The Church: God Writing Straight with Crooked Lines

July-August 2014By Howard P. Kainz

Howard P. Kainz is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Marquette University and a former executive coun­cil­­member of the American Catholic Philosophical Association. A widely published author, his most recent book is The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (Susquehanna University Press, 2010). His website is http://academic.mu.edu/phil/kainzh.

History of the Catholic Church: From the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium.  By James Hitchcock. Ignatius Press. 584 pages. $29.95.



It’s been a few decades since I’ve read any substantial histories of the Catholic Church, so I decided to tackle James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church, which runs almost six hundred pages. The first couple chapters provide an overview of the Gospel and its historical setting. As the book progresses, it offers much that is thought-provoking and, in a way, reassuring for those of us who get depressed about this or that development in the contemporary Church. I will focus on a few developments throughout the Church’s history that should help to throw some light on current ecclesial practices and concerns.

Development of Rituals

Obviously, at the onset of Christianity, there were no churches in the present sense. Gatherings were held in synagogues, and Eucharistic rituals often took place in private homes. Communion in the hand was common, and the “kiss of peace,” a pagan custom, was gradually adopted by the clergy. By the third century, Latin had replaced Greek as the language of the liturgy because it had become the vernacular. Genuflections, the sign of the cross, and other gestures were largely innovations included under the influence of Frankish clergy. The Gloria and the Creed were not introduced until the eleventh century. There were no Christian nuptial ceremonies until around A.D. 400, when couples who had been civilly married would go to a priest for a blessing; this eventually led to wedding liturgies and, finally, in the ninth century, to traditional marriage ceremonies under Church auspices. (The future Pope Benedict XIV in the eighteenth century even justified elopement, on the grounds that the power of the sacrament would render such a marriage holy.) Private confession to a priest was not required until the ninth century, although it was observed in danger of death.

Development of Doctrine

As evidenced by the Didache, a work that contains the teachings of the Apostles toward the end of the first century, the Church has always strongly prohibited abortion. Theological reference to the Trinity began with Tertullian in the third century. The doctrine of Purgatory was not given full expression until the sixth century, by Pope St. Gregory the Great. The doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was first formulated in the ninth century by Radbertus — which led to new liturgical practices in the handling of the Eucharist. The practice of receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling was a reaction to the heresy of Ratramnus, who in the ninth century denied Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist. But then, as a sense of unworthiness grew, reception of Communion became less frequent, and the Church began to require reception at least once a year. (After the Protestant Reformation, one indicated one’s attitude toward the Real Presence by kneeling, or refusing to kneel, during Eucharistic processions.)

Disciplinary Developments

Usury was forbidden for centuries, and so money lending remained the province of Jews, until Catholic and Protestant moralists began to make distinctions between legitimate and exorbitant interest charges on loans. Celibacy was eventually mandated in the eleventh century to prevent family dynasties — even in the papacy. For example, in the sixth century, Pope St. Hormisdas was the father of Pope Silverius, and Pope Felix III was the grandfather of Gregory the Great. The Inquisition for the investigation of heresies was established in 1184, and control of inquisitorial processes was eventually delegated to the Franciscan and Dominican orders. The execution of heretics was generally approved in this era when politics and religion were so closely intertwined. Lutherans and Anglicans executed Anabaptists; Calvin burned a Spanish physician who denied the Trinity; and St. Thomas More, himself a martyr, participated in prosecuting heretics.

Serious Darkness in the Dark Ages

In the ninth and tenth centuries, corruption of kings and clerics was common. Charlemagne married five times, had six concubines, and forced his daughters to have their children out of wedlock in order to avoid potential political entanglements with his sons-in-law. The institution of the papacy was often in disarray. For example, Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, to be exhumed and tried for violations of Church law; Formosus was found guilty, stripped of his vestments, and desecrated. Later that year, Stephen himself was strangled in prison. Bribery was common. Benedict IX paid to become pope in the eleventh century, but later resigned on the condition that he receive his money back. The general picture by the fifteenth century was not very pretty. As Hitchcock observes, “Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), a Franciscan who was notoriously immoral in his private life, set out to make the papacy a feared military force, placed his nephews in important principalities, and arranged their marriages with an eye to effecting strategic alliances. He supported a plot to assassinate the Medicis, the ruling Florentine family, who were to be killed at Mass by two priests…. Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was a Spanish cardinal, a member of the Borgia family, [and]…became one of the most notorious of all the popes, the worst since the tenth century.” Hitchcock adds that the future Pope Pius II came from a background of pornographic authorship.

