Above: Monument to Girolamo Savonarola, Ferrara, Italy.
Timothy Flanders voices a sentiment shared by many Catholics—bishops do your job! But he doesn’t go far enough. Catholic history—especially of the last half century—provides ample evidence of priests and laity ignoring or wantonly disobeying Episcopal edicts and actions. If, to use a cinematic reference, the bishop is not to be left to fight and die alone, then his subordinates must man up and work together to engage and defeat the enemy. Think Henry V or Master and Commander.
My own preference would be for a twenty-first century itinerant order operating like Catholic Green Berets: scouting, engaging locals, providing medical care, nation-building, teaching, and fighting (though not like actual soldiers) when necessary. On the other hand, why not renew the crusader spirit? Is the combination of military prowess and religious vows inherently incompatible? Something only for the Middle Ages?
And what about recapturing what should be our schools, charities, and hospitals? Why is there such a disconnect between Tradition and the social apostolate of our Faith? History again will give us answers. For instance, one need only read the 1967 Land O’Lakes document on “The Idea of the Catholic University” to see a straight progression from identifiably Catholic higher education to the mess we’re in now on formerly great campuses like DePaul, Notre Dame, and Marquette to name only three. Certainly the “charitable anathema” would be helpful in clearing out some of the opposition in erstwhile “Catholic” institutions, but who will fill the vacuum of faith and practice among doctors, nurses, staff, and teachers? Are we at the oxymoronic point summed up by the infamous phrase from the Vietnam War about needing to destroy a village in order to save it?
With all that in mind, I suggest we do have an approach from history that we could use now, and it involves social renewal founded on solid and engaging preaching. That example comes from a late-medieval city. The approach may or may not be “scaleable” to today’s distances and population densities, but might be adapted for use at the diocesan level. The place: Florence. The time: late fifteenth century. The preacher: Fra Girolamo Savonarola.
The very name may instantly turn some away. But consider what actually happened in Florence during the Dominican friar’s ascendancy. Savonarola’s solid preaching acted as a catalyst in worldly Florence, and led to reform and penance. In 2023 we hear much about a “revival” underway at Asbury University in Kentucky; in 1490s Florence, there was a tangible revival. The notorious “Bonfire of the Vanities” involved conscience-stricken Florentines casting their luxury items into flames. How is that for a Lenten practice?! Savonarola and others from his convent decried the widespread toleration of sodomy and other forms of unnatural sex. Corrupt and worldly clerics and religious were challenged to return to more Christ-like austerity.
Savonarola even—to his ultimate detriment—criticized Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), father of many children and lover of luxury. Persistent blasphemers had their tongue pierced, a one-time punishment now embraced as fashion in this century. But Savonarola frequently intervened to seek mercy for enemies of the common good. That trait went hand-in-hand with promoting wider participation in civic and political life as opposed to rule by one family—the Medicis—or a tiny cabal of the wealthy. Finally, this reforming impulse led to greater public display and practice of the Faith, involving the city’s children as well.
Stepping back from this thought experiment, it is obvious that many of the actions of the Savonarolan era are impossible to implement. But should that stop us from taking the fight to our opponents, wherever they may be found? Why are Catholics always and only playing defense? No war is won that way. Why settle for daydreaming about a past “golden age” when there are battles we could have now… and maybe even win? A recent article featured on Rorate Coeli asked “is it really time for hiding”? and asserted that “priests should openly refuse to stop offering the Latin Mass.”
As this article was being written the announcement came that a Catholic “synod” in Germany has approved blessings for same-sex unions. If now is not the time to rise up and reclaim the Faith, when will it be time?
 Martines, Lauro. Fire In the City: Savonarola and the Struggle for the Soul of Renaissance Florence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Greg Cook is a writer living in New York’s North Country with his wife. He graduated from Plattsburgh State College and The Evergreen State College. He is the author of two self-published books of poetry, Against the Alchemists and A Verse Companion to Romano Guardini’s ‘Sacred Signs.’