A reader privately wrote to me generally in agreement with End of Illusions, but he also asked why the top-down solution, with a restoration accomplished through a proactive pope, was out of the question. The top-down solution is not so much impossible as much as it is improbable.
When one thinks of great reforming popes, the names Gregory and Pius come to mind. St. Gregory VII was not, contrary to common misconception, a monk. Hildebrand, as he was in those days, was a man of some influence in Rome during the dark years of "pornocracy" and his opposition to the wicked popes of his age earned him exile to France. In France he came under the tutelage and influence of Abbot Bruno of Cluny, where he lived for a year. He so impressed the abbot that when Bruno was, surprisingly elected to the Petrine chair, the now-Leo IX ordained Hildebrand to the diaconate and made him Archdeacon of the Church of Rome. Twenty years later, Hildebrand was elected pope himself, was consecrated bishop, vested with the red mantle, and began a sweeping series of reforms, expurgations, and re-orientations unrivaled until Trent.
Michele Ghislieri was a Dominican friar, cardinal, and chief Inquisitor. As a prior of friaries during the decadent days of the Reformation, when clergy were living fat off the money of the faithful, he demanded a return to discipline. As bishop of Mondovi, he opposed Pope Pius IV's arrant nepotism and lost the privileges of his office. When the Church hit rock bottom, Paul III—the "petticoat pope" who rose in the Church through his relation to Alexander VI's younger strumpet—called the Council of Trent and began the process of genuine reform. Ghislieri was elected pope in 1566. As pope, he authorized universally usable editions of the Office and Mass. Above all, he began to implement the initiatives of the Tridentine Council, such as creation of seminaries and the permission for priests everywhere to preach.
Two features were present in Hildebrand and Ghislieri's times that are not present in our own: an orthodox pro-reform faction in the Church and the probability of compliance from a large segment of the clergy.
Hildebrand was one of many in a series of reformers who came from the Cluniac system. Pope Benedict IX, a "demon from hell disguised as a priest," occupied the See of Peter three times. The first time, he rose at about age 18, his family having secured the Supreme Pontificate through politicking. He left the Apostolic See to pursue a woman's love. When she shunned him he, somehow, managed to depose Pope Sylvester III and re-assumed the pontificate. When the finances of the Church of Rome deteriorated, he looked for an escape and a profit. His pious uncle, Gratian, parish priest of St. John at the Latin Gate and a wealthy man on his own right, eagerly purchased the papacy from his despicable and odious nephew to get the little runt out of the City. A local synod headed by Emperor Henry III forced Gratian to resign his simoniac See and a German bishop succeeded him as Clement. Clement was poisoned and Benedict the Bum again resumed the papacy, storming the City with an army and taking the Lateran Cathedral by force! German troops deposed him and the new Pope Damasus excommunicated Benedict, who lived the rest of his life in penance at a monastery. Popes in the previous two centuries had been philanderers, murderers, or both (like Sergius III, who fathered a future pope through his mistress). The Latin Church generally accepted clerical celibacy as the norm, as is evident in the decrees of local synods. Celibacy was often disregarded and in places where is was out of practice or never practiced priests were leaving their progeny Church property for inheritance. Local princes "invested" bishops with authority, as though Church authority comes from the State and not from the Apostles, usurping the coherence of the Latin Church. The clergy were in disarray, the people of Rome were frustrated, the papacy was an embarrassment (probably a contribution factor to the Greek schism), and emperors were running amok with bishops. Yet, a surge in monasticism gave rise to a reformer agenda. Monasticism had prestige descending from Ss. Benedict and Gregory the Great, universally known monk-saints. Monks operated hubs of education and economic activity in whichever town where they were located. Monks, as celibates, were generally free of the problems of philandering clergy, too. The robust growth of Cluny forced the popes of the age to listen to the abbots and to give the Abbey special status, but Cluny's influence traveled beyond that. In the first millennium, most of the major basilicas of Rome had monasteries. St. Peter's had three. Cluny would have been the exemplar of monasticism for them to imitate, if not in model, then in ideas. Hildebrand was not the first Cluniac pope, nor the last.
