O God, who, after having shown to us in Saint Augustine the very excess into which corrupt nature causes us to fall, hast also caused us to see in him the strength and the empire of Thy Grace over our hearts, grant us, we beseech thee, so perfect a knowledge of our extreme misery and of Thy infinite mercy, that, expecting everything from Thee, and nothing from ourselves, we might hope fully in Thee by defying ourselves completely.
O God, who in embracing Saint Augustine with Thy Love, and in elevating him above all men by the knowledge of Thy Truth, hast placed him in Thy Church as a fiery and shining lamp, so that he might illuminate and defend her by his doctrine, and console and edify her by his sanctity; grant, by the help of his charitable intercession, that we might imitate his virtues; and, at his example, rejoicing only in the truth, and having taste only for the fruits of charity, we might despise this mortal life by the hope and feeling of the all-divine life which Thou hast promised us; so that, loving Thee alone, we might also place all our happiness in Thee alone.
Thus we beseech thee by Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(From Jean Hamon, Entretiens d’une âme avec Dieu, New Edition (Avignons, 1740), pp. 405-06; original translation by The Amish Catholic)
I am pleased and proud to announce that I have a book review up at the Genealogies of Modernity Blog. I examine a compelling recent work by historian of science, Michael Hunter. The Decline of Magic: Britain in the Enlightenment (Yale UP, 2020) is well worth your time. I think it provokes really intriguing questions about the process of disenchantment – a transition that Hunter effectively describes as the methodological eclipse of Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle by Isaac Newton. You’ll understand what I mean when you read the review (and the book), so please head on over and give it a read-through!
Thank you to the GoM Blog for hosting my writing, and especially to Mr. Terence Sweeney for kindly asking me to contribute. It was an honor and a pleasure to write for a platform with such intriguing content.
Recently I had the great honor of being interviewed on the podcast Poststructuralist Tent Revival (PTR) about my research into Anglo-Catholic hermeticism and occultism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Thanks especially to Jacob Given for a great conversation. Please consider subscribing to PTR‘s Patreon! They do some really great stuff.
And for those who want to learn a little more about the broader phenomena I discuss here, you might want to check my brief article in The Church Times, Dec. 2018, on the same subject. While it doesn’t go as deeply as my actual academic work did, it gives an overview of the landscape.
Recently a screenplay has surfaced of a discarded project from a major science fiction film studio. We believe that this film was part of a planned trilogy, with previous titles including the (now lost) The Phantom Heresy and Attack of the Convulsionnaires. Notes suggest that another six films, possibly set later in the series, include A New Pope, The First Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jesuit, The Faith Awakens, The Lourdes Jesuit, and The Rise of Newman. Here we present excerpts from the third and only surviving script from that series.
A long time ago in a Pontificate far, far away…
STAR CRUSADES: REVENGE OF THE JANSENISTS
War! The Kingdom is crumbling under attacks by the ruthless Jansenist Archbishop, Cornelis Steenoven. There are heroes on both sides. Concupiscence is everywhere.
In a stunning move, the fiendish Regalist leader, the Marquis of Pombal, has swept into the Kingdom’s capital and kidnapped Chancellor Le Paige, leader of the Parlement of Paris.
As the Schismatic Army attempts to flee the besieged capital with their valuable hostage, two Jesuits lead a desperate mission to rescue the captive Chancellor. . .
GREGOIRE: The Jesuits are selfless . . . they only care about others.
LE PAIGE smiles.
LE PAIGE: Or so you’ve been trained to believe. Why is it, then, that they have asked you to do something you feel is wrong?
GREGOIRE: I’m not sure it’s wrong.
LE PAIGE: Have they asked you to betray the Jesuit rule? The Constitution? A friendship? Your own values? Think. Consider their motives. Keep your mind clear of casuistry. The fear of losing power is a weakness of both the Jesuits and the Jansenists.
GREGOIRE is deep in thought.
LE PAIGE: Did you ever hear the tragedy of Blaise Pascal, the Mathematical?
LE PAIGE: I thought not. It’s not a story the Jesuits would tell you. It’s a Jansenist legend. Blaise Pascal was a solitaire of Port-Royal, so powerful and so wise he could use probability to create faith … He had such a knowledge of efficacious grace that he could even keep the ones he cared about from lachrymal fistulae.
GREGOIRE: He could actually save people from painful eye ailments?
LE PAIGE: Efficacious grace is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be supernatural.
GREGOIRE: What happened to him?
LE PAIGE: He became so ascetic . . . the only thing he was afraid of was ending his ascesis, which eventually, of course, he did. Unfortunately, he taught his apprentice everything he knew, then his apprentice forced him to sign the Formula on his deathbed. (smiles) Pascal never saw it coming. It’s ironic…he could save others from doubting, but not himself.
GREGOIRE: Is it possible to learn this power?
LE PAIGE: Not from a Jesuit.
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: It won’t be long before the armies of the Pope track us here. I am sending you to the Muratori system. It is a moderate planet which generates a great deal of rationalizing interference. You will be safe there.
