Rorate Caeli

Is the Papacy in Turmoil? - Call in the “Outsiders”
-a guest-post by Dr. John C. Rao

Giuseppe Antonio Petrini
Saint Peter asleep
Musée du Louvre
Thirty-five years ago I gave a lecture entitled “The Papacy: Beyond Weakness and Willfulness”. Its aim was two-fold, and its conclusions perhaps even more of use under current conditions today than in 1980.

My talk was first of all designed to demonstrate just how very many times in history precisely those Catholics who were the most fervent supporters of the mission and authority of the Holy See found themselves openly critical of the statements and behavior of reigning pontiffs. Such firm adherents of the Papacy deemed the specific popes they were confronting guilty either of a subservience to powerful factions rendering their role as legitimate rulers of the Church illusory or of a pursuit of terribly short-sighted and arbitrary policies destructive to the Vicar of Christ’s true responsibilities, dignity, and strength. Secondly, this lecture underlined the fact that the real friends of a Papacy that was in self-destructive turmoil and required serious help in bringing it back to its apostolic senses were almost never to be found initially among “insiders” close to the throne. Rather, they tended to come primarily from “outsiders”, many of whom learned to their dismay that their passionate love for Peter remained unrequited all too long. The good news is that such outsiders repeatedly emerged victorious. The bad news is that they did so only after painfully lengthy struggles that frequently involved desperate setbacks throwing the success of their whole rescue mission into serious doubt. And, sad to say, their final victory at one moment in Church History obviously did not insure that the problem they had seemingly solved would not arise again in another form sometime later.Allow me to plunder this old lecture in order briefly to outline four examples of papal eras of weakness or willfulness and the central role of “outsiders” in putting St. Peter back on his feet in each of them. Those wishing to flesh out their knowledge of the periods in question can consult my Black Legends book or the articles on my website that are indicated below. It is worth taking the time to do so when spirits sag in this current winter of our own “outsider” discontent.



The early seventh century Papacy was committed to a pastoral program that the eighteenth century would label as one of “noble simplicity”. An important feature of this approach was a disparagement of theological disputes as nothing other than what Pope Honorius (625-638) called the exaggerated “croaking of frogs”. Since such battles were precisely much more than useless babbling, Rome paid a price for her flippant negligence of doctrinal purity. She found herself a helpless puppet; the plaything of emperors who were aware of the importance of theology and sought to manipulate it for the purpose of obtaining a political solution to the highly explosive Monophysite Controversy long ravaging Eastern Christendom.
It was “outside”, eastern, Greek-speaking migrants---monks and thinkers fleeing from Caesaro-Papist “croaking frogs” with swords in their hands, the most famous of whom was St. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662)---who saved the day. Their direct influence in Rome stretched into the middle of the eighth century. These Greeks stimulated crucial but moribund theological studies, led the fight against heresy, and enriched the Roman liturgy. A good number of them becoming popes themselves and---ironically, given the future attitude of Orthodox prelates and intellectuals--- defended the Papal Supremacy and the validity of Latin traditions more effectively than many of their torpid predecessors of local origin. It was the Greek-speaking Pope Sergius I (687-701) who fought against that outrageous condemnation of western practices by an arrogant East eager to foist its peculiar traditions (including its relaxed position on clerical celibacy) on the Universal Church in the so-called Council in Trullo of 692. (“Is the Pope Greek?”).


It is perhaps logical that a Greek “outsider”, Pope Zachary (741-752), presided over the first steps towards seeking military assistance in defense of a weak Papacy against heretical emperors and hostile Lombards by means of an appeal to a second foreign source: the non-Roman, “barbarian” Franks. These Franks were themselves first converted by “outsiders”---non-Germanic bishops from Gallo-Roman cities---and then much more efficiently catechized by still other strangers---Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks. The Catholic Faith is not a xenophobic one. Strangers are always welcome.

