Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Making of Pre-Vatican II Catholicism

Although the Catholic Church is the only Christian body present at every stage of the history of Christianity, the 19th century gave birth to a frozen Catholicism of unschooled, overly devout  laypeople led by an absurdly papist and clerical hierarchy. It was irrelevant to citizens and workers seeking just rights, rigidly Tridentine and roundly disregarded in the public square and the academy. When I was a youth it had a simple name: pre-Vatican II.

As the 19th century neared, the overwhelmingly Catholic majority in Europe and Spanish America was monarchical, absolutist in philosophy and politics and prone to popular piety; its Catholic faith and practice remained the soul and heart of society. Between 1789 and 1848, that worldview changed radically with the French Revolution and the emergence of socialism.

Two leaders of the Catholic Church, Popes Pius VI and IX, are most to blame for badly misreading the signs of their times. That failure led the Church to lose the working class, intellectuals and the new industrial era’s leaders.

The French Revolution’s anti-monarchical impulse included a kind of anti-clericalism fueled by popular criticism, even among devout Christians, of the privileges, wealth and even corruption of the clergy. To understand an ordinary French person’s perception of the clergy, consider the Estates General under the Old Regime, the king’s legislative and consultative assembly made up of various classes (or estates).

The composition and powers of the Estates-General never changed: representatives of the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (the nobility) and Third Estate (commoners, in other words, all others). Of course, the Estates General was largely symbolic. When the revolution broke out, the king discovered that the last king to call them to meet was his grandfather.

This was the social stratification of much of continental Europe. Closest to the king, due to its alleged special connection to God, was the clergy, next was the nobility, then the rest. When the rest rose up against the king and nobility, the clergy was tossed out as so much dirty bathwater.

During two years known as the Reign of Terror, revolutionary authorities in France suppressed the Church, nationalized church property, exiled 30,000 priests and killed hundreds more. In October 1793 the Christian calendar was replaced with one that counted the date of the Revolution as Day One, and festivals of Liberty, Reason and the Supreme Being were scheduled along with forms of a new moral religion that included a deist Cult of the Supreme Being and the atheist Cult of Reason—briefly mandated by the government in April 1794.

Similarly, the Revolutions of 1848, the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history, aimed for democracy and an end to old feudal structures left in place by the Congress of Vienna of 1815, which with some cosmetic border touch-ups essentially restored the pre-French Revolution absolutist monarchies. It was an uprising led by new ideas such as popular liberalism, nationalism and socialism; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto was published as a battle cry in February, weeks after the first uprisings.

However, these revolts were not communist. Led by shaky ad hoc coalitions of reformers, the middle classes and workers they did not hold together. They began in January and February and the longest lasting, in Hungary, was crushed in August. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many more forced into exile. Nonetheless, serfdom was abolished in Austria and Hungary, the absolute monarchy ended in Denmark and parliamentary democracy was introduced in the Netherlands. Radical ideas were aloft, and the new, post-French Revolution capitalist bourgeoisie was chastened.

The two popes who lived through the aftermath of both revolts were not pleased. Pius VI rejected the French Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1791 and suspended priests who accepted it, protested the execution of Louis XVI and condemned the Declaration of the Rights of Man. France retaliated by seizing the papal territories of Avignon and Venaissin, and Napoleon eventually attacked the Papal States.

Public reaction to the papal defense of monarchy and the old order is evident in the Marquis de Sade’s Juliette, published in 1798. During a long audience with Pius VI, one of the most extensive scenes in the novel, Juliette shows off by presenting the pope with a verbal catalogue of alleged immoralities committed by his predecessors.

The response to 1848 came from Pius IX, also known as Pio Nono, the longest-reigning elected pope (from 1846 to 1878). Pio Nono effectively led a grand demarche to close every window, lock every door and make sure that not a single modern idea seeped into the holy sanctum of the Catholic Church.

Pio Nono’s pontificate is most notable for three telling developments: in 1854 he defined the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary; in 1864 he issued his Syllabus of Errors; in 1869 he convened the momentous First Vatican Council.

Mary’s immaculate conception was an ancient teaching derived largely from the treatment of Mary as God bearer. The ancient fathers wondered how someone tainted by the sin of Adam and Eve could be the bearer of God. Of course, that raises the question of how Mary could have been born immaculate to St. Anne and St. Joachim, and on and on.

Pio Nono did not invent the immaculate conception. A feast of the Conception of the Most Holy and All Pure Mother of God was celebrated in Syria on December 8 as early as the 5th century and had been bubbling up for centuries. Indeed, in response to some of the excesses of popular piety of the time, Pio Nono made it clear that Mary still needed redemption by her son; her sinless conception was a kind of preredemption. The declaration had broader consequences.

Ten years later, Pio Nono issued the Syllabus, a broadside against every possible non-Christian idea arising from the cauldron of the French Revolution. It condemned pantheism, naturalism, absolute rationalism, moderate rationalism, indifferentism and latitudinarianism, socialism, communism, secret societies, Bible societies and liberal clerical societies.

He condemned the notion that “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil” as well as the notion that all the truths of religion proceed from reason. Condemned also was the idea that Catholicism should not be the only religion of the State, to the exclusion of all others, as was proposed in many Catholic countries, and the notion of separation of church and state. He decried the idea of freedom of religion and worship. He expressly refused to accept the proposal that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

False, false, false, he said.

All this declaring got him into hot water. Some asked whether the pope had authority to define doctrine on his own, such as in the case of the Immaculate Conception. Pio Nono’s answer was to call the First Vatican Council in 1869, whose most momentous decision, under pressure from the pope himself, was to define papal infallibility.

Just to clarify, the council did not say that the pope could not make a mistake in anything; it only said that the pope is divinely protected from error “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church.”

The council was set to discuss a document on the nature of the Church after a summer break. However, the Franco-Prussian War broke out and the Germans advanced and captured Emperor Napoleon III, eliminating the pope’s principal military protector. On September 20, 1870, the Kingdom of Italy captured Rome and annexed it. A month later Pius IX suspended the council, after which he fled Rome itself for a time, then returned to declare himself “imprisoned” in the Vatican.

The First Vatican Council was not formally closed until 1960, by Pope John XXIII, in preparation for the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962. From 1870 until then, having already lost the allegiance of the leading intellectual lights of the day in continental Europe, the attention of secular rulers and the following of the industrial working classes, the Church went into the long slumber of the pre-Vatican II era that I described at the beginning.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Scholars Say

The earliest public debate around liberal Protestant ideas started when German scholars attempted to get at the factual and historical Yeshua bar Yosif from Nazareth. Vaulting past the lack of impartial and verifiable documentation, they developed the tools of modern biblical criticism, which is still controversial in some church circles.

First in this line was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), a philosopher and writer who leaned, like many U.S. Founding Fathers, toward Deism. In a small work originally circulated only among friends, he argued that Jesus was a Jewish political preacher who proposed a worldly new order. Pointing out differences between Jesus’ preaching and that of the apostles, Reimarus deemed Christianity an invention of the disciples, who stole Jesus’ body to fake his resurrection.

Reimarus set scholars off to the races on a new kind of research. The general public became involved only when David Friedrich Strauss (1808-1874) published his 1835 attempt at a historical portrayal in his Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). The work instantly earned a reviewer’s sobriquet of “Iscariotism of our days” (a reference to Judas Iscariot), setting off a European scandal.

Originally a seminary student, Strauss later studied at the University of Tubingen, an association that makes him one of the first academics known in theological circles as the “wild boars” who came roaring out of the Black Forest. He studied for a year in Berlin under Schleiermacher and Hegel before returning to Tubingen.

In his Life of Jesus, Strauss did not go so far as to deny Jesus’ existence, but he called the miracles in the New Testament “mythical” additions. At the time, biblical scholars were divided between rationalists, who found logical and rational explanations for the seemingly miraculous, and supernaturalists, who defended the historical accuracy of biblical accounts and their claims of direct divine intervention. Strauss took a third way: he explained miracles as myths developed by early Christians as their faith in Jesus developed. This ushered in what was then an entirely new textual and historical approach to the rise of Christianity, which he called the theory of “demythologization.”

Strauss was excoriated by the traditional elements of society (Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, called Das Leben Jesu “the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell”) and their supernaturalist academic cohorts as well as by the rationalists, notably Hegel fellow alum Bruno Bauer. The latter, also known for his association with Karl Marx and later Friedrich Nietzsche, was chosen by Hegelians to refute Strauss in their Journal of Philosophical Criticism, in which Bauer debunked Strauss’ claims to draw on Hegel, showing that they came from Schleiermacher instead.

The first academic movement of demythologization went far beyond the arcane disputes between Strauss and Bauer. It is best described by the title of a 1906 work by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a ground-breaking history of early modern biblical studies. What matters for the purposes of faith is not so much the original rumblings and battles of debunkers as their effect on most serious biblical interpreters—except the most literalist.

Between the 1830s and the end of the 19th century, Schleiermacher’s approach expanded into entire fields of study. These started with textual criticism, or an examination of the text to identify its origin and trace its history, often by spotting errors that crept in as generations of scribes copied manuscripts.

Another skein is source criticism, which looks for the sources behind a biblical book or passage. Using this approach, traceable to 17th-century French priest Richard Simon, one of the most influential 19th century biblical scholars, Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918), developed a now widely accepted four-source documentary theory about most of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses.

