Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Corruption, Courage, and Constructive Rage

(The Angelus, September, 2016.)

John Henry Newman notes that Catholics suffer from “difficulties” rather than doubts. The “difficulty” that most troubles me as an historian is the Church’s treatment of the status of a saintly confessor of the Faith as being lower than that of a martyr. Tongues extracted, hands removed, food, warmth, sleep, and contact with their fellow men denied: all these have fallen to their lot, with years and decades of suffering in consequence. Quite frankly, I would infinitely prefer a swift bullet to the head or the fall of the blade of the guillotine. The trials of the confessors have demanded a degree of patient courage that to my pathetically weak body and soul seems absolutely unattainable. Were I to emerge alive from years of such suffering I am certain that I would be filled with nothing but rage.

With all due respect to officially recognized confessors of the Faith, we Traditionalists, wanderers in the ecclesiastical wilderness for more than forty years that we are, may with some justice feel as though we have experienced something analogous to their particular kind of courageous suffering. But given our own flaws---as well as our own justified pride in standing up for our besieged Faith---it seems to me that an historical essay on a long suffering, confessor-like figure, whose patient courage in face of ecclesiastical corruption and indifference to heresy---when powerless---and whose rage---when in a position to act effectively---was sometimes a tad uncontrollable, might not be a bad focus for a traditionalist review dealing with the topic of fortitude.

Our confessor-like figure is Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), better remembered as Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). Carafa, in his earlier career, had joined with a canonized saint, Gaetano da Thiene (1480-1547), to create the Order of Clerks Regular. This union of diocesan priests was deeply influenced by the spirituality of St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510). Carafa and Thiene encountered that spirituality through the Roman branch of the many “Companies of Divine Love” founded under her inspiration, this one at the Church of SS Silvestro and Dorotea in Trastevere sometime after 1513.

The “Theatines”, as the Order of Clerks Regular was commonly called---after the Latinized name of Carafa’s See at Chieti---were designed to be exclusive and practical. It kept away from its ranks both insufficiently rigorous priests as well as those more useful elsewhere. Carafa, a zealous bishop, was only admitted after a passionate scene, during which he fell on his knees before Thiene, holding the latter responsible for the state of his soul before God on Judgment Day were he not allowed to enter the new Order. Such an appeal would have had a powerful impact given St. Catherine’s insistence upon each of her spiritual children constantly keeping Christ’s face and verdict before his eyes when considering whether or not he was fulfilling his particular vocation in life properly.

St. Catherine of Genoa’s spirit was also to be seen in the Theatines commitment to absolute evangelical poverty. Not only did Carafa and Thiene feel that such rigor witnessed to “divine love” in the form of charitable self-abnegation; they also felt that it contributed to a crucially needed Church reform by demonstrating the serious commitment of at least some priests in the midst of abominable clerical laxity. Carafa, as required by the Rule, retired from his diocese, abandoning all of his revenues and his entire substantial family inheritance. He vigorously rebuked every effort to accord him the episcopal privileges to which he was still entitled, even after having been named a cardinal in 1536 under Paul III.

Carafa courageously outlined what he felt a real Church renewal would mean in a document to Pope Clement VII, dated 4 October, 1532. Though met with nothing but cynical contempt from a Roman Curia dedicated to its corrupt “traditions”, it was of sufficiently broad a scope to live on as a model for the Consilium de emendanda ecclesia under Paul III in 1537. The Consilium was a devastating analysis of Church corruption prepared by a committee of cardinals that included Carafa as well a number of other former members of his Roman Company of Divine Love such as Matteo Giberti (1495-1543) and Gaspare Contarini (1483-1542).

