Lessons From History

Last week, I invoked the memory of Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the great Church historian who was my mentor. Whenever Msgr.’s memory comes to my mind, it tends to stay there and this weekend found me seeing contemporary events in the Church through the clarifying lens of history.

Clemens August Droste zu Vischering is not a name with which most American Catholics are familiar but in 1837, newly installed as the Archbishop of Cologne, he caused quite a stir. His photo could have been next to the powerful editorial by America last week on the situation at Notre Dame. The German custom was that, in a mixed marriage, the sons took the religion of the father and the daughters the religion of the mother. Catholic teaching required that all children be raised Catholic but a compromise was worked out. Where no such promise to raise all children as Catholics was present, the priest could be present but could not preside at the wedding.


Of course, in time, this appeared rude and so the priests in attendance were increasingly given a part in the ceremony. The new archbishop insisted that the rules be followed to the letter which provoked the wrath of the already anti-Catholic government. Clemens August and other bishops were arrested. Eventually, Pope Gregory XVI worked out a compromise that required the effective deposition of Clemens August. The lesson: Wisdom is required in applying Church laws, with sensitivity to the ways non-Catholics perceive a situation, or else we risk grave harm to the Church.

At Mass yesterday, the psalm "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," always recalls the conclave of 1914. Pope Pius X, a saintly man who was not always the best judge of character, had permitted his reign to be dominated by the pernicious influence of the Sodalitium Pianum, a group that denounced those considered insufficiently orthodox including the young Angelo Roncalli, who would grow up to be Pope John XXIII. The "Anti-Modernist" Oath was prescribed for all clerics. Long-time servants of the Church, such as Archbishop Giacomo della Chiesa, were exiled: della Chiesa was sacked from the curia and sent to Bologna as Archbishop but was denied the red hat of the cardinal that went, almost automatically, with the assignment for seven years and was only raised to the cardinalate three months before the death of Pius X. At the conclave to elect a successor, della Chiesa was elected Pope. Cardinal Merry del Val, Pius’ Secretary of State, approached the papal throne to make his obedience and the new Pope leaned down and said, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Not missing a beat, Merry del Val continued the psalm, "It is marvelous in our eyes." He was sacked shortly thereafter. Lesson: There have always been divisions within the Church, but She survives them.

There was something else that jumped out at me from Gospel reading of the Good Shepherd that speaks to the Notre Dame situation. "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd." The words are cryptic but suggest that the Church has an obligation to those who are not of the fold, and part of that entails letting them hear the voice of the Church. Boycotting the Notre Dame commencement is not only bad manners, it means that the authoritative voice of the Church, which is the voice of the episcopacy, will not even be heard at the ceremony. The whole mess has spun out of control in ways no one intended but looking to history suggests that stridency does not wear well over time.


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9 years 8 months ago
Those who are not of the fold need the hear the voice of the Shepherd and His Church; not the other way around.  The Church does not need to give Obama a forum.  Will he let someone from National Right to Life speak at a White House Conference?  Remember he did not invite the Archbishop of Denver to the Democratic Convention because the Archbishop speaks the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of Christ and His Church.
9 years 8 months ago
But the shepherd does need to hear the voices of the sheep if he is to know where they are and find them and lead them. Otherwise he is wandering around with a crozier and no flock, looking pretty foolish. The Good Shepherd was quite careful to listen to people and meet them where they were, regardless of their politics or righteousness. He met Nicodemus by night and Levi the tax collector in Levi's home. He met the Zealots on the crosses next to His own.
9 years 8 months ago
Obama is the President of the United States.  He does not need Notre Dame to give him a forum.  National Right to Life is an organ of the Republican Party.  Pro-life advocates are advised to form a rump organization to make progress toward ending abortion NRTL has been rather ineffective in even addressing the essential issues involved. I would have said that NRTL's 15 minutes on Obama and abortion will be over in 2 weeks - except for the fact that the upcoming resignation of David Souter will give them a reason to talk on camera - although the conversion of Arlen Specter and the likely election of Al Franken means that they will not have much more than the ability to talk on this issue.  It will be interesting to see how much they will overplay their hand - whether they will fundraise to stop whatever nominee is proferred (almost a sure bet) even though the media will report that 60 Democratic votes will stop any debate that goes overlong.
9 years 8 months ago
I think that if you asked people how to apply the story of the Good Shepherd to the Notre Dame scandal, almost all of them would adopt this rather obvious approach: Notre Dame is the lost sheep that has wandered away from the flock (the Church), and the shepherd who is responsible for the lost sheep (in this particular case, Bishop D’Arcy of South Bend) must do whatever is necessary to bring it back into the fold.     We know that Michael Sean does not interpret the story in that way, because in the case of Notre Dame he is obviously offended that the shepherd has tried to stick his nose in the lost sheep’s business. Let’s examine Michael Sean’s alternative exegesis of the story: The sheep that has left the fold still represents Notre Dame, but it is completely unfair to say that it is “lost”. Rather, we must assume that the sheep is simply taking another route to get to the same place. Even if the stray is going in the completely opposite direction, the shepherd has no authority to correct its course. In fact, according to Michael Sean, the shepherd should tell the other members of the flock that the best thing that they can do is follow the stray sheep. If the stray invites a wolf to join them as an honored guest, the other sheep should quietly and respectfully lay down with it. By this act, they will be initiating a dialogue with the wolf about the morality of killing innocent baby lambs. Of course there is always the possibility that the sheep will be devoured by the wolf, but we have to take a broader perspective. After all, the shepherd isn’t perfect, and he hasn’t been able to prevent baby lambs from being killed. If the shepherd really cared about his flock, he would provide enhanced funding for social programs in the wolf community so that they won’t feel compelled to slaughter quite as many lambs. Besides, the wolf has assured us that even though he believes in a fundamental right to kill baby lambs, he acknowledges that it is often a difficult choice.   


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