Did Napoleon Start the Road to Vatican II? Maybe. See "Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis " Discussion Part 1
I spent this past weekend involved in two things: watching the U.S. Open Golf Tournament which was on TV here on the East Coast from suppertime till midnight for four straight nights, and during the afternoons reading my second killer history book this month, Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis  by John T. McGreevy. The golf tournament was exhilarating—an upset winner by one stroke—but the book is more discomfiting because [a] it is thinning my herd of sacred cows, and [b] the last third of the book covers my lifetime, a very troubling thing when you still feel young enough to be making history.
McGreevey’s book deserves a lot of attention and discussion. I review books for Amazon, which you may see posted from time to time, but I have a 1,000-word limit on those submissions. [My last review was my 190th with Amazon, dating to 2000.] But in many cases a book deserves a multi-faceted discussion, necessitating a brief Amazon summary for its book site and a longer treatment on the Café blogsite, which has no word limit beyond human compassion and exhaustion. Catholicism deserves a lot of thought and soul searching. I suppose the first question would be the relationship of the French Revolution and the Age of Napoleon to the era of Vatican II?
McGreevy is not the first historian to begin a modern church narrative with Napoleon. In his What Happened at Vatican II Father William O’Malley begins with a lengthy overview called “The Long Nineteenth Century” in which he essentially dates the moving forces for Vatican I and Vatican II from the era of the French Revolution, which is dated from 1789. The French Revolution—caused in part by French government bankruptcy incurred, ironically, assisting the American Revolution—created a chain of events in Western Europe that ended what is often called “the marriage of throne and altar,” or the interlocking of church and state. After the Napoleonic Wars there was a shift across Western Europe from the older absolute monarchy model toward representational or democratic government with an emphasis upon independence from churches, particularly Roman Catholicism. Coupled with this was the emergence of strong grassroots nationalism and newfound belief in the freedom and conscience of man independent of religious discipline, rooted in the modern philosophies from Descartes to John Locke. In shorthand, the modern secular era had arrived for good.
No two nations went through these processes precisely the same way, and McGreevy’s book discusses variants of the process, but across the board the changing face of the West in the nineteenth century created a major challenge to the power, influence, and authority of the Catholic Church. Recall that at the time of the French Revolution Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were Catholic monarchs surrounded by Catholic aristocrats. The immortal phrase “let them eat cake” came from a Catholic queen to an angry and hungry populace. When the French Revolution took its violent turn, the properties and riches of the Church were seized, and the new transitional government would eventually persecute and execute clergy and religious. Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, the Church had laid claim to secular as well as religious authority—consider, for example, that when Spain and Portugal began exploration and settlement of the Western Hemisphere after Columbus, Pope Alexander VI [conveniently, for Spain, a Spaniard] drew the famous “Line of Demarcation” to divide the claims of the two nations in the New World in 1493. [His line, incidentally, ultimately created Brazil as a Portuguese-speaking nation.]
What became very clear in the nineteenth century after the French Revolution was the decreasing influence of the papacy in the course of world events. While Napoleon was finally planted in permanent exile on St. Helena, the future of Europe was debated at the Congress of Vienna [1814-1815], which redrew the map of the old Holy Roman Empire through the workings of Metternich and Talleyrand, to cite two famous international diplomats of the day. Although represented in Vienna, the pope was not invited to draw maps as he had three centuries earlier, and few European leaders were disposed to ask him.
The post-French Revolution era was marked by the birth of a liberalism characterized by national identity and pride, greater democratic process, emphasis upon the rights of man, economic free enterprise, and freedom of governments from interference from organized religions, primarily the Roman Catholic Church. McGreevy provides examples of Western liberalization and distrust of a monarchical Catholic Church in such diverse nations as the United States, England, and Italy. By the terms of the founding documents written by the thirteen original colonies, the United States should have been a safe haven for Catholicism, and in many locales the practice of Catholicism was tolerated to a degree.
However, periodic flareups of anti-Catholicism were widespread and deadly. In her 1997 The Artificial River: The Erie Canal and the Paradox of Progress, 1817-1862, Carol Sheriff describes the animosity between residents of New York State and the Catholic Irish immigrants, hard fighting and hard drinking Irish Catholics who had come to America to dig the canal from Albany to Buffalo. It is no accident that the “Know Nothing Party,” a powerful third-party xenophobic force in American presidential politics, had deep roots in Western New York. The Wikipedia entry on the Know-Nothings has interesting overtones of recent American electoral politics:
Fearful that Catholics were flooding the polls with non-citizens, local activists threatened to stop them. On August 6, 1855, rioting broke out in Louisville, Kentucky, during a hotly contested race for the office of governor. Twenty-two were killed and many injured. This "Bloody Monday" riot was not the only violent riot between Know Nothings and Catholics in 1855. In Baltimore, the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857, and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In the coastal town of Ellsworth, Maine, in 1854, Know Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Jesuit Johannes Bapst. They also burned down a Catholic church in Bath, Maine.
As more Irish, German, and Italian Catholics poured into America throughout the nineteenth century, white Protestant Americans feared that these immigrants were, at heart, loyal to a foreign power, i.e., the pope in Rome, and if the opportunity arose, would take over the United States as a fiefdom of the Papal States. Catholic politicians in the U.S. were accused of representing the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion,” a charge that rumbled through American politics well into the twentieth century. And, if you listen close enough to monied American interests even today, you hear strains that Pope Francis is a socialist who wants to take our hard-earned money and redistribute it south of the equator. The more things change…
In England, the historical memory of Queens Elizabeth and “Bloody Mary” was enough to inflame similar violence against Roman Catholics throughout the post-Napoleonic nineteenth century. Fears—rational or not—of Roman Catholic takeover of the established Church of England were exacerbated by that nation’s own mistreatment of Ireland, highlighted by the Potato Famine, and resulting in protests and immigration.
But by far the most tempestuous impact of the post-Napoleonic era may have been the upheavals in Italy itself, the cradle of the Church. If you are a little rusty on your Italian history, the Wikipedia entry entitled “The Unification of Italy,” often referred to as the Risorgimento, chronicles the civil upheavals of the peninsula in the nineteenth century. Italy had not been a unified nation since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 475 A.D. The papacy—with its hold on “the papal states”—lived in constant conflict with outside intruders dating back to the Goths in the 400’s to the newly minted nation states after the French Revolution. [The Church Council Vatican I was disbanded prematurely in 1870 amidst the canon fire of the Franco-Prussian War on the doorsteps of Rome.] The Risorgimento called for a unified Italy with a measure of self-determination, a direct challenge and threat to papal civil authority and land holdings. Recall that the status of the papal states and some reassure of Church independence in the new, unified Italy was not legally defined until the Church’s Concordat with Mussolini in 1929, an arrangement that deteriorated soon thereafter.
The French Revolution and its aftermath had two opposite effects upon the Church itself. On the one hand, a sizeable segment of Catholic intellectuals in the Western World began to assess a new understanding of Church life in the “modern era.” The nineteenth century may have been a period of international unrest and searches for new national identities, but it was also a time of intellectual and economic explosion. Consider that the century after the French Revolution would see the advent of modern industrialization, scientific expansion, historical and archaeological advances, democratic governments, medicine and psychology, and even the theories of air travel and nuclear power. Coupled with this were new philosophies and methods of understanding the world, from Hegel to Darwin to Marx.
Religions, including Catholicism, could not isolate themselves from the rapid developments of the times. The nineteenth century saw an explosion in religious scholarship in both Protestant and Catholic circles, and it was impossible for Catholic thinkers and leaders to ignore what was happening around them. Possibly no one better embodies the religious complexities of the time or thought more creatively about them than England’s John Henry Newman, the Anglican priest-scholar who converted to Catholicism in 1845.
Newman’s journey to Roman Catholicism was long and complicated. As an idealistic youth his evangelical faith caused him to regard the Catholic pope as the antichrist. In his college years he matured into the mainstream of Anglican faith and scholarship. But convinced that the Church of England stood in need of reform, he joined with other Oxford scholars in a spirited study of the early Church Fathers, which they published as papers or “tracts” that came to be known as the Tractarian Movement or the Oxford Movement. In his studies Newman and many of his confreres came to be believe that the Roman Catholic Church had best embodied the traditions of the Christian roots of the Fathers. He converted to Catholicism and would eventually become a Cardinal of the Church. Newman would become one of the greatest minds of modern Catholicism, and his thought forms the basis of many of Vatican II insights, including his writing on the development of doctrine. He was, in fact, canonized on October 13, 2019, by Pope Francis.
Newman appreciated better than most that Catholicism would need to make considerable accommodations to the scholarship and the spirit of the best of contemporary thought and practice to remain intellectually honest, but he appreciated—far ahead of his time—the challenges we face today as Catholics. In a famous essay on the nature of a university, Newman described the dilemma of the Catholic in the new world at hand:
[From Wikipedia]: Newman believed in a middle way between free thinking and moral authority—one that would respect the rights of knowledge as well as the rights of revelation. His purpose was to build a Catholic university, in a world where the major Catholic universities on the European continent had recently been secularized, and most universities in the English-speaking world were Protestant. For a university to claim legitimacy in the larger world, it would have to support research and publication free from church censorship; however, for a university to be a safe place for the education of Catholic youth, it would have to be a place in which the teachings of the Catholic church were respected and promoted.
Finding the balance of “being in the world but not of it” was one of the significant challenges of Vatican II, but that was still long in the future. For despite the insights of Newman and others, much of nineteenth century Catholicism was governed by two Popes, Pius IX, and Pius X, who saw the Church as the last bastion of a sacred history that must be preserved at all costs, the driving force of the Council Vatican I [1869-1870]. Theirs was the predominant reaction of Catholics to the post-Napoleonic upheavals, the “Ultramontantist Era” [from “the other side of the Alps mountains,” a reference to Rome and the papal states.] In our next discussion of McGreevy’s book, we will immerse ourselves in the Ultramontanist revival, which many of us may recognize as the pre-Vatican II world we grew up with.
To read church history is to discover yourself: "The Story of Christianity" [volume one] by Justo Gonzalez
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s those of us studying Church History depended upon the splendid Penguin History of the Church series for an orientation to the almost two-millennia sweep of Christianity. Now, a half-century later, it is intriguing to look at the story with the advantage of five decades of fresh research. Justo L Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation  is both a refresher for us Penguin champions now in our senior years as well as an excellent introduction to Christianity’s story for those whose religious education never progressed past sixth-grade Confirmation and the sixth commandment.
If you are conditioned to “hate history,” [perhaps from education’s tendency to “teach for the test”] then Gonzalez’s style and content might change your mind. than the captivating story of who we are and how we came to be. “The Story of Christianity” is the presentation of history best enjoyed on a quiet evening in a generous leather seat with a brandy or cigar at hand. History finely written is a pleasure to embrace, even when its narratives take us to unthinkable tragedies and outrages. Even details and numbers capture us: did the Black Plague really kill 1 of every 3 Europeans? How do you feed 120,000 Crusaders without starting a second war?
This volume [as well as its companion, from the Reformation in 1517 forward] is the story of the Christian experience from the ground up, in a narrative that is informative and rarely overwhelming. We discover, for example, that with a few notable exceptions such as St. Paul, the first centuries’ proliferation of Christianity depended less upon charismatic missionaries as true anonymous word of mouth believers, particularly in the lower echelons of Roman society. [“Nameless merchants and slaves” who transversed the empire, as the author puts it.] Christian fraternity and solidarity—particularly the custom of the agape or love meal—were the characteristics that won new admirers and perplexed many Romans, who tended to view Christians as “low life.” Except for the Emperor Diocletian’s broad persecution in the late third century, Roman harassment of Christians was sporadic, regionalized, and at times eccentric.