The document in question is one long indictment of general clerical ignorance and malfeasance, including everything from apostate priests continuing their ministry without permission to telling their confused penitents that the sins they were committing were nothing to worry about since Church penalties had no meaning. Nevertheless, his greatest wrath was directed at the venality of the Roman Curia, where the temptations to misappropriate filthy lucre were endless. Would that some could awaken the pope to:

The most rapacious Cerberi that surround the 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 a final frustrating problem, that of the Holy See’s all too moderate response towards heterodoxy and rebellion. The treatment accorded heretical and rebellious clerics in Rome amounted to passionate embrace of their errors, 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, Carafa insisted, 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 merely displayed the bulls that they had 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 had “contracted an incurable illness, and other lies”. How could the rest of the Christian world be expected to move against error within the Church 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”. Was it not a scandal that the papal power, supreme in the Church, was frequently utilized to relax discipline, but never to enforce it?

Courageously and perhaps most interestingly, Carafa insisted that “the fundamental cause of the ills of the Church was the immense exaggeration of the pontifical power occasioned by the refined adulation of canonists without conscience”. These exaggerations gave the pope the authority to do things which he ought not to do. He begged the man he hoped would hand his document directly to the pope to “entreat His Holiness to put a brake upon His Ministers”, and ensure “that such an abundance of Apostolic Bulls not be released for every most vile and alien thing”.

On the other hand, Carafa, had the most exalted notions of that which the Papacy, acting in its proper sphere, might be capable of accomplishing. All that was required was simply vigorous, uncompromising application of already existing reform measures. As it was, escape routes were constantly left open to reprobates, delineating the conditions under which their abuses might continue to flourish. These simply encouraged the practice of obtaining dispensations from the norm, which, given the nature of men, inevitably became the rule rather than the exception.

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.

No more councils were needed, no more decrees, no more pious sermons. Action alone could deal with the problem. Action was itself the best argument. All useful steps, moreover, had to begin in Rome, in the pope’s own garden. Only then, with a proper example given by the Vicar of Christ, could the movement for reform and renewal be expected to spread throughout Italy and the remainder of the Christian world.

Carafa was certainly true to his word upon obtaining the tiara. Proponents of a new session of the Council of Trent 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, and it was here that his frustrated rage demonstrated itself. The Theatine Pope fell down upon the Curia with a sincerity that no man could question, cutting his own revenues in half when he could theoretically ill 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 those members of his own family whom he had trusted, led to so swift and brutal a punishment that the whole of Italy, reformers included, were stunned by it. Indeed, his greatest failure, a war with the Spain of Philip II, stemmed chiefly from his uncompromising desire to free the Church from regal secularizing influences. It is ironic, however, as Paul himself may have realized in the latter part 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.

Some have claimed that this courageous call for swift and brutal action did Carafa little good; that in his rage Carafa, like most of those who had spoken out for reform when it was not profitable to do so, were too filled with rage when their moment came, and therefore ultimately self-defeating. 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 attitude towards institutional reform represented by Carafa lacked the prudence required to govern the Church over a long period of time. It may, however, be the case that, given the corruption of the Church of the day and the cynicism of much of the Christian population towards true renewal, a constructive rage, a symbolic blood letting, in the form of rigorous and even brutal house-cleaning, was 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 financial corruption of the Datary. Open abuses were obliged, to a certain degree, to go underground. Some have noted that the next papal nephew to hold a position of great authority in the Church after Carafa’s sad experience with his own family, was St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584).

If Paul IV, courageous confessor for renewal in a time of general corruption, was not necessarily the best instrument for directing a long term reform of the universal Church, it was nevertheless crucial for destroying the age-old barriers blocking the pathway of surgeons carrying the medicine of Trent. And as a travel guide indicating the route to that personal Christian renewal for which institutional reform was but a means to an end, the importance of the message of St. Catherine of Genoa for acting courageously in your state of life as though you were constantly being watched by Christ Himself is lasting and unmatched. Courageous traditionalists of our own Time of Troubles, consider the Carafa example when and if an opportunity arises for us to imitate him.

See Gennaro Maria Monti, ed., Ricerche su Papa Paolo IV Carafa (Benevento, 1923).

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