CARDINAL NOAILLES: Safe? Chancellor Le Paige managed to escape your grip, Marquis, without Archbishop Steenoven. I have doubts about your ability to keep us free of enthusiasm.
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: Be thankful, Cardinal, you have not found yourself in my grip . . . Your ship is waiting.
LORENZO RICCI is deep in thought.
The JESUIT removes his cloak and jumps down behind the MARQUIS.
RICCI: Hello, there!
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: Father Ricci, you are a bold one. I find your behavior bewildering . . . Surely you realize you’re doomed, (to mendicants) Expel him!
About a HUNDRED BATTLE MENDICANTS surround RICCI, MARQUIS OF POMBAL, and his BODYGUARDS. RICCI looks around, then walks right up to the MARQUIS OF POMBAL. They stare at each other for a moment.
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: Enough of this.
The BODYGUARDS raise their power crosiers to knock RICCI away, but RICCI ducks as the deadly crosiers whistle over his head. The Jesuit’s lightsaber ignites, and RICCI deftly cuts one BODYGUARD in two. His crosier flies into the air and is caught by the MARQUIS OF POMBAL. The other THREE BODYGUARDS attack RICCI with an intense fury. RICCI uses casuistic mind-tricks to release a piece of equipment from the ceiling. It drops on the BODYGUARDS, smashing them. RICCI walks toward the MARQUIS OF POMBAL, slashing the last BODYGUARD to pieces. BATTLE MENDICANTS move toward RICCI.
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: Back away. I will deal with this Jesuit regicide myself.
RICCI: Your move.
MARQUIS OF POMBAL: You fool. I have been trained in your Jesuit arts by Archbishop Steenoven himself. Attack, Ricci!
LE PAIGE: Monseigneur Le Tellier. I take it the Marquis of Pombal has been destroyed then. I must say, you’re here sooner than expected.
LE TELLIER: In the name of the Parlement of Paris, you are under arrest, Chancellor.
LE PAIGE: Are you threatening me, Monseigneur Jesuit?
LE TELLIER: The Parlement will decide your fate.
LE PAIGE: (burst of anger) I am the Parlement!
LE TELLIER: Not yet!
LE PAIGE: It’s regicide, then.
LE TELLIER: You are under arrest, My Lord.
After an intense fight, GREGOIRE enter the scene. LE TELLIER has cornered LE PAIGE and deprived him of his lightsaber.
LE PAIGE: Gregoire! I told you it would come to this. I was right. The Jesuits are taking over.
LE TELLIER: You old fool. The oppression of the Rigorists will never return. Your plot to regain control of the Kingdom is over . . . you have lost . . .
LE PAIGE: No! No! You will be suppressed!
LE PAIGE shoots convulsionnaire lightning from his fingers.
LE PAIGE: He is a heretic, Gregoire!
LE TELLIER: He’s the heretic. Stop him!
LE PAIGE: Come to your senses, boy. The Jesuits are in revolt. They will betray you, just as they betrayed me.
LE TELLIER: Aarrrrggghhhhh . . .
LE PAIGE: You are not one of them, Gregoire. Don’t let him kill me.
LE TELLIER: Aarrrrggghhhhh . . .
LE PAIGE: I have the power to save the Gallican Church. You must choose. You must stop him!
LE TELLIER: Don’t listen to him, Gregoire.
LE PAIGE: Help me! Don’t let him kill me. I can’t hold on any longer. Ahhhhhhh . . . ahhhhhhh . . . ahhhhhhh . . . I can’t … I give up. Help me. I am weak … I am too weak. Don’t kill me. I give up. I’m dying. I can’t hold on any longer.
LE TELLIER: I am going to end this once and for all.
GREGOIRE: You can’t kill him, Master. He must stand trial.
LE TELLIER: He has control of the Parlement and the Court. He is too dangerous to be kept alive.
LE PAIGE: I’m too weak. Don’t kill me. Please.
GREGOIRE: It is not the Jesuit way . . . He must live . . .
LE PAIGE: Please don’t, please don’t . . .
GREGOIRE: I need him . . .
LE PAIGE: Please don’t . . .
Just as LE TELLIER is about to excommunicate LE PAIGE, GREGOIRE steps in and cuts off the Jesuit’s hand holding the lightsaber.
As LE TELLIER stares at GREGOIRE in shock, LE PAIGE springs to life.
LE PAIGE: Grace! Unlimited efficacious grace!
The full force of LE PAIGE’S powerful convulsionnaire lightning blasts LE TELLIER. He attempts to deflect them with his one good hand, but the force is too great. He convulses out the window and falls twenty stories to his death, though he is miraculously cured of an eye disorder on the way. No more screams. No more moans.
GREGOIRE: I pledge myself to your teachings. To the ways of St. Augustine.
LE PAIGE: Good. Good. Grace is strong with you. A powerful Jansenist you will become. Henceforth, you shall be known as Darth… Blois.
GREGOIRE: Thank you, Monseigneur.
LE PAIGE: Arise, Bishop.
