Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Present Position

( Originally Published 1870 )

IF I were to ask, no matter of whom, What is the first topic to be considered in an inquiry into the present position of affairs in the Church of Rome ? I should receive for universal answer, ` The Papacy.'

By some this answer would be given with joy and pride. 'See,' they would exclaim, ` at last the Papacy is where it should be. The episcopate is at its feet ; Catholic unity is consummated.'

By others, also Catholics, the answer would be spoken in sorrow. ` The Papacy,' they would say, 'is now all in all. The Pope has declared, I am the Church ; and the Church has no longer the courage, or even the desire, to protest.'

Others, again, whether Catholics or not, as they gave the answer, would be led to wonder how it has come to pass that, in the nineteenth century, the Papacy has attained to an omnipotence always hitherto disputed.

Let us examine this last question first.

In the first place, we may observe that it is unnecessary to waste words in establishing the fact. All independence in Catholicism is at an end, or, when it does show itself, appears only in the form of rebellion. Submission to the Pope is no longer a mere matter of discipline and external order ; Rome has made submission a dogma, and, when occasion requires, the most important of dogmas.

For instance : An Archbishop of Paris was murdered in 1857. This is what the Pope wrote to one of that archbishop's relatives : ` There is great comfort, both for you and for ourselves, in the firm hope that the deceased prelate has entered into the heavenly kingdom ; for throughout his life he manifested a peculiar veneration for ourselves and for the Apostolic See. He was distinguished by his piety, his zeal,' etc.

Thus the second reason for believing in the archbishop's salvation is his piety ; the first, his submissiveness to the Pope. Let us add that this was not even true, and that the Pope's object in writing these words was probably far less to praise the archbishop of whom, indeed, he had often had occasion to complain than to give an indirect rebuke to any one who might imitate him in his flutterings of independence.

Indeed, this same archbishop, if we were to relate his history, might help us to understand the advances of Papal omnipotence.

It was in 1854. The Pope had convened, not a Council, but an assembly of bishops. They were not to deliberate on any subject whatever, still less to vote, but simply to stand round the throne of Pius ix. while the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed. We will return to this assembly, the true object of which has only gradually disclosed itself. It was the first step towards the Council of 1869, which, under a title historically more imposing, is in reality identical with it.

The bishops then were convened for the purpose of undergoing an apprenticeship in that absolute submission which was henceforth to be required of them. Now one of those least inclined to obey so it was said. —was the Archbishop of Paris. All Paris had known that he was but little favourable -to the new dogma, and especially to the proclamation by the Pope alone, —a proclamation which would implicitly include that of the Papal infallibility. He had even hesitated very much before proceeding to Rome. It was thought, when he started, that he would carry to the Vatican some echoes at least of the old Gallican independence. In any case, from his well-known opinions, his presence would have a significance that would not escape the champions of the Papacy. Did he uplift his voice, or did he merely show himself ? We know not. What we do know is, that no bishop, announcing to his flock on his return the proclamation of the new dogma, spoke of it in his pastoral letter with more entire approbation, in terms more highly and triumphantly jubilant.

To approve that was inevitable. To approve with such transports of thankfulness and joy alas ! perhaps that was also necessary, in order to expiate the previous mutterings of resistance ; and it is very possible that that joy itself was formally ordered and insisted upon. But we have no need for this supposition. The very organization of the Roman Church sufficiently explains these great sacrifices of individual thought and of personal dignity.

Think how a man caught in the meshes of such a system must reason with himself. ` To refuse a single time to obey, is to lose all right to command. Bishop, or simple priest, a single step deprives me logically of all power to preach in the name of unity ; and even if my superiors remain ignorant of my rebellion, even if it be for ever hidden in my own breast, I can no longer feel that I am standing on the only rock that I have been taught to regard as immoveable. Therefore I shall return to it with all speed, and at whatever price.'

