Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Papacy... and Western Civilization

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Papacy... and Western Civilization

While stronger minds than mine have been rather hot and heavy this week on the issue of the Roman pontiff (it comes from all quarters these days- everyone, it seems, lately prefers the rule- by- committee model of Canterbury and the East to the loving care and protection of a Holy Father), I have been trying to tend to my work, which, providentially, deals lately with this very issue.

John Henry Newman has some excellent things to say on point in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. This piece is essentially an explication of political theology, and an explanation of the good Catholic's civic duties in light of his primary duties to Christ and Christ's Vicar.

Newman invokes a basic argument in defense of the papacy: ecclesial government by the monarchial papacy is simply more efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and benevolent than government by an episcopal legislature. We have known this about government from the beginning.

But Newman also invokes a striking passage from Dean Milman's Latin Christianity to insist that the top-down, monarchial papacy was the only means by which Christ's Church could constitute itself as Christ's autonomous society in the earth and then resist being hijacked by transient states (here, I would humbly remind some of my interlocutors that it is the oft-envied Orthodox Church that has throughout time been identified with the nation, and consequently, with national abuses- hello, the Romanian Orthodox Church...!). Consequently, Newman urges that papacy provided the only means by which Western Europe developed into the civilization that we know and love. In fact, Newman here refers to the Roman pontiff as "the Father of European civilization."

Read on:

"The Papacy was the only power which lay not entirely and absolutely prostrate before the disasters of the times—a power which had an inherent strength, and might resume its majesty. It was this power which was most imperatively required to preserve all which was to survive out of the crumbling wreck of Roman civilization. To Western Christianity was absolutely necessary a centre, standing alone, strong in traditionary reverence, and in acknowledged claims to supremacy. Even the perfect organization of the Christian hierarchy might in all human probability have fallen to pieces in perpetual conflict: it might have degenerated into a half-secular feudal caste, with hereditary benefices more and more entirely subservient to the civil authority, a priesthood of each nation or each tribe, gradually sinking to the intellectual or religious level of the nation or tribe. On the rise of a power both controlling and conservative hung, humanly speaking, the life and death of Christianity—of Christianity as a permanent, aggressive, expansive, and, to a certain extent, uniform system. There must be a counter-balance to barbaric force, to the unavoidable anarchy of Teutonism, with its tribal, or at the utmost national independence, forming a host of small, conflicting, antagonistic kingdoms. All Europe would have been what England was under the Octarchy, what Germany was when her emperors were weak; and even her emperors she owed to Rome, to the Church, to Christianity. Providence might have otherwise ordained; but it is impossible for man to imagine by what other organizing or consolidating force the commonwealth of the Western nations could have grown up to a discordant, indeed, and conflicting league, but still a league, with that unity and conformity of manners, usages, laws, religion, which have made their rivalries, oppugnancies, and even their long ceaseless wars, on the whole to issue in the noblest, highest, most intellectual form of civilization known to man ... It is impossible to conceive what had been the confusion, the lawlessness, the chaotic state of the middle ages, without the medieval Papacy...The right to warn and punish powerful men, to excommunicate kings, to preach aloud truth and justice to the inhabitants of the earth, to denounce immoral doctrines, to strike at rebellion in the garb of heresy, were the very weapons by which Europe was brought into a civilized condition."