Fervent Frankish militants of the eighth century wanted nothing better than a closer tie with the Papacy, from which they expected liturgical and canonical aid in shaping and governing their nascent Church. The military assistance provided Rome by the Carolingian Family did indeed strengthen the desired connection, although the enrichment that actually emerged from it often worked more from the outside inwards---with the Frankish Church joining the Greeks in adding her own embellishments to the still rather spare Roman liturgy.But the labors of Pepin and Charlemagne were problematic ones. Their revived Western Roman Empire was swiftly in free fall. By the end of the ninth century, the Papacy had become the puppet of feuding local political families obsessed with petty secular concerns, its universal mission reduced to practical meaninglessness. With a few exceptions---due to the temporary involvement of the forces that would ultimately turn the tide---the situation remained dire into the mid 1000’s.

Once again, it was “outsiders” who came to the rescue: monks from reformed Benedictine houses in the Frankish world devoted to a role for St. Peter that went beyond catering to wretched familial material needs; Norman converts filled with love for a Papacy that they did not know had become a mere cipher; and, above all, the hands-on political interference of German King-Emperors who swooped naughtily down into the Italian peninsula, ruthlessly tossed out reigning simoniac pontiff-puppets and their “insider” advisors, and replaced them with respectable Catholics on their own authority alone. It was the most important of these reputable strangers, Pope St. Leo IX (1049-1054), who created that international curia of outsiders that developed into the College of Cardinals and demanded for what was still only a partially liberated Papacy its full independence; the independence that then placed it at the head of that glorious effort to transform all things in Christ that characterized the civilization of the High Middle Ages. (“Dreaming the Dreams of the Eldest Daughter”; “Christmas, 800”; “Cluny and the Reform of the Church in the Middle Ages”).


Even the magnificent Papacy of the High Middle Ages, exercising its authority with a full consciousness of its role as guide of the Universal Church, manifested terrible practical flaws bringing disastrous consequences in their train. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) already indicated his fears regarding the central cause of woe in the de Consideratione that he addressed to a former pupil upon his becoming Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153). Bernard saw that the danger lay in what might be labeled a kind of “practical secularization”: namely, the day to day presumption that papal judgments, backed by canon law, a well-oiled administrative machine, and an appeal to political and military clout could be counted upon to make a neat and rather earthly-focused package of the complex work of transformation of all things in Christ. For a Papacy with its energies directed to such a mundane approach would not be looking for its chief support from whence it truly must come: Faith and Grace. It would lack the proper hierarchy of values in its activities and inevitably become the puppet of the legal, administrative, and political forces that it falsely thought it was merely using in consequence.

It was this confused exaggeration of the role of the Holy See and its “insider” legal and bureaucratic machine that the 1536 Consilium de emendanda ecclesia, produced by the commission appointed by Pope Paul III (1534-1549) to study the causes of the Protestant Reformation, identified as the Achilles Heel of the Medieval Papacy. The disastrous funding of a hyperactive Roman Curia through appointment of its members as Ordinaries of dioceses that they robbed of their endowments and never visited or effectively governed flowed from its central axioms. So did the attempt to obtain a “perfect” political configuration in Italy, with the calling of dubious crusades in Sicily and the concocting of Renaissance conspiracies productive of nothing more than nepotism, new military dilemmas, criminal neglect of crucial spiritual responsibilities, and growing hatred for the Holy See as such.

Once again, it was the work of “outsiders”---reformers of all countries with little or no initial “insider” influence ---who saved the day. In this case, a tremendous amount of suffering preceded a serious attempt to drive the moneychangers from the temple. It took reformers literally centuries, during which many felt increasing helplessness and even filled with despair, before a pontiff like Paul III began to treat them seriously, allowing them to “come in from out of the cold” to make a start at showing the Papacy how to focus its attention on its primary apostolic role. For the vast bulk of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and early sixteenth centuries, these “outsiders” were treated by the “loyal” legalists and bureaucrats as naïve fools at best and traitors to the Holy See at worst. Such false friends on the inside displayed the character of their own reliability as Defenders of the Faith by so twisting papal authority out of its proper context as to award popes the right to abolish Scripture if they deemed it necessary to do so. (“The Theatines and the Question of Renewal”).