Survival of Roman Catholicism

Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, Bibles were in short supply. The hides of fifty calves were required to make a complete Bible, so even some bishops did not have one. Universities initiated the offering of bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees, and spread widely, so that they numbered over eighty by the end of the Middle Ages. Muslims’ twelfth-century rejection of the sciences as incompatible with faith left a lacuna for Christian universities to fill. But constant political struggles were the order of the day: Guelfs and Ghibellines perpetuated constant conflict between pope and emperor. Popes themselves conflicted with one another: In 1570, for example, Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth; but a few years later Pope Sixtus V declared that she was an admirable woman. The Church hierarchy was sometimes involved in criminality; for example, some cardinals in the sixteenth century tried to poison Pope Leo X, who got wind of the plot and executed their leader. Leo’s unfortunate decision to recognize the right of the king of France to nominate bishops caused problems of authority for the following three centuries.

Schisms & Reform Movements

Cardinal Humbert of Moy­en­moutier’s eleventh-century ex­com­­munication of the patriarch of Constantinople is sometimes taken as the beginning of the schism between Catholics and Orthodox. But this is questionable, since that action was taken without the explicit agreement of Pope Leo IX, who died during Humbert’s visitation and investigation. In the fourteenth century there were three claimants to the papacy — Urban VI, Clement VII, and John XXII — which helped give rise to the conciliar movement, so that cardinals could depose popes in such cases. But this “solution” turned out to be a vicious circle, since councils are customarily called by popes. In the twelfth century, Peter Abelard, famous for his romantic affair with Heloise, eventually became a reforming abbot whose monks tried to poison him. And in the sixteenth century, some unlikely popes began to lead the way to reform. As Hitchcock writes, “Papal support for the reforming impulse in the Church began with Paul III, who led a scandalous life. He fathered children, and his ecclesiastical career flourished primarily because of his aristocratic Farnese family connections and the fact that his sister had been one of Pope Alexander VI’s mistresses. By the time of his election, he had undergone a change of heart, although he still used his office to favor his children.” But the Church was unable to head off the very different approaches to “reform” carried out by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others. So the Council of Trent was called to stem the disruptive tides, beginning with the Protestant Reformation.

Many such councils have been called in the hope that they would clear up ambiguities and differences once and for all. But, as Hitchcock observes, the history of Church councils would lead us to a different conclusion. The fourth-century Council of Nicaea left unresolved the question of Christ’s divinity. The fifth-century Council of Chalcedon seemed to make Constantinople and Rome equal sees. And Trent opened up with disputes that seemed to portend similar or even worse ambiguities. For starters, France boycotted the proceedings, leaving mostly Italian bishops, along with a few other European bishops. Pope Paul IV opposed the Council as a threat to papal authority, causing a hiatus. But as Trent resumed under the aegis of Pope Pius IV, acrimonious national and doctrinal factions developed, leading to some ambiguity in the final decrees. For example, Christ was declared to be present “whole and entire” under both species, bread and wine, and frequent Communion was encouraged; but the “frequent Communion” recommended for seminarians was once a week, and for nuns once a month. Disputed questions about justification and the relation of grace and free will were left unresolved. And Mass in the vernacular was prohibited, even though, as we saw above, Latin was first chosen because it was the vernacular.

The Church & Slavery

Beginning in the fifteenth century, popes forbade the slave trade. But this prohibition, which was repeated periodically, was largely ignored by the Portuguese and others. During the nineteenth century, American Catholics were divided on the issue. The fact that St. Paul in his Epistle to Philemon had not condemned slavery contributed to the debate. Many Catholics in Maryland and the lower Mississippi Valley owned slaves; Bishop John England of Charleston, South Carolina, argued that no pope had ever condemned domestic slavery; Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore also owned a slave, although he eventually set the slave free. On the other hand, Archbishop John Purcell of Cincinnati, along with a few other members of the clergy, called for the emancipation of slaves.