And thus the man is constrained by his conscience itself, to speak, and teach, and act against his con-science. To be sincere in commanding in the name of the Church, he must be able to say to himself, ` I have been the first to submit ; I have sacrificed to unity my convictions and scruples.'

This sacrifice, it is unnecessary to add, will not always be real. Only a few days after his famous recantation, since so much admired, Fénelon wrote to the Abbé de Chanterac, his agent at Rome : ' God has allowed me to be condemned.' Ile therefore accepts his condemnation, but only as a painful trial ; he does not accept it as a judgment upon his doctrines, and evidently he thinks afterwards as he thought before.

But others may be more really submissive. The very necessity of yielding, of abdicating, will have made the thing possible, and the conscience henceforward will not even be required to intervene. ` I have admitted the system ; I admit the consequences. That is all.'


Hence comes the immense authority with which the man is invested, even independently of all reputed divine right, who holds in his hands the springs of such a system.

A system existing only in idea you may consider it as advantageous and necessary, but in dealing with it your mind will retain its freedom ; and if occasion require, you may even be unfaithful to it. But if the system is there palpably before you in flesh and blood, with eyes to see, and ears to hear, incarnate in a man who could yield nothing even if he would —how can you help obeying ? how can you help contributing to complete and strengthen ? That man will reign, not only in the name of the system he represents, but in the name of logic and of reason, however illogical and unreasonable may be some of the things he enjoins.

That man, moreover, in the Roman system, is the dispenser of high and coveted dignities, which his duty, as well as his interest, teach him should be entrusted only to those who have given proofs of obedience. These proofs must be complete and indisputable. A day, an hour of independence, and you are branded for ever.

This is what takes place in every rank of the great Roman army. It will even be easier for the suspected archbishop to become a cardinal, than for the suspected curate to become a priest ; the diocesan papacies are often worse than the sovereign Papacy. When the Cardinal de Bonnechose spoke of his priests one day in the Senate, as of a regiment in which no one could think of having a will of his own, it is said that the words created a painful sensation in the 'assembly. Yet what had he said which the whole world did not already know ?

As for me, I confess that I cannot meet a Catholic priest without thinking of this state of things. I ask myself always whether he is one of those who are afflicted by their position, or one of those who are not. If he suffers, I pity him ; if he suffers not, I pity him still more, for his conscience is seared, his will unstrung, and his personal dignity lost.

One day I was present at a great religious ceremony held in a cathedral. In the choir, with his mitre on his head and his crosier in his hand, covered with silk, and lace, and gold, sat the bishop on his throne. Around were the regiment spoken of by M. de Bonnechose.

There are here, said I to myself, two or three hundred priests of every rank, some nearer to that high dignity, and some further removed, but all equally eclipsed and crushed by its splendour, though all may hope to attain to it hereafter. Yes, you poor little priest, there hidden in the crowd, that mitre may one day sparkle on your forehead. Your eyes glisten at the thought ; your heart beats. But listen : no one becomes a master in the Church, unless he has been a slave, and appears destined always to remain so. One moment of awakening, one glimmer of resistance, and you are fixed in your present position till death. Nay, you will be happy if you escape being turned out ! Submission, always submission that is the only means of remaining or becoming anything.

And yet it often happens that a simple priest will be more ready to incur the displeasure of that prelate who is the absolute master of the fate of his subordinates than the prelate to incur the displeasure of the Pope. The higher a man rises in the ranks of the hierarchy, the more his duty and his interest conspire to make any real resistance to the supreme head all but impossible. It is there, near the centre, that the necessities of the system become most evident, and that that logic to which we have already referred speaks most clearly and imperiously.

