Let’s take a tap-dance review of Church history, particularly with regard to the papacy. It has sometimes been very inspiring; too often, it has been disgraceful. But what can we learn about the present day, based on our knowledge of the past?
In the 9th and 10th centuries the papacy had sunk to a level unimaginable by us today, thanks chiefly to the “lay election” (meaning powerful “noble” families who dictated their wishes on the city). People were elected (if that is the right word) in order to further their families’ political and economic dominance, and virtue had little or nothing to do with these promotions. But from this (and ironically with the help of political leaders like the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II), reforming popes were elected or appointed. They didn’t keep the popes from being embroiled in politics (especially since they were still feudal lords of the Papal States), but they at least were men of virtue and were reform-minded. It led to a restoration of dignity to the office of the Bishop of Rome.
After years of corruption and self-serving (including the more notorious members of the Medici and Borgia families), and in the wake of the challenges of Luther and his followers, the Council of Trent instituted theological and practical reforms that make the papacy once again respectable. Some (Paul III) approved the founding of the Jesuits; others (Sixtus V) were city-builders; others (Paul IV) strove to supply the Church with worthy bishops. All wanted the best for the Church and not necessarily for their families. Saints like Charles Borromeo led the reform.
The Enlightenment presented an intellectual challenge to the Church, expressed most succinctly by Voltaire: Écrasez l’infâme! (best translation as “Destroy the damned thing!”). Yet in the face of this challenge and that of Napoleon, the Church finally triumphed. After the ignominious death of Pius VI, his successor, Pius VII, was able to triumph over the “First Counsel,” and he won praise and admiration even from Protestants for his courageous stand against Napoleon. Reputedly, Napoleon said to Pius VII’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Consalvi, “We will destroy your Church!” Consalvi’s reply: “No, you won’t; not even we have been able to do that!”
When the forces of Garibaldi hammered at the gates of Rome, Pius IX could never believe that God would surrender the City to “invaders.” But God did, and the elimination of the Papal States (seen then as an unmitigated disaster) was a great blessing for the Church, producing popes focused on spiritual and not temporal issues. The devotion and holiness of our 20th century popes is a testament to the grace that came from what was at the time perceived as disaster.
So this is true today. We are at what AA typically calls “hitting bottom.” Can we (will we) make this a true crisis point (that is, a time of decision-making)? I believe so, and I believe much grace can come from this temporal and clericalist humiliation.
Will you pray with me that this coming of grace will be ours today? Will you pray with me that you and I will not be reasons for rejecting this grace and time of decision-making?