Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Enmity Between Catholicism and Totalitarianism IV

Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.

Albert Einstein, Time Magazine 1940

We ought to truly acknowledge and heartily proclaim: Bishop Cornelius of Rome occupied his episcopal see at a time when a hostile tyrant was making threats of punishments...against God's priests. Yet the emperor admitted that he would have received more calmly and tranquilly the news of a rival emperor than the report of the recent election of another bishop of Rome. Cornelius first
defeated with a bishop's strength the tyrant who later died in battle by force of arms.

Eusebius, History of the Church Fourth century A.D.

2. The Papacy: The Standard Bearer of Catholicism and the Bulwark Against Political Tyranny:

We come to the second reason why the Catholic Church can answer the claims of the Totalitarianism of the State:

Unlike Protestantism, Judaism and Islam, the Catholic Church possesses a centrally defined office and an authoritative voice who gives official interpretation to what it teaches; and that voice is that of the Bishop of Rome; better known as the pope or the papacy. His entourage of Church officials- mostly comprised of Cardinals and Bishops –is the prophetic teaching office of the Church; also known as the Holy See or the Magisterium. For two thousand years faithful Catholics have believed that the authority of the pope, who is the successor of St. Peter, not only originates with Jesus Christ but is exercised in his stead. Such an authority cannot be easily dismissed by factions and dissenters.

There are two advantages of having a well-defined, central authority in the Catholic Church:

First, the pope provides clarity as to what an authentic Catholic is. It furthermore represents the longstanding teachings of the Church. It is possible, therefore, to identify faithful or orthodox Catholics from dissenters or nominal Catholics. In the last fifty years, the confusion between the authentic and the nominal Catholic resulted from a failure of the clergy to exercise its God-given, disciplinary authority. On the other hand, one of the challenges which face Westerners with regard to Islam is that it is difficult to discern between an authentic-mainstream Muslim and a radical Muslim who preaches jihad as it understood by terrorists. Indeed, there is no leading imam who can authoritatively speak for Sunni, Wahhabi, and Shia Muslims; or who can authoritatively render an official interpretation of the Koran; especially with regard to the true meaning of jihad. There may be consensus among some circles, but certainly no follower can be reproved by a central authority founded by Mohammad, the founder of Islam.

The same difficulty applies to Judaism and Protestantism. In the Lutheran denomination alone, there are several divisions; some differing on doctrinal matters. Both Judaism and Protestantism are fluid and quite adaptable to the times and the conditions in which it finds itself. As Albert Einstein indicated, when the tidal wave of totalitarianism comes ashore, religions or ideologies that are fluid and impressionable break down quite easily and are silenced.

The second among the advantages of a well-defined, central authority in the Catholic Church is that it is much more resistant to being absorbed into the State. From the very beginning of the life of our Lord, the State proved to be a menace. Even as an infant, the Messiah proved to be a threat to King Herod. Certainly, it does not have to be this way nor was it this way all the time throughout the history of the Church. Nevertheless, in her early years the Church felt the full wrath of the pagan State. The teaching by Jesus to his followers that they should give to God what belongs to God and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar resulted in much bloodshed. After all, in ancient paganism, everything belonged to Caesar. And let there be no doubt, the Roman Emperors and many political leaders to come took great offense to this new and revolutionary doctrine of Christianity. Today, it is greeted with even less enthusiasm by Totalitarian States.

The Catholic Church, therefore, has a demonstrated heritage of reminding governments that its power is limited and is meant to be at the service of the people. Time and time again Catholic bishops checked and pushed back the overreaching advances of the State. In matters relating to the liberty of the soul or the sovereignty of the Church, civil authority had no jurisdiction.

Bishop Ossius of Cordoba, who presided at the first General Council of Nicea on behalf of Pope St. Sylvester, wrote tin 356 A.D. to the Roman Emperor Constantius, reminding him who he was before God. He said, “Cease these proceedings, I beseech you, and remember that you are a mortal man. Be afraid of the Day of Judgment and keep yourself pure thereunto. Do not intrude yourself into ecclesiastical matters; neither give us commands concerning them but learn from us.” Writing to the same emperor, Bishop of Cagliari, reinforced the message of Ossius by writing: “I want you to know that despite all of your cruelty you lie helpless at the feet of God’s servants and all your imperial pomp Is for us nothing for us you are with all of your authority of your empire only a passing breeze.”

That same century, St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was engaged in a physical confrontation with the Christian Roman Emperor, Theodosius II. It just so happened that the emperor killed 6,000 Thessalonians in an uprising. After this unjust onslaught, the emperor presumed to enter the cathedral in Milan. However, St. Ambrose physically withstood him, demanding that he do public penance; and public penance he did.

These confrontations between the Shepherds of the Church and the Roman Emperors were monumental. Interestingly enough, they did not simply draw the line between the Church and State by simply writing letters and books; with a face to face confrontation as St. Ambrose did with the Roman emperor Theodosius II and as Pope St. Leo the Great did with Attila of the Hun, they put their lives on the line. They impressed upon Christians that heads of State whose authority was not absolute or supreme but instead it was be at the service of the people. As St. Paul said in Romans 13 reminds us, their authority is from God. Our Lord himself reminded Pilate, "You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above."

Among the two hundred and sixty six popes in the Church’s history, there are countless letters to Emperors, Kings, Presidents and Dictators. Animated with the Spirit of Christ, they gave voice to the rights of God and the superiority of the spiritual order over that of the political; reminding rulers of the fleeting nature of civil authority and that one day it they will be held accountable. Their words to the powerful took on a similar tone to the following passage from the book of Wisdom: “Hearken, you who are in power over the multitude and lord it over throngs of peoples! Because authority was given you by the LORD and sovereignty by the Most High, who shall probe your works and scrutinize your counsels!” (6:2-3)

The Catholic Church has within its storehouse the means of not only resisting political tyranny but building up, once again, all that was good in Christian civilization. But chief among the means by bring this about is the successor of St. Peter, the pope. Through his ministry, dissenters can be distinguished from faithful Catholics and the Church Universal is prevented from being co-opted by the State. These are two important advantages which strengthen the enmity between Catholicism and totalitarianism.

Next blog- The third reason why Catholicism can give answer to the claims of the Totalitarian State: The intellectual heritage of its moral and political theology.