize the Francke spirit and method systematically, turning away from unproductive and immoral theological dispute that would sinfully weaken the State in the process.

Helpful to the day-to-day demands of Prussian survival and expansion all this undeniably was. But was Pietism able to stand in judgment of the successes achieved? Could it in any way admit that some of these triumphs might actually be unjustifiable and therefore desperately in need of correction with reference to the higher message of the Word? Was the Kingdom of Prussia open to a transformation in Christ? On what grounds could the Pietist even begin to suggest that such correction and transformation were possible? None whatsoever. Whatever “worked” was Christian. Open proponents of “nature as is” from the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo could not help but smile if they joined in this game and said their Sunday prayers with Prussian piety. All such pious paraphernalia provided a solid, traditional-sounding “appropriate explanation” for “business as usual” of a particular State-centered character.

D. Enlightenment Naturalism

It is now time to turn our attention to the second element contributing to the rise of the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo to a position of dominance in the West. This was the so-called Enlightenment, which proved, in practice, to provide a one-way ticket back into the darkness of Plato’s cave, together with a sack filled with still more arguments useful in convincing its prisoners to praise their guards as liberating angels. For our purposes, it is best to discuss that deceptive movement of ideas with reference to the division between what historians refer to as the Radical Enlightenment and its contrasting Moderate or Whig counterpart.

The Radical Enlightenment emerged directly out of the teaching of Renée Descartes (1596-1650), a man who, like Luther, would almost certainly have been horrified by the consequences followers drew from his philosophical labors.104 Descartes always professed himself to be a believing Catholic. His work was welcomed by many of his fellow believers because of the value it seemed to possess in weakening the invasion of a murky and dangerous magical outlook into both spiritual and natural life. This, the reader will remember, had been launched as a result of Renaissance flirtations with the Cabbala, Hermes Trismegistus, and occult subjects in general. Such studies were designed to uncover “hidden qualities” of nature that were then subtly confused with forces truly supernatural in character. The hunt for such occult hidden qualities seemed by the early 1600’s to be threatening a magical takeover of theology, philosophy, and natural science as a whole, with far-reaching, nefarious ecclesiastical, political, and social consequences.

Descartes was deeply troubled by magical intrusion into natural studies, but, as a man who had himself been a soldier in the Thirty Years War, even more disturbed by the entire ensemble of contemporary spiritual and intellectual divisions. His answer to such division was to question the basis of knowledge until he could find an absolutely sure ground in mathematically “clear and distinct ideas” that could unite all minds. This led him to a methodological separation of the approach to gaining knowledge of the realms of spirit and matter. All material substances had to be dealt with solely in a mechanical fashion. Occult or magical qualities could not be mechanically weighed and measured, and were therefore altogether excluded from the natural scientist’s calculations. The magician and the alchemist had to retreat to their murky underworlds. Faith and Reason could breathe purer air in consequence. And both would be reunited in the end.

New problems immediately arose, however, especially over the question of how to relate the human body, which had been approached mechanically, with the non-mechanical mind and soul that Descartes firmly believed that a man possessed. These difficulties were examined by Catholic followers of Descartes in France such as Fr. Marin Mersenne (1588-1648), Fr. Nicholas Malebranche (1638-1715), and many others. Nevertheless, it was the Protestant Dutch Republic, where the French thinker spent much of his career, which became the most important center for developing Cartesian ideas and confronting the quarrels that would surround them. Judgments regarding Descartes’ methodology entered into those bitter religious battles of the Reformed Christian Church that pitted the Pietist Gisbertius Voetius at Utrecht versus Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) at Leiden and led many Dutchmen to run in horror from all future doctrinal disputes. But the Frenchman’s approach was also employed by Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), the chief figure responsible for the radicalization of the Cartesian methodology and, with it, the development of modern atheism.105

For Spinoza, the problem of the relationship of mechanical matter to a non-mechanical mind and spirit was ultimately no difficulty at all. What was a difficulty was the fact that Descartes had not carried the labor of thinking with mathematically clear and distinct ideas far enough. When a more logical approach led a man to realize that “one realm”, that of the world of matter operating by mechanical principles alone, was more clear and distinct than “two realms”, involving an imaginative spiritual order that no human could actually see, weigh, and measure, the painful enterprise of relating the duality entirely disappeared. There was no need to harmonize what was actually already unified. For Spinoza, everything was in some way a part of physical nature and therefore mechanically explicable, whether one might be speaking of the kind of matter we call bodies or of the kind of matter we call spirit.

