"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lunatics, Heretics, and Mystics: Is There a Difference?

Sandro Magister, always worth reading about matters ecclesial and Catholic, has a round-up of some things lunatics are saying about the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. (One can only imagine what Yves Congar would say about these types! He had scathing comments about them in his own day as recorded in his diaries.)

The prize has to belong to Enrico Maria Radaelli who attempts to claim with a straight face that papal resignation “is not permitted metaphysically and mystically, because in metaphysics it is bound up with the kernel of being...and in mysticism is bound up with the kernel of the mystical Body which is the Church, through which the office of vicar...places the being of the elect on an ontological plane substantially different...: on the metaphysically and spiritually highest plane of Vicar of Christ.” That has to be about as neat a definition of contemporary papolatry as we are likely to find, though I'm keeping the contest open for a while yet because doubtless there are bound to be other contenders. It is also, I maintain, a thinly veiled heresy of the old school: a species of ecclesiological monophysitism. Ecclesiology, as has often been remarked, tends to ricochet between Arianism on the one hand (i.e., an overemphasis on the exclusively human nature of the Church) and monophysitism (i.e., an overemphasis on the exclusively divine nature of the Church).

When discussing the pope, we have, as two recent and splendid histories make clear--Eamon Duffy's Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (Yale Nota Bene) and John O'Malley's A History of the Popes: From Peter to the Present (both of which are, one may say, perfectly "Chalcedonian" in maintaining a sober "dyophysite" view of the papacy and Church as both divine and human), suffered for a little over a century now under an increasingly "sacralized" notion of the popes and their office which tends towards precisely this monophysite notion: the humanity of the pope is severely downplayed, and his status as some kind of demiurge is exalted. This began at Vatican I, whose absurdly misunderstood doctrine of infallibility can and should be "re-received" (as Walter Kasper argued in That They May All Be One: The Call to Unity Today and other places), though in a very different form today--something I suggest at the end of my Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy: Ut Unum Sint and the Prospects of East-West Unity.

Thankfully since Pope Paul VI (1963-78), and certainly under John Paul II in some ways--though in others, perhaps unwittingly, he certainly reinforced it--this sacralized notion of the pope (replete with tiarra, sedia gestatoria, use of the royal "we," and other nonsense) was increasingly set aside, and it has now definitely changed with Benedict's resignation, a gesture that, perhaps more than anything else he has done, will deal this notion the death-blow it deserves. As I have asked many Catholics over the last week: if all other bishops in the world are required to retire at 75, why should the bishop of Rome be any different? There is no coherent theological case to be made for treating him differently, and so we are treated, as above, to "metaphysical" and "mystical" emoting that is both dangerous and risible. Radaelli and too many Catholics have spent the last 10 days reacting to the papal retirement with mawkish mewling as though they were helpless kittens whose mother had just been flattened by a truck on the highway. This de trop devastation seems to be one of the lamentable features of our time--as witnessed, e.g., with the faux hysterics of millions in the streets in 1997 at the death of that erstwhile princess of Wales (what was her name?). To all such ululaters, I reply, as the famously taciturn Clement Attlee did in a one-line letter to the endlessly agitated Harold Lasky: "a period of silence from you would be most welcome."


  1. Excellent post. Two questions do occur to me though: 1) Couldn't one argue that the (recent) development of bishops dissolving their spiritual marriage to their churches on reaching the age of 75 is itself unfitting, and fosters un overly bureaucratic view of the episcopacy? 2) Why are you so down on tiarras and such? It's not as though the East stints on the trappings of ecclesiastical dignity...

  2. Bishops have always been able to resign, from the days of the Fathers, if not before. All ordained ministry is one of service to the Church, and service includes knowing when to step aside. There have been more than enough examples of episcopal resignation in our Fathers among the saints (Gregory Nanzianzen comes to mind) to say that resignation--particularly to retire to the contemplative life--has always been a legitimate option for all bishops.

    It strikes me, though, that speaking of ordained ministry as a personal vocation, as well as the use of "bridal" or "marital" metaphors, has been the cause of much mischief within the Body of Christ, extending well beyond the kind of clericalization it tends to promote.

    On papal regalia: Yes, the Christian East does love ornate vestments and flowery titles. But note that there is very little that distinguishes a Patriarch from an ordinary diocesan bishop, particularly in the way of liturgical vestment; such was not the case with the Papacy in its heyday.

  3. You are of course right that it is possible for a bishop to resign, but I'm not entirely convinced by your argument that it is fitting. I agree that "speaking of ordained ministry as a personal vocation" has done much mischief, but I think the marriage or betrothal of a bishop to his particular church is a different question. The idea is included in the rite of ordination of a bishop in the Sacramentarium Gregorianum. I don't see that it has done any mischief; on the contrary, I think we would be spared a lot of mischief if it were taken more seriously. The Canon of Nicea on bishops not switching dioceses has often been interpreted in this light as well.

    The example of Gregory Naziazen is an instructive one. In Ep. CLXXXII he writes: "If any be of opinion that it is not right to ordain another in the lifetime of a Bishop, let him know that he will not in this matter gain any hold upon us. For it is well known that I was appointed, not to Nazianzus, but to Sasima..." In other words, he doesn't appeal to a bishop's right to retire, but rather to the fact that he was first bishop of another church.


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