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The Vatican Monarchy

The normal way for Rome to declare a new doctrine would, in the mid-nineteenth century, have been for the Pope to call a council, where debate would reveal the mind of the Church under God’s providential guidance. But when Pius asked bishops to write him their views on the Immaculate Conception, fifty-six of those who responded (and those among the most learned) had opposed defining the doctrine. Besides, many professors of theology had expressed misgivings. Pius did not want these objections aired in a council, so he took the majority of bishops’ letters (absent debate) as warrant to issue the definition in a papal bull, Ineffabilis Deus. The bishops were invited to Rome for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1854, to celebrate a fait accompli. When, in an apparition three years later, the Virgin at Lourdes gave herself the title of a doctrine (“I am the Immaculate Conception”), Pius felt vindicated. He had repaid the Virgin for the “miracle of Sant’ Agnese.” December 8 became his magic date. On that day he would issue the Syllabus of Errors. On that day he would open the Vatican Council of 1869.

At the outset of the Council, Pius pretended that he had not called it just for the purpose of defining papal infallibility. He told the Belgian envoy to Rome, in the summer before the Council opened: “I don’t need it at all. Am I not infallible already? Didn’t I establish the dogma of the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception all by myself several years ago?”5 The words I italicize here were the key ones. The Pope, who was losing his temporal domains in this period, wanted to have a separate sphere of power higher than any prince’s.

The pretense that he did not care about infallibility soon fell away. Though he had rigged the conciliar bodies that drew up and presented the subjects for debate, the Pope moved up the topic of infallibility, out of its logical order in celebration of Church authority. His agents cut off debate. When the scholarly theologian Filippo Maria Guidi argued that the Pope must act in concord with the bishops, Pius called him in for a vigorous tongue-lashing. Guidi said he was just voicing Church tradition, to which (it was widely reported) the Pope answered: “I am tradition.” Though Guidi refused to confirm this account, he also refused to deny it at the Pope’s request, giving as his excuse that he did not want to prolong the issue.6

The Pope had become monomaniacal on the issue of his own infallibility. He said, “In former times before I was Pope, I believed in Infallibility: now, however, I feel it.”7 When a delegation came to him promising unanimous consent if he would define papal infallibility in conjunction with the whole episcopacy, he turned the proposal down. He wanted to be infallible “all by myself.” To reach that goal, his agents manipulated the Council, in Newman’s words, “cruelly, tyrannically, and deceitfully.”8 Even Pius’s apologist in a later beatification process had to admit that the management of the Council showed “a mentality that no assembly, whether civil or ecclesiastical, would today accept.”9

Pius was becoming desperate for his dogma of infallibility as the Council neared its seventh month in session. War was threatening between France and Prussia. The expense of housing and feeding all the bishops, and paying travel costs for half of them, was draining a papacy deprived of taxes from its former properties: Pius “declared that by the time he was pronounced infallible he would have failed financially.”10

The weaknesses of the Pope’s argument for a personal infallibility were obvious to many Catholics at the time. He relied heavily on the words of Matthew 16:18-19, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” as making Peter the first pope, with an entirely personal authority. But both of the excellent surveys of the papacy just published report the consensus of modern scholars that Peter was not a pope, nor even the bishop of Rome. Richard McBrien, the priest-editor of the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, writes in Lives of the Popes:

There is no evidence that Rome ever had a monoepiscopal form of ecclesiastical government until the middle of the second century…. Among the letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107) to the seven churches of the ancient Christian world, Ignatius’s letter to Rome was the only one in which he makes no mention at all of its bishop.

Eamon Duffy, in his more analytic work, agrees that “all the indications are that there was no single bishop at Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the apostles.”

This is no radical departure. Newman, though he recognized the authority of the Pope, said that he had assumed, faute de mieux, powers that were collegial for the first four centuries of Christianity: “I say then the Pope is the heir of the Ecumenical Hierarchy of the fourth century, as being, what I may call, heir by default.”11 Matthew’s passage about the rock conferred a collegial power, as modern experts on the passage now agree.

But if Pius’s theological arguments were weak, he had a powerful psychological one: How could the bishops deny the power he was asking them to ratify when they had accepted the exercise of it in the 1854 definition of the Immaculate Conception? To turn the Pope down would be to deny Mary a title that had become very popular after Lourdes.

