The Catholic Church Will Survive: Putting Crises in Perspective

COMMENTARY: The reign of Pius VI shows the current anxiety about the synod is misplaced.

Pope Pius VI led the Church as the seeds of our current modernist culture were sprouting.
Pope Pius VI led the Church as the seeds of our current modernist culture were sprouting. (photo: Register Files)
Over the past year I’ve seen Catholics claim that we are in a uniquely dangerous place in the history of the Church. Many call it a crisis that could tear the Church apart. Some are saying it’s the worst crisis in the history of the Church.

The source of this crisis: the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family and the proposed revisions to the Church’s handling of divorced-and-remarried Catholics.

As crises go, it’s something less than, say, the early persecutions, the investiture controversy, or the Reformation, but one of the defects of modernism is that man feels himself at the center of history, in unique times where epic battles are being waged for the very future of the Church. (Note: An epic battle is always raging for the future of the Church.) It satisfies the tendency to self-dramatization and allows for free-form spleen-venting as people work out their issues under the guise of trying to save the Church from itself.

In fact, in terms of the inner life of the Church, 2015 isn’t even among the top 1,500 worst years we’ve ever experienced. The worst thing to happen in this century is the apocalyptic destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East, but that isn’t what’s causing the reactionaries to reach for the smelling salts and dig into their box of overstatements.

Let’s look to the past for illumination, taking one pontificate in one particularly terrible time in the history of the Church, at a moment when the world we know was coming into being. The papacy was in real danger of flickering out for good, and only the action of the Holy Spirit preserved the See of Peter.

Giovanni Braschi was engaged to be married when he changed course and entered the priesthood. He rose through the curial ranks, gathering power, money, a red hat and, eventually, the papacy itself. As Pius VI (1775-1799), he had the unique misfortune of coming to the papacy when the world as he knew it was coming apart. He was a vain man and a nepotist of the first order, but he also created the Vatican Museum and spent many (ultimately futile) years trying to make the Pontine Marshes outside of Rome livable. His commitment to the faith was never in doubt, and he said Mass with great reverence. This mix of genuine piety and worldly corruption was not uncommon.

It wasn’t merely that the “Enlightenment” and age of revolution were upon him, but that massive shifts in the relationship of church and state were rewriting the very nature of his role and its function in the secular world.

The Jansenist heresy was in full swing at the time. And Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was issuing thousands of decrees, touching on every aspect of Church life, without any consultation with the Pope. Joseph considered himself a good Catholic, and Josephinism was his attempt to modernize the Church along Enlightenment values. This included things like dissolving monasteries and transferring their property to the state, while nominally remaining a “Catholic” country. It culminated in a synod at Pistoia called by a heretic bishop, and supported by heretical clergy and theologians, which ordered things like replacing statues of saints with biblical paintings, ending Stations of the Cross, getting rid of relics and forbidding devotion to the Sacred Heart: actions that caused widespread outrage and even riots. It would take almost 10 years for Pius to issue Auctorem Fidei (1794) condemning the acts of the synod.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s control slipped from his fingers. Governments forbade him to communicate with subjects without state approval. People who tried to contact him without state permission could be banished. When he tried to place a nunciature in Munich, the German bishops stopped him. (Our German bishop problem is nothing new.)

None of this, however, prepared Pius for the nightmarish forces unleashed by the French Revolution. The French bishops had already been drifting into apostasy, with openly atheistic bishops like Gobel and Talleyrand. They helped France solve its economic problems by seizing everything belonging to the Church, dissolving religious orders, nationalizing the clergy, giving mayors the Church’s power to marry couples, introducing divorce and eliminating papal authority. Clergy were allowed to marry. In the wake of revolutionary fervor, vast numbers of priests and religious simply quit, including almost all of the monks of the venerable Cluny Abbey, which had been the pinnacle of Western monasticism. The abbey was subsequently sacked and almost destroyed.