LE PAIGE is putting on his dark cloak: he is now fully DARTH FEBRONIUS.
LE PAIGE: Because the Company did not trust you, my young apprentice, I believe you are the only Jesuit with no knowledge of this plot. When the Jesuits learn what has transpired here, they will kill us, along with the King.
GREGOIRE: I agree. The Jesuits’ next move will be against the Throne.
LE PAIGE: Every single Jesuit is now an enemy of the Kingdom. You understand that, don’t you?
GREGOIRE: I understand, Monseigneur.
LE PAIGE: We must move quickly. The Jesuits are relentless; if they are not all suppressed, it will be civil war without end. First, I want you to go to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. We will catch them off balance. Do what must be done, Lord Blois. Do not hesitate. Show no mercy. Only then will you be strong enough with the reasonable side of the faith to save the Gallican Church.
GREGOIRE: What about the other Jesuits spread across Christendom?
LE PAIGE: Their betrayal will be dealt with. After you have suppressed all the Jesuits in the Lycée, go to the Muratori system. Wipe out Cardinal Noailles and the other Third Party leaders. Once more, the Jansenists will rule the Church, and we shall have the Peace of Clement IX.
LE PAIGE: Emperor Joseph, the time has come. Execute Dominus Ac Redemptor.
JOSEPH II: It will be done, my lord.
ST ALPHONSUS: I hear a new apprentice, you have, Cardinal. Or should I call you Darth Febronius?
DARTH FEBRONIUS: Monseigneur Liguori, you survived.
ST ALPHONSUS: Surprised?
DARTH FEBRONIUS: Your laxism blinds you, Monseigneur Liguori. Now you will experience the full power of tutiorism!
DARTH FEBRONIUS: I have waited a long time for this moment, my little Neapolitan friend. At last, the Jesuits are no more.
ST. ALPHONSUS: Not if anything I have to say about it, Lord Febronius.
ST. ALPHONSUS uses Baroque Marian devotionalism to throw DARTH FEBRONIUS back, knocking him clear over his desk and onto the floor in a heap.
ST. ALPHONSUS: (continuing) At an end your rule is and not merciful enough it was, I must say.
MEDICAL MENDICANT: My Lord, the Constitution is finished …
DARTH FEBRONIUS: Good. Good.
The MENDICANT moves back to the table where DARTH BLOIS lies. The table begins to move upright. DARTH FEBRONIUS moves in next to DARTH BLOIS.
DARTH FEBRONIUS: (continuing) Lord Blois, can you hear me?
DARTH BLOIS, with his dark mask and helmet, moves up into the frame until he is in a CLOSEUP.
DARTH BLOIS: Yes, Monseigneur.
DARTH BLOIS looks around the room.
DARTH BLOIS: (continuing) Where is the Gallican Church? Is it safe, is it all right?
DARTH FEBRONIUS moves closer to the half droid/half man.
DARTH FEBRONIUS: I’m afraid it died … it seems in the Terror, you killed it.
A LOW GROAN emanates from BLOIS’s mask. Suddenly everything in the room begins to implode, including some of the MENDICANTS.
DARTH BLOIS: I couldn’t have! It was alive! I felt it! It was alive! It’s impossible! No!!!
I refer my readers to two articles that have recently appeared in the Notre Dame Church Life Journal. The first, which came out about a month ago, is an excellent piece by Dr. Shaun Blanchard showing that our polemical use of the term “Jansenism” is seriously mistaken. The second is an article I wrote, a church-historical study in which I both defend the Jansenists from various degrading misconceptions as well as point out some parallels between their situation and our own. I’m also very pleased that the Catholic Herald picked it up for Wednesday’s “Morning Catholic Must-Reads.”
The Bishop of Northampton has announced that G.K. Chesterton’s cause for canonization has been dropped. There will be no St. Gilbert Keith Chesterton, his portly visage peering out of a halo over an altar in some out-of-the-way country church. There will be no Gilberttide Novenas, with each day dedicated to some tired and over-labored paradox the man squirted out for an article on H.G. Wells some time in the late Edwardian period. There will be no holy relics passed around – “The pipe he used to smoke with the Blessed Belloc!” – nor even little medals or fat statues cramming the shelves of the stores that specialize in such pious kitsch.
Good. The Bishop has decided wisely. The cause never should have been opened in the first place. Its continuation would represent, if not an abuse of the process, then a serious misstep in the liturgical and devotional life of the Church.
Quaeritur: Why do we raise saints to the altar?
Respondeo: There are three reasons.
1) To hallow and liturgically organize a pre-existing popular cult of a holy person.
2) To recognize that said holy person is in Heaven.
3) To raise up a holy soul as an example to the Faithful.
The third is insufficient on its own. The second is implied and proven in the act of canonization itself, though the inquiry into a saint’s alleged miracles is adjunct to it. The first is thus the most important, foundational reason for the whole process.