Wellhausen collated bits and pieces of various scholars’ theories about the Pentateuch. He expanded on source criticism to study the texts’ internal consistency (redaction criticism) and how various passages are woven together (form criticism) and arrived at four sources identifiable in the text by their characteristics. Scholars gave the sources, authors or schools of scribes the following names:
  • Jehovist (J), also called Yahwist (Jahwist in German), estimated to have been composed around 850 BCE, calls God Yahweh and includes much of Genesis and parts of Exodus and Numbers.
  • Elohist (E) from the use of the Hebrew name for God, Elohim, starts with Gen. 15, overlaps with J and dates to about 750 BCE.
  • Deuteronomist (D), identified originally by Wilhelm de Wette as material found only in Deuteronomy, believed to be composed around 621 BCE.
  • Priestly (P), a source split off from E that gave us material from Gen. 1 through Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy, probably written down around 500 BCE.

Although the four-source theory has enjoyed broad consensus, in recent years some elements have been called into question. Still, it provides very useful insight to readers who are not scholars.

For example, the current text of the story of the universal flood in Genesis 6 through 9 contains two distinct interwoven narratives (J and E). Why did the rabbis of the 5th and 6th century BCE weave them together? Because both were ancient and revered narratives retold by people of faith the rabbis did not feel authorized to undercut. This helps the nonscholar begin to grasp that biblical texts cannot be read as glibly as the morning newspaper or a religion blog.

Biblical criticism also stumbled, in the New Testament, with what is known as the Synoptic Problem: how is it that the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke can be read as more or less parallel (in Greek, synoptikos) accounts, yet sometimes disagree in content, wording (including occasional key sayings) and order? Most of Mark is found in Matthew, but only about half of Mark is in Luke; in Matthew and Luke some 235 verses (someone actually counted) are very similar.

The answer, scholars still say, is the two-source theory. Introduced in 1838 by Christian Hermann Weisse (1801-1866), it was not widely accepted among German academics until 1863, when Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (1832-1910) endorsed it. This united what had been a denominational divide among scholars. Before Holtzmann, Catholic scholars tended toward a theory dating to the school of St. Augustine of Hippo, that Matthew was the basis for Mark, which Luke used, along with Matthew. Protestant biblical scholars sided with the early biblical critic Johann Jakob Griesbach (1745-1812), who argued that Matthew begat Luke who begat Mark.

Weisse, however, argued for two sources only. The first is Mark, which almost everyone now agrees is the earliest gospel. The second is a hypothetical lost collection of “sayings of Jesus,” a document known as Q, from the German Quelle (source).

There are, of course, numerous other questions and theories debated by biblical scholars and many other tools of criticism. The research has also bred innumerable arguments among Christians, some of which are best left for later. For now, it’s enough to have an inkling of what it means when a discussion of the Bible includes the words “scholars say.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Birth of Liberal Protestantism

Just as Protestant enthusiasm was sweeping English-speaking North America and Britain, on the European continent, in Prussia, not far from the cradle of the Augustinian monk who launched the Reformation, there was ferment of a more intellectual variety. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a theologian, philosopher and biblical scholar, became the first to attempt to grapple with the Enlightenment from a Christian position, giving rise to the modern Liberal Protestant school of thought.

The tendency he set in motion was, in some respects, at odds with the strongly emotional and popular religion of the Awakening and Evangelicalism. Schleiermacher poured the cold water of reason on biblical writ and belief in creeds as he grappled with Enlightenment ideas, including rationalism and empiricism. The latter admittedly called into question arguable and factually doubtful Christian views, a challenge to faith that persists in our era; Schleiermacher took a leap to feeling yet became enamored with then-new intellectual tools.

Enlightenment ideas developed against the backdrop of absolutist monarchies shielded in palaces from the shouts and cries of Bostonians dumping tea against a colonial tax and the French rabble storming the Bastille prison, as well as the sooty toot of the first steam engine and the clanging of the first factory gears. Schleiermacher was attempting to uphold a tradition of faith in the face of two central ideas that became the basis of all science, technology and, indeed, even capitalism today.

The first of these was the glibly optimistic 18th century notion that the power of the intellect to make sound choices, distinctions and deductions—reason—would, given correct facts, lead all people to the same conclusions. As Thomas Jefferson might have put it, all men will agree to what is self-evident, such as their equality, unalienable rights and so forth. On the list of things agreed on was Deism, a tenuous philosophical assent to a Creator, source of all—yet only in the sense of a clockmaker who has made a watch, then set it down on the worktable and gone on to better projects.

Uneasily born as its twin, the second proposition was a method of inquiry based on empiricism, a theory that knowledge comes only, or primarily, from sensory experience; since no one can see, touch, taste, hear or smell God, faith is unprovable, unreasonable and factually false. Admittedly, modern science has learned from, among other developments, Einstein’s overthrow of Newton, that factual knowledge is tentative and only probably true, subject to constant revision.

Associated with these ideas are brilliant minds of the 17th and 18th centuries. Descartes, Pascal, Locke, Hume and many others overthrew forever the monopoly of a world understanding based on invisible spirits and demons, which had held humanity in thrall since people lived in caves. Reason and factuality are notable for their continued currency as the basis of American society, despite their obvious flaws: reasonable people will disagree even given the same facts, and facts are not quite the same as truth.

Schleiermacher, the son and grandson of pastors, came from Pietism, a German Protestant movement that combined Lutheran emphasis on biblical doctrine with individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life, and an early education in a Moravian school that espoused the similarly reform-minded, biblical and pious views of Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation peasant leader from Bohemia. He nonetheless began life plagued with doubts about faith.

Starting with enrollment in the University of Halle, he encountered the full force of rationalism, including the ideas of Immanuel Kant and early biblical historical criticism, and became skeptical to the point of rejecting orthodox Christian teaching. Yet he remained a Christian in his own fashion, took up positions as a pastor and a professor of theology and slowly developed a view that threw out biblical writ, creeds and pseudorational dogmatic theology. Instead, he openly admitted religious feeling as the basis of a religion whose purpose was its own existence as a path from human experience to God.

On one hand, his writings address the writhing of those who embraced rationalism and empiricism and could no longer bring themselves back to dogmatic and archaic religious forms of the faith. On the other, he addressed the faith of those who viewed the mechanical outcome of Enlightenment “progress” as a challenge to belief and the destruction of social culture as they knew it.

He ended up turning Aquinas’ description of theology as faith seeking understanding on its head. In his work The Christian Faith, Schleiermacher states: “I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but believe so that I may understand … For anyone who has not believed will not experience, and anyone who has not experienced will not understand.”

In the same work he proclaims what is today understood as the centerpiece of his overall faith view: “The feeling of absolute dependence [on God], accordingly, is not to be explained as an awareness of the world’s existence, but only as an awareness of the existence of God, as the absolute undivided unity.” Schleiermacher leapt past the fight between orthodoxy and rationalism to the inner life of the soul and the human search for God. It is no longer God seeking human creatures, but the reverse.

At a time in which church institutions were, fatally as we shall see, aligned with a Continental monarchical order that had become ever more absolutist—in his own Prussia various denominations united under the monarchy for a time—Schleiermacher proposed a break, in a variety of ways.

He wrote a protofeminist article, “Idea for a Catechism of Reason for Noble Ladies,” and in an essay titled “Letters on the Occasion of the Political-Theological Task and the Open Letter of Jewish Householders” he rejected proposed civil assimilation of the Jews through baptism, which he argued would harm both Judaism and Christianity, and pushed for Jews’ full civil rights.

He is also one of the earliest Western thinkers, conceivably influenced by Kant, to reassert the unity of the body and soul, by merging what he calls “spiritualism” (or limiting the human being to the mind) and “materialism” (limiting the mind to the body) in what he calls “life.” This idea would have sat well with Jesus’ contemporary countrymen: ancient Hebrew uses exclusively concrete words for abstract ideas (wind or breath for spirit), as we have seen.

His most significant contribution grew out of his involvement in a then-raging academic debate: Does language precede thought, setting its order and serving as its necessary base? Or does thought dictate language? This arcane issue drew him into biblical interpretation, and he effectively became the father of modern hermeneutics, the art of interpretation and the study of explanation. The term was coined in the 1670s with reference intended to the Greek god Hermes, patron of messages, speech, writing and eloquence.

Hermeneutics was not new, nor much less invented by Schleiermacher. It was engaged in by Plato and Aristotle, the rabbis in the Talmud and even Christian biblical interpreters. Writing in the beginning of the third century, Origen of Alexandria was among the earliest Christian writers to suggest that much of the Bible is metaphorical or symbolic.

Language, Schleiermacher argued, is fundamental to human nature as a foundation of thought, self-consciousness, feeling and desire. It is social in nature even as inner communication. Language and thought give shape to human sensory images and are interdependent and bounded by each other. Meaning comes from words. People can be distinguished by their linguistic and conceptual differences.

Understanding verbal communication, distinct from explaining, applying or translating it, came first, he said, and should be applied to all texts, whether the Bible, law, literature or anything else. Interpretation of sacred texts must not rely on divine inspiration. The interpreter must assume that “misunderstanding occurs as a matter of course, and so understanding must be willed and sought at every point.” The text’s historical context and linguistic and psychological aspects of the author come into play. Interpretation is an inductive process but also intuitive and hypothetical.

Finally, interpretation must look at each text as a part the whole work within which it is placed and the language in which it is written. The historical context, genre and what is known about the author’s entire work are essential as well.

It is difficult today to make clear just how revolutionary these notions were. Difficult, that is, until we turn to their immediate effect, which is where we turn next.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Popular Piety III: Sacred Heart

From the 17th through 19th centuries comes one other notable theme of piety, veneration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A close friend used to carry around a prayer card with an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She dropped it one day and was told by a very secular Protestant, “You dropped your bleeding heart.”

The image may have been similar to the French holy card, circa 1880, depicted below, right. Note the spear, a reference John 19:34 (“one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water”), which tells of a Roman soldier who speared the dead Jesus on the cross (caption: “Behold this heart which has loved men so much. It is nothing but love and mercy”). Today a commonplace Catholic devotional artifact, it emerged in modern form only in the 17th century.

