As Pope Pius VI lay dying in Valence, France in 1799, a prisoner of the rising Napoleon, Talleyrand thought the First Consul had in his custody the last of the popes. Like the Holy Roman Empire, the anachronistic institution of the papacy would fall under the weight of the modern nation-states and empires. To hasten its certain collapse, Talleyrand proposed that the French announce Pius’s death and allow the cardinals to convene to elect his successor, only to subsequently reveal that Pius was, in fact, alive. In so doing, Talleyrand hoped to create chaos and perhaps a schism that would guarantee the devastation of the Church he had once served as a bishop.
Pius VI did indeed die as Napoleon’s captive and, despite Talleyrand’s hopes, the cardinals, with much difficulty and in exile from Rome, managed to elect a successor, the mild and holy Benedictine bishop of Imola, Barnaba Chiaramonti, who took the name Pius VII. Elected in 1800, from the moment of his election until the very minutes before emperor’s abdication in 1815, Pius VII was the object of Napoleon’s ceaseless efforts to dominate the Church and to subject the Roman pontiff to the civil power of the French Empire. Like his predecessor, Pius VII too was imprisoned by Napoleon, but unlike Pius VI, Chiaramonti endured years under house arrest, cut off from the Curia and the Church at large, in a travail that nearly killed him several times.
The Modern Crises
Napoleon’s obsession with the subjugation of the Church marked a turning point in the Church’s already drawn out struggle to contend with modernity. While the Protestant Revolt is commonly recognized as the onset of the Church’s struggle with the modern age, it is often overlooked that Luther’s movement coincided with the rise of national powers that were already secularizing in the mid-sixteenth century. Henry VIII presents the most obvious example of the refusal of a national power to respect the prerogatives of Rome. But Henry’s contemporaries Francis I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V also demonstrated the growing penchant of the secular rulers to pursue their political ends without regard to religion or the demands of Rome. Charles never crushed Luther; to the contrary, he eventually proclaimed cuius regio, eius religio as the policy of the Empire. His sack of Rome in 1527 was a disaster.
In the wake of the Wars of Religion and the spread of the thinking associated with the Enlightenment, the religious situation was confused. We tend to think of the Catholic kingdoms of Europe in the period prior to the French Revolution as “confessional states” marked by the union of throne and altar, but this description is misleading to modern ears. The Catholic rulers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were hardly subservient to Rome. All sought to manage religious affairs as they wished. Although professed, and even sometimes pious, Catholics, they were also monarchs dedicated to the maintenance of their own all-reaching authority.
Through his long reign, Louis XIV had endless up and downs in his relationship with various popes and maintained jurisdiction on religious matters. Gallicanism persisted and grew in Louis’s France, espoused by the most famous churchman of his reign, Bossuet. It was Louis’s distaste for what he considered the novelties of Jansenism that ensured the demise of the Port-Royal school, not a bull from Rome.
The destruction of the Jesuits in the mid-1700s was the result of efforts of the secular authorities in Portugal, Spain, and finally France; Pope Clement XIV only formalized the suppression that the Catholic powers had already made a reality. Austria under Maria Theresa and Joseph II was the center of all kinds of anti-Roman thinking, such as “Febronianism,” a mixture of Protestant and conciliarist notions on the governance of the Church that weakened the papacy to the advantage of the secular rulers, favoring a “national church” only loosely confederated with the Roman See.
With the onset of the French Revolution, the efforts of the state to dominate the Church reached a new and unprecedented stage. In the beginning, the new regime attempted to create the “Constitutional Church” as the practical implementation of Gallicanism. The effort splintered the Church in France and became a principal cause of the Revolution’s failure. The French clergy’s widespread resistance to the demand that clerics swear an oath of loyalty to the state resulted in an obsessive desire on the part of the radicals to either control the Church or destroy it. Eventually, in the Terror, the regime attempted to exterminate Christianity altogether.
When Napoleon came to power, he promised an end to the madness of the Revolution and the anti-Christian zealotry into which it had devolved. A truly modern figure, the First Consul saw religion as useful to his ends. The Catholic Faith was an important part of the French identity that he could use to bolster the nation’s patriotic devotion to his own rule. Amoral and concerned with power, he cared not a whit about the Christian life or the true welfare of the Church. He desired her as a pet, and he cast the Roman pontiff as his dog-walker.
Forever hoping to reconcile with the emperor who had restored the Church after the destruction of the Revolution, Pius VII nonetheless would not yield in his insistence on the sovereign independence of the Church and the papacy, safeguarding what he saw as the patrimony of Peter. It was not his to give away. Miraculously, Pius outlasted Napoleon through 15 years of tumult, and he later interceded to secure better treatment for Napoleon as he lay in desolation at St. Helena.
Unfortunately, Napoleon’s defeat was only a respite from the long march of modernity to subjugate, control, and even eradicate the Catholic Church. Though in some respects diminished, the Church, in the main, defeated these efforts. It survived the travails of the nineteenth century and the horrors of the twentieth.
The Postmodern Crisis
For 500 years, the Church’s challenges had come nearly entirely from without – from the secularizing and power-hungry nation-states and from modern philosophical concepts. Although there were some controversies of a religious and theological nature, such as the relation between grace and works raised by the early Jansenists, the principal challenges to the Church were political and philosophical, not theological or doctrinal.
