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An history lesson about the Roman Papacy, and reform of the Roman Curia

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With the express permission of The Lepanto Foundation, we post the following unabridged essay by the eminent historian, Prof. Roberto de Mattei, PhD.

Among the many questions the essay provokes is whether the Roman Curia has ever actually been reformed successfully?  Or, rather, whether it has only ever been destroyed in the several sackings of Rome?

We eagerly await answers from historians of the Roman Papacy, and shall post them in the near future.

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Francis I on the throne of Peter

by Roberto de Mattei

The Church has a new Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first non-European Pope, the first Latin American Pope, the first Pope called Francis.  The mass media are trying to guess what will be the future of the Church during his Pontificate, by looking at his past as a cardinal, as Archbishop of Buenos Aires and as a simple priest.  Which “revolution” will he bring about?  Hans Küng has called him “the best possible choice” (La Repubblica, 14 March 2013).  But it is only after he has made his principal appointments and after his first programmatic speeches that it will be possible to predict the line’s of Pope Francis’ pontificate.  It is true for every Pope what Cardinal Enea Silvio Piccolomini said in 1458 when he was elected with the name of Pius II, “Forget Enea, welcome Pius.”

History never repeats itself exactly but the past helps us to understand the present. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church went through an unprecedented crisis.  Humanism, with its immoral hedonism, had infected the Roman Curia and even the Pontiffs themselves.  Against this corruption there emerged Martin Luther’s Protestant pseudo-reform which was dismissed by Pope Leo X, a Medici, as “a quarrel between monks”.  The heresy had started to fizzle out when, on Leo X’s death in 1522, the first German Pope was elected, Adrian Florent from Utrecht who took the name Adrian VI.  The brevity of his reign prevented him from bringing his projects to fruition, in particular – as the historian of the Popes, Ludwig von Pastor, writes – “the gigantic war against the mass of abuses which deformed the Roman Curia and nearly the whole Church.”  Even if he had reigned for longer, the evil in the Church was too entrenched, according to Pastor, “for one single Pontificate to bring about that great change which was necessary.  All the evil which had been committed over many generations could be corrected only by long and uninterrupted work.”

Adrian VI understood the gravity of the evil and the responsibility for it of the men of the Church.  This is clear from an instruction which the Nuncio, Francesco Chieregati, read out in the Pope’s name at the Diet of Nuremberg on 3 January 1523.  As Ludwig von Pastor says, this is a document of extraordinary importance not only for understanding the reformist ideas of the Pope but also because it is a text which was unprecedented in the history of the Church.

After rebutting the Lutheran heresy, Adrian deals (in the last and most noteworthy part of the instruction) with the reformers’ desertion of the supreme ecclesiastical authority.

“You are also to say,” so run Chieregati’s express instructions, “that we frankly acknowledge that God permits this persecution of His Church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy; of a surety the Lord’s arm is not shortened that He cannot save us, but our sins separate us from Him, so that He does not hear. Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the outcome of the sins of the priesthood; therefore, as Chrysostom declares, when our Saviour wished to cleanse the city of Jerusalem of its sickness, He went first to the Temple to punish the sins of the priests before those of others, like a good physician who heals a disease at it roots. We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See; sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the Popes to the hierarchy.

We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is none that has done good; no, not one. To God, therefore, we must give all the glory and humble ourselves before Him; each one of us must consider how he has fallen and be more ready to judge himself than to be judged by God in the day of His wrath. Therefore, in our name, give promises that we shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin; thus healing will begin at the source of sickness. We deem this to be all the more our duty, as the whole world is longing for such reform. The Papal dignity was not the object of our ambition, and we would rather have closed our days in the solitude of private life; willingly would we have put aside the tiara; the fear of God alone, the validity of our election, and the dread of schism, decided us to assume the position of Chief Shepherd. We desire to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ’s bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning, above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and a successor of the blessed Peter.

Yet let no man wonder if we do not remove all abuses at one blow; for the malady is deeply rooted and takes many forms. We must advance, therefore, step by step, first applying the proper remedies to the most difficult and dangerous evils, so as not by a hurried reform to throw all things into greater confusion than before. Aristotle well says: ‘All sudden changes are dangerous to States.’ (…)”.

Adrian VI’s words help us to understand how the crisis in the Church today can have its origins in the doctrinal and moral failings of the men of the Church in the half century which followed the Second Vatican Council.  The Church is indefectible but her members, even the supreme ecclesiastical authorities, can make mistakes.  They should be ready to recognise their faults, including publicly.  We know that Adrian VI had the courage to undertake this revision of past errors.  How will the new Pope confront the process of doctrinal and moral self-destruction by the Church, and what will be his attitude towards the modern world, impregnated as it is by a profoundly anti-Christian spirit?  Only the future will answer these questions but it is certain that the causes of the obscurity of the present lie in our most recent past.

History also teaches us that Giulio de Medici succeeded Adrian VI and took the name of Clement VII (1523 – 1534).  During his Pontificate, on 6 May 1527, there occurred the terrible sack of Rome, perpetrated by Lutheran mercenaries (Landsknechte) of the Emperor Charles V.  It is difficult to describe the devastation and sacrileges committed during this event which proved to be more terrible than the sack of Rome in 410.  Men and women of the Church were targeted for especial cruelty: nuns were raped, priests and monks were killed or sold as slaves, churches, palaces and houses were destroyed.  The massacres were swiftly followed by famine and plague.  The inhabitants of Rome were decimated.

The Catholic people interpreted the event as a punishment they deserved for their own sins.  It was only after the terrible sack that life in Rome changed profoundly.  The climate of moral relativism dissolved and the general poverty stamped austerity and penitence onto the city.  It was this new atmosphere which made possible that great religious rebirth, the Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 16th century.

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