Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A millennial anniversary

The turn of the millenium mostly lived up to its once-in-a thousand-years hype.  It was a thrill to suddenly be living in something called "two thousand."  The anticipation of the Y2K computer disaster gave it a kind of edge, with a lot of self-satisfaction afterwards at having known, of course, not to have taken that stuff seriously (I had squirreled away two cases of Dinty Moore Stew in the garage, just in case.  Kind of a sad way to go, when you think about it, watching civilization collapse while subsisting on a modest and diminishing larder of canned stew.)

The one big disappointment, for me, was the lack of anything in particular to commemorate as having actually happened a thousand years before.  I mean, in 800 there was the crowning of Charlemagne.  In 1100 Jerusalem had just fallen in the First Crusade.  But in the year one-zero-zero-zero?  Zero.  It was a purely turn-of-the odometer moment.

For most of us, admittedly, the eleventh century is pretty far off the map.  There is that single great exception, immortalized in the title of one of the great comic histories:  1066 and all That.  But I'm going to have to make it far beyond 100 to reach 2066.

But now that it's 2015, I've run across a millennial anniversary that's worth more than a passing thought, the birth of Hildebrand in (we think) Anno Domini One Thousand Fifteen.  The man who later ruled the Church as Pope Gregory VII.

Attentive readers have no doubt noticed references in late posts to a recent trip to Italy.  Rome has a very long history, and we tourists tend to concentrate on two Romes, that of the early Caesars, and that of the Renaissance popes.  In between, of course, after the departure of the emperors to Constantinople, and the subsequent sack of the city around the end of the fifth century, Rome went into a prolonged decline.  The papacy remained there, of course (aside from a brief sojourn at Avignon), but Hildebrand's Rome must have looked like the set of a deranged Hollywood post-apocalyptic.

H.E.J. Cowdrey, in his biography of Gregory, notes how, by Hildebrand's day, the diminished population had concentrated around St. Peter's Basilica and in the area of the Pantheon, away from the seven hills and the low-lying area between that constituted the heart of imperial Rome, the Forum.  We can only imagine the melancholy splendor of the thousand-year-old ruins--the old city walls, the imperial palaces, the lofty temples, falling into decay unless rejuvenated as Christian sanctuaries.  Even as late as the quatrocento much of the city was wild, pasture for livestock, and the ruins caves for dwelling or quarries for re-building.  It was in this twilight Rome of the eleventh century that Gregory initiated his project to win back the sacerdotal independence of the Church.

For the relationship of the Church and the governing power has always been uneasy, starting with the execution of Jesus and many of the early apostles.  The conversion of Constantine must have seemed an unhoped blessing to a generation that lived under the persecutions of Diocletian, but Christian rule raised many new dilemmas and difficulties.  Providentially, perhaps, for the bishops of Rome, Constantine moved his imperial capital far to the east, and the close proximity of Emperor and Patriarch was all too often at the expense of the Patriarch.  Indeed, a title given to Constantine for the last few years of his life, "Isapostolos," "Equal to the Apostles," suggests how very far the notion of Caesaropapism could go, and how quickly.

So the Roman pontiff was independent, but vulnerable.  The second half of the first millenium is replete with popes seeking champions among the new rulers of the West, creating, along the way, a new western Empire, and an increasing tendency on the part of emperors and kings to treat the Church as an adjunct to their domains.

This was probably inevitable, given the de facto status of bishops as centers of authority and administration.  It was indeed natural that the new kingdoms utilize the pattern of dioceses--themselves derivative of the Roman cities that once served as the centers of Roman imperial authority.  And so almost unconsciously the bishops became functionaries for secular rulers, and that early cooperation necessary for survival became rivalry and, subsequently, quite natural attempts at subordination.

The great effort to disengage the Church from the domination of increasingly powerful lay rulers goes sometimes by the name of the Investiture Controversy, and sometimes by the name of the Gregorian Reform.  The first is too narrow, the second exaggerates the importance of a single individual.  There is no specific reference to a "Gregorian Reform" during the eleventh century.  Many of Gregory's ideals were taken from the program of the reforming Benedictine family of abbeys centered at Cluny.  But his pontificate was so pre-occupied with conflict, so strenuous in its clashes with the recalcitrent, that, from our vantage point a thousand years down the road, we see his program as more important, in the long run, than the calling of the Crusades or the beginning of the compilation of canon law in the following decades.

