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Papacy Morally Considered

( Originally Published 1870 )


ON all these points, and on many others, the Catholic ages showed far more intelligence, and judged far more severely, than the Catholics of to-day. They had, in the midst of all their ignorances, a just sentiment of what the Papacy ought to have been; they entertained no illusion respecting the distance that separated the reality from the ideal. It took a long time, a very long time, before Catholic historians set themselves to paint with their present colours. So far from representing the Papacy as having always held firm, and uplifted the standard of justice and humanity, it was customary to lament that it had so constantly taken a part in earthly quarrels, and introduced into those quarrels so many elements that were miserably human. The Middle Ages knelt before the Pope, but stood erect before the man. They did not dispute his character as the Vicar of Christ, but they liked to cite him to appear before the tribunal of that same Christ, the Judge of all. And one is astonished to see how the notion of liberty reappears in the popular judgments on the demigod of the Vatican. A short time after the death of Innocent Iv., says a legend preserved by Matthew Paris, a cardinal saw the Pope appearing before God, and asking for mercy. But Justice cried to the Lord : ' Thou hast created the Church free, and this man hath enslaved it ; Thou hast created it to be the salvation of sinners, and he has made of it a bank of usurers ; Thou hast established it to be the foundation of faith, and he has caused both faith and morals to totter.' This is what the cardinal heard ; and shortly afterwards the new Pope, Alexander Iv., saw in a dream his predecessor dragged to a place 'which we shall charitably call purgatory,' says the chronicler. A great poet, as we know, was not so charitable. It is not in purgatory that tyrannical Popes are placed by Dante. And how many legends there are of this kind ! How many proofs of the small amount of love and respect which peoples, like kings, entertained for the supreme pontificate !

But did the clergy, at least, love and bless the Papacy ? The clergy deified it, that was imperative ; and, besides, in so doing, it deified itself. But to respect and love it, that was another thing. The bishops complained almost as much as the kings. They had to struggle constantly against this chief, who wished to be more than a chief to be all in all ; against those monks, the privileged soldiery of the Pope, who came in his name to thrust themselves everywhere, and to rule over everything. There was not a Council in the Middle Ages that did not ring with complaints of the despotism and exactions of the Court of Rome. Mingled with the obligatory formulas of submission and veneration, there is often a deep-rooted bitterness and a hidden contempt. The worst bishops feel that they have a right to be severe when they approach this subject ; the good, groan and express indignation, and at the risk of shaking the whole fabric, openly attribute the degradation of the Church to its head. If to these attacks of the bishops you add what the inferior clergy said in books and sermons, you will have, without seeking in other utterances than those of the clergy, all that you can desire in the way of accusation against the Popes. One of the things with which Luther, still devoutly Catholic, was most painfully struck at Rome, was the merciless government, which only knew how to rule by terror and executions, signally despotic even at a time of universal despotism. Alas ! making allowance for the différence between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, there has been no change. But no priest would now dare to say so. Everything at Rome must be considered as beautiful and perfect.


The existence of that antithesis which is now so loudly proclaimed between the sovereignty of matter and the sovereignty of mind, is not confirmed by history. The Papacy never repudiated the use of force ; it never recoiled from the necessity of having for its own, or borrowing, the material elements of action. Did contemporaries regard as a spiritual power that which took a part in all the political affairs of Europe, often throwing into the balance a sword that then had some weight ? Was that a spiritual power which was constantly struggling, by war and diplomacy, to enlarge its territories in Italy ? Inquire, among others, of the Venetian historians on this point, and you will see what they, in common with all statesmen, thought of that ideal of the Papacy that is presented to us. Not one of the European dynasties has laboured so much, and so continuously, to enlarge and consolidate its territory. The Catholic writers deride kings who make themselves Popes ; is a Pope who makes himself a king so very different ? Is it enough that the word 'king' comes after the word ' Pope,' to make us forget the innumerable occasions on which a Pope has been a king, and a king above all ? And it would be easy to show that even in this the present times are not so far removed from the old. That famous brief, written to pay for the Russian battalions, was it not written by the king to the shame of the Pope ? Many sovereigns since then have fallen from their thrones. Is there one that has had, like Pius IX., during ten years, twenty years, day by day, and hour by hour, to think how he could retain his position ? I do not blame him for it, any more than I blame him on account of the cannons or the soldiers he has accepted ; I only state a fact ; and without ex-pressing approval of the system of kings who are at the same time Popes, I say that many such kings, peace-fully seated upon their throne, have had in reality a mind and a heart far more free to attend to religious matters than Pius X.