Ghislieri's accession came through the efforts of St. Charles Borromeo, leader of the pro-reform faction within the College of Cardinals. After Borgia's fetid scandals, the militarist papacy of Julius II, the indulgence debacle and sacking of Rome under two Medici popes, the rise of the Protestants with Germanic political protection, the sexual embarrassment of Julius III, and the unexpected death of Marcellus II, the Cardinals, even the worldly ones, were at least amenable to a reform. While the Cardinalate in during the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation was very much a place of status for Italian nobility, the Cardinals had the good sense to realize that their power and prestige depended on the practice and devotion of Catholic Europe. The question was no so much if there would be a reform so much as when. They were practical men who eventually listened to reason. St. Charles Borromeo was a tireless and vibrant reformer. His uncle, Pius IV, was so afraid of him that when his nephew visited unexpectedly while the Pope was luxuriating in a garden, he demanded his staff to get out books and maps and to appear busy! Reform was inevitable, albeit long overdue.
Both saintly popes' reforms also took longer to eventuate than the duration of their pontificates. Both papacies were points of great activity in the protracted effort for reform. The Council of Trent took a century to implement fully—although one could say that the Council, which asked for more people in the lower Orders, was not entirely implemented. Gregory's legal recognition of celibacy, his demand for a return of papal prestige, and his hostility towards secular influences on episcopal enthronement, far from bringing the Church triumph, sent the Pope into exile and accelerated his death. He did, however, provide sufficient impetus and momentum for reform for successive popes to follow. Both Ss. Gregory VII and Pius V lived in times needing reform and lived among large pro-reformation clerical factions willing to turn the popes' agendas into prolonged programs for the Church. Despite resistance from other bishops or princes, both popes had a high probability of eventual success. Neither of those factors are currently true.
We know that there are precious few cardinals who would dare speak of the need for a restorative reform, much less assemble others to their cause for fear of back lash. Benedict XVI tried to make his Continuity program permanent with Cardinals Scola and Bagnasco. It failed.
Would any of these episcopal conferences be willing to preach openly about the Church's teachings on sexual and life issues? Would they remove priests who engaged in liturgical abuse to refused to do away with Communion in the hand or versus populum Masses? Unlike past times, a large clerical minority, at least at this stage, does not exist to give reform a foothold. Traditional Catholicism—Traddieland or followers of tradition—is primarily a lay movement. Lay people demanded the preservation of older liturgical usages, devotions, and prayers because they were the best ways of living Catholic lives. As a very small minority, those wanting, for example, the old liturgy to be restored cannot hostage Mass attendance or financial contributions to ambitious archbishops or cardinals. Even if those who want tradition were a sizable portion of the Church populace, how many bishops and cardinals would comply? What is the difference between a Democrat and a Republican? Not behavior, but outlook. Politicians behave the same regardless of party. Their affiliation stems from their understanding of which worldview will give them the most traction. Modern churchmen in Latin Christendom can see the Church only through the lens of the late 20th century. They truly believe what they offer is the only popular form of Catholicism and that their futures would be endangered should that model be discarded. Were a reform minded Pope to re-integrate ad orientem worship and threaten suspension upon any cleric unwilling to comply, how many bishops and priests would move their altars? Their bread is buttered by watered down American Catholicism or by secular-influenced European "Catholicism"—the sort of deviations and novelties that come out of Germany. They are protected by the self-selecting Vatican bureaucracy, which in turn would stonewall any major papal efforts for reform at this point. A reform would not only not occur during the hypothetical pontificate, it could not even take root. An ambitious reformer would have to fire most the Curia, replace most of the College of Cardinals, sack every major archbishop in the Latin Church, re-arrange most episcopal conferences, and prepare himself for a few major schisms, particularly in Europe and South America just to begin a program.
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The "a future pope will fix it all" view was more tenable in the 1970s and 1980s when enough cardinals still haled from the "old days" and enough priests had a living memory of the old Mass. Even those with the fringe view that the Pauline Mass and ordinations are invalid, like sensationalist Malachi Martin, could still assume Paul VI and John Paul II could be succeeded by a "true pope" cut from the old cloth. Those days passed long ago. True reform and true restoration will have nothing to do with the good ol' days of the early to middle 20th century. For there to be a return to authentic Catholicism we must return to organic Catholicism. The setting for that is not, nor has it ever been, the halls of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. It is at Mass in one's own parish.
This will be my last post on modern Church politics for some time. The topic bothers me and our time would be better spent writing something inspiring about the writings of the saints, the liturgy, or the glorious history of the Church. Would anything else be as edifying?