It is easy to envisage a receptive and historically awakened reader of Spinoza placing his works on a bookshelf next to a copy of Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis. One unified civil order had finally gained one unified, mechanical philosophy to guide it, thereby giving still more encouragement to those eager to fight the conviction that nature should or even could be corrected and transformed through aid from “another world”. And yet just as Marsilius was wrongly praised as a Christian hero by Protestant creators of the black legends, Spinoza was going to find fervent admirers within the rapidly secularizing Reformed Christian world to spread his teachings as though they were actually God-fearing ones.

Balthasar Bekker (1634-1698), in his book of 1691 entitled De Betovorde Welt (The World Bewitched), contributed to Spinoza’s simplifying materialist tendencies in a way that captured both the popular reading public’s imagination as well as its growing irritation with witch hunting. Many others accompanied him on this path, although the most influential to do so was Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), author of the Historical and Critical Dictionary (1695 onwards). Bayle was crucially important in his own right as the proponent of the concept of a co-operative international work of enlightenment to be undertaken through an intelligentsia that inhabited its own distinct polis: its own “Republic of Letters”. He had the success that he did because he masqueraded as an opponent of Spinoza while effectively endorsing the Dutchman’s interpretation of a mechanical methodology applicable to all aspects of life.

In short, Spinoza and his followers “seized the image” of “clear and distinct ideas”. They then worked assiduously at making anyone who would not draw the absolutely necessary conclusion of an all-encompassing mechanist vision of reality to appear to be an undetected mental incompetent. Accepting nature “as is” was the first article of the Constitution of the Republic of Letters. Interference with “business as usual” was thereby excoriated as the work of an obscurantist religious mentality. And Bayle knew how to tell a “good story” regarding these constitutional principles better than anyone up until his own day.

Spinoza’s disguised atheism, and the highly radical movement for intellectual and political change that it inspired, engendered many varied, shocked responses in both the Protestant and Catholic worlds. Most such responses were based solely on the hope that the evil wind blowing in from Holland could be calmed by means of censorship and other legal penalties alone. They did, however, also include the unique but ultimately not particularly effective one presented by Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a noble supporter of the significance of all aspects of nature in the spirit of the full message of the Word, and a man as deeply troubled by the spiritual and intellectual divisions of the western world as was Descartes.106

Unquestionably, however, the answer that made the greatest impact was that provided by the so-called Moderate or Whig Enlightenment.107 The intellectual component of this reaction was first popularized through the renowned series of lectures endowed by Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and begun in 1692. These conferences had an enormous impact on the development of institutions like the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, which had already been founded some decades earlier, in 1660. The Royal Society and its most famous guide, Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), were then associated in men’s minds with the entire outlook, which was to be treated by many as the sole truly thoughtful and effective response to Spinoza’s atheism.

Boyle was indeed a believing Protestant. Like the Pietists who were emerging in Britain as well as in other splintered Protestant countries about the same time, he also was horrified by divisions among reformers that he believed could not help but aid the Catholic cause. More than this, however, he was desperate to calm debilitating theological dispute in order to “save” a supernatural God from Spinoza’s vision of a purely natural universe where everything unfolded from a spiritless mechanical necessity. Boyle was therefore ready to make the same kind of retreat from doctrinal controversy that Pietists in general were to urge, and Newton joined in the same project. But, in addition to finding religious unity in commitment to a system of Christian morality that everyone “obviously” still accepted, they both sought to aim the scientific mind towards God as well.

