Amazing articles on just about every subject...

Progress, But Retrograde

( Originally Published 1870 )


HAS Rome, at any rate, given up all that was not strictly necessary to the consolidation of her power ? Has she, while carrying out her project of enslaving the world, at least ennobled that project, by repudiating the old methods and tactics belonging to ages of superstition and ignorance ?

Many Catholics try to think so. They are surprised and indignant at any one daring to assert the contrary. Both feelings may be sincere, but they can hardly be experienced by those who have been able and willing to ascertain how matters really stand.

Let us take two or three points.

The Indulgences were the immediate cause of the Reformation. Most Catholic historians, while condemning Luther, yet acknowledge that on this first point he was quite right.

Now Leo x. had certainly never published anything, more strange, more full of contradictions as regarded from a common-sense point of view, and more full of heresies as regarded in the light of the Gospel, than the lines in which Pius Ix. announced the jubilee to be held, on the 11th of April 1869, in honour of the fiftieth year since his ordination.

'This signal favour,' he said, 'which fills our hearts with extreme joy, has also furnished the faithful with a new opportunity of manifesting their zeal, and testifying their respectful devotion for ourselves. In presenting to us their congratulations, with almost incredible eagerness, on such a joyful occasion, they have humbly and earnestly prayed us to vouchsafe, that the joy of this festival may be made to contribute to their spiritual welfare, and that the heavenly treasures of the Church, which God has commissioned us to dispense, may be opened for their benefit. We therefore, being heartily desirous of satisfying the pious desires of the Catholic world, acting in the name of the mercy of God Almighty, and acting with confidence on the authority of the blessed Peter and Paul, His Apostles, do grant, mercifully in the Lord, plenary indulgence, and remission of all their sins, to all and each of the faithful, who being present at the holy sacrifice of the mass, in any church, on the 11th of April in the present year, and having confessed, and been fed with the holy communion, in true repentance of their sins, shall offer up to God fervent prayers for the conversion of sinners, the propagation of the Catholic faith, the peace and triumph of the Roman Church. The said indulgence may be applied to the souls of the faithful who have departed this life in union with God, in charity.'

And thus Pius X. exercises, in all its fulness, that old power which was assailed even in the sixteenth century, and had since been given up by all sober defenders of the Papacy. Nor does he exercise it merely; he seems to wish to give to the act an absolute and entirely arbitrary form. There was nothing, he appears to say, that compelled him to shower his benefits upon man-kind. If he had not been humbly and earnestly en-treated, he would not have done so. This is the conclusion to be deduced from the preamble. What ! Is it possible that a man should possess such power, and yet not think of exercising it, of himself, on such an occasion ? The harshest of monarchs, when publishing an amnesty, would be anxious, on the contrary, to show that the thought of mercy sprang from his own heart alone. But the Pope is far less anxious to represent himself as loving his flock, than to represent it as prostrated before his throne, and addressing to him `fervent prayers with humility.' But why should we speak of the occasion? Such a power, if actually possessed, should be exercised daily and hourly. What ! hold in one's hand the key of such a treasury, and only open it at distant intervals ! Suffer thousands and millions of people to die, without offering them the means of purchasing salvation at so cheap a rate ! Why, if Pius ix. has really faith in that power which he claims, bow can he help regarding himself as a monster of inhumanity, when he refrains from using it for a single month ? He is inhuman towards the living ; inhuman also towards the dead, who are condemned to remain in purgatory, when the Pope might, by a single word, suffer the living to apply to them these indulgences which cost him nothing.

