1. Imperial Papalism

William Buckley, in a book that mixes Catholic polemic, a survey of religious opinions, and personal reminiscence, tells us how, as children, he and his sister baptized unsuspecting adult visitors to their parents’ house:

Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX; drawing by David Levine

I knocked [at the guest bedroom] and told them that Trish and I were looking for my dog. They welcomed us in to search the room. I knelt down to see if he was under the first bed, and, a drop of water on my forefinger, touched it on Arlie’s forehead as if to maintain my balance, silently inducting her into the Christian community, while Trish, emerging from under the other bed in search of the dog, did as much for her older sister.

When the children boasted of their missionary activity to their mother, she did nothing to discourage them: “Perhaps she permitted herself to believe that her friends’ two grown-up daughters, neither one of them at death’s door, had in fact been baptized.”

At the time of Buckley’s boyhood it was easy to get the idea that baptism was a magic act that performed its wonders if you just got the words and water right—like saying “Open, Sesame” while rubbing a door. Catholic children were told admiring stories of the Jesuit missionary Frances Xavier, who baptized uninstructed Asians by the thousands.

There were complex historical reasons for the simple-minded view that baptism produces an automatic (ex opere operato) effect. In the fourth century, Donatists said that bad Christians could not validly baptize. Orthodox Christians responded that the merits of Christ brought salvation, not the merits of the human baptizer. In the later Scholastic tag, baptism “results from what is performed, not who performs it” (ex opere operato, non ex opere operantis).

Of course, the performer of the act does matter, in the sense that he or she must intend to baptize. And the recipient must intend to be baptized. The Buckley children neglected that last point, perhaps because baptism is customarily given to infants, who clearly cannot have an intention in the matter. Theologians argued that children, before the age of reason, must obey God in His natural representative to them, the parents. That is why Saint Thomas Aquinas said that children should never be baptized without their parents’ consent. He was especially harsh on those who said that Jewish or other infidel children can be baptized and taken from parents who do not worship the true God.

Man is structured toward God through reason, which is capable of knowing God. So a child, before the exercise of its own reason, is structured by nature’s own structure toward God through the parents’ reason, so it must perform its religious duty to God at the parents’ direction. (Summa Theologica 3g.68 a.10 ad 3.)

The supernatural order does not contravene natural law. It does not destroy parents’ rights in the family. As John Henry Newman put it, “The Pope, who comes of Revelation, has no jurisdiction over Nature.”1

Despite Thomas’s thirteenth-century teaching, Catholics in Italy were still forcibly baptizing Jewish children in the “enlightened” nineteenth century. The practice had the approval of the Pope, Pius IX, who, in 1846, had come to his office hailed as a liberal and humane man of his time. How could such a barbaric practice be condoned? Did the word of Thomas Aquinas have no weight?

Well, Thomas might be a saint, but he was not a pope, and earlier popes had condoned the practice. Thomas had quoted the Council of Toledo: “No one can be forced to believe.” But that was Toledo of the fifth century. A later Toledo, of the Inquisition, found coerced baptism a useful tool against Jews in Spain, and Rome gave its approval.

That approval, once given, is hard to withdraw. Though the papal teaching may not be infallible, it is still “Church teaching,” to be given the maximum possible weight. This was especially the approach of Pius IX, whose aim was to spread the mantle of infallibility over as wide an area as he could. Thus, when there was an outcry in the restive papal city of Bologna over the seizure from his family of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy, Pius had the child brought to Rome, where he asserted his own paternal right, superior to that of a merely natural (or, in the case of a Jew, unnatural) father.

For Pius’s own reputation, this was a disastrous position to be taking in 1858; but the irritable and epileptic Pope seemed to have a gift for making the worst of every situation he was put in. The case of the kidnapped boy caused an international scandal, with Jewish, Protestant, and secular organizations (and even a few Catholics) protesting the injustice of this intrusion into the most intimate arena of family rights. The Brown University historian David Kertzer tells the riveting tale, with great mastery of the sources, in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.