Those of us in the English-speaking world know the sequence best in the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, in the provision of Magna Charta for the liberty of the Church, and in the destruction of that balance by Henry VIII.  After the Renaissance, in what we've come to call the Age of Absolutism, even the Catholic monarchies began marginalizing the independence of the Church.  And, highly symbolically, Cluny itself was destroyed in the French Revolution.

The Church no longer holds the position of countervailing power that it successfully maintained for much of the first half of the second millennium.  We moderns on the whole ascribe all plenary authority to the State, as the ancients did to the polis, to the civitate.  It's a curious acquiescence, when you think about it.  It is certainly unGregorian.    

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Travelogue: On crowds, by a distinguished member thereof

It is no secret that many popular tourist destinations can be very crowded, especially in Italy.

We certainly found that to be the case, but I'm reluctant to complain too much about it because I was, after all, a member of the crowd myself.  It calls to mind an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy says something like, "Everybody says there're too many people, but nobody wants to leave."  That really gets to the heart of the matter.  How do I get rid of all these annoying crowds without eliminating myself in the bargain?

There is something heartening in the fact that crowds are trying to get in to see The Birth of Venus or the Sistine ceiling.  How would we feel if the churches and museums were almost  empty and catering only to the cognoscienti?  Or if the crowds were eliminated by charging admission at churches, or raising admission to put the great national collections out of the reach of the average tourist?  Yes, one can get annoyed at the occasional vulgar neighbor obviously and noisily checking one more famous painting off the bucket list.  But honestly, even those of us with refined tastes and the most exquisite sensibilities do pretty much the same thing.

I noticed, in the museums, that the "bunching" of spectators is exacerbated by two things, tour groups and audio tours.  Both tend to put people pretty consistently in front of the "war horses."  But tours and audio guides, however they may annoy those of us who don't think we need them, are surely part of that democratic notion that art should be available to people at all stages of education and appreciation.

I remember back in Boston, in the seventies, a local museum put on an exhibition of Chardin's genre paintings.  Even with a few college art courses, I wasn't much taken with what I knew of Chardin.  But a glowing review in the Boston Globe motivated me to take a look, and the audio guide really opened my eyes to much of what I missed or would never have considered on my own.

And there is also the fact that the bunching of crowds creates opportunities elsewhere.  I was genuinely disappointed by the crowd shown above, in front of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.  I was also disappointed by the fact that it was behind glass, a liability it shares with many uber-popular works that might be targets for the disturbed.  But on the opposite side of the room was an exquisite Botticelli Annunciation, alone and ignored by almost everyone.  I might have passed it by had the room been empty and I had been able to go right up and spend time with The Birth of Venus and Primavera.

So at times I joined the Crowd, straining to get close to those A-list cultural artifacts that are the object of this kind of tourism.  But I could also let the Crowd repel me toward those other items, honored and equally set apart, whose lack of "celebrity status" has nothing to do with their beauty or power to invoke the transcendent.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Teología y Liberación

When a new pope is chosen there is typically an exaggerated sense of impending change.  Most everyone is aware of some doctrine of the "infallibility of the pope."  Few know the purpose of that authority, or its limitations.  But perhaps for that reason, whenever a new pope is elected, there is much hope or fear among the half-informed that Catholic doctrine will be significantly changed--for the better or for the worse.

Pope Francis, like his immediate predecessors, has been subject to similar expectations, and like all popes he brings a new set of priorities and personal concerns to the office.  And his origins as a South American Jesuit have not surprisingly formed him with a particular concern for the Church's relationship to those whom political and economic oppression have left desperately poor.

This particular issue has long been associated with the something called "liberation theology." It's a term most of us think we know, and popularly it's most closely associated with South American politics, the murder of the Archbishop of San Salvador Oscar Romero, Marxism, and the critical reaction by the CDF during the early pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II.  Knowing just a little something about all of those, I thought I ought to learn a little more about it, so earlier this year I began reading what many consider the seminal work on the subject, Teología de la Liberación, first published in 1971 by the Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Fr. Gutiérrez, unlike others associated with liberation theology, has never suffered any official censure for his work. It has been severely questioned on some points, something which I find less than alarming (see my third posting back on the dialectic between theology and authority in the Church).  But Fr. Gutiérrez has always had champions in the hierarchy, most recently and famously Gerhard Cardinal Müller, whom Pope Benedict put at the head of the CDF.