As the Bishop pointed out in his statement, there is essentially no local cult of G.K. Chesterton in either his diocese or, I would wager, in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is such a cult in America. I was once part of it, as a member, officer, and president of UVA’s G.K. Chesterton Society. I was thus shocked to discover when I moved to England that nobody – not even most Catholics I knew – read or particularly cared about Chesterton. The British, for reasons I have never really understood, ignore much of their own “spiritual heritage,” as Americans might think of it. Even the relics of St. Edmund Campion barely raised an eyebrow when they visited Oxford in Hilary Term 2018. In the chapel where they were offered for public veneration after a sparsely-attended Mass, I watched as less than half the room went forward to pay their respects to the Jesuit martyr. Can you imagine the crowds that the same small relic would draw in Chicago or Virginia or California?
I digress. The point is that instituting an official cult of Chesterton where no such popular cult exists is to vitiate the process of Beatification.
I remain agnostic as to whether Chesterton is in heaven. I hope he is, and I pray that he might achieve the Beatific Vision if he hasn’t already. But we’ll never know until we get to heaven ourselves, now that the cause won’t advance.
But, is Chesterton an example to the faithful? My own thoughts on the matter are mixed. Clearly, he was a great apologist who presented an appealing if idiosyncratic vision of orthodox Christianity. His conversion was to be commended, as all conversions are. There are, of course, some moral objections one could make. Lingering questions remain about Chesterton’s attitude towards Jews, though the issue is probably overblown. Some have pointed to his large frame as a sign of intemperance and gluttony. However, I think there is perhaps another matter at stake.
It must be said that Chesterton was, as far as we can tell, a very good man. He could be riotously funny. He was probably just the sort of fellow with whom one would enjoy getting a pint. But that quality of conviviality, even when wedded to right doctrine, does not equate to sanctity. If anything, it speaks to the opposite quality, a lack of the salutary ascesis proper to the Christian life. We hear much today of Chesterton’s alleged quote: “In Catholicism, the pint, the pipe and the Cross can all fit together.” Let us leave aside the question of whether the man actually said it (I have struggled to find the source), and accept that he did. The question we should be asking is whether it’s true. And if it is, is it really the sort of thing worth saying anyway? What are pints and pipes but little human vices and pleasures, the things of this world, the ordinary hobbies we enjoy from time to time? A Catholicism that fits them in is probably what most of us (myself included) can strive for, what most of us achieve. But surely that’s not the heroic, sacrificial faith of the Fathers. Would any of the Desert monastics or the martyrs say such a thing? Would any of them really consider it truly pious, if acceptable? Surely we can do better than a religion of the pub stool. Let us aim higher. Let us not canonize this symbol of comfortable Catholicism.
Perhaps the best reason to refrain from canonizing Chesterton was offered in 2013 by Melanie McDonagh:
The first argument against making him a saint is that he was a journalist (the profession he called the easiest in the world); it’s a contradiction in terms. And canonising the man would make his output unreadable. It would invest all the pieces he wrote in railway waiting rooms and Fleet Street bars with the leaden quality of official sanctity. He wrote some of the best literary criticism of the last century — give The Victorian Age in Literature a go — and it would forever be burdened with the approbation of the Catholic Church, which would put a great fat halo between the reader and the text.
I hate even the secular canonisation of the writers I love best — Flann O’Brien is a recent victim — with all the rites of summer schools, conferences and journals. It puts too much weight on their lightest utterances, ossifies their personalities and turns their perfectly lucid writing into the stuff of PhDs. In the case of Chesterton this phenomenon has an especially deadly quality, because the conferences and journals are bound up with contemporary Christian apologetics, a bit like what happened to C.S. Lewis. You might still just about be able to read the Father Brown stories with pleasure if they were billed as being by St Gilbert Keith Chesterton — but it would be despite the billing, by pushing it to the back of your mind. It would be a downright hurdle for secular readers.
Melanie McDonagh, “Why G.K. Chesterton shouldn’t be made a saint.”
Chesterton should not be canonized because doing so would establish him as an authority. Never mind that Chesterton’s famous aphorisms and paradoxes were so often little more than the trite (or even false) quips of a journalist. I have in mind quite another matter; canonization would effectively insulate Chesterton from serious criticism, literary or otherwise. Is that really an effective tribute to a man who was, by all accounts, a brilliant mind? Are we doing him any great service by placing his work under the light of a nimbus? Wouldn’t we rather be paying him the greatest of all insults to a writer, namely, to place him beyond serious and fair consideration? On the other hand, perhaps McDonagh is right – canonizing Chesterton could instead spark a lugubrious academic cottage industry, just as the (American) Evangelical discovery of C.S. Lewis has turned that first-rate children’s novelist and second-rate Anglican theologian into big business. I can only imagine Chesterton would find it all extremely drab.
We should not be too quick to canonize, especially when it comes to writers. I love the books of Flannery O’Connor and find much that is edifying in her fiction. I believe she probably died a holy death. But I don’t think she should be canonized; if a cause were to open, it should be based entirely on the merit of her sufferings.