But that logic is now clear to all ; and thus time itself has been a precious auxiliary for the Papacy. For if, on the one hand, the years have brought many a conflict ; if they have successively placed the Papacy in antagonism to the Reformation in the sixteenth century, to Gallicanism in the seventeenth, afterwards to Voltaire and the Revolution, and then, in our own age, produced an explosion of ideas, every one of which, as it seemed, had power to make her totter to her fall on the other hand, they have determined with increasing distinctness what she has a right to exact from those who wish her to stand firm so that they may lean upon her. It has become evident that there is no middle course between submission and rebellion ; that the principle being once admitted, she is nothing if she be not all ; that she was justified in condemning those who thought they could understand her rights in a manner different from herself. Gallicanism did not sink under the anathemas of Rome. It died a natural death, as those things die that are born of a false position, of an impossible concord between opposite principles. They are very superficial, therefore, not to say very foolish, who express surprise that there should no longer be any Gallican bishops in France, or at most only two or three. The real cause for astonishment is, that there should still be so many.


The mere march of time affords, therefore, a prima facie explanation of the omnipotence which the Papacy has acquired. Circumstances also have been propitious.

Time, as we said, has been prolific of great dangers, both for the Papacy, and for the Church of which she is the head. But it is in the midst of dangers that men rally round their chief. Even if he inspires but a small measure of regard, still he is the chief, and a chief is a necessity. His rights, which under other circumstances might perhaps have been questioned, are now not even disputed ; his faults, which would not only have been admitted, but proclaimed, are hidden and denied. All that he exacts in the way of sacrifice and submission is granted unhesitatingly.

This is, in our day, the history of Catholicism and of the Pope.

The dangers were of two kinds : those that threatened religion in general ; and those that menaced Catholicism, and the Church in particular.

Let us take those that threatened religion first.

The time has gone by, when the eighteenth century could be quoted as the age of infidelity par excellence. The mocking laughter of Voltaire was but a slender court rapier, in comparison with the blades forged in certain modern armouries of human thought.

Now, as then, there would be fair reason to inquire whether Catholicism is not, in a very great measure, itself the cause of the attacks levelled against Christianity and all religion. Ascend that sombre current which would sweep all faith from off the earth, explore one after the other the various brooks that contribute to its volume, and you will find that there are few which do not spring from some spirit, or from some heart, bruised by the doctrines and the despotism of Rome.

God forbid that we should refuse, on this account, to praise what may have been done in the bosom of that Church for the defence of Christian truth ! But on this point we have three observations to make.

First, we can only praise what has been done without the help of violence. That a bishop should publish a pastoral letter against a book nothing can be better. We should only prefer, even when the book is de-testable, that the condemnation should contain more argument, and less abuse, than is to be found in the writings of many bishops. But if force be used in any way, we shall say that truth has been dishonoured. Now Catholicism has never yet submitted to the employment of persuasion alone. Wherever it has been able, wherever it is still able, to appeal to force, it has appealed, and does appeal to it. If occasion require, it will declare that it holds force in abhorrence, like those Austrian bishops who, a few years ago, ordered that the students in the seminaries should be taught that the Church has never appealed to the secular arm, and has never employed any other weapons than those she inherits from her Divine Master, viz, teaching, and prayers, and tears. Let us listen, however, to another voice : ` There is,' wrote latterly the Bishop of Montauban, ` a degree of external pressure, of pain or physical suffering, that may be legitimately and usefully employed to make a man pass from error to truth.' Here we are carried back, not only to the days of the dragoonades, but of the Inquisition and torture. Let us repeat, therefore : Even if the Church had made use of such means in favour only of true Christian ideas, still we could never consent to call this fighting for the truth.

Our second observation is, that Catholicism has done little else, and has not made much mark in the great modern warfare for the defence of Christian truth. The part which it played in the eighteenth century, when opposed to French infidelity, was deplorably weak; and it abandoned to the Protestants all the honours, and indeed all the charges, of the war. A century earlier, when certainly Catholicism did not want for able pens, it was already to the Protestants that the Bossuets and Fenelons abandoned the fairer portions of the field of Christian apology. And, indeed, good, true, scientific apologetics do not come naturally to any one wishing to remain a Catholic, even if he possesses every other qualification for the task. The thing itself is contrary to the Catholic principle. To reason, to refute, to give proofs, is to abandon the only ground that suits a Church divinely commissioned to affirm and command ; it is to make her speak as any . other Church would speak. Besides, it is never her object to defend Christianity alone. She would owe small thanks for such a result. With Christianity must be defended all that she has added' to the faith. The proofs that establish the great foundations must consolidate also the superstructure. This is the difficulty ; this the secret of the small success she has obtained in the great apologetic field. It is awkward to have to defend simultaneously the Bible and the Apostolical Constitutions, God and indulgences, the cross and the triple crown.

