The Incubus of the Temporal Power: The Catholic Church and the Modern Mind
AMONG the vast mass of letters occasioned by this series of articles in the Atlantic I have read a number whose severe criticism is clearly based upon misunderstanding. Many, perhaps all, of these are utterly sincere, but they confuse issues which I have from the outset striven to make absolutely distinct. For any pain I have caused an honest soul I am deeply sorry. Nothing is further from my mind and heart than to publish anything injurious against the dear and ancient Mother at whose feet I have grown up.
We all understand the distinction between the divine and the human in the Church. The Church is, we believe, divine in her conception, her doctrine, and her means of grace. On the other hand, in her members, clerical and lay, in her polity, and in many of her practices she is human. In this latter regard alone is criticism permissible.
If it be not right to criticize the human genius of the Church, then are we deprived of a great and necessary instrument for progress. We are left without hope of adapting her teachings to the needs of the modern world.
‘Viva il papa-rè!’ is still heard at public audiences in the Vatican when the pope is borne through the crowd on his carrying chair. ‘Long live the pope-king!’ is the cry. It comes loudest usually from the bands of seminarians. Among them may be recognized American students for the priesthood in their black cassocks with the blue trimming. This enthusiastic outburst is not without its logic. It suggests the lack of harmony between the Catholic Church and democracy. The Church is an absolute monarchy, the chief ruler of which possesses doctrinal and administrative power from which there is no appeal. In his own right, independent of all subsidiary officials or groups, the pope may proclaim new doctrines and promulgate new disciplinary laws. The only democratic principle inherent in the system consists in this, that all classes are eligible to official position. However, this principle does not apply to the method of elections.
Copyright 1928, The Atlantic Monthly Company
At the present time the pope is elected by the college of cardinals. The pope is head of the Church because he is bishop of Rome, and not the reverse. It is a doctrine of faith that the Roman bishop is head of the Church. ‘If any one shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ our Lord Himself or by divinely established right . . . that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of blessed Peter in the same primacy; — let him be anathema.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XII, p. 265) The cardinals, who are the chief clergy of Rome, no matter in which country they live, elect their own bishop. He automatically becomes pope.
In short, according to Catholic doctrine, the supreme pontificate is divinely attached to an Italian diocese. It is not strange, then, that nearly all the modern popes have been Italians. It is known to be the concern of each pope to leave a sufficient number of Italians among the cardinals to enable them to elect a pope of their own nationality. Under the present system the election of a pope from any other than Italian nationality is practically impossible.
The pope has many titles and insignia. He has taken over both the title of high priest (Summus Pontifex) from the Jews and that of Pontifex Maximus from pagan Rome. He wears the triple crown, known as the tiara. ‘The kissing of the pope’s foot—the characteristic act by which all the faithful do honor to him as the Vicar of Christ (sic) — is found as early as the eighth century. . . . The pope ranks as the first of Christian princes, and in Catholic countries his ambassadors have precedence over other members of the diplomatic body.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XII, p. 270) For more than a thousand years (A.D. 754-1870) the pope was king over a portion of Italy known as the States of the Church. In the beginning this was a section of territory extending from Rome to the Adriatic. By the military exploits of Popes Alexander VI, Julius II, and other popes this territory was extended so as to embrace the greater portion of Italy. The history of papal temporal power forms a story the mention of which might well bring the blush of shame to the enlightened Catholic mind. The diluted narrative given in the Catholic Encyclopedia does not hide the political intrigue, the tyrannous oppression, and the militaristic greed practised by this long line of men who claimed to represent the teachings and the spirit of Him who was styled the Prince of Peace.
It is the paradox of the ages. Christ wore a crown of thorns — His vicar wears a golden crown of political power. Our meek Redeemer knelt to wash the feet of His disciples, while His chief earthly representative extends his foot to be kissed. Our divine Saviour was unjustly accused of proclaiming Himself king of the Jews, and His vicegerents for ten centuries maintained an army to keep them secure in their Italian kingdom. The Son of Man had not whereon to lay His head, but His chief minister dwells in a palace surrounded by Oriental splendor. The Redeemer of the world, with bleeding feet, bore the heavy cross up Calvary, but His pope, arrayed in the splendor of Solomon, is borne upon the shoulders of his servants.