This feverish and troubled position was almost al-ways, during the Middle Ages, that of the Papacy ; and if we did not know how such causes affected it, we might measure their importance from those fearful anathemas periodically fulminated against whoever encroached on the Papal dominions. Even in the struggles that were more spiritual in principle, the temporal element nearly always played an important part. How many quarrels between Popes and kings can we discover, in which the question of the immunities of the Church, the property of the Church, was not mixed up ? Here, again, I do not say that the Popes would have done better to allow themselves, or the Church, to be spoiled ; I state a fact, and I place the fact in presence of the ideal. The great evil common to the Roman Church and to her head is this : she has always wished to be of the world, and always pretended, when it suited her, that she was not of it. She has always wished to have a body as well as a soul, and always intrenched herself, when she deemed it desirable, in her position as a soul, as a pure spirit. And, to return to the past, we may conclude that contemporaries would have shown a wonderful power of abstraction, if they had been able to appreciate the purely spiritual character which, as we are told, belonged to the Papacy in the midst of the turmoil of the Middle Ages.


But many other things concurred to deprive her, in the eyes of the nations, of that character.

The debauchery of the Popes was so much inveighed against in the eighteenth century, that it had become, in some sort, a matter of bad taste to refer to it. The most anti-Catholic authors only made a passing allusion to it, as to a painful subject which no one had any interest in reviving.

But other men have recurred to it, denying everything which was deniable, even at the price of the most enormous sophistries, recurred to it to explain, to tone down, to envelope the whole in those clouds from which, as we have seen, you may afterwards draw anything you like.

The champions of the Papacy, therefore, have only themselves to thank if it has been necessary to reopen those gulfs of iniquity, and to show under what features that power, which is represented to us as so pure and saintly, often appeared to the world.

Let us leave to one side, if you wish it, the ages of decay and darkness, in which it is very difficult to catch the sparkle of even a few names really worthy of respect. Let us take the Papacy as ennobled by Charlemagne, and warmed for a moment by the fertilizing rays of his genius. What will it do ? What will it become ? In the tenth century, at the moment when the reins of a society, staggering and demoralized, ought to have been seized with a firm Christian hand, we find, in less than a hundred years, twenty-nine men seated successively on that throne, cast down, re-established, cast down again, and striving, so it would seem, who should show himself most unworthy of remaining, there. Who made them Popes ? Some, the Consul Alberic, steeped in crime; others, a woman, and such a woman ! Others, again, made themselves Popes, thrusting aside or crushing all who opposed them. Such is the picture of the tenth century at Rome, and, with a few alterations, it might also be taken as a picture of the ninth or the eleventh.

Afterwards appear, at distant intervals, Popes who are more respectable, but whose virtue only serves to bring into greater relief the vices of their predecessor or successor. We are told in a few books, otherwise impartial, that if the Papacy was then below its mission, it was at least generally above the moral standard of its age. This is modest ; and yet history does not make even this concession. The Papacy during this period never rose to any moral dignity except for a time, and in the person of a single man. The elements of immorality and riot were inherent in the system itself. A man cannot become a god with impunity. If the usurpation does not make him immensely better, there is a great chance that he will become very much worse, and will make use of his divinity not only to practise evil, but to deify it. Hence, side by side with the most detestable morals, spring those unheard-of teachings of the Popes on points which mere human honour would have seemed to protect from all falsification ; hence, in so many forms, spring useful lies, and the doctrine of the end justifying the means, and the compromises with heaven. When Pegulus went back to Carthage, where death awaited him, he repelled, with indignation, the pontiff who offered to relieve him from his oath ; but the Christian pontiff had accustomed peoples and kings to believe that he possessed this highest right, which was only one of the consequences of that right of binding and loosing which Christ had conferred on St. Peter. And was it possible the kings should respect the man whom they found ready to do them such a service ? Was it possible the peoples, who, as usual, suffered from the concord of the strong, should not in their consciences condemn this sovereign authority, grown impious in the name of Christ ? Was it possible, when the sound of those dark intrigues, of those unheard-of excesses, penetrated beyond the Alps, that the Papacy should appear to the eyes of kings and peoples to be outside and above such things, pure in the midst of so many impurities, holy in the midst of so much debauchery or crime ?


