The Bush/Cheney Impeachment Papers

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Open Letter (2): The Catholic Church and the Danger of Irresolution

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An essential component of conservatism is the conservative’s active sense of entitlement (see Corey Robin). He sees himself as someone to whom the world owes whatever he wants (nearly always, desires are expressed by conservatives as necessities) or believes he and, perhaps, he alone has a right to have. He is set off from the rest of his neighbors by some special attribute – he has more money, he has the “right” skin color, the “right’ background, the “right” ethnicity, is of an elite class, and so on – but more relevantly for our purposes, he believes that this “special quality”, whatever it is, absolves him from following the rules he expects the rest of us to live by.

Of all the world’s ultraconservative institutions, including empires and monarchies, arguably the longest-lived and least flexible of them is the Catholic Church. For some 2000 years, for 3/4 of which it was the single most powerful body in the Western world, forcing kings and empires to obey its dictates, it has survived virtually intact even as its enemies have fallen by the historical wayside. Empires are gone, kings dethroned, feudalism a bygone historical oddity but the Church remains, essentially unchanged, doctrinally at least, from the Church as it was in the very beginning. If there is a conservative success story – and there are very few – it must be the Catholic Church’s survival through ages of chaos and massive change.

We may ask, how did they do it? And at what price? The answers to those questions provide the modern world with a cautionary tale for, yes, it survived, but it did so at the cost of its integrity, its influence, most of its power, and the lives of millions of innocent people, most of them non-Catholic. As for the “how?” I can answer that in a single phrase: through evasion and a stout refusal to address risky realities. In other words, it ran like a rabbit.


The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870 by Catholic historian Monsignor Philip Hughes is a popular summarization of the background and actions of over 1500 years worth of General Councils of the Catholic Church. “General Councils”, as opposed to local or regional councils, are periodic gatherings of the entire Church structure – archbishops, bishops, cardinals, monks, prelates – the entire gamut of the hierarchy from every country on the globe. They meet at irregular intervals and only when they are called to meet to resolve weighty issues that involve the entire Church, usually theological issues, and while they’re at it they promulgate and vote on a list of canons (laws that regulate the actions of Church members much the same way that civil laws regulate the actions of citizens).

There are two things we can say about every GC from the first, the council of Nicaea in 325, to the Council of Trent 1200 years later.

  1. They were rubber stamps, every single one of them. Each of them – and there were 18 – met with orders from the pope laying out what they were to do and how they were to decide each question of canon law and theological dispute already in their hands. In no case, whatever blustering some did, whatever objections some loudly proclaimed, did any of the legal GC’s disobey those instructions. They might change a little wording here and there in order to assert their limited power, but they never materially altered what Authority told them to do. (They reminded me of the Democrats bragging about how they had won “major concessions” from Bush over the FISA bill when the “compromises” they had “won” amounted to little more than the bishops’ changing of an insignificant word in a papal canon to prove they had done something.)
  2. They consistently ducked every serious issue of theology or clerical behavior except heresy. While they came down like a ton of bricks on anyone who deviated even slightly from papally-approved dogma, every other issue that had raised its ugly head since the last GC was invoked was swept swiftly under the carpet, usually on the orders of a pope who feared retribution from either a political source (the wars between the popes and various kings and emperors are infamous) or the laity itself. Delay, denial, and disinterest were every pope’s best weapons when it came to avoiding confrontation, and they weren’t shy about using them.

The classic example of papal and episcopal duck-and-cover is probably the issue that finally brought about rebellion in 1517 when Martin Luther broke away from the Church and began the Protestant Reformation. It will be a familiar one to those following the ins-and-outs of the Bush GOP as it has run amok the last 8 years.


As early as the Council of Ephesus in 431, the issue of bribery was already simmering behind the scenes. In a theological confrontation between two antagionists, a pope-approved Cyril and a pope-disapproved “heretic” named Nestorius, Cyril – who was a pretty rich prelate – decided to bend the issue a bit by spreading some of his wealth around. Hughes admiringly quotes a French historian, Msgr Pierre Batiffol, “At the court every man had his price, and Cyril did not stop to count the price.” Hughes then gives us a sense of what that meant.

We have a list of the valuable presents that flowed in, carpets (of various sizes), furnishings, valuable silks, jewels, ivory chairs, ostriches, and good plain golden coin. Of this last, one group of fifteen high personages “touched” between them the equivalent of nearly a million dollars.

Cyril won the argument when those who got the goodies voted for his side. He bought the outcome, plain and simple, the same way a Mafia don might have bought the verdict of a jury.

For this act of excessive zeal, they made him a saint.
The fish rots from the head.
With examples like St Cyril to lead them, it isn’t surprising that the corruption spread.
  • At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the bishops found it necessary to warn monks not to take “secular employment” for money and castigated them for their wasteful lifestyles spent in “unedifying idleness”.
  • At the Fourth Council of Constantinople 400 years later, the bishops had to forbid each other from selling off church property and pocketing the money, and from selling ordinations (the making of a priest).
  • At the Second Lateran Council (1139) 300 years after that, there were canons forbidding inherited benefices (the income-producing properties or legacies that kept a parish or bishopric financially afloat) because it was common for priests and bishops to treat the income as their own and pass it on to their children or relatives (oh, yes – children; morality was a whole separate problem and there, too, no one wanted to face the music).
It was also at the Second Lateran that clerics of all stripes had to be warned against the wearing of too much finery when they went about visiting the common folk because all those furs and jewels might be considered “unseemly” by parishioners sunk in poverty. They were also told to lay off the heavy taxation of their laity, and forbidden to continue lending money at usurious rates. The bishops at the Council were very clear and very strict and excommunication was the least a cleric could expect for disobedience.
Not that any of that stopped them. The rules, as they expected, were never enforced. There were no consequences, you see. Everyone wanted to “move on”, “get past it”. There was a pretense that, since the Councils were the Last Word in Church law, they would, of course, be obeyed. No more would need to be said or done, and the High ranks of the Church could move to more pressing matters, like the Emperor Frederick II’s kidnapping of their pope or the invasion of the Huns, Saracens, or French, whichever was trying to take them over this week. So they never put any teeth into the laws, no enforcement, no consequences.
As a result, by the time Pope Julius II (Michelangelo’s patron? Rex Harrison played him in the movie?) called the Fifth Lateran Council in March of 1517 just 7 months before Luther hung his treatises on that Wittenburg door, the situation had deteriorated to such a degree that the Council’s whole purpose was reform of a badly corrupted system. The reforms, even then, were put in place without any system of enforcing them, and the abuses continued for another 25 years until the Council of Trent (1545) finally took this horrendous state of affairs seriously enough to enact facilities for seeing to it that consequences happened and the abuses were, once and for all, ended.
It was Luther and the Reformation who finally forced the Church’s hand. The loss of half the Western world was what it took to make them stop “moving on”. They had to backtrack and undo over 1000 years of overlooked crimes, and by the time they did the disgust with the corruption they had allowed to flourish unchecked and unpunished was general in most of Europe.
(to be cont’d)

Written by Mick

August 14, 2008 at 7:13 pm

Posted in History

4 Responses

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  1. […] History, Nancy Pelosi by Mick on August 15th, 2008 If it seems to you. Ms Pelosi, Mr Obama, as if these events are long ago, far away, and hardly germane to a modern question like whether or not to impeach a […]

  2. […] Open Letter (2): The Catholic Church and the Danger of Irresolution […]

  3. Mick, on re-reading my own piece I think I didn’t get across how interesting this comparison is. Instead, I just outlined your arguments, however poorly, and launched straight into a reply/discussion of my own.

    Thomas Nephew

    August 18, 2008 at 8:37 pm

  4. Well, that’s what it’s for, to spur thought and/or discussion. Apparently it did.


    September 11, 2008 at 8:36 pm

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