The Worst Pontificate in History
(The Remnant, August 31, 2004)A good case can be made for calling the current pontificate the worst in all of Church History. Having stated this personally liberating thesis, I find no need to add further data to the mountain of documentation already provided by other Remnant writers over the course of many years in order to back it up. Instead, I wish to present the case for its validity in a brief and simple meditation upon the contrasting themes of straightforwardness and confusion.
Clarity and straightforwardness seem to me to be central to Scripture and to Catholic Tradition as a whole. Unfathomable as God and His ways may be, they are never murky or at war with themselves. The Lord told Moses on Mount Sinai that His name was "I am". He always "is what He is", and His teachings eternally "are what they are". His "yes" is "yes" and His "no" is "no". The Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity as Jesus Christ underlined God’s desire for His Truth and the truths of the natural world that He created clearly to be "seen", even if they could not completely be understood. Christ told those who had eyes and ears to open them up and see and hear what was plainly set out before them: the reality of a good created world; the tragedy of its sinful use by mankind; the individual’s need for Redemption; and the way in which nature must be both heeded and yet corrected and refashioned in order to help human beings to transform the entire universe ad maiorem Dei gloriam. Jesus spoke lucidly, "as one having authority", with respect to His unambiguous teachings. Great pontificates, like that of Blessed Pius IX, take their cue from Our Savior’s model. They "see and hear". They "are what they are". They teach what they teach "as one having authority".
Ungodly ideas, events, and institutions may, of course, also be unfathomable. In contrast with their godly counterparts, however, they leave a muddy and bewildering trail behind them. They are at war among themselves and with nature as a whole, often possessing an outward face that seems to be straightforward and an inward reality that is definitely not. Their "yes" is "no" and their "no" is "yes". The ground that they occupy is in perpetual eruption. As Iago, destroyer of Shakespeare’s Othello chillingly says, revealing his ungodly identity in the process, "I am not what I am". The worst pontificates in history do not "see and hear". They "are not what they are". They do not carry out in practice what they may seem to teach in theory, and when, occasionally, they do combine both theory and practice, they do not do so after the model of Him who spoke "as one having authority". The worst pontificate in history would institutionalize and encourage murkiness. And it is exactly this that the pontificate of John Paul II appears to do.
Part of the Iago-like character of the current papacy is, admittedly, not of its own doing. Most Catholics, traditionalists among them, saw and heard what they wanted to regarding Pope John Paul II and his vision for the Church from the moment of his accession to the throne of Peter. Several days after his election, I was present at a gathering of Catholic traditionalists from Europe and the United States. One of the European participants, exceedingly well informed about the history and convictions of the Cardinal of Cracow, pointed out what proved to be the truth about him: that he was one of the most wholehearted supporters of the Second Vatican Council, particularly of its decree on religious liberty, and that we could not only expect Holy Mother Church to continue full steam ahead along the disastrous course plotted out for her by Pope Paul VI, but also to do so with still greater enthusiasm. His prognosis was greeted with general disbelief, one man going so far as to say that we would very shortly witness the return to favor of vigorously anti-liberal political authors under John Paul II’s guidance, since "a Pole cannot help but be a counterrevolutionary".
Within the next few weeks, I was told by a variety of different persons that the Pope was a Thomist, an Augustinian, a neo-Kantian, a Phenomenologist, a Fascist, a hidden Communist, and, for all I remember, deeply committed both to low carbohydrate and pasta-based diets. Even the first papal visits to the United States, marked by such incidents as the beaming pontiff’s acceptance at Yankee Stadium of a pair of jeans "representing youth’s commitment to individuality", did little to change many traditionalists’ false perception. "We were charmed", two friends who absolutely despise love feasts told me after leaving one of the worst of the agapes. Open-mouthed over their self-deceptive reaction, I stumbled from a papal Happening at Battery Park over to Chinatown to pour a half dozen Tsingtao down my gullet, beginning that descent into a quarter century of low level depression from which I have yet to emerge.
Still, the chief responsibility for bewilderment has to be laid firmly at the pontificate’s own doorstep. It is due, first and foremost, to Pope John Paul II’s personal enslavement to Enlightenment rhetoric. That rhetoric, as numerous nineteenth century Catholic thinkers (Louis Veuillot, Cardinal Pie, the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica, and the circle around Archbishop Ketteler of Mainz among them) cogently demonstrated, is the instrument of a monumental, thorough-going con game; one that precisely institutionalizes murkiness and contradiction as though it were the height of human wisdom.
