How bad is the current crisis? Look to Church history


The providence of God has ensured that the rogues have not had the last word

Last week my brother went to a meeting with fellow parishioners and the local bishop to talk about the parishioners’ dismay at the conviction of a former local priest for paedophile offences. On Sunday our parish priest invited anyone who was distressed at recent revelations in the Church to come and see him for advice and counselling. All this is deeply sad for ordinary Catholics who love their Faith and deplore the seemingly constant stream of scandals highlighted in the media, Catholic and otherwise.

I hesitate to respond, “It was ever thus”; it can imply a resigned indifference to the woes besetting the Church in our own day. But you only have to read Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church by Steve Weidenkopf (Our Sunday Visitor) to realise there is some truth to the remark. I have reached the Reformation period; the previous 1500 years are a regular record of great and saintly men either combating or being followed by notorious scoundrels – including a regular crop of heretics.

The good news is that the providence of God has ensured that the rogues have not had the last word, though they have given the Church a run for her money and done much damage. Written in short sections to make for easy reading, this is a 500-page work of scholarship with a full bibliography, suited to anyone who is curious to know more about this strange, enduring institution.

I learnt that it was Julian the Apostate (rather than the poet Swinburne as I had thought) who died supposedly muttering, “You have conquered, O Galilean.” That it was St Ambrose who stated, “Where there is Peter, there is the Church.” And it was St Augustine – “the Church’s unmatched thinker and theologian for 800 years” – who allegedly said of the Pelagian heresy, “Rome has spoken. The case is closed.” St Jerome, known for his bad temper had, we are told in modern parlance, an “anger-management problem”.

The author does not fudge the papal record either: from 867-920 fifteen popes reigned, of whom four were murdered “with several more possibly suffering the same fate” (John VIII was bludgeoned to death, Stephen VII was strangled, Leo V was murdered by his successor and John X was suffocated.) I am not sure whether, looking at the Vatican today, we are meant to take comfort in these sobering facts of history.

On the Crusades, Weidenkopf refers to the late Cambridge scholar Jonathan Riley-Smith on the pious inspiration for men undertaking them, but he is also clear that the crusaders were “not always pure and virtuous”; indeed, they were often “crude, arrogant and at times savage.” On the Spanish Inquisition, he puts the record straight against those who paint it “as one of the greatest institutions of mass murder in history”: “In the 44,674 cases brought before the Spanish Inquisition from 1540 to 1700, only 826 obstinate heretics were remanded to the state for execution. In roughly the same period in Protestant England, there was an average of 750 hangings per year for various crimes.”

So how should modern Catholics view the Inquisition? Weidenkopf does try to set this period in its historical context, something people with little understanding of history, find hard to grasp: “Before the modern world, religious freedom was neither practised nor tolerated, because unorthodox religious beliefs were not only a danger to souls, but to social order as well, since it often led to violent rebellion against civil authority.”

This cannot justify the judicial violence used against heretics when viewed in the light of the Gospels, but it does help to understand it. It is when the author explains that “torture was allowed to elicit a confession but was never used as a form of punishment” that I start to feel uneasy. It made me think of Alec Guinness in The Bridge over the River Kwai, using all his engineering skills to build a bridge – only to realise late in the day that he was thereby helping the enemy.

Perhaps, when discussing these subjects with someone outside the Church, it is worth always emphasising that the institution exists in time and thus will always be influenced to some extent by the spirit of the age, usually in negative ways, and that the best way to regard her is through the eyes of the saints throughout the ages, those magnificent men and women who saw beyond the scandals of their Church and kept their eyes firmly on its heavenly founder, Christ.