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.

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On Christian Conscience

26 02 2009


As a seminarian, I first read the text of the trial of St. Maximus Confessor, and it always struck me as a very challenging text. As you may know, the context of the trial is that St. Maximus is being accused in the trial of treason since he refuses to sign on to the doctrine that there is only one will or energy in Christ. At one point, the saint is asked some very pointed questions. I here produce the relavent excerpts:

Will you [Maximus] be saved and all others be lost?” To which he replied, “The three young men who did not adore the idol when all others adored it did not condemn anyone. They did not attend to what belonged to others but attended to this, that they did not lapse from true worship. Likewise, Daniel, when thrown in the lion’s den, did not condemn anyone who did not pray to God in accordance with the decree of Darius, but attended to what was his own role, and he preferred to die and not offend God than to be afflicted by his own conscience over the transgression of the laws of nature. Thus it is with me as well; may God grant that I neither condemn anyone nor say that I alone am saved. But I prefer to die rather than to have on my conscience that I in any way at all have been deficient in what concerns faith in God.

I think we have to realize that in the end we will be responsible only for ourselves. Many times, our preoccupation with matters of ecclesiastical importance is a useless distraction: worrying about things that are not really our business anyway. I think this should be kept in mind first and foremost when discussing Church matters.

On Historical Imagination

16 11 2008


When modern people tend to think of history, they tend to imagine themselves as rubbing shoulders with great men. When they become nostalgic for the “simpler” times, the “golden age”, the glorious past now lost, they tend to picture themselves in the castles, cathedrals, and palaces of the mighty and powerful. The problem is, so few actually had access to these monuments of human achievement. Most were treading dung in a pit to slather it on their house. And they never ventured more than ten miles from where they were born. Vanitas vanitatum…

I am trying to perform an exercise of imagining what it would have been to live in my family a hundred years ago, in the harsh deserts of northern Mexico: growing and picking cotton and anything else that could grow in the rocky soil and experiencing death at a young and tender age. Of all ideas in the world, Christianity is least suited to the idolizing of great men. The Gospel itself seems to be a deconstruction of such myths. A humble stable, a smelly fishing boat, a barren hill of execution outside the walls of Jerusalem… all these seem to speak of something far removed from the realms of great men. How easily we forget.

Connected to this is the idea of “tradition” as a set of approved written texts. The Church rose and fell last century on how certain very smart men read some very old texts, and how these texts seemed to tell a story different from their childhoods of rosy-cheeked Madonnas, Infants of Prague, and a hurried if meticulous muttered Mass in fiddle back chausable. But what if some smart men two thousand years from now try to piece together our way of life from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and editorials in the New York Times? What would they find out? How much would they read us out of it and read themselves into it? That is why I am skeptical of the whole “Patristics resourcement” in general. The game is being played with loaded die. I don’t buy any of it for a second.