Times have changed ; Popes such as those are now impossible. But can we credit the Papacy with the honour of the change? The public conscience has always been in advance of her, has always had to call upon her to go forward. Rome lagged behind in morality as in everything else. The old debaucheries, scarcely modified, lasted longer than is usually sup-posed. Even under better Popes the atmosphere remained an atmosphere of loose morals, of debauchery, of scandals, which only passed unnoticed by the world because they were what one naturally expected at Rome. I speak in the past tense. I might, on many points, speak in the present.

Today all this is either forgotten or put out of sight ; the ideal eclipses history.

That ideal is, either the Papacy of the Middle Ages with its imaginary virtues, or the Papacy of Pius IX., more respectable, no doubt, but praised and celebrated and exalted without measure, and, we may add, without shame. Never did saint in the most extravagant of panegyrics never did emperor even in the darkest, most abject days of the Roman decadence never did Sultan on his throne surrounded by slaves, hear what Pius IX. hears daily, in every tongue, and from every corner of his empire. It is painful to listen to such adulation, or, to speak more correctly, such blasphemy ; for there is not one of the expressions hitherto applied only to Christ, to His work, to His sufferings, which has not in these latter days found a place in the vocabulary of the worshippers of this man. One re-members, at each explosion of extravagance, those protestations of humility, of unworthiness, which ornament his official style, and, without asking him to carry them rigorously into practice, one cannot but wish, for the honour of human nature, that he would moderate somewhat this wild enthusiasm. But, like his worshippers, he only looks at the end which is, to magnify the Papacy at any price, and to make it profit by all that the vulgar may be made to believe with regard to the Pope's perfections. The scheme is good ; the Pope will never repudiate it.

But the scheme, nevertheless, is attended with danger. It has dangers as regards the future, for every Pope must necessarily be such that he can be lauded as perfect. It has dangers especially as regards the past, and as regards the general question. If the virtues of one Pope are thus made a great argument in favour of the Papacy, the vices of another become terrible objections, and that without even going to the worst. What you now say under Pius Ix., would you have said it under his predecessor ? Even under Pius Ix., would you re-peat in the same terms at Rome, to the people of Rome, what you say of him in France, in Germany, in England away from Rome, in short ? The people of Rome respect Pius IX. somewhat more than they did Gregory XVI., of whom they relate several stories not much to edification ; but they stand too near to see him on that pinnacle of virtue, of genius, and of holiness, on which it is the fashion to place him. They laugh at his jokes with hearty good-will. They are indulgent towards the old man's little vanities. You will not be able to make them believe, for instance, that a desire of notoriety, a wish to be talked about, have not had a great deal to do with his important determination to convoke a Council. It gratifies them that he should regard his office in a serious light, and sustain its outward dignity so well. But all this does not constitute him in their eyes a great man or a saint ; and thus your grand argument, which sounds so well at a distance, grows weak near Rome, sinks almost to nothing within its walls, and leaves the Papacy the Papal institution to struggle against all the painful memories with which so many Popes have darkened its history. Add, that in all this I have only spoken of the Romans or the Italians more or less friendly to Pius IX. The rest, and their number is not small, will dispute all that I have conceded, except, perhaps, his moral uprightness ; and to-day, as ever, it is in Italy, it is at Rome, that are to be found the greatest enemies of the Pope and the Papacy.

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