The world is aware of this contrast, though many are captivated by the pomp and brilliancy of the Vatican. Perhaps the world would accept this display of magnificence in the harmless sense in which it is intended, were it not for the spirit of arrogance behind it. The world of thoughtful men might even be inclined to accept the pope and his resplendent court, did he lay claim to spiritual supremacy alone. But the modern mind cannot harmonize the ideas of pope and king in the same person. Indeed, it must be known, the pope has not abandoned the idea of earthly kingship. Pope Pius XI still lays claim to the rights of a sovereign. This is the case that has been pending between the papacy and the Italian government. It is known as the Roman Question. When the Italians took Rome in 1870, they left the pope the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s old summer residence in the Roman Campagna, as his sole domain. Since that time the pope has remained a voluntary prisoner in the Vatican. He is awaiting a settlement, the nature of which is not publicly known. Pope Benedict XV sent Archbishop (now Cardinal) Ceretti to the Peace Conference, presumably to seek aid in the settlement of the Roman Question. His mission was evidently a failure. Within the past year press dispatches announced that Mussolini was attempting to settle the Question.
In the meantime the Pope continues to act as a sovereign with any nation that is willing to accept his ambassador or send a representative to the Vatican. During the later period of the war England maintained a minister to the Holy See in the person of Count De Sales. After the Peace Conference France resumed diplomatic relations with the Vatican; Japan did likewise. All the Catholic countries, particularly Spain and the South American countries, have their representatives at the Vatican. Thus the political power of the popes still lingers.
This power was great in the Middle Ages. For several centuries the pope constituted himself a sort of overlord, a supermonarch who exercised a kind of political suzerainty over the rulers of Europe. If a prince were agreeable to his cause, the pope blessed him or perhaps consecrated him with sacred oil. When the pope appealed for help to the Frankish king in 754, ‘he — Pope Stephen — anointed king Pepin, his wife, and sons, and bound the Franks under threat of excommunication never thereafter to choose a king from any other family than the Carlovingians.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. XIV, p. 259) On the other hand, the pope deposed, when he found it possible, monarchs who were refractory to his will. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV, German king and Roman emperor, ‘and a resolution was passed that if Henry were not freed from Excommunication within the year he should forfeit the Empire.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VII, p. 231)
The activities of the popes in mediæval politics are well known. It was believed that the Church should provide suitable rulers for Catholic countries. But the Church often had to pay dearly for her prestige through the interference of princes in ecclesiastical affairs. For a long time no pope could be elected without the sanction of the German king. Of Henry II it is related: ‘The Church, as the constitutional Church of Germany . . . raised Henry to the throne. . . . Henry disposed of bishoprics autocratically. Under his rule, the bishops, from whom he demanded unqualified obedience, seemed to be nothing but officials of the Empire. He demanded the same obedience from the Abbots.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VII, pp. 227-8)
This confusion of politics with religion in the Middle Ages is thought by many Catholic scholars to have been necessary. The Church sought to promote the spiritual welfare of the people, they say, through the aid of the secular arm. If so, it is a confession of weakness on the part of the Church. During all those centuries in which the Church was embroiled in politics there appears to have been no real progress in religion. The people seem to have been controlled in faith and worship by law rather than by force of Christian love.
How glorious might the Church have been had her popes and bishops resisted lust for power and wealth! Never was the Church so magnificent as in the first three centuries of existence. Then her members were held together, not by the fear of papal authority, but by the sacred bond of brotherly love. In that long period the bishop of Rome and his fellow bishops were Christlike in the simplicity of their lives. Money to them meant little else than means to help the poor. Bishops, in those days, were good shepherds of their flock. They were, it seems, gentle, unassuming men who strove only to imitate the meek Redeemer. But with power came arrogance and with arrogance came dogmatism. Thus the system grew.