Though Catholics were not supposed to act as servants in Jewish houses, this law often yielded to economic need, like many others in the hypocritical treatment of Jews. Technically, the two hundred or so Jews in Bologna were not even supposed to be there—an earlier expulsion had not been formally rescinded. To keep a low profile, they did not have a rabbi or synagogue in the town. Momolo Mortara and his family had come to Bologna to escape the rigidly ghettoized life in Reggio. In the eighth year of their inconspicuous residence there, a police official knocked on their door at dusk and demanded the surrender of Edgardo, who—they were informed—was a baptized Christian.

In taking the child, the authorities did not even tell the Mortaras when their child had been baptized, or by whom; but suspicion naturally turned to Christian servants. They were notorious for secretly baptizing their charges, either out of misguided affection for them or in revenge for grievances against their parents. This was so commonly done or suspected that many Jewish families required, at a servant’s discharge, that he or she sign a notarized deposition not to have baptized any child in the home.

The Mortaras’ current servant was questioned and denied that she had done it. A former servant, Anna Morisi, had returned to her country home and married. Friends of Momolo Mortara tracked her down there, and she claimed that she had baptized the infant because he seemed on the point of death. She had told the story to a friend, and reports of it reached the Inquisition.

The soldier who took Edgardo to Rome said that a miraculous transformation came over him when he was persuaded to put on a Christian medal after kissing its cross. From that moment, the previously resisting child asked to go into Christian churches along the way, memorized Christian prayers, and was given a scapular of the Blessed Virgin to wear. He already had a new family.

When Edgardo’s parents came to Rome, supported by the Jewish community, they were permitted to see the boy but not to take him away. The story was told that Edgardo’s mother, at the sight of a Marian medal on her son, ripped it off contemptuously (proving, among other things, that she was not a fit mother). The Pope’s newspaper would now make the claim that the boy had to be kept for his own safety—Jewish parents would probably torture him into giving up his faith or kill him for retaining it. The parents were told that their boy would be returned if they agreed to be baptized themselves and live thenceforth as Christians. Their refusal of this offer was taken as further proof of their unfitness.

Little Edgardo was swept into a dizzying big world, where the Pope himself, who was genuinely affectionate toward children, pampered him. This made good sense. The boy would, in only a year, reach the canonical “age of reason,” seven, when he could choose to be true to his new faith—and his keepers would claim in time that he did. He continued to be the Pope’s pet. When he came from his school to visit the Esquiline Palace, Edgardo later recalled, Pius, “like a good father, had fun with me, hiding me under his grand red cloak, asking, jokingly, ‘Where’s the boy?’ and then, opening the cloak, showing me to the onlookers.”

Pius felt vindicated in his “defense of the boy’s faith” when Edgardo became a devout seminarian (he later received a papal dispensation to be ordained a priest when he was twenty-one). When indignation at the kidnapping spread around the world, Pius, as usual, took this as a personal martyrdom he had to undergo to preserve papal claims. He told the boy, “My son,…you have cost me dearly, and I have suffered a great deal because of you.” To others he said, “Both the powerful and the powerless tried to steal this boy from me.” He stood firm because “I, too, am his father.”

On Jewish delegations that asked for the boy’s release, Pius vented his famous temper. He denounced them for “stirring up a storm all over Europe about this Mortara case.” One leader he excoriated as “Crazy! Who are you?” To another he said, “Lower your voice. Do you forget before whom you are speaking?” Since, in his liberal phase, Pius had freed Rome’s Jews from some earlier repressions (like compelled attendance at proselytizing sermons), he now blew up at them.

I suppose these are the thanks I get for all the benefits you have received from me! Take care, for I could have done you harm, a great deal of harm. I could have made you go back into your hole. But don’t worry, my goodness is so great, and so strong is the pity I have for you, that I pardon you, indeed, I must pardon you.