Gonzalez presents the development of Christian theology and creed in a manageable narrative as the Church defended itself from a variety of external and internal assaults upon its sacred treasury of belief, most notably the humanity and divinity of Jesus defined by the first Church council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D. The most enduring doctrinal crisis of the first millennium was “Arianism,” which, briefly put, denied that Jesus is “of the same substance” as the Father, i.e., that he is God. Arian thinking did not deny the unique mission of Jesus on earth, which is why this errant trend had a long shelf life, including among many of the “barbarian” settlers in the Western Roman Empire who were converted by Arian missionaries.
It is clear from this text, and other contemporary works, that historians have been very busy over the half century since I went to school. Gonzalez highlights the discoveries of the “desert mothers” who prayed, worked, and wrote as contemporaries of the “desert fathers,”—those who sought to escape the mediocrity and madness of the later Roman Empire from the fourth century. He continues to highlight the richness of later feminine monastic life parallel to the male orders, and on down to the grassroots independent mystical communities of the late medieval era that marked the democratization of religious experience and exasperated and threatened a male church governance fragmented and running on fumes by the 1300’s. It was this explosion of lay spirituality, known as the Via Moderna, which produced the classic text The Imitation of Christ.
Gonzalez provides a steady narrative of the major events of the Christian era, through the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the corresponding emergence of the East, the rise of Islam and the crusading response, the Eastern break from Roman hegemony, the development of the Holy Roman Empire with Charlemagne, the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, the Avignon Papacy, and the Western Schism of three popes, to cite several. Each subject, of course, remains the object of ongoing study, and this volume will hopefully inspire newcomers to Church history to break off into specific readings on such compelling episodes as the Fourth Crusade or the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The author, who has a three-volume history of Christian thought among his completed works, provides insightful descriptions of the medieval thinkers and the universities they raised. Anselm, Abelard [with Heloise, of course], Albert and Thomas Aquinas all get their due, though it is mildly amusing to see William of Ockham, of “Ockham’s Razor fame,” bringing up the medieval decline portion of the narrative. Overall, Gonzalez captures the early Renaissance shift in philosophy and anthropology from a systematic and other-worldly exercise to a subjective celebration of human experience and destiny. The bridge from Ockham to the modern era’s Descartes becomes intelligible.
Gonzalez concludes this volume with a lengthy narrative on the Spanish and Portuguese ventures to the East. Although commercial motivations were the initial driving force, the success of both nations in the Western Hemisphere and the Orient raised major ecclesiastical questions. Columbus, for example, originally wondered if he had stumbled into a primordial Eden when he landed in Hispaniola. Just as the Reformation in Europe was taking shape, the Church wrestled with the religious nature of indigenous peoples [did they have souls?], missionary outreach, national jurisdictions in the New World, and moral questions involving slavery and the destruction of existing cultures.
It goes without saying that the subject matter of this historical survey is organically connected to Christian/Catholic life today, in part because we are still looking for solutions to yesterday’s questions. But for a Christian, this work is a family history: we carry the religious genetic codes of this narrative in our individual and communal being. In studying Church history, we discover ourselves.
During the just completed Memorial Day Weekend there were ceremonies across the country honoring Americans who had died in the service of our country. By coincidence I was reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity Volume One  over the holiday and came across his treatment of St. Augustine’s “just war theory,” which has been the backbone of Catholic moral teaching on warfare for nearly fifteen hundred years.
Augustine [354-430 A.D.] was Bishop of Hippo, a major North African diocese until it was overrun by the Vandals shortly after his death, and by the Moslems two centuries later. [And yes, our English word “vandal” is a derivative of this invader’s behavior in Rome around 450 A.D.] By 700 A.D. all traces of Christianity in North Africa had disappeared. However, it was not the encroaching Vandal threat that prompted Augustine’s treatise on war, but rather, a violent incursion between two populations of Christians along the North African Coast—the Christian Community faithful to the teachings of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed, on the one hand, and a violent dissenting group known as Donatists on the other. Donatists held that sacraments conferred by clergy who had avoided martyrdom during the Roman persecutions were invalid. In practice, this meant that every sitting Orthodox bishop in North Africa, including Augustine himself, was not, in fact, a legitimate bishop, according to Donatist thinking, as they had been ordained by cowardly bishops who had lost their right of jurisdiction.
To correct this error, Augustine established the sacramental principle of ex opere operato, i.e., “by the work of the work.” Put simply, a sacrament—including holy orders—is always valid so long as the correct formula is used, the rite approved by the Church. The sacraments are always valid no matter how unworthy the deacon, priest, or bishop. This doctrine was later challenged in the 1500’s by Protestant reformers, who held the principle of ex operate operantis, i.e., “by the work of the one doing the work.” Luther and others held that the priest’s holiness determined the validity of the sacraments. This was an understandable sentiment in Luther’s day when corruption of the papacy was rampant, but Augustine’s position is the teaching still held today in Catholic tradition.
This dispute lingered for over a century, as the Donatists became more radical and apocalyptic. Its extreme adherents physically engaged in bloody combat with mainstream Christians. Augustine understood the need for military defense, but for most of its history Christianity had been a pacifist community. Thus, there was a need to circumscribe the rationale and rules of combat for Christian conflict, and Augustine formulated the backbone of “just war.” As subsequent religious and secular histories have shown, these rules could be stretched like taffy, but they have survived, nonetheless.
Augustine’s first principle was that a war must be just, and never to satisfy territorial ambition or as an exercise of power. Second, war must be waged by properly instituted authority. Third, and most importantly to Augustine, amid violence the motive of love must be central. [Gonzalez, p. 248] In the Donatist struggle, Augustine could argue that these dissidents did not represent authorized Church authority. It was also true that Augustine hoped to win them back to the fold by a loving yet forceful counter-intervention, though it was hardly his first choice.
In the Medieval Era St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated the rules of war around Augustine’s principles. In his Summa Theologica Aquinas also argues for three requirements. Firstly, the war must be waged upon the command of a rightful sovereign—a king or a churchman. Secondly, the war needs to be waged for just cause, on account of some wrong the attacked have committed. Thirdly, warriors must have the right intent, namely, to promote good and to avoid evil. These three rules are virtually synonymous with Augustine’s. But Aquinas goes on to say that a just war could be offensive, and that injustice should not be tolerated to avoid war; in other words, it would be immoral not to engage in war if an evil was of a significant magnitude. Nevertheless, he argued that violence must only be used as a last resort. On the battlefield, violence was only justified to the extent it was necessary. Soldiers needed to avoid cruelty and a just war was limited by the conduct of just combatants. Aquinas argued that it was only in the pursuit of justice that the good intention of a moral act could justify negative consequences, including the killing of the innocent during a war.
A thorough history of the Church through the ages indicates that these principles were not bulwarks against violence, and that in many instances churchmen themselves construed the Augustinian-Thomistic principles into their own advantages. Popes of the medieval era understood “the good of the Church” and the intention of love as inherent to the sovereignty of the papal office, i.e., an extension of power. Pope Innocent III [r. 1198-1216] intervened politically and militarily in the affairs of at least a dozen nascent civil states as far away as Bulgaria to centralize all European power—civil and religious—into the office of the successor of St. Peter. His future successor Boniface VIII issued history’s most famous or infamous—but certainly the most audacious—position paper of all time, Unam Sanctam [‘one, holy”] as the ultimate claim of universal papal power. Wikipedia describes it thus:
Unam Sanctam is a papal bull that was issued by Pope Boniface VIII on 18 November 1302. It laid down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Catholic Church, the necessity of belonging to it for eternal salvation, the position of the Pope as supreme head of the Church and the duty thence arising of submission to the Pope to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. The Pope further emphasized the higher position of the spiritual in comparison with the secular order. The historian Brian Tierney calls it "probably the most famous" document on church and state in medieval Europe…The bull was the definitive statement of the late medieval theory of hierocracy, which argued for the temporal as well as spiritual supremacy of the pope.
It was the greatest claim of universal papal power ever made, before or since, at least on Vatican letterhead stationery. Innocent III might have written such a claim with teeth a century before. But Boniface himself was seized and maltreated by Philip IV of France just before his death, Philip undaunted by the claims of Unam Sanctam. However, the attitude of ultimate authority held by Boniface’s successors in terms of both religious and secular orders endured as late as 1870. The claim to such expanse of power would inevitably conflict with the Augustinian-Aquinas rules of combat at several points. In the first instance, the Church was claiming to be the ultimate legitimate authority in matters of both altar and crown, virtually justifying any exercise of power and authority to utilize its considerable forces and resources. Second, as the sole organism of salvation, the Church could claim to be acting in love in the exercise of making converts or bringing wayward souls back into the fold. Judge and jury, so to speak.
As painful as it is to admit, Church conduct through the centuries has not contributed to the development of a theology of peace. Rather than repeat the details of the moral failures of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the forced conversions and submissions of indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, it may be more useful to look at possible causes for these moral lapses and how the Church can recover its credibility in teaching and preaching on peace.
There can be little argument that the Church lost something of its identity in the fourth century when circumstances changed its identity from communities of the poor who gathered to recollect the teachings of Jesus and break bread, to the monarchical church of the Roman Empire. The early Church, as noted, was pacifist because its eucharists were strongly centered around the memory of Jesus, whose Resurrection blessing had been “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” The early Christians were reminded over and over of Jesus’ response to Peter when the latter drew his sword and cut off the servant’s ear at Jesus’ arrest. “Put thy sword back in into its scabbard.”
As Christianity took on more of the trappings of a world empire, its focus turned from its charismatic roots to a large body invested in law and order—whether that be the order of high liturgy in the elegant temples of Rome, the development of an infallible creed and code of law, a structure of governance, or a basis for legitimacy. Among those things that declined through the first millennium and well into the second was the memory of the actual Jesus of Nazareth and the full content of the Gospel narratives.
In fact, by the time of Francis of Assisi [1181-1226 A.D.] there was something of an ecclesiastical distrust of the “stand alone Bible” and Francis’s biography may explain at least part of it. He was no subversive—he loved the Church—but he instinctively recognized the gulf between Scripture and Church life of his day. [The Council of IV Lateran, in 1215, is remembered for, among other things, mandating that all Catholics must receive communion once a year, hardly a high bar in communion with the personal Jesus.] Francis’s desire was to live the poverty and meekness of Christ word for word from the Gospel, an idea that originally stunned Innocent III as impossible—or deeply embarrassing, or both. Innocent did ultimately approve of this Franciscan Gospel lifestyle. As more laity followed Francis in what would eventually be called “the third order” [St. Clare’s cloistered women’s order of Franciscan ideals being the “second order”], the Franciscan movement embraced pacifism because this was how Jesus himself had lived. In fact, civil authorities bemoaned the absence of soldiers to fight the city-state wars, so deeply had Franciscan pacifism penetrated European Church life after Francis.
The Inquisition did not trouble Francis, given his close association with popes and the deep love of the populace for Franciscan ideals. After his death, the radical element of the Order, the Spiritual Franciscans, came under scrutiny for denying papal authority over interpretation of the Franciscan Rule. In the late 1200’s St. Bonaventure gradually eased the Franciscan life into more conventual clerical norms. The Spiritual Franciscans were ostracized and the frequent targets of Inquisitorial prosecution until the group virtually vanished in the 1300’s.