The heart as a symbol of affection or romantic love is near universal—although when the French first colonized Vietnam they learned that locals viewed the stomach as the organ of love. The oldest instance of the heart as a symbol relates to silphium, a now-extinct species of fennel from the Greek colony of Cyrene, North Africa, used most famously as a form of birth control. It was so popular that it was overharvested into extinction in the first century. Its seedpod looked like the modern Valentine’s heart, and Cyrene, which grew rich from the silphium trade, put the heart shape on its coins.

The modern Valentine heart is medieval, as are the very earliest allusions to the heart of Jesus. In early Christianity, there were meditations on the humanity of Jesus Christ and his sufferings on the cross, with particular reference to his five wounds (nails on hands, nails on feet and the spear to the side). In John 20:24-29 the apostle Thomas demands to see the wounds of the risen Christ.

In the 12th century, just when the heart became the locus of love in the European mind, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that the piercing of his side revealed Jesus’ goodness and his heart’s love for us. Devotion to the wounds spread through the monastic orders and was propagated worldwide by the Jesuits, who admired the Franciscan devotion of the Five Wounds.

A well-known medieval litany the Anima Christi (Soul of Christ) pleads:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water flowing from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
Good Jesus, hear me
In your wounds shelter me
Never let me be separated from Thee
From evil one protect me
At the hour of death call me
Into your presence lead me
That with your saints I may praise you
Forever and ever
It was a hop, skip and jump from these devotions to the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690), a French nun and mystic. At the Visitation Convent at Paray-le-Monial, where she made her final vows and was assigned to the infirmary as a not very skillful nurse, Alacoque experienced several private revelations between late 1673 and mid-1675.

She reported that Jesus let her rest her head on his heart, revealed the wonders of his love, and asked to be honored by the depiction of his heart. He said he had chosen her to make his love known to all people. Her superior, Mother de Saumaise, was skeptical, as were theologians called to authenticate the apparitions; even most members of her own community, who reputedly didn’t think much of her visions, were not persuaded.

She eventually convinced her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière, S.J., and opposition in the community ended in 1683, when the convent’s leadership changed and she was named assistant to the new superior. The convent began to observe privately the Feast of the Sacred Heart (today observed 19 days after Pentecost, on a Friday), and in 1688 a chapel was built to honor the Sacred Heart.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was promoted by the Jesuits, but remained the subject of controversy within the Church and was not officially recognized until 75 years after Alacoque died. She was beatified in the 19th century and canonized in 1920.

The Sacred Heart is also linked to the story of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, R.S.C.J. (1779-1865), a French saint who founded of the Society of the Sacred Heart (official name Religiosa Sanctissimi Cordis Jesu or Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).

The daughter of a well-to-do Burgundy family, Barat was born barely a decade before the storming of the Bastille. As a child and young woman she witnessed the conflict between the leaders of the revolution and the Church, which was under constant attack by the government between 1790 and 1801, when Napoleon signed a concordat with the pope.

In 1795 she went to Paris with her brother, a priest, who sought the anonymity of the big city and was received in a safe house. She worked as a seamstress and became an excellent embroiderer, while her brother taught her about the Church Fathers, mathematics, Latin and the scriptures. Sophie decided to become a Carmelite nun, but religious orders in France had been abolished in 1790.

Instead, along with three other women living in the Paris safe house, she took vows as one of the first members of a new religious congregation. At the time, however, the French government had outlawed devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so the society took the name Dames de la Foi (“Women of Faith”) or alternatively, Dames de l’Instruction Chrétienne (“Women of Christian Instruction”). The second name described their activity, the education of girls and young women in schools, first in Amiens, then Grenoble and later Poitiers. Barat was elected superior in 1806.

From then on the network of schools grew exponentially throughout Europe, America and elsewhere. Barat dreamed of educating all children regardless of their parents’ financial means, but the schools rapidly became elite institutions and the intellectually superior nuns became known as the female Jesuits. She aimed to see that for every new elite school established, a corresponding “free” school was opened for poorer children, but this aim does not seem to have been accomplished.

As of 2015 about 2,600 religious serve in 41 countries around the world. Barat was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Popular Piety II: Saints of Charity

Saintliness and devotion related to saints is about both prayer and action. Some of the most revered saints promoted charity toward the poor and marginal, “like Jesus” they might have added. Some came from humble beginnings. Saints could populate an entire blog, but here I will focus on just three.

Martin de Porres

Martin de Porres Velázquez (1579-1639) is a particularly modern saint, though he lived 400 years ago. Born in Lima, Viceroyalty of Peru, he was the illegitimate son of Don Juan de Porres, the scion of minor Spanish gentry, and Ana Velázquez, a freed slave from Panama of African and possibly part Native American descent.

Like the famous literary figure who was his contemporary, the half-Inca and half-Spanish Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Martin was born in a society in the early stages of Spanish colonization, uneasily drifting toward a mix of ethnicities spurred by the arrival of all-male conquerors who took over the Inca empire. When Martin’s sister Juana was born two years after him, the father left his family, which meant he grew up in poverty. His mother placed him with a barber who, as was common then, was also a surgeon, and he learned both trades from the man.

Martin spent long hours in prayer and felt called to religious life, but the law barred descendants of Africans or Indians from joining religious orders. So he asked the Dominicans of Holy Rosary Priory in Lima to take him as a volunteer. He did menial work in return for being allowed to wear the habit and live within the religious community. He was eventually given responsibility for distributing money to the poor, while also barbering and healing, working in the kitchen, doing laundry, and cleaning. These many tasks inspired the title of a 1961 Spanish film about him, “Fray Escoba” (Fra Broom).

After eight years, a prior dispensed with the law, and Martin took vows as a Third Order Dominican, a layman devoted to the community’s ideals. Not all Dominicans were as open-minded as the prior: Martin, who had already been ridiculed as a “half-breed,” was called names and mocked for both his illegitimacy and slave descent. (Incidentally, similar behavior by Irish-Americans has occurred in modern U.S. seminaries and monasteries toward other ethnic groups.)

Martin was assigned to the infirmary, which he ran until his death, and was known for patiently caring for the sick, whether Spanish nobles or African slaves. He founded an orphanage for abandoned children and slaves and raised dowries for poor young girls in an astoundingly short time.

In his work he became acquainted with two other local saints of the period, both TOR Dominicans, St. Juan Macías and the better known St. Rose of Lima.

A notable mystic, Martin displayed the gifts of levitation, bilocation, healing, miraculous insight and uncanny communication with animals. When an epidemic affected friars in his religious house, Martin passed through locked doors behind which they were quarantined. Disciplined for breaking community rules, he replied, “Forgive my error, for I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

Martin died at 60. He was ill with chills, fever, and tremors that were agonizing. He was canonized in 1962 by Pope John XXIII and named patron saint of mixed-race people, barbers, innkeepers, public health workers, and all those seeking racial harmony.

Martin is the first non-European New World saint, a contemporary of St. Mariana of Jesus de Paredes, the first canonized from Ecuador, and less than a century before St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680), an Algonquin-Mohawk laywoman from what is today northern New York state, canonized in 2012.

Vincent de Paul

Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) is synonymous with service to the poor. His life included two years as a slave after capture by Barbary Pirates and spiritual direction of Queen Anne of France. His care for the plight of peasants, galley slaves, and orphans spawned orders and institutions to serve them.

Born a peasant, he was ordained a priest in 1600, shortly before the pirate episode. On his return, he was placed as a tutor and spiritual director in the home of the Gondi, a Florentine banking family. He preached to and found aid for poor tenant farmers and with an endowment from the Gondi launched the first of several “conferences of charity” to stimulate missions and assistance of the poor. His major talent, however, seems to have been inspiring others to carry on work he saw needed doing.

With St. Louise de Marillac, he helped found the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, an unusual order in which women make annual vows, remaining free to leave at each one without ecclesiastical permission. They inspired the order founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S. canonized saint. Today 18,000 Daughters serve in 94 countries, working with food aid, sanitation, shelter, health care, migrant assistance and education. Similarly, the Congregation of the Mission, a vowed society of priests and brothers was founded by Vincent de Paul and five other priests on the estates of the Gondi family in 1624.

De Paul saw that priests in France were slackers and inspired Father Jean-Jacques Olier to found the Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice in 1641 to educate priests and their continuing spiritual formation. Priests could join only after years of pastoral work. Among the society’s famous members are Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet and the late U.S. biblical scholar Raymond Brown.

Several groups claiming inspiration by St. Vincent de Paul form a loose federation known as the Vincentian Family. The most famous is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, founded by Frédéric Ozanam in 1833 to help Parisian slum dwellers. It has some 800,000 members in 140 countries and operates through “charity conferences” based in a church, community center, school or hospital.

Vincent de Paul, canonized in 1737, is revered in the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

Don Bosco

Similar to St Vincent de Paul, St John Bosco (1815-1888), popularly known as Don Bosco, is inextricably linked with education of poor and troubled youth.

Born to humble farmhands, he got an education thanks to a priest who saw talent in the destitute youth. He was ordained at about 26. His first assignment was as chaplain of the Rifugio, a girls’ boarding school in Turin. Other duties included visiting prisoners, teaching catechism and helping out at country parishes. Visiting the prisons, Don Bosco was disturbed at the number of underage boys there.

With industrialization, poor rural families came to Turin in search of a better life and ended up in slums, their children exposed to criminals. Don Bosco once said that seeing these young boys in prison reminded him of a dream he had at 12. A large group of poor boys were playing and “blaspheming.” A man of noble, manly and imposing bearing said to him: “You will have to win these friends of yours not with blows, but with gentleness and kindness. So begin right now to show them that sin is ugly and virtue beautiful.” He decided to go beyond ordinary ministry to a new form of apostolate.