Modern popes, who have been great and good men, are the victims of this system. They have been, for the most part, men of God, filled with zeal for the cause of Christ. It would not be easy for one of them to introduce any great change in the policy of the Church. For this a modern Hildebrand would be required, a man with a world vision of love and brotherhood, a man who could cast off the shackles of traditionalism and cry out, ‘Back to the simplicity of the Gospel!’ Then Christlike life would be the concern of the Church, human life, the more abundant life. To achieve this the Church must needs adopt the words of Christ for her motto: ‘The truth shall make you free.’ She must liberate the minds of men, emancipate their spirits from the domination of intellectualistic theology. She must cast her weight with all the earnest men of earth who are striving to solve the problem of human existence. She must begin to believe in the sovereignty and the nobility of humanity.
In this great movement, the whole organization of the Church must change in spirit. The old idea of obedience must pass, together with the old idea of authority. Obedience must come to mean love and reverence, not fear, for superiors. Authority, on the other hand, must come to mean the benign influence of love and service, such as Christ possessed in His earthly mission. Popes, bishops, and priests, if they are ever to represent Christ faithfully, must study His mind. Christ warned His Apostles against the spirit of domination: ‘And he said unto them: The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth. For which is greater, he that sitteth at table, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at table? But I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth.’
This is the spirit which animated the Apostles, the first bishops of the Church. How different is the spirit of later-day bishops, especially those of America! In no other country of the world, perhaps, has the hierarchy preserved the spirit and the methods of feudalism as have the bishops of the United States. It was a dark day for the Church when her bishops became feudal lords. Throughout the Middle Ages it was the custom of ecclesiastics to hold political principalities. ‘The Church too had her place in the feudal system . . . kings and emperors endowed her with property; and ecclesiastical property has not infrequently brought evils in its train. The result was disputed elections; younger sons of nobles were introduced into bishoprics, at times even into the papacy. The cause of this was feudalism, for a system that had its basis on landtenure was bound at last to enslave a Church that possessed great landed possessions. In Germany, for example, three out of the seven electors were churchmen. There were, besides, several prince-bishops within the Empire, and mitred abbots, whose rule was more extended and more powerful than that of many a secular baron. As it was in Germany, so it was in France, England, Scotland, Spain, etc. . . . the numerous claimants for the livings were only too ready to admit every demand of their (feudal) lord, if only he would permit them to possess the bishopric, abbacy, or whatever else it might be. In short, the Church was in danger of becoming the annex of the state; the pope, of becoming the chaplain of the emperor.’ (Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. VI, pp. 62-3)
Feudalism was an unpopular and a degrading system of government. It contained none of the political elements that tend to develop the individual. It was a system in which the masses of the people were bound to the will of one man in a serfdom which was but a step removed from slavery. ‘No system,’ writes Guizot, ‘has ever, in France, remained so odious to the public instincts. . . . You will find the feudal system considered, by the mass of the population, a foe to be fought and fought down at any cost.’
(History of France, vol. I, pp. 230-1) The Catholic bishop is still given his feudal title, Your Lordship. At ordination the newly made priest kneels, as the serf once knelt before his feudal lord, his two hands held between the hands of the bishop. Then the bishop says: ‘Dost thou promise me and my successors reverence and obedience?’ The answer follows: ‘I promise.’ In these later days the oath against modernism is generally demanded after ordination just as it is required of seminary and university professors at the beginning of each academic year.
The newly ordained priest has now bound himself to reverence and obey his bishop. Little does he dream of the future humiliations this step may entail. ‘Of all the tyrannies the worst is that which can thus (as in feudalism) keep account of its subjects, and which sees, from its seat, the limits of its empire. The caprices of the human will then show themselves in all their intolerable extravagance and, moreover, with irresistible promptness.’ (History of France, vol. I, p. 232) The bishop feels that he is responsible to God for the lives of the priests who have promised to reverence and obey him. Not satisfied with the reverence and obedience shown by devoted children to their parents, he demands those external signs of fealty and honor which the feudal lord required of his serfs.
