DARK HISTORY of the CATHOLIC CHURCH
by Michael Kerrigan
When it comes to Catholicism, there's no shortage of material for a "dark
history" - some readers will wonder whether there is any other kind. An
understandable reaction, perhaps even justifiable, but it's not the business of
this book to offer some sort of divine "Last Judgment' on the Church
'See ... the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners!'
Does St Francis's Sermon to the Birds signify more than Pius IX's strictures against democracy? How would you weigh the Sistine Chapel against child abuse? Notre Dame against the crimes of the Crusaders? Which should matter more in the scheme of things: the incredible courage the Church inspired in its many martyred believers, or its wholesale torture and execution of its foes? What of those nuns and priests who played their part in saving Jewish families from destruction in the Holocaust? Can their heroism counterbalance the Vatican's reluctance to condemn? How, to take a more down-to-
Missionaries of Charity in Koikata commemorate the anniversary of their founder's death. Mother Teresa exemplified Catholicism at its best and worst. More worldly than she seemed; more selective in her love, more ruthless in her actions, she nevertheless inspired a great many to good works.
earth example from contemporary life, do you weigh the work of a nursing sister in an African hospice against the Church's refusal to countenance the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS? And what would it matter, others may ask, if Catholicism had done no end of good, if the whole historical evidence is founded on a lie?
We're never going to agree. Mother Teresa has become a case in point, fast-tracked for sainthood by the Church to the bemusement of liberal sceptics for whom she's been exposed - emphatically and repeatedly - as a charlatan. Even if all the criticisms against her are true, it might be argued that the inspiration she's given others more than offsets any harm she's done - or good she's failed to do. At the very least she was a walking, talking feel-good factor: in a famous 1988 study, Harvard students shown movie-footage of Mother Teresa ministering to the sick registered a measurable rise in IgA (Immunoglobulin A) levels. In other words, she did something beautiful for their immune systems - a miracle of the psychological placebo effect, if not of God.
A Catholic Cosmos
The Church is too big and complex to be characterized as any one thing: the dogmatism with which it speaks is in this sense misleading. 'Roma locate est, causa finita est' said St Augustine, simply - 'Rome has spoken, the case is closed' - but Rome itself is much more ambiguous than it seems. Its sheer size precludes straightforwardness. When they called it the Catholic (or 'universal') Church, they may have been exaggerating, but not by much. It's hard to think of any historic institution that can compare. The hegemony of Egypt's pharaohs may have lasted several times longer, but it extended over only a relatively tiny patch of Earth. The U.S. presidency might surpass it now both in influence and reach, but the United States has been a world power for only a matter of decades, and a 'full-spectrum dominance' for only a few years.
While in some ways it may seem absurd to judge a religion by the same standards as a secular state, Catholicism isn't just any religion; isn't just any world religion even. 'How many divisions has the Pope?' asked a scornful Stalin. And he had a point - well into the nineteenth century the Papal States had been a temporal realm, with a real army. Even since that time, through a century or so in which its authority has been 'merely' spiritual, it's had a major - sometimes decisive - role in world affairs.
And, as the Church is quick to remind us, its power isn't limited to this world. 'Whatever you bind on Earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on Earth shall be loosed in heaven,' Christ told St Peter (Matthew 18: 18). Protestants may dispute the Church's interpretation of the verse - as carte blanche for world religious domination - and atheists dispute the very premise on which it's founded, but there is really no doubt that Catholicism is conceived on an unimaginably awe-inspiring scale. If its structures transcend our Earthly existence (or are at least supposed to), it claims as a community of souls to bring together not just the living but the righteous dead. Alongside the 'Church Militant', fighting the good fight in this world, there's the 'Church Suffering'
Christ sits in judgment, as imagined by an artist of the fourteenth-century School of Rimini. How would the Saviour think His Church has done? 'Feed my sheep,' said Jesus (John 21:17), but has the Catholic Church been a Good Shepherd - or a self-serving institution?
St Theresa of Lisieux, the 'Little Flower', has inspired and cheered millions with her simple faith and her down-to-earth approach to Christian life. But her childlike ingenuousness isn't an adequate basis for the building of a world religion: how is Catholicism to keep its innocence?
in purgatory, awaiting our prayers for their salvation, and the 'ChurchTriumphant' with God and the saints in heaven. Covering an infinity of space and an eternity of time, and bringing together billions in its congregation, the Catholic Church is the vastest of institutions.
The Inner Life
And yet, at the same time, it's one that has touched the most intimate lives of its believers, for better and for worse, occupying their innermost psychic space with its spiritual assumptions and moral laws. While this has meant mystic ecstasy for some, for others it's spelled
IN THE BOX
GUILTY AS CHARGED?
The view that Catholics have to carry round with them a crippling sense of guilt is a relatively new one. British travellers in Italy, from Byron and Shelley to E.M. Forster, came away enraptured at the carefree attitudes they found. While some attributed this to sunshine, warm-bloodedness and an essentially childlike ingenuousness, others identified a religious cause. As Catholics, the reasoning went, Italians could basically get up to anything they liked all week, then confess on Saturday and have their sins wiped clean. Since Italianness and Catholicism were equally alien to these visitors, we don't know how far they distinguished between the two. The 'carefree Catholic' stereotype may be rooted in that same condescending view of the ethnic 'Other' that was to produce the grinning black minstrel figure a little later.
The Irish haven't escaped such stereotyping - that excruciating 'top o' the morning' cheeriness - but where religion's concerned, they have been taken more seriously. Irish Catholicism (and what are taken to be its derived forms in Britain, Australasia and North America) is assumed to bring with it a well-nigh unbearable burden of guilt. Some have attributed this to Jansenism. The theology of Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638) took from the works of St Augustine the conviction that man was born all but irredeemably steeped in sin. Without direct divine intervention, he was damned. Jansenism was taken up with morose enthusiasm in seventeenth-century France. So close did it come to complete despair, though, that it was condemned as heresy and suppressed. The suggestion is that it didn't disappear completely but - taken back by young seminarians - endured in Ireland.
