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Papacy Considered As A Centre Of Light

( Originally Published 1870 )


IS there a single point on which history, impartial and merciless, does not refuse to countenance your modern fictions ?

You wish to show that the Papacy has been the centre of intellectual and scientific life in the world ; and history proves that she was not such a centre even in the Church. This observation has been seldom made, but is indisputable nevertheless. Ask a Catholic to give you a list of the men eminent as writers, orators, or savants, whom the Church produced from the first to the sixteenth centuries, and request him to specify those whom the Papacy can claim as having been her own children, born under her shadow, and nurtured by her genius. He will find few, very few. This is what happened to M. Ozanam, for instance, in his history of the beginning of the Middle Ages. He does not mention the fact ; perhaps it did not even strike him ; but it is patent everywhere. In a long and learned chapter on the schools, he has scarcely any occasion to mention Rome or the Popes. He is compelled to depict the intellectual movement as going on in France, in Germany, in Spain, in England, in Ireland ; and among those countries the highest place belongs to the two last, which were nominally subject to Rome, but in reality lived their own proper life. Gregory I., Gregory the Great, who through the monk Augustine had attached England to the see of Rome, was venerated in the Middle Ages as the patron of learning ; but the study of facts has greatly diminished his glory, and greatly added to that of the barbarian king, Theodoric, and his minister, Cassiodorus. Theodoric preserved the monuments of antiquity ; Gregory delivered the Pala-tine library to the flames, as being heathen. Theodoric, the Goth, strives to speak in good Latin ; Gregory, in his treatise on the book of Job, declares that it is in-decent for a Christian to submit to the rules of heathen Latinity. It is well known, indeed, that this view was warmly revived in France a few years ago by the champions of Ultramontanism ; and M. de Ravignan got into bad odour at Rome by siding strongly with the up-holders of classical antiquity.

Go forward two centuries, and you come to Charlemagne, a barbarian also, who applied himself zealously to the revival of learning. His fellow-workman was the Englishman Alcuin. The decrees of the monarch, the correspondence of the monarch and the minister, give all the details of the enterprise ; and from these details it is evident that Rome took no part in it. From the same details it is also evident how terribly the Papacy had suffered ignorance to prevail in the Church. The Emperor expresses indignation at finding so many monks and priests utterly ignorant so ignorant, that they cannot read. And, at his death, the Papacy will no more know how to continue his work, than it knew how to begin or take part in it.


Before it became the fashion to represent the Papacy as a lighthouse, casting its rays over the intellectual darkness of those times, the difficulty was, on the contrary, to explain its utter carelessness, its evident in-capacity. It was alleged that the agitations in Italy, the cares of the government of the Church, had not left the Papacy time to attend to other things. The excuse is open to objection. You can understand it as applied to any given time, but not as applied to centuries. We gave the true explanation when we stated what the court of Rome was in those days. How should those Popes, who remained so short a time on the throne, and had no other thought than to remain there at any price, how should they have given any attention to the revival of learning ? How, moreover, should learning have possessed any interest for men who were, for the most part, given up to every vice ? Even later, under better Popes, the excuse is not more valid. We are told that the government of the Church engrossed all their attention. But intellectual life, learning, and all that relates thereto, belonged in those days to the Church, and consequently to its head. And here, again, the present helps us to understand the past. The government of the Church has always been considered by the great majority of Popes to be the administration of the Church, the part of their task which is more or less material, and, above all, the maintenance of due subjection, of the hierarchy, of the rights already acquired or supposed to have been acquired. The temporal governments, even the least worthy, are not so constantly and undisguisedly devoted to the selfish necessity of asserting their own dignity, of referring everything to themselves and to their own prerogatives.

There is scarcely one which, among the manifold duties that devolved on .governments, considers so exclusively those that may conduce to the sole object of reigning without opposition or obstacle.