This they did by focusing on the “mystery” of the contemporary growth in knowledge of the splendor of the universe. For, unlike Spinoza, Boyle and Newton saw God’s hand in the workings of a nature that believers were confronting and putting to human use in ever more successful ways. A concentration on understanding the universe, developing its natural uses, obtaining successes in this realm, and yet accepting the mysterious grandeur of the entire enterprise seemed to them simultaneously to demonstrate the glory of God’s Creation and man’s ability to share, successfully, in fulfilling its plan.

Although mathematics certainly was to play a major role in the expanding knowledge of Creation, the real key to putting it to effective use was to be the experimental method taught by Francis Bacon (1561-1626). This, in one sense, was more respectable to the believing Christian from the very outset, precisely because it was not tainted by any mathematically engendered atheism. Attention to the dictates of experimental science and the wonders emerging from its exploitation, combined with a similar acceptance of the “obvious” truths of a Christian morality recognized by “common sense” and human experience, and then driven home by pious Bible reading and attendance at traditional Church services, were the keys to a healthy, holistic outlook on life. All, together, would emphasize the glory of God and God’s Creation along with the dignity of human effort, thereby serving as secure bulwarks against the deadening mechanical fatalism of Spinoza.

Did this “Protestant” Baconian vision logically fit together with the original doctrine of total depravity? It certainly seemed too hopeful regarding the uses of nature to do so. But did it not, in another sense, as Leibniz feared, actually deprave Reason, common sense, and science by reintroducing the concept of “hidden occult qualities” in nature, through its labeling of everything “mysterious” in the universe as the obvious work of the hand of God? Besides, equating “mystery” with “God’s hand” could ultimately be corrosive to the faith of the believer, given that what is mysterious today might prove to be explicable tomorrow. A gradual “filling in of the gaps” could therefore create the impression that God’s hand in the universe might progressively disappear as a force to be reckoned with by the rational mind. And this, in fact, was one of Spinoza’s chief arguments.

Then again, there was another difficulty at work here. Bacon himself had openly praised the labors of the magicians and their efforts to accomplish marvels with an environment that did not, on the surface, appear to wish peacefully to comply with their desires. Did he not merely substitute experimentation for esoteric spells in order to obtain the same, magical, utopian, and, perhaps, sinful goals? Had not Bacon envisaged the creation of “Royal Societies” dedicated to experimentation as, in effect, nothing other than a more secure pathway to the construction of a fabulous New Atlantis (1627) than anything that could be produced in the laboratories of the alchemists and magicians?108

Who could say what might finally come out of their labors? How could one know whether the consequences were acceptable if the theological and philosophical tools for investigating such questions were to be abandoned as divisive and dangerous to that Protestant ecumenism needed to “fight atheism”? How could one avoid becoming a mere cheerleader for the demands of “nature as is” if he insisted on seeing God’s glory through successful achievements arising from experiments with microscopes and forceps that previous generations might have condemned as being evil? How could any potential flaws of nature be admitted and corrected if the Christian moral code were equated fully with what was deemed “obvious” in the thought and the behavior of the world around us? And would the problem not become worse as the perhaps unacceptable successes of science rapidly changed that environment and our perceptions regarding how it worked and where it was headed? Hidden, convinced proponents of “business as usual” might happily recite their Books of Common Prayer if strange powers over nature attributed to “the glory of God” were given to them in exchange, and if unquestioning acceptance of the value of their labors shaped the next generation’s “common sense” judgments regarding their morality—whatever the actual words of the Sunday hymns might praise or chastise regarding them.

What is truly obvious in all this is that a general retreat from open religious controversy and an attempt to approach God through common sense morality and the successful development of His Creation alone were very attractive to the eighteenth century British mind. Memories of nearly two hundred years of unpleasant political and social consequences stemming from religious disputes remained painfully vivid to Englishmen, while the unifying wonders produced through practical, experimental science were more and more impressive to the naked eye. Dogmatic disputes had proven to be fruitless disasters, while any “sensible” man could see that a religious fervor aimed at correcting daily and shocking failures to live up to a code of behavior that “everyone” theoretically and publicly accepted would be a praiseworthy activity. Clearly, what was needed, above all else, “common sense Christians” of this kind argued, was a campaign for the reformation and uplifting of basic morals that were contested by no one of sound mind; a reform which, while teaching the need to avoid intellectual and spiritual conflict, would focus attention upon helping oneself and one’s fellow man through “practical” and therefore truly “godly” improvements in personal behavior and the natural sciences.