The Mortara case could not have come at a worse time for Pius’s standing in the world. The Risorgimento, the effort to unify Italy under one secular government, was reaching its climax. Ten years before the kidnapping, Pius had been forced by nationalist armies to flee his own city of Rome. He was restored only by French and Austrian troops, who maintained temporal dominion for the Pope over the next twelve years. This situation was so dishonorable that in England John Henry Newman wrote, ten years after the kidnapping: “Is it not portentous that the Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ, should be sustained on his throne against the rising of his own people by foreign bayonets?”


In this situation, the Mortara case made good propaganda for the Risorgimento. The nationalist leader Camillo di Cavour even plotted with the French ambassador to seize Edgardo in a counterkidnapping. The fact that French troops were occupying Rome on the Pope’s behalf made it embarrassing to the French government to be seen as complicitous in this offense to the family. Edgardo’s case contributed to the eventual withdrawal of support from the Pope.

The distinguished British-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore made a special trip to Rome to plead with the Pope, but he was rebuffed. In England and the United States, the plight of Edgardo was used by anti-Catholics. The case was important enough to generate thirty-one major news articles in the Baltimore American, twenty-three in the Milwaukee Sentinel, and more than twenty in The New York Times. The New York Herald said that interest in the affair had reached “colossal dimensions.” Pressure was put on President Buchanan to speak out against the outrage, until he was forced to respond that he could not meddle in another country’s internal affairs. He was paralyzed by the fact that children were still being separated from their parents in America’s slaveholding Southern states. To protest against one instance of that would have made the United States position not only hypocritical but ridiculous.

In 1864, six years after the kidnapping, a nine-year-old Jewish boy, Giuseppe Coen, was baptized in Rome and withheld from his parents. The outrage over Edgardo was renewed, with such effect that the Pope’s loss of his temporal dominions in 1870 was attributed by some to this added kidnapping. It so disaffected the Pope’s supporters in the Catholic countries of Austria and France that the Austrian ambassador wrote, “Italy should be erecting arches of triumph in honor of this little Jew [Coen].” By violating natural law (as Aquinas expounded it), by wronging the parents and the boy himself, Pius had staked the patrimony of his office on a widely detested crime. As he himself put it in 1867, writing to Edgardo in his seminary:

Your case set off a worldwide storm against me and the apostolic See. Governments and peoples, the rulers of the world as well as the journalists—who are the truly powerful people of our times—declared war on me. Monarchs themselves entered the battle against me, and with their ambassadors they flooded me with diplomatic notes, and all this because of you….And in the meantime no one showed any concern for me, father of all the faithful.

The opposition of “the world” actually convinced Pius he was right. It is the Pope’s job to defy the world, to stay true to a higher revelation (one that condones kidnapping children). In the very year of the Coen baptism, Pius issued his condemnation of the entire modern world, his Syllabus of Errors. Pius was now on a course that made even a loyal Catholic like Newman write, in 1870:

We have come to a climax of tyranny. It is not good for a Pope to live 20 years [in office]. It is anomaly and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.2

2. Outpoping the Pope

Since our Church claims to be the repository of unchanging truth, Catholics of my generation were instilled with a temperament resisting change in Church matters. When some changes did occur, at and after the Second Vatican Council, there was a natural resistance on the part of people fostered in the earlier ethos. Mr. Buckley, thirty years after the changes, still calls the new liturgy “fascistic” in its encouragement of greater participation.

But the panel of conservative experts Mr. Buckley calls on to judge developments in the Church is entirely made up of converts, not of old Catholics. They prove just as opposed to change as Mr. Buckley. That explains, perhaps, their choice as experts. People who adopted the Church because it was a still point in flux—an exception in the modern world, and a rebuke to it—are especially pained to see it yield on any issue. Father Richard Neuhaus, for instance, tells Buckley that he opposes the idea of a non-celibate clergy “when it would be seen so widely as yielding to social pressures.” Buckley’s own investment in ecclesiastical changelessness is clear from his introduction.