So, at this point I'm about a quarter of the way through Teología de la Liberación.  It begins with a review of what "theology" has meant in the Church, broadly identifying three types of theology:  "la teología como sabiduría," "la teología como saber rational," and "la teología como reflexión critíca sobre las praxis."   The first is the earliest form, theology as spiritual wisdom, arguably best personified in the Greek Fathers, but a continuing tradition exemplified in the West by works such as The Imitation of Christ.  The second type of theology is that which is characterized by rational analysis of the Christian revelation, a good example being the summas of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The third, critical reflection on practice, might seem to be novel, but Gutiérrez insists that it is a long-established form of theology, and points to St. Augustine's De civitate Dei as its most prominent exemplar:

La teología agustiniana de las histora, que encontramos en La ciudad de Dios, parte, por ejemplo, de un verdadero análisis de los signos de los tiemplos y de las exígencias que ellos plantean a la communidad cristiana.

So in this initial analysis we come, in the course of a brief history of social philosophy, to a few pages to the social analysis of Karl Marx.  His place here is not surprising; when Teología de la Liberación was written about a third of the world was governed by Marxist principles, and Marxism could look quite hopeful to those suffering under the violent autocracies of South America.  Marx was and remains almost unmentionable in North America (a patriotic by-product of the cold war), and from 1978 to 2008 the papacy was held by a man for whom Marxism was itself an oppressive dogma imposed by a foreign and hostile imperial power  (on the other hand, he entered the conclave that elected him pope reading Marx).  In this early discussion Gutiérrez puts Marx in the context of European social philosophy and the attempts to make history a genuine science.  Despite charges and suspicions, there is nothing remotely "Marxist" in Gutiérrez's historical review here. 

But as politics comes increasingly to the fore, there is an interesting follow-up to the appeal to St. Augustine noted above for the pedigree of this type of theology in a critique of the notion that the Church and the world co-exist on different planes--in other words there is a challenge to the Augustinian distinction between the City of Man and the City of God, intersecting but essentially distinct.   In  critically examining the notion of the Church's independence from politics, Gutiérrez notes how, in practice the Church has too often been not only political, but political in the sense of propping up an oppressive status quo.

In some ways this appeal reflects the more hopeful stance of the late sixties and early seventies.  There is an appeal to Bonhoeffer's assertion of a mündig gewordnende Welt, a world come of age.  For myself, however much I admire Bonhoeffer, this conception takes far too much for granted.  The "adulthood" of man has been asserted before (Kant's famous definition of enlightenment, for example, which Gutiérrez in fact cites earlier).  Bonhoeffer seems to ground his concept in the notion of the increasing explanatory power of science, a notion that seems naive in a world where the limitation of scientific explanation is increasingly obvious.  I've always countered the idea with a joke that was once making the rounds, i.e., that in every generation the civilized world is invaded by barbarians (whom we call children).

However old the world gets, few of us, individually, are going to get much more than our threescore and ten.  Each and every one of us starts from scratch.  Our elders and betters do their very best to impart the wisdom of the ages, and some of it undoubtedly sticks.  There is continuity and inertia in the institutions and foundations set up to last.  But we newbies will be afflicted by the same vices that afflicted our forebears, and commit the same mistakes, and succumb to the same temptations.  So we may, perhaps, die old and full of years and wisdom, but I'm not sure the world does.

I'll apologize for that lengthy digression, but it's not entirely inapplicable.  There a lot of this "New World Coming!" in the early Erasmus.  It's noticeably absent in the elder.  There seems considerable optimism in these early pages of Teología de la Liberación that the Church's weight can decisively tip the political scale toward the poor.  One can indeed still hope and advocate for that, while noting that the social and political weight of the Church has dropped off markedly in the last forty years.

I will try to return with further thoughts as I make may way through.


Part of the reason for the "hiatus" was a few weeks of traveling.

As you can probably guess from the photo, it included a couple of days in Italy.

In returning to active (if relatively infrequent) blogging I hope to put down a few thoughts that the trip raised, and will identify them under the rubric, "Travelogue."