A persuasive theory - or it would be if it were actually supported by any historical evidence. Then again, there's only the sketchiest evidence that Irish (or any other) 'Catholic Guilt' exists at all. A UC Berkeley/Notre Dame survey of U.S. teenagers could find no evidence that the Catholics were abnormally tormented. The issue remains unresolved.
Lord Byron in nineteenth-century Rome, for him a playground of pleasure - the perfect antidote to an uptight England. Such differences, if they exist at all, are likely to be cultural and contextual - there's little evidence that Catholics feel more or less guilty than other people.
sexual repression and an all but paralyzing sense of sinfulness. The idea of 'Catholic Guilt' may be a cliche, but can we be sure it's without foundation? Any more than we can understand the (equally glib) contention that Catholicism can see women only as 'virgins' or as 'whores'? That one who's 'born a Catholic' is 'scarred for life', his or her identity determined - regardless of conscious theological (dis)beliefs - may be an exaggeration, but is it really so completely devoid of truth?
This book can do no more than hint at that darker dimension of Catholic history which has acted itself out in the tormented consciences of unhappy individuals over centuries. That the same set of values has buoyed up the spirits of St Theresa of Lisieux, fortified the courage of St Joan and transported St John of the Cross to religious rapture, perhaps only underlines a deep ambivalence at the heart of the Catholic Church and faith.
John Paul II is welcomed by joyous crowds on his visit to Ireland in 1979: this 'rock-star pope' gave the Church a new and friendly face. Behind the scenes, though, Catholicism was as austere as ever in its moral teachings; and often, as hypocritical as ever in its own affairs.
Our main preoccupation here has to be the Church's changing role in a changing world - and this is an enormous subject in itself. Dip into Catholicism's history and you'll find what's supposed to be a story of seamless continuity - of 'apostolic succession' - a narrative of rifts and crises, of fits and starts. At the outset, a tiny Jewish sect; then a minority-cult in imperial Rome; and in medieval Europe the keeper of an unquestioned world-view. From this time on, the apostolic succession was beset by a series of opposing forces, from rival Christianities through secular scepticism to twentieth-century totalitarianism - and finally to consumerism in our own time. Even at its strongest, the Catholic Church has shown itself again and again to be all too flawed. No Catholic would seriously suggest taking the life of Alexander VI as a model; few would dispute that the first 'infallible' Pope, Pius IX, was personally to prove very fallible indeed. Conversely, it's often been in its times of greatest apparent weakness that the Church has shown most integrity, all the way through from the Roman catacombs to Communist Poland.
Changing Times, Changing Church
Perspective is all, of course: one commentator's 'inconsistency' is another one's 'flexibility'; what seems 'monolithic' to one man may be admirably 'coherent' for another. Down the centuries, in fact, the Catholic
Sister Marie Benedict tends a patient in a hospital run by the French Fraternite de Notre Dame in Mongolia. All around the world, men and women are devoting their lives to others with single-minded heroism, inspired to do so by their Catholic faith.
Church has proven much more adaptable than might be imagined - or, as one might see it, much more willing to trim and tack to the prevailing wind. What sound like they should be fundamental 'truths' have simply been dropped into the religious mix at intervals - the idea of Purgatory in the sixth century and that of Papal Infallibility not until the nineteenth century. 'Heretics' went to the stake in the sixteenth century for introducing the sort of vernacular scripture that Catholicism would introduce itself in the twentieth. Much more constant, a cynic might say, has been the
IN THE BOX
There are over 50 miles of shelving in the Vatican's Secret Archives; 35,000 volumes in the catalogue alone. Much remains unavailable - a 75-year quarantine rule means that scholars have only recently had access to documents dating from World War 1I. As for earlier material, nothing will convince the determined conspiracy theorist that the Church isn't covering up the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalen and lord knows what else, but the reality is mostly more mundane. In a post-Da Vinci Code spasm of transparency, though, the Archive has released a range of items. A petition from England's nobles asking Clement VII for the annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon; the proceedings of the trial of Galileo; Leo X's decree excommunicating Martin Luther... There's nothing here we didn't know about, but this is the real stuff of history, more intriguing than any fantasy could be.
Church's tendency to speak flatteringly to power and to take the side of wealth and rank in any struggle with the people.
The criticism is by no means wholly fair, but it comes a great deal too close for comfort: many within the Church would admit as much. A more charitable view would acknowledge the difficulties facing any movement that hopes to make a difference in the real world without at the same time compromising its ideals. Again, it's a matter of point-of-view: do we focus on the dedication and courage of so many ordinary priests and nuns and members of the laity in the face of hardship and danger down the centuries or on the excesses and hypocrisies of the hierarchy?
In the end, perhaps, it all comes down to a conclusion that the Church would recognize itself: in so far as its domain is in this world, it's human -flawed, and susceptible to sin. And how, we might marvel, thinking of all those cruel Inquisitors, those promiscuous Popes, those stampers-out of science and culture, those defenders of dictators, those abusers of children and exploiters of the poor. Yet it has to be admitted that there's another side to the Church as well. Whether or not we accept its claims to have a truly transcendent, heavenly dimension, there's no doubt that many of its members have done much good.
Archivist Monsignor Martino Giusti shows Princeton's Professor Kenneth M. Setton a fifteenth-century treaty between the Roman and the Byzantine Churches. Catholicism has had a long and rich - and uniquely well-documented - history. Yet it has by no means been exclusively a force for good.
TO BE CONTINUED