I began to realize the hold of this powerful fetish as soon as I became involved with the Roman Forum, which was just when the Novus Ordo descended upon us. It was at that time that Dietrich von Hildebrand began to argue that the Traditional Mass could not be abrogated, and that although its temporary replacement had to be recognized as legitimately promulgated by papal authority, we had to fight for the correction of its horrible deficiencies, and seek, as our final goal, the full restoration of the Mass of the Ages. “Accept the reality of the legitimate authority, but fight to have its horrible actions revoked,” became his battle cry. And for this, papal fetishists treated him as promoting schism and even heresy, insisting, as I heard one distinguished conservative say, that “if the pope ordered me to hear Mass standing on my head I would gladly do so”.
Thankfully, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed the truth that we could never be obliged to stick our feet up in the air during the Sacred Liturgy, and that we had every right to listen to the prayers at the foot of the altar right side up instead.
Those who adopted the von Hildebrand battle cry, and who therefore recognized that legitimate authority could make terrible decisions that loyal Catholics had to fight to correct, took heart in the fact that almost the entirety of Church History shared their view. For Catholics, historically, have mostly been untouched by the papal fetish, and to a large degree because the Papacy itself for long stretches of time did not do much to encourage it. St. Peter, as the Romans say, has all too often preferred to “sleep” rather than to stir up popular enthusiasm for his prerogatives in a way that might actually force him to have to do something active on behalf of the universal Church. Weak and lazy popes have often been our curse.
Yes, the Supreme Pontiff can sometimes be shown to have taken action and demanded obedience on his own steam, as when Pope Leo the Great wrote his Tome for the Council of Chalcedon, and Pope Gregory the Great sought vigorously to deal with the collapse of effective imperial government in the West. But much of the time outside militants had to stir the Papacy to exercise its rightful authority, as—ironically, given the position of the Eastern Orthodox today—in the Early Middle Ages, by Greeks of the caliber of St. Maximus the Confessor at the time of the Monothelite Controversy and Pope St. Martin I.
Interestingly enough with respect to the current argument, the greatest assertion of papal supremacy in pre-modern times, that which was associated with the reform movement of the High Middle Ages, was ushered in, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, by nothing less than the booting of bad but actually legitimate popes from off of their thrones through the intervention of the German imperial authority coming into Italy from across the Alps. This was undertaken with the enthusiastic approval of militant reformers such as St. Peter Damien, and with judgments uttered by reformed popes regarding their wicked predecessors that would perhaps make even the hardiest opponents of the current pontificate blush.
Christendom was grateful for the intervention of such outside secular help once again in the fifteenth century when the Papacy was hopelessly caught in a three way fight for the title of Supreme Pontiff. It was then that the Emperor Sigismund, in violation of all existing canonical rules, pressed the claimants to the See of Peter, including the legitimate Roman one, to abdicate to make the way for a new and universally recognized successor.
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As mention of St. Peter Damien should already demonstrate, it is the greatest friends of the full and legitimate role of the Papacy who have come to the fore to criticize the actions of specific popes or general papal condoning of dangers long lurking about them in Rome. Hence, St. Bernard’s famous de consideratione, written for his pupil, Pope Eugenius III, warned of the way in which the seeming strengthening of the Papacy in his day was actually providing a dreadful opening to secular legal, bureaucratic, and financial interests interested more in Constantine than in Christ. Hence, St. Louis IX’s public rejection of papal political shenanigans designed to create the “perfect” conditions for limiting imperial power in Sicily. And, hence also, the lamentations of St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena regarding the abuses of the almost universally excoriated papal court at Avignon, the dereliction of duty on the part of pontiffs who should have been striving to return to Rome, and the half-tyrannical and half-mad actions of Pope Urban VI at the beginning of the Great Western Schism.
Most impressive of all is what one might label the two-part “liber accusationis” of Gian Pietro Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV. Part one of this thorough “hanging out of dirty linen” consisted of numerous letters to the people around Clement VII concerning abuses in the Church that the pope was sometimes ignoring and sometimes abetting, to the detriment of every loyal Catholic. Part two was the document, Consilium de Emendanda ecclesia, produced for Pope Paul III by Carafa and other members of a commission of cardinals assigned the task of explaining the causes of the Reformation and what could done to fight it. The Consilium blamed the disaster upon abuses condoned by the Holy See for centuries emerging from an exaggeration of papal prerogatives and power—an exaggeration, I might add, that made some canonists even claim that the Pope could abolish Scripture “if he willed”.
Admittedly, this two part “liber” was not meant for public divulgement, but it makes the point my article is underlining crystal clear: Carafa, himself a very vigorous pope in later years, did not suffer from the papal fetish. And for that matter, neither did the Jesuits, despite their vow of “total obedience”. Their orchestrated campaigns against the actions of popes who disapproved of them in the sixteenth century is as extremely well documented as it is almost entirely unknown to Catholics!
Our contemporary fetish—as is much better known than the anti-papal ranting of the Jesuits—is the product of the Ultramontanist Movement of the nineteenth century, which saw the need for a more organized response to the secular revolutionary world by means of reinvigorating the Church’s central authority. This movement was part of a broader contemporary Catholic revival seeking to understand the full meaning of the Incarnation as well as the Mystical Body and Social Kingship of Christ.
A schema on the Church as a whole, prepared for the First Vatican Council in 1870 by a member of the broader reform movement, attempted to do what Trent had been prevented from doing by secular and ecclesiastical politics: clarify the exact role of the Papacy, the Episcopacy, the Clergy, and the Laity. Due to opposition from Liberal Catholics, Ultramontanist pressure, and the cutting short of the Council by the Franco-Prussian War, the schema on the Church was never promulgated, and Papal Infallibility alone was proclaimed.
While actually very limited in its claims, and underlined as being so limited by Cardinal Deschamps, one of its chief defenders, the proclamation of Papal Infallibility nevertheless did discuss the Papacy “out of context”, which was not the plan of the schema proponents. This fact alone worked psychologically and symbolically to give the power of the Pope over the universal Church more emphasis than was perhaps intended, though admittedly to the delight of exaggerated Ultramontanists. Papal importance was then reinforced by a line of some of the most distinguished popes in Church History, whose labors on behalf of the Mystical Body made it seem to the believing public that they and they alone could handle every matter involving faith, morals, and Catholic Action, and handle them properly. They were, to a large degree, impressive and heroic popes. And through their impressive pontificates and heroism the Papacy became ever more untouchable.
But even at this time of seemingly impeccable papal teaching and action, there were problems with their pontificates that deeply concerned those who were dedicated to the cause of Christ the King. These involved a combination of solid anti-Modernist and anti-revolutionary guidance with an all too obvious tendency, reflected in the hunt for Concordats and unofficial agreements with government after government, to “sell out” the Catholic position on the Social Kingship of Christ for the sake of “religious liberty”, guaranteeing the security of the cult and the position of the clergy alone.
The “intransigent” pre-Vatican Two Papacy generally “talked the talk”, but did not always “walk the walk”—as its record with respect to cooperation with Liberals in Italy before the First World War and the Cristeros in Mexico in the 1920’s and 1930’s all too well demonstrates. And its negligence in controlling a rebellious clergy eager to destroy all work for a Social Kingship of Christ under Pope Pius XII is devastatingly clear from the literally heart-rending diaries and letters of Father Joseph Fenton in the 1950’s. One might wish that such criticism had been better known publically at the time, were it not for the fact that the “papal fetish”—to which Fenton himself clearly did not succumb—would have been met with the same reaction faced by von Hildebrand fifteen years later.
It is precisely that rebellious clergy that has taken possession of the Papacy and the Church in general in our time. They are now the legitimate authorities, and they are teaching and acting in ways that we, like our fellow Catholics in the past, though in a world that the current authorities constantly (but hypocritically) proclaim to require a greater openness than ever before, have an obligation, publically, to insist be revoked and corrected in line with the entire Tradition of the Church. For the Church and the “will” of the current Pontiff are simply not one and the same thing.
Now it is the higher clergy that has the greatest obligation to speak out in these matters. Some prelates do so. Some have understandable restraints on their action. Alas, all too many are hopelessly crippled by the papal fetish.
Nevertheless, the Catholic movement of the nineteenth century, as well as Second Vatican Council, pointed out that the laity has its responsibility as well. Emperors once exercised that responsibility for us, and we would do well still to ask the intercession of the Emperor St. Henry II and Blessed Karl of Austria to inspire us to understand what the laity should do in this current disaster in their absence. While waiting for their assistance, the rest of us, each through our different vocation, must seek to fight in whatever diverse ways that what we can.
Our fight is for the fullness of the message of the Incarnation, for the fullness of the Social Kingship of Christ, and, as such, a battle for the fullness of the Papacy, whose true character and mission, one that puts its role above both weakness and willfulness, cannot be understood until the papal fetish obscuring them loses its hold over us. But in order to fight that fight properly we, ourselves, really have to know much better than ever before what these doctrines and institutions truly are and what the real problems that they have faced in the past and face today honestly are.
I wish that I could say that I am as certain that we are “awakened” to what we positively need to know for the future of the Social Kingship of Christ as I am that we are correct in fighting that papal fetish that seeks to block desperately needed criticism of the current pontificate. Quite frankly, I think that there is still too much anti-intellectualism, too much John Locke, too much Adam Smith, too much American parochialism, too much obsession with enemies now dead and buried, and too much hope for salvation from some new Constantine focused on matters of secondary importance to recognize what the papal fetish is really blocking knowledge of in 2016. And that is the fact that the willful Nominalism of the later Middle Ages, destructive of all categories of knowledge, the willful Lutheranism of the sixteenth century, destructive of all legitimate social authority, and the willful, freedom-obsessed, Anglo-American and Continental Liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, destructive of all restraints on individual madness, with all of the contradictory, capitalist, statist, and libertine consequences that emerge therefrom, have now wormed their way into the teachings and actions of the legitimate successor of St. Peter.
St. Peter Damien and St. Maximus the Confessor, pray for us!