When the priest, or any of the faithful, greets His Lordship, he must kneel before him and kiss the episcopal ring upon his hand. For this act of submission he is granted, each time, an indulgence of fifty days. A certain American bishop of the Middle West is very insistent upon this point of ecclesiastical etiquette. One day a young priest came suddenly upon the bishop, and in his excitement forgot his manners and simply said: ‘Good morning, Bishop.’ His Lordship flew into a pious rage and shouted: ‘Is that the way to greet your bishop? Get down on your knees and kiss your bishop’s hand and learn to show due reverence for your superior!’ It must not be supposed, however, that this bishop, who is so zealous for his own honor, is necessarily oblivious of his duty toward God. It is entirely possible that he went to his chapel afterward and thanked God for having permitted him to teach this obstinate priest a sound lesson. Mayhap he prayed for the soul of the erring one. For, indeed, the bishop feels that he must at least help to bear the burden of all the priestly consciences in his diocese.
It is a custom for the bishop to arrange, at stated times, a spiritual retreat for his priests. On such occasions the priests repair to a religious house, or other place, for several days and there listen to conferences delivered by a retreat master. They usually spend the time in silence and meditation. They are also supposed to make a good confession during the retreat. It is a matter of the priest’s own conscience, yet the bishop orders it and fixes the date on which it is to take place.
On occasion, too, the bishop helps the priest to keep his conscience. When the episcopal visitation takes place, the priest is given a blank form to fill out. Here he must state whether he has said his daily prayers, made his meditation, gone to confession regularly, and the like. He is required to answer many other questions which touch the intimacy of his own private life. If he thus confesses, in writing, he is liable to ecclesiastical censure. It must be said, in justice, that many bishops do not observe this ordinance.
The bishop is practically a tsar in his diocese. His power is limited only by the regulations of general ecclesiastical law. He can make or remake diocesan laws at will. He is free to promote his favorites as suits his fancy. He is bound to no rule of merit or sincerity in dealing out preferments. If he is a mediocre man, or a man whose youth and childhood were passed in unfavorable circumstances, he is liable to suffer from the superiority complex. In such case he is an easy victim for the flatterer. He is secure in his position — as secure, at least, as were some of his predecessors in their feudal castles. No one dare criticize him, at least not openly or in the hearing of an episcopal favorite. He is bound to give no reckoning, save to the pope, selfimprisoned in the far-away Vatican. He is not a servant of the people, as was the meek Redeemer. He is their lord, who loves to be addressed ’Your Lordship.’ He therefore need render to priests and people no account of his stewardship. Like the feudal lords of old, he taxes without representation, and he spends the funds of his diocese without ever making a financial statement for the enlightenment of his subjects.
In America no one is supposed to know what the bishop’s personal income happens to be. There is an episcopal system of taxation for the bishop’s personal benefit, called the ’cathedraticum.’ This is usually five per cent of the ordinary income in all the parishes of the diocese. Thus the personal income of a bishop in a small diocese might be an annual pittance of twenty to twenty-five thousand dollars, while that of a bishop of a large metropolis should run from a hundred to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year. Of course, it is assumed that many bishops give freely to charitable and educational causes. However, a bishop is supposed to live up to the high dignity which he holds. One famous and able prelate has two palatial homes, one in the heart of the city, the other in the suburbs. On the walls of his hallway he displays tapestries which, he says, cost twenty thousand dollars each. This demonstrates the generosity of the poor American working people toward their ecclesiastical superiors.
In the last few years the American bishops have found another effective means of raising funds on short notice. It is the assessment plan. The prelate decides how much he needs for a given purpose. He then assigns to each parish its portion of the total sum. Some years ago a certain American bishop was called to Rome to receive a high dignity. He thought it becoming, therefore, to take a worthy gift to the pope. This is reputed to have been a half million dollars. In a businesslike manner he assessed each parish wisely so as to raise the amount. One poor country pastor was assessed eighteen hundred dollars. His church was in debt and he was unable to collect the mite called his salary. Nevertheless, by begging and borrowing, he finally succeeded in gathering one thousand dollars. With a certain self-satisfaction at having done the impossible, he took the money to his ecclesiastical lord. When the awful truth dawned upon the prelate, he angrily asked: ‘Where are the other eight hundred?’ Then, deaf to the pleas of the terror-stricken priest, he said: ’I don’t care for your reasons. Go back and get the rest of the money and have it here within ten days, or somebody else will.’ The good pope no doubt praised the generosity of the American people when he received their munificent gift.
Another great prelate, whose name is a household word in the press of his great Western city, not long since returned from Rome. The headlines of the neighborly dailies carried some such caption as this: ‘Million dollars given to the prelate by the people as a testimony of their love and reverence.’ But there is a little story which may throw some light upon the inner purport of those headlines. First of all, be it known that the million dollars were raised by the efficient mode of assessment. The said prelate had left a substitute in charge of affairs during his absence. In his zeal this substitute ordered the assessment according to the general rule. It is related that a city pastor who had been assessed thirty thousand dollars came to complain. He pleaded that his church, long in use, but not yet consecrated, was burdened with a debt of two hundred thousand dollars; his people were not able to pay the interest; he could not raise the money. But the chargé d’affaires replied: ‘I do not care to listen to your parish difficulties. Go, get the money, and have it here within two weeks, or I’ll put someone else in the place who will.’ It is to be remarked, by way of commentary, that no substitute could have asserted so much authority of himself. The assumption is, therefore, that he had been duly authorized for the exigency by his absent superior.
It must be admitted, however, that not all assessments are carried out in this high-handed manner. Sometimes the priests are called together and asked to pass upon the project. Those who are prudently wise are apt to express approval. Then again bishops sometimes hire an expert who conducts a drive to obtain funds. One bishop of a well-known manufacturing city in this manner achieved the magnificent sum of eight million dollars. Indeed, the Church has become a great financial institution. Bishops and priests are often judged by their ability to get money. In a certain sense, it is a great honor to have your name carved on the corner stone of a million-dollar cathedral. We are often told that ‘the American Church is still in the brick and mortar age.’
There has been much speculation among the clergy in later years as to whether bishops are really chosen for their financial ability. In fact, the election of bishops in the United States is an interesting topic. Formerly there was a semblance of home rule in the selection of bishops. Under the old régime the priests of the diocese submitted three names, from which one was usually chosen to fill the vacant bishopric. But about ten years ago this system was abolished. It was said that too much politics and corruption had entered into the elections.
In any case, Rome saw fit to exercise the right of selecting whomsoever she would to fill the bishoprics in this great land of wealth and opportunity. The bishops, indeed, at given intervals submit the names of those whom they adjudge worthy of this great dignity. Yet Rome does not in any manner bind herself to choose her bishops from these lists. It may be readily surmised that this arbitrary system offers a serious temptation to those whose ambitions might prompt them to curry favor with Vatican officials. Not long ago a high Roman official received a five-thousand-dollar automobile as a token of esteem from a devoted American prelate. The good prelate, then, fearing that he had perhaps put an unbearable burden upon his dear Roman friend, paid a chauffeur’s salary for a year and contributed a thousand dollars for gasoline and oil.
For an American to obtain a bishopric to-day it is practically necessary either to have a friend in the Vatican or at least to be an alumnus of a Roman theological school. This latter is supposed to have best assimilated the spirit of the Church. Many methods are used in courting the favor of those who are powerful with the Holy See. One good American, who for many years had felt the episcopal urge, used to send a barrel of fish each year to a certain papal representative. After weary waiting he was eventually rewarded with an insignificant little diocese in the southern part of the United States.
It is the old story of ecclesiastical ambition. Religion does not seem to quench the thirst for power in its votaries. The first case recorded in the annals of Christianity is the Gospel narrative in which the Boanerges sought the first places in Christ’s kingdom. Christ’s rebuke to them should have been carved above the portals of every Christian temple.
In truth, Christ seems to have had no thought of creating dignities in His Church. He commissioned His Apostles simply to feed His flock. How amazed would have been those gentle Apostles, the first bishops, had they seen, in prophetic vision, the paradoxical spectacle of Christian bishops parading in the royal purple of power. Sad, indeed, it had been for them had they foreseen that these later apostles would be bedecked with the feudal war helmet in the form of a mitre and glittering with precious gems in their ring and their pectoral cross. Their Saviour, too, must weep, who for them wore the crown of thorns, and was clothed in the garb of a carpenter’s son. His only gems were the crimson drops of blood which He shed out of love for mankind.
He who knelt beside the adulterous woman and uttered those words of mercy and generosity, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’; He who said, ‘Come to me all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you’; He who forgave the Magdalen; He who hid Himself when they sought to clothe Him with the royal purple; He who said, ‘ Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart ’ — He must sit in His heaven and hear one of His representatives shout, ‘ Down on your knees and kiss your bishop’s ring!’
But it was not always thus. In the early Church, before the monarchical episcopate came into being, Christ’s ministers still retained His meek and humble spirit. Like their divine Master, they considered themselves servants of the people. ‘He that is the leader, [let him become] as he that serveth.... I am in the midst of you, as he that serveth.’
Christ had no episcopal throne, canopied with rich velvet and royal purple. He sat on the mountain side and taught the great lesson: ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land.’ How far from His mind on that occasion was the idea of those presumptuous titles: Your Holiness the Pope, Your Eminence the Cardinal, Your Grace the Most Reverend Archbishop, Your Lordship the Right Reverend Bishop. Yet we should not be too severe in judging the poor mortals who are carried away by lust for ecclesiastical honors. Human nature does not seem able to resist the temptation to dominate when the opportunity presents itself. This is a noble trait of the human soul gone astray. The evil of ecclesiastical ambition belongs rather to the system than to those who are the system’s victims.
Alack the day when the Church began to construct her constitution after the pattern of the old Roman Empire. The change began about the opening of the fourth century. Soon the Church became more Roman than the Empire itself. It has remained so ever since.
The conquests of the Church in these fifteen centuries agone resemble, in most instances, those which made the Roman Empire mistress of the world. Few peoples were converted to Christianity by the power of the Gospel in these long ages. The masses were herded like sheep to baptism after their chieftains had accepted Christianity. In some cases this form of conversion was a policy rather than a new life. When peoples were converted, they were at once exploited by the minions of the Church. The idea of benefices, livings, prevailed. Ecclesiastical positions, high dignities, profitable offices, were established. Then there was a rush of the ambitious, the sycophants of popes and princes, to obtain them. The same practices, under covert forms, prevail to-day. It is, of course, impossible in these modern times to corral people and thrust upon them the religion of their rulers. Fortunately those absolute monarchs, other than ecclesiastical, have almost disappeared from the face of the earth.
Christians made by law or authority have never brought much honor to the name of Christ. It is notable, too, that the Church’s power passes, largely, with the passing of those tyrannous rulers who lent their powerful arm to the propagation of her dogmas. Wherever democracy has prevailed there has ever been a marked weakening of Catholic ecclesiastical power. With liberty and enlightenment heresy and unbelief run apace. This is not unnatural, since the Church has so often been identified with the absolutism which oppressed the human race for centuries. Besides, it is this absolutism which is still practised in the Catholic hierarchy. In its religious code there is no more freedom of thought, no more personal liberty, than there was in feudalism. There is no more kinship of spirit between an ecclesiastical potentate to-day and his followers than there was between a feudal lord and his serfs. Fear, physical fear, bound the serf to his lord. Fear, moral and religious fear, prompts the Catholic to kiss the foot or the hand of his ecclesiastical ruler.
If Christ had intended to establish a Church fashioned after the kingdom of the Cæsars, He would certainly have called Herod or Pilate, not the poor fisherman Peter, to be its first head. If He had intended to found a school of theological science, He would have called some of the Greek or Roman philosophers, whose teachings have since been adopted, to watch over its early destinies. But Christ said: ‘ Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me: for the kingdom of heaven is for such.’ His only thought was to unite humanity in one great brotherhood of love. He wished only to destroy the spirit of arrogance and despotism which prevailed and to lead men to love one another.
He Himself drove the ancient money changers from the temple. He condemned the scribes and Pharisees because of their zeal for the law and the high places. He upbraided them for assuming the title of Master and seeking salutations in the market place. He was indeed a lover of the people. Little did He dream, humanly speaking, that His own bishops would later espouse the spirit of the world, the spirit of pomp and power, which then oppressed the peoples of earth.
It is striking how well the teachings of Christ harmonize with the principles of democracy and liberty. He came to liberate the spirit of mankind, to impress upon the race its dignity and its worth. His great plea was for unity, of heart and mind. He knew that love begets mutual help among men, and this mutuality begets knowledge and progress. It was farthest from His mind to formulate a system of doctrine which would enslave the human spirit. With Him each human soul had an eternal value. He it was who taught each little sovereign soul to call God ‘Our Father.’
If the Church is to fulfill her mission she must return to that gentle spirit of the Nazarene. Her dignitaries must descend from their gilded thrones and meet the children of earth on a basis of equality and brotherhood. ‘He that is called in the Lord, being a bondman, is the freeman of the Lord,’ says Saint Paul. And again: ‘You, brethren, have been called unto liberty.’ The Apostle, Saint Paul, has fully grasped the idea of human dignity and human liberty. With Christ greatness did not consist in pompous dignities, but in humility. Wishing to impress this great principle upon His disciples, He placed a child before them and said: ‘Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, he is the greater in the kingdom of heaven.’ On another occasion He said: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.’ In opposition to the spirit of those who parade their dignities with royal insignia, He said: ‘I receive not glory from men.’ It is the spirit of Christ that is most needed in His Church to-day.
With this spirit restored, the Church may hope to find her place in modern life. People are religious to-day, more religious perhaps than they have ever been before. But the vast majority of men are unwilling to be affiliated with an ecclesiastical organization which is arrogant and contentious in spirit. This seems to be the characteristic of all Christian organizations, but particularly of the Catholic Church. It is strange that a religion with Christ for its founder could be so overbearing. It would almost appear to engender envies and jealousies in those who profess it. Religious leaders often create the impression that they are striving to manifest their superiority over the rest of the world. There is a kind of smugness among them. They are God’s elect. The other members of the race are poor benighted beings who deserve only to be pitied. They are the oracles of virtue and orthodoxy. Let others not dare speak on these subjects.
Yet even these great churchmen must come to learn that virtue is not communicated by edict. It must be engendered in human hearts. They must finally realize that the highest and most infallible rule for human conduct is the individual conscience, and that this rule is from God. Catholic theologians teach that conscience is above the law. It would be well did the Church insist upon this truth for the guidance of her dignitaries. Then there would follow the necessity of developing the religious personality among the faithful. Less store would be set by the principle of blind obedience in faith and practice.
The Church fears individuality and personality in her members. There is always the danger of heresy, the danger of insubordination. But there is nothing to fear from the human soul, patterned after its God as it is. Therein lies the hope of our race. Human theologies and ecclesiastical dignities have not contributed one whit to the progress of humanity. In those closed systems there has been no place for the development of human souls. These have been huddled together in the Procrustean bed of theological orthodoxy. Ecclesiastical dignities have so magnified the self-importance of their holders that these latter have come to substitute their will for that of the people.
Yet God intended that each human soul should be a temple to Him. By delving into the unfathomed depths of that godlike soul we may hope for a better and a greater outlook on life. So long, indeed, have human souls been enthralled that many abuse their newfound liberty. Many, in their eagerness, blunder in the quest of the vital truth for which they have hungered.
The truth that is to make men free, according to the dictum of Christ, will not be found in the theological systems of religion. Those who are to be leaders in the quest of life-giving truth must, like Solomon, beseech God for the understanding heart. They must not only have sympathy with human aspirations, but they must also have faith in humanity. To accomplish this they must lay aside their royal purple, and come shoulder to shoulder with those who do the world’s drudgery. They must lay aside their absolutism of mind and rule and become seekers for traces of divinity in the souls of men. Thus will a new day dawn for the world.
We may then hope to have ecclesiastical dignitaries whose minds are free from the restrictions of bigotry. They will be men of humility, and, therefore, Christlike. Then, being Christlike, they will be meek, gentle, considerate, patient with other intellects, and trustful of human nature.