The emergence of the Press in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) gave to this medium a crucial role in aiming attention from scriptural and sacramental quarrels to practical morals, manners, and “charitable” labors for the application of natural scientific improvements. Nowhere was the connection of the quieting of religious controversy, the interest in a reform of behavior, and the importance of the Press more clear than in the work of the two periodicals, The Tatler and The Spectator, brought out by the joint effort of Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) in the years between 1709 and 1714. Readers of these journals were exposed, week after week, to social and behavioral commentaries, in the latter through representatives of the worlds of commerce, the army, the town, and the country gentry, presented by one Mr. Spectator, an observer of the London scene. Both periodicals served as models for manifold imitators on the European Continent, such as the Hamburg Patriot and Il Caffè of Milan.

What one finds in The Tatler, and even more in The Spectator, is the insistence upon the need for men of “common sense” to gather together without religious rancor and cooperatively undertake the truly gentlemanly---and therefore ipso facto “Christian”---business of bettering themselves and their surrounding societies. The fact that such journals would generally be read in public places like coffee houses emphasized still further the need for moral men to develop friendly manners, keep passions down, avoid grating on one another’s nerves, and thereby allow the very establishment in which one was thinking and speaking peacefully to survive and prosper.

A similar emphasis upon the prevention of divisive controversy and dedication to good-mannered cooperative ventures of obvious personal and social value could be found in the varied reading clubs and scientific-agricultural-commercial “patriotic” societies founded in Britain and Ireland in the late seventeenth century. Already promoted by Sir Francis Bacon, as noted above, these included the aforementioned Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, the Society for the Improvement of Husbandry, Agriculture, and Other Useful Arts of Dublin (1731), and, one might add, the Freemasons (1717) also.

Here, just as in cafés, the class distinctions operative outside such circles could temporarily be suspended for the good of all. Here, then, were truly God-blessed confraternities and sodalities, “religious orders” with a purpose. In such communities swords were beaten into plowshares through practical achievement. In such an environment, men could begin an honest and truly practical ascent of Mount Tabor. For, if the scientist and the practical entrepreneur whose discernible fruits could be weighed and measured and imitated with mathematical exactitude were not in union with God and His plan for the world, who was? Certainly not squabbling Protestant and Catholic polemicists! Did not Sir Isaac Newton, head of the Royal Society from 1703, and humble student of the laws of motion and their practical consequences, point the way to true service of the God who presided over nature’s mysteries and the men He commands us to love infinitely better than quibblers battling over the nature of the Eucharist?

Hence, in addition to a Prussian Pietist Christianity, we now have before us a similar British Christianity, shorn of doctrinal clarity, centered round practical moral achievement and friendly manners, and aimed at a common action of immediate, obvious, successful benefit to one’s neighbor. But, once again, both these forms of Christianity proved to be more susceptible to powerful secularizing tendencies than many of its original proponents had perhaps expected.109

Prussian thinkers such as Christian Wolff (1679-1754) are instructive in tracing the path from a Christian-sounding discussion of life truly rooted in the supernatural to one that in fact draws its inspiration from nature and natural tools almost exclusively.110 Clearly, the more the world of God was shunned as the realm of the controversial, the more that the world of nature taught what was pleasing to the Almighty and deemed to be successful in His eyes on its terms alone. Moreover, as briefly indicated above, the reading of the meaning of nature and the teachings of natural experiences changed once Christian doctrine began to lose its hold on people. What was taken as common sense and natural law and virtue by a first generation that still knew Christian teaching but simply ceased to engage in theological dispute over its significance was no longer the same as that of a second generation lacking doctrinal formation and prohibited from seeking it under the penalty of being “divisive” and therefore “ungodly”. The commands of God that were learned from nature alone were then registered and carried out by groups or individuals who retained a strong conviction of divine guidance in their secular activities, regardless of whether or not these fit together with traditional Christian considerations of what was socially acceptable and good.