However, from Francis until the Reformation three centuries later, there arose other religious movements in Europe which turned from the highly structured and academic life of the mainstream Church to a simpler, more devout, and Christo-centric religious experience. Collectively referred to as the Devotio Moderna or the Via Moderna, it produced a pious return to the person of Jesus and his lifestyle. One of its most famous literary products is The Imitation of Christ, written around 1425 by Thomas a Kempis. [See Wikipedia’s excellent description of the work.] The Imitation is considered the greatest spiritual work after the Bible: it was a critical text in the lives of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Theresa of the Little Flower, Pope John XXIII, and Thomas Merton, to cite several---and my only true inspiration during my early years in the seminary, I might add.
Adherents to the Devotio Moderna were always under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, given that a collective cultivation of personal religious experience of Jesus could be taken as a kind of democratization of the Gospels—access to the Word without the intervention of Church supervision. The idea of “personal spirituality” without structural link to an official Church organ was novel and suspect—particularly as its adherents usually embraced in some shape or form virtues of simplicity, humility, poverty, and peacefulness, qualities often lacking in medieval Catholicism. Even today, the Catholic who embraces a pacifist ethic based upon the life of Jesus in the Scripture is regarded as something of a “subversive,” particularly in an American culture of power; American exceptionalism can bear a striking resemblance to Boniface VIII’s claim of universal sovereignty, while running many of the same risks.
By the time of the discovery of the Americas and the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, the Church enjoyed less control over the conduct of nations and the ethics of war. The twentieth century—with the horrors of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the first use of the atomic bomb—exponentially increased the urgency of the Church’s ministry for peace, and it was this catastrophic half-century that motivated in large part the calling of Vatican II.
We began this reflection with Augustine’s efforts to concoct a concrete ethic of just war. It is worth noting here that Augustine also provided the Church with the theological language of original sin and its damage to the human spirit that we still employ today. One can guess that Augustine’s writings on just war were penned with the knowledge that humanity’s fallen state makes the idea of a violence-free world an impossibility before the Second Coming. Augustine’s own baptism, by the future saint, Ambrose of Milan, took place with imperial soldiers surrounding the structure, threatening an invasion. But Augustine also wrote that history is not static, but rather, that it moves inexorably to its final climax of Christ’s Second Coming. In fact, the term “Middle Ages” was first coined to describe where in time the Christian lives, between the first and second comings of the Christ.
Gonzalez notes in his history of Christianity that most converts to baptism in the early centuries came to the faith not by extraordinary missionary efforts but by the sincere and determined example of the baptized in their midst’s. When the faith is lived lively and well at the grass roots, the seeds of Christ’s peace are sown. We live as peacemakers that, when the Lord comes again, he may find us faithfully sowing the seeds of his peace.
I came across a true “period piece” in an online bookstore, “Catholic Bishops: A Memoir”  by Father John Tracy Ellis. This brief but captivating narrative of the American “episcopal giants” of the twentieth century reminds us that the office of bishop in the United States has evolved significantly throughout the history of this country. A U.S. Catholic bishop in the 1920’s exercised his power in different ways than his frontier predecessor of the 1820’s or than the pastoral coordinator of the 2020’s. Many of the bishops Ellis describes in this memoir are the big city bishops of the coasts and the Midwest, where immigration had fed city church rolls and made the urban bishop both a spiritual father and a metropolitan player, so to speak, in public affairs in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis.
Ellis [1905-1992] knew many of America’s bishops from his years of teaching history at the Catholic University of America in Washington. In his time the bishops, as chancellors of the nation’s only pontifical university, made frequent visits to the campus as its custodians, as well as conducting their annual meetings on the campus. The author found himself in close proximity to many and developed longstanding friendships with not a few. Many bishops would have been familiar with Ellis’s epic history of James Gibbons [1834-1921], the U.S.’s second cardinal, though some bishops complained that Ellis was less deferential and more candid in his treatment of this eminent churchman than they would have liked.
Ellis is not without his agenda in this work, and it should come as no surprise to those who recall that in 1955 this priest-historian excoriated the American Catholic Church for the poor academic quality of its colleges and seminaries in his essay “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life,” published in the journal Thought, a piece that desperately needs redistribution in seminaries and, yes, parishes today. He held a special respect for the rare bishop who was himself well educated or who supported quality education, but his regard for episcopal acumen was generally pessimistic. At a Catholic University banquet to welcome a foreign church dignitary, the school’s bishop-chancellor introduced Ellis to his guest: “He writes books.” Ellis frequented chanceries around the country to seek permission and access to the papers of deceased bishops, perhaps another reason for his modest expectations.
Ellis begins his walk down memory lane with Chicago’s George W. Mundelein [r. 1915-1939], a surprise candidate from Brooklyn known for “thinking big,” including an ambitious plan to merge his archdiocesan seminary with Loyola and De Paul Universities, a menage trois never consummated beyond a chaste kiss. His installation is remembered for, among other things, the poisoning of the soup at his evening banquet by an anarchist which sickened several hundred people.
Michael Curley [r. St. Augustine, Florida 1914–1921; Archdiocese of Baltimore, Maryland 1921–1939; first archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington 1939–1947] was respected by the author for his tolerance of scholars and teachers with whom he disagreed. Curley, who opened the Baltimore-Washington archives to the author, made it clear he did not appreciate Ellis’s biographical treatment of Cardinal Gibbons. Yet the two men grew closer as Curley’s health deteriorated, and the last formal act of the archbishop on the last night of his life was signing Ellis’s incardination papers to join the Archdiocese of Washington.
A towering figure—in multiple senses—was William Cardinal O’Connell [r. Portland, Maine 1901-1906; Archdiocese of Boston 1906-1944], known in Massachusetts as “Number One” for his ecclesiastical and political clout in the Commonwealth. O’Connell is believed to be the inspiration for the character of the Cardinal opponent of Mayor Frank Skeffington in Edwin O’Connor’s novel “The Last Hurrah.” In Ellis’s assessment there is no telling how far O’Connell’s career might have progressed had it not been for the demotion of his Roman patron, the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Merry del Val, and a more personal setback at home.
O’Connell’s nephew, James, Chancellor of the archdiocese, “left the priesthood, married, and took a substantial sum of archdiocesan funds at his departure.” O’Connell made the mistake of denying these events in a face-to-face meeting with Pope Benedict XV, who immediately pulled out a copy of the civil marriage license from his desk. [p. 73] Coincidence or not, O’Connell was assigned the one auxiliary bishop he did not want, Francis Spellman. Of “Spelly,” O’Connell was supposed to have said, “Francis epitomizes what happens to a bookkeeper when you teach him how to read.”
Ellis writes of Spellman [r. Archbishop of New York 1939-1967] that at his death in 1967, two years after Vatican II, the end of the era of the episcopal giants was at hand, given the Council’s emphasis upon the collegiality of bishops and broader structures of participatory leadership. The author had multiple dealings with Spellman, who was pressing for a biography of New York’s Bishop “Dagger John” Hughes of the Civil War era. To treat of Spellman, of course, meant treating of Fulton Sheen, with whom Ellis had a long professional and personal relationship. The author, in his student days, had served as Sheen’s secretary, and later lived with him in Washington for a time. Ellis provides fascinating information, such as the bishop’s acquired wealth from television and other ventures. The famous feud between Spellman and Sheen, which led to the latter’s exile to Rochester, N.Y., in 1966 is noted but not elongated.
Ellis, a Catholic University graduate and professor, devotes a chapter to the bishop-rectors of the school. He notes that “the university was made to suffer from the interference and bungling of churchmen who were ill equipped to foster true university education. [p. 32] He provides insights into the lives of auxiliary bishops, of which the U.S. was awash, mostly men who had resigned themselves to careers on the “Confirmation circuit.” Many auxiliaries proved to be excellent sources for this intriguing introductory glance into the twentieth century American hierarchy by a true working historian.
I am a firm believer that one of the best ways to study history is through biographies, and in the case of “Dagger John”  we get a graduate course on American church and state through the story of Archbishop John Hughes of New York. A proud, smart, pugnacious, energetic, and critical man, Hughes did not need resort to the blade to make his points—even if the cross next to his signature bore a striking similarity to, well, a dagger. Hughes’ weapons were his personality, his pen, his policies, and his politics. As a young Irish immigrant, his eventual understanding of American social and political life is a marvel to behold, to the point that several American presidents would seek his religious/political council. [He was also probably the first, and certainly not the last, American bishop to wear a hairpiece.]
Born in 1797 in Annaloghan, in Ulster Province in Northern Ireland, John Hughes entered the world in a period of high stress in the saga of Irish-British relations complicated in no small part by the French Revolution. His family was devoutly Roman Catholic at a time when observance of the faith was hidden out of necessity. His father, a man of modest means but considerable wisdom, navigated a cautious existence in Ulster where Catholics were a distinct minority, such that young John was able to get some schooling and develop a passion for books and reading. The Hughes family emigrated piecemeal to the United States in 1816, and in doing so avoided the horrors of the potato famine a generation later. They settled along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border north of Baltimore and close to St. Mary’s, the oldest seminary in the United States and still in operation today.
Young John Hughes was not a mystic, nor would he ever become one. His religious experience throughout his life seemed to center on a strong confidence in the truth of the Catholic tradition and a healthy pride in disseminating the faith as it had been preserved and protected by his Irish forebears. Coupled with this was a thirst for justice and an innate sensitivity to the sufferings of the poor, particularly his fellow Irish. It is unclear when the future bishop surmised he had a vocation to the priesthood, but having made this decision, he set his cap for a most improbable goal—admission to St. Mary’s, then a boarding school for teenaged boys and a major seminary. His biographer John Loughery describes the odds: “A man who was too old and too poor to attend the school as a student was going to show up and ask to be admitted as a seminarian-tutor when he had only a few years’ attendance at an Irish grammar school to recommend him.” [p. 35] He suffered several rejections before he was hired by the seminary as a groundskeeper, allowed to sleep in a dilapidated cabin.
Loughery explains that in 1820 there was little glamor in becoming a priest in the United States; anti-Catholicism was quite strong in his day, and even in some respects well into the twentieth century [to the election of President John Kennedy in 1960, one might argue.] The appeal of the priesthood to a candidate in Hughes’ time was, in the author’s words, “being called, and it was a certain kind of empowerment…a sense that one was giving oneself to a formidable cause, both temporal and eternal, potentially living a life beyond what others lived….” [p. 36] I might add here that if we look down the road at the future bishop’s social concern we see his social sympathy—later in life he labored mightily to save young boys and girls in New York from what we call today “sexual trafficking”—and his belief that the priesthood was the best vehicle for him to address these concerns.
Hughes labored on the grounds while hectoring the seminary’s rector, Father John Dubois, for admission. Several local priests took an interest in Hughes but doubted his fitness for the seminary until Elizabeth Seton, whose new community of sisters was also based in Emmitsburg, MD, put in a good word. Dubois finally accepted him on a work-tuition basis; Hughes continued to work on the grounds elbow to elbow with the seminary’s slaves, and he became the butt of jokes from seminarians who, in many cases, were younger than himself. Dubois—a refugee from the French Revolution--eventually came around to respect Hughes’ character and dedication to studies.
It is a testimony to the small number of priests in nineteenth century America that a goodly number of the friends made by Hughes in his seminary days would become bishops and administrators throughout the country into the mid-nineteenth century. It is also true that a growing number of St. Mary’s finest students were of Irish descent, a point of some concern among the seminary’s benefactors who were not prepared for an influx of Irishmen in American churches. Loughery notes that in 1820 there was no standard seminary curriculum; the local bishop determined coursework. Hughes was fortunate to develop a close relationship with the seminary’s one true scholar, Simon Brute, who introduced him to many treasures of Church writing as well as ancient and contemporary general writing. Hughes later demonstrated familiarity with Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, and other Enlightenment authors.