But the church is unique in that it is governed by a vision that has not changed in two thousand years….Nothing in that vision has ever changed, nothing at all, and this is for all Christians [he means Catholics, a significant slip] a mind-shaking, for some a mind-altering certitude, with which Christians [sic] live, in our earnest if pitiable efforts to clear the way for a love that cannot be requited.

Like Pius IX, the conservative takes calls for change from “the world” as a proof that the Church is superior to the world in its changelessness (though in fact the papacy has changed its position on secret baptism of Jewish children).

The most interesting (though, thank God, not the most typical) resisters to change in the Church are neither people old enough to be nostalgic for pre-conciliar ways nor converts, but “born Catholics” too young to remember the Council, yet dismayed, nonetheless, by what is happening in the post-conciliar Church. These dissident Catholics are studied by Michael W. Cuneo in The Smoke of Satan.

The most rigorous thinkers in this strange subculture have a doctrine of sedevacantism (empty-chairism) with regard to the papacy. They carry Buckley’s doctrine of an absolutely changeless Church to its logical conclusion, arguing that a) an authentic papacy would not change the Church, but b) the modern (conciliar and post-conciliar) papacy has changed the Church, so c) the modern papacy is not authentic. By an appeal to history, during which for some periods no new pope was elected (the electing conclave not assembling, or not assembling to effect), or rival popes had their legitimacy in doubt, these believers say that the papal throne is currently unoccupied. The papal throne has been empty for one or two years at a time, and was in dispute for thirty-nine years from 1378 to 1417, as Eamon Duffy makes clear in his fine survey of the papacy, Saints and Sinners.

Some sedevacantists believe the seat has been unoccupied since 1958, when John XXIII was elected by what they call an invalid process and proceeded to initiate changes. Others, holders of the jauntily named “Siri theory,” think that the throne has only been empty since 1989, when the conservative Cardinal Giuseppe Siri died. They say Siri was elected pope in 1958, and then the conclave, in a Jewish-inspired coup, covered up his election and created the sham procedure that presented John XXIII as pope. Siri theorists rely on reports of alleged secret interviews with Siri in his retirement, in which he said he could not claim the apostolic title that was rightly his, because “they can kill me at any time.”

A different school of thought on Roman usurpation holds that “Paul VI,” not John XXIII, was the fake pope. The real Paul VI, who was elected to succeed John XXIII in 1963, was secretly imprisoned, while an “exact double” let the Vatican Council do its evil work. The Virgin Mary revealed Paul’s imprisonment in an apparition to the Spaniard Clemente Dominguez Gomez. She also ordered Gomez to be ordained a priest by the dissident bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, brother of Vietnamese ex-president Ngo Dinh Diem. Paul VI himself appeared to Gomez, confirming the Virgin’s order. When the real Paul VI died, in 1978, Gomez became his successor under the title of Gregory XVII.

Gregory XVI (1831-1846) is a great favorite of the conservatives. As Eamon Duffy says, Gregory’s government “became a by-word for obscurantist repression.” So it may not be surprising that there was already a Gregory XVII on the scene when Paul appeared in a vision to Gomez. A Canadian named Gaston Tremblay, but known as “Father John,” had previously received a revelation that he was Pope Gregory XVII.

The Tremblay pope, like Saint Peter, had to spend some time in prison in Montreal—six months of a two-year sentence for contempt of court and illegal sequestration (a father had tried to get back the children kept in Gregory’s monastery by their mother, a modern echo of the Mortara case).

