A View From Rocco’s
A Meditation on Three Troubled Christmas Seasons
(The Remnant, December 25, 2013)
Christmas is coming and the fat is really in the fire. Everyone is in an uproar over Pope Francis. The “world”, as represented by Time Magazine with its recent proclamation of the pontiff as “Person of the Year” (Apparently one is not even allowed to have a gender when the selection is made and the obvious sex of the celebrity is crystal clear. Perhaps this indicates hopes for a change.), has given itself over to an ebullient uproar; the kind that is typical not only of the unthinking mob, but also highly useful to those eager to manipulate such adulation for nefarious purposes. The uproar experienced by the rest of us is more aptly described as a tizzy. It reflects our confusion, annoyance, or anger and outright terror concerning what the new pontiff is really in the final analysis all about. Frankly, we are worried that if any goose is going to get cooked this festive season it is our own.
For the moment---and if I change my mind my readers will certainly be the first to know--I am sticking with my conviction that what we are dealing with is a classic political pontificate. Yes, it is one that is frighteningly different from political pontificates in the past. But it is a primarily political pontificate nonetheless. I will return to the peculiar nature of Pope Francis’s politically focused reign at the end of this Christmas, 2013 article. In the meantime, I would like to pursue a two-pronged follow-up to my last piece, which dealt with the roller coaster ride that politically guided pontificates in general entail. One prong underlines the long-term disaster of such politicization; the other, the refreshing contrast of a Papacy that subordinates everything, including its own unavoidable political necessities, to the Church’s true spiritual mission. The first prong begins with Christmas, 1527; the second, Christmas, 1870 and its aftermath in subsequent holiday seasons.
Few Roman Christmases could have been more miserable than that of 1527. A Christian army had sacked the Eternal City the previous spring, and robbed, raped, and murdered much of its population. Roman churches had been desecrated and priests humiliated. The Holy Father, besieged in Castel Sant’Angelo from May until his escape into exile in early December, had suffered the ignominy of hearing the invaders call out for the election of Pope Luther. Plague had struck. And yet, innocent as the vast majority of the Roman victims of these outrages personally were, one cannot help but say that the pope and the Church as a whole had more than richly deserved what the capital city of Christendom had experienced.
Why? Because the popes and the Church over which they ruled had been buried all too long in what I refer to in Black Legends and the Light of the World as the “rut” of a “business as usual” attitude towards life that belies the boat-rocking corrective and transforming mission of the Mystical Body of Christ. They had opted all too long for adopting the false preoccupations of fallen nature “as is” as the only key to ecclesiastical action on the part of realistic men of the world. And the supernatural God who cannot be mocked forever had shown them that the time had come finally to pay the piper for their naturalist misrule.
St. Bernard had warned of the growing temptation to reign by the standards of the fallen world already in the first half of the twelfth century. After the death of the much-maligned Innocent III (1198-1216), who fought even the political battles of the Church with the absolutely correct hierarchy of values in mind, the lower tendencies got the upper hand. Concern for which particular dynasty ruled the Kingdom of Sicily took precedence over what happened to Christian life not only within that kingdom’s boundaries, but those of Europe as a whole. Depriving dioceses of the presence of their bishop and diverting their treasures away from their own local pastoral purposes to those of Rome meant nothing, so long as the papal curia could be staffed and financed most expeditiously in this manner. The increasing hatred of the Holy See, both for this robbery of Ordinary and income as well as for the endless interdicts preventing sacramental life for believers whose rulers ran afoul of purely secular papal machinations, entered into Rome’s humdrum calculation of the annual costs of practical action. And what did it matter if knowledge of the dogmatic theological and rational philosophical foundations of the Faith were more and more ignored, so long as an army of canonically and diplomatically gifted legalist prelates, handsomely rewarded for their practical services, were available to run the Church? The inertia (i.e., today’s concept of “basic common sense”) of the mob would keep the cosmos propped up as it had been since the days of Constantine anyway.
By the fifteenth century, many reformers despaired, overwhelmed by the mass of canonical legislation they felt would be needed to attack the corruption and decay that they saw around them. St. Catherine of Genova (1447-1510) and the numerous saintly figures and movements that she inspired, begged to differ. As far as they were concerned, no mere canonical legislation would help, so long as the problem of a secular, political focus gone viral remained the guiding rule for Churchmen. On the other hand, very little legislation would be required if and only that focus could be corrected, and the proper hierarchy of values restored.
In these holy Catholics’ minds, Churchmen were viewing realities of life through a glass window distorted by the “business as usual” preoccupations of fallen “nature as is”. It was not that such preoccupations were simply self-destructive, which they indeed were; they were also absurdly obsessive, making the pane of tinted glass that they themselves had produced seem thick and impenetrable. It was not. What seemed so unbreakable to them was a paper tiger of their own twisted imagination; “practical” only from the standpoint of those who were the enemies of the Incarnation. A truly spiritually-rooted focus, backed by the grace of God, could bring that pane of glass crashing down with the flick of a finger, thereby allowing the fresh air of a life rejuvenated by Christ finally to come rushing in.
