Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The View From Rocco's: On Strength, Popes, and Holy Week Crises

(The Remnant, February 15, 2008)

Jito, the local Japanese martial arts instructor, popped into Rocco's the other day. I had not seen him for so long that I had even forgotten his name. Smaller than the late Emperor Hirohito in height, and more jovial than a satisfied kabuki buff coming back from an evening jaunt in the Floating World of Tokagawa Edo, he would never stir fear in the heart of the unsuspecting observer. In reality, however, this man with the look of a perpetually pliant victim is as strong as seventy samurai. Madame Butterfly could certainly have used his services against the American Consul who betrayed her.

Joe, at the espresso machine, was justly raking the banking world and subprime mortgages over the coals when Jito arrived, but the latter quickly changed the subject by showing the both of us how easily he could flick one of the waitresses into the air and knock the little lady out cold. Luckily, he was able to make his formidable abilities crystal clear without actually taking them to their logical and painful extreme. What the Full Jito might mean, if unleashed against an open foe who had given him cause for offense, can easily be deduced from most Kurosawa films. In any case, exposure to the good chap's externally humble demeanor and hidden superhuman vigor seduced me into the following Walter Mitty like fantasy.

The movers and shakers of modernity generally perceive us believers to be a flock of pathetic losers, subservient to their will and incapable of roughing up a frazzled flea, much less a whole socio-political system. On the other hand, it serves their propaganda purposes well to continue to speak of us as though we possess an incredible power to crush them. In other words, our role, in their eyes, is to remain smiling, impotent punching bags while nevertheless permitting ourselves to be depicted to the world at large as a batch of mindless, insatiable, aggressive, inquisitorial Genghis Khans.

I began to imagine what it would be like if we suddenly threw a curve ball at the high and mighty of the anti-Christian naturalist West; if we unexpectedly threw away the prepared script, abandoned our agreed-upon role as long-suffering milquetoasts, and let loose our inner-Jito, flipping and flopping them from one end of Rocco's to the other; in short, if we momentarily transformed the enemy's mythical lamentations regarding our almost non-existent influence from ridiculous legend into hard fact.

Being an historian, my chosen candidates for abuse were only dead troublemakers. Then, just as I thought that I had found the perfect deceased victim for my fantasy, Chris Ferrara came along to tell me that there was a living and timely one right under my eyes: Abe Foxman and his many, many allies across the globe. And just as I thought that I had identified the best meek-looking Catholic-turned-Jito, Chris informed me that that role was actually being played by no one less than Pope Benedict XVI himself, through his controversial change of the Good Friday bidding prayer concerning the Jews.

Now, obviously, many traditionalists have contested Chris's claim. For them, Pope Benedict is a weak man who merely sold-out to pressure and the irresistible temptations of his own liberal past. But whose assessment is correct? Their's? Or Chris's? I would like to offer my own thoughts on this matter in the only way that I am competent to do so, by means of meditating upon an historical comparison.

That comparison also involves a Holy Week ceremony, one that used to be an integral part of Holy Thursday in Rome; one that had vast repercussions in the field of Church-State relations and therefore was a public "happening" of the first order throughout Christendom. This dramatic Holy Thursday event was the yearly publication of the papal bull, In Coena Domini. Allow me to begin discussion of the document in question by taking from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 a brief description of its character, along with a reference to a popular interpretation of its dogmatic importance:

{In Coena Domini was} a papal Bull, so called from the feast on which it was annually published in Rome, viz., the feast of the Lord's Supper, or Maundy Thursday. The ceremony took place in the loggia of St. Peter's in the presence of the pope, the College of Cardinals, and the Roman Court. The Bull was read first in Latin by an auditor of the Sacred Roman Rota, and then in Italian by a cardinal-deacon. When the reading was over the pope flung a lighted waxen torch into the piazza beneath. The Bull contained a collection of censures of excommunication against the perpetrators of various offences, absolution from which was reserved to the pope....There was a clause in the older editions of the Bull, ordering all patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops to see to its regular publication in their spheres of jurisdiction, but this was not carried out....In spite of the opposition of princes it was known to the faithful through diocesan rituals, provincial chapters of monks, and the promulgation of jubilees. Confessors were often ordered to have a copy of it in their possession....In the controversies that arose at the time of the Vatican Council about papal infallibility, the Bull In Coena Domini was dragged to the front, and Janus {a noted opponent of the dogma} said of it that if any Bull bears the stamp of an ex cathedra decision it must surely be this one, which was confirmed again and again by so many popes (In Coena Domini, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VII).

Loaded down though they were with the titles "Most Christian" and "Most Catholic", the traditional rulers of Christendom, whether of monarchical Austria, France, Spain and Portugal or republican Venice, openly spewed venom against In Coena Domini. After all, the transgressions chastised therein---chastisements requiring special papal intervention for forgiveness--were to a large degree those repeatedly committed by the governments under their control. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, and some twenty years before the French Revolution, these rulers felt strong enough to demand the abolition of the grand Holy Thursday bull entirely, along with its powerful statement regarding Christian moral influence over political and social life. They were egged on to do so by the Jansenist and Enlightenment-inspired ministers of state, bishops, and cardinals who almost everywhere advised them. These same men were relentlessly pressing them forward to a general assault on the entire Catholic order, most especially upon the Society of Jesus, which best represented the need to dedicate all of nature to the greater glory of God.

Standing in the way of such secularization was Carlo della Torre di Rezzonico, Pope Clement XIII (1758-1769), and his Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Torrigiani. Matters came to a head when Clement, outraged over actions of the government of Parma regularly condemned by In Coena Domini, sent that state's sovereign, Duke Ferdinand, a monitorium on 30 January, 1768. This warned him that he had incurred the Holy Thursday bull's threat of excommunication. A storm of abuse was then unleashed from all over Europe, led by men like Louis XV's chief minister, the Duc de Choiseul, who called the pope "a complete ninny", and Torrigiani "a first class fool" (Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes, Volume 37, p. 271). It led not only to retaliation in the form of the occupation of Papal territories in Italy and Avignon, but also to European-wide assaults on both the monitorium and its Holy Thursday parent:

Almost all the Catholic Governments forbade the circulation of the monitorium in their States. Despite the nuncio's energetic efforts to persuade Louis XV to have the Brief published, the Paris Parlement, instigated by Choiseul, banned it on February 26th, 1768. It was only the Minister's cool-headedness that prevented the order being given for its public burning by the executioner. On March 13th the Parmesan Government, adopting the opinion given by the royal Giunta, issued a decree by which the failure to surrender the monitorium incurred the penalty suffered by rebels and traitors. On March 16th, 1768, the Council of Castile published against the Pope's admonitory letter a royal ordinance to which were attached the opinions of the two Fiscals, Campomanes and Monino, with their harsh invectives against Rome. An edict of the King of Naples, of June 4th, 1768, ordered the surrender of the papel de Roma, as the Brief was contemptuously dubbed, and the Bull In Coena Domini, threatening anyone who retained them with the penalty for high treason. Similarly, on April 30th, the Portuguese Government ordered the collection of every copy of the monitorium and declared that anyone who distributed, copied or retained it was a traitor....On August 9th, 1768, Count Firmian, the Imperial {Hapsburg} Lieutenant, addressed a circular letter to all the Bishops in Lombardy, forbidding the publication in future of the Bull In Coena Domini (Ibid., pp. 277, 287).

These Homeland Security measures were accompanied by a protest presented to the Holy See in the name of all of the Bourbon princes. The Duc de Choiseul saw that protest as a means of demonstrating to the Papacy who it was that really called the shots in Christendom, and how little the petty opposition of one reigning pontiff truly mattered. For him, the next conclave would be the chance for progressive Europe to have a suppliant, modern pope:

The French Minister insisted above everything on the necessity of the Kings of France, Spain and Naples taking joint action against Clement XIII. In a memorandum to the Pope the representatives of these three Powers were to express their amazement that he should have published, without previous negotiation or warning, a decree against the Duke of Parma which was in itself both insulting and unjust, since it apparently inflicted excommunication on him for a purely secular matter. Family interest did not allow the rules of the House of Bourbon to overlook this insult. They therefore found themselves compelled to demand, with the means placed in their hands by God, formal satisfaction for the insulted party. The Holy See must formally and publicly countermand the Brief. If the Pope did not comply with the request within a week, the three monarchs would recall their envoys from Rome and expel the Papal nuncios from their States. In the event of a refusal, which was anticipated, relations with Rome were to be broken off for the remainder of the pontificate. Business would be carried on, 'but we will deal with the Court of Rome in such a way that we will be the masters of the next conclave, and the most pressing task of the next Pope will be to make good the stupidities of his predecessor'. (Ibid., pp. 274-275)

