Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dissembling Revisited

Between August 1790 and December 1790, the Revolutionaries further refined the plans for the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Principal among their plans, they thought that it would be appropriate to require all priests and Bishops to make an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. On November 23rd, 1790, Cardinal de Lomenie wrote to the Pope, suggesting that, as Cardinal, he could apply the doctrine of dissembling to this case, that a person could take the oath, but in their heart adhere to the Church.

Pius VI responded on February 23rd. In response to de Lomenie’s actions, the Pope could only express sorrow. He saw the dissembling of de Lomenie as dishonorable because he actually took the oath, preached its contents, and created a new diocese, putting it under the power of the civil authority (93). Taking an oath entailed promising to carry out every action associated with the oath. And so, it was not possible to take an oath and dissemble, promising to carry out some parts of it and not others (93-95).

Pius VI noted that de Lomenie had reasoned that the oath was an exterior action, and that the words that his mouth spoke did not agree with what his heart murmured when he took the oath. Pius VI called this reasoning “false and indecent. It is to authorize a pernicious moral teaching of a so-called philosophy that would imagine all sorts of subterfuges that are unworthy of morality.” In condemning this way of acting, the Pope was doing so not on the basis of a religious reason. Instead, he condemned de Lomenie’s actions because they violated “the natural sincerity of an honest man.” The Pope also noted that the Church has always condemned or proscribed this doctrine (95). While the Pope did not come out and directly punish de Lomenie for his actions, he encouraged him to repent, warned him of the potential penalties he could receive for not repenting, and also warned him of the bad example he set for other Catholics in France as well as the faithful of his diocese.

He also explained that he has written this letter in particular to de Lomenie so that he would not mistakenly “take my silence to be a mark of approval” (95). He urged de Lomenie to do nothing that would lead to conferring the power of the Episcopacy on to new Bishops independent of the judgment of Rome, because, as de Lomenie well knew, this would be afflicting “the Church with rebellious ministers” (95-97).

The Pope also centered in on one of the contradictions inherent in the Revolutionary plans for religion. On the one hand, the National Assembly claimed to leave “man free to think and write as he pleases on matters of religion.” On the other hand, it wrote a Constitution, taking away the freedom of the Catholics in France to speak and act as they wished in religious matters. In short, it “touches inappropriately on that very freedom of religion itself, [and] ….negates or reverses the spiritual authority of the Church and it denies it all of its rights” (99).

“How can one not see that the Constitution established by the National Assembly, in leaving man free to think and to write as he pleases on matters of religion, touches inappropriately on that very freedom of religion itself, as well as many other of the novelties that it introduces, it absolutely negates or reverses the spiritual authority of the Church and it denies it all of its rights” (99). The Constitution, rather than promoting or defending the truth, sought to “muffle the truth.” Rather than preventing vice, it created the conditions for expanding vice.

The Pope reminded de Lomenie that to fail to resist evildoers is to encourage them. Thomas Beckett showed this well in letters he wrote to his fellow bishops. There is a point at which a person must show himself to be an opponent of a crime, otherwise, one becomes complicit in the crime. In short, the Pope urged de Lomenie not to fall into the hands of those who “under the pretext of reforming religion,… are actually looking for ways to sap it of the foundation of the Catholic faith and of the religion of our Fathers” (103).


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