Hughes was slow to master public speaking, but once overcoming his hesitancy, he was eager to enter the pulpit. Ordained a deacon, he was assigned to a Philadelphia parish where his preaching caught the attention of the bishop. Ordained a priest for the Philadelphia diocese on October 25, 1826, his first brief assignment in a “ramshackle chapel” was quickly followed by a transfer to a more upscale Philly parish. The Philadelphia diocese included all of Pennsylvania and Delaware, as well as western New Jersey, in 1826. This broad expanse was populated by 100,000 Catholics in twenty-two parishes served by, give or take, forty priests. The rugged demands of pastoring broke many priests, and replacements from Europe, mostly, were hard to come by. Some years ago, I read a biography of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia [r. 1852-1860], the first male canonized saint in the United States and a later colleague of Hughes. Neumann, during his priestly and episcopal duties, employed a horse-drawn buckboard to visit his churches in Scranton and Harrisburg, no easy task. Physical stamina was a necessary charism for pastoral duties. Hughes, who favored the new rail system as well as transatlantic passenger ships down the road, was well served by his arduous youthful physical labors and was a dynamo of energy until Bright’s Disease [kidneys] and rheumatism crippled him to his death in 1864.
Much of his Irish energy was employed in the service of “apologetics,” or spirited defense of the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church. Early in his priesthood, while boarding at a rural inn, he was accosted by three “anti-papists.” A dagger might have brought matters to an unruly end, at least for the three antipapists, but Hughes discovered that “the word is indeed mightier than the blade.” Moreover, the verbal confrontation was exhilarating. On that night at the inn, he powerfully resisted the slurs against the Church in a way that subdued his attackers without a blow being struck. To the future good of the Church, Hughes discovered he enjoyed the repartee with the Church’s enemies, and his written and published wars with other religious antagonists, politicians, and even Catholic critics became the stuff of legend, published prominently in Catholic and secular publications. Later, as bishop, he was overwhelmed with invitations to speaking engagements. Self-assertion would never be found wanting in Hughes’ ministry.
It did not hurt Hughes’ career advancement that his Philadelphia bishop, Henry Conwell was in decline. The Vatican was displeased that Conwell had failed to win over the Catholics at the cathedral, failed to bring order to the diocese, and was too soft with lay trustees who sought to run the local diocese. [See “Trusteeism,” eventually condemned by Rome.] Hughes watched the Vatican-Conwell conflict closely as an important lesson for his own future. Another future giant of the American Church eventually replaced Conwell, Francis Patrick Kenrick, who quashed the Trustee revolt and called for the establishment of a Catholic school system. Kenrick appointed Hughes his vicar general, though he had reservations that his vicar was “so busy, so restless, so political, so opinionated.” [p. 67]
But Kenrick realized that Hughes had an unusual knack of getting things done, and in 1830-Philadelphia there was a lot to do. The vicar was charged with the planning and construction of a new cathedral, to be owned exclusively by the diocese, without trustee involvement. His first two hires—of the architect and the financier—were brilliant, though his extravagant vision of the new cathedral was estimated to cost $60,000. But a greater challenge diverted his pastoral attention—the growing anti-Catholic sentiment in the U.S. sparked by the new wave of Irish immigrants arriving in ever larger numbers, and the tenuous Catholicism of the immigrants themselves. For much of his clerical life, Hughes was immersed in the trifold ministries of protecting his people from violence and prejudice, proselytizing them to regular practice of the faith, and providing for their education and assimilation into American society.
I will assume that most of you, from your study of American history, are familiar with our nation’s persistent pestilence of xenophobia, which from time to time rises to dangerous and violent episodes. The “Know Nothings” of the 1850’s would be a problem for Hughes down the road, but in the 1830’s an influx of Irish and German immigrants stirred violence in many cities including Boston, where a convent was burned to the ground. This decade was the age of the lurid novels which portrayed Catholic life and institutions as depraved, devious, and anti-Christian. Hughes engaged in a lengthy war of letters with the anti-Catholic John Breckinridge, a Presbyterian minister who later ran for president of the United States in 1860.
But Hughes came to realize that at some level he would need to enter the national political conversation. This was delicate work: the fear of most Protestants was precisely that the tentacles of Rome would reach across the Atlantic and eradicate democracy in favor of the old “throne and altar” arrangement of European monarchies. In the presidential election of 1832 Hughes broke his own rule that priests should not vote; he cast a ballot for Henry Clay and told his congregation what he had done. [Andrew Jackson defeated Clay.] It is not hard to imagine why Hughes would take a liking to Clay—the latter was a master of compromise, an advocate of public works, and a gentleman with whom one could do business. Hughes was not an intuitive compromiser, but Clay’s success convinced him that he needed to keep this arrow in his quiver.
In November 1837, at the age of forty, John Hughes was appointed coadjutor bishop of New York [i.e., auxiliary with right of succession]. His bishop was none other than John Dubois, his nemesis from seminary days. Dubois was sick and demoralized by his responsibilities, leaving Hughes considerable latitude to steer his own direction in a city of 300,000, of whom about 20% were at least nominally Catholic. Of the seven churches in New York City, five were on the verge of bankruptcy, and the collective indebtedness of the diocese was $300,000. Priests rented rooms as most parishes did not have rectories. New York’s financial situation was obviously untenable, but in the face of it we see something of Hughes’ strength of vision: he was equally concerned that less than half of the Catholic children in New York were attending school at all, either public schools or the few Catholic elementary schools conducting classes in church basements. He realized that without education these children would be condemned to a life of poverty—and in many cases, prisoners of the sex industry.
The coadjutor took a full year to visit his diocese, which reached from New Jersey to Buffalo, and he realized that a certain ruthlessness would be necessary to put the diocese on a healthier trajectory. When trustees threatened to interfere at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he threatened to close the church. He dismissed disobedient or scandalous priests, despite the small size of his presbyterate, and determined that his diocese needed its own college/seminary, in what was then Westchester County, NY, a bold project for the time. The campaign for funds for the seminary project was a disappointment, however, and Hughes learned that he would need to develop a network of new major donors, and thus began his periodic ventures to Europe to solicit support for the success of the American mission, which in fact was the official designation given to our country by the Vatican at this time.
Hughes made the first of several ventures to Europe in October 1839. Future trips kept him away from New York as long as nine months at a time. As a coadjutor bishop, he was granted access to bishops in the dioceses he visited. In Rome, Pope Gregory XVI invited Hughes to assist his Christmas Day Mass. Just before the coadjutor’s arrival in Rome, Gregory issued In supremo apostolatus, condemning the international slave trade. Even today, there is some question about how far the pope’s decree extended. Hughes was painfully aware that outside of the Northeast, Catholic priests and institutions in the United States owned slaves. In fact, before Hughes returned to the States, Martin Van Buren was already crying foul that Catholics were seeking to undermine the American economy by prohibiting slave labor. [p. 114]
Hughes himself would be morally and politically ambivalent about slavery till the end of his life. Unfortunately, he left no record of whether he and Pope Gregory discussed the American situation regarding slavery. His Irish roots and his knowledge of European history certainly made him conscious of the dangers of anarchy, which he believed would result in the United States if the slaves were released quickly, and against the will of half the states of the union. In this respect he was akin to Henry Clay, and he believed the division of the Union, as would occur in 1860, was too high a price to pay for emancipation.
However, his biographer Loughery describes a crisis of conscience endured later in life by then Archbishop Hughes during the Civil War. Hughes had hoped that his close friend William Seward would be the Republican nominee for president in 1860, believing that Seward would affect a diplomatic peace between the North and the South. He suspected—correctly, as it turned out—that Lincoln would go to war to preserve the Union. Called upon to bless regiments of Union soldiers from New York, particularly Irishmen, he was drawn more deeply into the staggering loss of life from among his flock, leading him to examine the question of violence perpetrated for a higher good. Among other things, he began to rethink his attitude toward Fenian radicalism, i.e., militant Irish resistance to British oppression. In his earlier years as a priest and bishop, Hughes believed that Fenian activism was more harmful than good, a position that most of Ireland’s bishops held throughout his lifetime. He could not square this caution, however, against the violence he was blessing in the United States on behalf of national union and emancipation. He died with this conundrum unsolved.
Returning to the states after a so-so fundraising campaign and recruiting drive for priests and religious, Hughes threw himself into the improvement of his diocese, specifically the question of schools. He was joined in this effort by the Governor of New York, the aforementioned William Seward, who agreed in principle with Hughes that Catholic schools should be supported financially by the state. “Knowledge taught by a sect is better than ignorance,” Seward proclaimed. [p. 124] However, the idea ran afoul of continuing class hatred and ethnic bigotry. His efforts to open a Catholic college in New York got off to a very rocky start, though today it survives as Fordham University.
Hughes called a synod of the diocese in 1842. Loughery explains the reason: “There was an air of disorder about everything connected to the Church, a lack of clarity and consistency that did not inspire respect. Hughes felt the need to reverse that course.” [p.144] During this synod Hughes addressed a wide range of issues ranging from pastoral laxity to failure to adhere to Church law and liturgical procedure to prohibiting Irish parishioners from joining “secret societies” based upon tribal allegiances from home. The picture of parochial life that emerges from this synod and other disciplinary interventions underscores the enormous challenges facing American bishops of this era.
Possibly the most peculiar episode of his administrative life occurred in 1846. In Baltimore for a meeting of the American bishops, Hughes received a summons to see James Buchanan, Secretary of State, in Washington. The Mexican War had begun, and President James K. Polk harbored worries about the fallout of the Protestant United States invading Catholic Mexico. Polk was not worried about Protestant American sentiment. He was concerned that the Mexican populace might believe—wrongly, according to Polk—that American intentions included the destruction of Catholicism, and cause Mexico to fight more intensely to save its religion under the rallying cries of its priests.
Polk met with Hughes personally in the White House [no notes were kept] to ask if several Catholic priests might accompany Zachary Taylor’s invasion force, “to assuage Mexican fears about American intentions.” [p. 180] Hughes replied that he had spoken to priests at Georgetown College about serving as chaplains. In the end, two Jesuits from Georgetown—neither of whom spoke Spanish—joined the force, much to the satisfaction of Catholics in Taylor’s force who complained that they were forced to attend Protestant services. One of the priests, Father McElroy, returned to become one of the founders of Boston College.
Back home, Bishop Dubois died eight months after an angry anti-Catholic mob threatened to storm his residence and kill him. Riots of this sort—often sparked by opposition to public funding of Catholic schools—rocked large city Catholic institutions through the 1840’s, including a particularly vicious episode in Philadelphia. [Perhaps the unfortunate incidents of anti-Catholic rioting in Philadelphia and New York had made their way into Mexican papers.] In 1850 Hughes was consecrated archbishop of New York. He was under consideration for a red hat [i.e., naming of a cardinal] but, as far as historians can tell, other American bishops counseled the pope against it because, it would seem in the final analysis, they were not all fond of him. Now in his 50’s, the burdens of his office and the onset of disease began to take its toll. A particular burden, and one that profoundly troubled him, was the Irish Potato Famine and the influx of thousands of Irish refugees in various stages of post-traumatic stress. It is not hard to imagine the utter chaos of providing social services in New York City, already stretched to breaking with previous Irish, German, and other immigrants. Hughes was particularly alarmed about the orphaned youngsters who far outnumbered the few orphanage beds available; he recruited religious communities and sought property to house these unprotected minors, who often made their way through prostitution. The archbishop also established the first Catholic hospital in New York, St. Vincent’s, in 1849.
Soon another project captured his waning energies, the construction of a new, awe-inspiring St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Ground was broken with much fanfare, but a financial depression in the late 1850’s, and then the Civil War, halted construction with about twenty feet of wall completed, leading many to refer to the unfinished structure as “the box” and “Hughes’ Folly.” The church as we know it was completed in 1879, fifteen years after the death of the archbishop.