Again, what an instance of arbitrary power, nay, of arbitrary power run mad, is it thus to make the means of salvation offered to a hundred and fifty million souls, depend upon an event of a purely personal nature What madness in the naivete with which the Pope reproduces, word for word, the language of his, flatterers, hailing that anniversary as an event of immense importance both to the Church and to the world ! He kneels, as it were, to himself : one might take him to be an humble worshipper prostrated before that mountain of pride which is the Pope. But here, indeed, the Pope should at least have been warned by the humility of the worshipper. You offer me heaven on a certain occasion, and at a certain date. I am grateful. But still, if the Pope had died in the month of March, then farewell to all those treasures that were to have been opened in April ! If, instead of having said his first mass in 1819, he had said it in 1820, then the proffered mercies would have been postponed till the present year; and so much the worse for those who had died in the interval ! So much the worse also for those who died on the 10th April, and could not wait for the 11th ! So much the worse for those who, being alive, did not take advantage of that great day ! On the following day, however bitter their regrets, they were no longer able to draw out anything from the treasury.

Yet no and here we come to another series of wonders and absurdities no, the treasury is not closed ; and though the Pope has made a show of opening it solemnly on the 11th April, this does not prevent it from being open all the year, and in a thousand different places. I say a thousand ; I am wrong, there are many more. The Catholic world is covered with privileged spots where you may obtain, at any time, the plenary indulgence so ` mercifully' vouchsafed, as an exceptional and unique favour, on the 11th of April. The Catholic world is covered also with associations that offer to their members, by the Pope's authority, similar advantages. What a farce, then, is being played before us ! What is the meaning of these jubilees ? And even if we were prepared to recognise the Pope's right to grant indulgences, could we, without taking leave of our common sense, help perceiving that in this case he was trifling with the piety of the faithful ?


And here, again, we have an opportunity of judging what strange progress has been made during the last three centuries.

Indulgences are no longer, it is true, sold openly in the market-place, as they were in 1517. This does not mean, however, that they are not sold at all, for there are a thousand ways of selling them. But let us pass on. Sold, or not sold, it is of the quantity that we wish to speak now. If the sixteenth century scandalized us by the sale, the sixteenth century, in its turn, would be scandalized at the prodigality with which they are now dispensed. If you are unwilling to pay for them, they are given to you, thrown to you, without stint or measure, by the handful. What is the cause of this increasing prodigality, depreciating the most splendid pardons, and miserably abasing the omnipotence by which they are bestowed ? How is it that men, not otherwise devoid of ability, should be totally devoid of that most vulgar kind of prudence, the prudence of the merchant who keeps up the value of his wares ? Why ?óbecause the fault here is followed by its punishment. It would not be right, after once sanctioning such a system, to retain the power of applying it partially, prudently, and moderately. The Gospel, which you have outraged, avenges itself by condemning you to outrage and disfigure it ever more and more. The great market must continually lower its prices its prices in money, in coin of all kinds, in prayers, in penances. A wild spirit of competition is necessarily established between the various places of sale. The Pope cannot award indulgences to one congregation, to one chapel, without twenty congregations and chapels asking for the same favour. It is necessary to give to those that had nothing ; and to double, treble, and then multiply tenfold the privileges of those that had something. A prince, when asked to give, may plead the necessities of his budget. But how refuse in this case ? The treasury is always equally rich, and equally full. A sheet of paper and a signature which is not even that of the Pope are all the expenditure required. The old system of jubilees was wise by comparison ; but all that was offered to you on these extraordinary occasions recur-ring at intervals of five-and-twenty, or fifty, or even, to begin with, a hundred years, is now offered daily, and without interruption. Formerly, a plenary indulgence was only to be purchased at the price of long and painful penances ; now, one of those associations, to which we have already referred, offers it to you nine times a year, at the price of a confession and a communion. Others, we are told, offer it for even less ; and nothing, moreover, prevents you from belonging to several. Can you not effect an insurance against fire or hail with more than one company ? The companies we speak of are not the least eager to give to their prospectuses all the attractions invented by the modern spirit of trade. There are books with which the indulgence is given as an inducement to purchasers ; there are articles that have been blessed, to which an indulgence is similarly attached ; you may buy at your convenience a quarter, half a quarter, or the twentieth part of a mass, to be said on some future day at a privileged altar ; if you buy the whole mass, you have the right to share the indulgence with your friends, living or dead. All this is advertised in the news-papers, published from the pulpit, posted on the church doors, and that at Paris as well as Rome ; and such practices are becoming more and more the daily bread of Romanism. Ah ! unbelief is excusable in the face of such Christianity ! Whosoever knows no other has a right to despise it, and in such a case the guilty party before God is not the infidel.


