Crisis and Criticism in the Church: Historical precedents set the tone for the major task of today’s Council

From America, November 17, 1962:

In the whole history of the Church, perhaps no age was confronted with the enormous internal and external problems which the 16th century was asked to solve. Never since the days of Arianism in the fourth century had Christendom been threatened with such deep-rooted schism. Never had it been asked to reconcile two so basically different concepts of Christianity. In the second quarter of the 16th century, the old religious unity of Christendom vanished. At the opening of that century, there had been one Church in the Western world. At its close, there were many churches. Large portions of Germany, England and Scandinavia turned from the ancient Church and embraced the new, evangelical faith. Religious division entered every country in Europe. The loss to the Catholic Church was the greatest she had suffered since the collapse of Christian Africa before the Vandals and Saracens. Until the New World embraced the old religion, the loss remained uncompensated. In a sense, the religious history of this period spells a disaster from which Catholicism has never fully recovered.

No Church historian has ever admitted that the explanation of this vast splintering of Christendom is a problem that has an easy solution. Certainly the economic, political and social structure of the late Middle Ages cannot be excluded as a causative factor, for the Church does not develop in a vacuum. In some way, she is influenced by all aspects of space and time. But the undeniable low state of Western Christianity in the 15th century, especially its moral corruption, its decadent theology, its irresponsible administration, were of prime importance in bringing down the House of God. Every indication in the sources of the period points in this direction. The gap between profession of the faith and observance of its precepts on all levels of Christian society was alarming.

Face to face with the new, evangelical Christianity, the Church had to examine and re-examine herself from every viewpoint, human and divine. She had to formulate the doctrines which had been repudiated and correct the abuses with which she had been reproached. She had the enormous task of reforming faith and morals, dogma and discipline. She had to compare what she is with what she should be, what she does with what she believes. This comparison, so painful and humiliating to the most devout churchmen of that day, involved criticism, the faculty of judgment and discernment, the essential of all true reform, the requisite of all true progress.

But, in this respect, the age which saw the Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545-63) is not unique. The pages of Church history give clear testimony to leading figures in all ages who had the courage to speak their convictions to the highest authority in Christendom. The pointed, almost disturbing exchanges between St. Columban (d. 615) and Pope Boniface IV, between St. Bernard (d. 1153) and Pope Innocent II, are well-known episodes in medieval Church history. And from a later period we have the sharp criticism directed against Pope Gregory XI by both St. Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373) and St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380). These four examples are not isolated. They can be confirmed by other, equally relevant episodes from history. But what is perhaps surprising is that the personalities under consideration here are Catholic saints, devoted servants of the Church, loyal adherents to the Holy See. The mind, common to all of them, despite the candor of their speech, is aptly expressed by the Irish St. Columban: “For we . . . are bound to St. Peter’s Chair; for though Rome be great and famous, among us it is only on that Chair that her greatness and fame depend . . . . Rome is the head of the churches of the world. . . .” The criticism is sincere, responsible, submissive to the authority of the Holy See.

Perhaps the first visible sign that the papacy had really grasped the significance of the new evangelical movement is reflected in the Instructio which the Dutch Pope Hadrian VI (d. 1523) gave to Francesco Chieregati for his use at the Reichstag in Nurnberg in1522. It is a document which is sharply critical of the Church in both head and members and is keenly aware of the need of self-reform on all levels. The realism of its critical remarks is almost shocking; it can only be understood in view of the fact that Pope Hadrian was close successor to Alexander VI, Leo X and Julius II. He writes:

We know that in this Holy See for some years now there have been many abominations, spiritual excesses‑, administrative excesses—in fine, widespread corruption. . . . God has permitted persecution to fall upon His Church because of the sins of men, especially of priests and ecclesiastical prelates. . . . Wherefore, in what concerns us in this matter, we give you our promise that we will use every means that this Curia, whence perhaps all this evil has proceeded, shall be reformed.

The whole tone of this precious document shows clearly that it is the work of a high-minded man, earnest, patient, concerned with finding an honest solution to a vast problem. The character of the universal reform which it demands will set the tone for all the reform activity of the pre-Tridentine period.

Twenty years after Martin Luther had published his famous 95 theses and had firmly taken his stand against Pope and Emperor, against the two pillars of Christendom, the Holy See in the person of Paul III (d. 1549) appointed a special commission of nine prelates, including the great Cardinals Caraffa, Contarini and Pole, to investigate the disastrous situation which had developed in the countries north of the Alps. They were commissioned to examine the Church, diagnose its sickness, prescribe the remedy. Their prescription, the famous Consilium de ecclesia emendanda (“Memorial of the Reform Commission”), dated February, 1537, forms a source of the first order for understanding the mind and the method, the viewpoint and motivation of the most outstanding churchmen of the 16th century as they studied the state of the Church in that distant region.

But the document is also a tribute to the confidence and assurance of the Holy See in this small group of earnest prelates, and it is a monument to the freedom of thought and expression with which they were permitted to carry out their work. If the commission did not succeed in reforming the Church, the cause must be sought elsewhere, in factors beyond its control.

The Memorial, clearly under the influence of Pope Hadrian VI’s Instructio, is inspired by the hope of restoration through reform. “For the Spirit of God,” it says, “has decreed to restore through you, Paul III, the Church, which is now tottering, almost collapsed . . . to elevate it to its former beauty and revive its former glory.” The tone of the whole document is frank, unsparing, without human respect, in listing “the most grave, indeed deadly, abuses under which the Church of God, and especially the Roman Curia, suffer,” and in specifying the means to be used in reformation of those areas most in need of reform. Its accusation is universal. No one is spared, neither head nor members. And it sincerely, though perhaps with some exaggeration, grieves that “throughout the whole world almost all the shepherds have deserted their flocks and entrusted them to hirelings.” The sharp criticism which it directs against the Holy See is most readily appreciated when we recall the motto which Cardinal Caraffa, the future Pope Paul IV, selected at his election to the papacy: “Judgment must begin in his own house.”

In the second session of the Council of Trent, on January 7, 1546, the Fathers were privileged to be addressed by the Papal Legate, Reginald Cardinal Polo (d. 1558). This great English Cardinal was well qualified for the task of delivering what may be characterized as the keynote address of the Council. He was the son of the martyred Countess of Salisbury, kinsman of his persecutor (King Henry VIII), last Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, man of the Renaissance, a churchman distinguished for piety and learning. Born in 1500, the Cardinal was in the prime of life at the time the Council opened. He was old enough to have well remembered the Catholic Church in England in the days before the sad events which terminated in the cruel martyrdom of Thomas More and John Fisher. He was, therefore, peculiarly suited to address the Council on the state of the Church and the need for reform, for he could speak from the realistic view point of one who had been personally involved in the events which he discussed.

Reading this speech, known as the Eirenikon, four centuries later and, therefore, very much apart from the historical situation in which it was delivered, one is struck by the admirable humility, candor and piety which dominate its spirit. Where there is question of the grave moral abuses in the Church, the Cardinal’s remarks are breathtaking. “‘No good is served,” he remarks, “by a long inquiry as to who are the causes of these evils, seeing that we cannot even name any other causes but ourselves.”

In another place, Cardinal Pole writes of the sad state of the pre-Tridentine Church:

Before the tribunal of God’s mercy, we, the shepherds, should make ourselves responsible for all the evils now burdening the flock of Christ. The sins of all we should take upon ourselves, not in generosity but in justice, because the truth is that of these evils we are in great part the cause, and therefore we should implore the divine mercy through Jesus Christ.

That this overwhelming deprecation was pronounced before the Catholic episcopacy assembled in an ecumenical council is hard to believe. But it was only possible to speak this way because of the conspicuous humility of both speaker and audience, and because of the deep religious setting in which these words were uttered. “For in everything,” he said, “pertaining to the reformation of the Church, for which purpose we have forgathered, we should imitate Him who first made it.”

Much more could be written about Cardinal Pole’s Eirenikon. But the central point is already clear, that he envisioned reform in the Church as proceeding from objective criticism, Christian humility and utter selflessness. Because he saw the macrocosm of the Church reflected in the microcosm of the churchman, he pleaded for self-criticism, self-evaluation and self-knowledge as the foundation of reform.

It would be far from the truth to imagine that the Church is facing today a moral crisis which requires a reformation of her membership. The current problem is rather her essential relation to the new civilization which is being born. Her task, as always, is not mere survival in the world, but a vital, influential participation in it. She must, if possible, share in the creation of the world in which she lives. This is not a new task. She has done it before in the course of history, and she has within her the vitality to do it again. Her efforts must bend not merely toward conservation of Catholic culture, but toward creation of a new Catholic culture.

The spirit which is the very life of the four documents we have been considering is instructive. Our age has this in common with the age of Trent, that one great phase of history and culture is terminating, another is beginning. The old is passing, the new emerging. It is the realism, objectivity, honesty, humility and concern such as we find in these documents that transformed the disturbed Church of the dying Middle Ages into the energetic Church of the Counter Reformation. The documents are not face-saving devices, instruments of officialdom, legal formalities. Rather, they represent the work of men who thoroughly appreciated the value of self-criticism and self-evaluation as the essential ingredients of true reform. These men feared neither to ask questions nor to hear the answers. What they heard may have saddened them deeply, but it did not frighten them. What they learned did in fact inspire the Catholic reform.

These documents are relevant today, for they offer us both example and encouragement in an analogous crisis. As the Tridentine churchmen assisted the Church in her passage from the Middle Ages to the modern world, so it is our task to assist the same Church in her passage from the modern world to that new age which has not yet been named. We must facilitate the organic development of the Church, put new ways and means at her disposal, bring to her service the fullness of our talents, make her mobile by pruning away nonessential accretions. This delicate work requires the intelligent, selfless criticism that springs from prudence and love. “As a Church of men,” writes Hans Küng, “sinful men, the Church, though of divine foundation, needs criticizing; as the Church of God, she is more than any other institution, worth criticizing.”

In the Eirenikon of Cardinal Pole, cited above, there are some lines which well situate the problem:

All the more willingly shall we fulfill this duty of exhortation or of warning because when we exhort you to do what befits so great a gathering, or, on the contrary, warn you, we are exhorting or warning ourselves, who are in the same bark with you and are exposed with you to the same dangers and the same storm.

It is a salutary reminder that the commonweal of the whole Church, its prosperity and its adversity, should be the concern of the whole membership. This is part of the harmonious rhythm of the Mystical Body, whose Head is Christ and whose members are His people.

Robert E. McNally, S.J., who obtained his doctorate at the University of Munich after research into medieval and monastic Church history, now teaches at Woodstock College, Woodstock, Md.

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