Julien Green thought that the very act of writing a novel – a good one anyway, that deals with real human experience and the truths of the human condition – inevitably implicates the author in mortal sin. One has to imagine evil, and in portraying it, one engages with it at some level. I don’t know whether that’s true. I have no novels on my CV. But his statement speaks to a deeper point about the act of writing. We cannot escape from the fallibility and fragility of our own humanity, nor a certain fallenness inscribed into the fractured and slipshod structures of our language. This is why criticism is a good thing. Criticism, even pointed criticism, is a sign that one takes an author’s work seriously. It also keeps an author within the bonds of a community of writers, each of whom shares the same basic limitations even as their individual geniuses differ. These are truths that Chesterton himself understood; he, too, was a literary critic.
But the work of canonized writers retains an implicit authority. Sure, philosophers and theologians might dispute over a point in St. Thomas, but rarely do they state outright that the Angelic Doctor is wrong (and he was on several occasions). One could point to other examples. There is a degree to which such deference is acceptable. One of the Church’s great strengths is her long memory and the deposit of theology that acts as a shield around the deposit of faith. Yet this quality of authority is entirely inappropriate with a figure like Chesterton, whose voluminous works largely consist of trivial journalism. True, he made a few good points in Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man. There are strange parts of Orthodoxy, too, that make little sense and must be taken for what they are – Chesterton’s deeply personal attempt to understand his faith. And some of his writings are simply bad, wrong, or unreadable. If we take Chesterton seriously as a thinker and a writer, we should say so.
I realize that many of my readers, especially British ones, will think I am belaboring the point. If there is no popular cult, then are we really in danger of such an uncritical turn? I would direct such readers to the G.K. Chesterton Society’s website. I would direct them to the inclusion of Chesterton in Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: The Pivotal Players alongside objectively more important figures like St. Augustine, St. Benedict, and Cardinal Newman. I would direct them to that inexcusably hagiographic study of Chesterton’s milieu, Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. There may be no local cult per se, but there is a Chestertonian cult of personality spread across the Anglophone church. Especially in America.
The hallowed place Chesterton holds in the hearts of American Catholics is a reflection of a deeper American fetishization of English Christianity. This tendency tends to erect little idols of men such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Mons. Robert Hugh Benson (a deeply bizarre man of unsavory connections), and others.
I believe this tendency reflects a deep cultural anxiety proper to both Americans in general and American Catholics in particular. Unlike Europeans and South Americans, we live in an unhallowed, “historically empty” landscape. We US Catholics carry on an agon with European culture, especially British culture, because we feel deep down that we have never developed an authentically rooted version of American Catholicism. There are few saints native to our shores; the recent popular cult of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is a positive development, as we move beyond the lineup of immigrant clergy who used to make up most of the canon of American saints. If Fr. Augustus Tolton is canonized, all the better. But there remains an unspoken if everywhere manifest anxiety about the authenticity of American Catholicism. Its identity is new, still forming, and thus up for grabs. One effect is a relentless, internecine preoccupation with the culture wars. Liberals and conservatives in the Church largely map on to our broader political axis. But there’s another method of identity-formation, deployed primarily by those on the right end of that spectrum. We borrow the British writers as if they’re our heritage. But this borrowing blinds us to the faults of the men (and it is largely men) whom we take as representatives of a common spiritual ancestry with the Brits. Lewis and Tolkien are emblematic of this trend, and he’s not even Catholic. Yet they are invoked breathlessly by conservative Catholics and Christians in the same way that Harry Potter has become a shibboleth of secular liberals. Chesterton’s memory is in danger of becoming just another tribal marker.
I don’t claim any special insight beyond my compatriots. However, I do think that living in England for the better part of two years has disillusioned me of my former support for this tendency. Chesterton is bigger (in many ways) than the narrow role he has been asked to play by American conservatives. Let him rest in peace, let us read him on his own terms, and let us preserve the altars of the Church from a dubious canonization.
In the ongoing sexual abuse crisis that has wracked the Roman Catholic Church, it is helpful to remember that the evil transpires on both spiritual and historical planes. That is to say, we can productively speak of sexual abuse as a spiritual attack upon the Church’s absolute purity, a purity she receives from Christ, her spouse and head. The violations committed by priests and religious is a stain upon that purity but nevertheless leaves the fundamental holiness of the Church intact. And this because the Church has no holiness that is not primarily the holiness of Jesus. All that is good in her flows from Him.
However, we can maintain this truth while simultaneously recognizing deep underlying structural problems in the Church’s culture and modus operandi. The holiness of the Church comes from above, not below; in the course of human history, we have often seen great evils nurtured within the very breast of the Church as a human institution. The sex abuse crisis is one such horror. Only a realistic attitude can bring us the reform that we so desperately need.
It’s because of this that I was disappointed to read Benedict XVI’s recent letter on the subject. There are certain passages that show the Pope-Emeritus’s continuing theological acumen. He writes movingly about the primacy of Faith, especially Faith in the Blessed Sacrament, as a foundational principle of renewal in our time. He also calls for a deeper ecclesial sensibility among the faithful. Catholics should meditate on these passages, which have a good deal of insight and even consoling power. His words on martyrdom are particularly profound and poignant, given his own impending mortality.
