Among several things that really stuck with me from my old seminary’s Church history professor was him asking our class this question: “What is the value of studying Church history?” Were he to ask me today, without the slightest hesitation I could say that perspective on crises must be one of the most important benefits.
The most cursory glance at the annals of Catholic history, let alone the history of ancient Israel, takes one on a tour of practically every kind of human wickedness imaginable, often in its most extreme forms. While there are certain elements of our own day which are uniquely challenging, by and large we have of late been spoiled rotten with good popes and a healthy ecclesiastical environment. You don’t believe that? Come with me on a brief tour.
So we have a sexual scandal among clergy? We do. But recall Pope John XII, who died while in bed with another man’s wife when her husband came home, either from shock or from being murdered. This was no fluke but was rather the culmination of a wanton life of lust and hardened impiety. (He also was kind enough to give the people of the Diocese of Todi a 10-year-old whom he had consecrated personally to be their bishop.) There was also Alexander VI of the infamous Borgia family, and Julius II, and Paul III, to name just a few men who were rather fond of the ladies.
Ah, but it’s a homosexual problem, it may be replied… This too is hardly new, as a small litany of popes have had serious accusations of such behavior leveled at them, several of them as recently as the 16th century. One can begin to understand some of Martin Luther’s frustrations, no?
So there’s some financial corruption in the Vatican? Do you remember when Pope Benedict IX sold the papacy? And then when he ended up being pope again, and even after leaving a second time, returned for a third? (By the way, he also had an intense “appreciation” for women… and sometimes men. On the other hand, he may have been elevated to the Chair of St. Peter as young as the age of 11, and when he left the papacy for the third time he went off to do penance for the rest of his life, so let’s cut him some slack.)
We hear about how corrupt and inept and “legalistic” the Church’s courts can be. Well, who could forget the infamous Cadaver Synod of 897? That was when Pope Stephen VI exhumed the body of Pope Formosus and put him on trial – and found him guilty. This eventually led to a public uprising in Rome, Stephen being strangled in prison, and the excommunication of 7 cardinals. (The 9th and 10th centuries were particularly interesting times for the papal court, due in no small part to the enormous influence of the wicked Theophylacti family.)
It’s nearly impossible to go a day in the Catholic blogosphere without reading about how seriously ambiguous and possibly gravely erroneous some statements of the current pope are. Well, imagine if Popes Honorius I or John XXII had been on Twitter, or if the three different popes who attempted to give authority to some priests to confer Holy Orders could have quickly adjusted an online text of a universal catechism to reflect their fallacious opinions.
You think that there might be a possibility of a papal deposition, or that the Holy See might already be vacant, and that this is all unthinkable? Go read about the Western Schism, where there were not two but three men who had serious claims to the Chair of St. Peter. Many saints were divided on the issue, among them Catherine of Siena (who supported Urban) and Vincent Ferrer (who supported Clement).
And we’ve only been talking about popes. The investiture controversy, the Arian crisis, the laxism which brought on the Gregorian reform… And on, and on, and on.
Church history is one long series of crises, guided by God’s providence. The worst crisis has come and gone, by the way – that was the first Holy Thursday and Good Friday. It can never be overstated how important those two days are for understanding what role sin has in the Church’s hierarchy, and why it should not be cause for existential alarm. Christ wanted Judas in the Twelve for a reason… It seems it was partially to dissuade us from seeing the Church as the kind of worldly messianic kingdom that the Jews had been waiting for. Heaven has only half come to Earth.
It’s not that the various public reactions don’t contain good ideas to help rectify the roots of the McCarrick scandal, although I do wonder about some of the particulars. They are probably worth pursuing to various extents. But it is naive to think that with the right policies or people or pressure, sin – even grave sin – is going to somehow be expunged from the clergy. As long as we ordain sinners, we will have sinners for leaders. Do not let Judas scandalize you.
So there is, in fact, only one way to “solve the crisis” – it is for God to bring the world to an end.
Wake up and smell the concupiscence.