Thus was Mary used as a Trojan horse for carrying infallibility into the Vatican. Her close connection with papal infallibility would continue when, in 1950, Pius XII issued the only infallible declaration made after Vatican I, saying that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. John Paul II is pondering another Marian definition, and has appointed a commission of twenty-three Marian scholars to consider defining Mary as Co-Redemptrix of the human race.12 Some believe that John Paul wants to celebrate the Jubilee Year 2000 with a Marian dogma for the new millennium.

All these Marian declarations go against what Newman called the policy of infallible declaration in the past. He said that new burdens of belief should not be placed on the Christian conscience except when needed to clarify important scriptural points (is Jesus both God and man?) or to refute heresy: “Hitherto definitions de fide were grave necessities, not devotional outpourings.”13 The Marian declarations are gratuitous; they are homilitic, not dogmatic, and therapeutic for those whose piety makes escalating demands for the accumulation of honorific titles. On the one hand, it has been easy for a pope to satisfy Marian cultists, a popular move among Catholics. On the other, these definitions break down ecumenical efforts to deal with other Christians, who see no warrant in Scripture for such innovations. Marian definitions are used, in other words, not to show the importance of the Incarnation, but to boost the importance of the papacy.

Arguments for the Assumption of Mary were based on discredited exegesis of passages in Scripture that seemed to show Enoch and Elijah going off to heaven with their bodies—if they were worthy of such a privilege, surely the Virgin should be, too. (Much of the theology about Mary shows a kind of chivalrous regard for protocol.) A better argument is one from silence. The early Church, expecting the world to end soon, kept up a cult of the dead around their relics—the physical links to heaven, soon to be reanimated. The bodies of the apostles were celebrated in later tradition. But there was never any relic of Mary’s flesh or bone. Did she even die? The early euphemism of her “dormition”—the koimesis—fudged that issue. But her Son died. Why would she not?

Popes have the same problem with Mary’s death as they do with their own. The death of John Paul I in 1978, one month after he became pope, was staged as a tableau. The bodies of modern popes are treated as too sacred for an undertaker’s incursions, with results that Father McBrien describes: at papal wakes “Pius XII’s nose almost fell off; John Paul I’s face turned green; and Paul VI’s ears became black.”

I suppose one could invent an iconographic argument for the Assumption. In depictions of the Last Judgment, Mary is seen already seated with Jesus before other humans have been resurrected—in fact, in the Pisa fresco of 1360, she has her own body halo (mandorla) equal to that of Jesus; neither one is more central or of larger size. But an older and stronger tradition is that of the Pleading (Deesis), with Mary on one side of the Judge and John the Baptist on the other, symbols respectively of the Christian dispensation and the pre-Christian (since John is the last of the prophets of Jesus’s coming).14

The strongest argument for the Assumption has the disadvantage of circularity. Since death is a consequence of original sin, if Mary was immaculately conceived, she should not die. This promotion to superhuman status would reach its conclusion if Mary should be declared not the first of the saved but herself a savior—Co-Redemptrix. That the current pope is even considering this shows how unrestrained is papal-Marian imperialism. It is not surprising that, at a time when Mary was being proclaimed Queen of Heaven, popes should become, as Eamon Duffy says, the last absolute monarchs. Pius IX grew angry when a visiting group was slow to kneel to him, and the Fathers at Vatican I had to approach his throne and kiss his hand (cardinals) or his knee (bishops) or his foot (superiors of religious orders). Pius XII’s priests were instructed to take his phone calls on their knees.

Newman says that no pope should be in office for twenty years. If John Paul II lives to the year 2000, and he has expressed a desire to, he will have ruled for twenty-two years. Jonathan Kwitny, in Man of the Century, his thoroughly researched and balanced book, gives the Pope a large measure of credit for the victory of the Solidarity movement in Poland—though he offers a crushing refutation of Carl Bernstein’s thesis that a “holy alliance” between John Paul and Ronald Reagan brought down the Soviet Empire.

Kwitny also gives a full account of the Pope’s Marian piety. John Paul’s episcopal motto is Totus Tuus (All Yours), where the Tu in Tuus is Mary, not Jesus. He has made a point of visiting every major Marian shrine (e.g., that of Knock in Ireland and, most recently, El Cobre in Cuba). His personal devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, who saved his life from an assassin, is understandable. Kwitny might have asked what connection the ideal of Mary’s virginity, absorbed in his youth at the shrine of Czestochowa, has with John Paul’s adamant refusal to admit the possibility of a married clergy or women priests, or with his refusal to release those who leave the priesthood from the vow of celibacy. Mary has not been considered a priest in the past; why—protocol again!—should lesser women have a privilege denied her? There is something absurd in holding at one and the same time that Mary is good enough to be a co-redeemer but not good enough to be a priest. The Pope has not gone all the way in making his stand against women priests infallible, but he has indulged every hyperbole to boost it as close to that status as possible—using, as McBrien notes, “language similar to that employed in infallible teaching.” The words of the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis are: “The judgment is to be definitely held by all the Church’s faithful.” The Pope’s theologian, Cardinal Ratzinger, said that was tantamount to an infallible statement.

