A Personal Reflection on Two Eras of Crisis, Sorrow, and Rage
Dr. John C. Rao
“The right tactic for us is to be visibly and always what we are, nothing more, nothing less. We defend a citadel which cannot be taken except when the garrison itself brings in the enemy. Combating with our own arms, we only receive minor wounds. All borrowed armor troubles us and often chokes us.” (L.Veuillot, Mélanges, Oeuvres completes, iii series, 1933, v, 276).
The 2012-2013 Roman Forum Church History series in New York City covers the years from 1517-1563, a time both of terrible crisis in the life of Christendom as well as one of extraordinary hope for the future. Extending from the emergence of Martin Luther onto the public scene until the end of the Council of Trent, these forty-six years placed enormous burdens on the faith of the Christian population, repeatedly arousing profound sorrow and rage in its ranks.
Think, for a moment, of the life of a fervent, believing Catholic just reaching manhood in 1517. Such a man would have been in his mid sixties when the last acts of Trent were promulgated. In the interim, he would have seen an immoral, indifferent, politically obsessed, secularized, intellectually and spiritually clueless clergy and laity allow the Bride of Christ to be brutally lacerated and piteously mocked. He would have witnessed the seemingly irresistible spread of a heresy which proclaimed God’s world to be nothing other than a realm of total depravity wherein a war of all against all guaranteed the Triumph of the Will; a heresy whose consequences were so horrible that its Protestant proponents--- often much better men in practice than their ideas would logically allow them to be---immediately began a sophistic, many-headed, and impossible effort to escape from them.
Even in 1563, our tired believer, his patience repeatedly tried, his hopes regularly thwarted by foolish men with blinders fixed upon their eyes, might not have foreseen what glorious fruit would come from a Council that recognized that only the deepest concern for doctrinal orthodoxy could prevent heretical minds and spirits from twisting the most brilliant pastoral reforms to their own anti-Catholic purposes. Even then, our aging warrior might not have digested the tremendous significance of the worldwide spread of Catholicism that new and reinvigorated religious orders were rapidly bringing into being. Gloom might still have hovered over his long troubled soul.
It is impossible to enumerate all the twists and turns making those terrible decades almost unbearable for a faithful son of the Church, but one that is both poignant---and for me, personally, all too directly related to our contemporary sorrows---well illustrates the anguish and disappointments of our believing ancestors. This concerns Marcello Cervini (1501-1555) Pope Marcellus II, whom most of us perhaps know only indirectly through Palestrina’s magnificent Missa Papae Marcelli.
Virtuous, learned, and humble, Cervini was one of the three legates sent by Pope Paul III to preside over the Council of Trent, the first of whose three distinct sittings began in December of 1545. Not only did this highly trying legatine labor complete Cervini’s already formidable knowledge of the reality, the complexity, and the necessity for tackling the seemingly mortal wounds of the Church; it also contributed mightily to his growth in personal sanctity. I dare say that few of us could have responded to the trials of his position with the same combination of commitment to Catholic doctrine and Catholic charity.
So obvious was it that Cervini was the “right man at the right time” that the cardinals meeting in Conclave in April of 1555 upon the death of Pope Julius III, even those representative of political forces that normally would have opposed him, crushed the ambitions of one of their powerful self-interested colleagues and proceeded immediately to his election. Keeping his own given name, Marcellus II’s accession to the See of Peter was greeted by all who cherished the defense of the Faith and sought the purgation of the human evils marring the beauty of the Bride of Christ with the greatest joy---indeed, as a manifestation of the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. His first actions confirmed all of their expectations.
Nevertheless, within twenty-three days Marcellus had a stroke and was dead. The vultures hovering over the suffering Church rejoiced. Another chance had been given to them to pick at the remains of her still half-dead body---from within as well as without her official structures. No one quite knew who would follow him, given the division of the College of Cardinals into strong factions whose solidity might well presage a Conclave damaging for its length as well as for its outcome.