No appeal could readily be made in either case to any supernatural force transcending such powers, since God had already been consulted in a nature liberated from metaphysical considerations. Recourse to a divine message coming from beyond nature could, once again, axiomatically be dismissed as “divisive” and, hence, immoral—even un-Christian. The initial work of naturalizing the supernatural having been undertaken within a Christian idiom and in Christian circles, this bridge to the Enlightenment and its concerns could be completed without the sharp anti-clericalism emerging in circles influenced by the atheism of Spinoza. Besides, who, under its soothing influence, would know what traditional Christian considerations were anyway? For history, alongside doctrinal disputation, would also have been discarded or reinterpreted to rid the world of its potentially dangerous effects on the success-and-unity oriented personality and society.

In such an environment, whoever had the strongest feelings and the most powerful will to enforce them would become the voice of heaven in nature and of true “tradition” themselves. In Prussia, this led, in the first instance, to the victory of the will of the leaders of a bureaucratic State. But in Britain, it led to the dominance of another, quite different, but equally naturalist force. Why was this the case? The first necessary step to answering that question is to note that the already potentially naturalist outlook of men like Boyle and Newton did not win its influence over British opinion on its own. Its progress was undertaken in alliance with two other powerful and ultimately quite secularizing forces.111

One of these was a group of fellow Protestants primarily stimulated by a loathing both of the Catholicizing measures of the Stuart Dynasty as well as Stuart admiration for Louis XIV and Bourbon Absolutism. A second, intersecting source of strength came from men of property who had begun their ascent to power with the massive transfer of lands that the “pragmatic” and highly political English Reformation had brought about in Britain. These men of property saw Catholicism and the stronger government that both the Stuarts and the Bourbons desired as a danger to their wealth and their freedom to use it as they deemed fit.

It was all three of these forces—the anti-Spinoza Boyle and Newton faction, the fervently anti-Catholic-Stuart-Bourbon cabal, and the self-interested economic elite—that converged to form that Whig oligarchy that made the triumph of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Protestant Succession of the Eighteenth Century possible. The philosophical and political underpinnings of this tripartite Whig Revolution were then elaborated through the work of John Locke (1632-1704). It was the entire “package” that gave substance to the Moderate, Enlightenment vision. And it is this outlook that would, in centuries to come, have the greatest success in contesting the concept of correction of nature and transformation in Christ. It is this outlook that would have the greatest success in inventing an “alternative good story” relating an “appropriate explanation” of dedication to “business as usual” that gave to such naturalism the seeming blessing of God as well as of man. Isocrates had been reincarnated in Britain.

Two crucial conduits for transmitting the outlook of this victorious Whig oligarchy outside of Britain were François-Marie Arouet (1694 –1778), better known by his pen name of Voltaire, and James Madison (1751-1836), the father of the American Constitution. Both men grasped the two central political dogmas supporting the oligarchs’ system: avoidance of spiritual conflict through the principle of religious tolerance, and the “checks and balances” that came along with a division of governmental powers designed to prevent the victory of an absolute monarchy.112

Although Madison’s precise religious beliefs, if any, are unclear to me, and Voltaire was definitely not a Christian, the first had no interest in a frontal assault on faith, and the latter was a firm enemy of atheism. The principle of religious tolerance, openly defined by Locke not just as politically useful teaching but even as the most important doctrine of Christianity in and of itself, was easily presented as a dogma that was friendly to pious people. Did it not allow an enormous space for public expression of belief? Perhaps. But that which made it attractive to an indifferent Madison and a Deist Voltaire was the effect that it had, in practice, on organized religion in countries like Britain and the United States, where there were many Christian denominations that could all become openly active under its aegis.113