And it is to be remarked and this is our third observation that the few good Catholic books in defence of Christianity, published during the last twenty years, are for the most part Catholic only to the extent of the author's name. Every here and there, certainly, they contain pages intensely Catholic, to redeem others that are less so, and occasionally too, a good deal of abuse of those same Protestants from whom perhaps half the work has been borrowed ; but these are only digressions, and in the body of the book it is Christianity itself that is defended Christianity without Rome and the Pope, a curious proof, assuredly, of the unsubstantial nature of the chains that are elsewhere declared to bind so indissolubly Christianity and the Roman forms, the Roman authority, and the Roman system. And official, Roman, Papal Catholicism generally regards books of this kind with little favour. It will not venture to say that they are essentially wanting ; but in its heart it thinks so. A good book on the Pope will always be better received at Rome than a good book on Jesus Christ ; and perhaps a good book on the temporal power, that great question of the day, would be even better received than another book treating only of the spiritual Papacy, and of the salvation of souls through the Pope.

And this leads me to the other dangers I indicated, viz. those that threaten specially Catholicism and the Pope.

It is impossible, as I have just said, not to perceive how much more entirely the attention of the Roman Church, from the Pope down to the lowest sacristan, is engrossed by these dangers, than by those that menace religion. Shall it be objected that in the mind of a priest there is no such distinction, and that for him the dangers that threaten the Church, and the dangers that threaten religion, are identical ? Yes ; but this precisely is the great evil. Shall I be told that a Pope may be very sincere in regarding his enemies, all his enemies, as the enemies of God ? Yes ; but this is just what shows how far Catholicism has jumbled together what is human and what is divine — the things of earth with those of heaven. Official Catholicism is far less a religion than an immense human institution, in which religion does no more than create and hallow certain rights and interests. I repeat, that this does not necessarily exclude sincerity ; but it is clear that sincerity itself that the conviction that those rights come from God, and those interests are sacred will contribute much to give them a prominent place in the thoughts of the Church and of her ministers.

In truth, a sad picture might be drawn of the rights and interests that correspond in the Roman Church to every truth or to every error inculcated. Pius Ix., as we willingly believe, would never say in jest, like Leo x., that Christ had done well to come into the world to make him a Pope ; but how often has he not been very near saying it in all seriousness ! In his allocutions, in his briefs, in his encyclicals, how many passages there are, from which it would appear that the great object of our Saviour's coming was to appoint a vicar, to establish him at Rome, and to make him exactly such as he is ! How many passages there are, in which the whole matter naively assumes a personal character ; as, for instance, in the letter on the death of M. Sibour quoted above, in which the vicar of Christ would seem to be no longer the mere vicar of Christ, but a God to be served as himself possessing every right to our obedience ! Now, the needs and instincts which thus find an expression are as full of vitality in the lowest as in the highest ranks of the clergy. The humblest village priest takes pleasure in the thought, that the most definite result of the establishment of Christianity upon earth is, that there should be a body of men exercising a divine and miraculous power, and that he himself should be one of them, and have the right, consequently, to command and rule. It is true that episcopal despotism will occasionally, as we have seen, come and shake him rudely in his village papacy, compelling him to see the reverse side of the system ; but the bishop, who is less exposed to the bitter blasts from above, and is seated, like the Pope, upon a throne, and surrounded, like him, by courtiers, the bishop may easily indulge in the same dreams as the rope ; and the grander and bolder the Pope's dreams, the more complacently will the episcopate adopt them. In other days, the very opposite- of this took place. Bishops had been known to remind the Papacy, and sometimes in no mincing terms, that the Papacy was not the Church, and that, in assuming to be not only the centre, but the end and object, of the divine scheme, it parodied that scheme, and dishonoured it. But in the midst of modern dangers, the interests of caste have prevailed. The monarchy being threatened, lias become absolute ; and it is not in a monarchy that the courtiers will ever be found to complain that too much stress is laid on the doctrine of the right divine. The Bishop of Orleans will not have it that the Pope is infallible ; but in all other matters he has been, we should not forget, the Pope's most fiery champion.

