Collect

Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part III

Joints cramped: a double entity
spewed and struggled, good against good;
they saw the mind of the Emperor as they could,
his imagination of the wars of identity.
He walked slowly through his habitation
in the night of himself without him; Byzantium slept …

Phosphorescent on the stagnant level
a headless figure walks in a crimson cope,
volcanic dust blown under the moon.
A brainless form, as of the Emperor,
walks, indecent hands hidden under the cope,
dishallowing in that crimson the flush on the mounds of Caucasia.

—Charles Williams, Taliessin Through Logres, ‘The Vision of the Empire’ 

It may be that, as imperial adviser, my friend Marsilius is better than I, but as inquisitor I am better. Even better than Bernard Gui, God forgive me. Because Bernard is interested, not in discovering the guilty, but in burning the accused. And I, on the contrary, find the most joyful delight in unravelling a nice, complicated knot.
—Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
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The reason that I loathe and distrust any prospect of a confusion, or even too close an alliance, between the Church and the state is stated in an ancient maxim: corruptio optimi pessima, or roughly, ‘The better something is, the worse its corruption will be.’ That a blending of Church and state is, intrinsically, a corruption of the Church, even if her members are well-behaved, is intuitive to me and therefore difficult to explain and defend; but I’ll take a stab at it.

The principal thrust of my last post was that the economy of justice (on which civil society by its nature operates) and the economy of grace (on which the Church by her nature operates) are fundamentally different: yes, you have to understand justice before you can recognize grace, but that is because you can only appreciate a gift when you can distinguish it from a payment. Hence, I consider the project of Christendom to be a category error. That makes it sound both abstract and innocent; and innocent it may very well be, but category errors, when we try to force them from abstraction into reality, beget monstrosities.

The two historical grounds on which the Church is most criticized today are perhaps religious wars, especially the Crusades, and state persecutions, especially the Inquisition. I am a little ambivalent about the motives that lay behind the wars; a case could be made that the purposes of the Reconquista or the Jacobite Wars or even the First Crusade were just. And while the persecutors and inquisitors and witch-finders were diabolically wrong, even the devil often deals in half-truths, and the persecutors had a point. That was why they were successfully deceived.
There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. … Mr H. G. Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of skepticism titled Doubts of the Instrument. In this he questions the brain itself … The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defense of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. … With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the miter off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it. [1]
But of course the key and tragic word in this passage is the word blind. Man’s blind instinct was correct enough, but without clarity of vision it became, in practice, an impulse to burn and strangle. Chesterton himself knew this well; as he points out in his biography of St Francis, it is only by understanding the rush and romance that originally attended such causes that we can understand how they ever came to seduce people into evil—and only thus can we arm ourselves against making the same mistake.

And as traditional as I am, especially in religious matters, I think the contemporary secular world is in fact right about the religious wars and the persecutions being wrong and evil. The secular opponents of Christianity often propose rather silly or historically illiterate reasons for condemning religious wars and persecutions, but this doesn’t make their condemnation wrong; and there is some excuse for the violence, but not much. And what excuse there is, set beside the sick things done in the name of serving Christ through violence, is of no consequence.

I won’t multiply examples, but I will provide a few, for the benefit of those who wish to defend or at least ameliorate the project of Christendom.

In the early thirteenth century, Pope Innocent III declared a crusade against the Albigenses, a group of heretics in southern France, after his legate in the region was murdered. In the first year of the crusade, the city of Béziers was besieged and promptly breached. The abbot who was commanding the forces was approached and asked what the soldiers should do about distinguishing Catholics from Albigenses, since of course anybody could escape simply by pretending to be a Catholic. He is reported to have said, ‘Cædite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt ejus’: which means, ‘Kill them. For the Lord knows which ones are his.’ According to the abbot himself in a letter to the Pope, the entire population of the city was slaughtered—men, women, children, the clergy (at the cathedral altar no less)—amounting to nearly twenty thousand dead. He expressed no remorse, sorrow, or condolence. And after all, why should he? The Crusades were performed as acts of worship, and worship always involves a sacrifice. What priest would think to apologize for offering such a voluminous sacrifice to his god?

