No Popery

In recent weeks I’ve been skimming through Herbert Thurston, S.J.’s No Popery: Chapters on Anti-Papal Prejudice. It’s an older Catholic book (published in 1930), and as such it’s interesting to me how Father Thurston strives for moderation in his tone. He is concerned, he says from the outset, with the universal human tendency to believe the grossest evils of public figures, regardless of the state of the evidence supporting the charges. Indeed, on the book’s opening page, Father Thurston cites from the Litany of the Book of Common Prayer: “From the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities, good Lord deliver us” (pg. vii). Father Thurston then comments that litanies such as this have “begotten among many excellent people an attitude of hostility and suspicion, the fruitful soil in which no suggestion of papal corruption is too fantastic to take root and propagate itself.”

On the other hand, Father Thurston is quick to acknowledge (multiple times) that there is no sense in Catholics having a romantic understanding of the papacy. He properly reminds us that Scripture itself records examples of men (e.g., King David) raised up by God for His purposes who, despite their high calling, committed gross sins and sometimes even shocking atrocities. The popes, Father Thurston acknowledges, despite being the successors of St. Peter, have often been mired in such deeds of darkness, and he has no intention of attempting to escape “any verdict of history, however unfavourable to the popes, which has been fairly and patiently arrived at by a study of reliable evidence” (pg. 4). Interestingly, Father Thurston cites the eminent Counter-Reformation historian Cesare Baronius, in whose massive work the Annales appears this descriptive passage about the popes of the tenth century:

And, oh shame! oh, the pity of it! What monsters did they not impose upon that apostolic throne which angels regard with reverence! What woes originated from this source! What dark and bloody tragedies! Alas! alas! for the age in which it was reserved for the spouse purchased by the Redeemer at the price of His own blood, the spouse without stain or blemish, to be so defiled with the filth cast upon her as to be made, like her divine founder, the object of scorn and the laughing-stock of her enemies. (pg. 5, citing from Annales, A.D. 900, Sec. 3)

The interesting thing about this kind of talk, says Father Thurston, is that while it shows an admirable attention to the very human side of the papacy, at the same time it is unrealistically pessimistic because it is based on unrealistic idealism. Father Thurston says that Baronius “accepted at their face value and without qualification the sweeping diatribes of Liutprand, Raoul Glaber, Bonizo, St. Peter Damian, and other emotional writers of the tenth and elevent centuries, some at least of whom were unscrupulous partisans” (pg. 5). He continues: “extravagance of statement is above all characteristic of an age of blood and iron. the exaggerations used by pious people in condemning vice were often hardly less misleading than the calumnies of malicious time-servers who sought only to please their secular patrons.” (pp. 5-6)

Now this is a point which it is worthwhile to remember when evaluating historical sources. Father Thurston is talking about Baronius’ apparently uncritical use of primary source documents, which although they do not have our blindspots still have their own. I began to see this point several years ago as I studied the Gregorian reformation of the 11th century – the polemical constructions each side so easily put on its opponent were, in equal and opposite ways, excessive. People who are involved in controversies which seem to them to be matters of life and death are not exactly in a frame of mind to pass rationally moderated judgment on their opponents, and as such, their polemical words just should not be taken “at face value,” as if they “literally” describe “the truth” about the issues, the opponents, and, in fact, their very own selves. People are never “objective” anyway, but certainly not when they think the very fate of the world hangs on their achieving victory Right Now over terrible monsters. Father Thurston’s point would, presumably, also apply to much of traditional Catholic polemics about the Reformation.

Several times Father Thurston also admirably remarks upon the need to understand the standards of truth in primary source documents before citing them as support for one’s contentions. Here is a representative example: “Even now we are not so far removed from a period when the simpler-minded were prepared to believe any fantastic tale because ‘they had seen it in print.’ It seems likely that at a period when the ability to read a manuscript, or to write it, was the distinction of a very small proportion of the population the reverence for the litera scripta was intense to a degree impossible for us to now realise” (pg. 268). In other words, although it cannot be made a universal rule of interpreting Medieval views, there are in fact many times when Medieval sources are literally guilty of believing things simply because they found them recorded in books. And, it has to be asked, if that’s not a good thing for historical truth claims, what is one to think of polemical uses of such materials many centuries later, especially if they are attempting to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes?

Father Thurston also enjoins us to remember the contexts of reports of papal evil, and to avoid historical overgeneralizations drawn from inadequate understanding of a few bad eras: “We, most of us, require to be protected against our own infirmity of purpose, and when the tone of public opinion sees no harm in immorality and is ready to condone all lapses, the power of temptation is multiplied a hundredfold. It was only amid the anarchy of the tenth century and the neo-paganism of the fifteenth that grave papal scandals occurred which are strictly susceptible of proof…For the rest, we have little better than legend, idle gossip, and calumny, the worthlessness and prevalence of which it will be the object of the chapters which follow to demonstrate” (pp. 13-14).

Subsequent chapters do just that, exploring in some detail issues such as the pope who was accused of “Freemasonry” (Pius IX), the Medieval legend of “Pope Joan,” the notion that Pope Silvester II was a practitioner of the Black Arts, the supposed sexual dissoluteness of Pope Gregory VII, the supposed willful lying of the popes who promoted the Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals, and the ever-popular Protestant allegations about the popes withholding the Bible from the laity. All of these sections are extremely interesting, and I will perhaps return to them in future posts.

Throughout these sections, Father Thurston for the most part maintains a dignified restraint. Several times he makes plain that he thinks the irrational prejudice which he is remarking upon is the province mainly of manifestly unreasonable men. Prejudice among Englishmen, he says, “has long been dying down,” and is now “for the most part confined to cheap and nasty books, pamphlets and newspapers, which are discredited by their illiteracy and their very get up” (pg. 87). Of the story related by the 12th century historian William of Malmesbury of Pope Sylvester II’s supposed sorcery, Father Thurston only says tersely that Malmesbury was “probably writing in all good faith according to the credulous ideas of the age in which he lived” (pg. 101). Here is his commentary on the propagandistic use of the False Decretals: “It is, of course, a great deal too much to expect that the denunciations of the ‘monstrous imposture’ upon which the papal authority has based its claims will ever cease to be popular with the journalist or with the ardent champion of the blessings of the Reformation. But is it a pity that our sensitive moralists do not sometimes vary the theme of their diatribes” (pg. 145).

Father Thurston is not always restrained, however. In a particularly devastating examination of a 1911 book entitled The Love Affairs of the Vatican and billed as the scholarly work of “an impartial historian,” Father Thurston shows that the author derived his information about Pope Gregory VII’s supposed sexual deviancy not from any reputable historical sources but from a tawdry 18th century romance written by a revolutionary-minded French poetess. Here Father Thurston does not scruple to call the author of The Love Affairs of the Vatican a liar, a plaigarist, and a producer of “abominable perversion of truth, where no good faith can be pleaded, but in which religious fanaticism and mercenary greed have combined to produce a book which it was hoped would produce a succes de scandale” (pp. 125-126).

Father Thurston’s chapter “The Popes and the Bible” is highly interesting, and deserves it’s own post. But here I will say a few things. In the opening pages of the chapter, he expounds the traditional Catholic understanding of Tradition and its authorized guardians, the bishops in Apostolic Succession and thoroughly contrasts it with Protestant principles and expectations. This much will surely be objectionable to the Protestant. However, throughout the chapter Father Thurston does an excellent job of showing how the Catholic account can be reasonably exonerated from the grosser sorts of Protestant polemics. The Catholic view of the ministry (ecclesia docens, the teaching church) is one which sees the clergy as being spiritually responsible for the people (ecclesia discens, the learning church), and thus solicitous of keeping harmful things from their grasp. Since for better or for worse, throughout the Middle Ages the common people were severely uneducated and literally vulgar in their view of the world, even the better shepherds of the Church often felt it best to keep the sacred words of Holy Writ from being debased by being rendered into vulgar tongues (pp. 171-179). Although it is counter-intuitive to the Protestant mind to imagine the Scriptures being harmful to anyone who reads them, it is important for us not to confuse our own cultural conditions and assumptions with universal truths, thereby adopting distorted and prejudiced impressions of others.

Furthermore, at least as regards the case of Wycliffe’s English Bible, it is possible to make an argument, from the vast number of contemporary sources which we have, that at the time Wycliffe did his translation work English as such was scarcely even a language – Anglo-Norman being the dominant tongue in England – and those who could read English as it then existed were even scarcer. In other words, Wycliffe was literally ahead of his time, so Protestant propaganda about popes keeping the Bible away from the English, at any rate, are simply not to be trusted. This is not to mention that the objectionable thing about Wycliffe’s program was not so much producing an English translation, but encouraging the laity to interpret that translation with a basic disregard for the counsels of their spiritual overseers (pp. 174-179). So runs Father Thurston’s argument, and it seems worthy of follow up.

Father Thurston’s book succeeds well in demonstrating the mere irrationality of some forms of opposition to the papacy. In another place he reports that for some time in the Church of England, on every Whitsunday or the Sundays immediately thereafter, parishioners “had read to them and edifying discourse upon the Gifts of the Holy Ghost in which they were incidentally invited to express their opinion of ‘the Popes’ intolerable pride.’ After certain citations from Scripture and the Fathers, the question was again asked: ‘Do not these places sufficiently convince their outrageous pride in usurping to themselves a superiority above all others, as well as ministers and bishops, as kings also and emperors?” Father Thurston then reproduces a lengthy passage of “historical” recitation in which the evils of at least ten different popes are summarized with one or two pithy sentences and each followed by the rhetorical refrain “Shall we think that he had God’s Holy Spirit within him, and not rather the spirit of the devil?” (pp. 258-259).

Father Thurston ably defends the various accused popes from the slurs of this passage, demonstrating how the terms used to condemn them omit many very important contextual factors and merely play to the existing prejudices of the passively hearing masses (pp. 259-271). As far as I can determine, his historical analyses are in the main correct, and that makes the whole point of the book, about unreasonable Protestant prejudices against the papacy, all the more hard hitting. In our day of unrestrained popular apologetics movements which are, sad to say, run more often than not by prejudiced men with little to no real scholarly training or moderation, such facts as Father Thurston brings out will no doubt be inconvenient, but they must be faced and appropriate adjustments to assumptions and arguments made.

Toward the close of his book, Father Thurston very helpfully points out an additional reason why pre-Reformation criticisms of and legends about the scandals of the popes were so prevalent:

In the bosom of a family, unrestrained criticism of its head, or heads, often runs rampant. It is only when a stranger is present that the flow of tongues is checked. When all Christendom knew but one creed and recognised one spiritual chief, everyone felt free to express his views, often with quite alarming frankness, knowing in reality that his utterances would be discounted by hearers who understood the situation just as well as he did and were aware that he was only letting off steam. Now, each denomination maintains, as far as possible, company manners, and is painfully self-conscious, realising that anything given away will be utilised to its own prejudice by its rivals. It is in this consideration that we may find at least a partial explanation of the unmeasured invectives and the appalling want of reticence of so many medieval chroniclers and preachers. (pg. 270)

Father Thurston also observes the great differences between the polemical culture of Christendom prior to the Modern age. For one thing, there was no law of libel to restrain wagging tongues, and for another, there was no truly public culture such as we have now (he is writing in 1930) with newspapers and postal service (pp. 270-271). “The public” of many scandal reporters prior to our own age was their own limited social circles, amongst whom prejudices were freely shared, freely aggrandized, and rarely ever challenged. On these points we may bring Father Thurston up to date by mentioning radio, TV, and the greatest of all unregulated media, the Internet, where anything may be said at any time by anyone and passed off as “Truth” to some large segment of the vulgar public or another.

As an exposition of the almost entirely irrational prejudices which have too often dominated Protestant thought about Catholicism, Father Thurston’s book is very illuminating and useful. He writes (justly, in my opinion): “There is…a tolerably large public quite uncritical as regards evidence, but thoroughly persuaded that the Church of Rome is the source of all evil, a public also ready to welcome anything which promises scandal with a spice of pruriency” (pg. 115). It is, of course, true that Catholic prejudices against Protestantism are generally every bit as bad as what Father Thurston chronicles, but two wrongs do not make a right. And, since Protestant apologists are always trumpeting the supreme value of “Truth,” it would seem to be incumbent upon us to repudiate the many simply ignorant and bigoted notions that have been transmitted to us by a polemical tradition the quality of which seems to degrade ever more with each passing generation, and raise the standard higher.

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