This con game opens with a surface message of Enlightenment appreciation for what appear to be acceptably traditional and even outrightly Christian themes extolling "nature", "order", "reason", "freedom", "dignity", "love for the people", and "personal perfection", to which four devastating caveats turn out to be indissolubly attached. The first of these necessitates a change in the spirit behind the words of the originally seductive message, placing them at the service of a world view that understands man to be a limitless, sinless (or, paradoxically, uncontrollably sinful) independent being, with the universe as his helpless victim. Next comes an insistence upon abandonment of the Incarnation, Revelation, Socratic philosophy, Aristotelian logic, science, and every other natural or supernatural force that might in any way define, clarify, and render comprehensible exactly what words like "nature" might possibly mean, since setting up boundaries would oh so dangerously limit the individual’s freedom to change his mind at the capricious drop of a hat. The third footnote reveals the fact that the strongest and most willful individuals and self-interest groups, representing the most violent and insane ideas and passions, will eventually be able to use their uncontrollable "freedom" to define the indefinable to their own overwhelming advantage. And, finally, the last caveat informs the weak that their liberty will be forever limited to an obligation mindlessly to praise this irrational and oppressive tyranny of the strong as the most open, intelligent, and beneficent system that human beings have ever enjoyed or could enjoy.
Nineteenth-century Catholic thinkers warned that Enlightenment rhetoric already rigorously controlled the popular use of language in their day. Ordinary westerners had come to take its definition of words for granted as the only definition possible. For a Catholic to adopt this all-powerful rhetoric, under such adverse conditions, thinking that he might utilize it for his own traditional purposes, would be a foolhardy enterprise, tantamount to taking a ride on the back of a duplicitous monster. In doing so, he would, in effect, be using its soothing, "traditional" surface message to issue a safe conduct pass for acceptance of its four caveats. His fellow Catholics, who would thus hear seemingly Christian words and Enlightenment corollaries at one and the same thing, would become bewildered. Bewilderment would lead to anarchy in Christendom, ending in its manipulation by precisely the same strong and willful Warlords who benefited from Enlightenment "freedom" in society at large. These strong men would then play with theology and philosophy and the spiritual life as they saw fit, turning it into a caricature of its original self. They would teach (and force) weak, ordinary believers to recite lobotomizing mantras extolling the rational blessings that had been bestowed upon them by the oppressive "liberators" who were perverting their religion. Adoption of such rhetoric by a ruling pope would institutionalize the con game immeasurably further, inviting murkiness into the very center of the Church’s life. How could a pontificate that exposed the entirety of Catholic Tradition and the whole of the Christian Commonwealth to the whims of tyrannical freedom fighters and irrational rationalists not become the antithesis of an absolutely straightforward reign like that of the Pope of the Syllabus of Errors? How could it not become the worst pontificate in history? How, indeed.
Obviously, adoption of an Enlightenment rhetoric leading to maddeningly contradictory conclusions did not begin with John Paul II’s pontificate. His reign, however, has had much more time than that of John XXIII and Paul VI to test the lugubrious results. These have been exactly what nineteenth century Catholic thinkers predicted they would be. Exactly. The Roman Catholic Church, in different ways in different places, has become a global instrument for the spread of Enlightenment ideology, shaped according to the caprice of whichever ecclesiastical bureaucrat, journalist, politician, Jewish neo-conservative, capitalist, investment or advertising consultant, financial or sex criminal, or purveyor of vicious utopia and utopian vice happens, locally, to be in charge of it. The "fresh air" of Reason and its theological handmaidens pollutes Catholics with whatever poisons these local reigning Warlords wish it to spread. Progressive spirituality introduces us to various forms of materialist Warlord reductionism. A supposedly wholesome separation of Church and State yields a tighter cooperation of the religious authorities with the Führers of the neighborhood Zeitgeist than anything ever noticeable in any stage of history. Attempts to re-establish legitimate authority by "flying the flag" , through the constant movement that Michael Davies has referred to as the "Opiate of the Popes", have turned the Papacy into an overworked Travel Agency, intensifying the daily administrative vacuum, and insuring that the pontiff who has been seen the most in Church History has actually reigned considerably less than most of his predecessors. Curial efforts to reiterate solid Catholic teaching are swallowed up by the obligation of continued obeisance to Enlightenment intellectual, political and social idols, muddying the very same documents or public ceremonies where their errors are meekly questioned. The Church still teaches, though the authority really lies with the different Warlords. She speaks, but it is their decadent Enlightenment commands which are regularly carried out. These commands are contradictory and, quite literally, maniacal. Murk and confusion rule supreme. It is the Mad Hatters’ Tea Party writ large.
Many traditionalist writers would, of course, disagree with me, having reached the conclusion that Pope John Paul II is not "riding on the back of a monster", but is outrightly dedicated to touting one or more of the four caveats that come along with the surface message of Enlightenment rhetoric. Whether that is true or not I cannot definitively say. I must confess that I have not spent the time that I perhaps ought to have done perusing the mass of his writings, which seem to be more voluminous than those of all of his predecessors together. I do not think that I will devote eternity to that task either, depending, of course, upon where I will be spending it.