After Trent, not even the enemies of the Church expected that the Church would alter its doctrinal precepts or scrap its law of prayer, the Holy Mass. The various ideological currents through the centuries tried to control, mock, or eradicate the Faith, but none had tried to transform Catholicism into some other variant of Christianity or reduce it to a form of secular humanism. The pope was not expected to become Martin Luther or Robespierre.
The crisis of our time – the Postmodern Crisis – is not like what preceded it. In its most current manifestation, the Postmodern Crisis has taken the dual form of a crisis of sexual abuse committed by clergy and a crisis of episcopal authority. The failure to address the first gave birth to the second; they are now inseparable and not only touch local diocesan bishops, but reach the pope himself.
The severity of these manifestations is new, but they are only the latest, and perhaps most devastating, permutations of the Postmodern Crisis that has plagued the Church since the end of the Second Vatican Council.
Unlike the Modern Crises, the Postmodern Crisis is not driven from outside the Church by forces that wish to diminish or destroy it for various power-related and ideological ends. Rather, the Postmodern Crisis arose from within and gained strength in the middle of the last century, when strange notions took hold concerning difficulties, real or otherwise, in the life of the Church. Certain intellectuals in the clergy adopted a fundamental outlook that viewed the Church’s traditions as problems to be solved. This view led at first to small but important changes – the “reform” of the Holy Week ceremonies in the mid-1950s and even the decision of John XXIII to change the Canon by adding St. Joseph’s name to the Communicantes in 1962.
As with all of the manifestations of the Postmodern Crisis, the true roots of the clergy abuse scandal and the bishops’ loss of stature are found in the sad destruction of the Roman Rite, the 50th anniversary of which we will mark next year. The introduction of the Novus Ordo and all of the ridiculous abuses that characterize it in its regular and ubiquitous practice devastated the lex orandi. As the ancient maxim warned, such devastation in turn ruined the lex credendi. This break between the lex orandi and the lex credendi produced decades of incoherence and increasing irrelevance.
The leadership of the Church has never reckoned with the practical, physiological effects that these changes to the Mass had on the general, common experience of the lay faithful and the clergy. Just as the peasants of the Middle Ages are supposed to have been catechized by their experiences of the great cathedrals, so too are today’s Faithful taught by their routine contact with the Mass, the most frequent and tangible way in which people experience the Church.
If the Mass is common and banal, their faith will be likewise. If the Eucharist is treated casually, so will it be with their belief in the Real Presence. If the role of the priest is not especially distinct, as a small army of laity busies itself about the sanctuary, the laity’s sense of a religious vocation will be weak. If people say the Mass is boring, or that they “get nothing out of” a Mass that was supposed to be perfectly suited to the special needs of Modern Man, then perhaps it is indeed boring, inasmuch as it offers nothing timeless or mysterious that might evoke a sense of the unique sacred sacrifice carried out via the Roman Rite.
With respect to the clergy, the Novus Ordo sparked a terrible crisis of schizophrenia in the priesthood that, in large measure, accounts for the admission of the oddballs who committed such terrible sins. The permissive ethos ushered in with the Novus Ordo – no more rules! we used to do it that, but we don’t have to anymore and we just found out what we used to think was sacred was actually bad! – allowed men like Theodore McCarrick not only to release their inhibitions, but also to prosper despite their debased spiritual lives. Many a Dorian Grey came to live comfortably within the clergy, their portraits safely locked away. The discipline and priestly character inculcated by the traditional Mass were severely undermined, as the ludicrous excesses of the post-1968 culture were let loose inside the Church. Like Frank Sinatra dressed in sparkles and singing with the 5th Dimension, priests were bizarrely transformed into hippies who also celebrated a cool new Mass!
Only the rapidity of the changes wrought by the French Revolution – which opened the Estates General in 1789 with a solemn Eucharistic procession and, less than five years later, adopted a policy for elimination of Catholicism – rivals the speed at which the Church allowed total culture change to ravage an institution.
The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI attempted to stem the Postmodern Crisis. Despite some successes in this regard, neither put an end to it. The average Catholic continues to experience the Mass as a sort of Protestant worship service that retains certain Catholic elements that may be emphasized to a greater or lesser degree depending on the tastes of the celebrant. Onto this corrupted foundation, John Paul tried to build the structure for the “correct” implementation of the Second Vatican Council, but he seems never to have apprehended that no papal pronouncement or intellectual precept can substitute for one’s concrete, actual experience of the Church for the purposes of teaching and handing down the Faith.
Benedict offered the promise of the restoration of the fundamental Catholic identity, and Summorum Pontificum continues to slowly work its salutary effects across the Church. But his resignation was a tremendous setback for the hope that authentic liturgical renewal would come from Rome.
Even cursory knowledge of the course of the last 50 years inoculates one against a sense of shock at the latest iteration of scandal and decline. Yet the bishops are disoriented. The all is well mantra propounded in the face of parish and school closures, declining Mass attendance, and the free fall of vocations can no longer withstand even minimal scrutiny.
Meetings and procedures and investigations are necessary, but none is sufficient. Only when, at last, the Church honestly assesses its recent history and squarely confronts the depths of the Postmodern Crisis will true reform become possible. The Mass is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” If we truly believe this teaching of the Second Vatican Council, then we know both the locus of the problem and the cure for the disease.
Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004. He is the author of The Pearl of Great Price: Pius VI & the Sack of Rome.