Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

A View From Rocco’s

Who are We to Judge Young, Exceptional Venetians?

(The Remnant, April 30, 2014)

A neighborhood regular and long-time friend took exception to something I said in my last article. Reading it over my shoulder as I wrote it, she objected to my attack on the local public library. I assured her (as I am now assuring my readers) that I was not condemning the value of quiet individual study and meditation as a whole. All that I was doing was using my own perhaps quirky sense of atomistic isolation in the library as a springboard for attacking the atomistic isolation that our society enshrines as its foundation principle for the good life as a whole---with anything but merely quirky consequences for the Catholic vision in consequence.

“Don’t tread on me” as an individual and national slogan is a declaration of independence from all serious impact of the corrective and transformative message of Christ and Christ’s Church, which has always been dependent upon the regular intervention in life of both social and supra-national authorities. It is a defiant assertion of a man or a society’s ability to “do it all on his own”. That spirit of defiance cannot help but create a playground for Original Sin, dominated by whoever the strongest sinners may be in the particular playground provided by one’s own time and place.

It is because of this truth that the question “who am I to judge?” can never be an honest Catholic question. It is not we who judge; it is the Church who does the judging, and it is with respect to principles, guidelines, and notorious public violation of the law of God and nature that her thundering judgment is required and contested. Claiming that the Church’s involvement in judgment is primarily directed towards Tom, Dick, and Harry, where proper correction demands the understanding and nuance of spiritual directors, is nothing other than a fraudulent, though highly useful, anti-Catholic propaganda tool.

The Church judged what she had to judge among the Greeks, the Romans, and the German barbarians, and her mission as judge did not end after her encounter with these peoples, who proved, in the long run, to be docile to Revelation and Grace. Her mission continues in our own arrogant times among its more recalcitrant peoples. She has to judge secularized Europe, Israel, Islam, Third World countries, and even, horror of horrors, exceptional America. She is obliged to judge all of the supposed “special insights” and “unique needs” of that terribly puffed up creature called “modern man”, lest she concede the principle that the free play of Original Sin allows for construction of the best of all possible worlds, thereby giving her blessing to the victory of the strongest in the war of all against all.

What we are doing in this series of articles is using the history of the Society of Jesus as a showcase for the perennial problems faced by all those Catholics who do not waste their time asking the misleading question “who am I to judge?”, but zealously go about the business of seeking to correct and transform the world in Christ instead. We saw in the last issue of The Remnant that Jesuit zeal ran headlong into the “don’t tread on me” attitude of the Spain of Philip II. But such “exceptionalism” was probably the least dangerous that could be found, and was offset by Spain’s many fervent Catholic achievements. Black Legends and the Light of the World indicates that Venetian exceptionalism was much more dangerous in its intellectual formulations and implications for the future.

Who were the spokesmen for this unacceptable Venetian spirit? One cannot aspire here to a complete listing of every name of significance. Let it suffice to say that the main figures of importance were men appreciated by or directly connected in one way or another with a political faction called the Giovani--the “Young Turks” we would say--which managed to gain control of the Venetian Republic in 1582. The Giovani were men with deep intellectual roots, highly conscious of the distinct historical position of Venice in the life of the West, and very eager for their city to overcome her commercial, agricultural, and strategic problems and survive.

Reference should be made specifically to the names of Paolo Paruta (1540-1598), author of Political Discourses and a work On the Perfection of the Political Life; Enrico Davila (1576-1631), known for his History of the Civil Wars in France; Leonardo Donà (1536-1612), Doge from 1606 onwards, for whom service to the State was an act of religious commitment evoking from him a vow of celibacy; Giovanni Marsilio (d. 1612), ex-Jesuit and bridge between the realms of politics and theology; and Fulgenzio Micanzio (1570-1654), a Franciscan who served as spiritual consultant to the Republic after the death of the most famous of all those involved in the battle: Paolo Sarpi (1553-1623).

Sarpi, a Servite friar who came to epitomize the revolt in the eyes of Rome, and was excommunicated along with Marsilio and Micanzio, was counselor to the government from 1606 onwards. His Treatise on Benefices, History of the Interdict, History of the Council of Trent and Thoughts cannot be overlooked by the student either of the Venetian Interdict or of the development of modern secular culture as a whole. This is witnessed by no less an enemy of Christianity than Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), who considered Sarpi, along with Davila, Machiavelli, and Francesco Guicciardini as bright lights in the recent development of historiography.

A full treatment of the arguments of the Venetian spokesmen can be found (and presented, I might add, in a more favorable light than I will do in this article) in William Bouwsma’s work on Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty (California, 1968). Briefly stated, without untangling the specific positions of each of the different thinkers mentioned above, what one finds therein is a high-minded appeal to spiritual principles and the State’s role in defending them. This is combined together both with a view of the universe as the realm of irrationality, sin, and lust for power, as well as a haughty indifference to the contradictions and consequences of a confusion of ideas all too reminiscent of our own zeitgeist. The entire vision is seasoned with an equally familiar disdain for everything Roman. Let us explore this vision and its dangers beginning with the anti-Roman bias.

Venice had had a different history from much of the rest of Latin Europe. Proving the extent of this distinction was one of the main stimuli to Venetian historiography in the first place. History had indeed kept the Republic out of the Carolingian-Western Roman imperial sphere of influence. Its historians fantasized that Venice surely must have remained somewhat separate from the original Imperium as well. Nothing Roman, the Giovani felt, should therefore be allowed to exercise an “unhistorical” control over Venice. This included the Roman Church, many of whose medieval demands had, in fact, effectively been kept at bay over the course of the past five hundred years.

Here is where the problem lay. Since the time of the Council of Trent, the Roman Church had been awakened from her dogmatic slumber and had dedicated herself to a reform that deeply threatened the unique historical position of the Venetian Republic. Rome, the Giovani believed, wanted to drag Venice into an ecclesiastical Imperium that broke with her whole tradition, and claimed to be acting in the name of God in doing so. The Society of Jesus was Rome’s chief imperialist agent. This was an aggression that offended them for three reasons.

For one thing, the Giovani were convinced that the State was the sole instrument created by God to act in the secular realm in the name of things spiritual. It ruled by Divine Right. Rome, by emphasizing the rights of the supernatural order in the natural sphere was sacrilegiously invading the space of God’s State. In reality, Rome was merely reiterating what had been stressed since the days of Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085), and Gregory argued at that time that he himself was only reviving the ancient canonical tradition that had been suppressed by bad political customs over the course of what we call Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Hence, the Giovani had not only a pre-Tridentine, but a pre-Gregorian understanding of the State’s spiritual role in the life of Christendom. Constantine might have understood their practical desires, though not necessarily their deeper explanation of their position, which involved a more contemporary development of an admittedly age-old intellectual battle.

This brings me to the second objection of the Giovani and their supporters, a twist on the ancient complaint of the rhetoricians against philosophy. The earthly realm, they insisted, is the sphere of constant flux and change, the sort of condition described by history (the discipline held to be most suited to demonstrating Venice’s unique position in the West). God wants His spiritual agent, the State, to examine the changing reality around it, different for different societies, and use all the tools necessary to move people to do what is required to survive in its midst. The Deity is with the State in all that it demands.

Now, however, the Giovani protested, the Church, descending from its proper field of action into another, unsuitable one, was claiming that the realm of flux had to be guided by theological and metaphysical constructs (ideological principles, we would say, if we wished to indicate the same negative judgment). For example, she wanted individual states’ foreign policies to be conducted with an eye to the overall interest of Christianity and Christendom, a demand that could embroil Venice in wars against the Turks. For Venice, however, a foreign policy that aimed strictly at practical issues concerning her survival and growth might lead to commerce with the Moslems rather than crusades. Moreover, the Church wanted such practical economic interests to be guided by broad Catholic moral aims, rather than the laws of agricultural and industrial advantage alone.

This was a mistake. Great truths were beyond human definition and application to the natural world, the Giovani concluded, and any institution that sought to intervene in the secular realm in their name was acting absurdly. For Sarpi, this critique even extended to the dogmatic activity of the Church, since such activity required the use of natural, human language, itself inappropriate for expressing divine truths accurately. It is difficult to see how Christianity could be anything for him in the long run but the observable spiritual life of distinct, changeable local “churches”, incapable of any serious advancement down the path of doctrinal formulation. Indeed, it is hard to see how anyone could be permitted by Sarpi’s view and that of some other Giovani even to use history as a model for their action, since to do so would be to turn an historical argument into an intellectual guideline attempting to explain and shape pure “flux”. The State, the agent of God, must merely act, commanded by nothing rational or architectonic. Discrete moments of life and reaction to them are the stuff of its existence. On the other hand, consistent obedience to State decisions is the will of God.

Thirdly, Rome—and her Jesuit tool---offended the Giovani by acting as though the earth could be transformed ad majorem Dei gloriam. Such a transformation was, for them, an utter impossibility. The world was the realm of sin, with the lust for power being the specific sin that lay behind all human endeavors. Lust for power was the special distinguishing mark of Rome throughout her history, the Popes devoting themselves to the continuation of the old imperial aggression. In fact, the whole Tridentine reform effort, the entire enterprise of transformation of the world in Christ, the thrust of the growing interest in dogma and its application to daily life, and the work of the Society of Jesus, was one enormous mask for building Roman power, the Giovani claimed. It was therefore the duty of the intelligent man to uncover the lust for power behind every action, to “deconstruct” these seemingly principled moves to reveal the omnipresence of sin. It is this that Sarpi did particularly cleverly in his History of the Council of Trent.

Of course such an idea means that the State, serving as lion-tamer in a jungle of irrational conflict which may change form but never end, must then itself logically exhibit that same sinful, mindless lust for power that it is supposed to identify and manage in its subjects. Still, if the State insists upon its Divine Right to obedience, cuts off all discussion of higher principles, and relies on the kind of terror that Sarpi has no qualms about encouraging to enforce its will, it can easily prevent “deconstruction” of its own role as God’s agent in the world.

This brings us to a final underlying contradiction. According to the Giovani, no universal ideas were to be allowed a role in shaping the life of states with their different histories and varying problems. Politics was to be the realm of the “pragmatic”. But it is clear that the pragmatically minded Giovani were religiously devoted to their political conclusions. Many of them spoke of their Republic as though she had sprung fully formed out of the almost supernatural wisdom of her Founding Fathers, with universally applicable practical lessons for a world desperately in need of enlightenment. Hence, they were teaching pragmatism as dogma. A contradiction, indeed, but it should be clear by this time that we have entered an era in which consistency is dismissed as the “hobgoblin of little minds”.

Rome waged war on the Giovani in 1606-1607, when Pope Paul V placed Venice as a whole under an Interdict. This was a strategy that most of the supporters of Tridentine reform actually did not approve, given their fear that the political issues involved in such papal-local battles generally obscured the real issues at stake, especially now, in the case of the Giovani. Most of the Venetian clergy obeyed the State rather than the Pope and continued to offer all the sacraments to the population. The Jesuits, the chief representatives of the spirit of correction and transformation in Christ (and whose most important writer, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, was himself unhappy with the Interdict) followed the instructions of the Holy See. As a result, the Society was expelled from Venice, and remained outside the Republic until 1655.

Memory of the Giovani assault on the whole raison d’être of the Incarnation and the work of its Jesuit servants has faded from Catholic minds, along with their call for Truth to bend to the specific needs of time and place. But the Giovani spirit is as alive as alive can be in our own day. Aspects of its central themes are found in the arguments of Personalists, supporters of Third World Theology, and all those who---quite understandably---pick up on statements chastising Catholic “judgment” of the world around us to promote a general intellectual, spiritual, and moral anarchy. The Giovani spirit is also all too much reflected in the insistence of American exceptionalists on the Divine Right of our Republic to do what it chooses to do based upon the will of its own “unique” Founders---regardless of the demands of Reason and Christ's Church.

Still, I get far ahead of my story at this point. For the long, dramatic story of the Society of Jesus, the Kingdom of France, and the battle of Catholic universalism versus Gallican and Jansenist reductionism remain to be told. And one of the local irritants is approaching my table here at Rocco’s, promising a skirmish of my own that may delay my cocktail hour and dinner. But that, once again, is what life is all about. Prohibition of discussions of religion may be the mantra of Pluralism, but the Will of the Founders means nothing to me in this regard.

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