Turning to persecutions, we may consider the fifteenth century’s infamous Malleus Maleficarum, or Hammer of Witches, which was popular among witch-finders despite its unpopularity with the Vatican and many bishops. Charles Williams describes the methods used to extract confessions from witches, and why they were extracted:
The accused is in prison; she is manifestly guilty. But ‘common justice demands that a witch should not be condemned to death unless she is convicted by her own confession.’ ‘Common justice’ therefore demands that she shall be tortured to compel her to confess so that she can be put to death. There can be but few sentences in all the strange and horrible past of man so difficult for us to understand—really understand. But here it is at the very root of torture. Judge and assistants were working for common justice. … No-one could be put to death for witchcraft by the evidence of others. Was the idea less than noble? this was the result. In 1676 a certain learned lawyer of Innsbruck added, as it were, a finishing touch: ‘The torture chamber should be constantly sprinkled with holy water and a smoke made with blessed herbs.’
… She may even be promised mercy: ‘let the judge promise that he will be merciful—with the mental reservation that he means he will be merciful to himself or the State; for whatever is done for the safety of the State is merciful.’ Or if she has been promised her life, there are three ways round the promise: (i) it may be kept on the condition that she helps convict other witches, and providing that she is imprisoned for life …; (ii) she may be kept imprisoned for a while and then burnt; (iii) the judge who promises her life may resign the office of passing sentence and leave her condemnation to another judge. [2]
Time and stomach would fail me to give any more detailed account of the hideous torments and treacheries performed in the ostensible service of Christ by professedly Christian societies and individuals: of the siege of Jerusalem in the First Crusade, where, when the city was breached, so many Muslims were killed that the Crusaders’ accounts describe wading through blood up to their ankles, and the Jews who lived there were burned in their synagogue; of the sacking of Byzantium in the Fourth Crusade, in which Catholics killed Orthodox and Pope Innocent III himself condemned the act in horror; of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in the sixteenth-century, in which French Protestants were murdered by the thousands, and Pope Gregory XIII ordered hymns of celebration and commemorative medals with the legend Ugonottorum Strages MDLXXII, ‘The Slaughter of the Huguenots 1572’; of the dozens of Catholic martyrs in England, Wales, and Scotland, and the ridiculous and blasphemous battle-cry of the Scottish Covenanters: Jesus and no quarter; of the tortures employed by the Inquisition in the Netherlands, from which there was no appeal, whose agents hung heretics upside down by their genitalia, burned men to death, and buried women alive; of the insane witchcraft panics in Trier, in Würzburg, in Salem. Knowingly or not, these things were done in the service of He Who Walks Behind the Pews, whom the poets also call Tash, Moloch, Wyrm, and Nyarlathotep. [3]

Societies that regarded themselves as Christian did other and much better things, too. I'm glad of those things. But the aim of civil society is justice, and its means are expediency; whereas the aim of the Church is holiness, and her means are supernatural. Earthly means cannot effect celestial ends, not because they aren't worthy, but because they have no capacity to do so. And when the attempt is made, either the Church is gutted to serve the state, or she is made monstrous by handling the state's sword.

I sincerely believe that the reason these horrible evils have sprung up in the soil of Christianity is that Christianity is true, and that therefore the power it wields over men’s hearts, when they are misled by the attempt to erect the kingdom of God as a kingdom of this world, is lethally poisoned. If Christ had accepted the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, it would have been by worshipping Satan and so becoming Antichrist.

And I believe it is precisely the prospect of restoring Christendom that remains a temptation to many Catholics today, not in spite of but because of their orthodoxy, virtue, and devotion. Satan likes to play on our strengths even more than he likes to play on our weaknesses; it’s ‘better’ style.


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[1] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.
[2] From Williams’ history Witchcraft.
[3] Not that Lovecraft himself would have conceived of Nyarlathotep or any of his creations in these terms. But the fact that he disbelieved in the figure he painted does not make the portrait any less accurate.

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