It would be easy, here again, to oppose Rome to the Council of Trent, the nineteenth to the sixteenth century, and that very much to the shame of the former.

This power, which the Papacy exercises with such a total absence of all measure and sobriety, the Council of Trent enjoined, at its last meeting, that it should only be exercised `with moderation and reserve,' for fear that ` through too great facility discipline should suffer.'

This power, which the Papacy exercises as belonging exclusively to itself, the Council of Trent represented it as belonging to the Church, and only mentions the Pope in its decree to enjoin that he shall see that it is not abused.

This power, finally, which the Papacy exercises with such a bold confidence in its lawfulness, the Council of Trent recoiled from the difficulty of sanctioning by a dogmatic decree. Nor, as Pallavicini confesses, had this been done by any former Council. In vain did the German bishops remonstrate, saying that they would be the laughing-stock of Germany, if they re-turned home without having settled the question that had raised the storm of the Reformation. In vain did several more declare that all Christendom would have a right to think such a proceeding very strange. Adjourned from year to year, from meeting to meeting, there seemed to be every chance that this very delicate subject would not even find mention in the formal decisions of the Council ; and the German bishops had to insist very strongly, to obtain that on the last night of the interval between the two parts of the last meeting some article should be finally drawn up. But that article, which is very short, does not touch the root of the question. Indulgences will be granted to you ; but do not ask to know exactly what they are. You will be told that they will be useful to you ; but do not ask how. You will be told ` that the right of bestowing them was given to the Church by Jesus Christ;' but do not ask where or how. This is all that the Council could say in favour of that right, which is increasingly paraded as indisputable and divine.


Another right which the Papacy has exercised, without troubling itself about the evidence on which it rests, or the harm done to religion, is the right of multiplying indefinitely the demigods who, as the Papacy well knows, dethrone God Himself.

On this point, again, the Council of Trent showed great prudence, and spoke with great reserve. A single decree contains all that relates to the worship of saints, of the Virgin, to relics and images ; and in this decree, again, the Pope is only mentioned at the close, and only to say that he must be consulted by the bishops before they accept anything ` new and unaccustomed' in these matters. Strictly, perhaps, this presupposes the right of canonization ; but evidently the Council did not wish to give any distinct decision, either generally establishing the right, or assigning it exclusively to the Pope.

The same remark applies to all the subjects just mentioned.

The worship of saints is not enjoined, it is only declared to be ` a thing good and useful.'

The worship of the Virgin is neither separately mentioned nor recommended.

The worship of relics is permitted rather than enjoined, and the Council commands that that worship, like that of images and saints generally, shall be purified ` of all superstition, all seeking after unworthy and sordid gain.'

Finally, the worship of images is regarded as a worship of simple veneration ; and the Council insists that the faithful should be fully impressed with the idea that the worship is addressed not to the images, but to those they represent, seeing that, of itself, an image is nothing.

And now open your eyes, and look at Catholicism as it is, and then tell us whether it would be possible more completely to violate both the letter and the spirit of this decree ?

It is true that the spirit, if we consider the real intentions of those who drew up these articles, was much less wise than the letter. It is evident that, on these points, great concessions had been made to the Reformation ; and there is much room for doubt whether many of the bishops, on returning to their dioceses, had any intention of confining themselves within the limits they had established in Council. But the decree stands, not-withstanding, an incomplete homage, but still a homage to the majesty of the only God, and to the spiritual character of the Gospel. And more than one bishop, perhaps, regretted that he was unable to remain faithful to it.

