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Roberto de Mattei on Resisting the Pope in the Modern Age

Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church
Roberto de Mattei
Angelico Press
232 pages
$17.95 paper, $26.00 cloth

For those seeking to navigate the turbulence in the life of the Church, Professor Roberto de Mattei has just published a collection of addresses and essays that provide a profound historical perspective on the present moment that is completely faithful to the Tradition of the Church and to her Founder, Jesus Christ. De Mattei, president of the Lepanto Foundation and the author of The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story, opens Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church by reminding his readers that the greatest danger to Christianity has always been posed by Christians themselves: “Trials and disturbances have accompanied the Church throughout her history, but the most terrible storms of all have come from within the Church herself.” We are certainly in the midst of such a storm today, and so it is imperative that we understand how the Church has faced internal attacks in the past, come through them assisted by the help of God and the witness of the saints, and even been renewed and strengthened by them. De Mattei offers hope to faithful Christians discouraged by the waves battering the Barque of Peter and by a growing sense of chaos and disorientation even among the highest leaders of the Church.

De Mattei’s thesis is clear: on numerous occasions in the history of the Church, popes have been mistaken in their decisions and approaches to various issues, and in each instance, the Holy Spirit raised up members of the faithful who vigorously resisted those popes, motivated by their love for Christ and the unchanging Tradition of Faith that has been handed down from the apostles. While De Mattei’s work will be of interest to any educated Christian who wishes to learn about the history of the various moments of crisis for the Church, his work will be especially illuminating for bishops and cardinals, who have a supreme duty in this moment of confusion to prevent the faithful from being led astray by false teachings, even if the one leading the faithful astray should be the vicar of Christ himself.

Professor De Mattei is a first-rate academic. His writing is precise, profound, and also prayerful. He understands the full weight of the historical crisis in which the Church presently finds herself. Yet he also understands even more profoundly that the promise of Christ — the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church — and the promise of Our Lady of Fatima — “In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph” — are two sources of unshakeable confidence and optimism for all Christians today. Reading this book will strengthen the faith of every serious and thoughtful believer, and in a focused way, it will strengthen the faith of serious and thoughtful priests and bishops. It would be a great act of charity to purchase this book as a gift for your pastor, and even more so for your bishop. They will come away from it refreshed and strengthened, aware of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and are urging us on to be faithful to Christ as they were down all the long centuries of the history of the Church.

In each chapter of this collection of essays and addresses, Professor De Mattei draws from his wealth of knowledge of Church history to provide his readers with specific and fascinating examples of “where the Church has been” in order to help the faithful understand “where the Church needs to go.” For example, De Mattei reminds his readers of past examples of cardinals who intervened to correct the pope:

The dignity of a cardinal is not purely honorary, but involves grave responsibilities. … Among these responsibilities there is that of fraternally correcting the pope when he commits an error in the governing of the Church, as happened in 1813, when Pius VII signed the ill-fated Treaty of Fontainebleau with Napoleon, or in 1934 when the Dean of the College of Cardinals, Gennaro Granito di Belmonte (1851–1948), admonished Pius XI on behalf of the Sacred College for the rash use he made of the Holy See’s finances. The pope is infallible only under determined circumstances, and his acts of government or Magisterium can contain errors that any one of the faithful may point out, with even greater reason if the latter is invested with the office of principal counselor to the Supreme Pontiff.

The ancient Church also experienced terrible controversies and internal divisions, as de Mattei reviews. Saint Athanasius, for example, was deposed five times from the See of Alexandria, and on several occasions, entire councils of bishops condemned Athanasius and also Pope Julius I for their fidelity to the Nicene Creed. The few bishops who supported Athanasius were often condemned to exile, imprisonment, and shameful condemnation by the majority of bishops. De Mattei notes that it fell to “ordinary Christians” who had resisted the persecutions of the Roman Empire to undertake the much more challenging task of courageously resisting their bishops:

St. Hilary writes that during the Arian crisis the ears of the faithful who interpreted in an orthodox sense the ambiguous affirmations of the Semi-Arian theologians were holier than the hearts of the priests. The Christians who for three centuries had resisted emperors were now resisting their own shepherds, in some cases even the pope, guilty, if not of open heresy, at least of grave negligence.

Several of the essays contained in this compendium offer case studies of significant moments of doctrinal error by the leaders of the Church and their correction by the faithful. To name only a few that de Mattei masterfully relates: Pope Honorius I (625–638), who affirmed the Monothelite heresy in order to please the Byzantine emperor; St. Theodore the Studite (759–826), who resisted the Eastern patriarchs of his time who gave in to the Byzantine emperor’s wishes by permitting adultery and remarriage; and Saint Bruno of Segni, who in 1111 resisted Pope Paschal II’s decision to give Holy Roman Emperor Henry V the right of investiture of bishops, and did so by flatly stating that heresy is heresy even if it is a pope who affirms it: “Whoever defends heresy,” wrote St. Bruno, “is a heretic. Nobody can say that this is not heresy.”