However, as a response to the egregious crimes committed by priests and other clerical personnel against innocents, the document represents a major failure.
This letter is a turgid, historically specious bit of sleight of hand. In treating the abuse crisis as a problem of laxity in moral teaching, the Pope turns sex abuse into a theological problem. He is closer to the heart of things when he discusses the evolution of the disciplinary measures in Canon Law and the various difficulties thrown up by legal “reforms” in the middle of the century. However, he also dissolves the very real psychological and social factors that permitted a culture of tolerance for pedophilia within the church to flourish for so long. Ratzinger writes, “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” This is, strictly speaking, a spiritual truth. Had the Pope-Emeritus treated this as a statement about the souls of the pedophiles, for whom God must be in some way ultimately unreal, the statement would be entirely defensible. However, Ratzinger is speaking historically. He immediately seems to attribute to the spread of pedophilia to secularization in Europe.
After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole.
The problem is relativism – namely, secular relativism as an other, as something outside the life of the Church. We read, “The long-prepared and ongoing process of dissolution of the Christian concept of morality was…marked by an unprecedented radicalism in the 1960s.” According to the Pope, “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate…It was theorized only a short time ago as quite legitimate, but it has spread further and further.” He takes the cause of recent pedophilia, and thus of the scandals within the Church, to be the sexual revolution.
But apart from Gayle Rubin, the filmmakers who got Jodie Foster and Brooke Shields naked, and the perverts at NAMBLA, who exactly were the people trying to normalize pedophilia? C.C. Pecknold suggests it might be those activists in favor of “abolishing age-of-consent laws since the 1970s.” Possibly. At any rate, the Pope provides neither names nor sources. It’s a serious enough claim that he owes us that courtesy. To what extent were these efforts merely marginal phenomena? He seems to take them as a synecdoche of the broader movement, however implausibly.
By appealing to an established right-wing boogeyman (sixties revolutionaries), he dissolves the problem into a theological haze. He makes no mention of the complex psychological reasons for abuse, simply posits that relativism leads to sexual license. Nor does he prove any causes to tie together his case studies. He just asserts that various phenomena are connected without supplying proof. Given the genre of the piece, perhaps this brevity is to be expected. But is this schema really representative of Ratzinger’s mentality as he handled sex abuse cases in his tenure as head of the CDF and, later, as Pope? If so, no wonder things were so long mismanaged and so often minimized. Sex abuse is not a matter of which moral theologians you’re reading, and to treat it as such is profoundly irresponsible.
The fact that Francis asked Benedict to prepare this statement suggests to me that it represents an attempt by both Popes to shoot the elephant (and scapegoat) in the room, namely, the homosexuality of the clergy. This phenomenon has become the cause célèbre of conservative and traditional Catholics trying to understand the sex abuse crisis. It has also been recently highlighted in a largely credible if somewhat sensationalist way by the gay activist Frédéric Martel, whose book on clerical homosexuality Catholics should read (if with a grain of salt). Too sharp a focus on homosexuality (a) doesn’t actually solve the problem of clerical sex abuse and (b) is too dangerous for all ideological camps (no pun intended) within the clerical establishment. Ratzinger’s letter here shifts the focus away from that particular systemic and more or less quantifiable phenomenon and onto an amorphous if politically-charged abstract. While I can’t be sure, the missive seems to be designed to influence Ratzinger’s own partisans and lead them away from the gay issue.
After all, the one narrative that Ratzinger doesn’t tell us is the one most favored by conservatives. Namely, as Pecknold puts it, “by the late 1980s the homosexual hierarchies that ruled now were descending, with greater frequency, into pedophilia.” But this is not what the Pope writes. In a passage worth quoting at length, Ratzinger tells us,
In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries. In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist [Pastoralreferent] lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends. The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation. The Holy See knew of such problems, without being informed precisely. As a first step, an Apostolic Visitation was arranged of seminaries in the United States. As the criteria for the selection and appointment of bishops had also been changed after the Second Vatican Council, the relationship of bishops to their seminaries was very different, too. Above all, a criterion for the appointment of new bishops was now their “conciliarity,” which of course could be understood to mean rather different things. Indeed, in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world. One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith. There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk. The Visitation that now took place brought no new insights, apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation. A second Visitation was ordered and brought considerably more insights, but on the whole failed to achieve any outcomes. Nonetheless, since the 1970s the situation in seminaries has generally improved. And yet, only isolated cases of a new strengthening of priestly vocations came about as the overall situation had taken a different turn.
That first line is the only explicit reference to homosexuality in the entire letter. In his his forceful First Things follow-up, Archbishop Chaput confirms this point:
He remains silent on what many see as the continuing resistance of Rome to candidly name the core issue of the clergy abuse problem, which is not primarily a matter of clerical privilege but rather a pattern of predatory homosexuality.
