Again, on the Catholic 19th century

4 07 2020

It’s a bit strange that I continue to write on Catholic themes, considering my actual beliefs at this point. But I swim in a very Catholic milieu, and I still deal with the ghost of previous beliefs. So anything I state here should probably be taken with a grain of salt by actual believers, if not disregarded entirely. I don’t feel particularly bound by the rules of the contemporary Magisterial discourse for obvious reasons. I am merely commenting on the consistency and inner logic of various ideas from the perspective of a struggling God-conscious person. It’s an outsider-looking-in dynamic, but not so much from the the outside.

So in that spirit I finished a book and an essay recently that I feel are worthy of comment. The book is The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio by Hubert Wolff on the scandal surrounding a Roman convent around the time of the First Vatican Council. The essay is Shaun Blanchard’s recent contribution to Church Life Journal entitled, “The Twists and Turns That Led to the First Vatican Council.” Since these two works deal with roughly the same time period, I thought it would be interesting to engage both in my very idiosyncratic, very non-academic way.

As this is a blog, I am going to be lazy and refer people to Ulrich Lehner’s review of The Nuns of Sant’ Ambrogio for a summary of the book. Coupled with Blanchard’s essay, I would summarize my point by saying that the “orthodox” Catholic 19th century dealt with the problems of the immediate past by leapfrogging over them to recover a distant past that was more imagination than reality. Here I would like to focus on Kleutgen, who I wrote about in passing years ago. Both Kleutgen and Princess Katharina fled to Rome as a refuge from disputes concerning belief and unbelief, and Church and State, in the German-speaking world. This was the age of Kant and Hegel, and a Catholic intellectual world that didn’t know how to deal with the trauma of a crumbling feudal order. According to Wolff, what better refuge was there for these souls than the atavistic backwater that was Rome, where a Pope actively railed against the dangers of street lamps and railroads?

I couldn’t really care less about the lurid details of the scandal itself, as those were a symptom rather than the cause of the malaise (taking into consideration the gravity of the crimes involved and their victims). The more compelling question is: Why would Kleutgen and the educated princess fall for these murderous swindlers? Ulrich and his orthodox colleagues would have one believe that there is a Chinese wall between moral behavior and the theological formulations that Kleutgen devised. But as Catholicism claims to be an “incarnational” religion, I find that idea a bit hard to swallow, pace all of the historical examples of bad men making supposedly “good” doctrine. In my opinion, Kleutgen’s involvement with an ultraconservative convent that turned out to be a den of iniquity was not a separate endeavor from his philosophical fight against idealist subjectivism. Both were the result of a choice he made as an opponent of modernity. And in the end, this ideological commitment is what saved his intellectual legacy, along with friends in high places who found his scholarly prowess useful to their cause.

I am by far not an expert in Kleutgen’s thought or Neo-Scholasticism in general. But as far as I can tell, the fundamental flaw of the entire project has been to use the letter of medieval Scholasticism against its spirit. Aquinas and other leading lights of the High Scholasticism had a very cosmopolitan and open view toward a world around them that was in flux (Here I would refer the reader to works such as Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West by M.D. Chenu). Perhaps it did not start out that way, but what the Neo-Scholastic project ended up being before its rapid collapse was the opposite of open or dynamic. Its efforts to establish the dignity and power of the intellect based on objective truth morphed into a political method of control based on a highly idealized and distorted view of the medieval past. The tools devised for maintaining orthodoxy were constructed from ancient theological doctrines combined with unspoken neuroses of a Catholic world in decline.

In this context, Kleutgen’s involvement in a weird sex cult in a Roman convent isn’t that far-fetched. The 19th century was a time of upheaval and skepticism, but it was also the time of Lourdes, the Curé d’Ars, and a growing interest in the supernatural from a Romanticist perspective. A surrender of the intellect to the supernatural is needed in any act of faith, but without control of the passions, it can quickly descend into dark places. The main inclination becomes one of unswerving commitment to the narrative, and to block out anything that fails to make sense outside of it. One could think that believing in letters from the Virgin Mary falling from Heaven or magical rings would be contrary to reason, but perhaps someone in Kleutgen’s position would consider these things to be an overture to Reason: a foundational absurdity one must agree to in order to achieve further enlightenment.

Kleutgen’s personal problems may have had nothing to do with his important theological contributions. For me, however, his idea of the ordinary magisterium vs. extraordinary magisterium hands the Papacy [and the Roman curia (!)] a blank check for whatever purpose they see fit, and the Holy Spirit somehow always has to honor it. The Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius (which Kleutgen drafted) in stating that faith and reason must always agree on a certain level (or else!) has seemed to me more an ultimatum than a theological statement. Along with the Syllabus of Errors and other documents from the time, it strikes me as an example of philosophical gas lighting: everything I say is reasonable, and if you don’t find it reasonable, you are being unreasonable. It’s not me, it’s you. All of this culminated in Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris, another Papal document that Kleutgen had a hand in writing, which codified Aquinas’ philosophy as the official ideology of the Church, and in so doing, gave him a first class burial (to cite Chenu).