He started talking to boys in shops and the marketplace. He gathered them into prayer groups known as the Oratory, after the work of St. Philip Neri, an Italian priest noted for founding a society of secular clergy. The boys were drawn by Don Bosco’s kindness toward them. He started with 20, and in four years there were 400.

The Oratory became Don Bosco’s permanent work. He found jobs for the boys and sought housing for those who were homeless and slept under bridges or in public shelters. At first the boys stole the blankets and other supplies. In 1847, he gave shelter to a young boy and his mother in rooms he rented for them. Don Bosco and the mother, whom he called Mamma Margherita, began taking in orphans who soon numbered in the hundreds.

Much later he described his approach to drawing in boys and adult helpers as a “Preventive System of Education,” rooted in the heart: the boys were loved, and they knew it. The system included reason, religion and kindness, with a dash of music and games.

The traditionalist clergy accused him of stealing” people from their parishes. Nationalist anticlerical politicians saw the growing number of youths as recruiting ground for revolution. (The Marquis de Cavour, chief of police in Turin, is said to have seen open-air catechism instruction as overtly political and a threat to the government.)

The Salesian Congregation, the order Don Bosco founded, grew out of the assistance some of the boys he helped gave to other abandoned boys. In 1859, Bosco selected an experienced priest, 15 seminarians and one high school boy and formed the Society of St. Francis de Sales, an order of priests, seminarians and lay brothers named after a Geneva bishop revered for his gentle approach to controversy. With a noted religious figure who worked with a group of girls in a nearby hill town, he also founded an order of sisters to do for girls what the Salesian men were doing for boys, the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians. Both orders were aided by a lay support group, the Salesian Cooperators.

The orders began at a time of mass emigration from Italy to Argentina, and the first overseas Salesian mission went to that South American country in 1875. Bosco said that this mission, too, appeared to him in a dream of a vast plain, inhabited by primitive peoples. By 2000, the Salesians had some 17,000 members in 2,711 houses and were deemed the third-largest missionary organization in the world.

Don Bosco was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Rise of Popular Piety

Just as Protestant Christianity turned in the Awakenings to Evangelism and a personal, emotional and unschooled Bible-based religiosity, in the 17th through 19th centuries Catholicism developed a broad-based popular piety that in some ways was similar, although focused on other aspects of teaching.

Let’s make clear what is meant. In Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Proclaiming the Good News) he described “popular religiosity” as a phenomenon that “manifests a thirst for God which only the simple and poor can know.” Papa Montini was well aware of its limits (“often subject to penetration by many distortions of religion and even superstitions”) as well as the disdain in which it was held by theologians, particularly after Vatican II.

However, he suggested that even in modern times of faith renewal and updating, such faith “makes people capable of generosity and sacrifice even to the point of heroism … involves an acute awareness of profound attributes of God: fatherhood, providence, loving and constant presence ... engenders interior attitudes rarely observed to the same degree elsewhere: patience, the sense of the cross in daily life, detachment, openness to others, devotion.” Thus, he was disposed to “readily call it ‘popular piety,’ that is, religion of the people, rather than religiosity.”

In practical terms, we are talking of faith bolstered by devotional practices, such as veneration of Mary and other saints, praying for the dead, shrines and pilgrimages. It was the sort of faith practice that became ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, was tossed out as bathwater by Protestant reformers in English-speaking and Germanic countries, but which Europe’s Catholic majority continued to hold dear.

Popular piety is a vast subject and its history enormous, but upon examining the canonized saints that emerged in the four centuries in question I find three focal points of convergence: Mary, charity to and from the poorest and humblest, and third, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These are often intertwined.

Mary and Mariology

Devotion directed at Myriam of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, gained official support from the First Council of Ephesus, which in 431 approved devotion to the Virgin as Theotokos. The Greek term is often unfortunately mistranslated as “Mother of God,” giving rise to a quasi-divine view of Mary, but it is best translated as “God bearer.”

In its time, the term developed in the Church councils’ pattern of clarifying doctrine through the via negativa (negative path, or declaring certain beliefs erroneous rather than adding new doctrine). Theotokos, implying Jesus’ divinity, responded to Nestorians’ claim that Jesus was only human and distinct from the eternal God the Son or Logos (Word) in the gospel of John.

We have noted the development by St. Dominic of the Marian prayer form known as the Rosary; in the 16th century the Protestant reformers viewed Mariology as unbiblical adoration and worship of Mary, which they dubbed “Mariolatry.” Further along the historical road, three French saints—Louis of Montfort, Catherine Labouré and Bernadette Soubirous—are among the principal promoters of Mariology, each in a distinct way.

Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), a Catholic priest, is deemed one of the early modern writers in modern Mariology. Noted for a life of constant prayer, love of the poor, asceticism and joy in humiliations and persecution (particularly from French Jansenists), Montfort became a wandering preacher and founded many rosary “confraternities” or local societies of prayer throughout France.

His approach involves “consecration to Jesus in Mary.” On this path “the more a soul is consecrated to her the more will it be consecrated to Jesus Christ.” His two main works, The Secret of Mary and True Devotion to Mary, written in 1712 but only discovered by chance in 1842, are said to have influenced Pope John Paul II. Neither is particularly accessible to a modern reader not predisposed to the subject matter.

Catherine (born Zoé) Labouré (1806-1876) is a more accessible Marian figure. She was a nun of the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul. In visions of Mary in 1830, she said she was told by the Virgin to fashion the Miraculous Medal of Our Lady of Graces.

After two years of investigation, Sister Catherine got clerical approval for the medallions. Following design directions from the Virgin, the work was commissioned to a goldsmith, and they were inscribed with the message “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee — 1830.”

The reference to “conceived without sin” anticipated papal approval of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Millions of Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, are said to wear the medals, shown in the picture.

As a slightly irreverent, yet fascinating little detail, please note that in the photograph Sister Catherine’s  headdress matches that of the nuns in the 1967-70 “The Flying Nun” American television situation comedy, starring Sally Field in the role of Sister Bertrille. The order in the show is never mentioned by name, but the producers admitted that they based the habit, with its alleged semi-miraculous aerodynamic qualities, on Sister Catherine’s order.

St. Catherine Labouré

Finally, Bernadette Soubirous (1844-1879), the firstborn daughter of a miller from Lourdes, France, is best known for the apparitions of a “small young lady” who asked her for a chapel to be built at the nearby garbage dump of the cave-grotto at Massabielle. Apparitions of Mary were said to have occurred between February and July 1858. The lady who appeared to her identified herself as the Immaculate Conception.

Bernadette’s story was not accepted initially by Catholic Church clerics, but after a canonical investigation was deemed “worthy of belief.” Bernadette’s body did not decay despite some blemishes and at last inspection, in 1925, showed only minor discoloration. The apparition is now known as Our Lady of Lourdes. The grotto, which I visited in 1969, receives more than 5 million pilgrims a year. Many healings are said to have occurred at the site or in the large church built beside it.
Grotto at Lourdes

Marian devotions center on her role in the incarnation, or dwelling in the flesh, of the Son of God in the person of Jesus, whom she bore after a message from the Angel Gabriel. Her response, given in Luke 1:46–55, is a hymn also known as the Magnificat (Latin for “it [my soul] praises”). Various beliefs historically have circulated concerning Mary’s own conception, including that she was born sinless. This was primarily a post-Nicene outgrowth of philosophical speculation around the notion that God’s son could not have been borne by a human being morally corrupted by the sin of Adam and Eve.

A papal declaration in 1854 affirmed the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which exempts her from original sin, in case anyone had any doubt. Catholic and Eastern Orthodox teaching also covers the end of Mary’s life. In the most recent infallible papal statement, in 1950, the Assumption of Mary was formally established as doctrine, matching the existing Orthodox teaching known as the Dormition of the Theotokos (or falling asleep of the God bearer). Both propose that Mary was bodily taken to wherever universal human resurrection is to occur at the end of time, in the physical presence of God.

We will next explore the two other foci of Catholic popular piety between the 17th and 19th centuries.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Post-Renaissance Catholic Spiritual Rebirth

Once the rumblings of the Reformation were tamped down, the Catholic majority in Europe and its colonies returned to a faith no longer within the protective walls of its figurative medieval cathedral. Catholic spirituality began quietly to develop once again.

Two figures are particularly known for their influence in lifting the more mechanical and legalistic approaches to morals.

The Gentle Lawyer

One of these, oddly enough, was originally a lawyer. St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), became in time a bishop, spiritual writer, composer, musician, artist, poet, philosopher and theologian. But first he was the well-born son of a Neapolitan gentleman, although his father’s branch of the family was the clan’s poorer kin.

Despite the family finances, Alphonsus learned to ride and fence, but he had bad eyesight and chronic asthma, which eliminated a military career. Instead, he was prepared for the University of Naples under tutors hired by his father and earned doctorates in civil and canon law at the age of 16. Of his 10 years as a young lawyer about town he later wrote: “Banquets, entertainments, theatres, these are the pleasures of the world, but pleasures which are filled with the bitterness of gall and sharp thorns.”

Alphonsus was one of the attorneys in a 1723 lawsuit between a Neapolitan nobleman and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, with property valued at 500,000 ducats (a large sum of money, perhaps millions today). After losing the case, he fled lawyering and went off to volunteer, as he had done in earlier days, visiting the sick in the Hospital for Incurables. While living this way, he suddenly found himself surrounded by a mysterious light, and an interior voice said: “Leave the world and give thyself to Me.”

In 1726 he became an ordained priest, initially preaching in the streets to the poorest of the poor of Naples, known as lazzarone. He started a confraternity of sorts for them called the Association of the Chapels. Then, as one biographer puts it, God called him to his life work through an unusual third party.