Archbishop Charles Chaput
Ratzinger is quick to move from the various gay circles among the seminarians of yesteryear to the presence of women in seminaries, and then on to theological liberalism in general. This is not the argument, put forward by so many, that homosexuality in the priesthood leads to sex abuse. It’s a broader case, one that sees homosexuality as only one part in a constellation of radicalism.
And it’s a radicalism that emphatically has its origins outside of the Church. Archbishop Chaput builds on Benedict, writing,
But priests and bishops have no miraculous immunity to the abnormality bubbling around them. Ratzinger locates the seed of the current crisis in the deliberate turn toward sexual anarchy that marked much of Europe in the 1960s, and the complete failure of Catholic moral theologians to counter it—a failure that more often resembled fellow-traveling.
Archbishop Charles Chaput
This is nothing less than an abdication of moral responsibility. The 1960’s did not produce pedophilia, ephebophilia, or the longstanding culture of omertà among the hierarchy (see the extensive research carried out by, inter alia, Richard Sipe). Indeed, predatory sexuality has been in the Church for a long time. I refer the reader to the cultures created by Cardinal Spellman in New York, Cardinal O’Connell in Boston, and Cardinal Wright in Worcester. The permissiveness in these dioceses was in place before the sexual revolution hit, and in each we see major flare-ups of the child sex abuse crisis. We could look back even further. There were pedophiles in the circle of St. Joseph Calasanz, and he died in 1648!
The cover-up, too, has a long life. As Ulrich Lehner has pointed out, the old practice used to be that religious orders had to destroy any incriminating files every five years; the use of special prisons for clergy and religious only added to the secrecy of the early modern ecclesiastical disciplinary apparatus. All of these points undermine the basic historical narrative Ratzinger tells us – namely, that the sexual revolution and subsequent buckling of Catholic moral theology lead to a simultaneous spread of pedophilia and a complete failure of the ecclesiastical establishment to respond.
One of the less edifying elements in the letter is that Ratzinger took the time to engage in subtle if unmistakeable academic score-settling throughout. Speaking of an ethicist he disagreed with, Ratzinger writes,
I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal. It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991.
Leaving aside the question of whether Böckle was right (and he wasn’t), the slight chuckle with which Benedict describes his death is extraordinarily petty. What a tawdry, sorry, cynical intervention from the ailing pontiff.
The letter fails in its description of the sources of pedophilia and ephebophilia. Yet at least Ratzinger attempts to make a case for why the priesthood has seen such widespread sexualization, with such prominent lapses, over the course of the last few decades. His letter does not, however, address the cover-up at all. If anything, he seems to end the letter on a rather troubling note:
Today, the accusation against God is, above all, about characterizing His Church as entirely bad, and thus dissuading us from it. The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped. No, even today the Church is not just made up of bad fish and weeds. The Church of God also exists today, and today it is the very instrument through which God saves us.
I suppose that, on the spiritual level, the Pope is not wrong here. But it does rather seem to me that he is perhaps too concerned with the reputation of the Church – a holy body, yes, but also one riddled with both sexual predators and the venal men who protect them. In trying to end on a hopeful message, the Pope sounds a false note. He seems to have erased the mysterium iniquitatis. The effect is one of minimization of grave evil rather than a proper and reforming zelus domus Domini.
Yet the most frustrating feature of this letter, beyond its occasional historical errors and indulgence in the petty sparring of academia, is that it feeds into a narrative that conservative Catholics have used for years to exonerate themselves in the sex abuse crisis. That narrative chalks up clerical sex abuse to post-conciliar laxity alongside the sexual revolution. If only, these conservatives and traditionalists say, if only we hadn’t gone off the rails in 1968. Sex abuse becomes the exclusive property of ecclesiastical liberals.
But this is a false narrative. It’s a lie – a half-truth, perhaps, but still a lie – that conceals the suffering of victims prior to that age as well as all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of conservative and traditionalist clergy. Men for whom the Revolution did not transpire. There are many examples of this kind of thing. One only needs to point to Marcial Maciel, Carlos Urrutigoity, Tony Anatrella, Fernando Karadima…the list goes on. None of these men were liberals. Some worked closely with John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Yet the narrative in this letter cheapens the experience of their victims and lulls conservatives and traditionalists into a false sense of self-righteous security – exactly the opposite of what we need if we are ever to get a handle on the problem of clerical sex abuse wherever it should rear its ugly head. It’s a narrative that helps us look the other way as more and more innocents get hurt. And it’s gravely irresponsible for the Pope-Emeritus to propagate this lie.
On March 16th, 1583, St. Philip Neri worked one of his greatest miracles. Having been called to the deathbed of Paolo, the young scion of the noble Massimo family, he arrived to find that he was too late. The youth was half an hour dead and, what’s worse, unshriven. But time and its corrosive powers are nothing before the grace of the Almighty. Thirty minutes of sorrow were given as the short prelude to a feat that would win this servant of God a heavenly renown and, for the youth himself, an eternity of joy.