As the Archbishop was slowly dying in 1864, his last battle was not with anti-Catholics but, strangely, with the IRS. With the costs of the Civil War spiraling in its fourth year, Lincoln imposed an income tax. When the New York collectors inquired how much Hughes received in gifts and stipends, he refused to report on the grounds of separation of church and state. The fact that the bishop who fought relentlessly for the state to pay for Catholic schools would trot out this excuse for an IRS agent is not without its humor, and it underscores the truth that Hughes could be a contradictory man, much like most of us. It is some consolation that God has promised to reward us more for feeding the hungry than charming society, a truth that bodes well for the eternal destiny of Dagger John.
An expository summary of the theological and pastoral texts of the Council Vatican II is a more complicated venture in the 2000’s than it might have been in, say, 1970. In this century, an author may lay out the Council’s key thrusts by drawing heavily upon the texts themselves and the primary intents of the bishops as they voted in assembly. This is the approach of “Keys to the Council”  and the authors have put forward the Council’s highlights in a reasonably attainable fashion for study and discussion.
However, the further one gets from the close of the Council in 1965, nearly sixty years ago, an author is faced with an added challenge: the Council documents have taken on a life of their own, or more specifically, a few have bloomed, others wilted, and yet others still live in that place once consigned to unbaptized babies. In this age it is impossible to write about the decrees of the Council in their infancy without a word about how they advanced or decayed into middle age, and how their parents either overindulged them or neglected them altogether. In short, can one disclose the documents without a commentary on their reception?
I believe that a working answer is yes, given that the state of adult education is such in the United States that very few adults can even recognize the documents by name [e.g., Lumen Gentium, Sacrosanctum Concilium] let alone identify the Council’s concerns regarding the Eucharistic celebration, the nature of the Church, or divine Revelation. If one is starting from ground zero—as a student or a teacher—it is best to start with a crisp and pristine summary as the one offered here.
“Keys to the Council” is divided into about twenty brief chapters, each headed by a selection from a major Conciliar text. The authors’ selection is eclectic in that it leans toward matters of ecclesiology or the nature of the Church. There are six chapters on Lumen Gentium, three on Gaudium et Spes, and one on Christus Dominus [the role of bishops], totaling a significant collective commentary on the Church. Sacrosanctum Concilium [on the liturgy] has two entries, Dei Verbum [on Divine Revelation] has two, and Nostra Aetate [on non-Christian religions] has one. Richard R. Gaillardetz, one of the two contributing editors, has devoted much of his career writing on the nature of the Church, which may explain his emphasis upon the identity and structure of the Church here.
The expositions are generally lucid and comprehensive, providing, when possible, some historical feel for the “pre” and “post” Vatican II understandings of the issues at hand. For example, discussion of the nature of Christ’s presence in the Church in this work evolves from the pre-Conciliar emphasis upon the legal definition of Church structure and the Sacrament of Orders to the post-Conciliar pneumatic or Spirit-filled understanding of Christ’s presence in the Church and world today. The authors explain the use of the “Ressourcement” method by theologians, the attempt to recover the original thinking and practice of the ancient Church fathers and communities. The idea of recovering the ancient origins of faith and practice was a prime interest of the Council. There are throughout the book very useful inclusions of definitions of terms which may be unfamiliar to the novice adult student of theology—such as neo-Scholasticism, magisterium, dogma, infallibility, etc.
Speaking from my anecdotal experience, I see present-day interest in this work coming from those who are engaging in their Synodal processes and the reform program of Pope Francis. The recently completed first phase of the synodal consultation has interested some grassroots among Catholics to delve more deeply into the life of the Church. Granted, less than half of one percent of U.S. Catholics actively engaged in the synod discussions, but many of those who did get involved are motivated to pursue discussion and, more importantly, the principles behind Francis’s reform of the Church. They will be looking for texts and their parochial mentors will be seeking out resources.
In this context, “Keys to the Council” is a useful work. It does not overwhelm the reader/student with the immense content of the Council—close to one thousand pages of material—but provides a focus on the texts of the Council’s vision of the life of the Church, which is probably the best place to begin for a baptized Catholic on the road to an adult understanding of the Catholic life. I would say, though, that this text needs to be taught as well as read, meaning that there is plenty of conciliar material here which needs the academic/professional counsel of background and, as I noted above, something of an informed “state-of-the-union” on why the Council has not produced all the fruits of its promise.
I should note here that Gaillardetz authored another Vatican II study, “An Unfinished Council”  a few years after our text under review. To cite one reviewer of the 2015 work, Gaillardetz “has given us a compelling account of the work that still needs to be done.” While it may be tempting to jump ahead to such speculation, it would seem wise to begin at the source with an analysis of what the Council actually taught—and where its original implementation succeeded and failed. Consequently, I would recommend reading these books in the order they were written—and better still, in a guided reading/study format.
On June 10, 1926, an elderly gentleman on his way to evening Vespers in Barcelona, Spain, was run over by a trolley. He laid unattended for quite some time as passerby’s avoided him because of his disheveled appearance. Finally, someone put him in a cab, and he was taken to a nearby hospital in grave condition. A local priest tending to him was shocked to recognize the dying man as Antoni Gaudi, the architect who had devoted the final forty years of his life to the design and construction of the Sagrada Familia Catholic Church. Gaudi died forty years into the project, and amazingly the church is not yet fully completed as of this writing. The hope is that the final work will be completed on the one-hundredth anniversary of Gaudi’s death, i.e., in 2026. [The church is open for tours if you are in Barcelona.]
Sagrada Familia was conceived and begun in the 1880’s as an attempt to stir the faithful to greater devotion. Gaudi undertook the project with the idea that its completion might take 200 years [most likely, it will be 150 years if completed in the 2020’s.] Gaudi knew that he would not be alive to see it finished, and thus he constructed the main steeple to a remarkable height during his lifetime so that later builders were forced to remain faithful to his master plan. When my wife and I visited the Church on April 29, a crane was at work high above us, working faithfully to Gaudi’s design.
Margaret and I returned from a month in Europe early last Sunday morning, and I am still sorting out my impressions of what I saw in the six countries we visited. [Spain, France, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy.] Sagrada Familia was the first church we visited, but we entered many more over the next twenty-four days. In fact, the Cathedral in Barcelona, which we visited on the evening of our last night in Spain, was very compelling as well. It was a rewarding experience to pray in so many settings. Each seemed to inspire a different direction of spiritual zeal.
I had been to Rome in 2013 where I made it a point to visit the four major churches of the holy city—certainly St. Peter’s, to be sure, but St. Peter’s was built in the late Medieval and early Renaissance era [post 1500 A.D.], funded in part by the sale of indulgences, which touched off the Protestant Reformation. The other major churches date from antiquity: St. Mary Major, St. Paul Beyond the Walls, and St. John of the Lateran Hill, or simply St. John Lateran. St. John’s was the mother church of Rome until St. Peter’s was completed; it was there that Church Councils took place. St. Francis of Assisi received permission to start his Order from Pope Innocent III at St. John Lateran. A funny aside: our tour guide said that the “old families” of Rome still worship on Sundays at St. John’s, and not at the “new church,” St. Peter’s.
My impression of the three oldest churches was their resemblance to ancient temples, which in fact is what they were, until the Roman Emperor Constantine [280-337 A.D.] awarded them to the Christians in the fourth century. Consequently, subsequent designers of Churches in Western Europe were left to develop their own unique styles, and thus the structure and style of the churches we visited were the products of the developing consciousness of theology and spirituality from the late Dark Ages through the high Medieval Era. I found the Medieval churches to be a different experience entirely, raising for me both spiritual and psychological ponderings about our ancestors of the Faith.
The Barcelonan Gaudi was the last of the true Medievalists, though he began his work in the nineteenth century. He entered his project with the full understanding that he would not be alive to see it completed. This was a common experience of all the craftsmen and builders of medieval churches—construction of a typical city cathedral could extend over several centuries. Implied in this is a very profound theology of the meaning of life—that one might devote his most productive years into a work he would never see completed.
Consider the medieval Christian mind: a belief in afterlife so intense, so real, that an artist would freely give of his earthly life to participate in a project that would profit generations he would never live to see. This expanse of years in the construction of the medieval cathedrals is not fully appreciated and it is part of the religious thrill of taking in a cathedral today to appreciate the intense faith of those who helped fund the construction along with those who crafted the buildings.
Typically, the major churches of the medieval era attempted to capture in size and art the immensity of God’s world and the full story of salvation. I was overcome by many of the cathedrals, but in particular “The Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia” in Barcelona [not to be confused with Sagrada Familia] the Duomo in Florence, and, not surprisingly, St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. These buildings were built to overwhelm, to inspire, and—an important point for catechists—to teach. These structures were built before the invention of the printing press and the gradual shift from the visceral to the intellectual.
Upon walking into a major church, one feels small. This is a good thing. We worship our egos. But step into an edifice that is far longer than a football field and arches so high overhead that it is hard to make out the artistry at that distance. One can get dizzy. We get a visceral sense of humility in this atmosphere which brings home the true relationship of God to his creatures, as well as our sense of belonging to something that is more massive than we can imagine. The term “basilica” comes from the Greek basileus, which can mean either a kingdom or a king.
The great churches were built to inspire, and I mean no disrespect when I say that there is “something for everybody” in the major churches I visited. One feature of medieval design is the large number of “side altars” along the walls and in niches throughout the buildings. Today we would not design a church in this fashion, but in medieval times, before the introduction of the concelebrated Mass, each priest offered a private Mass and there was necessity for multiple altars. A second consideration is that each side altar space was dedicated and decorated with the theme of a particular saint or mystery from the life of Christ. If you visit such a church, be sure to pay attention to these side altars. I should add here that these altars were often funded by rich benefactors, that Mass might be offered in perpetuity for their souls.
The art in the churches can seem cluttered to the modern eye, but it is not superfluous. Again, in a time before printing when sermons were poor and there was little or no common education, the faithful learned about the bible, the life of Jesus, and the saints through the visual media. This would include stained glass, statues, and icons. In some places bas relief or carvings would play out a full panorama of biblical stories, such as creation or the Passion of Christ. In Florence, Italy, the baptistry is across the street from the Duomo, and the bronze doors are exquisitely detailed with biblical figures.
I am continuing to process my reactions to what I saw and experienced. Most of these famous churches are physically deteriorating. St. Mark’s in Venice is settling into the sea. At all my visits there were requests for funds for restorations. In his commentary on the City of Venice, travel guide Rick Steves observes that Venice is losing over one thousand residents per year, and within the next generation its total population will be under 30,000, basically untenable for a city of islands. The city would become essentially an environmentally endangered tourist attraction like Disneyworld, where most of its treasures—including the artwork in the Doge’s Palace—is of a highly religious nature and history.
Can this religious heritage be preserved? Should it be preserved? Notre Dame in Paris is being restored after its 2019 fire at an estimated cost of 600 million Euros with a timetable of twenty years. Despite a drastic decrease in the practice of Catholicism in France in the last century, there seems to be a sense of national pride which evidently maintains the funding to push on with the restoration. Whether cities like Florence, Dubrovnik, Venice, Barcelona, and dozens of others will be able to maintain their venerable treasures in the fashion of Notre Dame is hard to say. If I had to guess, the financial support for the maintenance and restoration of the great cathedrals and churches would come equally from the arts and humanities communities than from the local church communities themselves. [A few years ago, a rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York told me that the actual parish community of St. Patrick’s was about three or four hundred families. The primary source of income for the Cathedral was the purchase of candles to burn in the sanctuary by tourists and guests.]