Despite these troubles, the papal monastery of Father John, in Quebec, had two hundred priests and nuns in residence when Cuneo visited it in 1995 (about fifty of the nuns are under forty, at a time when nuns are no longer entering Catholic convents). Though Pope Gregory is aging himself, many sedevacantist bishops are young, often in their thirties, and their congregations are surprisingly youthful. Cuneo found at one center of the movement, Mount Saint Michael’s in Spokane, “fifty blue-and-white-habited nuns, at least half of whom looked to be under thirty years of age.”

Bishops proliferate in the sedevacantist movement, since the defection of the papacy just makes it more urgent for the apostolic succession to be guaranteed through other channels. Yet how is this to be done? Only validly consecrated bishops can consecrate new bishops, and the sedevacantists do not recognize the authority of bishops in communion with the papal usurper in Rome. There have been several sources for the new hierarchy—the line of “old Catholic” bishops who left the church at the time of Vatican I, or Marcel Lefebvre, who left after Vatican II, or retired bishops sympathetic to the sedevacantists (Thuc of Vietnam or Alfred Mendez of Puerto Rico).

Though the number of core believers in such alternative popes is small, it includes hundreds of priests and nuns and thousands of laity, with a penumbra of sympathizers in right-wing Catholic circles, especially those in the widespread Marian cults. The largest Marian group in America was formed during the cold war on the basis of the Virgin’s 1917 promise at Fatima, in Portugal, that Russia would be converted if the country were consecrated to her. This focus on Russia in the year of its revolution (1917) was pleasing to Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, who was a papal diplomat at Munich in that year. Later, as Pope Pius XII, he would make Fatima one of the ten officially approved apparitions of the Virgin and encourage devotion to her as a means of converting Russia. Even during World War II he treated Russia and communism, not Hitler and Nazism, as the major threat to the Church. In 1942, Pius consecrated the entire world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart, the title she had used for herself at Fatima.

During the cold war, Catholic parishes added a Fatima prayer for Russia’s conversion to the prayers at the end of Mass, and a Fatima prayer to the end of each decade of the rosary. In 1946, Lucia dos Santos, the only survivor from the group of three children to whom the Virgin appeared at Fatima, said that the Pope’s consecration of the world to the Immaculate Heart did not fulfill the command that Russia specifically be consecrated. In 1947, the Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima was founded in New Jersey and soon spread around the world. Teams traveled with statues of the Lady of Fatima for rallies and all-night vigils. At the Jesuit high school I was attending in 1950, there was no lights-out while the statue was on campus. (I was able, in a 24-hour readathon, to gulp down War and Peace at one sitting, with only a half-hour taken out for my pre-dawn spell of kneeling before the statue.)

The association of the Virgin with anticommunism guaranteed that Marian worship would be at the center of the right-wing extremism dear to sedevacantists, along with the Virgin’s apocalyptic warnings at the La Salette apparitions of 1846. It is no wonder sedevacantists organize themselves under titles like the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen or the Order of the Magnificat of the Mother of God (after Mary’s canticle in Luke 1:46-55—“He has shown strength with His arm”). These believers see the refusal to consecrate Russia separately as a sign of papal apostasy. They find an even greater sign in the “Third Secret” of Fatima—written out for the Pope to reveal after 1960. Post-1960 popes, beginning (significantly for sedevacantists) with John XXIII, have not revealed this secret, though they were authorized to by the children. The sedevacantists are sure that Our Lady prophesied the very apostasy that has occurred in Rome.

The Fatima cult is not confined to sedevacantists. Cuneo writes that one of the most ardent and active promoters of the devotion, Father Nicholas Gruner, professes loyalty to the Pope, but nonetheless finds apostasy in the Pope’s advisors. Gruner is the editor of the Fatima Crusader, which had a circulation of 400,000 in the late 1980s. In 1988, he began a radio program, Heaven’s Peace Plan (which airs in forty-three towns), and in 1989 he added a television talk show, Fatima: The Moment Has Come.

In 1992, Lucia dos Santos said that John Paul II’s consecration of the world to Mary fulfilled the Virgin’s command. This gave Mary credit for ending the cold war, though that is not enough for Gruner and others. The Blue Army had faded away after Vatican II. But the sedevacantists and their allies think the apostasy goes on in Rome. The “Third Secret” is now the focus of their suspicions.

Father Gruner finds rot everywhere in the Church and is good at capitalizing on resistance to change. His hatred of the new liturgy makes Buckley’s attack on its “fascism” look pusillanimous. Cuneo heard Gruner tell an audience of three hundred gathered before a Fatima statue that receiving Communion bread in the hand instead of on the tongue “is a sacrilege even worse than abortion.”

The Marian network keeps up the memory of other apparitions supplementing those at Fatima—to Mary Van Hoof in Necedah, Wisconsin, to Veronica Lueken in Bayside, Queens, to young Croatians in Medjugorje. Cuneo, admirably thorough in his investigation of this Marian netherworld, attends meetings devoted to the memory of Veronica Lueken, where photographs of her ecstasies are scrutinized for dim traces of the Virgin hovering above her. Ms. Lueken was given the same news of the real Paul VI’s imprisonment that Gomez/Gregory was. She also had the stigmata given to her in a vision by the Italian stigmatic Padre Pio.

There seems something particularly ungrateful in these Marianists’ use of their patron against the Pope. The modern papacy has been closely leagued with Marian piety. Pius IX and John Paul II grew up near Marian shrines, which were the focus of their early piety. Pius’s mother took him to the shrine of Loreto, which purports to have the very house Mary lived in. (How could that be, I asked a priest when I was in school, and he said, after scratching his head, “Is Loreto a college town?”) John Paul’s father took him to the shrine of the “Black Virgin” at Czestochowa (to whom Chesterton addressed the magical line of verse “To thy most merciful face of night I kneel”).

Later apparitions of the Virgin won both men’s later enthusiasm—Lourdes for Pius, Fatima for John Paul. Pius felt that the Immaculate Conception had saved his life by “the miracle of Sant’ Agnese” when a convent of that name collapsed around him.3 He later celebrated the date in honor of Mary. John Paul believes that Our Lady of Fatima saved him from death at a would-be assassin’s hand. The date of the attempt on his life was that of the Virgin’s first apparition at Fatima, and Eamon Duffy, in his shrewd and well-written history, reports that the bullet from Mehmet Ali Agca’s gun is now mounted in the crown on the Virgin’s statue at Fatima, where John Paul made a pilgrimage on the tenth anniversary of his rescue.

Pius XII, who had visions of the Virgin in his sequestered old age, was also devoted to Our Lady of Fatima, and addressed her as the Mediatrix of All Graces.4 A significant advance in papal authority took place in what Jaroslav Pelikan, in his learned study of Mary, calls “the great century of Marian apparitions—the hundred years from the 1830s to the 1930s.”

Visions have become the Virgin’s domain. Statues of her weep. Rarely do crucifixes speak now, as one did to Thomas Aquinas. It was the cross of Christ that blazed in the air when Saint Francis received the stigmata. Mystics like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, and Saint Ignatius experienced union with God, not with the Virgin. Marian apparitions were known in the past, but she did not have the current quasi monopoly on the phenomenon. This raises interesting questions about shifting styles in devotional life.

Why has Mary become so prominent in modern Catholic mysticism? Does this fulfill the old Protestant prophecies that Mary would shove aside Jesus as a cult figure? Pelikan hints at a different explanation. In the past Jesus would often appear to learned ascetics, who set the fashion of piety from their elite station. In modern times, Mary has more often appeared to ordinary people, often unlearned, sometimes children. Does this show a “democratization” of piety in the modern world? (Pius IX, who hated democracy, would be shocked at the very notion.) Or does it signal a feminization of religion?

One thing that can be said with confidence on this still-murky subject is that Marian piety has been very useful to the popes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—and they have employed it as a tool for strengthening their office.

3. Marian Imperialism

I should preface what follows by making my own loyalties clear. I pray to the Blessed Virgin every day, often using the rosary. That is partly a mere accident of my upbringing. The rosary was one of the first ways I learned to pray, and I don’t have so many ways that I can afford to lose one. But the more important reason for my prayer is the fact that Mary is central to the Christian revelation and experience—in the Bible (“All generations shall call me blessed,” Luke 1:48), in the early creeds (“born of the Virgin Mary”), in the most authoritative councils (“She who bore God,” Theotokos). Jaroslav Pelikan’s book demonstrates that the cult of Mary had its real beginning in the fourth century, and was the result precisely of a concentration on the mystery of Jesus. The Council of Nicea, by defining the divine personhood of Christ in conjunction with his two natures—true God and true man—made it necessary, as an offshoot, to say that Mary was the human mother of the divine person, the God-Bearer (Theotokos). She glows in the blaze of light that surrounds the Incarnation, in which she was the most intimate non-divine participant. As such, she is the highest and most dignified human being in history (“the favored one,” Luke 1:28 and 1:42), the first and best Christian disciple, the model for all human cooperation with God’s grace. The statement in John 19:27, “Son, behold your mother,” was intended for all Christians, in whose souls her work is perfectly described by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn—
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death.

But all forms of religion, precisely because of their extreme importance, because of believers’ intensity and engaged passions, are liable to excess. In all of them, fervor can become fanaticism.

Saint Thomas Aquinas—despite his own teaching on Mary’s importance to the Incarnation (or rather because of it)—argued against the claim that Mary was conceived “immaculately” (i.e., without original sin). All human beings descended from Adam inherit the blight of original sin as an essential mark of their nature. To exempt Mary from this condition would mean that Jesus was not born a true man in his nature “from the seed of David.” It would also mean that Jesus was not Mary’s savior, since she did not have any fallen condition from which to be saved. Thus “if the soul of the Blessed Virgin was never stained by the effect of original sin, this would deny Christ the honor by which he is the savior of all people.”

The early doctrines of Marian glory clarified the character of the Incarnation. This one would muddy and confuse it. Exemption from our historical human condition would make Mary superhuman. It would also make it hard to explain why she suffered some effects of mortal sin on the body (pain, fatigue, death). Jesus could suffer in his human nature though he had only one person, which was divine. A parallel with Mary would give her a divine person, that of a goddess. Thomas was not the only great theologian to oppose the doctrine of Mary’s immaculate conception. Even the foremost preacher of Mary’s glories, the Franciscan Bernard of Clairvaux, had opposed the idea. Later scholars would point out that Saint Jerome’s mistranslation of “favored one” as “full of grace” misled people into thinking Mary had to have every grace, including exemption from original sin.

Thomas Aquinas admitted that certain Catholic churches celebrated “the conception” of Mary, but said that must be understood as meaning Jesus sanctified her immediately after conception, so that there was sin for her to be saved from. Since it is not known exactly when she was sanctified (released from original sin), it was an allowable “pious belief” to say it was while she was in the womb.

But a “pious belief” and sanctification after conception were not what Pius IX wanted. Modern Franciscans, despite the warning of Saint Bernard, had made devotion to the Immaculate Conception a staple of their theology. Besides, by the middle of the nineteenth century Marian piety was increasing, along with the age’s yearning for virginal and matronly purity (evident even in Henry Adams’s effusion to the Virgin of Chartres and Mark Twain’s embarrassing book on the virginal Joan of Arc). The high time of Marian apparitions was under way—that to Catherine Labouré in 1830, and to the children at La Salette in 1846. The Labouré apparition was of a Mary crowned with stars, which was taken to imply the Immaculate Conception. Catholics wore “the miraculous medal” showing her in that pose, and the great column raised beside the Spanish Steps to celebrate Pius’s definition of that dogma has the same crown.

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.

This Issue

February 19, 1998