Nevertheless, engendering this spiritual sense itself required effort. There was not enough of this in the Church at large when Martin Luther came along with a new theological position and a monumental energy that proved, by the 1520’s, that the seemingly inert mob could indeed be moved away from its “basic common sense”, and its hatreds galvanized to effect revolutionary change. More than ever, the times called for a truly spiritually-focused pope of the sort envisaged by St. Catherine of Genova; a pope ready to flick his finger and break through the world-friendly standard operating procedures of a Church far off her divine course. Alas, the times brought forth Giulio de’Medici (1478-1534).
Poor Giulio de’Medici was trapped in papal politics from the moment of his birth. He was the posthumous son of Lorenzo the Magnificent’s brother Giuliano, himself slain during the consecration at High Mass in the Cathedral of Florence on April 26th, 1478 as a result of the infamous Pazzi Conspiracy. This plot was designed to destroy the power of the Medici Family inside Florence and, simultaneously, to strengthen the external position of the Papal States and the role within it of the family of the reigning pontiff, Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484). One of Sixtus’ Cardinal Nephews was at the center of the imbroglio, to which Sixtus gave his blessing---along with the utterly impossible caveat that no one be murdered in bringing it to a successful conclusion.
Giulio came to maturity through political pontificates of the most varied sorts---those conducted by the crafty Innocent VIII (1484-1492), the simoniac Alexander VI (1492-1503), the warrior Julius II (1503-1513), and a Medici cousin, the Humanist Leo X (1513-1521). After having unsuccessfully spent large sums of money in the conclave that unexpectedly brought the holy and potentially glass pane smashing Adrian VI (1521-1523) to the throne, he finally charged through one of the most breeched “conclaves” in history to be elected as Clement VII on November 18th, 1523.
Despite Giulio’s admittedly fine personal qualities, the consequence was eleven lost years in dealing with the newly born Protestant Revolution. Clement VII could not think outside the fallen political box, and he could not break through the tinted pane of glass. In consequence, as wits of the day said, his was a reign filled with all the problems of a politics based on reactions to events that had now actually become bigger than “business as usual”; his was a Papacy composed of unwarranted acts of respect to enemies, of undue considerations, of inexplicable changes producing discords; of ‘more’, or ‘then’, of ‘but’, of ‘yes’, of ‘perhaps’, of ‘this, too’; of plenty of words and of no viable effects.
Viewed from the purely political standpoint, the situation faced by Clement was indeed difficult: a power struggle between the French Valois and the Imperial-Spanish Hapsburgs had Italy and the Pope in its grip. While Adrian VI had tried to stay neutral and focus on spiritual matters, Clement joined in the new war that pitted Charles V versus Francis in the 1520’s. He secretly changed sides in 1524, just in time to witness his new French ally defeated and taken to prison in Spain by the emperor. A fresh war that broke out in 1526 saw the pope allied this time not only with the French, but with the Moslem Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent as well. Renewed disaster brought the above-mentioned Sack of Rome in its train.
Sitting in gloomy exile on Christmas Day, 1527---and personally good man that he was---Clement must have mulled over the fact that his entire politically-inspired “business as usual” approach had been a vain one. The standard operating procedures of the “dealing with nature as is” crowd had rammed the Church into its self-constructed tinted pane of glass, leaving her with a big bloody nose and still separated from a real sense of her true source of strength: the teaching and grace of Christ. Though he continued to the bitter end to twist and turn like an insomniac to find some independent political position, Clement was now totally subject to Charles, whom he crowned as emperor in Bologna in 1530. Sad to say, this tied the pope to the misguided emperor’s own primarily politically focused policies for resolving the Protestant revolt back in Germany; policies that did nothing but plunge the Catholic world into still further turmoil. It was only with the slight crack in the “Wall of Separation” between a politicized Church and her true spiritual mission that was opened up under Paul III (1534-1549) that the tide began slowly to turn.
Let us now move forward to the Roman Christmas of 1870, made gloomy by another invasion, that of September 20th of the same year, the one that brought the Eternal City under the control of the new Kingdom of Italy. Although not as physically bloody as the Sack of 1527, this assault had also driven a pope, Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), to seek refuge in a fortress. The Vatican was to be his “prison” instead of the Castel Sant’Angelo, and it was destined to remain so for him and his successors down to 1929. Despite its more gentle hand, this new invasion also subjected the Roman population, as well as the rest of Italy, to the long-term tyranny of an anti-Catholic Liberalism. One aspect of this tyranny was the launching of a permanent propaganda campaign against the Church, which included the accusation that the pope was in the situation that he found himself because he was guilty of playing an unacceptable political game rather than fulfilling his proper spiritual responsibilities. In other words, from this anti-Catholic vantage point, there was no difference between Blessed Pius IX’s “crime” and that of Clement VII.
That the pope did take a political stand and paid a price for it cannot be denied. But the political stand that he took was one based on the view from the other side of the tinted pane of glass; the view provided by recognition of the new spiritual reality created by the Incarnation; the spiritual reality that put the “business as usual” attitude of the earth-bound supporters of “nature as is” on the defensive; the spiritual reality that demanded boat-rocking leadership from Christ’s Church and Christ’s Vicar. Blessed Pius IX’s “politics” was of the same sort not of Clement VII, but of an Innocent III, rooted in a correct hierarchy of values. And it was more courageous than that of his great medieval predecessor because of the Church’s weaker modern position.
That courage did not come from nowhere. Many Catholics sweat much blood to prepare for it. Yes, starting under Paul III, the tinted pane of glass was sufficiently “knocked out” to allow the fresh air of the Incarnation to revive the Church and allow her to fight the Protestant Revolution effectively: primarily with spiritual rather than with the political weapons that are always valuable when used in subordination to the Truth. Alas, and unfortunately, the proponents of the “business as usual” perspective allowed “the world” to come back to such a degree of prominence in the counsels of the Church that she was left as clueless as to how to fight off the beginnings of the naturalist Enlightenment and the French Revolution as she was in 1517 when Luther first came onto the public scene. Business as usual had triumphed anew, with the same vile results.
Thankfully, an army of latter-day followers of the spirit of St. Catherine of Genova revived the Church and her sense of what she really is—the Mystical Body of Christ. This international force smashed down the Wall of Separation of Church and Mission more convincingly in the wake of the revolutionary ravages than ever before. Blessed Pius IX was the beneficiary of the renewed understanding of the need to look at every aspect of life from the standpoint of the corrective and transforming teaching and grace of the Incarnation. He utilized the power of the Papacy, and statements of papal authority such as the eternally glorious Syllabus of Errors of 1864 to tell society that nothing would let him judge events from the business as usual vantage point of a fallen world ever again.
And what developed out of this Incarnation First approach was a Papacy that indeed continued to be “imprisoned”---first literally, and then merely “chained by Christ”; a Papacy hated by the world, but more beloved by believers than ever before in history; a Papacy that presided over the formulation of a body of Catholic Social Doctrine that examined every aspect of life from the perspective of Christ and did not hesitate to take on the powers-that-be, whatever the consequences materially. This was a Papacy that was not afraid to make “palace generated” political statements in the months leading up to the gloomy Christmas of 1914 vigorously condemning “the suicide of civilized Europe”: even if it meant losing the support of the war giddy peoples of Christendom, and, sad to say, the national episcopacies that went along with them; even if it ensured that Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) might be named “Non-Person of the Year” by every voice of the mob gone mad with blood for daring to speak a spiritual truth with political consequences. Ecce Papa!
The memory of that Benedict (and another) brings us back to the troubled Christmas of 2013, and the current praise of Pope Francis for having finally brought the Papacy out of the wicked Palace---with its hidden coteries and lugubrious covenants---and into the happy streets, where “the People” and “Freedom” are to be found. Such praise, since the beginning of the Enlightenment, has never meant anything other than “the People” and “Freedom” as understood by men with their minds and spirits rooted in fallen nature “as is”. Worse still, it has never served any other purpose than the political and social manipulation of the many for the satisfaction of the narrow self-interest of the few and the strong.
Nevertheless, despite this real effect, such praise, and what it truly entails, has so long been associated with a brilliant (though many-headed) new rational vision of naturalist political and social life that it lends to all its tyrannical manipulators as well as to those who acquiesce in their own oppression a superficial veneer of thoughtfulness and intelligence in their crime or victimization. That rational naturalist vision dominates our world. The criminals who use it at least know what they are doing with their sophism. When their victims resort to such language they are riding on the back of a monster that will turn and devour them.
As stated at the beginning of this article, I think that we are in the midst of a primarily political pontificate. A political pontificate in our day that does not break through the tinted pane of glass that has been erected anew since 1958 cannot avoid “playing the game” of acceptance of a dangerous naturalist ideological language. This language must, like the monster that it is, turn and bite at those who think they can master it for their own purposes.
Is such mastery what the pope thinks that he is doing? I am not so sure that he is thinking about the naturalist language of the contemporary political environment and its contradiction of everything that Catholicism really requires at all! That language is so much a part of our world and its baggage, as well as the playing of politics within it, that stepping back and judging where it leads is almost inconceivable. In fact, the average man---the Vicar of Christ, perhaps, included---does not even recognize the historical reality and viability of any alternative political language. And yet the pope, above all others, must confront the reality and differences of life as viewed from two sides of the looking glass---the naturalist and the Catholic---lest our goose be cooked this Christmas and every Christmas to come.
By all means “play politics” Holy Father! But “play politics” as a Catholic must do so, as something subordinate to the fullness of the Faith. Play politics from the Catholic side of the tinted pane of glass separating the world from Christ; the Incarnation-influenced side; the side of Innocent III and Blessed Pius IX. If not, I would take the money you are using to refurbish the Casa Santa Marta and use it to restore the apartments inside the Castel Sant’Angelo instead. For if bringing the Papacy into today’s streets to play politics on the wrong side of the looking glass does not lead to the Church’s acquiescence in her own victimization, it will lead straight to a fate analogous to that of Clement VII…and martyrdom to boot.
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