Roman Hospitality and Its Limits
Published on: June 8, 2011
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  • WigWag

    “What the Church cannot do is allow any challenge to the authority of its hierarchy, from the Pope on down. It is that authority, I would propose, that is the very core of Roman Catholicism. To give it up would be to give itself up. It seems to me that progressive Catholics and their Protestant friends have never quite understood this.” (Peter Berger)

    I think Professor Berger is entirely right about this; the English reformation provides ample evidence for his claim.

    Roman Catholics argue from the act to the man and from the man back to the act. They believe that the reformation was a rebellion against an authority appointed by G-d for the rule of the world. That makes the reformation wicked in itself; the authors of this wicked movement must themselves be wicked because where else could a rebellion against G-d’s representative on earth be hatched but in depraved hearts?

    It was never doctrinal differences that so enraged the Roman Catholic hierarchy; as Professor Berger has pointed out, those could always be accommodated. What could not be accommodated was defiance of Roman authority which was taken to be defiance of the deity himself. The spiritual question that reformation era Roman Catholics asked to their new Protestant neighbors (when they weren’t trying to kill them) was “can an invigorating stream flow from a polluted fountain?”

    When Henry’s older brother Arthur died, Canon Law clearly forbade the betrothal of Arthur’s wife to his younger brother Henry. But this proved to be no obstacle to the marriage of Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Pope Julius, II proved only too happy to provide his dispensation to Ferdinand and Henry VII so that a political alliance (against France) could be cemented with the marriage of their children. As long as Ferdinand and Henry continued to look to Rome as the fountain of ecclesiastical authority, anything could be forgiven; anything was possible.

    Even when Henry VIII (believing he needed a male heir that Catherine could not give him) wanted to divorce Catherine in favor of Ann Boleyn, Pope Clement, VII was happy to annul the marriage under the rationale that his predecessor, Pope Julius, had been wrong to approve it in the first place. Only the objection of Catherine’s uncle, Emperor Charles V whose forces were then surrounding the Holy See and literally holding the Pope prisoner, prevented the Pope from granting the annulment. We can only imagine how history might have been different if Henry’s plea to dissolve his marriage to Catherine had been granted.

    While the Church was prepared to be very liberal in interpreting canon law and sanctioning nontraditional spiritual practices, what it refused to tolerate was any challenge to the spiritual or temporal authority of the Pope and his legates.

    Professor Berger is right; it’s the same today as it was in the 1500s.

    For a fascinating history of the English Reformation, I recommend James Anthony Froude’s “The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon.” His “The Reign of Mary Tudor” is also excellent. Both are available on the Kindle for free.

  • Peg

    The National Catholic Reporter presents the views of the far-left, seamless-garment, apostate fringe of American Catholicism. If you are looking for a more faithful, mainstream, widely accepted voice of American Catholicism please read the National Catholic Register. You mislead your readers by giving the appearance that the Reporter represents anything other than a small, unpopular, splinter group of the American Church.

  • Gabriel Curio

    Mr. Burger makes an important distinction between those things that the Catholic Church will compromise on and those it won’t.

    However, authority is not the essential property the church seeks to protect. The churches essential “inner circle” consists of many things; authority, however is the means by which the inner circle is protected, not the circle itself. There have been many instances where Church heirarchs have allowed their authority to be diminished to protect an unpopular doctrine.

    Just look at what happened to the authority of the pope after Pius VII issued Humanae Vitae, the encyclical condemning the birth control pill. Insistence on unpopular issues like women’s ordination and homosexuality only weaken heirarchical authority. Every authoritarian needs one of two things: force or popularity. The pope hasn’t had an army for well over a century (Swiss Guard excluded), and the these doctrines only diminishes its popularity.

    Yet, those who openly reject unpopular teachings are often found in influential positions within the Catholic Church. The fact that William Morris, a man who has serious reservations about the Church’s teaching authority, was elevated to the episcopate was not a freak occurrence. The only thing distinguishing him from hundreds of other Catholic bishops, abbots, theologians, and other Catholic leaders is his outspokenness. He shouts what others only mumble.

    The Catholic Church sees both its doctrine and its authority as coming from Christ. Her heirarchs do not see any conflict between discipline and charity because they are inherently complimentary. They reject authoritarian tyranny for the same reason they reject doctrinal pluralism: it divorces charity from discipline.
    Unfortunately, Mr. Burger makes the same mistake as George Orwell: he thinks an organization which insists on authority must allow nothing else in its essential “inner circle”. Orwell’s mistake prevented him from understanding both Communism and Catholicism. If Mr. Berger hopes to help people understand the workings of the Catholic Church, he needs to reevaluate what it is the Church is really trying to protect.

  • Excellent, informative, balanced post, Peter.

    For the Church, it is all about obedience. Reading the details of the episode with Bishop Morris reveals his repeated refusals to “stand down” in the matter, leaving (in my opinion) no alternative for Pope Benedict other than his personal involvement, which he seems to have done reluctantly.

    The argument can be made against “obedience with no questions asked” in many of life’s scenarios – but in those involving the authority of the Church and, specifically, the Bishop of Rome, there is no better summation than “Roma locuta, causa finita.”

  • WigWag

    I can’t think of a better antidote to Roman authoritarianism than to note that 104 years ago today, June 16, 1904 (courtesy of the imagination of James Joyce) Leopold Bloom, a Jew, started and completed his famous odyssey through the most Catholic of Catholic cities; Dublin.

    Happy Bloomsday to Professor Berger and all of his readers!

  • Jim Murphy

    Good article. Authoritarianism overshadows so-called dialogue and ecumanial-accommodation unless it cuts the other way.

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