Instead, what the Church swiftly got---once again in defiance of seemingly impossible political opposition---was a man whose whole life had been dedicated to the most rigorous possible reform of Head and Members: Giovanni Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the seventy-nine year old Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). Tired of impotent roundtables discussing the need for the defense of doctrine and the reform of Christendom, this ferocious pontiff saw no need for continuing the suspended Council of Trent. He demanded immediate Unconditional Surrender from everything and everyone that he saw to be a blight on the beauty of the Bride of Christ. Ambitious absentee bishops were booted out of Rome and told to go back home. Wandering monks were sent to row galleys in the Mediterranean. Not just heretics, but also the contemporary sodomite network active in the Eternal City was handed over to the tender mercies of the Inquisition. In fact, the sodomities were sent to row alongside the renegade religious in Mare Nostrum. Most importantly for the future of the Holy See, Carafa---one of the founders of that Theatine Order which dedicated itself from the outset to a life of total indifference to the property that the “practical world” considered indispensable for “success” in all realms---made it clear that no fears of lost revenue would prevent him from driving the moneychangers from their ignoble position of dominance within the shamefully corrupted Roman Curia. Everyone filled with long seething justifiable rage rejoiced.
Alas, the Holy Father was so single-minded in his warfare on behalf of a renewed sense of papal responsibility that he overestimated his immediate resources, as well as what was happening in his own trenches when he went over the top to charge the enemy lines. He plunged the Holy See into a tragic-comic war with Spain. He allowed his cardinal nephews, whom he mistakenly trusted as loyal aides, to plunder and bring shame upon the Church in their own right---at least until a holy Theatine and the future Pope St. Pius V opened his eyes to their shameful behavior (at which point he characteristically liquidated them from public life). His rigor and demand for instant and black-and-white solutions alienated everyone, bringing down the innocent along with the guilty.
In the long run, it was Marcellus’ doctrinal firmness and commitment to reform, along with his nuance and charity that were needed. Thankfully, such a medley of virtues did come to the fore in the decades of the Catholic Reformation that followed. Pope Pius IV re-opened, completed, and promoted the arduous work of translating the letter and spirit of the decrees of the Council of Trent into the practical administrative machinery of the Church. Pope St. Pius V advanced that labor with the vigor and efficacy that sanctity alone could provide. All their followers on the throne of Peter then had a reinvigorated “standard operating procedure” to guide them towards still greater progress in the fight against the proponents of “total depravity and the war of all against all” and for the spread to the ends of the Earth of a Faith that both embraced but also corrected and transformed fallen nature.
Still, there is no denying that the Blitzkrieg that preceded their reigns had brutally stunned the heretical, criminal, and merely lax elements in Rome and the Curia. Paul the Terrible was the first contemporary pontiff who really made it clear that this business of a defense of the Faith and a reform of Head and Members meant separating the chaff from the wheat in a way that hurt. The Romans might justifiably be infuriated with him upon his death, but, as the Venetian ambassador at the time indicated, the Eternal City had become a monastery in comparison with its former wicked self. Would the administrator and the saint have found their task as simple without the warrior pope? Would they have even been elected as opposed someone permitting the return of the vultures? In short, would there have been a Pius IV and a St. Pius V had there been no Pope Paul IV?
It is precisely because every age is somewhat different that analogies are never exact. Traditionalist historians, myself among them, have repeatedly pointed out one distinction making our situation today different from and more dreadful than that of the sixteenth century. This is the fact that the Council called to face “the modern world” openly rejected the crucial example of Trent, whose model was also followed by Vatican One. Under the pressure of long-developing undercurrents ranging from old-line Jansenism to modern Personalism and Pluralism, Second Vatican Council did not choose to view the confirmation of a Catholic doctrinal substructure under serious attack as something absolutely necessary to effecting serious practical reform. It thus proved helpless in preventing heretics from running away with the definition of the meaning of the words “serious”, “pastoral”, “practical, and “pragmatic”, and then moving on to usurp the Holy Spirit for a dogmatic seal on their own arbitrary decisions. This, as we all know, has left us with a Church in which the poisons of the world in which we live---a world that has developed the consequences of the doctrine of total depravity and life as a jungle war of all against all to its final stages of madness---are administered to us as though they were the cure for all our spiritual ills.
Nevertheless, mutatis mutandis, I very much think that the basic set of sixteenth century developments discussed above can be a highly effective teaching tool for coming to terms with our own era of unending crisis, sorrow, and rage. Let us imagine a believing Catholic---namely a person just slightly older than myself---passing through the fifty-one years since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. That person, who was eighteen in 1962, would now be in his late sixties and hopefully still active in defense of the Church. He will have experienced one disappointment after another as he watched the Body of Christ engaged in her auto-destruction. He will have heard the endless lamentations---well outlined by Dr. Brian McCall in a recent article in The Remnant---regarding the “will” of the “real” Council as opposed to its horrible post-conciliar “distortion”. He will have watched that supposed distortion confirmed, year after endless year, by the droit de cité given new assaults on the Faith, as well as on Catholic moral principles, liturgy, and devotion---a droit de cité regularly granted by clergy and laity who had first railed against such further radicalization in the name of “the true Council”. His sense of betrayal, rage, and, yes, admittedly, also his desire for vengeance against those disfiguring the Bride of Christ will have grown apace.