Around that time, a postulant to the religious life, Julia Crostarosa, about the same age as Alphonsus, entered the convent of Scala and took the name Sister Maria Celeste. She began to experience visions, and on October 3, 1731, she saw Jesus with St. Francis and a priest on either side. Maria Celeste heard a voice say, “This is he whom I have chosen to be head of My Institute, the Prefect General of a new Congregation of men who shall work for My glory.” The priest was Alphonsus. The order of the Redemptorists he started a year later began in a little hospice belonging to the nuns of Scala.

The Redemptorists are known for their dedication to the poor. Alphonsus always said that he preached for the humblest and least educated person in any crowd. He and his order are also notable for their gentle approach to morality in the sacrament of reconciliation (confession). Indeed, a contemporary Redemptorist, Fr. Bernard Haring, was notable in penning in 1954 The Law of Christ, a modern manual of moral theology for the laity as well as priests, not in small part influenced by Alphonsus’ own groundbreaking 10-volume 1748 work in Latin, The Moral Theology, translated into English for the first time this year, 2017.

Alphonsus drew on his experience as a confessor. He pondered a question that seemingly arose in the confessional: what should people do when the right course of action is not clear? He sought a middle ground between the prevailing rigor of his time and the laxity many in the clergy abhorred.

Also among his works is the devotional The Way of the Cross, a guide to the Stations of the Cross, also known as Way of Sorrows or Via Crucis, a series of images depicting Jesus on the day of his crucifixion and accompanying prayers. The book is still used in parishes during Lenten devotions.

Alphonsus Liguori was canonized in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1871. He is the patron saint of confessors.

The Curé of Ars

Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney (1786-1859), commonly known as St. John Vianney or the Curé d’Ars (parish priest of Ars), stumbled accidentally on the role that eventually got him a following and ultimately canonization as the patron saint of parish priests.

Jean-Baptiste was the fourth of six children born near Lyons to a farming family that was devoutly Catholic at a time in which the anticlerical Terror phase of the French Revolution forced many loyal priests to hide. He received his First Communion catechism instructions in a private home by two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the Revolution. During his first communion Mass, at the age of 13, the windows were covered so that the light of the candles could not be seen from the outside.

The Catholic Church was reestablished in France in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte, resulting in religious peace throughout the country, culminating in a concordat. The new peace brought other problems: he was drafted into the army to invade Spain. Jean-Baptiste was already feeling a tug to become a priest and tried to avoid going to war. Through a series of accidents he missed his unit’s departure and ended up hiding in a village as a deserter until an 1810 amnesty freed him.

Then he met his advocate for the priesthood and future mentor, Father Balley, the schoolmaster whose patience he tried. Vianney could be called the second “dumb ox,” the first being St. Thomas Aquinas. But Aquinas was called that out of envy for his sullen brilliance; Vianney actually struggled in school and needed tutoring. When he went to the seminary at Verrieres in 1812, he failed the entrance exam but was admitted when he retook it three months later. As a seminarian he had such difficulty with Latin (the language all subjects were taught in at most seminaries until the 1960s) that he was allowed to study philosophy in French. Balley persuaded Church authorities that Vianney’s devotion made up for his lack of intellect, and he was ordained in 1815, appointed assistant to Balley in Écully.

The following year, Balley died and Vianney was appointed parish priest in the then-tiny town of Ars, population 230. He founded an orphanage for destitute girls, The Providence, where he taught the catechism in a way that was so popular it had to be given every day in the church to large crowds.

However, the Curé d'Ars displayed other gifts, particularly in the confessional. He didn’t just listen to the recitation of sins but offered spiritual direction that showed outstanding insight. People came to confess from other parishes, then from other villages, then from all over France and ultimately from all over the world. It was estimated that in 1855 Ars’ yearly pilgrims totaled 20,000. Even his bishop forbade him to travel because of the people waiting to be heard.

He spent 16 to 18 hours a day in the confessional, offering advice to the sick, people in a variety of difficulties, young men and women pondering vocations and even fellow priests as well as bishops. All with long lines stretching out of the church. There were many stories told of his ministry.

Sometimes he would pop out of the box, walk down the line and stop next to someone he declared most needed to confess and would take that penitent to the confessional. He was said to know when someone was withholding sins and making an imperfect confession, breaking the requirement to state all sins since previous reception of the sacrament.

Yet he also showed the love of God. On one occasion a woman came to him troubled about her son, who had committed suicide jumping off a bridge, thereby condemning himself to eternal punishment. Vianney assured her that, as he realized what he had done, the boy had uttered a prayer of contrition and God, always seeking to forgive, had accepted his remorse.

Pius IX declared him venerable in 1874; he was canonized by Pius XI in 1925. His feast day is August 4.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Great Awakening

The first sweeping wave of religious enthusiasm was primarily the work of three preachers, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), George Whitefield (1714-1770) and Samuel Davies (1723-1761). The word “enthusiasm” is particularly fitting given its original ancient Greek (enthousiasmos) and archaic English meaning, ecstasy arising from becoming possessed by a god.

Jonathan Edwards

The son of a Northampton, Mass., Congregational minister, Edwards initially studied science at Yale University, which steered him away from his contemporaries’ deism (or philosophical acceptance of a distant deity who does not intervene in human history). Instead, it led to contemplation of God in the beauty of creation. He often prayed and worshiped alone in the woods, a practice reflected in many of his early and very poetic writings.

Ordained a minister in 1727, within five years he had launched a revival in Northampton. It raised such fervor that in winter 1734 almost the entire town came to a halt. In six months 300 new members entered his church. Edwards was inspired not merely to preach more throughout his region but also to observe the dark side of the fanaticism that crept up. Fear of inevitable damnation led two members of his congregation, including his uncle, to commit suicide. Edwards scrutinized the process of conversion and wrote it up in his 1737 A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God in the Conversion of Many Hundred Souls in Northampton. It became for preachers the textbook of the revival movement.

His crowning sermon was Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, which he preached throughout Connecticut in 1741. In it he proclaims that “God may cast wicked men into hell at any given moment. All that wicked men may do to save themselves from Hell’s pains shall afford them nothing if they continue to reject Christ. God has never promised to save us from Hell, except for those contained in Christ through the covenant of Grace.” It is said that Edwards was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, “What shall I do to be saved?”—the question he was after. His involvement in the Awakening ended when he accepted an appointment as president of Princeton University.

George Whitefield

The third great Methodist founder met the Wesleys while he was the equivalent of a scholarship student at Oxford, as he came from a very poor family. Like John Wesley, he was ordained in the Church of England, but instead of parish work, he took to itinerant preaching as an evangelist. In 1739, Whitefield went to Georgia where he set up the Bethesda Orphanage, the oldest in North America. His trustees disagreed with his methods and the venture almost failed until it was purchased by the Moravians. This left him free to preach, going back and forth between England and North America several times.

He had charisma, a loud voice, small stature and looked cross-eyed, which some people took as a sign of divine blessing, and effectively became an early North American celebrity. He also included slaves in his revivals and got a very favorable response from them. To promote himself he had autobiographical Journals printed that were read by tens of thousands.

Initially skeptical, Benjamin Franklin attended a Whitefield revival meeting in Philadelphia. He measured the space himself and estimated that 30,000 could hear Whitefield. Franklin was impressed with the preacher’s ability, and after the meeting he noted a “wonderful ... change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”

Samuel Davies

Born in New Castle County, Del., to poor Baptists of Welsh descent, Davies was taken under the wing of a minister who eventually got him ordained a minister. He became one of the first non-Anglican ministers licensed to preach in Virginia. Among those who heard some of his early sermons was a young Patrick Henry, who years later acknowledged Davies as a model of his own oratory. A Presbyterian, Davies advanced religious and civil liberty in largely Anglican Virginia, advocating the separation of church and state that eventually found its way into the state’s charter before the U.S. Constitution.

More notably, Davies advocated educating slaves, including teaching them to read, so they could have the same access to Scripture as their masters. A classic spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in My Heart,” reportedly was composed in his church, where Davies baptized hundreds of slaves as Christians, breaking with custom by inviting them to join the congregation at the communion table and even to preach. Davies is estimated to have ministered to over a thousand black people in Virginia.

To be clear, Davies did not oppose slavery, but rather viewed slaves’ inclusion as a religious matter. He may have been influenced by the religious zeal of an enslaved man.

In a 1757 letter, Davies wrote that the man said, “I am a poor slave, brought into a strange country, where I never expect to enjoy my liberty. While I lived in my own country, I knew nothing of that Jesus I have heard you speak so much about. I lived quite careless what will become of me when I die; but I now see such a life will never do, and I come to you, Sir, that you may tell me some good things, concerning Jesus Christ, and my Duty to GOD, for I am resolved not to live any more as I have done.”

This was one of the earliest efforts to evangelize the Africans kidnapped and brought to America for lifelong unpaid labor.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Suppression of the Jesuits

The Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits or the Company of Jesus, became the first religious order to span the globe. These highly skilled men, who observed the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity, as well as obedience to superiors in the faith, came to be viewed by the powerful as so threatening that their order was disbanded for slightly over a quarter century.

The Jesuits were persecuted in England by several monarchs, starting with Henry VIII, and were banished from Japan, Protestant German principalities and Orthodox Russia—mostly as part of anti-Catholic measures that indirectly affected the order. It was a different story when the Jesuits were the pope’s advance men of evangelization in territories acquired by Catholic countries and their monarchs.

The original Jesuits were remarkable men whose order, which includes among its members Pope Francis and is still today regarded as the clergy’s intellectual elite, found novel ways to make the gospel understandable to non-European social cultures. In French North America, for example, Jesuits told the Iroquois that Jesus had been born in a longhouse; in Spanish Paraguay, they developed Guaraní dictionaries, which led to the first writings in that indigenous language.