The Catholic public has let things take their course. Those who were dissatisfied could do nothing to arrest a revolution which both principles and circumstances were bringing about naturally and inevitably. As for the devout, they were carried away like their pastors. All the causes that conspired to bring the clergy to the feet of the Pope, might be shown to have worked the same effect upon the whole Church, including many persons who, in other days, would not have suffered themselves to be thus caught. This, however, is due especially to the skill with which every object of terror to the clergy has been made to look like a social and political danger.


Essentially, there is no more than one such object of terror, but it is horrible : the opposition becoming, day by day more evident and irreconcilable between the modern spirit and the spirit of Catholicism.

The Church is not in the habit, unless under compulsion, of encountering openly any dangers in matters of detail : she prefers to circumvent them, or, at any rate, to reserve to herself the means of circumventing them. Hence springs a tolerance and gentleness, contrasting singularly with the fierce harshness displayed on other occasions. Look at Spain, for instance. Never had a throne more dear to the Pope been overthrown ; never had a political revolution been more openly effected in opposition to the Church and the Papacy : for the French Revolution itself, so fatal to the priests, had only turned against them gradually. And yet with what consideration the Spanish Revolution has been treated ! How silent Rome has been, notwithstanding the most horrible sacrileges ! What care has been taken not to offend the leaders, who must be perfectly aware that in the Pope's heart of hearts they are excommunicated and cursed !

This is what Rome can, from policy, be in her dealings with revolutions which she abhors. But the Re-volution, in which term she sums up all the things of today, and the modern spirit in general that is the enemy to be cursed openly and unceasingly, the enemy which every officer or soldier who enlists into the great Catholic army is sworn to oppose, the enemy against which Catholic unity in our day has formed and serried its ranks, feeling that the danger is supreme.

Intelligent men will it be believed ? deceive themselves still. ' I have endeavoured to confess my faith without cursing my age,' writes the Prince de Broglie to Madame Swetchine. ' Is that possible ? I think so. . . . Donoso Cortes, who has written me a very kind letter, agrees that the difference between us is, that I believe a marriage to be possible between modern society and the Catholic Church, while he does not believe it. I answered that, without thinking too highly of modern society, I thought that our Lord could sit at its feast, as well as at that of the publican, or at the marriage festival in Cana of Galilee.' Our Lord —yes ; but the Pope ? The Gospel yes ; but Romanism ? And what right have you to take any other view of Romanism than as defined by its chief, and yours ?

Even if the Papacy were to repair successively and in detail the losses she has sustained in Italy, in Spain, in Austria, and elsewhere, she knows that in reality she would have gained nothing as regards the future ; she knows also how little she can reckon on France, notwithstanding all that political France has done for her, or Catholic France seemed to swear in the way of obedience and devotion. She feels that the enemy is everywhere, and the danger everywhere, even in the hearts of the faithful, in so far as they belong to their age ; she knows that the waves that are breaking over her dykes are not those of a passing storm, but of a tide rising and rising still. She curses one by one the advancing billows of our age ; she heaps up the breach with the wreckage of her ancient power ; and it is to this labour of despair that her servants in every land are now lending their willing hands.

This is why the Pope felt sure that he could depend upon his Council ;1 this is why, settling beforehand all the questions which should, it would seem, have been discussed by it, be fulminated in 1864 the Encyclical, and the Syllabus.

Home | More Articles | Email: