Pontifex Maximus

JULY, 1911

IT is a natural conception to think of history as partially bound to the regions of its development by a mysterious chain of which no rational explanation can be given. Under diverse forms, and at widely separated epochs, certain phenomena repeat themselves with singular constancy. It is of this odd and mysterious law that I always think when I go to Rome, and from the marvelous Janiculum contemplate the Vatican and St. Peter’s.

The Roman Empire is not yet utterly destroyed. Even to-day in Rome there still sits upon his throne a direct successor to the Roman Emperor — the Pope. He bears the very title, Pontifex Maximus, with which the Emperors were once accustomed to adorn their names. He is the head of that spiritual and religious empire into which the material and political structure of the Roman Empire was transmuted at the downfall of ancient civilization. From Rome he still rules over interests and men scattered throughout the whole world, and the empire of which he is the head has the same constitution and is to-day affected by the identical maladies from which, even in its palmiest days, the Roman Empire was perpetually suffering. Again, as in the case of the Roman Empire, an Emperor is elected for life under purely autocratic methods, by virtue of which, as head of the Empire, he is invested with prodigious authority and burdened with responsibilities so enormous and of such diverse kinds that to cope with them demands talents vast and varied as the responsibilities themselves.

On the other hand, the field of choice from which a Pope is selected is now extraordinarily limited, and, as time goes on, becomes more so. Thus the probability of finding a man really adequate to the office grows steadily less. Just as the Emperor was elected by the Senate, the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals. Again, the College of Cardinals is nominated by the Pope, just as formerly the Senate was nominated by the Emperor. This body is composed of seventy-two members. According to the canons of the Church, the Sacred College is unrestricted in the choice of Pontifex Maximus,and is freer by far than was the Roman Senate in the selection of an Emperor. According to the theory of the Church, the Sacred College may make its choice from among the dignitaries of the Catholic communion, from among the humble priests, from the monks, even from the ranks of the laity who have not received holy orders of any kind. Thus it is theoretically within the power of the Sacred College to make a choice such as will annihilate all the subordinate hierarchies of the Church, all privileges of authority, and distinctions of rank, in order, at a single stroke, to exalt him who was last to the first place, if only he be worthy to hold the first place.

This is no doubt a sublime doctrine. But broad and beautiful as it is in theory, little by little, by the attrition of the centuries, human passions and human interests have crystallized it within narrow limits. So far, indeed, has this process gone that the College of Cardinals has now little more freedom of choice than the Roman Senate, whose discretion was gradually curtailed until it became the sole privilege of the Senators to ratify a selection made by the deceased Emperor, who in default of direct heirs was accustomed to make the choice of his successor from among the little group of aristocratic families which surrounded him.

For centuries, according to the ancient custom, the Pope has been selected from among the College of Cardinals,— that is (since it is seldom that the College is complete) from among sixty-odd persons. In actual practice, however, the choice is far more restricted; for another custom, graft ed upon the earlier practice, makes it an unwritten law that the Pope be chosen from among the Italian cardinals, — that is, from a group of not more than forty persons. But, again,

I his range of choice is still further reduced; for, from great age, from an uncertain condition of health, and from notorious mediocrity, a certain number of cardinals arc sure to be withdrawn from consideration before each election. The veto of the Catholic powers, an absurd institution which everybody supposed had long since fallen into desuetude, but which, at the last conclave, was unexpectedly revived by Austria, adds still another limitation. The net result of this whole process is that the Pope is selected from amongst ten or twelve Italian cardinals.

While the field of choice lying open to the Consistory has been thus narrowed, the qualifications necessary to a successful candidate have been considerably and remorselessly increased. It was never, as we know, an easy task to rule the Church, even in the days when the world was more thinly populated, more ignorant of learning, more harmonious in matters of thought; but to-day the task is well-nigh superhuman. The reforms of Pi us IX have made of the Church an absolute monarchy, and have put into the Pope’s hands the conduct of the weightiest affairs. The doctrine of infallibility has created an iron solidarity among the pontiffs in all questions relating to morals and to dogma, for the work of one Pope can no longer be undone by his successors. At the same time, Catholicism has become enormously enlarged and diversified. Although the Church is one in its supreme hierarchy, there are in reality many Catholicisms. French Catholicism is a different thing from Spanish Catholicism; Austrian differs from Italian; Polish from Hungarian; North American from South American; and the significance of this lies in the fact that in these differentiations the Church is required to confront difficulties, conquer rivalries, exert influences and manage governments, all in endless variety.

From this consideration of the subject, it follows that the Pope ought necessarily to be cosmopolitan in spirit:, with the capacity for serving comprehensively, and for watching faithfully, the greater pact, of the world from t he cupola of St. Peter’s. The more languages a Pope can know, the better. The larger the number of nations he has visited, the more at ease will he be in the apartments of the Vatican. If he had crossed the Atlantic once, twice, many times, he would not have been wasteful of his time, but would merely have fulfilled the preparation essential to his office.

It is not enough that the Pope should be merely a cosmopolitan spirit. He must be a great theologian as well. One of the gravest of the questions which agitate the Church to-day is the reform of theology, which can no longer as hitherto be shut up in its ivory tower secure from the persistent and tireless attacks of the propaganda of the Protestant world and of liberal thought. In all countries of the civilized world, historical criticism has won such a following, and has acquired such a tight grasp upon the minds of men, that stubborn resistance to its investigations can only precipitate an irreparable disaster. Even in the NewWorld, the powerful force of American Catholicism rises to grapple with the reform of theology. On t he other hand, to come to an agreement with Protestant criticism and incredulous rationalism, after having for so many centuries waged war without quarter against them, is an undertaking almost infinitely difficult and delicate.

This delicate operation, these manœuvres of war and peace, ought to be carried on by the Pope upon the battlefield of theology and history. This was the policy of Leo XIII, who instituted the Commission for the Study of the Bible, which has been discontinued by his successor. Leo also always protected the Abbé Loisy, who has, on the other hand, been condemned by the present Pope.

But of all the problems which confront the Church, the most important are found in the multitudinous political interests of Europe, which the tumultuous current of present-day history swells in every nation with everincreasing complication and violence. To-day the Church is at war with the French Republic. It is tacitly negotiating a clandestine peace with the Kingdom of Italy. In Germany, it sometimes supports, sometimes (by means of the party of the Centre) combats the policy of the Lutheran Empire. In Austria, it buttresses the old Catholic Empire of the Hapsburgs. In Spain, it seeks to stem the stream by erecting a dam across the rising tide of Liberalism. There can be no doubt that the Catholics in all nations act upon their own initiative, and that the Church of Rome now influences rather than directs; but praise, blame, stipulations, restraints, should pour forth continually upon the whole world from the paternal mind of the Pope, who from the cupola of St. Peter’s beholds every day of his life the extermination of faithful flocks which God has confided to his care.

And so it is essential that the Pope should be an able diplomatist and a politician as well, capable of a complete understanding of both democracy and aristocracy. He must be as well adapted to conduct negotiations with the New World as with the Old World, with monarchies as well as with republics. He must have the ability to win the confidence of the desperate army of workingmen who labor in the workshops of huge industrial centres, without arousing the fears of their employers. He must know the art of soothing the exasperated patriotism of the oppressed Poles, without incurring the suspicions of t he three nations which oppress them.

Finally, the Pope should be a man endowed with extraordinary physical vigor. Every day he must be able to perform a cruelly hard day’s work. The whole year round it is his duty to dwell in Rome, never stepping out of his vast palace and stupendous gardens. The climate of Rome is a little too hot for a civilization such as our modern one, which demands of men an intense, continuous, and rapid expenditure of nervous force, and which is therefore best able to flourish in rather cool countries. Since the unification of the nation has brought people of every section of Italy to Rome, it has often been the experience of us who live there, that men from the northern districts who go down to the capital to direct complicated political affairs or settle important economic questions in the interest of the Kingdom of Italy, are frequently heard to remark how much more peaceful life is in Rome than in other parts of the peninsula: in this gentle climate, beneath this luminous sky, in the midst of this vegetation almost approaching the luxurious growth of the Tropics. But in spite of the comfort of existence, many people complain that work in Rome is far more wearisome and difficult than at the foot of the Alps. And so many people repeat this complaint in so many different ways that it must have some validity.

It is of no avail against this argument to cite the great deeds which the ancient Romans accomplished under this sky and in these climatic conditions. Ancient civilization was much simpler. Its pace was far less rapid than is ours. It did not make its progress, as the modern world does, through the nervous force, intense, multiplied, and continuous, of millions of men. The building of the Roman Empire was accomplished at an immense expense of fatigue, but we must not forget that the labor of it was divided among many men, distributed through many centuries. To every generation was its little share allotted, and in the work every man played his little part.

To-day it is otherwise. We cannot, therefore, marvel if even for the Pope the necessity of supporting such anxieties and fatigue, the duty of ruling with such intense nervous force, may be a wearisome task.

This idea leads us to a new consideration. The Pope cannot moderate the effects of the climate by changing his residence at will. He cannot, for example, escape the heats of summer, which are especially pernicious for any one who has to use his brain without intermission. From January to December the Pope is immured in his palace. It is, I think, only with time that the world will come to appreciate how serious may be t he results to the Church arising from this incarceration of her head within the walls of the Vatican since 1870, and what grave consequences her action in making this protest against the House of Savoy may entail. This action of the Church adds a new difficulty, a physical one, to the mass of existing difficulties which attend the selection of a pontiff. Until now, an accident has disguised the seriousness of this difficulty, for the Conclave of 1878 had the good fortune to choose a man who, within a slender body, concealed prodigious strength and an unparalleled physical adaptation to his environment. But if Leo XIII had also the traditional ‘Pope’s health,” it is impossible to believe that these gifts can always be found among all the papal cardinals.

To-day, change of residence has become a physical and moral necessity for every man devoted to intense and unremitting intellectual labor. Change is a means of renewing periodically the vigor of the body, the strength of the will, the elasticity of the mind; of sharpening the edge of the w ill and of the intelligence, when long-continued use has blunted it. The proof of this may readily be found among the Americans who work so hard and travel so much.

No matter how gifted a man may be with rich and rare faculties, no one, without deterioration, can apply himself, year in, year out, to intense labor while imprisoned in a few thousand square metres, even though within this little space there may be gathered for his refreshment the most famous beauties of the arts, the most perfect industrial appliances, and the choicest refinements of life. Life in the cloister must inevitably lay upon the greater number of those who have chosen to live there a heavy burden of physical fatigue which few indeed can bear.

From all of these considerations, a really effectual Pope ought to sum up in himself many diverse qualities, physical and intellectual, which it is very unusual to find united in a single personality. Indeed, if there is to be any chance of finding such a man as this, it is essential that there should be every opportunity of choosing him from among a large number of persons. But, as we have already seen, the selection of a Pope, instead of being made from a multitude of candidates, is restricted to a choice from ten or twelve persons. Even if these ten or twelve have themselves been chosen from a large body, we must remember that they have been chosen for other considerations. Is it probable that within this tiny group can be found that rarest consummation of human nature—a being endowed with all the necessary qualifications? One might well ask whether it is too bold to say that, under such conditions, it may indeed be impossible to find him. Leo XIII proved that a man such as this does sometimes exist. But surely, it is not over-bold to affirm that the possibility is small, and that theChurch will run serious risks if she has not the strength to reform the methods of electing the Supreme Pontiff and to break the barriers of custom which today restrict the field of choice within such narrow limits.

American Catholics must not delude themselves by forming their opinions on the European situation from conditions at home, which, for the moment, happen to be far better. In Europe, times of peculiar difficulty for the Church are approaching. Any historian who has been on the watch for signs of the period will see absolute proof of this in the events in France, Spain, and Portugal. These crises are drawing near because the Catholic Church in so many nations of Europe forms one of the political forces which control the State; but of all these forces in every State it is the feeblest. Political parties, representing special policies, local financial interests, traditions, and national institutions — all these forces are narrow in their scope; but, for that very reason, they make a deeper impression, each in its own field of activity, than the universal Church, which exists everywhere and is everywhere feebler than the forces with which it contends; a Church whose doctrines can no longer embrace the many urgent material and ideal necessities of the contemporary world. In every nation the Church can exercise a certain influence by playing upon the discords which divide the other political forces. In each instance, however, the Church runs the definite risk of paying well for its pains through the temporary alliances, the swaps and dickers which the other forces are continually making with one another. In all this manœuvring, there is the everpresent risk of becoming the scapegoat of these transactions amid all the discords and difficulties which habitually beset the rivalry of contending parties.

A striking instance of this may be found in the history of contemporary France. If one wishes really to comprehend what may happen, and what actually does happen, between Church and State in Europe, one must never forget that the anti-clerical policy — which was begun so circumspectly by Waldeck-Rousseau, and was subsequently prosecuted with a kind of fanatical energy by Combes — was primarily a policy introduced to divert the attention of the nation. The memorable struggle for the revision of the Dreyfus case had given rise to such a chaos of party government that at one time it seemed impossible to govern France unless, by some hook or crook, some portion at least of the Parliament and of the nation could be induced to unite in common cause against the enemy. Anti-clericalism was the means adopted to reconstitute a majority capable of carrying on a government in the French Parliament, and of creating in the nation a new current of interests and opinions. And this policy prevailed, as I have said, not because the Church was the most formidable among the social forces which created and complicated that terrific imbroglio, but because it was the feeblest of all of them. It was precisely because the Church was feebler than the great financial interests, the supreme bureaucracy, or even than organized industry, that it was possible to load the Church with all the blame; to cast upon her not only all her own but all her partners’ guilt, and to ascribe to her almost every ill which in t he events of recent years had irritated and exasperated the multitude.

Something very similar to this is to-day happening in Portugal and in Spain; and, in a greater or less degree, the same situation may be repeated in all the States of Europe in which the Church still preserves a measure of political power. It is for these reasons that many luminous intellects, like Fogazzaro, would like the Church to withdraw altogether from political controversy. Men such as these maintain that the Church should lay aside all ambition to a share in the government of nations by manipulation of the machinery of state; that she should resolve to become a simple, pure, and undisturbed school of religion and of morals; that she should expound to the masses the solution of the obscure problem of the beginning and of the end of all things—that problem which science cannot solve, which philosophy has striven for centuries to explain by formulae too abstruse to be comprehensible to any but a few deep and serious natures; that problem of which religion alone, with the aid of the arts, can utter a solution such as may spread among the masses of mankind a new significance of the meaning of good and evil. These are ideas which have had especial favor and popularity in America, where religion has succeeded in divesting itself of so many political and worldly interests which in Europe still clog its movements.

If only doctrines such as these should one day prevail in the Church, there would certainly be no further necessity of choosing a Pope who is at once a great sage learned in theological lore, an expert judge of men, a philosopher, a politician, and a diplomatist. It would suffice if the Church were to choose a simple, pious man nourished in the pure tradition of the Gospels; and his simplicity would be all the more secure from the artifices of the diplomat and the wiles of the politician, since he would never have to meet them on their own ground.

But who can say that a revolution which goes to the very core of the Catholic Church is possible in the near future? It may be a mere figment of the American imagination, but the idea has its roots in European soil. For many centuries the Catholic Church has, in the eyes of the Old World, been a true administrative and political empire. Throughout the turbulent Occident, among the ruins of that mighty homogeneity broken in pieces by the barbarians, the Church has for centuries been regarded as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In Europe the political spirit of the Roman Empire is stamped deep with all the secular traditions of history; it is stamped by the very title which ornaments its head, even as the Roman Emperors, beginning with Augustus, decked themselves with the same title — Pontifex Maximus. It is not by chance, but from a cause which lies deeply embedded in history, that the residence of the head of the Catholic Church is a royal palace wherein abide the pomp and glory and the works of art with which kings are wont to surround themselves. Such a mass of tradition clusters about these venerable monuments, this storied record, these doctrines elaborated for centuries, these present intertwisted interests, that it cannot be wiped away in a few years.

And so it is that for some time yet the Pope must not only be a man of God, but a man of the world, and a finished politician after the manner of those Roman Emperors from whom he is descended, and whose line, incarnate in his person, still lives in Rome among the mutilated marbles of the Forum and the huge hulks of the ancient Baths.

And if the policy of the Papacy is to continue, the Church must find the expedient method of choosing at every vacancy a Pope who shall be a theologian of vast doctrinal learning, a politician of wide outlook, a diplomatist of sensitive instinct. The pious Pope, the example only of evangelical purity, is still a dream; nor does the time seem near in which the Holy Father shall be solemnly reinstated in the gorgeous palace of the Vatican as a symbol of regenerate Christianity. When the time comes for us to read that a simple, pious, unlearned man of God has once more made his appearance in the Vatican, among the subtle theologians, the astute diplomatists, the rulers of mankind, we may well say that a crisis is approaching. It is possible that this crisis may, through painful experience, finally come to simplify and purify the Church; but the generation which witnesses it, must feel the full force of the struggle. For the present, the Pope still dwells in Rome as Pontifex Maximus, successor of Augustus and of Trajan.