The 1986 British film The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, is set in 1740. It dramatizes the conflict the Jesuits encountered in Spanish and Portuguese colonies. De Niro’s Father Gabriel character is based on the life of a Paraguayan saint, Roque González de Santa Cruz, S.J., and is loosely adapted from the book The Lost Cities of Paraguay by C.J. McNaspy, S.J., a consultant on the film.

The incident portrayed in the film occurred when Spain was competing for land and labor with the Portuguese, who were harsher toward natives and coveted both the land and the people supervised by the Jesuits. The Treaty of Madrid sought to end warring with Portuguese bandeirante slavers by ceding Spanish Jesuit settlements to Portugal. The cinematic Father Gabriel takes up arms in protest. In reality, the warriors were Indians, who loathed the Portuguese slavers. Although they trained the Indians to use weapons, the Jesuits obeyed their government and withdrew.

Also distinct from the film, what Americans call “Missions,” located in what Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña called “occupied America,” are the remains of Franciscan colonial establishments known as congregaciones (gatherings), which aimed to make the natives docile in order to use them as laborers. The Jesuits set up entirely different kinds of settlements, known as reducciones, or “Indian reductions,” which cleverly turned on its head the colonial policy of subduing the natives.

In French North America, the Jesuits had tried to convert Eskimos, Micmacs, Algonquins and Hurons, initially to little effect. Their success with the Iroquois had an unintended consequence. This fierce warrior tribe took the gospel of peace to heart, abandoned war and was mercilessly decimated by neighbors who hated them. In the 1740s, the British conquered Quebec and Catholicism became illegal. Clergy and missionaries left what would become Canada, most fleeing with many of their French-speaking parishioners to the Louisiana territories.

In South America, Jesuits first went into the jungles of Brazil and later to colonial Paraguay, Peru and Mexico, where they excelled at negotiating special deals with colonial governors that kept the new landowners and the government away from the natives. Apart from conversion, the dwellers in these communities were not required to adopt European languages, values or lifestyles.

The typical Jesuit reduction was a compound that grouped a church, priests’ quarters, commissary, stables, armory, workshops, hospital, storehouses and housing for the natives around a central square. Each family had a separate apartment connected by a roofed walkway. Buildings designed by the likes of Rev. Martin Schmid, S.J., a Swiss architect, composer and instrument maker, were sometimes stone but more often adobe or cane, with homemade furniture and religious pictures—often made by the natives themselves. Populations varied from 2,000 to 7,000.

A typical day started with children’s hymns followed by Mass and breakfast, after which the workers went to their tasks. At noon each group assembled for the Angelus, after which came dinner and a siesta; work then resumed until evening. After supper came the rosary and sleep. On rainy days they worked indoors. Festivals with contests, fireworks, concerts and dances entertained the community.

The settlements had a main farm, where they raised cattle and grew crops, including yerba mate for a brewed drink, mate (or Jesuit tea). Each family also had its own garden. Jesuits introduced European arts and trades. They trained natives in a broad range of occupations, from boatbuilding to carpentry, garment making, silversmithing and more. The reductions initially produced manuscripts copied by hand, but later built printing presses. Goods produced were sold in large cities and proceeds were divided between a community fund and the workers and their dependents.

These idyllic communities’ success was their undoing. Historian Virginia Carreño in her work Estancias y Estancieros del Río de la Plata underscores how “at the outset of the 18th century, with the worse perils of colonization overcome, the Jesuits, with Indians who made up at most about a quarter of the population, were advanced by at least a century compared with the Spaniards and that was humiliating.”

She notes that huge herds of cattle raised under Jesuit supervision fed several colonial cities, including all of Asunción, today capital of Paraguay. A colonist who wanted to build called on a Jesuit architect; one who wanted the best education for his son turned to a Jesuit school in Chuquisaca or Córdoba. “When the need arose for a musician, an astronomer, a botanist, an agronomist, people went to a member of the Society, were he Italian, Hungarian or German, a doctor in theology or simply a religious superior,” Carreño writes.

Attacks came from three quarters.

In 1750, Portugal quarreled with the Jesuits over an exchange of territory with Spain in which a Portuguese settlement in what is today Uruguay was exchanged for the Jesuits’ seven reductions in Paraguay. The Jesuits were expelled.

The Jesuit superior in French Martinique managed the settlements’ business so well that he was able to leverage their production for loans to speed development of the colony. But when war broke out between England and France, ships carrying goods worth millions were captured; in the 1760s creditors in Paris courts won orders forcing the Society to pay or relinquish the settlements. The order lacked the funds and withdrew.

In the European dependencies of Naples and Parma, Jesuits were accused in 1767 of producing pamphlets that incited the people to riot against Spanish rule. Hundreds of Jesuits were marched like convicts to the coast, where they were deported to the Papal States.

Following the expulsion of Jesuits in European countries and their overseas territories, Pope Clement XIV issued a papal bull in 1773, declaring that “the Company of Jesus ... shall be, and is, for ever extinguished and suppressed.” It was not until 1814, when all the absolute monarchs who hated the Jesuits were no longer in power, that Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus in Catholic Europe and the Society decided at its first General Congregation thereafter to keep its original organization.

Sunday, April 16, 2017


The third among the Methodist founders, George Whitefield (1714-1770), became one of the figures that set in motion a distinctly U.S. and British Protestant phenomenon known as the “Great Awakenings.” These were sweeping waves of popular religious enthusiasm that burst forth more or less spontaneously and among rural and marginal groups of society in response to powerful preaching campaigns by charismatic figures and incidentally spawned new denominations.

Although traditional histories speak of only two Awakenings, modern reassessments argue plausibly that there were four, each lasting several decades: 1730-1755, 1790-1840, 1850-1900 and 1960-1980.

They were instrumental in reshaping the Congregational church (the institutional successor of the Pilgrim Puritans) and changing the Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed and the German Reformed denominations; at the time of the First Awakening, it boosted the then-small Baptist and Methodist Anglican denominations. None of the Awakenings, however, had much influence on most Anglicans, Lutherans and Quakers; save for the last one, and even then very briefly, they had no effect at all on Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

Notably for our present time, the Awakenings gave rise to the Protestant interdenominational religious movement known as Evangelicalism. The evangelicals—today associated with figures such as the Rev. Billy Graham—became significant in religion and politics in Britain and the United States; they should be distinguished from the Protestant denominations Evangelical Lutheran and Evangelical Reformed and similarly named churches. The movement’s name is also distinct from “evangelical” in theological or religious discourse about matters pertaining to the gospel, in Greek evangelion.

The original Great Awakening is traceable to the 1730s field preaching of John and Charles Wesley in Britain, but its North American origins go back to Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), with Whitefield contributing when he moved to the New World in the 1740s and the work of Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies (1723-1761), notable for preaching to African slaves.

The phenomenon was spurred by fiery preaching at public “revival” meetings, originally directed at church-going folk, to stir up or “awaken” their fervor. The preaching aimed to generate a personal experience that encouraged each person to look inward and commit to a new faith in Jesus Christ and standard of personal morality.

The mostly Calvinist-leaning preachers aimed to avoid formal ceremony and sacramentalism—still, the revival came to acquire a distinct performance art form, including preaching, followed by public declarations of conversion and even assertions of healing. Revivals also rejected hierarchy and denominationalism, yet notably pointed attendees to “Bible centered” churches—somehow these were never Catholic or Orthodox, the traditions that had put together and preserved the Christian Bible.

The Second Great Awakening began around 1790 in the United States. After 1820, the movement fed members to Baptist and Methodist churches whose pastors led the movement, then lost steam by the 1840s and 50s. The movement reflected society’s romanticism, with its appeal to emotion and an appeal to the supernatural that came in response to the skeptical rationalism and deism of the Enlightenment. It was during this period that Adventism emerged, the earliest African-American denominations were established and the earliest stirrings were felt leading to Mormonism, which arguably is not a Christian faith.

The Third Great Awakening has been proposed by historians looking back at U.S. religious activism in the latter half of the 19th century. As shifts in theology and church organization occurred, American Christians began progressive movements to reform society during this period, in particular antebellum abolitionism, temperance and women’s rights. As with the second outbreak, it led to further splintering of Protestantism, including several groups associated with the social gospel, Holiness and Nazarene movements, Fundamentalism and lastly Christian Science, which like Mormonism fell off the table of Christianity.

The idea of a Fourth Awakening—in the late 1960s and early 1970s—is also largely a hypothetical construct, one that is not widely accepted. The phenomenon supposedly takes in the Jesus Movement, the Pentecostal movement that crossed denominations and even outside Protestantism in the form of the Charismatic movement and possibly Messianic Jews (also known as “Jews for Jesus”).

In essence, the Awakenings, whether they were the traditional two or the arguable four, represent the ever greater fragmentation of Protestantism spurred by non-dogmatic and more or less spontaneous popular movements, mostly in the English-speaking world but particularly in the United States. They explain how the handful of “mainline” Protestant traditions spawned by the Reformation and its immediate aftereffects became the myriad of Protestant denominations, large and small, that exist today.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Strange Warming

The second largest Protestant denominational family in the United States—and fourth largest church in Britain—arose when three young men broke away from the Church of England after launching what I would dub the first Oxford Movement. The young men were John Wesley (1703-1791), his brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and their friend George Whitefield (1714-1770), the founders of Methodism.

The ringleader was decidedly John Wesley, an Anglican cleric ordained a priest in 1728. While at Oxford he founded a group in 1729 initially of three students (his brother Charles became the fourth member) who met three or four evenings a week to read and discuss the classics. This group is the origin of Methodism.

One of those classics was the Novum Testamentum Graece, a source document printed in 1514 as part of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first printed version of the entire Bible in all its original languages. The work was directed by Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a Franciscan priest, later cardinal, Grand Inquisitor and religious reformer, at the Complutense University in Madrid, which he founded.