Religious tolerance in these two lands made it impossible for any single Faith to take effective charge of the central public authority and guide it according to its wishes. In other words, while being seemingly faith-friendly, it promised the reduction of organized Christian religion to public impotence in a nation of many denominations. Madison, in discussing the benefits of the American Constitution in the Federalist Papers, also notes what the new federal machinery was designed to do should some “imbalance” in the system appear. At that point, it worked to “multiply factions”—i.e., to take a contemporary example, to encourage the formation of male and female, black and white, straight and gay Christian sects—and thus prevent the threatening domination of any given group—religious or otherwise. Under these conditions, the more materialist members of the oligarchy, along with those concerned primarily about peace and quiet rather than truth, could continue to thrive without worry about the future. A more Machiavellian anti-Catholic political principle presented under the guise of promoting free religious practice can hardly be imagined.114

Division of governmental powers providing checks and balances against arbitrary acts emerged as an historical reality out of the English experience of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. Any effort to rule the kingdom without sufficient respect for the executive, legislative, or judicial “branches” of the government had repeatedly led to civil war and disaster. But a side effect of this English fact of life was a semi-paralysis of government necessarily requiring the limitation of the public sphere of activity. This created something of a vacuum in which strong-minded private groups and individuals could thrive more freely—and, ironically, act more arbitrarily—than under the system envisaged either by the Stuarts or the Bourbons. Hence, its value in the eyes of anti-Catholic Protestants and men concerned chiefly for the protection of their property. Hence, also, its merits in the minds of all the many more radical

Enlightenment thinkers whom police in other parts of Europe were vigorously persecuting at the very moment of the Whig triumph.115

In order to introduce the Radical Enlightenment back into the picture, let us begin by remembering that the Whig oligarchy responsible for the Glorious Revolution felt very shaky in its power and deeply threatened by the might of the Bourbon Family and its Stuart allies. These latter were living in exile in France, waiting for an opportunity to regain the throne in Britain. Fears that they might succeed help to explain Whig support for Dutch efforts to create a Grand Coalition against Louis XIV, as well as British willingness to revive this alliance whenever it was deemed necessary to do so in the future. Anxiety over the survival of the Whig experiment also underlay a readiness to contemplate the use of all tools and all allies in what was not just a military contest but a cultural war as well.

Foreign policy goals thus dictated the British government’s encouragement of the spread of freemasonic lodges on the Continent.116 Yes, early modern Freemasonry held out an appeal to a variety of groups, Stuart supporters included. Nevertheless, the Whig oligarchy managed to dominate it, ultimately using the lodges for everything from anti-French propaganda to outright spying. Unfortunately, from the Whig standpoint, they attracted to membership therein not simply anti-Catholic Protestants and men of property worried about Bourbon absolutism. They also drew proponents of the Radical Enlightenment into their ranks as well. For perhaps the most passionate anti-Catholic and anti-absolutist continental adversaries of Louis XIV were those atheist followers of Spinoza most detested by the Protestant ecumenists of the coalition that made the Glorious Revolution. And the political vision of these atheists was one that also called for a naturalist and democratic transformation of the whole of European society that would go far beyond anything to be found in the Whig program.

Under the cover of lodges, such radicals, highly useful for British Whig anti-Bourbon purposes, propagated their full religious and political beliefs, whether their moderate comrades were aware of it or not. The same, by the way, was true of radicals operating under other “covers”, such as that of the Encyclopedia, whose editors, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) in particular, paid lip service to the glory of Newton and Locke while relentlessly spreading substantive atheist and anti-oligarchic democratic arguments. In doing so, they not only worked against the initial Whig spirit but also actually drew a number of the moderates themselves down their own radical pathway.117

There were many purely logical reasons why they could be successful in this latter enterprise. The “moderate” John Locke’s direct association with radicals in Holland before the Glorious Revolution is well documented, and his philosophy openly posits a Christianity possessing the most modest of doctrinal contents. In fact, it provides clear tools for the dismantling of all doctrine whatsoever. Also, one cannot help but feel that Locke’s natural universe is merely a slightly cleaned up version of the “war of all against all” posited by Thomas Hobbes; a basically similar, totally depraved battlefield that nevertheless seeks to avoid ending its jungle chaos by submission to the kind of absolute ruler that was detested by the Whig Oligarchy. In secularized Protestant fashion, Locke, too, carries out the work of reducing man to the individual, the individual to his freedom, his freedom to lack of obstacles to fulfilling his passions, and his only hope for keeping his life and property under these circumstances to the check and balance or interests as reflected in the Whig Constitution. Moreover, a Newtonian universe did not really need a personal God to function, as the next generation of Newtonians, Voltaire prominent among them, realized. Deism was sufficient to make the same argument for that “pinch” of mystery indicating the dependency of nature on some sort of Creator.118