De Mattei also recalls for the reader various moments of chastisement for the Church, in which God mercifully led the Church to conversion by means of the historical trials that befell the faithful. Thus, on May 6, 1527, the City of Rome, which had become so affluent and affected during the Renaissance, was sacked by imperial troops in such a devastating way that it was interpreted by those who lived through it as a divine chastisement. De Mattei draws on a fascinating primary source: the account of a Spanish pilgrim to Rome one month after the sack.

In Rome, the capital of Christendom, not one bell is ringing, the churches are not open, Mass is not being said on either Sundays or feast days. The rich merchant shops are used as horse stables, the most splendid palaces are devastated, many houses burnt, in others the doors and windows broken up and taken away, the streets transformed into dungheaps. The stench of cadavers is horrible: men and beasts have the same burials; in churches I saw bodies gnawed at by dogs. I don’t know how else to compare this, other than to the destruction of Jerusalem. Now I recognize the justice of God, who doesn’t forget even if He arrives late. In Rome all sins were committed quite openly: sodomy, simony, idolatry, hypocrisy and deceit; thus we cannot believe that this all happened by chance, but by divine justice.

De Mattei notes that “the hour of chastisement was, as always, the hour of mercy. … After the terrible sack, life changed profoundly. The pleasure-seeking Rome of the Renaissance turned into the austere and penitent Rome of the Counter-Reformation.” This vision of history inspired by faith offers a much-needed and hopeful message for modern Christians who may feel that the amount of evil within the Church today is overwhelming. De Mattei is confident that this is in fact a moment for courageous and confident battle, a time when “ordinary Christians” are called to rise up in defense of the teachings of Jesus Christ, all the more so because the leaders of the Church seem to have forgotten about or are afraid to carry out their mission of shepherding the Church faithfully.

De Mattei warns his readers against the error of “papolatry,” which he defines as “a false devotion that does not see in the reigning pope one of the 265 successors of Peter, but considers him to be a new Christ on earth, who personalizes, reinterprets, reinvents, and imposes anew the Magisterium of his predecessors, expanding and perfecting the doctrine of Christ.” De Mattei observes how easy it is for faithful Catholics to fall into this distorted conception of the pope and the papacy: “Papolatry, before it is a theological error, is a deformed psychological and moral attitude. Papolatrists are generally conservatives or moderates who deceive themselves on the possibility of reaching good results in life without a fight, without effort.” He avers that Christians who wish to be faithful to Christ today must choose to fight — that is, to become truly the Church Militant, defending the pope from being handed over to his enemies, meaning any false teaching that distorts or denies the Christian faith.

This fight means having the practical courage to engage in fraternal correction and praying to the Holy Spirit for the wisdom to know when and how to undertake it. De Mattei quotes Bishop Athanasius Schneider on this point:

This principle of fraternal correction inside the Church has been valid for all time, even with regard to the pope, and so it should be valid also in our times. Unfortunately, these days anyone who dares speak the truth — even if he does so respectfully with regard to the Shepherds of the Church — is classified as an enemy of unity, as happened to St. Paul, when he declared: “Am I then become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (Gal 4:16).

De Mattei reminds his readers of the numerous examples of witnesses of the Catholic Tradition who dared to speak out against Church leaders, precisely because they loved the Church:

Saint Athanasius and Saint Hilary did not remain silent against the Arians, nor did Saint Peter Damian against the corrupt prelates of his time. Saint Catherine of Siena did not keep silent in front of the popes of her time, nor did Saint Vincent Ferrer presenting himself as the Angel of the Apocalypse. In recent times, these did not keep quiet but spoke: the bishop of Münster, Clemens August von Galen, in the face of Nazism; and Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, primate of Hungary, confronted by Communism.

In the end, Professor De Mattei reminds us, “Only Jesus Christ can save the Church — no one else — because He alone is her Founder and Head. Human beings, from the Vicar of Christ down to the last member of the faithful, can either cooperate or resist the divine grace which comes to them through the influence of the Holy Spirit and impels them to radical fidelity to Christ and His Law.”

De Mattei’s work is prophetic and timely. May it inspire many to courageously resist the present confusion, through the prayers of all who have gone before us in faith.

Editor’s note: This book review comes courtesy of Giuseppe Pellegrino. Follow the work of Professor Roberto De Mattei by subscribing to his articles here.

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