It may have been their engagement with this work that led to a more religious character of the club, whose activities began to include praying, examining their spiritual lives and studying the Bible and then putting their deepened faith into action. The club took food to poor families, visited prisoners and taught orphans to read. With at least two priests among its members, it frequently celebrated the Eucharist.

Their more ascetic practices—they fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3:00 p.m., the reputed hour Jesus died on the cross—were widely blamed in the broader Oxford community for the death of one of their members. John Wesley, however, protested that the member has contracted an illness a good year and a half after he stopped fasting. Several students jeeringly dubbed Wesley’s group the “Holy Club,” and a popular ditty said, “By rule they eat, by rule they drink, by rule do all things but think.”

That ditty also unwittingly gave the movement its lasting name when, as had occurred before, a taunt was turned into a token of pride. The students chanted, “Method alone must guide ’em all, when themselves ‘Methodists’ they call.” Indeed, John Wesley defined “Methodist” for the 1753 English Dictionary as “One that (or who) lives according to the Method laid down in the Bible.”

That was long after a disastrous venture that led to the real institutional beginning of Methodism. In 1736-37, John and Charles Wesley were infused with fervor for their still tiny movement and decided to go to the new colony of Georgia in America and help spawn a revival of “primitive Christianity” (meaning that of the Apostolic Era) among the native inhabitants. The episode ended badly after John left the colony only a little ahead of the authorities, who sought him on charges of harassing a woman he had fallen in love with but who spurned him and married another. Charles followed shortly after.

Back in England, John turned to the Moravians, a pre-Luther, originally Czech Protestant denomination that traced back to rebel Jan Hus, and was counseled by a Moravian missionary who was awaiting papers to travel to Georgia himself. On May 24, 1738, John attended a Moravian meeting in London,  which Wesley described memorably: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

The conversion, commemorated by Methodists as Aldersgate Day, turned Wesley around. He began to preach about his evangelical-style change of heart and personal salvation by faith, then on God’s grace.

Although less famous than his older brother’s, the conversion of Charles Wesley three days earlier is worth noting. It took place at what would be today 12 Little Britain, in the vicinity of Aldersgate, where a plaque at no. 13 reads: “Adjoining this site stood the house of John Bray. Scene of Charles Wesley's conversion by faith in Christ on May 21st 1738.” Charles was not ordained, but after his conversion was a frequent field preacher. His lasting contribution to the Methodist movement are the 6,000 hymns he wrote.

Methodism now began to spread in earnest throughout England. Methodist “societies” worshipped in chapels, the first of which was the New Room in Bristol, built in 1739. At this point John Wesley began to lay the foundation of what would eventually be the structure of the Methodist Church, starting with societies, circuits, quarterly meetings and annual conferences. The General Rules issued by the Wesley brothers in 1743 state the conditions for admission into the “United Societies.” The first annual conference was held in 1744 by John and Charles Wesley, four clergymen and four lay preachers, who met in London.

Societies were made up of “classes” of a dozen members that met weekly for “spiritual fellowship” and guidance and “bands” of select members deemed “spiritually gifted.” By 1744 these select members were said to number 77. From this categorization of members also comes the term “backslider,” for a convert who falls back into preconversion habits. As the movement grew, John Wesley appointed "helpers" who visited societies (at least 30 a month) in “circuits.” To keep the preaching fresh and effective, he rotated preachers among circuits about every year or two, setting up the “itinerancy.”

The growth of the movement brought new problems, most notably with the mother institution, the Church of England.

Some of these problems stemmed from the reality the Methodists’ successful ministry to laborers and criminals and others on the margins of society who were not served by the established church. In the United States, Methodism became the faith of slaves who formed black churches in the Methodist tradition. More egregious to the Church of England, however, was that most Methodist leaders were not ordained. They flouted parish boundaries and rules on who had authority to preach, and initially Methodists encouraged women to preach, both at home and at outdoor events where they gave witness of their faith.

Differences with the Church of England divided the Wesley brothers. Like John, Charles was born the son of an Anglican priest, and disagreed vehemently with his brother concerning the widening breach with the Church of England. He preached his own faith in the fields, but not in churches. When, in 1765, he became too ill to be active he settled around the northern London Anglican parish of St Marylebone. Near death, he sent for the priest and told him, “Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.” He was.

John Wesley originally believed that the Church of England was “with all her blemishes, [...] nearer the Scriptural plans than any other in Europe” and was willing to make concessions to keep the peace with the Anglican clergy. However, by 1746, while reading an account of the early Church, he became convinced that apostolic succession was a “fable” and that he was “a scriptural episkopos [bishop] as much as many men in England.” Nonetheless, in 1763, John took the additional step of allowing Erasmus of Arcadia, a Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia in Crete, to consecrate him a bishop—secretly because it was illegal in England to do so.

The public break with Anglicanism did not come until 1784, as a by-product of the American Revolution, which led to mass departure of Anglican priests out of loyalty to the king and an enormous clerical shortage. The newly formed United States disestablished all churches, and the Anglican affiliate, the Protestant Episcopal Church was formed. The joke among Episcopalians is that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, then repaired to a tavern to found the new church.

As the Church of England dithered about appointing a bishop to ordain replacement U.S. priests, Wesley took action. He ordained Thomas Coke, an Anglican priest, as “superintendent” of U.S. Methodists by the laying on of hands. Coke sailed to America and ordained Francis Asbury superintendent. Both then asked the Americans to call them “bishops,” over John Wesley’s objections, in the Methodist Episcopal Church they formed in 1784. That same year, John made the British Annual Conference of United Methodist Societies his institutional successor.

Methodism has no formal creed of its own comparable to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. John Wesley wrote 25 Articles of Religion that abridge and adapt the Church of England’s 39. Much more important are the Scriptures—meaning the Protestant 66 books. Methodists draw from these the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the universality of original sin. They believe that the universal distribution of grace through human cooperation is necessary for eternal salvation and that although offered to all it may be freely rejected.

John Wesley split with Whitefield, the third founding Methodist from the original Oxford group, on the question of predestination. Whitefield developed Calvinist leanings that moved him to become a fiery preacher and effectively start the Protestant evangelical movement. He preached a series of “revivals” in late colonial North America that led to a whirlwind movement eventually known as the Great Awakening, to which we shall turn next.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Jansenism’s Enduring Controversy

Just as the Reformation swung to Calvinist extremes that eventually were disconnected from the relatively moderate and sensible protest of an Augustinian friar, the Catholic revival experienced in the 17th century a similar swing that also found fertile ground in the Low Countries, Jansenism. This theological movement, condemned as heresy early on, lived on among the French and Irish clergy as an underground Catholic Puritanism influential in the teaching of morals well into the 20th century.

The school of thought traces its origins to Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), Bishop of Ypres, known also as Cornelius Jansenius. However, the originator never intended to start a school of thought, much less a theological movement, especially not against papal censure.

Jansen was a poor rural Catholic boy born in Acquoy, Holland (today Gelderland, Netherlands), whose defining intellectual experience was studying at the University of Leuven in 1602-04. At that time the university was embroiled in a fierce academic conflict between Jesuits and their scholastic party and the followers of Michael Baius, who pitted against Aquinas and his contemporaries the ancient father St. Augustine of Hippo.

Cornelius became strongly attached to the party that became known as “Augustinian” (they did not belong to any of the Augustinian orders). At that time he developed a close and long-lasting friendship with fellow student Jean Duvergier, later abbot at Saint-Cyran-en-Brenne (today Saint-Michel-en-Brenne). In his lifetime, Jansen wrote a number of small works, including a tirade against the Spanish influence in the Low Countries, which accounts for his continuing celebrity in that part of the world, and was an otherwise unexceptional cleric who was eventually ordained bishop.

Significantly, however, he penned a voluminous work in Latin, Augustinus seu doctrina Sancti Augustini de humanae naturae sanitate, aegritudine, medicina adversus Pelagianos et Massilianses (The doctrine of St. Augustine on human natural health, trials and medicine against the Pelagians and Massilians), better known by the short title Augustinus. Jansen commended the volume to his chaplain asking that it be published as faithfully as possible, specifying that “If, however, the Holy See wishes any change, I am an obedient son, and I submit to that Church in which I have lived to my dying hour. This is my last wish.”

The massive, largely opaque and highly specialized theological work on Augustine’s view of the heresy of Pelagianism, and related ideas about original sin and divine grace, was published in 1640. It also covered an offshoot of that heresy, Semipelagianism, and denounced an unnamed “modern tendency” that scholars have identified as Molinism. Before going into the controversy of Jansenism, let’s first clarify these terms.

Pelagianism was the teaching of Pelagius (354-440?), an Irish or Scottish monk, who taught that the human will, as created by God, could guide people to a sinless life. This teaching came to be understood, whether Pelagius actually intended it or not, as meaning that people can effectively earn their own salvation. The doctrine was much debated by several synods and eventually condemned in the fifth century by two popes.

Semipelagianism (also known as Massilianism, a reference to the Latin name for Marseilles) was an attempt by monks in the vicinity of Marseilles around 428 to find a compromise with the teachings of Pelagius, whom even Augustine called “a saintly man.” Semipelagians make a distinction between the beginning of faith and its growth. They argue that the choice to adopt faith is an act of human free will, with divine grace intervening in response, but development in faith is the work of God. This teaching was condemned as heresy at the local Council of Orange in 529, a position maintained ever since.

Complicating the palette of ideas in Jansen’s work, however, between 1590 and 1600 the term “semipelagianism” was applied to the teachings of Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535-1600) concerning the doctrine of grace. Molina was a staunch Renaissance defender of human liberty in his attempt to reconcile some of Augustine’s ideas with free will, appealing to God’s foreknowledge of how human beings will use it. A controversy raged in Rome around these ideas until 1611, when Paul V simply prohibited all further discussion of the question. In this way, Molinism was subsumed into the Jansenist controversy, to which we now return.