In any case, attacks on the Enlightenment after the 1750’s often failed to make any distinction between moderates and radicals, leading the former to a defense of the latter even if only as a tactical strategy. This defense was carried out in the urban salon society that the defenders of the Moderate Enlightenment, the so-called philosophes, made their second home. It was also conducted through satirical journals, by means of which “public opinion” might be created and then “obeyed”; through the capture, by some of the chief Enlightenment representatives, of control of the prestigious French Academy; and, last but not least, by seizing and embellishing the image of Progress and Hope coming from the New World through the success of the American Revolution. In sum, the upshot was that radicals in the Republic of Letters learned how to use the Moderate Enlightenment even as the Moderate Enlightenment continued using them. A price in disillusionment and bitterness was soon to be paid in blood by the members of both factions for their real but often unwitting cooperation. But, then again, heads must roll in the construction of any truly solid death camp worthy of the name anyway.119

A Moderate Enlightenment vision, frozen according to the desires of the initial Whig alliance, was threatened from another direction as well as that taken by the “mainstream” radicals—one that worked to dismiss the intellectual solidity of the practical guidance gained from experimental knowledge of the world around us. The chief figures responsible for announcing this threat to the moderate world were the Scottish historian and philosopher, David Hume (1711-1776), and the multifaceted French-speaking Swiss, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), both of whom were well acquainted with one another’s devastatingly critical labors.120

Hume demonstrated that experimental knowledge coming from the outside universe was unreliable as a source of intellectual certainty of all kinds, including scientific laws, as they were popularly understood, such as Newtonian “laws of motion”. Why? Because that knowledge could only really be knowledge of what had been observed to happen historically. Once a man proceeded from the data of an experiment or an outside observation to the formulation of a law, applicable everywhere and at all times, he made a connection between data and universal result that he had in no way tested through experimentation and thereby proven to be true. In fact, the only reason he thought he could make such a law was that faith, habit, and custom told him that he could do so. Hume concluded that we operate, “scientifically”—and morally—only on the basis of such customary, faith-filled, historically explicable habits. Their supposedly universal, God-rooted truth is non-existent. Rousseau, in effect, agreed with him, to the degree that he considered any “truth” built upon an individual’s acceptance of what was taught to him “from the outside looking in” to be totally unnatural and insincere in character, about which much more anon.

Hume’s vision placed the scientific and moral universe in danger of total dissolution. What could be done to prevent this? The answer came from two sources once again, the first being the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Lack of moral certainty for a man of Kant’s Pietist heritage would be an especially abhorrent condition, given that he had already jettisoned the hunt for security through doctrinal agreement. With traditional theological and philosophical tools taken out of the hands of the law and order loving man, and the ground of moral action in the common sense behavior of one’s peaceable kingdom dismissed as the product of mere habit and custom, what would be left to block existential Angst and disorder?

Kant’s answer was to turn inward for absolute certainty. What a man needed to do to deal with Hume’s critique was to undertake a kind of internal retreat through which he stripped himself free of every “law” regarding the world outside him that he could not see binding him, personally, along with all other human persons, to the same line of conduct. Solely those principles and laws that he admitted applied equally to him as well as to everyone else were to be retained as solid. This labor, which could only be accomplished through a determined cultivation of the most honest and persistent sincerity, free of all hypocritical self-interested considerations, would yield unshakeable knowledge of how God and nature demand that we must act with reference to our environment. That knowledge would be accurate, even if the honest, inward scrutiny that forged it might not be able to tell us precisely what the “logos” of our environment really and essentially was all about. In other words, Kant provided as a basis for certainty a kind of Spinoza-like vision in reverse. Instead of turning things spiritual into another form of matter, he offered the possibility of dissolving the world o