Even the Catholic Reformation, guided though it ultimately was by a strengthened Papacy backed by innumerable saintly and intelligent men and women, was not without its many insufficiencies and flaws. Trent in no way resolved all the doctrinal issues that the late medieval world had engendered, the ecclesiological question of the exact authority of the Holy See prominent among them. Local political considerations and petty family concerns were never erased entirely from papal minds. Much too dependent upon the power of seemingly friendly “Catholic” States that proved to be willing to do whatever “worked” to survive, the Holy See step-by-step succumbed to monarchs’ temptations to heed the teachings of naturalist Enlightenment thinkers, particularly those of the supposedly “moderate” Newton-John Locke-Glorious Revolution variety.

Very few contemporary Catholics realize that the half-century before the outbreak of the French Revolution saw popes as well as literally armies of bishops weakly and willfully backing away from support for everything that hinted of reliance on “supernatural” learning and guidance, allowing for the dominance of a Poor Richard’s Almanac, “cleanliness is next to godliness” version of “natural Christianity” to take their place. St. Thomas Aquinas was exiled from seminaries, processions and devotions that we take for granted prohibited, liturgical splendor ridiculed in the name of “noble simplicity”, and effective religious orders suppressed or reduced to purely utilitarian tasks. Quite frankly, all that the French Revolution did was more violently to pursue what was already being done as an “insider job”. Rome herself teemed with Jansenists and naturalists busily at work pulling the supernatural rug out from underneath seemingly hapless, supine popes behaving themselves by listening to their masters from the world outside.

Should we in any way be surprised by now that the cavalry that came charging to the rescue entered Rome from outside the Flaminian Gate? This time round, it was a team of German, French, Spanish, Savoyard, Piedmontese, and Neapolitan thinkers and activists, clerical and lay, who rediscovered the obvious: the need for the Church to root all of her activities not in the messages she receives from the naturalist powers-that-be regarding what they think “works” to gain material advantages, but in her supernatural mission to transform all things in Christ; the need for the Papacy to rise from its current dogmatic slumber to play its proper role leading the Catholic troops into battle rather than commanding them to lay down their only effective arms and embrace the enemy. It was these outsiders who created that movement of spiritual renewal leading to proper Catholic political, social, economic action, heedless of the hostility this might engender from those long habituated to keeping the supernatural monster at bay. It was they who finally came from the outside to the inside---slowly in the reign of Gregory XVI (1831-1846), and in a tidal wave during that of Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878)---thereby winning the Holy See to the job of guidance of the reestablishment of the proper hierarchy of values through such teachings as those found in the Syllabus of Errors and subsequent Social Encyclicals. (“Lose the Past, Lose the Present”; “Half the Business of Destruction Done”; “What’s Past is Prologue”; “All Borrowed Armor Chokes Us”; “School Days”. )