The financial lifeblood of many of the medieval masterpieces seems to be tourism. Forbes Magazine focused upon St. Mark’s Venetian financial crisis last year. I scanned my credit card frequently to enter the churches. But this raises the question of whether a great church can function as both a liturgical community and a tourist site. My traveling companions agreed with me that even a church like Sagrada Familia will be hard put to serve for the reason it was built, as a focus of worship unity. It will always be a tourist attraction like Niagara Falls or the Eiffel Tower. [It is packed now with tourists, even though it is incomplete.] An atheist would find Sagrada or any of the great medieval churches an attraction on artistic and historical grounds alone. It is true, though, that Gaudi had something of an ecumenical spirit in his inspiration for Sagrada Familia. Perhaps the atheist might be moved to consider the inspiration behind this massive edifice.
There are some who would argue that in the twenty-first century we should not be allocating funds toward the restoration of the medieval shrines, that to paraphrase Judas, “This money should have gone to the poor.” I would reply that it was the poor who most profited by the classic cathedrals. It was there that they experienced their most visceral encounters with the divine, where they were able to visually absorb the mysteries of Christ and the Bible, where they were able to express their pious outpourings to the saints.
It would be the height of arrogance to argue that human beings—even in the twenty-first century—do not need sacred space and sacred time. How our generation will meet this need remains unclear. But I can say that after a month of visiting the historical churches across Europe, I have come to a better understanding of my need for a broader religious experience than just reading books and teaching doctrine. The medieval churches were physical and visceral—and who is to say it was wrong? And are we any better off today for having lost this artistic sacramental expression of our faith?
Dogs of God is a compelling historical narrative of Spain under the leadership of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the second half of the fifteenth century. In his introduction, James Reston, Jr., describes his book as “a tapestry of the years leading up to 1492 and of the forces that came together in that apocalyptic year.” [p. xix] And indeed, what a tapestry it is—a fascinating and well-documented narrative of the interplay of royal politics, scientific discovery, military reconquest, religious persecution, exploration—all under the reign of the intriguing Ferdinand and Isabella at a time of high apocalyptic expectations. Who better to tell this story than a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and the son of the legendary journalist Scotty Reston?
This is the kind of book I would utilize as a text for a summer adult education course in my church, or a Catholic book club, though I am guessing it would be a hard sell. History is always a hard sell—mostly because few of us ever had history teachers who could colorfully narrate the captivating big picture and/or connect the dots to our own times. But history is not only a great teacher; it is also a critic of the present. We have a personal stake in Reston’s story because the struggles of late medieval Spain shape our world in ways we can hardly imagine. The relationship of the Christian West with Islam; our enduring struggle with antisemitism; the revisiting of colonial practices and treatment of indigenous peoples which is under scrutiny now; the ambiguities of church and state; even the present-day challenge of catechizing the Inquisition, which as Catholics we cannot run away from, try as we might—a good many things come forth from this book which broadened my own world view and erased my simplistic “a king, a queen, and three ships” narrative of Columbus. [Historical spoiler: Ferdinand paid for just two of the ships.]
A quick glance at a map of the Iberian Peninsula c. 1450 explains much—though not all—of the dynamics played out in this text. The territory we would identify today as “Spain” was a confederation of kingdoms surrounded by enemies of varying intensity. Portugal was a major power to the West and on the cusp of becoming the major naval power of the known world. France, the Hundred Years War now behind her, was contending to expand its borders south into contested regions. A sizable portion of modern Spain was held by the Muslims, the Kingdom of Granada. Again, looking to the map, the largest single territorial expanse was the Kingdom of Castile, which included the City of Madrid. The second largest tract, to the northwest, was the Kingdom of Aragon. It was the union by marriage of these two kingdoms, Castile and Aragon, which provided the backbone for the unification of a modern era nation called Spain.
Chapter 3, “He and No Other,” describes the always convoluted speculation and machinations of arranged royal weddings, in this case the progression of the Queen of Castile, Isabella, to Aragon’s Ferdinand, whose multiple titles included King of Sicily. The teenaged Isabella was disillusioned with the parade of older and at times effeminate men who sought her hand. She was something of a liberated woman for her time who believed that her own passions mattered in the deliberations of state. [Her predecessor on the Castilian throne—1455-1474--had been “Enrique the Impotent,” proving again that recorded history can be most unkind.] Isabella’s confessor/spy reported to her of Ferdinand that “this caballero had no difficulty mounting his horse.” [p. 30] Ferdinand, in fact, fathered two children by other women during the protracted marriage negotiations.
Ferdinand’s weaknesses of the flesh notwithstanding, this couple reigned the combined Castilian-Aragon heart of Spain for thirty years [1474-1503]. Their marriage was fruitful and dynamic; the queen exercised considerable influence upon her husband who generally honored her counsel. They were visionaries who worked toward a united Spain in the flowering of the Catholic Church. In her later years Isabella—highly devout and profoundly impacted by her personal confessor--imparted a deeply apocalyptic vision of uniting the Second Coming of Christ into the destiny of Spain, a vision that inspired her militaristic husband to undertake arduous battlefield labors toward unifying the region. The Queen herself was known to make dramatic appearances on the battlefields to rally discouraged troop, who idolized her as a latter-day Virgin Mary. In 1954 the cause of her canonization was opened in Rome, but for reasons outlined below, Pope John Paul II quietly shelved the cause in 1991.
To this royal couple, the biggest stain on national destiny was the Muslim kingdom of Grenada, which extended along the Mediterranean Coast to Gibraltar. By the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Islam had been firmly planted in Iberia for eight hundred years, long enough to establish a major culture of art, universities, and the sciences. [Islamic scholars had preserved the Greek writings of Aristotle which, by the 1200’s, had pronounced influence on the doctrinal Catholic writings of St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.] The Catholic Crusades of an earlier time had hoped to eradicate Islamic presence from the Holy Land, but the age of Crusading had begun to wither after the incredible fiasco of the Fourth Crusade [for which John Paul II apologized in 2001.] What may have stoked the idea of resumed hostilities toward Islam was the fall of Constantinople [Istanbul], at the hands of the Islamic Ottoman Turks in 1453. This event terrified Christians across Western Europe and awakened hostilities toward Muslims that had subsided for a time. Likewise, the conquest of Constantinople in the East may have awakened the old warlike fervor among certain segments of the Islamic population in Spain. Ferdinand himself was nearly mortally wounded in an assassination attempt by a Moor.
Ferdinand’s wars against the Moors were long, difficult, and costly. As a rule, he opted to be reasonably generous to those Islamic strongholds which sought negotiated settlements, and in many cases, he did not require wholesale expulsion of Islam populations. His original goal was unification of Spain, and like his predecessors, he accepted the practice of Muslim conversion to Christianity; a similar tolerance of sorts was extended to Jews who converted to Christianity, though the Inquisition would take a very dim view of this generosity in time. Those Muslims expelled from Spain could take refuge in fraternal North African Islamic lands.
As the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella progressed into the 1480’s a new factor would shape the soul of the land, the emergence of the Spanish Inquisition. It is hard to name a competent historian today who finds justification for the systematic persecutions undertaken in the “name of Christ.” How the Inquisition came to dominate Spanish life and events is complicated. The Inquisition—a Church court established to investigate heresy or thoughts and behaviors contrary to Catholic orthodoxy—originated as early as the twelfth century. Originally, Church diocesan courts managed the proceedings until the Dominican Order assumed responsibility with a particular zeal, hence the name “Dogs of God.”
The full understanding of the Inquisitorial process would require much more information than I can helpfully squeeze into a blog right here. Those who defended the investigatory process, then and even today, would say that its purpose was to save souls from the evils of their ways—primarily theological innovation or devotional excess—and to excise by execution those unrepentant who were judged to be incorrigible dangers to the unity of the Church. Some notable executions: Joan of Arc, Jan Hus [Church reformer], Marguerite Porete [mystic], Savonarola [preacher and major player in Reston’s text, pp. 287-290], and Giordano Bruno [philosopher]. Galileo’s case is possibly the best known, and Reston has devoted a book to Galileo’s life, work, and trials. It is true that not every defendant was found guilty of heresy nor was torture a routine method of extracting confessions. The number of individuals condemned to burning at the stake in the second millennium by the Inquisitory process is hard to say; it certainly runs to the thousands. One would be too many.
Even if one were to argue that the Inquisition’s heavy hand was an honest effort to save souls from the fires of hell, there is no biblical support for this extreme of coercion. What does emerge from the pages of history is a machinery that protected the Church at the cost of much suffering and many lives, particularly among the Jews. The name most associated with the Spanish Inquisition is the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada. An austere friar who wore a hairshirt for perpetual penance, Torquemada was nonetheless an ambitious cleric who endeared himself to Ferdinand and Isabella’s court.
Whatever his good intentions, Torquemada took advantage of several currents in the air in the late 1400’s. The first was Ferdinand’s desire to create a unified Spain; the Catholic faith would be such a glue, after the removal of Moors and Jews, and the Inquisition would be an invaluable propaganda tool in purging unbelievers. The second current was money: the royal court had exhausted its treasury in the military ventures against the Moors. As the Inquisition enjoyed the power to levy significant fines and confiscation as part of its operations, an aggressive campaign targeting Jews and Moors would provide a much-needed infusion into the royal coffers. It is worth noting that in Ferdinand’s time affluent Jews and Moors served in the royal court.
The third current is a bit harder to describe. The term “apocalyptic age” comes closest. As the fifteenth century drew to a close, Ferdinand and Isabella came to believe that they were consecrated by God for a glorious renewal of the Church, the turning of a new page in history. Such a vision changed them and their style of leadership. Apocalyptic times always carry a baggage of extremism, and Catholic apocalyptic has always featured a strong antisemitic odor. Seeing himself as something of a king of divine destiny, Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of all Jews in Spain by 1492.
Again, a quick look at the map indicates that for Spanish Jews expulsion was a significant trial. To the West, Portugal began adopting Ferdinand’s hard line toward Jews. To the south, i.e., Africa, Islamic nations along the Mediterranean were hardly a haven. Italy was a region is disarray with a Borgia pope on the throne. Ironically, one haven for Jews was the Islamic Ottoman Empire of the East, which sent ships to Spain to ferry refugees east. Suffice to say that the expulsion of Jews from Spain is another sad chapter in the long history of God’s Chosen People.
The apocalyptic spirit of the time was instrumental in another way: the emergence of Christopher Columbus. In truth, Columbus was no stranger to Ferdinand and Isabella; the Queen found him dashing and attractive, while many men in the court found him something of a bounder. In fact, Columbus was an accomplished mariner; his previous forays had taken him to the Canary Islands, the Azores, and Iceland. His study of maps, some dating to ancient times, convinced him that a sea voyage west was eminently doable. His problems were not with the sea but with the doubts and scorn of advisors in the Spanish court. Ferdinand consulted Columbus on military matters during his wars against the Moors, but was not ready [or financially able, for that matter] to fund an expedition to the Indies by heading West.
By 1492, however, Ferdinand and Isabella were thinking of themselves as the chosen rulers to win the world to the Catholic faith. The idea of bringing Christianity to yet uncharted kingdoms took on a religious fervor. Moreover, Spain’s archenemy Portugal was making considerable strides in its search to East Asia via a route around the tip of Africa to India. Consequently, the support for Columbus’s venture would materialize. Reston’s narrative of the first voyage to the “New World” is intriguing, as is his description of how the Spanish crown came to interpret what Columbus had and had not accomplished.