Some bishops pleaded with Pius to do something, anything, even if it meant finding a compromise to the hated “Civil Constitution of the Clergy.” At this pivotal moment, he did nothing, fearing schism. It took him two years to condemn it, and by then, it was too late. Europe was heading into war, as surrounding nations grew alarmed by the revolution. The French government hardened its position against recalcitrant clergy and began persecuting them. Tens of thousands fled. Hundreds found sanctuary in England, which was still trying to relax its persecution of Catholics, a course of action that kicked off the Gordon Riots in 1780. Many clergy and religious were killed outright (such as the Martyrs of Compiègne) or left to die in jail.

Napoleon marched on Rome, which was saved only by humiliating concessions and a staggering ransom. Pius was forced to urge Catholics to support the French government. Republics began cropping up in Italy, following a similar course to France, including seizing power and property from the Church and legalizing divorce.

Unlike many revolutionary leaders, Napoleon was a pragmatist and believed religion could be used to control a population. The Corsican general (soon to be emperor) knew that meant getting the Pope to bend to his will. Thus, using a riot as a pretext, in 1799, he had the cardinals arrested and the ailing Pope kidnapped.

Pius couldn’t survive the grueling conditions and died in August of the same year. The French state clergy refused him a burial and registered his death under his given name.

Rome and the Papal States were seized, the Pope was dead, and many of the cardinals were in jail. At that point, the papacy appeared finished.

But it wasn’t. Pius VII came to power and faced many of the same challenges as his predecessor; sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. Gradually, the Church came back to life, led by a man on the Chair of Peter, whether or not he was worthy to sit there.

None of this history lesson is intended to brush away our present turmoil. Each age has to deal with its own challenges, and we have plenty. We just need to put them in context and realize that we’re not dealing with isolated incidents or the lowest point in our history. The Church has always been a rock planted in a shifting moral and social landscape. The current synod is part of the long, ongoing and difficult task of maintaining eternal truths in a world in constant flux. That’s not an easy thing to do, and factions at both extremes pose a risk, either compromising eternal, unchangeable verities, or rendering them incomprehensible for contemporary man.

What we are living through is the late portion of the epoch that began during the reign of Pius VI. These are the aftershocks to the earthquake of revolution and “enlightenment.” The current tension between the secular state and the Church — and between the whims of society and the transcendent truth — wasn’t born in the 18th century, but it took a new form them. The debates going on at the synod on the family are part of a period that witnessed a complete collapse of the earthly power of the papacy and the emergence of a new understanding of papal power and the role of the pope. It was a divorce (if you’ll forgive the word) between church and state, and one whose time had come.

The point here isn’t just to say things were worse once (cold comfort) or to look at the origin of the issue (useful as that may be), but to put things in their proper perspective and to give Catholics a better way to sort reasonable concern from mere hysteria. Those saying that this is the worst crisis the Church has ever faced, or that we are in uniquely dangerous times, are simply wrong. They’re scaring people needlessly. It’s creating anxiety and tension in a world that already has too much of both things.

Relax. The Church has been through worse.

This may be a rocky period, and it could get even rockier (never underestimate the destructive energy of the German episcopate), but it’s not the looming catastrophe we’ve been hearing about. It’s just the Church working out things in its usual dysfunctional and messy way. It’s like the old cliché about sausage: You may enjoy it, but you never want to see it being made.

The Church is always in some form of turmoil or another; sometimes great, sometimes minor. Powerful people may try to drive us to the very edge of schism. The faithful will continue to be confused. It was ever thus, from the first day James and John argued about who got to sit in the places of privilege. We were given a divine institution, and we handled it with our usual mix of glory and corruption.

The Church survives. It will always survive. Jesus Christ promised us that much.

Further reading: Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes Vol. 39 and Vol. 40; Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Kelly and Walsh); Saints and Sinners (Duffy).

Thomas L. McDonald writes about faith,

history and technology at God and the Machine.