But, as regards the Popes, there is no need to seek what they did or did not desire. If they had made a vow to carry to its extreme point every error, every abuse condemned by the Council in this decree, they could not have done more nor done better ; and not one of them, during the last three centuries, has done more or done better than Pius ix. What, think you, is the use to which he and his apologists put all the decrees, relatively sober and wise, of the Council ? Why, to throw a veil upon the violation of the decrees themselves. If you show and denounce abuses and superstitions, they answer imperturbably that you are calumniating the Church, that she does not sanction such abuses and superstitions, and, to confound you, they quote the decrees of the Council of Trent. And thus they obtain greater scope to set that Council at defiance with impunity.

Thus Pius X. takes the greatest delight in that strange omnipotence, in virtue of which a man makes gods ; and his flatterers have frequently referred to the number of saints he has made as one of the glories of his reign. Ile has taken pleasure in running counter to the objections which the Gospel and common sense have at all times raised against such a right. For instance, in what an entirely arbitrary manner he has bestowed the title which places a man or woman on the altars of Catholicism ! What a farce are these suits of canonization that drag on to such length when there is any money to be looked for, and are terminated so speedily when there is none ! What strange frankness in summarily rejecting the claims of all who have not lived on the best ternis with Rome, though living in perfect sanctity in every other respect ! One only course, however, would be consistent and logical, viz. to canonize all those who are deemed worthy of canonization. And even this would be illogical as regarded the worship to be rendered ; for great saint's might die unknown, and thus be deprived of the homage received by others who are less worthy. But of this wholesale canonization, which alone would be to some extent logical, there has never been any question. It is necessary that canonization should retain its character as a favour accorded by the Pope ; it is necessary that the saints placed on the altar should know that they owe their position to the Pope, and that without his favour they might not be there at all. Do not ask, therefore, when a canonization takes place, ` Why this individual rather than another, rather than ten others ? Why should one be canonized to-day, and another in twenty or a hundred years ? Do they not all, from the time of their death, hold equal rank in heaven ?' The Pope neither denies nor affirms. He pursues the even tenor of his way, and to-morrow, or a year hence, or, in short, whenever it shall so please him, just as he would appoint a cardinal in his court or a corporal in his army, he will seat a new god on the throne of Olympus.


But I shall be stopped at the word god. I shall be told, on the authority of the Council of Trent, that the saints are not adored.

Must we then, in so grave a question, be content to rest on mere verbal distinctions ? Must we, on the strength of such distinctions, cease to see, what in practice you hide so little and so ill, even in the countries where it is your interest to hide it ? What is the real difference between the saints and God, between the saints and gods ? Is it in external homage ? Never did the gods of Paganism receive homage so striking ; and we really do not see what higher homage could be rendered. Is it that the internal homage of the heart is weaker ? When all the visible signs of adoration properly so called are collected and heaped up in the worship rendered, is it possible that the faithful should be able or willing to confine themselves to honouring only ? The Pope is perfectly well aware that it is not so. Does he at any rate take any steps to prevent men from falling into this error ? Does the clergy trouble itself to see that the Catholics observe that distinction which is given as an answer to the reproaches of the Protestants ? Why, yes, a little in some countries ; but in many others, not at all. Wherever the Pope reigns, the saints reign. It is to them that prayers are addressed ; it is they who are looked to in everything; they who are all, and do all. The Pope canonizes ; the faithful are left free to attribute to the canonized saint as much power, as much glory, as much greatness as they like. It had long since been observed that the most popular saints, the most famous patrons of towns or kingdoms, were generally saints little known in history, often even quite unknown or apocryphal, gods, in fact, created, fabricated by the people. These fabrications had at any rate an excuse in the simple ignorance of ancient times. The same thing has taken place in our day without the same excuse. Saints unknown twenty years ago have suddenly grown marvellously in importance, supplanting and dethroning others. And Rome has let matters take their course ; nay, has contributed to the aggrandizement of these new masters whom the popular superstition was adopting. These or others, what does it matter ? In her eyes the great object is, that there should be as many as possible, so that she may reign under their names.

Home | More Articles | Email: