Monday, February 16, 2015

Reflections on Dark Church History

I’ve been reading The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (I figured it would be good to root out any triumphalism in me to read it during Lent, but I started early). It’s a book that came highly recommended as being as unbiased, and not taking part in the Church bashing. But it still shows a grim picture of an ugly time. Ugly times, where ugly things were done—and some of them in the name of religion. These are things that can’t be justified. But we can try to understand how they happened then—changing what needs to be changed on one hand while avoiding any post hoc arguments that claim that Catholic belief in itself caused the actions that were wrong.


President Obama managed to offend most of Christianity when he equated the actions of ISIS today with the actions of Christianity over 500 years ago—treating the abuses as if they were main purposes of the actions. Christians were right to be offended by this overly broad statement. However, one thing I have noticed about the response to Obama’s words is that some of my fellow Catholics seem to go in the opposite extreme. Instead of saying that the abuses were the norm, some of my fellow Catholics try to deny or downplay the fact that these abuses did exist. Such behavior is, of course, scandalous when it comes to our witness to non-Catholics. It looks like we’re belittling the suffering that was caused or behaving like the modern Holocaust deniers. 

I don’t write this in a sense of “You Catholic bloggers need to be more like me.” God knows I have been in the same boat at times, looking for excuses that exonerates Catholics. It’s one of the things where belief in the Mark of the Church as Holy is mistakenly understood as meaning that the members of the Church were impeccable (without sin). But that’s a battle we don’t have to fight. The Church is holy because of Christ, not because a certain percentage of her followers are saints, and if she falls below that quota, she will cease to be holy. This is shown in The Prayers of Forgiveness that St. John Paul II offered on May 12, 2000. It’s humbling to read, and sometimes it’s easy to say, “But what about—?"

I think another reason for defensiveness is that we fear that if something wrong was done by leaders of the Church, it will be a refutation of the belief that God protects His Church from teaching error. But I think this fear is misplaced. Not all magisterial decrees are taught as infallible doctrine, and some decrees (such as laws governing the Papal States prior to 1878) do not fall under such teaching at all. Christ’s promises about the Gates of Hell not prevailing against the Church weren’t aimed at the temporal governing of a territory or a political action, even if done from a religious motive. The Popes of the time had the authority to do these things, but we don’t have to treat them as doctrine. So we don’t have to try to defend the Jewish ghettoes in Europe or the like. Admitting these were wrong is not a denial of the Church’s holiness or infallibility.

With that said, I think we need to remember that to have a good act, we need three things:

  1. The act itself must be good.
  2. The motive for doing the act must be good.
  3. The circumstances surrounding the act must be good.

If one or more of these things is missing, the act is not good—even if the intention was to do good.

In addition, even if the Church decree for something was good in itself—meeting these three conditions—it doesn’t mean it will be executed well (no pun intended). Yes, the Crusades were intended as a defensive action. Yes, the inquisitions were intended to find out subversive actions done to undermine the faith, but that doesn’t mean that the people who took part in them were all saints and that all the actions done were right or done for the right reasons. People, being sinners, can corrupt anything. It is tragic that members of the Church were quick to cooperate with (and sometimes encourage) the state in things where they should have been the ones saying “slow down."

So let’s not try to deny the anti-semitism in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition or the evil actions done in the Crusades. Let’s not deny that the Summa Theologica has some cringeworthy ideas (like the treatment of heretics in Summa Theologica II-II q.10 a.8 resp.)

Of course at the same time, let’s not look at the evils done and say that the Church needs to abandon her teachings. Yes, evils were done in the name of the Church—and some of them by people highly placed in the Church. But people who act out of hatred or greed or other vices and exploit the Church in doing so are not a sign that the Church teaching “X is wrong,” is the cause for Christians mistreating people solely because they are part of group X. There are some misguided Catholics out there who point to the Crusades as if they are a good idea for today in response to ISIS. But the Catholic teaching that the existence of Christ’s Church "subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him” (Lumen Gentium 8), is not the cause of certain Catholics behaving in a bigoted manner towards non-Catholics, just like believing marriage can only be between one man and one woman is not the cause of mistreating people with same sex attraction.

And let’s also get rid of the idea that the people in Europe from the 12th-17th centuries could and should have thought like 21st century Americans. What we have in society today is based on the development of Christian thought and the stabilization of society. The idea of a pluralistic society (as opposed to an empire with subjected peoples) did not exist yet. It was developed during this time. Political society evolved from the decrees of the ruler to being a more constitutional view of how to treat people—a view formed by Christian ethics.

I think Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had a good point which can be derived from when he was writing about “dark passages” in the Bible and how to understand them:

God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. (Benedict XVI, Verbum Domini 42)

Even now, with the fullness of revelation in Christ being given us [that is—no further divine revelation], humanity can come up with new ways to be barbaric and cruel, and, in response, the Church needs to determine what is the best way to apply what we believe to these situations (for example, nuclear weapons required us to consider new aspects in the concept of “just war”). For example, the Church did not have much to say on slavery before it reemerged in the 15th century, because it was largely dying away in Christian Europe. But when the Azores were conquered, and slaves were taken, the Pope at the time (Eugene IV) certainly had something to say on the matter in the Papal Bulls Creator Omnium and Sicut Dudem. Sometimes it takes an abuse to exist before a response can be given, and sometimes it can take awhile before people recognize that a thing is an abuse. Remember, we believe the Popes are infallible when it comes to avoiding teaching error as binding—it doesn’t mean they are omnipotent (all knowing) understanding that wrongdoing is happening or grasping the significance of it. Sometimes, scandal has happened when the Church has been silent over something when it should have spoken out. But we have to distinguish these things before assigning blame to the Church.

Understanding where blame goes is that first step that needs to be discerned. The individual who decides on his own to commit an evil act and tries to justify it by pointing to Church teaching cannot be justified if his interpretation of Church teaching goes against the Church understanding. The state that enforces laws that the Church calls unjust is going against Church teaching. In these cases, it cannot be said that the Church is to blame for the actions of the individual or the State. It’s only when individual or the state is properly obeying (as opposed to misinterpreting) the Church in doing wrong, or when the Church is knowingly silent instead of speaking out that the Church herself can be said to be to blame. These things did happen of course—St. John Paul II did see the need to apologize for actions done in the name of the Church. But ultimately, we need to discern first, neither defending the indefensible nor condemning that which was not wrong.

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