Bead again, from this point of view, the Syllabus and the Encyclical, and you will perceive that this spirit pervades them from the first line to the last. The Pope's first thought is the Pope and the Papacy. He puts a veto on all life, and every movement that might stand in his way; he abstains steadily from calling forth any life, any movement that might have the same result. If he speaks once of ` the free progress of science' (Art. 13), it is only to forbid any one to believe that the decrees of the Holy See stand in its way ; and in the very following article he forbids any one to believe that the old scholastic principles and methods are not in harmony with that same progress. Work, there-fore, if you like, work freely, provided the instrument is supplied you by the Pope, just as children are allowed to play with scissors made on purpose for them, that can neither cut nor prick. Moreover, neither encouragement nor impulse is given. The Pope says not a word of that Catholic science of which we have heard so much during the last few years ; and we might easily show that, like all other science, it falls under the ban of that distrust with which he surrounds all appearance of freedom. This does not mean that Pius IX. may not in particular cases have encouraged certain intellectual labours ; in practice a man always belongs in some small degree to his age, and feels a kind of desire to show that he does. This desire has been even more strongly felt by some former Popes, who have seriously shown themselves to be the friends of letters, of science, of sound learning, thus playing with fire, and permitting, up to a certain point, what would necessarily become fatal to their power. But we are speaking here of the system as it is as it is formulated by every Pope who is led to formulate it at all as it is carried into practice by every Pope who is consistent as it will always necessarily be carried into practice by every Pope who acts as a Pope.


We hear a great deal about Leo x. People have gone so far as to bestow his name on the century in which he reigned somewhat less than nine years. Leo x. was a Medici, carrying to Rome the tastes and the vices of Florence. Before quoting his name in honour of the Papacy, it might be as well to see whether he was a Pope. Considered religiously, what was he ? A great admirer of the classical revival, of Ciceronian Latin, and of the Greek of the great age, he held the Bible in much contempt both as regards form and substance. Many persons were burnt as unbelievers who were far better believers than he. So much as regards the Christian. What of the Pope ? Greatly in love with the Papal magnificence, the duties of the office wearied him sore, and Luther never made him miss either a hunting party or one of those comic representations in which he and his court so much delighted. This is what you may read in the first book of the History of the Council of Trent by Pallavicini, a cardinal and an Ultramontane. You must agree that what such a Pope may have done as the patron of sound learning, science, and art, can with difficulty find place in a picture of the benefits conferred by the Papacy.

Now, after Leo X., the Popes, who are more really Popes, fall nearly all, both they and their courts, into the same literary and scientific slumber as before. Not, of course, that you could not at all times find at Rome a few literary men, or men of science patronized by the Pope ; what we assert is, that never for the last three centuries has anything come from the Papal See which deserves the name, in the literary or scientific world, of a movement, of an impulse anything, in a word, which was, I will not say commensurate with the marvels described to us, but deserving any very high place in the intellectual history of that period. We said at the beginning of this essay that the Roman Church had distinguished itself very little in modern discussions by any serious defence of Christian truths. Rome, its capital, has distinguished itself even less than other Catholic countries. Nay, even the works devoted to the defence of Catholicism, of the Church, of the Papacy, have all, or at least all those possessing any merit, come from elsewhere. The Papacy only knows how to assert, and, when contradicted, condemn. In its immediate neighbourhood they scarcely know how to do anything else. When Lamennais went to Rome to plead his cause before the Pope, he was amazed to see how completely all that little world lived in ignorance of the modern movement, and of the real dangers that menaced the Church. Another Catholic, less respectful than Lamennais still was at that date, said : ` The Pope reminds me of that petty Asiatic sovereign who, when he has finished dining, sends a crier to the top of a tower to proclaim that now all the sovereigns of the universe may sit down to table.' Matters have changed somewhat since this was written. Rome knows a little better what is going on, though it is said that she was considerably surprised by many things brought to light when the preparations for the Council compelled her to make serious inquiries respecting the real sentiments entertained by friends and foes. Rarely, however, when she speaks, does she appear to have formed a just estimate of men and events. She sees everything falsely, as too large or too small; she either fears or despises inordinately. The songs of triumph and cries of distress are equally extreme. She can only speak as the mistress of the world, or a poor afflicted victim, trodden down by kings and peoples, persecuted, crushed, ready to undergo martyrdom ; and all those Jeremiads which the Pope utters now that he has lost a portion of his dominions, were uttered by him before in pretty nearly the same terms. There is no measure either, as we have already remarked, in the horror expressed for those things he thinks it his duty to condemn ; evidently neither he nor his counsellors are fully aware of the degree of weight or importance attributable to each. All this shows little, very little comprehension of the real state of affairs ; all this bears but a feeble witness to that magnificent tradition of intelligence, to that grand initiative power, which we are assured has at all times belonged to the Papacy.