For the Bourbon Powers the coming election was not primarily a question of personalities. What was desired was not the election of this or that Cardinal but a complete change in the policy of the Holy See, no matter who was chosen. 'It would be a danger to religion and the centre of unity', wrote Choiseul to Bernis on April 10th, 1769, 'if the throne of St. Peter was occupied by a Pope with the principles of Clement XIII and with a Minister such as Torrigiani. It is not everyone who thinks as I do on this matter, and the fanatical opponents of the Roman Curia, who in my opinion are as much to be feared as the Jesuits, regret Torrigiani's departure and would have liked Clement XIII to have reigned another ten years, for, had this happened, a schism or even the destruction of the temporal supremacy of the Pope would have been more likely. There is no question but that the Pope must be a man who understands the spirit of the Courts and of our age, which is entirely different from that of the last century. He must be a man who while maintaining the dignity and the appearance of power tries to adapt himself to circumstances....One is entitled to expect that the rule of the next Pope will inaugurate a memorable epoch in Catholicism. But if he follows the old Roman principles there is no hope for it. (Ibid., Volume 38, p. 27)

Pope Clement was a straightforward and strong man. He responded to this highly offensive power play with great dignity and fortitude, giving the lie to the claim that secular rather than spiritual concerns underlay his actions while doing so:

The Pope skimmed through the memorial presented by the French representative, Aubeterre, and told him he would neither withdraw nor alter the Brief, for he could not do so with a good conscience. It was only at the prompting of his conscience that he had published the monitorium. The threat of reprisals he treated with contempt. The same reply was given by Clement XIII to the Spanish envoy, with the observation that he would rather die than betray the rights of the Apostolic See and burden his conscience with a heavy load for which he would have to account at the judgment seat of God. He was not afraid of reprisals. The monarchs might take as many as they wished; they would meet with no resistance, for he had neither weapons nor soldiers with which to oppose them. Even if he did have them, he would not use them against Catholic princes and sons of the Church. The only weapons he had were prayer and the Cross of Christ, in which he put all his trust. (Ibid., pp. 278-279)

Nevertheless, the monarchies in question proved that they did indeed hold the balance of power in their hands. They made good on their menace to manipulate the next conclave, which took place only one year after the Parma incident. Giovanni Vincenzo Antonio-Ganganelli, who took the name Clement XIV (1769-1774), was elected pontiff and in no way disappointed them. His first Holy Thursday came and went without the traditional In Coena Domini ceremony, and this was followed within the next few years by its total public renunciation. Time-serving clerics were thrilled by the change in attitude on the part of the powers-that-be once their non-negotiable demands had been granted:

Clement XIV had already failed to make any mention of the Bull in his announcement of the jubilee of 1769. On April 5th, 1770, the Spanish ambassador, Azpuru, was able to report that he had learnt from a reliable source that it would not be published on Maundy Thursday. A week later he confirmed this news. The Pope had yielded to the pressure put on him by the enlightened Ministers of the Courts. Many regarded this policy as a false one and as a heavy blow to the prestige of the Holy See. Dissatisfaction was shown by the Cardinals, who had not been consulted, joy by the 'enlighteners', who, as for instance, the Voltairian Azara, declared it a triumph of good sense to do away with 'this monstrous Bull, a work of darkness and a treaty with the Devil'. But men of Azara's type were still not satisfied, for, they held, even though the Bull was not published, the excommunications still went on; it must be formally revoked once for all. In the following years too the reading of the Bull was omitted. The Pope told Cardinal Orsini that he had never understood how, in contrast with the discipline of the first centuries of Christianity, such a custom could have taken shape, and on Maundy Thursday of all days---a view which was hardly the result of deep study. In 1774 he ordained that it was no longer to be cited.

As if by way of reward for Clement XIV's highly conciliatory attitude, Conti {the nuncio to Portugal, one of the worst persecutors of the Church} was to be received in as grand a manner as possible. The nuncio described in a self-satisfied way the great marks of honour with which he was welcomed. On crossing the frontier he was met, not by a small detachment of troops, as was his predecessor, but by a complete regiment. The king had placed his own galley at his disposal for the crossing of the Tagus, and his state coach was waiting for him on the other side. (Ibid., pp. 114-116)

Clement XIV went on to satisfy the great Catholic powers in other regards, his most famous kowtow to the new world order being the completion of the inhuman destruction of the Society of Jesus already begun on the national level. Meditation upon his responsibility for its demise, almost contemporaneous with the Holy Thursday Sell-Out, sent him into a deep depression that poisoned the final days of his life.

Francesco Sanseverino, Bishop of Alife, said that the Pope's behavior was becoming unbearable to those around him and that this was due possibly to mental as well as physical suffering. There can be no doubt that Clement XIV's deep-seated mental and spiritual depression was connected with the reproaches he brought against himself for having suppressed the Society of Jesus. A classic witness in support of this is the well-informed Coordara, whose evidence is all the more important inasmuch as he always did his best to justify every act of the Pope's. 'The Pope', he said, 'was haunted by the ghost of the dead Society of Jesus, again and again he remembered the damage its suppression had wrought on the Church, the dishonour this unfortunate decision had brought to his name, the hatred it had engendered. He pondered on the loss to the Apostolic See of a safeguard and support, on how Christ's field had lost a picked band of workers; he thought of the scandal caused to the faithful, of the triumphant joy of the heretics, and of the great bewilderment of Christians throughout the world. This distressing thought so racked him day and night that sometimes he would babble in sheer grief and seemed to be beside himself. Often in the night he thought he heard the bronze bell of the Jesuits, though no one had rung it.' (Ibid., 525).

No one ought to be surprised as to why I chose this particular historical example concerning the abandonment of the Holy Thursday ceremony to pit against the issue of the change of the Good Friday prayer. Both, mutatis mutandis, involve the application of enormous political pressure on behalf of a combination of self-interested desires and the victory of an anti-Catholic worldview. What mattered in the eighteenth century were the ambitions of dynasties and republics dominated by secularizing power worshippers who had abandoned their faith. What matters in the present juncture is not liturgical change as such (I do not see this in any way as an "opening" for the destruction of the Traditional Liturgy), or fear for the end of religious dialogue. What matters today is the political demand that the one Church that really counts in the elite's mind when it thinks of religion at all accept a pluralism involving divinization of the desires of secularized Jews and the raison d'├ętat of the state of Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI's change of the Good Friday prayer, under these circumstances, could never be ascribed to a weakness like that of Clement XIV. As Chris has well demonstrated, that prayer has been strengthened rather than weakened. The Pope has in no way responded to the wishes of the Choiseuls of our day. Benedict has instead once again shown that he is a defender and a rebuilder of Christendom rather than its undertaker.

It is, of course, understandable that traditionalists might ask whether the Pope could not have been more like a Clement XIII. Such a demeanor would have entailed a straightforward dignified rejection of all political pressure and a reaffirmation of the Good Friday prayer as it was. Certainly my whole spirit pulls me down the Clement XIII direction. Like most of my fellow traditionalists I react badly against changes of any sort---especially in an environment where change for change sake has been the cause of such broad ecclesiastical destruction and personal spiritual pain. Nevertheless, two considerations must, I think, be taken into account before lamenting Benedict's failure to go the Rezzonico route.

One of these is practical, and practical in a very sobering way. Clement XIII failed. He failed, to a large degree, because when he ordered the Catholic army to charge he looked behind him and found that the troops simply were not there. I cannot overemphasize just how much the Church of his day---the College of Cardinals, the national episcopacies, the clergy, and the influential laity---was shot through with "Fifth Columnists" who had no interest in In Coena Domini and the victory of Christ the King. Similarly, I cannot overemphasize just how much the Church of our day would not follow Pope Benedict where he would have to go if he really put up a full public struggle against pluralism, the demands of secularized Jews and the desires of the State of Israel. Were he to do so, conservative Catholics and even many members of the traditionalist camp itself would suddenly forget their fears concerning ecumenism and the liturgy and denounce him and his supporters as agents of terrorism and Islamic aggression.

My other consideration follows along the lines laid out by Chris Ferrara. Maybe we are so influenced by our times that we "deconstruct" people's actions all too much and fail to understand them for what they really are. Perhaps the pope does clearly understand that we have arrived at an extraordinary historical turning point---in some ways brought on by the failed utopian visions of his predecessors---requiring solid extraordinary actions on his part. Maybe when he speaks of hope for salvation rather than the damnation of the vast majority of mankind in an encyclical that was, after all, on hope, he really wanted to encourage practice of the faith and not spread heresy. And maybe when he rewrote the Good Friday prayer he did so in a devout "ivory tower", unconcerned with both traditionalists as well as pluralist political hatchet men, and actually focused on what the intercession is supposed to be all about---the salvation of the Jews and what would best achieve it.

In the final analysis, I, like Chris, think we still have good reason to support a man who has been good to us. We traditionalists have justifiably spent a great deal of time and effort explaining why Pope Pius XII acted the way that he did underneath the political pressures that he faced. If we honestly feel that Benedict has modified this prayer under similar kinds of pressure, we could try to understand him and his possible recognition, as noted above, that he does not really have command over that many Catholic battalions in a war that would target pluralism and Israel.

Things could change. As far as I am concerned, however, at least at this moment, our meek pontiff has shown that he is capable of inflicting at least a Half Jito on the enemies of Christ. When the troops---traditionalists included---grasp the fullness of the battle we have to fight maybe he will inflict them with the Full Treatment. I tend to believe that that day will come. It is naive to think that we will see "peace in our time".

Email Dr. John Rao.

Return to main page.