Please do not be scandalized if I say that I would actually be encouraged to discover absolutely crystal clear errors in the thought and action of John Paul II’s pontificate. This would establish a more human intellectual context within which the faithful, rational Christian mind might find grounds to maneuver and fight, as it could when dealing with Marxism and the obvious ideological hostility of the Soviet system, which were more open and honest developments of Enlightenment atheism. But if clear error there is, I perceive it only in the kind of goofy wrapping that reminds me of the Master of Murk, American Pluralism, and the difficulties involved in battling that Greatest of Satans logically and effectively. There always seems to be some "way out" of the pope’s outrageous statements, as though an arm or a leg of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas were stuck, artificially, onto a statue of Zoroaster or a photograph of Freud. We know this phenomenon also through the work of conservatives, who find the most inventive ways of grafting human wisdom from the time of the ancient Sumerians to that of Ariel Sharon onto the Enlightenment dicta of the Thrice-Blessed Founders, so that they may transform all things in the American Way. Give me a clear enemy any day rather than Pluralism, ever eager to gather my Faith and its radical opposites in one stifling embrace, blowing kisses as it smothers Truth. I would rather wrestle a formal heretic than a never-ending Horn of Plenty.
I, personally, am still inclined to believe that the pope is an honest slave of Enlightenment rhetoric and its corollaries rather than its sinister master. Poland, historically, has been a major center for such murky attempts to mix together revolutionary and Catholic thought, their contradictions covered by an appeal to faith in a Holy Spirit who eclipses God the Father and Son entirely; a "Unitarianism of the Holy Spirit". Polish exiles in Paris after the rebellion against Tsarist rule of the early 1830’s developed the Christo-enlightenment idea of the special messianic role of their country in the creation of a more "spiritual" (i.e., secularized) Christendom with a mystical, unifying, ecumenical mission, particularly with regard to the Jews. Their arguments were utilized by Lamennais in his own campaign for a democratic redefinition of Christianity, whose teaching authority would lay in the hands of a People infallibly instructed by charismatic prophets like himself. Their ideas figure in the whole line of liberal Catholic literature that extends through to Maritain and the Personalists, reappearing, mutatis mutandi, in John Paul II’s approach to reconciliation of all faiths in the new millennium. But, again, such concepts are torturously foggy and pseudo-mystical rather than refreshingly limpid in their heretical connotations. One reduces them to anathema proportions only through a mountain range of commentary, as our nineteenth-century analysts themselves already lamented.
But, again, at the risk of being redundant, how can the average man, Catholic or non-Catholic, educated according to the caveats of enlightened rhetoric and weighed down everywhere by its insatiable demands, ever hope to learn whether what I perceive to be murkiness is formal error or not? Remember that permanent self-censorship of logic is essential to modern intellectual methodology. The infinitive, "to reason", in an enlightened society, means "to have ungrounded faith in what is commanded you by the spirit of the times, interpreted by the local Warlord". The infinitive, "to reason", in a liberated, enlightened, Catholic society means "slavish, Stalinist groveling and adulation before the thought of any pope who has been seduced by the eighteenth century, and thus allowed real power to slip into Warlord hands". How can anyone be expected to critique the current pontiff’s thinking properly, to know whether it contains truth or error, if this is said by the Warlords and their propagandists to be the product, in its entirety, of unquestionably divine and saintly inspiration? At best, a Catholic may be allowed the liberty to take phrases from his limitless oeuvre to support whatever "line" he chooses to promote; the kind of game that helped encourage traditionalist confusion regarding John Paul II’s intentions at the very beginning of his reign; the kind of game that I, to my own embarrassment, have also played; the kind of game that strikes against clarity and creates the conditions for the worst pontificate in history.
Stalinist defenders of a Warlord-dominated pontificate might try to refute my judgment of its failure by plucking out the names of a variety of popes from the past who were guilty of all kinds of high crimes and misdemeanors: personal moral evils, including the encouragement of murder of their enemies; indifference to the growth of heresy and schism; blindness to the machinations of close family members and favored friends. There certainly is a wide field to choose from.
Too bad these popes cannot speak for themselves today. They could, if the self-interest of the Warlords did not prohibit it, use the Methodology of Murk to deny the critic all right to second guess their actions; to insist that they, too, were inspired by the Holy Spirit in each and every one of their deeds, and justified in their behavior by their undisputed holiness; to ask when the Statute of Limitations on blind acceptance of papal deeds and misdeeds ran out, permitting them to be held up to reproach. Was criticism allowed the day after their death? A year? A century? Half a millennium? Was the sitting pontiff alone above suspicion, with future popes so All-Wise, All-Knowing, All-Holy that their names alone were lacking to complete their fawning biographies today?
But this line of defense would miss my point anyway. It is not murder and blackmail and nepotism and indifference to heresy and schism and spiritual perfection which, horrible as they undoubtedly are, can be singled out as marking the worst pontificate in history. Rather, it is the institutionalized production of confusion about what crime against Truth and Goodness and Beauty actually are, and how they can possibly be opposed consistently and practically that does so. And on that score, in light of the misdeeds of the current regime, the pontificates of men like Alexander VI barely enter into the competition,.
Blessed Pius IX, Pope of clarity and straightforwardness, pray for our legimate pontiff, and pray for a Roman Catholic Church which has been placed by the murkiness of his pontificate under the daily control of illegimate Warlords dedicated to its annihilation.
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