Saturday, December 09, 2006

Are Catholics Prone to Violence?

Some historians and commentors who have written about Pius VI have suggested that he tried to foster a violent counter-revolution against the French Revolution. This leads to an insinuation, common among moderns, that, somehow, religion or men of religion, are prone to violence. This sentiment was expressed by the Phairsees, who tried to prevent the Apostles from speaking in the name of Christ, protesting to the Apostles, what are you trying to do, bring this man's blood upon us?

Just as in the case of the Apostles and the Pharisees, so too in the case of Pius VI, the evidence suggests the contrary. His public statements, private letters, and statements at the Vatican all agree that he sought to oppose only the aspects of the Revolution, specifically the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, that violated the freedom of Catholics in France. He respected the right (whether he agreed with it or not) of the French to change their regime. He argued that this change of regime should respect the freedom of religion of the French people. A further sign that he did not wan to foster a counter revolution is that he did not use the ecclesiastical penalties that he could have used against the revolutionaries and the Bishops who initially took the oath of loyalty to the new Civil Constitution of the Clergy. On every level, he hoped that he could use reason to win back the schismatic Bishops, the King, and even the Revolutionaries.

Below is the evidence.

He opposed the new Constitution by the following: prayer, letters to Louis XVI pointing out the errors of the Constitution in as much as it violates spiritual authority, and letters to the Bishops of Bordeaux and Vienne to the same effect as early as July 10 1790. He delayed responding publically to the events of the Civil Constitution so that the statement that he made was the fruit of study and deliberation. He was acting in this way so as to avoid charges of subterfuge or not properly assessing the circumstances. He had examined the Constitution with a council of Cardinals that he assembled at the Vatican. He also had the Bishops of France, independently of his own study in the Vatican, study the principles of the Civil Constiution of the Clergy. 330 Archbishops and Bishops in France had signed a statement against the Constitution (295-297). Only four Bishops attached themselves to the new Constitution and its errors, while one attempted to take the oath using mental reservation (297-303).

While showing the basic unity that existed among those Catholics in France, the Pope noted the unfair way in which the Constitution singled out the Catholic religion, whose “religion is the only one whose cult is prohibited, from which the Constitution takes from legitimate pastors their ancient possessions, while at the same time it leaves free ministers from other sects, with all of their goods in tact” (307). Ironically, the revolution based on freedom failed to respect the religious freedom of the vast majority of its subjects.

The Pope took an approach of mildness toward the four Bishops who took the oath of the Constitution and the one who took it albeit with mental reservations. The Pope indicated, as he did with Louis XVI, that he was delaying imposing any ecclesiastical punishments on the Bishops that took the oath.

The Pope also did not claim that his position was, necessarily definitive. This does not mean that he was ready to accept or counsel anyone to accept the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. He saw himself as a protector of certain principles that had been lived out over time. His goal was to protect that teaching and to apply it to current circumstances. Like a lawyer or a judge attempting to understand the principles of law and legal cases over history, he applied the doctrine of the Church to the Civil Constitution in a way that respected the principles and history. He challenged all involved to find a way that could reconcile the Church’s teaching to the current circumstances. He invited Louis XVI or anyone else “placed in the middle of the events, to suggest to us a way, if they are able to find one, that would hurt neither dogma nor discipline, assuring them that we would do all that we could to submit to examination and to deliberate their proposal with our councils” (309). The Pope and those around him are ready to study in order to find a remedy to the evil that is being done, if it were possible to find such a remedy. At the same time, they would stubbornly resist any opinion that attached itself to error (309-311).

While the Pope was willing to study the circumstances with men and women of good will and apply the doctrine of the Church in a way that fit the circumstances, he was aware of the possibility, based on his knowledge of history, that some men and women might not be open to the challenge he posed. Sometimes in the past, men who tried to control the appointment of Bishops were interested in changing the doctrine of the Church. The deeds of the schismatic Bishops hinted that their motives were the latter option. “St. Leo spoke long ago about those who want to name their own Bishops and change the way that dioceses are governed: ‘nature itself does not leave any doubt about someone who wants to replace a Bishop who is already in place. One can, without fear of being mistaken, regard this person as corrupt who is trying to gain favor with the enemies of religion’” (315-317).

The Pope reiterated his position that he was not interested in interfering in the political changes that the regime in France was undergoing. As the Pope critiqued the articles of the Constitution, he made clear to the Bishops, as he did to Louis XVI, that “we are trying here to avoid speaking about the government of the civil regime of the realm” (319). He admitted that this was becoming increasingly difficult, as so many of the deeds of the civil government with respect to the new constitution affected the spiritual sphere or politicized the spiritual sphere.

The Pope, though he could have done so, resisted using the threat of ecclesiastical punishments in order to rectify the situation. To begin, he understood that the revolutionaries might be unresponsive to such punishments. In addition, some in France, due to the violent nature of events, might have succumbed to the general spirit of fear that reigned in the country. Finally, his ultimate goal was to work with men of good will to put an end to the evils that the country was undergoing. And so, he “used all indulgence permitted” to his office to resist using the threats of punishments as a way of encouraging certain kinds of action. Instead, he aimed to “find a remedy for the evil that has already been done, and to prevent it from making any further progress” (333).


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