On the abuse of ecclesiastical power

16 07 2009


Or: Things that happen when clergymen get too enthusiastic

Pope Paul IV when he was a cardinal was in charge of the Roman Inquisition: one of his first acts as a pope was to increase the powers of this institution and the penalties associated with heresy: even some cardinals were charged with heresy and Cardinal Morone was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo as a hidden Lutheran. The pope imposed on the Romans a very austere lifestyle, but allowed his nephew Carlo Carafa to profit from his position to enrich himself and, according to widespread rumours, to behave badly from a moral viewpoint. He forced the Jews of the Papal State to live in two ghettos in Rome and Ancona: he built walls around an area of Rione Sant’Angelo which was subject to floods: the Jews were not allowed to live elsewhere and during the day had to go about wearing a distinctive sign… Pope Paul IV died in August 1559: the Romans reacted to the news by setting fire to the Inquisition palace and by destroying all the coats of arms of the pope: his statue in Campidoglio was beheaded and the head was rolled down the cordonata.


Jonathan Spence, in his book. The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, further describes Rome in the time of Paul IV, pointing out that the Pontiff not only had it in for Jews and heretics, but anyone who was guilty of immorality, in spite of his nepotistic exceptions:

Pope Paul had followed a rutheless policy of suppressing all public entertainments in the name of morality, arresting men found with their mistresses in the confines of the Vatican and sentencing them to life in the galleys, banning all hunting and even all dancing so that throughout the year in Rome, as a contemporary wrote, it was “as if it were in the midst of Lent.”

Of course, Catholic “do-gooders” both on-line and elsewhere will be horrified at the Roman mobs reaction to the Vicar of Christ who just wanted to “clean things up” and lead more souls to Heaven. How can you not support closing down the brothels, putting the smack down on heretics, making things more somber and “family friendly” in a society rife with moral evils? To say anything to the contrary would be akin to defending wife beating or the random drowing of puppies in buckets, especially in our society so weighed down with iniquity. O tempora….

I was reading elsewhere on-line a quote from a theologian who I certainly don’t agree with, but who said things that gives me pause:

“I’m reminded of the first Christian legislators, who didn’t quickly abolish the tolerant Roman laws regarding practices which didn’t conform to the natural law, or which were actually contrary to it, such as concubinage and slavery,” Cottier wrote. “Change happened along a slow path, often marked by steps backward, as the Christian population increased, and, along with them, the impact of a sense of the dignity of the human person.”

“At the beginning, in order to guarantee the consent of the citizens and to protect social peace, the so-called ‘imperfect laws’ were kept in force, which avoided persecuting actions and behaviors in contrast with the natural law,” Cottier wrote. “St. Thomas [Aquinas] himself, who certainly had no doubt that the law must be moral, added that the state must not enact laws which are too severe or ‘high,’ because they’ll be disrespected by the people, who won’t be able to follow them.”

“Political realism recognizes evil, and calls it by its name,” Cottier wrote. “Yet it also recognizes that one must be humble and patient, combating evil without the pretense of eradicating it from human history through instruments of legal coercion.”

It seems to me that all this talk about using laws and societal pressures to get rid of moral evils is a bunch of hot air. Not that I think the opponents of “Christian conservatives” will ever get the opportunity to call our co-religionists’ bluff, precisely because I speculate that they will never have any real power. And even if they did, such people often harp on some evils at the expense of tolerating others, using the “hierarchy of goods” to veil their own, rather questionable agendas.

What I don’t tolerate is the ideological blackmail that such people try to pull against anyone who opposes them, saying that if you are not with them, “the terrorists win”. Well, if things are that dire, perhaps the only real, dignified way out is to withdraw altogether. I can barely govern myself, let alone have any say on how to govern a nation.

Something tells me that while God was not smiling on the mobs who were beheading a statue of the Pope, He was probably not frowning on them either. He was probably just shaking His head. Every time human beings try to create a perfect society, even one supposedly based on the “law of God”, the Lord Himself probably thinks of some of His own words contained in that Law: Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum…



2 responses

21 07 2009

It’s difficult to determine what the point of this article was, but I do believe it is my first time reading someone who believe that St. Thomas was full of ‘hot air’. Surely even the critic of Catholicism would recognize the Divine Person who came to earth to become a Man did so to bring about the redemption of mankind and restore the hope of eternal life, rather than to correct every injustice on earth. That mission is rather clearly stated in the Gospels.

To claim that the persistence of some evil which Christ did not come to earth to abolish can somehow be used as evidence against against Christ’s teaching authority is a non sequitur.

16 07 2009

You confuse me dude.

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