Kwitny demonstrates that John Paul’s ideas on sexuality were deeply shaped by the advice of his Polish friend Doctor Wanda Poltawska, who believes (among other things) that “the use of contraception leads to neurosis.” When Dr. Poltawska contracted cancer, John Paul asked Padre Pio, the Italian stigmatic, to pray for her and she was miraculously cured. John Paul was a devotee of Padre Pio from the 1940s. He visited the mystic in southern Italy. In 1947 Pio predicted he would become pope.15 According to the one witticism in Kwitny’s book, John XXIII and others thought Pio was “a few beads short on his rosary.” But a modern Church historian says that such criticism came from “northerners” (John was born near Bergamo) who did not understand southern Italian piety.16 On December 18 of last year John Paul declared Padre Pio a Venerable, a step toward beatification.

John Paul has exercised a kind of “back door infallibility” by his wholesale promotion of venerable, beatified, and canonized persons. He has, Father McBrien writes, “canonized more than 270 saints (most of them priests and nuns),” and “beatified many more than that (including the controversial founder of the ultraconservative Opus Dei movement, Josemaría Escrivá de Belaguer).” In Making Saints Kenneth Woodward has described the way an implied infallibility goes into the papal declaration that so-and-so is certainly in heaven. The size of the claim is measurable from the fact that saints declared by popular acclamation (the procedure before canonization became a papal monopoly in the thirteenth century) can be “demoted” when scholars find out they were mythical (like Saint Christopher), but a pope’s declaration is irreversible, even when new information comes to light about the canonized person.17

This is one of the more extravagant claims of the papacy, and John Paul has made a quantum leap in its use. (The previous champion canonizer was Pius XII, who made a mere thirty-three people saints.) The seer’s power to know who is in heaven is like the legislation on who should get out of purgatory and when—a power that was exercised in papal “indulgences,” the sale of which was a major cause of the Reformation. Although a modern pope relies on a body of scholars investigating any potential saint’s life and requisite miracles, the final status of sainthood does not depend on the scholars’ findings but on the pope’s declaration. That is why new information coming into the scholars’ hands after the pope has spoken does not matter. As Pius IX would have said, the pope makes saints “all by myself.” Here, too, a kind of circular argument makes the pope’s position self-validating. If Pius XII can say that even Mary’s body is in heaven, why can’t other popes make the lesser claim that somebody’s soul is there? There is no end to polemical and opportunistic uses of Mary in support of papal prerogative.

Let me repeat that I write this as a Marian devotee, though not a Mariolater. I also write as a Papist. A Papist is not necessarily a papalist. Even a pope need not be a papalist. Just look at John XXIII.


Not a Franciscan March 26, 1998

  1. 5

    August Bernhard Hasler, How the Pope Became Infallible, translated by Peter Heinegg (Doubleday, 1981), p. 82.

  2. 6

    Coppa, Pope Pius IX, pp. 165-166.

  3. 7

    Coppa, Pope Pius IX, p. 158.

  4. 8

    Dessain and Gornall, Letters and Diaries of Newman, Vol. XXV, p. 169.

  5. 9

    Woodward, Making Saints, p. 324.

  6. 10

    Coppa, Pope Pius IX, p. 166.

  7. 11

    Newman, Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, p. 33.

  8. 12

    Kenneth L. Woodward, “Hail, Mary,” Newsweek, August 25, 1997, p. 49.

  9. 13

    Dessain and Gornall, Letters and Diaries of Newman, Vol. XXV, p. 17.

  10. 14

    See Garry Wills, “Hunt for the Last Judgment,” The New York Review, April 20, 1995, p. 53.

  11. 15

    Miracoli e Profezie,” Corriere della Sera, December 19, 1997, p. 19.

  12. 16

    Parla lo Storico Pietro Borzomati,” Corriere della Sera, December 19, 1997.

  13. 17

    Woodward, Making Saints, p. 127.

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