One of those Catholics---namely myself---was led by his fellow Traditionalist Michael Davies, that great defender of the Traditional Liturgy and long term President of Una Voce International, to take heart by following the actions of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, which seemed to offer some serious hope for the future. Davies consistently argued that Ratzinger was a man who had become very much aware of the havoc being wreaked by the doctrinal Revolution taking place within the Church and wanted to halt and reverse it through his labors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He was a man who appreciated the work being done for long term recovery of Catholicism by new traditional religious orders, lay action groups, and, above all else, that Vanguard of the Movement, the Society of St. Pius X. But, Davies concluded, one had to remember that Ratzinger was man working for the good in his own nuanced way, highly conscious of the complexity of getting things done in the Church at any time in her history, and much more so in a time of crisis.
It was due to heeding Davies’ admonishments that my wife, children, and I fell on our knees to thank God when we heard of his election as pope. My hopes for his pontificate were stirred still further several months later when I stood in St. Peter’s Square and heard him speak at the time of the Angelus. Here was the voice of that same scholarly, good, extremely humble and unpretentious man who, in 1995, while cardinal, stopped to chat with my family outside a simple Roman trattoria in Trastevere, and then gave our three month old son his blessing. That Angelus convinced me that restraint and dignity were once again on the march, and a return to sanity along with them. Here was the pope who then, several years later, told the world openly what we Traditionalists desperately needed to hear from the voice of the Supreme Pontiff: that the Mass of the Ages could not be wiped from the face of the Earth. The Revolution was palpably being thwarted. Peter was awakening from slumber. The impossible was becoming possible.
Yes, I am fully aware that my fellow Traditionalists have all too justly pointed to a role both theological and pastoral, first as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and then as Pope Benedict XVI, that does not seem to fit the happy picture that I am painting. Yes, there has also been so much more that I wanted him to do that he could not seem to bring himself to carry to fruition. But would that I had that one blessed achievement of giving the lie to the decades of lies of the enemies of the Traditional Liturgy! Would that I had that one honor to lead me before the judgment seat of the eternal throne of God! The motu proprio alone proved to me that the Revolution in the Church was being thwarted, that Peter was beginning to awaken from his dogmatic and pastoral slumbers, and that the false pastors knew it.
But all these hopes turned to renewed sorrow on the morning of Monday, February 11th, when I awoke to hear the news of Benedict’s abdication. True, given his age, my family and I had prayed for even just one year for his pontificate to last. We got eight. But what were a mere eight years at the top of our beloved Church, tortured by over five decades of precipitous decline? My scholarly, humble, unpretentious, nuanced man was to be my leader no longer. The counterrevolution was in danger of stillbirth.
By chance, I was precisely approaching the middle of the 1550’s in my lectures on Church History in New York. I felt that my “Marcellus” had been taken from me, but in a new and mysterious form---dead as pope, while still alive as an individual Catholic; dead as pope for perhaps not having focused as intently and vigorously on those matters that his career at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith might have lead us to hope would have preoccupied him; dead as pontiff also, perhaps, for succumbing to what Michael Davies called “the Opiate of the Popes”---the constant and financially bankrupting preparation for, undertaking, and analysis of travels that are declared valuable chiefly by a world eager to see Benedict as the last heir of St. Peter.
What is to come next? Who knows? Cardinal Ratzinger, despite the clear political and religious opposition, was as obvious a candidate for the papal throne in 2005, as was Cardinal Cervini in April, 1555. The conclave about to meet is potentially as fractious as the one assembling the month after the death of Marcellus II. All of us know that the vultures, inside and outside the Church, sense new blood coming their way with the living death of my cherished “Marcellus III”. Predictions of vast new changes, brought about by ingesting still larger quantities of the poisons provided by the “pragmatic” world around us abound in every newspaper and on every talk show. Visions of William Butler Yeats and some “rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem” dance about in my mind as I type these words.
What is it that we need to hope for in our bereavement? What kind of Supreme Pontiff must we call upon the Holy Spirit to guide the cardinals in Conclave to provide us in this, the fifty-second year of the sorrow and anger of our current Catholic Winter? Allow me to answer that question with reference to a saint whose influence was enormous upon many of the great and vigorous men and women who guided the Catholic Reformation; a saint whose central spiritual theme was reiterated in the words of Louis Veuillot placed at the head of this article.
That saint was Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510). This remarkable spiritual guide looked out at a Renaissance Catholic world of such widespread, intricate, materialist, vulgar corruption and indifference that seemingly nothing could cut through and correct it; a world before whose crimes those dedicated to cataloguing legal and administrative measures for effecting salutary change were throwing up their hands in despair; a world that all too understandably gave birth to a Luther who proclaimed it incapable of ever pleasing God.
St. Catherine told Catholic reformers that they were looking for succor in the wrong place. New “programs” and “laws” were not what were primarily needed. What was needed, above all else, was to make a complete internal break with what were supposedly essential and practical in the eyes of a world suffering from a profound spiritual illness and dedicated to treating wallowing in the consequences of Original Sin as the only solid framework of political, social, and economic life. It was only by a deep “bath” in Christ, along with a full grasp of his corrective and transforming message to God’s good world gone astray, that all of the proper legal and administrative measures for putting the Church on course and converting the rest of the globe could have any meaning whatsoever. That bath would dissolve many of the complexities of the Gordian Knot of proper “pastoral change” unnecessarily troubling the lives of men looking for realism in the wrong place. Once again, as Veuillot succinctly put it: “The right tactic for us is to be visibly and always what we are, nothing more, nothing less. We defend a citadel which cannot be taken except when the garrison itself brings in the enemy. Combating with our own arms, we only receive minor wounds. All borrowed armor troubles us and often chokes us.”
Let us not be timid, and ask the Holy Spirit to come down upon the cardinals in Conclave and fill them with the grace to elect an effective pontiff possessing all the virtues needed to save the Church and Christendom. And then let us ask St. Catherine of Genoa in particular to pray that the Princes of the Church do not look to the secular forces around them for definition of the kind of “practical man” and “practical virtues” needed to teach Christ and Him Crucified to “the real world”---as they, in their commitment to “sinful business as usual” disfigure it.
Pray for us, St. Catherine, that they will elect someone who will use the only truly practical wisdom---that which comes through the grace of Christ; that which works with all of nature in its immense complexity and nuance; but that which understands nature’s flaws, correcting and harmonizing its various elements through grace. Pray for us that they will elect someone who, with his eyes fixed firmly above, and operating within the context of the proper hierarchy of values, then can make the administrative and legal changes of a Pius IV and the practical defense of the liturgy of a St. Pius V under much more trying circumstances than ever before. And pray, finally, St. Catherine, that the cardinals in Conclave recognize that no pope of this sort can be obtained without possession of a good deal of the rigor, energy, and desire for stable cleaning of that ferocious warrior, Paul the IV “The Terrible”---who was one of your most fervent admirers! Pray, in other words, for a mixture of Paul IV, Pius IV, and St. Pius V.
That missing, frightening element of chastisement so visible in Paul IV must reappear so that the virtues of his successors can also thrive anew. Our humble and much appreciated “new Marcellus” prepared the path for the success of this composite pope. Benedict arrived at a moment when his nuance, however unsatisfying it may have been to us in our longing for getting the job of reconstruction done swiftly, might have been more suitable, and the anger of a Paul IV and his admirers less productive. There is no doubt in my mind that Benedict-Marcellus has left us much stronger than many of us in our traditionalist impatience recognize, and for this we should be eternally grateful to him.
But justifiable rage against the auto-destruction of the Church and the civilization she protects must now thunder from the See of Peter. Moreover, all of us, making the same internal break with the impractical “practical wisdom” of the world around us, must join with a “thundering pope” in transmitting his message of Faith, Reason, grace, and hope to our families, jobs, and countries. If such a pope and such an assistance do not appear, the unjustifiable rage of the enemies of the Faith, both within and without, all of them smelling blood in this moment of renewed sorrow and confusion, will move relentlessly forward in their labor of destruction of souls and society. Pray for us, St. Catherine, pray. Come Holy Ghost, come.
Dr. John C. Rao, Associate Professor of History, St. John’s University (jcrao.freeshell.org), Chairman, Roman Forum (www.romanforum.org). Author of Removing the Blindfold and Black Legends and the Light of the World: The War of Words and the Incarnate Word