Monday, December 8, 2014

On Abuses and Reforms in the Church

First in a Series on the Protestant Reformation

Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.

If the Church is a Divine institution, as all Catholics maintain, how can there by any abuses within it? Does not the existence of sins in a Church prove to evidence that it is not of God? Of course the sins are not of God; they come from man's free will. For there are two principles working in the Church: the Divine, the Holy Ghost, who works in it to sanctify man, to raise him heavenward; and the human element, which ought to co-operate with the Divine, but often fails to do so. The Holy Spirit works to produce that holiness which has been a conspicuous mark of the true Church in every age; but human infirmity, in every age as well, fosters those shortcoming, those sins, abuses, scandals which Christ predicted when He said:
It must needs be that scandal come; but nevertheless woe to that man by whom the scandal cometh. - Matt. 18:7
The evident consequence is that, all through the history of the Church, there have been and there will be to the end scandals and abuses. The history of the Church is the history of the struggle, with its successes and its failures, between the Divine Spirit and the frail, carnal, yet free spirit of man, who is impeded at every step from yielding to the better influence by the direct enemies of God, the allied powers of the world, the Devil, and the flesh.

The existence, therefore, of abuses within the Church is no objection against its Divine character. Foreseeing the false reasoning that would arise in this matter, Christ warned us against it by giving us the parable of the cockle sowed among the wheat, which the servant of the husbandman were instructed to let grow until the harvest, and of the net cast into the sea, gathering good and bad fishes; so the angels shall separate the wicked from among the just at the end of the world. Both parables teach us that there shall be good and evil men within the Church till the last judgment. The scandals and abuses thus predicted began in the very times of the Apostles, and they were of the most shocking kind. See how St. Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians for the conduct of some of them at the reception of Holy Communion: "And one indeed is hungry," he says, "and others are drunk." And again: "It is absolutely heard that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as the like is not among the heathens, that one should have his father's wife." And yet that was the Church of Christ in its primitive state of fervor.

It has been the same in every generation since. The abuses and scandals have at times been in high places. True, of the 260 Popes that have successively governed the Church, 79 are canonized Saints, because of their heroic virtue; of the remainder, the vast majority have been men of uncommon excellence in mental and moral qualities; but some few have been a disgrace to their exalted station. Cardinal Gibbons, in The Faith of Our Fathers, says: "We have forty-three virtuous to one bad Pope, while there was a Judas Iscariot among the twelve Apostles." But in the eyes of aliens to the Church, one unworthy Pontiff attracts more attention than fifty worthy occupants of the papal throne.

Scandals in the lower orders of the faithful are, of course, far more numerous, and we need not fear to assert that there never was a generation since the time of Christ when His Church had not to deplore, and strive to check and reform, abuses of some kind or other within the family of her own children. Her dogmatic teaching and the standard of morality she upholds are always above reproach; for they are the direct work of the Divine element within her, the Spirit of Truth that abides with her forever. But the lives of many of her own fold, shepherds who are hirelings and sheep who stray from the flock, are a constant cause of anxiety to her, a copious source of scandal to the world. Meanwhile, the same Divine Spirit who sanctifies those docile to the invitations of grace is ever and anon raising up in the midst of them zealous reformers inspired by inward light and guided by the proper authority to remove the abuses resulting from human frailty and human passion. Such was the humble St. Francis of Assisi, who rose a living protest against the worldliness of his age; such was St. Catherine of Sienna, whom the Lord made His instrument to bring back the Popes from Avignon to Rome; such was the gentle St. Theresa, who restored the Carmelite religious to their pristine spirit of heroic austerity of life; such was St. Ignatius, who, by his Spiritual Exercises, converted and sanctified himself and his companions, and then, with them and by them, reformed many thousands of others among the clergy and the laity. There is not an age in Church history in which remarkable reformations did not purify the morals of many Christians.

In our own day, we are witnessing a succession of reforms wrought by our venerated Supreme Pontiff, Pius X. It is only three years since he was raised, much against his will, to his sublime dignity, and already he has introduced a number of important reforms, some regarding his own surroundings and officials in the Roman congregation, others concerning the bishops and pastors throughout Italy, others affecting the teaching of catechism, the study of Holy Scripture in seminaries, the regulation of Church music throughout the Catholic world, the frequent reception of Holy Communion, etc. At time, the evils calling for reformation in the Church were so grievous and inveterate that there appeared to be no human hope of success. Take for an example the 13th century of our era. Various temporal princes had managed to control the appointment of bishops and abbots in their respective domains, filling many important sees with their relatives or favorites, and even sometimes selling the sacred offices by simoniacal bargains. Some of the Popes even had been raised to their high office by the influence of the German emperors.

Whence was the reformation of such abuses to come? Too many of the bishops and princes favored the scandals, and the Church appeared powerless to remove them. The Spirit of God raised up a savior, as He had done in the Old Law in the persons of Gideon, Jephte, Samson, etc. On this occasion, the chosen instrument of Providence was Hildebrand, a son of an artisan; through heroic courage, he undid the spell that seemed to hold the sacred ministers. He induced the Pope to decree that the college of Cardinals should thenceforth elect the Supreme Pontiffs.

Himself having been elevated to the chair of Peter under the name of Gregory VII, he boldly abolished the evil practice of "investitures," as it was called, by which the several princes presumed to invest the new bishops with the ring and crosier, the emblems of their holy office. They claimed the right to select those persons whom they were to invest. The Emperor Henry IV was especially insistent on the exercise of this prerogative. Gregory VII, trusting in God's help against all opposition of earthly power, condemned the abuse, and pronounced a severe censure against any prince who should continue its practice. The Emperor assembled the bishops subject to him, deposed Gregory and put up an anti-Pope in his stead. But the worthy Pontiff proclaimed that Henry, by thus attacking the Church, had violated his coronation oath, and had thus forfeited the imperial crown; and he consequently declared all the German people released from their allegiance to the tyrant. Henry was forced to submit to the just sentence, and went a suppliant to Canossa, where Gregory was then staying. There he submitted to do penance for his offence before obtaining his pardon. The scandalous abuse of the investitures was thus abolished. But Gregory VII had to pay dearly for his holy victory; for he was subsequently driven from Rome by the same tyrant, and he died in exile. Besides, courtly historians, to please worldly potentates, covered his name with obloquy. He was represented as an unworthy Pope, until his honor was vindicated by the Protestant historian Voigt. Similar vindications have been written and accepted as the verdict of history, of Pope Innocent III, by Ranke and others, of Leo X, by Roscoe, etc., the power of truth triumphing over the prejudices of non-Catholic, but sincere students.

Whatever reform comes from the Spirit of God, as in the case of Gregory VII, is orderly, moderate and conformable to justice. But what arises from the human spirit is apt to be excessive, lawless, ready to use evil means for the attainment of desirable ends. Such has been the conduct, at various times, of self-appointed reformers within the Church, but who did not use as much prudence as the delicate task they willingly assumed required for its successful execution. Thus, the eloquent Friar Savanarola aroused violent opposition against the scandals caused by Pope Alexander VI, perhaps the most unworthy of all Roman Pontiffs. But his zeal was not moderate, his measures were not such as the God of wisdom could approve; and yet the Psalmist has warned all generations that "unless the Lord build the house, they lobor in vain that build it." (Ps. 126) We are next to treat of other self-appointed reformers who were far more to blame than the well-meaning but rash and violent Savanarola.

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