Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Theatines and the Question of Catholic “Renewal”

(The Wanderer, October 20, 1984)

One of Pope John XXIII’s expressed purposes in calling the Second Vatican Council was to manifest Catholic unity to a divided western world which seemed to him to be grasping for the truth. Proponents of a “pastoral” council argued that such an assembly would be instrumental in a “renewal” of the spirit of the Church of Christ, a revival that, presumably, would aid the epiphany desired by the Holy Father. Pious Catholics anxiously awaited the results.

Whatever the aims and hopes of popes, bishops and the faithful may have been, one thing ought to be patently clear today: “renewal”, during the last few decades, has been drowned in a tidal wave of doubt, of cynicism, and, on the part of loyal Catholics, of profound depression. It is afforded little encouragement from the present generation of Catholic youth; a generation which has been denied instruction in even basic teachings of the Magisterium, and which, therefore, lacks all sense of that which needs to be renewed. Secularized clerics, frantically attempting to combine a bourgeois Marxism with a defense of moderate liberal hedonism, have silenced the voice of religious heroes. Instead of seeing Christian unity, the non-Catholic spectator is entertained by public squabbles over principles whose contestation only the boldest of radicals would have proposed in 1962. The Body of Christ, like the world whose beacon it was intended to be, seems temporarily to have lost its luster. One need not suggest that Pope John and the Council caused the whole disaster—it was much more deeply rooted than that—to admit that it nevertheless exists throughout much of the western world.

What, then, can the serious defender of Catholic renewal do to recoup the Church’s losses? One inexhaustible source of hope and instruction in the midst of the debacle is Catholic History. Its effectiveness in this regard is two-fold, having both a “negative” and a “positive” sense. Catholic History first consoles by providing a description of past ages affected by similarly impressive catastrophes. It then “positively” stimulates to action by offering the example of men and deeds which—insofar as this is humanly possible—were instrumental in Catholic renewal. A two-fold effect of such a kind may be obtained by examining one specific period of Catholic eclipse—the early sixteenth century—and the work of renewal encouraged by a network of small “brotherhoods”, of which the Order of Clerks Regular or “Theatines” will be utilized as the central example.

The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were rich in the creation of small, tightly-knit bands of laymen and clerics dedicated to the attainment of Christian holiness. The more the general situation of the Church declined, the more these Catholic cadres seem to have gained in popularity, particularly in the numerous cities dotting the Italian Peninsula. Franciscan and Dominican spirituality has been noted as being seminal in this context, and particularly the example given by Savonarola. (1) An early instrument for spreading such spirituality was the Compagnia del divino amore, established in Genova on 26 December, 1497, with a membership of thirty-six laymen and four clerics.

The Compagnia was an elite group, secretive in character, in reaction to governmental suspicion of lay organizations as potential centers of subversive activity. Its chief aims were the stimulation of piety, the encouragement of frequent communion, spiritual aid for condemned criminals, and charitable work among the poor. Important among its functions was care for the incurably ill, especially for syphyllitics, an office which ultimately resulted in its funding of the Genovese 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 was the spiritual pupil of St. Caterina Fieschi-Adorno (1447-1510), whose first biography he wrote, and a selfless apostle of the work of “divine love”. He died in the plague of 1524, after having inspired charitable activities similar to those of Genova in Naples, and aided in the formation of a Roman Compagnia centered round the Church of SS 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. SS Silvestro and Dorotea is said to have been chosen 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, which aided former prostitutes, near Santa Maria Maddalena al Corso. 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), Gaspare Contarini (1483-1542), Gian Matteo Giberti (1495-1543), and San Gaetano da Thiene (1480-1547). The regular gatherings of such men in Trastevere encouraged not only a positive direction to their piety and charity, but also a sense of working together for a common cause. Barnabites, Camilliani, Oratorians, Scolopi, and Somaschi were all, to a large degree, products of the Compagnia’s influence. (2)

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. A conviction of the possible impact of a union of simple diocesan priests living a common life dedicated to prayer, proper intellectual preparation for priestly functions, sound liturgical performance, good preaching, frequent communion, and selfless works of charity motivated Thiene and reveals the lesson learned in the school of “divine love”.

Two practices of the Order of Clerks Regular seem to be particular developments of the lessons of the Compagnia. The first of these, stemming from the recognition of the greater efficacy of a solidly-knit organization, is the clear intention of being an elite corps. The “Theatines”, as they were commonly called, after the Latinized name of Carafa’s See at Chieti, were designed to be exclusive. Not only did they keep from their ranks insufficiently rigorous members, but also those who might be useful elsewhere for the work of renewal. They respected an evangelical division of labor. Hence, in addition to establishing particularly strict rules for the entrance of novices, unconcerned with the limitations these clearly placed upon their expansion, the Clerks Regular blocked the efforts of 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 excluded, despite his entreaties. Joining the Theatines would have required his abandonment of his episcopal privileges, and, perhaps, 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 rule.

A second development of the spirit of the Compagnia by the Theatines was the insistence upon an absolute evangelical poverty. Selfless expenditure of one’s energies for the sake of the poor was the rule of “divine love”; total abandonment of one’s means of survival as a priest became the guidelines for the Theatines. Even the mendicancy of Franciscans and Dominicans was rejected by them, partially due to a dismay over the corruption to which this had given birth. The Theatines simply “waited” for whatever aid came their way. Not only did such rigor complete the Theatine witness to the life of charitable self-abnegation; it also assisted their work for renewal, demonstrating the serious commitment of some priests in the midst of general clerical laxity. So sincere were they in this matter that they often lived in abysmal conditions, turning down any offer of regular contributions from regular donors, due to fears that these would compromise them and make them 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. He vigorously rebuked every effort to accord him episcopal privileges, even after having been named a cardinal under Paul III. Fulfillment of the duties of this princely office, for which he held the greatest respect, often forced him to appeal to the pope for defense “from hunger”. (3)

The early history of the Theatines was not without its drama. Many members of the Curia doubted the success of such a rigorous insistence upon evangelical poverty. It is said that only the intervention of Giberti, a man of great influence at the papal court and a constant friend, saved Thiene’s idea. Whatever the truth of the matter may be, the Order of Clerks Regular was approved by the bull Exponi nobis of 24 June, 1524. It was given some brief guidelines by Carafa, who became its first head, in 1526, and a more formal structure on 28 July, 1604. A certain initial ridicule on the part of the cynical Roman population did not trouble its life as much as did the devastating sack of the city by the troops of Charles V in 1527, forcing it to flee, along with other religious foundations, to the security of the Venetian Republic. The Church of San Niccolo da Tolentino in Venice, a Neapolitan center begun in 1533 by Thiene and Giovanni Marinonius (1490-1562), and San Andrea della Valle in Rome later in the century became their main foci. (4)

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 the more tranquil of the pair. His writings are almost all letters on spiritual topics, none written to Carafa during the crucial period of his residence in Naples having been available to the author. 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. (5)

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.

The Various Compagnie, and the Order of Clerks Regular following them, were outraged by the state of the Church in the early 1500’s. So concerned for the cause of renewal was the latter 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, as far as one can determine from the historical record, the Theatines did not believe that they could fulfill their mission through prayer alone. Instead, they displayed a passionate interest in those admittedly secondary measures which might be taken 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 will 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 reign of Marcellus in 1555 (6).

The other three sources all concern Carafa. Carafa has 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), his letters, and a document destined for Pope Clement VII, dated 4 October, 1532. This memorial, occasioned by Carafa’s dismay over the handling of the heterodox opinions and irregular behavior of several friars in the Venetian Republic—Bartolomeo Fonzio, Girolamo Galateo, and Alessandro da Pieve di Sacco—was given by the Theatine to Fra Bonaventura da Venetia to relate personally to the Holy Father. Fra Bonaventura, whose efforts were supported by those of Giberti, was, as he indicates in a letter to Carafa, accorded a polite but succinct audience by the Pope. Clement was too preoccupied with 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 under Paul III in 1537. This report was prepared by a commission, under the presidency of Cardinal Contarini, which included Carafa, Giberti, and a number of others, including several one-time members of the Roman Compagnia. (7)

Three deeply-rooted problems are brought to light by the written sources: the confused and corrupt behavior of clerics, particularly religious; the venality of the Roman Court; and, finally, the “moderate” approach towards dealing with heterodoxy and rebellion adopted by the Papacy.

One is given the impression of the greatest disruption in the clerical world. Religious life, especially that of friars, Carafa notes, “is already deformed and collapsed”. (8) It was not unusual, he claims, to find lay friars hearing confessions, tempted by the prospect of monetary compensation for their absolutions. Worse still, priestly habits were being abandoned, and religious were apostasizing. An added difficulty was the fact that such men often continued 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”. (9)

The Pope’s conscience will surely allow him no rest, Carafa argues, when he grasps the fact that such 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 signorial chaplaincies, and run schools for children, everywhere disseminating pastoral poison. Even now, even after clear abandonment of either habits or religious life as a whole, their preaching has an effect on all classes. Why? Due to the fact that such preachers still 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 licentious behavior. (10)

It is interesting to note here a certain intellectual 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 Humanist of Christian Humanist circles. Big guns like Giacomo Sadoleto (1477-1547) were fellow-travelers. Vernazza had contacts with the humanist Cardinal Saulio. Even Dati produced works on the American discoveries, Scipio Africanus, and mathematical tables useful for calculating the times of eclipses. 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. (11) Such Catholic reformers, therefore, often depicted the struggle against their enemies as one of enlightenment versus ignorance, “considering that the heresies of these rogues are all old things already confuted and extinct from Holy Church for a long time…”. (12) The spread of error, as already indicated above, was thus frequently attributed not to any intellectual appeal of the concepts that were being propagated, but, rather, to the fact that friars and others “are badly disposed and immediately receive that doctrine which conforms to their customs and their life…”. (13)

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 confirmation of various propositions, 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 (14):

those 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 the third problem, that of the Holy See’s “moderation” towards 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 passionate embraces, 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”. (15) 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” (16).

Friars refused to purge their own order, Carafa complains, 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, the Theatines insisted, 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. (17) 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”. (18) 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? (19)

A two-fold approach to the institutional reform important to the cause of renewal is suggested in these sources. On the one hand, as the Consilium later openly indicates, 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”. (20) Carafa begs that the Papacy not interfere in the day-to-day operations of sound religious families, such as those of Spain and Portugal, and, most importantly, that the traffic in apostolic dispensations be brought within some proper bounds. He writes in his instructions to Fra Bonaventura (21):

And for the love of God, 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.
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 Holy Father would have the ability to “make the giant mountains tremble down into the abyss”. (22) That which was required was simply vigorous, uncompromising application of reform measures.

This insistence upon the futility of half-hearted reform was apparently axiomatic in Theatine circles. The Neapolitan document, for example, notes that the decades-long commitment of popes and council to the cause of reform had still, by the 1550’s, achieved practically nothing. Why? Because it had remained within the realm of abstract discussion rather than leading directly to action. An escape route was always left often by the Holy See and Trent, 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” (23) 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 justifying conditions: (24)

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.

Carafa is himself filled with specific suggestions for how to act. Preachers and confessors, he explains, must be examined carefully with regard to their orthodoxy, an office which he himself performed for a time in Rome. Permission to read heretical books ought to be restricted, again, due to their appeal to the licentious, anxious to justify wicked behavior. A reformed, restructured, and strengthened Inquisition must be established in Italy, as eventually was done in 1542. It has been argued that Carafa was attracted to the idea of the Inquisition both by the fears expressed by Thiene regarding the spread of error in Naples, as well as by his own admiration for what had been accomplished with its aid in Spain, under the direction of a man like Cardinal Ximenez (1436-1517). 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, is also mentioned as a possible tactic. It is only with regard to the religious orders that “half measures” are 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”. (25) 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, had first and foremost to be taken 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. (26)

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, 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 he could theoretically ill afford to do so, while engaged in a disastrous war with Spain. “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 had placed in positions of authority, led to so swift and complete a punishment that the whole of Italy, reformers included, were stunned. Indeed, his greatest failure (of which there were several), the war with Spain, stemmed chiefly from his uncompromising desire to free the Church from 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. (27)

There are several important lessons that the contemporary Catholic can learn from the example of the Theatines, their work for institutional reform, and their interest in internal renewal. Perhaps all of these may be best noted by subsuming them under the general lesson of the need for freedom from the zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”.

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 taken for granted, its erroneous axioms are one’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 is encouraged by 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 his 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 devotion to 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 is 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.

Some have claimed that this 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 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 symbolic blood-letting, in the form of rigorous and even brutal house-cleaning, was, given the corruption of the Church of the day and the cynicism of much of the 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. Some have noted that the next papal nephew to hold a position of great authority in the Church after Carafa’s reign was St. 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. And as travel guides indicating the route to that personal Christian renewal for which institutional reform was but a means to an end, their importance is lasting and unmatched.

The contemporary zeitgeist, anxious that the Church not recover lost ground, would react strongly against that which the Theatines have to say, and the example that they give. Their insistence upon the importance of small, committed, Catholic cadres utilizing the aid of “old school ties” from the Roman Compagnia would be depicted as an elitism unsuitable to an egalitarian and democratic age. Their concern for social action and their definition of renewal would be shown to be so closely linked with and subordinated to an interest in the life of the spirit as to be theologically out of date. Their appeal to authority as a restorative force would be attacked on the grounds of its self-evident offense to modern understandings of human freedom and dignity; the fact that it may have been efficacious would be an added outrage to it.

Much of the zeitgeist’s energy must be expended in convincing contemporary Catholics to ignore the list of sixteenth century ecclesiastical abuses catalogued by Theatine writers. The spirit of the times has generally sought to keep the Church away from following historical examples in her attempt to climb out of the pit into which she has fallen; it has insisted that the present age is totally distinct from all other periods of human history, and, hence, must forge totally different weapons to use against the enemies of the Christian spirit. Alas! Theatine complaints have much too current a ring to them to allow this argument to go unchallenged. Anyone reading them sees little difference between the earlier flight from discipline—mass desertion of religious, the desire for an easier moral code, the disappearance of the concept of mortal sin, the emotional excuses for inability to fulfill sacred vows—and that of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Indeed, one can discern little distinction between the sixteenth-century Church’s initial “intellectual” and “moderate” efforts to deal with abuses and those developed in the post-conciliar era. The same approach yielded the same disastrous results: ineffective decrees and reform constitutions instead of endless workshops and programs discussing the nature of renewal; “where licit” clauses elevating abuses to the status of accepted norms in place of gestures to the modern spirit that transform extraordinary ministers of the eucharist into an everyday reality; kindliness to heretics and to the rebellious, both then and now, that makes loyal Catholics think that the rogues prey upon them either with the approval or due to the laxity of the Holy See. The zeitgeist must keep men away from the Theatine complaints, since anyone carefully studying them will begin to question its wisdom in all of its manifold aspects.