We can imagine the scene well enough. The wailing mother, pressing her tear-stained face into the breast of her grieving husband, the servants praying for their dear lost lord, the doctors already retreating with a grimace of embarassment at their failure. Into this scene walks the silent old priest, calm as the eye of a hurricane. He receives the news with a stoic frown. Then, lifting his eyes in prayer, imploring the power of the hand that once raised Lazarus, he breathes upon the eyes so lately shut. He whispers,
This invocation brings forth a mystery beyond reckoning – the boy stirs and wakes, as if he had only nodded off a few minutes before.
We can only imagine the joy that fell upon the hearts of the mourners. What stunned clamor must have erupted in that little chamber! Yet the saint is ever in control. He commands all to leave, that he might hear Prince Paolo’s confession. Having cleansed the boy’s soul with the assoiling balms of penance, St. Philip spoke to him for thirty minutes. Would that we had some record of their conversation! There can be no doubt that the solicitous confessor was preparing the soul to meet God.
For that is the strangest thing of all in the story of the Paolo Massimo’s resurrection. It was only temporary. The thirty minutes of death are undone, yes, but only for about another thirty minutes of life. The parents of the young prince were, no doubt, bitterly disappointed at this second loss, a departure made even more painful by the desperate hope it stirred in their hearts.
Yet it was a miracle indeed – and it shows us a salutary truth about miracles. They are not for our comfort. They are not granted to appease our desires, however noble. Providence instead works all things, natural and graced, with only one end in view – the greater glory of God. St. Philip was sent to bring Paolo Massimo into eternal life, not to grant him any more time on earth. That was his duty, the quintessential duty of every priest.
We live in an age when the priesthood seems so mired in scandal and banality, torn this way and that by the worldly ambitions of the clergy, stained with sins of every kind. Lust, violence, abuse, pride, vanity, greed, division, cruelty, party faction – all of these wicked tendencies and more have obscured the nobility of the sacerdotal office, a dignity drawn entirely from the crucified Heart of our Great High Priest.
That is why we must remember the story of St. Philip and Paolo Massimo. It reminds us of why we have priests – of what the priest must do, and of what he must be.
The priest is a conduit of grace. His steps, his works, his words, his hands do not belong to him, but to God. They step into the wounded rhythm of our natural life and bear the healing presence of the supernatural. They raise us from the dead, but only that we might make a better death in the end.
St. Philip’s miracle today is commemorated with a proper Mass. May he pray that all of us might rise from the living death of sin and enter a dying life of grace.
The inimitable John McManners, late Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, provides a window into the world of late Ancien Régime piety (or, rather, its dearth) in his monumental Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. He writes:
“To what extent was the fast of Lent observed? It was commonly said that the austerities of the penitential season were endured only by the poor. According to the Lenten pastoral letter of the archbishop of Sens in 1779, the rich often obtained medical certificates allowing them to eat what they liked. This was the fashionable thing to do. ‘Look at our bourgeois citizen and his wife in their (draper’s) shop, observing Lent strictly,’ said teh Jesuit Père Croisset in his Parallel des moeurs de ce siècle et la morale de Jesus-Christ (1727): ‘their fortune changes…and scarcely has the tape measure dropped from their hands than you see them putting on airs like people of quality and asking for dispensations from fasting.’ This class distinction was observed even in the kitchens of the Bastille: on the first Friday of his imprisonment, Marmontel gloomily at the meatless meal provided, not knowing that it had been meant for his servant. In any case, there were plenty of succulent dishes within the rules, for those who could afford them.
“Lent was the season to have tubs of fresh butter sent in from the countryside, and to ensure plentiful supplies of fish and water birds (the tes of an allowable fowl was: did the gravy remain uncongealed after fifteen minutes? – so a bishop gravely advised Mme Victoire, Louis XV’s pious but comfortable daughter). The peasant, whose existence is a perpetual Lent anyway, said Voltaire, awaits episcopal permission to eat his farmyard eggs, while the bishop himself looks forward to expensive dishes of soles. Certainly, things were well organized at Versailles. ‘A ray of grace has descended on us,’ wrote the duc de la Vallière in April 1756; ‘we fasted for three days a week during the whole of Lent, but on condition that we suffered no deprivations.’ Preachers were well aware that those with money and leisure could organize an attractive Lent for themselves: an occasional walk in a procession (a penitent’s garb was no disadvantage to a good-looking woman), extra time in bed to recuperate from privations, and food more delicately cooked and served than usual. ‘For some – God grant that there are none in my congregation today,’ thundered the Oratorian Surian, ‘Lent is a more agreeable time, in a sophisticated way, than the other seasons of the year.'”
The Abbey in the Oakwood, by Caspar David Friedrich.
The Church Times have just published an article in which I summarize some of my research on the connection of Anglo-Catholics and the occult world. I’d like to thank my supervisor, Dr. Sarah Apetrei, and co-supervisor, the Rev. Canon Robin Ward, for their support throughout all of this. I’d also like to thank Fr. James Lawson for the early help he provided as well as Dr. Michael Yelton and those various other figures who have discussed the matter with me over the past year, often in words of encouragement. Hopefully the full paper will be published someday. For now, read here.