Dogs of God is one of those books that stimulates “branching out reading.” The author has provided a bibliography of about 125 sources, and since 2005 more historical interpretations have come into circulation. In recent years there has been considerable controversy about the impact of Spain and other colonial powers on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. In his epilogue [pp. 330-338] Reston touches upon these issues in thoughtful ways. Since this work was published, “Columbus Day” and its meaning has been a matter of heated debate. Today’s [November 2, 2021] New Yorker has a lengthy piece on Columbus. History can sometimes be a painful pill to swallow, but we are better people for taking the time to swallow it.
I have never understood why Catholic catechetics—both for young people and adults—does not devote time to the Middle Ages. Perhaps part of the problem is our present-day fixation with a handful of sins and preoccupations of the moment such as politicians and communion. Another factor is the general disinterest with history that seems to pervade our culture. The philosopher George Santayana’s [1863-1952] phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” reminds us of the cost of failing to look backward.
Christianity itself is history. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are history. By the doctrine of the Incarnation, the timeless Second Person of the Trinity entered human history, born during the heyday of the Roman Empire. St. Luke begins his Gospel by establishing his bona fides as a historian: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. [Luke 1: 1-4]” To follow Jesus without a heart open to history will result in recreating Him into our own convenient image and likeness, a dangerous form of idolatry.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, whose coming is described so dramatically in St. Luke’s Acts 2 makes the history of the Church—in its glory and its sinfulness—a teaching commentary for the ages to come. We learn from the study of Church History what analogies and commentaries on the Scriptures have consistently enriched the faithful and which have confused them. We learn what kinds of missionary outreach has captivated searching souls and which has repulsed them. We learn how certain styles of living induce holiness and communion with God, and which destroy the fiber of human dignity.
For a brief period of my life, I was carrying an undergraduate double major of philosophy and medieval studies at Catholic University. Truth be told, I was not prepared to do both. I needed the philosophy to be ordained, so I dropped the Middle Ages. But several years later, in graduate theology studies, I stumbled into a history project involving the end times [the theological term being eschatology, “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”] I became acquainted with an early medieval mystic named Joachim of Fiore [1130-1201] whose mystical experiences led him to believe that a new age of the Holy Spirit had dawned upon the Church. Joachim was hardly the only religious eccentric in his day, but his concept of a new age of the Holy Spirit was adopted in the later 1200’s by the extreme wing of the Franciscan Order. This wing, the “Spiritual Franciscans,” held that Francis of Assisi’s teaching on poverty was absolute and could not be softened or reinterpreted by anyone, not even by a pope. [See my review, The Spiritual Franciscans, 2001.]
The Spiritual Franciscan crisis, which concluded in a sad ending for all involved, is symbolic of several major tectonic shifts in the Medieval Church. Religious experience was traditionally a matter of structured Catholic living. Mass, Confession, the Angelus, the Rosary, feast days, the chanting of the Divine Office, pilgrimages, etc. were all matters of the official Church who approved the style and content of individual religious observance. Throughout the Medieval era, however, grassroots movements of faith and devotion spread throughout the West, beyond the reach and supervision of Church officials. The Franciscan Order began as a ragamuffin band of brothers doing penance for sins, working as day laborers, and celebrating a brotherly piety. Such groups were common enough; Francis had the wisdom to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III and welcomed a cardinal protector. Other such bands went about with little or no supervision; the earliest Inquisition was established in part to address freelance spirituality.
Recent research and new translations of Medieval texts give us a better idea of how widespread the religious imagination was expanding during this era. This is not surprising; the first classic poetry and story telling in the Romance languages was developing. This is the age of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Inferno; the time of Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch. Medieval life for peasants was drab and hard. In his Medieval Christianity [2015; see my review] Kevin Madigan describes the faith life of typical peasants as drab, limited, and one-dimensional. Parish priests of the time were trained, like all laborers, as apprentices who learned just enough Latin and rubrics to conduct a brief Mass. Preaching was virtually nonexistent in the countryside. The typical tourist in Europe today probably lays eyes on more cathedrals than a peasant of the thirteenth century who rarely traveled.
It is not hard to imagine that “the simple faithful” would be stirred by the unusual and the psychological. Wandering self-proclaimed charismatics with bands of followers would have provided a welcomed opportunity for a visceral religious experience. The Franciscans, one of the few groups bearing ecclesiastical approval, were immensely popular with the faithful and were granted pastoral privileges by popes. The preaching of St. Francis gives us a window into medieval piety: his veneration of the crucified Christ, his devotion to the Eucharist, his respect for priests, his sense of wonder at God’s creation. Francis was a revolutionary in another sense: he did not try to abolish poverty as much as he elevated the life of poverty to a dignity before God and man. Francis’ theology was biblically sound: he worshipped the Christ “who had nowhere to lay his head.” Recall that the Medieval era marked the beginning of a capitalist economy; Francis was the son of an entrepreneur cloth merchant marketing cloth from new exports from the East.
It is equally true, though, that the psychosocial world of Francis’ time could be equally fearful, violent, and susceptible to grassroots pathology. What little religious education percolated at the time tended to highlight the last things, with notable emphasis on Purgatory and Hell. Toward the end of the Medieval Era the fear of hell fire reached a point to which the sale of indulgences [remission of the afterlife punishments of sin] would actually seem like a good idea, a practice which touched off the Protestant Reformation in 1517. But long before that, a bishop could strike terror into a king by just threatening to place his region under interdict, i.e., forbidding the celebration of all sacraments, including those for the dying. The belief in the personification of evil was very common. Joan of Arc, you might recall, was prosecuted as a witch [though in actuality her prosecution was a political tactic of the Hundred Years’ War.]
Modern day students of the Middle Ages now appreciate another fear factor of the time: climate change. In this case, a significant cooling beginning around 1300, traced to Atlantic conditions, led to diminishing harvests which weakened immunity and led many farmers to move to crowded cities. Western Europe was thus highly vulnerable to disease, which was introduced dramatically in the form of the Black Plague, which killed at least one-third of the population of Europe in five surges between 1348 and 1353, and in future smaller outbreaks for many years thereafter. How bad was the Plague? In the atomic war planning of the United States military, the devastation of the Plague is used as one computer model to project scope of loss and impact of an atomic war.
Chroniclers of the age describe the frightful experience of this catastrophe in graphic and reliable accounts. [See my review of The Great Mortality, 2005] While the Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 and beyond does not come close to the measure of destruction of this fourteenth century outbreak, we can already appreciate the crippling of many aspects of society, from education to economy to politics to religion. For Medieval Europe, the Black Plague was an experience that essentially changed the culture of Medieval life. Primary among its impact was depopulation, if contemporary estimates of up to 50% fatalities are anywhere near correct. [Only Ireland escaped the brunt of the disease.] Among other factors, the best priests and religious stayed at their posts at the plague’s height to meet the spiritual and material needs of their people. This generation of servants died at their posts while the less inspired clergy fled to the mountains.
Those who survived the plague needed a rationale for its scourge, and as happened time and time again in Christian history, the scapegoats for this physical horror became the Jews. The Medieval world tended toward literal interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, Matthew’s account of the Good Friday condemnation of Jesus at the hands of a Jerusalem mob which cried “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” [Matthew 27: 25] was embraced throughout history—and even, regrettably, in our own time—as justification by the Church for institutional persecution. The City of Venice had already restricted Jews to a walled ghetto in 1140. The Plague amplified a tradition of Christian hate narratives about Jews, tales which included desecration of communion hosts, poisoning of wells, and the abuse, torture, and crucifixion of young boys by Jewish enemies of Christianity. [It is troubling to see hints of overlap of Medieval antisemitism to current Q-Anon conspiracy tales.] Persecution of Jews was a staple of Medieval life; Ferdinand and Isabella unleashed the Inquisition upon Spanish Jews even as Columbus was preparing for his famous journey in the late 1400’s.
It is fair to ask what kind of leadership proceeded from the Church in the Middle Ages. The natural question turns to the office of the papacy, and the range of men who held the office of Bishop of Rome varied considerably. [St.] Gregory VII [r. 1073-1085] was the age’s first great reformer who brought the ideals of monastic life—including priestly celibacy—into his efforts to discipline and sanctify the Church. The most powerful medieval pope was undoubtedly Innocent III [r. 1198-1216]. Innocent died prematurely at the age of 52; it is worth reflecting on how his early death impacted the Medieval Church. Innocent convoked the Council Lateran IV , one of the best planned and prepared Councils in history. He strengthened Church discipline in many pastoral areas and was probably the strongest figure in Western Europe at the time. At the same time, he understood the need for reform, and gave Francis of Assisi his first permission to gather members to his movement, at a time when new orders were frowned upon as unnecessary and possibly dangerous.
Innocent stands as a mountain in a rather bleak field. By 1300 the sitting pontiff, Boniface VIII, made the strongest claim yet for universal supreme authority in his 1302 encyclical Unam Sanctam: “It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Unlike Innocent, Boniface had no military or popular support for such a claim. He was hounded out of office by King Philip IV of France, who transferred the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France, the “Avignon Papacy” [1309-1376]. When the papacy was returned to Rome, several men claimed the position, a major disruption of governance known as “The Great Western Schism.” [1378-1417] This scandal was ultimately settled at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] when the bishops used collective authority to declare an official pope and depose the impostors. Fearful that bishops could collectively override a future pope [a process called conciliarism] the remaining popes of the Medieval Era were loathe to summon desperately needed reform councils as the 1500’s saw Martin Luther and others take reform into their own hands.
For all this controversy and scandal at the top, the Church continued to function. Probably the most respected authoritative body within the Church was its network of universities. Close to 200 were established in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, including Oxford , Cambridge , and the University of Paris . Professors were generally clerics and later members of religious orders. The most famous is the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274]. Aquinas is famous for his summas or compendiums of theological and philosophical thought which have been incorporated into the standard definitions of Catholic theological terms. He wrote and taught in propositional form, which historians refer to as scholasticism or method of the schools. Aquinas was the happy recipient of new translations of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which arrived via Islamic copyists and translators. Aristotle’s realism played a significant role in Aquinas’s intellectual outlook.
Aquinas has enormous impact upon the Church today, and it is interesting to see today’s theologians revisiting “the Angelic Doctor” in many areas of theological research. The Church embraced his work over the past eight centuries because of his realism, which gives backbone to Church teachings, particularly in such matters as sacraments and morality.
There is an old saying that some of Aquinas’s worst enemies were his friendly commentators, and by the late Medieval Era the scholastic method was showing its age. An anti-Thomas philosophy/theology emerged, spearheaded by the Franciscan William of Ockham. Ockham held that God is not bound to any system of reason. “The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover." Goodbye, theology. Ockham’s school became known as Nominalism, [from nomen, “name”] which holds that only particular things are real, i.e., there is no such thing as “general reality.” Ockham would influence Martin Luther two centuries later, and then the French philosopher Rene Descartes [1596-1650] in the modern era who declared “I think, therefore I am,” which opened the door to our modern emphasis, for better and worse, on personal experience to determine what is “real.”
For everything discussed thus far, it need be emphasized that the entire Medieval Era was profoundly affected by Islam. In 1000 A.D. Islam occupied the Iberian Peninsula to the West, threatened incursions from North Africa, and occupied the Middle East including Jerusalem and the region of the Holy Lands. In 1095 the Church made its first foray toward recovering the Holy Land in a military endeavor of unprecedented size, a force known today as the First Crusade [1096-1099]. Various estimates place the size of this army as high as 125,000, so large that it was necessary to travel in three separate vanguards. It was a harsh and cruel campaign; barely 1000 hardened warriors survived to take Jerusalem and massacred many of its occupants indiscriminately.