The praise is better deserved in all that relates to the arts ; but, here again, singular contempt has been shown for the real question and principles at issue.

Chateaubriand, in his Historical Studies, says : ` The Reformation broke out a propos of certain alms required for the erection of the basilica of St. Peter. Would the Greeks have refused the help demanded of their piety to build a temple to Minerva V

Help in exchange for that eccentric merchandise called Indulgences, Greece was never, so far as we are aware, called upon to grant or to withhold it, for never did Paganism, with all its errors and follies, imagine anything of the kind.

But what does Chateaubriand care for substance, what for falsehood and absurdity'? The apostle of form, he sees in form an excuse for everything. That the traffic in Indulgences should dishonour the Church, the Papacy, and Christianity ; that the Indulgences themselves should overturn, not only the Christian notion of salvation, but the most elementary notions of morality and common sense, again, what does Chateaubriand care ? A splendid temple has been the result. ' Gold never smells offensively,' said Vespasian. This is not exactly the language held now ; we are only told that when once gold is turned into columns or statues, it is pure of all taint.

What contempt there is here, first for truth, and then for men ! For truth, inasmuch as Chateaubriand certainly did not believe in Indulgences ;—for men, inasmuch as he regards it as a natural and simple matter that Indulgences should have been sold to them as true pardons from heaven, and that each stone in the Roman basilica should represent one or more souls sacrilegiously deceived by Leo x.

We say the same of all who have sought to excuse errors or falsehoods of substance, by great aesthetic results.

M. Ampère, in his Literary History of France, describes the great quarrel of the images. When he gets to the Council of 774, by which they were forbidden, he says : ' If this view had prevailed, we should have neither the Madonnas of Raphael, nor the Last Judgment of Michael Angelo.'

Very true, we should not have the Madonnas of Raphael ; but neither should we have those thousands of carved or painted Madonnas which, in certain Catholic countries, have grown to be idols, as much venerated and worshipped as were those of Paganism —perhaps more. We should, it may be, simply have gone back to the state of things which Origen described in his book against Celsus, the heathen, the worshipper of form : ` If we have neither fine temples nor statues, it is because, having learnt from Jesus in what manner the true God should be worshipped, we avoid every-thing that, under a vain show of piety, might turn us away from the‘ truth itself.' And all the Fathers reply to the heathen after the same manner. Observe, too, that they never add that when once persecutions are over, when once Christianity has grown rich, it will also have its pomp and magnificence. Does this mean that they condemn it to be for ever satisfied with such places of worship as it had then, humble rooms, without ornaments of any kind ? Does this mean that they would forbid all pictures and statues, even outside the places of worship, as Mahomet subsequently did ? No ; but what they say is enough to show that they would never have praised any work of art apart from the evil it had done, and the injuries it had caused to the spirituality of Christianity and of its worship.