Struggles over Infallibility

About a third of the Council Fathers at Vatican I were either opposed to the declaration of infallibility or wanted to attach conditions to its announcement. A lingering problem was that, in the past, two popes had dabbled in heresy — Pope Honorius in the seventh century accepted monothelitism, and Pope John XXII in the fourteenth century supported (but later recanted) the doctrine of “soul sleep” before the Last Judgment. So the condition of “speaking ex cathedra” was finally emphasized, to take into account the possibility of occasional papal infelicities.

Divisions at Vatican II

The leaders of thought at Vatican II were primarily theologians, and the majority of the Council Fathers tended to defer to the opinions of these “experts.” According to Hitchcock, “Along with Schillebeeckx, Haering, and to a lesser extent Rahner, the German-Swiss priest-theologian Hans Küng was the increasingly bold and abrasive chief spokesman for aggiornamento, demanding that the Church accommodate herself to a changing culture, while de Lubac, Danielou, Maritain, Balthasar, Bouyer, Ratzinger, and others protested what they considered distortions of the Council.”

Nothing clearly heretical issued from the Council but, as with Trent, ambiguities abounded. Movements toward ecumenism were particularly murky. The call for ecumenical dialogue with “mainline” Protestants did not take into account that liberal Protestantism had little sympathy for authoritative (even “joint”) statements about creeds. And the outreach to Islam as an “Abrahamic” religion with Muslims adoring “the one merciful God” constituted a considerable stretch in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Novus Ordo Mass adopted at the Council was written in Latin and celebrated in Latin at papal ceremonies. But without any explicit directives, the Mass began to be celebrated in the vernacular, with the priest facing the congregation. The Requiem Mass, with its dies irae and requiem aeternam, was suppressed, in favor of a joyful celebration of resurrection.

Post-Council Predicaments

Current divisions in the Church, writes Hitchcock, are often blamed on Vatican II. But this is a mistake. Vatican II ended up with ambiguities, like Vatican I, Trent, and other councils, but it was, by and large, orthodox. The divisions can more reasonably be traced to Paul VI’s rather belated issuing of Humanae Vitae, his 1968 encyclical reiterating the Church’s traditional ban on contraception, at a time when there was a generalized expectation of a relaxation of the rules. Fulton Sheen, while serving as bishop of Rochester, New York, got caught in the middle of the ongoing arguments — agreeing once with an interviewer on television that the Church might allow contraception, then shortly afterward resigning his see in embarrassment, under a firestorm of reactions from right and left. The fact that the Pope himself was hesitant to mandate acceptance of the encyclical aggravated the problem. In the U.S., Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle of Washington, D.C., suspended some dissenting priests, but the Vatican later required the reinstatement of these same priests. Thus the ultimate result went beyond the issue of the sexual revolution to the larger issue of papal authority in regard to morals as well as faith.

A Lesson for Schismatics

Since I am a native of Los Angeles, was familiar with Immaculate Heart College, and had visited the college for cultural events, Hitchcock’s description of the defection of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart resonated with me. After systematic “re-education” by the psychologist Carl Rogers, and disagreements with James Cardinal McIntyre about wearing the habit and conventual rules, the congregation of over three hundred sisters left to start their own community, oriented toward peace, social justice, and care of the environment. Their “renewal” turned out to be the paradigm for other nuns around the country. In the aftermath of the 1917 Fatima message, which had to do with reparations to our Lord for the five offenses against the Immaculate Heart of His mother, the fact that this rebellion was led by religious sisters dedicated to the Immaculate Heart seems ironic and tragic.

In spite of such developments, as Hitchcock points out, the Church by 2010 had doubled in size since the end of Vatican II. And if one takes the long view, one can see that the Church has “come a long way” in the good sense. Perhaps the sedevacantists in our midst, by boning up on Church history, warts and all, might realize that her present state is miraculous — not the work of men, but of God, who writes straight with crooked lines.



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