Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Good Bishops, Court Bishops, and Modern Regalism

(The Angelus, January, 2019.)

One of the most famous and exhilarating confrontations between the agents of “the world” and a serious man of God was that pitting Modestus, the emissary of the Arian friendly Emperor Valens (364-378), against Saint Basil the Great (330-379), Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia. When Modestus expressed astonishment at the audacity of Basil’s firm refusal to toe the heretical imperial line, indicating that no one had ever dared to address him in such a manner, this courageous prelate calmly responded: “perhaps that is because you have never spoken to a bishop before”.

It is possible that St. Basil was being absolutely straightforward with his comment, but, knowing as he did that many of his colleagues had already given in to Valens’ demands, I believe that his answer reflected his realistic recognition that there were all too many time-serving bishops who seemed to think that their episcopal function was to “sail with the secular imperial wind”. Such “court bishops” had their classic model in the Arian friendly Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339), who, in works such as his Laudes, commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s accession to the throne, created the standard argument which, mutatis mutandis, was destined to be employed to justify all kinds of unwarranted State interference in Church affairs:

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 one 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. (J. Rao, Black Legends, pp. 59-60).

A good bishop cannot help but be recognized as “the real thing” by a man possessing any sense whatsoever. This is why Modestus, reporting back to the Emperor on his unexpected failure with St. Basil, seems to have thought that their Arian project, successful until then, was doomed. In lamenting to Valens that “we stand defeated by a leader of the Church”, he demonstrated that one good bishop seriously trying to fulfill his mission could perhaps overcome the inadequacy of a myriad of other colleagues overwhelmed by mundane secular fears and temptations.

Nevertheless, and sad to say, although good bishops ready to stand up for the freedom and exaltation of the Mystical Body of Christ have never been lacking in post St. Basil times, they have been less than numerous throughout the entire history of the Church. Every age has been plagued by the reality of powerful court bishops ready to redefine what is Catholic so as to fit the political program of the secular authorities, whose persons and actions continue to be invested with a Eusebius-like divine aura.

Although the term Caesaro-Papism, born out of the Roman imperial experience, is often popularly used to describe all such spiritualized State interference in the Church’s affairs, it is more accurate to employ the word “Regalism” to identify it from the High Middle Ages onwards. Regalism appeals to general---not just imperial---“royal” rights to deal with spiritual matters, justified to begin with with reference to historical concessions wrung out of weak and harried ecclesiastical authorities, and later, with respect to an Enlightenment definition of natural law alone, without any particular concern for what the proper custodians of the supernatural Christian message had to say about them.

Given the name, people understandably associate Regalism with monarchical governments. And it certainly is the case that the court bishops of post-Reformation Spain and France mercilessly cultivated regalist claims, defusing any complaints regarding secular abuse of authority by emphasizing the supposedly special supernatural protection offered them through their titles of “Most Christian Kings” or “Catholic Majesties”. Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) offers a particularly frustrating example of the species from regalist times. Always supportive of serious Tridentine reform on a diocesan level, and tied in his early career with Cardinal Pierre de Bérulle (1575-1629), one of the finest and most spiritual-minded of Catholic Reformation prelates, he nevertheless was willing to ally France with Moslems against fellow Catholics and press for the creation of a French patriarchate with quasi-papal powers, so long as dynastic glory and a quasi mystical vision of “Reason of State” required it.

On the other hand, the Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation era Italian city-states were among Regalism’s most blatant manipulators. The Venetian Republic of the early seventeenth century was probably the worst of the pre-revolutionary lot, its bishops generally cowed into compliance when not actually openly supporting justifications of state power over spiritual matters so devoid of doctrinal, rational, and moral considerations that they can only be defined as nihilist in character. Napoleon continued the regalist tradition in his revolutionary imperial regime, perfecting an administrative and police interference in Church affairs admired and imitated by most of the legitimist governments of the post-Napoleonic Restoration Era (1815-1848). In fact, the functionary-like episcopacy operating under the Concordat that Napoleon negotiated with Pius VII (1800-1823), and strengthened in a regalist direction by the Organic Articles he slipped into the agreement on his own steam, was looked upon by all nineteenth century Catholic reformers as a model of the kind of subservient hierarchy that an effective evangelism had to eliminate.

Despite its impressive tools for eliciting adherence to Christendom’s “God-given” rulers through the aid of innumerable bishops both courtly and cowed, every era has seen St. Basil-like prelates stand their ground for the liberty and exaltation of Holy Mother the Church with at least some ultimate success. They range from the martyred St. Thomas a Becket of Canterbury (1118-1170) in combat with King Henry II (1154-1189) to the more fortunate St. Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), constantly at odds with the Spanish agents of Philip II (1556-1598) in Milan, to Clemens August Droste zu Vischering (1773-1845), the Archbishop of Cologne, whose battle against Prussian interference with the Roman Church’s marriage laws was turned by the great Catholic layman Joseph Görres’ (1776-1848) work Athanasius (1834) into perhaps the most powerful symbol of how a good bishop overcomes the sins of court bishops in the Restoration Era.

