What simple-minded believers in this simple minded “Evil Empire Clerics vs. Plucky Rebel Alliance Laity” myth never seem to understand is that it was just as often the laity who were eagerly tanking up on the Blood Libel and chucking Jews down wells for the supposed crime of drinking the blood of Christian children while it was the clerics who were telling everybody to cool off and stop believing urban legends.
So, for instance, the simple tale of slavery turns out to be fraught with complexity, not least because it was not all laypeople opposing it (lots of laity got stinking rich off it) and it was not all clerics supporting it. Slavery, it turns out, was an immemorial institution throughout all of human civilization and the way in which the Church engaged it simply cannot be boiled down to laity good/cleric bad. Lots and lots and lots of laity had as little patience for the Church’s nuanced arguments for the dignity of the slave as readers like the one above have for the Church’s nuanced arguments for the distinction between the dignity of the homosexual person and the sin of homosexual intercourse.
Indeed, one of the ironies of the Church’s history is that, for most of it, the main charge brought against the Church is not that it is too conservative, but that it is too liberal. It is the laity that, again and again, rushes off all agog for some form of extremist rigorism. Had the Church listened to the “opinions and wisdom of the rest of the body of Christ” during the Donatist enthusiasm, we would have excommunicated large portions of the Body of Christ because they did not measure up to the hyper-rigorism of the Donatists, who held that any priest who did not measure up under persecution could not validly consecrate the Eucharist and any bishop who did not measure up could not validly ordain. We would have caved in to Lollards who insisted that anybody not in a state of grace could not function as an agent of the state and need not be obeyed by citizens of that state. Asking whether the cop who is arresting a mugger is in a state of grace may seem spiritual to some of our more ethereal members of the Body of Christ, but for most of us it is, as Chesterton noted, “wanting in actuality.” Most Catholic heresies down through the ages have been attempts to keep as many people away from the grace of God as possible, urging the faithful to stay away from the Eucharist, shut up, and give up the hope of salvation. The “wisdom” of the first antipope in history was that the Pope was a wuss who welcomed people back to communion far too easily, when what they needed was merciless rejection by the pure.
Indeed, the reason for the Church’s creation of a system of Inquisitions was precisely that laypeople were, in their profound wisdom that needed no guidance from celibate old men, already running around doing it on their own as vigilantes and lynch mobs. Turns out the Church thought that having a system whereby the facts were obtained and evaluated in an orderly way was better than something like this.
Of course, most people get their history from Monty Python and therefore could not tell you five intelligent words from a primary source about what actually took place in an Inquisition (and yeah, there were more than one and they weren’t all in Spain). Similarly, most people don’t seem to know that though God does indeed sometimes raise up “ordinary pwople to challenge the istitutional church of the time”, He also raises up clergy to challenge the easy assumptions of fat, dumb, and happy ordinary people, who are quite certain that, whatever Gregory X says, Jews are drinking the blood of Christian children; or that whatever out-of-touch Dominicans may say, Indians are natural slaves; or that whatever pantywaists like the pope and bishops say, the nuclear murder of thousands of Japanese or the torture of prisoners in the War on Terror is the glorious work of God; or that whatever the Church says about the value of human life, abortion is a beautiful right and the sole core value of the Democratic party. Looking around at our violent, selfish and sex-besotted culture, I’m not immediately persuaded that we glorious laity are a civilization of St. Catherines who are prevented from flourishing in sanctity by the evil machinations of Benedict XVI. This optimistic self-assessment, while quite in keeping with the enormously high self-regard of the Baby Boomers, fails to premise itself on much resembling “reality”. One forms, rather, the impression that Benedict is a thoughtful, gentle, and holy man who is doing his best to speak the Church’s beautiful teaching to a braying horde of crazies compact of talk radio lackeys, cokeheads, horndogs, warmongers, sex maniacs and addicts of therapeutic moralistic deism who let Oprah or FoxNews do all their thinking for them. That he maintains his gentle and thoughtful composure in the midst of such a TV-addled culture with the attention span of fruit flies is astounding to me.
Read the whole thing.