Kleutgen is not alone in the modern Church as a widely-admired intellectual figure with questionable associations. Lehner in his review mentions John Paul II’s backing of Marcial Maciel which makes the Sant’ Ambrogio scandal seem tame by comparison. Less salaciously, John Paul II was inclinded toward questionable mysticism, even supplanting the former Church feast of Low Sunday in favor of Divine Mercy Sunday because of a private revelation to a Polish nun who he canonized. Influential theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar had his questionable relationship with Adrienne Von Speyr, a rather unconventional mystic. The entire contemporary Charismatic Movement, for all the good it does in the Church in many areas, opens the door for all sorts of signs and wonders, approved or otherwise.

All of that typing is probably going to result in my not giving Shaun Blanchard’s essay the treatment it deserves, which is a pity. I can only counsel a closer reading than the one I am going to give here. My main takeaway from the essay is that one has to read the events around Vatican I not only as a struggle against forces outside the Church, forces that would bring the council to an abrupt end by literal force of arms, but also as a polemic against tendencies within the Church itself. That is also an aspect I failed to mention above about Wolff’s book: Kleutgen could literally almost get away with murder because he was useful against other forces in the Roman curia (many of them German) who were far more conciliatory toward the modern world. Blanchard describes thoughtful attempts concerning reform and church governance, arguably just as orthodox, that were discarded with the triumph of ultramontanism at Vatican I. These include Jansenism, Febronianism, and a return to a greater appreciation for the role of the local Church in ecclesiology. These themes would be taken up at Vatican II, widely regarded as a balance to and completion of the Papal monarchist doctrines of 19th century ultramontanist movement.

The initial settling of scores that was Vatican I and its subsequent revision at Vatican II indicate to me that it is impossible to exercise ecclesiastical power outside the context of culture. From my own reading and reflection, I concluded some time ago that many of the controversies in the contemporary Church are due to placing a metaphysical burden on Church doctrine and discipline that they simply cannot bear. Vatican I wanted to establish an absolute monarchy in the Church at a time when thrones were falling left and right. Neo-Scholasticism wanted to establish the ordered reign of Reason under God at a time when everything was being questioned. Many theologians in the 20th century would call out this fortress mentality in the Church, and would be champions of a more open and horizontal arrangement. But are these latter-day advocates of reform unqualified heroes? The question for me is not one of Papal monarchy vs. a theology of communion in which all of the People of God have a voice. It’s if it’s even possible that the Church have a model that doesn’t descend into dictatorship (not a godly monarchy) or parliamentary democratic squabbling (not loving communion).

So really, neither Vatican I, nor Vatican II, nor Neo-Scholasticism, nor its presumed replacement are really the problem. The real problem is one of a gap and absence. Kleutgen and Princess Katherina (who after the poisoning affair would go on to help found the influential Beuron Archabbey) were seeking to recover a sacred cosmovision and way of life: something to hold on to in the midst of a world that seemed to be challenging every orthodoxy and established rule. The Church at Vatican I was squaring off against bourgeois liberal nationalism that would morph into the globalized capitalism we have today. How do we “be Church” in a default setting in which everyone is a little master with no servants, or a leader without followers? I don’t think this is an issue of theological doctrine or church governance, but something more fundamental. In spite of fideistic assertions of “faking it until you make it,” the Christian mystery simply doesn’t make much sense to most modern people. This is due to the loss of intellectual and psychological tools of the past which may never be recovered. In places where people press on with the Christian endeavor anyway, many strains of thinking emerge that are inimical to each other, and these strains barely speak the same language. An atmosphere of quarrel and hypocrisy is then free to continue to impose itself.

Here my fundamental unbelief may be showing. But if I were to put on the hat of a Catholic believer again, I would say that one should have a healthy skepticism toward “traditional Catholic philosophy” and its supposed replacement, and toward both Vatican I and Vatican II. You’re dealing with fitting the square peg of ancient texts and symbolism into the round hole of the modern mind. There are no short cuts here, you have to show your work. The “normal” Catholic solution is to defer to authority, but I don’t think that’s good enough: an argument from authority is the weakest argument. Personally, I would take everything coming after 1960 with a big grain of salt, knowing full well that what came before isn’t “unadulterated tradition” either. That’s just the time when fully-conscious social engineering began to impose itself on the entire life of the Church. I would be manifestly skeptical as well of “historical criticism”, because all you can do with it honestly is tear down and not necessarily build up. And finally, I would still believe in the Holy Ghost working in the Church, but only over the course of centuries and not decades or certainly not years (How many years did it take to canonize John Paul II?) In terms of philosophy, governance, and piety, my program would be: pump the brakes, learn to listen to tradition rather than speak up thinking you know the right answer, and yes, follow what’s in the Gospels.

Honestly, considering the lust for change of contemporary man, I have no expectation that anyone would follow this advice, which is why I have all but abandoned ship, though ultimately, we all remain in God’s hands.



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