But Regalism in its long and varied history has never been so rampantly and victoriously employed as it has by the modern American pluralist shaped liberal democratic governments. Compliance with the demands of their form of Regalism is the general policy of court bishops and their cowed fellow-prelates ruling the American Church, and, for that matter, everywhere that pluralism’s writ runs wild. And this is no wonder, since the system created through it is designed to drive men honestly seeking to be good bishops under its command stark raving mad.

St. Basil was fortunate in this one regard, namely, that the attack on Christ that he was facing was straightforwardly doctrinal in character, mercifully limited to one particular---though admittedly deadly---heresy, and backed by an open, obvious, physical threat from people who took him so seriously as an opponent that they were ready to incarcerate or kill him. Being by nature rather cowardly and uncertain how I would react to imprisonment or martyrdom, I in no way wish to diminish respect for this great man in the face of an imperial emissary threatening whips, chains, and a hatchet. However, I must confess that that punishment that faces the potential good bishop in a pluralist regime is in many respects much more demeaning to the mind and spirit and perhaps much more difficult to resist.

American Pluralism proudly and ceaselessly insists that Regalism simply cannot exist under its aegis. Its commitment to religious freedom, separation of the secular and the spiritual, and, hence, a “free Church in a free State” utterly abolishes the problem forever. It supposedly grants an institution like the Roman Catholic Church the best conditions for evangelization that it has ever experienced in history---in fact, the only conditions under which it can operate in the modern world. It guarantees the opposite to be true, and this both on the practical as well as the theoretical levels.

On the practical level, the exaltation of liberty that it proclaims creates a “free supermarket of ideas” that gives the same protection to religious and philosophical absurdities that it does to exalted principles. It makes them all seem equal in value, “checking and balancing” the lot of them out of any kind of influence over public life, which is thereby rendered totally materialist and mundane in consequence. On the theoretical level, the carte blanche for “freedom” that it entails takes for granted that a “free Church” must operate with the same “live and let live” attitude as the State allows, viewing any opposition to this principle as a violation of true liberty, and one indicating an unintelligible madness, given that religion has “obviously” been liberated under the pluralist system as never before!

Standing behind the supposedly religiously neutral picture that is painted lies the mystic depiction of the American Way as “the last, best hope for mankind”, over whose Foundation God’s Providence hovered and hovers ad saeculum saecolorum. So well trained is the “laity” of what amounts to a secularized Puritan Church nurturing the vision of America as a “City on a Hill” with a worldwide mission of enlightenment, that even its Roman Catholic segment stops up its ears with disbelief when a good bishop comes along crying “fraud”, standing up for true Church freedom to teach what she must, and contradicting the doctrines of Pluralism in the process. It reacts like the imperial magistrate of the early Third Century who refused to entertain Christian arguments and said: "I cannot bring myself so much as to listen to people who speak ill of the Roman way of religion" (Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.17).

Eighteen hundred years apart, the bulk of the American Catholic laity takes for granted a Divine Regalist State whose shoes the Church is supposed to shine, and whose lessons she is supposed to learn rather than to correct. Like the system it serves, it cannot imagine why a good bishop would oppose “the last best hope of mankind” and religious forces’ “unquestionably” magnificent opportunity to take advantage of its “live and let live” mentality. Under such circumstances, a St. Basil the Great would not be imprisoned or executed, but ignored or sent for psychiatric help. Nothing substantive can be taken seriously by liberal democratic Pluralism. One man’s heresy is another man’s orthodoxy and deserving of the same respect.

One way of summarizing the difference between the idea of a good bishop and a court bishop in all ages is by making mention of an incident that I witnessed at a conference given by a prominent American prelate. An old friend of mind asked this star in the episcopal firmament a question about rampant ecclesiastical abuses that any traditional Catholic would understand needed to be addressed. The organizer of the event leaped up and squelched the query, basing his censorship on the grounds that his job “was to protect His Excellency”. He understood that that protection meant preventing anyone from interfering with the prelate’s work as a court bishop. This work was centered around “protecting the divine pluralist Zeitgeist”. “Funny”, my friend managed to respond in a booming voice, “and yet since the time that I was a child, I thought it was supposed to be the bishop’s job to protect me!”

My friend was obviously correct. The bishop is there to protect the Faith and the path of the laity to eternal salvation. The most important way that a bishop performs this task is by defending doctrine and Catholic practice: in Saint Basil’s day against the Arians and Semi Arians; in St. Charles Borromeo’s time against Spanish administrative pests; and in the American regalist era against the idea that no belief is important enough to take one’s energies away from the pursuit of liberty and material happiness----and worshipping the idols that encourage the mindlessness these entail.

St. Basil the Great, pray for good bishops in our time!

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