If the contemporary Catholic could only find his way to freedom from this oppressive “wisdom”, he would discover that the path to recovery and to renewal is much more simple than the experts claim. The experts are burdened with baggage unnecessary for the journey. Our age is not essentially different from any other; it is simply specific historical circumstances which differ, demanding modified uses of the same weapons which have always been available in the arsenal. Renewal needs no new definition; action and authority still demonstrate whether or not there is serious commitment to clean house; elite cadres, as the communists never have doubted, continue to be of immense importance in building the sense of purpose and understanding of one’s mission essential to victory. Perhaps present-day “Theatines” should, in addition to developing their spiritual life, meet together regularly to rebuild their own weakened understanding of Catholic History and the glories of Catholic civilization. Mass effects may not be immediately possible, leaders of State may not respond to their enlightenment, but students and intellectuals who have been orphaned through their abandonment by representatives of official culture are anxious to hear what serious Catholics have to say. And but twelve good “Theatines” may be sufficient, in God’s own time, to restore all things in Christ.

(1) Alfred Bianconi, L’opera delle compagnie del ‘divino amore’ nella riforma cattolica (Città di Castello, 1914), pp. 14-59.

(2) Ibid.; Also, Giuseppe Gabrieli, “Memorie spirituali trasteverine”, Roma, XI (November, 1934), pp. 499-510; Paul A. Kunkel, The Theatines in the History of Catholic Reform Before the Establishment of Lutheranism (Washington, D.C., 1941), pp. 15-16.

(3) Enrico Lucatello, San Gaetano Thiene e gli inizi della riforma cattolica (Milan, 1941), passim; Pio Paschini, San Gaetano Thiene, Gian Pietro Carafa, e le origini dei chierici regolari teatini (Rome, 1926), p. 42; Carafa to Giberti, 1 March, 1533, and to Paul III, 25 May, 1538, in Gennaro Maria Monti, ed., Ricerche su Papa Paolo IV Carafa (Benevento, 1923), pp. 157-168, 258; Kunkel, pp. 30-58, 112-140.

(4) Bianchoni, pp. 31-59; Paschini, p. 43; Kunkel, pp. 30-111, 148-163; C. to Clement VII, 9 October, 1531, in Monti, pp. 138-139.

(5) Paschini, pp. 40, 133; C. to Sorella Maria, in Monti, pp. 179-244; Francesco D. Andreu, C.R., ed., Le lettere di San Gaetano da Thiene (Città del Vaticano, 1954); “Lettere inedite di San Gaetano Thiene”, Regnum Dei (October-December, 1946).

(6) Monti, pp. 325-328.

(7) Fra B. to C., 2 November, 1532, and C. to Giberti, 1 March, 1533, in Monti, pp. 79, 157-168; Also, instructions to Fra B. in Ibid., pp. 57-77; Kunkel, pp. 112-140.

(8) Monti, p. 70.

(9) Ibid., p. 62.

(10) Ibid., pp. 63-64, 68.

(11) Bianconi, pp. 33-43; Gabrieli, pp. 499-510; Kunkel, pp. 141-148; C. to G., 1 January, 1533, in Monti, p. 152.

(12) Monti, p. 69.

(13) Ibid.

(14) C. to Giberti, 26 February, 1533, in Ibid., pp. 156-157; Also, 157-158.

(15) Ibid., p. 59.

(16) Ibid., p. 64.

(17) Ibid., p. 58.

(18) Ibid., pp. 61, 65; Also, C. to Giberti, 1 March, 1533, pp. 163-164.

(19) Ibid., p. 327.

(20) Ibid., p. 42.

(21) Ibid., pp. 59, 65, 70-72.

(22) C. to Giberti, 1 March, 1533, in Ibid., pp. 163-164.

(23) Ibid., p. 326.

(24) Ibid.

(25) Ibid., p. 72.

(26) Ibid., pp. 54-55, 60-61, 72-77; Also, C. to Giberti, 26 February, 1533, pp. 156-157; Kunkel, pp. 59-76.

(27) Ludwig Pastor, History of the Papacy, XIV, pp. 56-424.

Email Dr. John Rao.

Return to main page.