Augustinus was widely read in theological circles in France and the Low Countries, then throughout Europe, igniting a controversy that also became political. Jansen’s university friend Duvergier publicly preached Jansenism before the book was even printed, and it spawned enormously heated debate among Catholics.

Debated was whether only divine grace could tip a person toward perfect contrition (sorrow for sins for love of God alone) and salvation or if grace could make up for imperfect contrition (sorrow for fear of punishment). It was an issue related to the sacrament today known as Reconciliation (Penance or Confession) and all penitence involving remorse, which the Council of Trent had not addressed.

In May 1638, Duvergier was imprisoned by order of the gray eminence behind the throne of France, Cardinal Richelieu, and was not released until after Richelieu’s death in 1642.

Jansen’s mainly Jesuit opponents condemned his teachings for alleged similarities to Calvinism. Blaise Pascal attempted to mediate, arguing that both were partially right: Molinists were correct about the state of humanity before the Fall, while Calvinists were right about the state of humanity after the Fall.

In 1642, the Holy Office of the Inquisition condemned Augustinus and forbade its reading; Pope Urban VIII followed up with a papal bull titled In eminenti, which also condemned it. What led to Jansenism being declared a heresy is the assertion that God’s role in the infusion of grace cannot be resisted and does not require human assent. The 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “God’s free initiative demands man’s free response,” meaning that people may assent to or refuse God’s grace.

Jansenism went underground and resurfaced in myriad ways. The apostolic constitution Unigenitus Dei Filius by Pope Clement XI in 1713 officially ended tolerance for Jansenist doctrine, but it kept resurfacing among overly pious groups. Some odd spiritual practices included the Jansenist idea that Holy Communion should be received very infrequently because it required much more than being free from mortal, or very grave, sin. This idea was condemned by Pope Pius X in the early 20th century; the pope endorsed frequent communion so long as the communicant was free of mortal sin.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Absolutist Christendom

The next challenge to the Christian faith came to span all Europe and involved Protestants in the British Isles and Catholics in France: it attempted to turn the new European Renaissance nation-states ruled by a monarch into the default form of Christian government.

The idea of a Christian political order has enthralled many over the years, but it is not easily derived from Scripture without doing violence to the text. Since Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian, many rulers have claimed God’s favor, with some assent from the clergy. Yet throughout the Middle Ages the Church put limits on the power of kings and made sure that Christian kings followed laws and traditions, as well as God’s ordinances and justice. Popes and patriarchs claimed the right to crown and depose kings.


The Church’s power of persuasion eventually declined, and certain monarchic dynasties pulled medieval fiefdoms together into countries. Some people, such as Britain’s King James (VI of Scotland and later I of England), argued that the circumstances that led to a government such as his own were a sign of divine favor, implying a divine right to rule. In 1598, James published The True Law of Free Monarchies, a general treatise on the subject and a response to populist political theorists in Scotland. He also published Basilikon Doron (Greek for Royal Gift), a manual for his son on being a king.

“The state of monarchy is the supremest thing upon earth, for kings are not only God's lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God's throne,” James expounded to the English Parliament in 1610. “Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is truly parens patriae [Latin, parent of the country], the politic father of his people.”

In the Anglican and broader Protestant understanding, the divine right of kings of the 17th century is a political and religious doctrine of royal legitimacy. It asserts that a monarch answers to no earthly authority; his right to rule comes directly from the will of God. The king is not subject to the will of his people, the aristocracy, or any other group, including the Church, he governs. As we have seen, Martin Luther urged secular authorities to crush the Peasant Rebellion of 1525 based on his interpretation of Pauline writings.

In England, the idea was rejected by the Puritans and other nonconformists under Cromwell, who committed the then-shocking crime of regicide in 1640; however, Cromwell and his order were overthrown. The disconnect between the divine right of kings and the English way of life erupted in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Whig overthrow of James and permanent installation of Protestantism as the sole legal form of Christianity (Catholicism remained illegal until 1840), with limited rights for Nonconformists, notably set in motion in the 1689 Bill of Rights of the modern constitutional British monarchy, which gives the king or queen the right to reign but not rule.


A very different story can be told of developments across the English Channel, where Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704), a bishop and theologian, became court preacher to Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), also known as the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), and notably tutor to his son.

Bossuet is the principal French Christian theorist of the divine right of kings, although monarchical absolutism in France can be traced to Cardinal Richelieu and the Sun King himself, whose well-known saying “L'état, c'est moi (I am the State)” is more accurately rendered “The interests of the state come first. When these have priority, one labors for one's own good. Advantages to the state redound to one's glory.”

The writings of Bossuet helped define monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries, in his country and through much of Europe. He is most notable today for three classics he wrote as royal tutor: Traité de la connaissance de Dieu et de soi-même (Treatise on the Knowledge of God and Oneself—1677), followed by Discours sur l'histoire universelle (Discourse on Universal History—1679) and Politique tirée de l'Écriture Sainte (Politics Drawn from Holy Scripture—1679).

Like Luther, Bossuet got some of his ideas about authority from Paul, but at the heart of Bossuet’s theology is the notion that human history is under the protection of divine providence. This is a perfectly orthodox, biblically rooted Catholic doctrine found in St. Augustine’s City of God, which Bossuet updated in his Discourse on Universal History. It teaches that God preserves the universe. Despite evil arising from human misuse of free will, God continues to direct all things, even evil and sin itself, to the purpose for which the universe was created: that all should manifest the glory of God and reach full development and eternal happiness therein.

The book of Wisdom, for example, speaks of the world as a ship captained by God under a “fatherly Providence that brings her safe to port” (14:3). Similarly, in Matthew 6:25-34 we see Jesus admonishing his disciples, “Do not fret over your life, how to support it with food and drink; over your body, how to keep it clothed,” for “If God, then, so clothes the grasses of the field, which today live and will feed the oven tomorrow, will he not be much more ready to clothe you, men of little faith?”

Bossuet, however, got carried away and came to see Louis XIV’s France and Solomon’s Israel as equivalent moral and holy examples of national rule. His attitude is clear in his reference in a letter to “le roi, Jesus-Christ, et l'Eglise, Dieu en ces trois noms” (the king, Jesus Christ, and the Church, divine in these three names). In fact, he hoped in the future to see France ruled by a Christian philosopher on the throne, presumably his pupil. Louis’ son, however, died before his father and never occupied the throne. Still, Louis XIV became an absolute monarch who, with his successors, claimed to rule by divine right.

Monarchism as a heresy

The core of all heresy or heterodoxy, meaning teaching that is simply not in accord with the Christian faith yet claims to be, is that it takes elements of a teaching and distorts it, usually by aggrandizing its place. Luther turned elements of faith, such as the Bible and the divine gift of grace, and turned them into the unique and only (sola) core of all Christian belief.

The divine right of kings is embedded in contemporary strands of political thinking that still claim Christian support for authoritarian rule (including many a murderous dictator claiming to defend “Western Christian Civilization”), but a careful distinction will disabuse the reader of such a thought.

The Bible does not easily and glibly support monarchy, even though that was the predominant form of government when it was being composed. When the people ask Samuel for a king, the last of the biblical judges reminds them that God is the their only king, but the people want one of flesh and blood like those of their neighbors. This is Israel’s disloyalty, ultimately its ruin.

Similarly, Jesus famously sidestepped political issues of his day, such as paying taxes (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:9-18), and refused to claim a territory (John 18: 33-37), while asserting that the rule (mistranslated “kingdom”) of God began with his ministry (Mark 1:15). The words “king” and “kingdom” are misused in worship (feast of and hymns about Christ the King) and in biblical translations where other terms are more accurate (David, for example, is anointed as a maschiah, or savior, and secondarily put in place as a monarch). The passages translated as praising kings and turning the rule of Christ into a “kingdom of God” are examples of Christian pandering to kings by clergy and not entirely accidental.

Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, however, provided grist for the mill for the likes of Luther and Bossuet in a well-known passage, 13:1-7. The passage begins with a seemingly unfettered endorsement of the state: “Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance.”

However, those who appeal to the passage pretend that it is the only and final word on the matter. In fact, while Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-4; and Titus 3:1—all Pauline texts—present a positive view of the state,  Matthew 4, Luke 4, 1 Corinthians 2:6-8, Ephesians 6:12 and Revelation 13 show government in more negative terms.

Romans is the source of much controversy in Christianity, mainly because it is one of Paul’s most complex writings, obviously written for people who lived in the sophisticated capital of the world at the time. Yet even in this government-positive Romans 13 passage Paul makes clear that the state serves God and has no intrinsic authority. There is no suggestion that Christians should obey state orders contrary to the gospel of love and peace.

Indeed, the history of the early Church shows that when Roman soldiers converted, the first thing they did was quit the army. Tertullian remarks, “shall a Christian serve in war? Nay, how shall a Christian serve even in peace?”

Drawing on Romans, Augustine narrowed the distance between faith and the state, although he was among the first major Christian thinkers to live in the peculiar circumstance of a government whose ruler proclaimed himself a Christian. In the late Middle Ages, with a longer experience of what the mix actually meant, Thomas Aquinas drew on Romans to allow the overthrow of a king to the point of regicide when the king was a usurper, but he forbade the overthrow by his subjects of any law-abiding king.

Christendom, or the earthly social culture of monarchical caste societies organized under the veneer of barely skin-deep faith, died a deserving death in 1914. That year, on Christmas, World War I soldiers from both sides were brought to stop their industrial-scale murder by the sound of carols. An informal truce broke out for miles along the front—a peace brought about by the faint echo of faith in nominally Christian Europe—which was ended swiftly by orders from both sides’ high commands.

Such a faith-inspired outbreak of peace was never to recur; within three years, the first overtly atheist European state was proclaimed.