Allow me to end this brief essay by stressing two points of special relevance today.
First of all, it is not always just one specific action of a given pope at a limited moment in time that has proven to be damaging to the life of the Church in the past. It has occasionally been the whole spirit created during the course of a number of pontificates lasting decades and even centuries that has had a deadly impact ---and this even without their uttering a single official statement that might be criticized as doctrinally dubious and thereby threatening to the dogma of Papal Infallibility. In other words, you cannot judge a book by its cover---even one that might be called “The Pope Speaks”. What you see is what you get and have to confront.
Secondly, the “insiders” are often not to be trusted. Rather than being the loyal shields of the Holy See due to their vocal and uncritical defense of each and every one of its statements and actions they are either conscious or unconscious annihilators of papal authority. In mindlessly repeating their mantra “obedience”, what they actually are calling for is a surrender to a puppet and his puppet masters.
For papal statements and actions that are weak or willful are not expressions of Christ’s command to feed His sheep, and they are not infallible. In fact, they are ultimately the work of “strong man” ventriloquists holding papal marionettes in their hands. This is more clearly obvious when dealing with weak pontiffs, but it is more painfully pathetic when dealing with the willful. The weak pope may at least know that he is a coward and be ashamed by his cringing before tyrants; the willful one really thinks he is in charge, while he is merely one of Plato’s classic examples of a tyrant-slave; a “tough guy” doing what the power-mad outside world tells such a figure that he must do in under to be successful. The puppet pope may a servant of an emperor, a local Roman potentate, legalist and administrative madmen, enlightened monarchs, or a “modern spirit that has does not judge”. But whoever pulls the strings, he is a puppet nonetheless, and no believing Catholic owes his puppet commands a Catholic obedience.

Traditionalist “outsiders”, let us indeed recognize the gravity of the situation that we are in, while not turning ourselves into something unique in responding to it. After all, we are in one sense nothing more than the latest in a long string of outsiders that have had to deal with turmoil in the Papacy. We are in a noble company that includes Greek migrants, the conglomerate of forces behind the Frankish and Germanic renewal of Medieval Christendom, the monks of Cluny and Viking converts, the long-suffering precursors of the Catholic Reformation, and the counterrevolutionaries of the nineteenth century. Looking back to their experience, we should not be surprised that we are rejected by “insider” time servers as enemies of “traditions” of the Roman Church and a “papal authority” that are merely false and corrupt customs accepted as being baptized due to nothing other than the length of their reign of terror.

Our “outsider” battle had to come. Magnificent as the nineteenth century renewal was, it, too, did not resolve all of the doctrinal problems troubling the Church, with the ecclesiological issue, once again, being chief among them. What seemed to be a sufficient definition of Papal Infallibility---and indeed did define it in an extremely limited fashion---did not prevent many people from exaggerating papal prerogatives into stratospheric late medieval levels anew. Hence the aid given to present-day promoters of what amounts to a Papal Stalinism in place of the actual dogmatic teaching of the Roman Church.

We will inevitably win, because we are fighting for the substance and not the mere word “Papacy” and “Papal Authority”; the Papacy and Papal Authority that stand beyond weakness and willfulness, backed by the promise and the strength that comes from Our Savior and not from Our Zeitgeist and its conscious and unconscious time servers. We will win that battle by keeping before our eyes a goal that can never change: the need to become “insiders” ourselves in order to awaken the Papacy from its current weakness and willfulness; “insiders” who, hopefully, will stand on guard against becoming the cause of future problems for our heirs in the Faith.

But the battlefield before us promises still to be a treacherous and very broad one, studded with innumerable land mines. How could it be otherwise? After all, we, like many of our ancestors, are not fighting just one statement or a given action of a single pope but an erroneous spirit and program that have all but taken Peter and most of the rest of the Church captive for over half a century. Our task as “outsiders” is one of a painstaking reopening of the eyes of “insiders” that have been glued shut to the teaching of what St. Augustine called “the Whole Christ”: the teaching of Christ in His physical body on earth and in His Mystical Body through the ages, including those rather neglected years before 1962.

Eyes that can be focused on “the Whole Christ” will readily see what the Papacy’s authority and mission truly are and are not. They will readily come to recognize the protestations of loyalty to each and every contradictory word and deed of a reigning pontiff for what they really are: mindlessly recited slogans justifying weakness after weakness and willful act after willful act. Opening those eyes will not be a task for sissies. It will take a manful Catholic Faith and Reason with a proper sense of the true hierarchy of values. And it is by no means out of place in these days just before Lent to note that such a proper sense of the hierarchy of the supernatural over the natural in the final analysis means recognizing that the grave situation we are now confronting is more than human; and that “this kind can only be cast out by fasting and prayer”.