Therefore, as we say again, even if the Madonnas of Raphael were to be lost to us, we should at any rate not have also that deplorable setting aside of the spiritual and invisible God, in favour of a material and visible divinity, the object of every honour and every prayer. We should not have that religious materialism which comes at last to consider every Madonna, not as an image of the Virgin, but as a distinct being having special virtues, so that you can scarcely find any one who feels it to be a matter of indifference whether he prays to one Madonna or to another. Do not say that the Church has never taught this. If she do not teach it through her theologians, she teaches it through the images themselves, and the worship with which she surrounds them ; she teaches it, besides, by examples that render error inevitable. Quite recently, when the Pope sent to the Catholics of Geneva a marble Madonna which he had had for some time in his private oratory, we read in the Catholic newspapers that he said, ` I have prayed to her so often, and she has so often heard my prayers !' Thus she whom the Pope invoked was not the Virgin Mary, ` the queen of heaven standing at the right hand of her son,' as the Encyclical says ; it was the statue itself, the piece of marble he had in his oratory, and which he sends to his friends of Geneva, with an assurance that it has often heard him.

I know not whether this statue is a masterpiece of art. I should certainly not refuse to admire it as such, any more than I should desire to see the Madonnas of Raphael burnt. But if, in considering the religious question, these or any other Madonnas are placed before me as an argument, and if, in the name of their beauty, I am required to shut my eyes to all the errors, abuses, and absurdities in the worship of images, if, in particular, when considering the question of the Papacy, people try to convince or dazzle me by flaunting before my eyes what the Popes may have done for sculpture, architecture, and painting, why, then, my admiration ceases, for the question before me is no longer one of beauty, but of truth ; and in order that my admiration might be revived, I must be shown the true joined to the beautiful. I may weep tears of enthusiasm in contemplating the dome of St. Peter's ; but if I suffered my tears to be wrested into making nie approve, or even excuse all that I might see beneath that dome, the master-work of Michael Angelo would become no more than a colossal sophistry, a magnificent trap for my reason and my conscience.

This is the trap }aid for us by those who preach the Papacy in the name of what it has done for the arts. If the argument were not in itself quite valueless in a religious point of view, there would be room to examine if the premises, at any rate, are sound, and if the arts have really derived as much advantage from the Papacy as has been said.

In the first place, it is certain that many Popes have done nothing to deserve this praise, and others very little. It is certain, also, that their taste was often in fault, and that many churches in Rome are far from doing them honour. If some Popes have shown great zeal for the discovery and preservation of the master-pieces of ancient art, many others have shown great indifference, and a few have been perfect Vandals.

Quod non fecerunt barbari, feceruut Barberini, used to be said under Maffeo Barberini (Urban viii.), who, together with his nephews, used the finest stones of the old temples for building. Those admirable cathedrals, which are always referred to, and with good reason, as the masterpieces of Catholic art in the Middle Ages, are not at Rome or near Rome. The art of the statuary, so weak, so null during that period, was as null at Rome as elsewhere, notwithstanding the beautiful models that existed there. Neither did Rome exceptionally distinguish herself in music or painting. At the Renaissance she played but a modest part up to the time of Julius II.; and Leo x. himself, as we have seen, did no more than transplant from Florence a movement already full of life. Under many of his successors the movement received but little encouragement ; and if Rome has subsequently played a considerable part as a school of art, she owes it much less to the Papal than to foreign governments, to the attraction of her ancient monuments, to her memories, and to her sky.

But, we say again, these remarks are of trifling importance. Even if we had to admit without qualification all that is said about the Papacy as the patron and mother of the arts, we should still repeat that this is not the question. The question which the Church and the whole world has now to consider is the Papacy as a religious institution. All that the Popes may or may not have accomplished in the way of buildings, pictures, or statues, is perfectly immaterial. Certain heathens did more, and often better.

Heathens also have done more, and often better, than what can really be attributed to the Popes as labourers in the work of general civilisation ; and in many cases the sole and sorrowful conclusion to be drawn from a parallel between the Rome of the Popes, and the Rome of antiquity in its better days, would be let us dare to say it the inferiority of Christianity.

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