Unable to hold Jerusalem, Christian leaders attempted two more campaigns with modest success. Finally Innocent III called a Fourth Crusade [1202-1204] which adopted a new overall battle plan, choosing to sail to Jerusalem in partnership with the naval power Venice. In a bizarre series of mishaps, the Crusade proceeded not south but north, seizing the city of Constantinople [Istanbul], the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and conducting a pillage of massive proportions. Any hope of reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity was dashed. Two centuries later, on May 29, 1453, Constantinople was seized by the Islamic Ottoman Empire; its fall was received with shock and fear when word reached Western Europe.
The Middle Age of Christianity stands as a bridge between the ancient post-Apostolic Church and the post-Reformation Catholic Church of our experience. It is possible to draw from this era significant insights into issues we think of as totally modern religious issues. Teaching or reading from this era is intriguing and the resources are quite good. And what a refreshing change of focus.
The medieval era gave us two of the great religious movements of all time, the Franciscan and Dominican Orders. When I entered the Franciscan Order in the 1960’s, for example, Francis was portrayed by my mentors as a rare meteor of Church reform lovingly embraced by the most powerful pope of the Medieval era, and possibly of all time, Innocent III [r. 1198-1216], who reportedly saw in Francis and his small band of brethren the means of renewing the spiritual life of the Church by an exemplary public life of Gospel simplicity. Francis’ mission attracted men and women, notably the young Clare of Assisi, who at age 18 abandoned her place of nobility and became his first female follower and foundress of the religious order that lives the Franciscan rule to this day. Sister Margaret Carney, past president of St. Bonaventure University, has written a timely new introductory biography of Clare, Light of Assisi: The Story of Saint Clare,  to reacquaint us with the foundress who sometimes seems to get lost in the Franciscan shuffle.
Historians of the high medieval era (1050-1500) are revisiting the surprising strength and diversity of what we might call grassroots mystics, a source of free-spirited piety and energy which until recently, was regarded as dangerously independent of the mainstream Church. The Franciscans did not invent this nomadic lifestyle of prayer, penance and paucity; they were in fact one of its products who happened to enjoy the good fortune in having a charismatic leader who prudently cultivated communications with the local bishop, Guido of Assisi, and ultimately the age's most powerful pope, Innocent III. Medieval religious enthusiasm was a two-edged sword: some of its leaders and writers were highly regarded in their own time (Hildegard of Bingen) and some went to the inquisitor’s flames (Marguerite Porete).
In his final years St. Francis of Assisi would write that “the Lord sent me brothers.” It is equally true that the Lord sent him sisters, the first and most famous being Chiara di Favarone di Offeducio di Bernardino [1194-1253]. History has kindly passed down her memory as simply Clare of Assisi, her first name meaning “light.” During her adolescent years Francis and his early friars would have passed through Assisi preaching and doing works of charity. Like many of her fellow townsfolk, Clare was captivated by the friars’ direct preaching, which was reinforced by their austerity and devotion, in vivid contrast to most of the uneducated and uninspired secular clergy. It is also true that Clare’s mother, Ortulana, a woman who had made several pilgrimages including one to Rome, was well-traveled for her time and probably raised her daughters with more expansive religious experience.
Clare, then, was well suited to embrace the distinctive lifestyle of the friars, with their absolute poverty and community around devotion to the person of Jesus Christ, and as she turned eighteen, she postponed or evaded suitors for marriage. She had something else in mind, possibly a life in an established religious community, or an even more radical departure toward the friars’ style of Christic community and service. How Francis and Clare first communicated about such a possibility is not known, but the author explains that several of Francis’s first followers knew Clare and her family, and clearly Bishop Guido of Assisi, who admired and advised Francis, became a party to Clare’s plan to make the plunge into the friars’ life.
Regardless of how the idea was brokered, it was at the same time audacious and dangerous. The Offreducio family would certainly object, primarily to the idea of her not marrying. But beyond that, Clare was not aspiring to the safety and respectability of the Benedictine tradition of cloistered women, where she might someday assume the office of abbess, but to a new and yet unapproved band of exclusively men ministering in raw medieval cities and eschewing earthly honors. Francis certainly understood the impropriety of Clare’s joining his male community while respecting her desire for a spiritual life in imitation of the absolute poverty of Christ. Thus, on the night of Palm Sunday, 1212, Clare conspired with several parties to discretely leave her home and slip past the guards at the city walls to journey to a country church called Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here she was formally received into the fraternity, exchanging her worldly clothes and embracing the penitent’s robe of the friars. Her hair was shorn, and she professed her dedication to Jesus and to poverty and the simple rule of the brotherhood. In Carney’s words, “all that she would become as a woman fixed on God would be accomplished in partnership with them,” i.e., the friars.
But maintaining this unity would not be easy. Clare took immediate shelter in an accommodating cloistered monastery of Benedictine sisters where her angry family could not violate the cloister and carry her off. She remained there until several other women aspirants came forward; then the group took shelter in a non-cloistered residence, a small church where the community could serve the needs of needy neighbors and observe a daily routine of prayer and fasting. Eventually Clare’s sisters moved to the church of San Damiano under the protection of the bishop. San Damiano was a site of reverence among Francis’ followers; it was here that Francis had encountered Christ in the crucifix, who instructed him to “rebuild my house.” San Damiano functioned as a hostel, and its fountain gave it a reputation as a place of healing and restoration of body and soul.
Carney describes the San Damiano site as a cloister, but not as strict as would be enforced in a large, established order. The followers of Clare labored for several years to refurbish the site for community living. In this they had help from friars and other townspeople. Moreover, San Damiano serviced a stream of local indigents. It would seem from this account that the work of the Clare’s original sorority was restricted to this site; it is unknown if the sisters visited leper colonies as did the friars. It is safe to say that Clare’s community enjoyed greater public freedom at this early juncture than in later years when church authorities pressured Clare’s community toward more traditional cloistered formats of community living.
The material and spiritual life of the early sisters was hard, but its reward was the assurance and exhilaration of a union with Christ whom they followed with literal detail. Meanwhile, at the Church Council Lateran IV  Pope Innocent III, having approved the new Franciscan and Dominican communities as legitimate religious orders, closed the door to new communities, a strategy to maintain both legitimate reform and good order in the Church in the face of the spontaneous proliferation of enthusiastic grassroots religious movements. In view of Innocent’s intentions, both Francis and Bishop Guido harbored concern about the legal standing of Clare’s community, which had no separate formal rule of its own but lived under the ecclesiastical permission granted to Francis. Clare initially refused to accept the title of “abbess” recommended by both Francis and Guido, doing so only grudgingly and using it infrequently in the face of “strict new laws for women…blowing northward from the Tiber.” Francis and Guido, it would seem, were trying to buy time for Clare to continue to live under the pristine early vision of Francis.
In some respects, Clare and her community seem to have suffered the fallout of governmental issues plaguing the male order of friars. Francis, for all his remarkable charisms, was a poor administrator and frequently an absentee landlord. In his 2012 biography Francis of Assisi, [see my 2014 review here], Augustine Thompson cites Rome’s concern over deficiencies in the new Franciscan order, specifically in the screening and formation of novice members. In fairness the order was now home to thousands of friars spread throughout Europe, but Francis continued to engage in his own pursuits such as his attempts to convert the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade. In its work to create a governing structural rule for the Franciscan order of men to survive the inevitable death of the founder Francis, the Roman Curia was faced with the accompanying question of the legal identity and lifestyle of Clare and her women followers.
Subsequent wrangling and the imposition of a new constitution for the women followers of Francis is noted with wry dismay by the author; the final legislation “would be the source of endless headaches for scholars trying to untangle the web of Poor Sisters and San Damiano houses to the present day.” In short, Pope Honorius [r. 1216-1227] imposed a strict cloistered constitution for the general community of Clare’s followers, the Poor Sisters, with a temporary exemption for Clare’s immediate community at San Damiano. What followed was years of curial persuasion to convince Clare to submit to the comprehensive traditional cloistered rule, which Clare persistently rejected in favor of the stricter adherence to poverty of Christ, the initial charism of the Franciscan movement.
The admiration of Roman churchmen for the zeal of Clare probably averted a major conflict with her during her lifetime. It would be hard for any cleric to look past the lifestyle of Clare and her adherents without respect. Moreover, Clare’s community worked in tandem with the Church in producing linen altar cloths made from silk—an expensive and technical ministry which would have networked the community with women of the wealthy classes. More to the point, the product was manufactured for contact with the Eucharist. Clare’s devotion to the holy sacrament was unshakeable and stands as witness that there was nothing heretical about her beliefs or her intentions.
The motherhouse of Clare’s closest followers, the San Damiano church, retained its reputation as a place of healing. Francis himself convalesced there after receiving the stigmata. The sisters were sought by visitors from Assisi and other towns for prayers and religious comfort in times of trial. There was ecclesiastical concern about the rigors of Clare’s personal regimen. Bishop Guido’s successor, Guido II, enlisting the help of Francis, visited Clare with the intention of mitigating her strenuous fasts, though she seems to have gently sidestepped their concerns.
The exact relationship of Francis and Clare is known only to them. Information is sketchy. In the early part of their fifteen-year friendship Francis was certainly the mentor, and Clare exerted much energy to preserve the experience of the early days of her conversion at the feet of the poor man of Assisi. However, they did not see each other as much as one might expect, and a major conduit between them would have been other friars and personal correspondence.
Clare could not be with Francis at the time of his death, but he did leave her a last testament encouraging her to stay the course. It is tempting to think that he was encouraging her to do what he had ultimately been unable to do and avoid the compromises he had been forced to make as the leader of a large contingent, but his interventions with Bishop Guido that she take a moderate course in her spiritual observance in obedience to the Church suggest that he knew how vulnerable an outspoken woman leader could be in the medieval milieu. Francis was barely cold in his grave when major cracks in the Franciscan fraternity become to emerge.
In some ways these cracks were developing even toward the end of Francis’ lifetime. As more priests and professors joined the fraternity, their need for property [e.g., books, libraries] and even permanent residences led the Roman Curia to formulate an interpretation of poverty to accommodate a distinction between “ownership” and “[temporary] use.” In theory, a friar still owner nothing. But a friar could retain property for his mission. This interpretive loophole still stands in the twenty-first century in the Franciscan Orders as a necessity of pastoral ministry and earning a livelihood. Not surprisingly, the old guard of friars found this redefinition of poverty an abominable betrayal of Francis’ early vision. Some extreme friars held that the doctrine of perfect poverty was handed to the friars by the Holy Spirit and that no pope had the right to mitigate it. This extreme wing of the men’s order became known as the “Spiritual Franciscans” and would come to a tragic end. [See my review of The Spiritual Franciscans  by David Burr.
Clare would die before the Spiritual Franciscan crisis became a full-blown revolution, but she certainly sympathized with the surviving early followers of Francis, particularly as Pope Honorius approved a rule for the women Franciscans that in its detail resembled the standard lifestyle of most existing cloistered communities in existence for centuries. Clare had the wisdom not to confront the Church head on, and it appears that some sort of grand-mothering clause was arrived at whereby something of Clare’s founding lifestyle was permitted to endure through her lifetime. Several popes conceded to Clare a recognition of outstanding personal sanctity but could not bring themselves to let Clare’s rule of life endure through perpetuity.
This Roman ambiguity has produced a contemporary enigma, Today, the Order of Saint Clare lives in strict cloistered distance, while in recent centuries new communities of women teachers, nurses, and ministers—inspired by the Franciscan ideal--have been approved by Rome and reside in modified communities and work publicly in the Church. In her biography of Clare, the author has attempted to correct what one might call a domestication of Clare: the young woman of Assisi who left her family at great cost was not motivated toward the walls of a cloister, any more than Francis was. With that in mind, it is fitting to revisit her life as the public servant of the poor Jesus.