Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On Concern for the Church: The Crucial Difference Between Medieval and Modern

I try to read from Church writings in different eras when I study. In the medieval period, I’m currently reading On Consideration by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and Letters 31-60 by St. Peter Damien [§]. Both works have material written to the Popes of their times expressing great concern for moral corruption that existed at the time. I contrast this with the modern material directed to Pope Francis: The Vigano letters, the “correction,” the dubia, and the number of “open letters” out there. When I do, I see a vast difference between the eras.

In the medieval times, these saints—like the modern critics—had strong views on what needed to be done. They brought up cases where the teaching of the Church had been cast aside and urged change. BUT, there was always respect and love for the Pope being addressed, regardless of what they thought of the specific Pope at the time. These appeals were along the line of, “These evils exist contrary to Church teaching. Please take action against them.” In contrast, the tone of modern material tends to be, “You’re an idiot and/or a heretic. These problems are your fault. Resign!” It’s the antithesis to the attitude of the saints [*].

I think the difference between these times and the past is Catholics have lost sight of what the Church is and what the Pope is. The medieval saints could recognize that the individual man serving in the office of Pope was a sinner while recognizing that, in his office of Pope, he was to be loved and respected as the successor of Peter and the visible head of the Church. The modern critics only see that the Pope is a sinner, and do not show love and respect to the office unless the Pope uses it in the way they want. If they want condemnation of enemies and the Pope shows mercy, it’s a “proof “ of error. When the Pope rebukes pharisaical attitudes in the Church, it’s “proof” he’s a hypocrite... since the Pope is denouncing their attitudes.

So, what are we to do? I think we need to recover the distinction that the medieval saints knew: that the man who is Pope is always a sinner in need of salvation, but he is also carrying out the office Christ gave to Peter and his successors. We love the former as a fellow Christian. We love and honor the latter as our way of loving and serving Christ in His Church. This was a point Ven. Fulton J Sheen made in his autobiography, A Treasure in Clay:

Another year when granted an audience, I seated myself in an outer room very near the Holy Fathers private office. During a wait of about fifteen minutes, I made a quick re-view of my life, asking: “Have I really served the Church as well as I should? Have I used the many talents the Lord has given me? Have I cast fire upon the earth as the Lord asked His bishops to do?” I finally came to a negative conclusion. I had done little. At that moment the door was opened; I was ushered before His Holiness. I said: “Your Holiness, I have just discovered how easy Judgment is going to be.” “Oh,” he said, “tell me, I would like to know.” “While I was waiting to come into your presence I had come to the conclusion that I had not loved the Church as much as I should. Now that I come before Your Holiness, I see the Church personalized. When I make my obeisance to you, I make it to the Body and to the invisible Head, Christ. Now I see how much I love the Church in Your Holiness, its visible expression.” He said: “Yes, Judgment is going to be that easy for those who try to serve the Lord.” [Emphasis original]

He recognized what the saints recognized in times worse than this one. We would be wise to recognize it too, rejecting the criticism that fails to show that love and respect they did.


[§] I’ve previously read similar works like St. Catherine of Sienna—who was much more respectful to the Pope than popular accounts today claim.

[*] It’s not different from the attitude of medieval critics that the Pope rebuked for error. For example, most of the “Pope is a heretic” attacks directed against Pope John XXII were from heretical groups like the “Spiritual Franciscans” who were disciplined by the Pope.