Macaulay's Catholic Dissidents

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The recent papal election has reminded us just how truly global the Roman Catholic church is, and how that institution carries on flourishing and growing despite so many seemingly ruinous problems.

In trying to explain that durability, I turn to an odd source, namely the Victorian English writer Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Macaulay (1800-1859). Little of his vast literary output is much read today, but one piece in particular demands to be remembered for its brilliant observations about the nature of religion, and the reasons why some forms of faith succeed while others fade and die. It's a magnificent piece of religious sociology -- and possibly an effective practical strategy for modern-day religious bodies of all stripes.

The piece in question was Macaulay's 1840 review of the History of the Popes by the epochal German scholar Leopold von Ranke. Although Macaulay was writing at a time of fervent anti-Catholicism, he nevertheless recognized the vast importance of the topic. In fact, he said,

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church...The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs...The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustine, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe.

Few would argue with those claims. Today, the Catholic Church counts over a billion believers, roughly half of the world's Christian population, and some forty percent of them do indeed live in Latin America. And now, there's an Argentine pope.

Macaulay continued with a prophetic vision:

Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her [the Papacy's] long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's.

But why was the Catholic Church so long-lived, and why, despite so many forecasts of imminent doom, did the Papacy still flourish in 1840 (or in 2013)? Macaulay has his answers, which still impress after so many generations of subsequent scholarship.

Macaulay notes that Christianity inevitably inspires great thinkers and activists, what we might call spiritual entrepreneurs. The enthusiasm of such individuals can make them hard to live with, and institutions find it very difficult to keep them within reasonable bounds. As these people know, absolutely, that they are serving God, they see no point in following merely human instructions. Inevitably, charismatic or prophetic individuals often desert their former institutions to set up new churches, sects or denominations, and that process has recurred frequently within the Protestant tradition. In fact, it is a trademark of that tradition.

The Catholic Church, in contrast, has always shown its ability to absorb an amazing range of dissidents. Its inclusive powers are not absolute -- witness Martin Luther, and the various spiritual leaders condemned as heretics throughout the years. But in countless cases, the church succeeded. The Catholic genius was to provide means to absorb and channel virtually any form of charisma or inspired spirituality, while at the same time presenting itself as an unchanging and even inflexible hierarchical institution, semper eadem -- always the same. We think how the wild, anarchic, spirituality of St. Francis was channeled and disciplined into the Franciscan Order. Eventually, even a pope would take his name.

In a Protestant country like England, notes Macaulay, an ordinary person is sometimes filled with spiritual power, but because the church cannot hold him, he goes off to found his own sect. In contrast, the Catholic Church not only tolerates such innovation, but wholeheartedly co-opts it for its own long-term good:

Far different is the policy of Rome. The ignorant enthusiast whom the Anglican Church makes an enemy, and whatever the polite and learned may think, a most dangerous enemy, the Catholic Church makes a champion. She bids him nurse his beard, covers him with a gown and hood of coarse dark stuff, ties a rope round his waist, and sends him forth to teach in her name...To that Church he becomes as strongly attached as any of the cardinals whose scarlet carriages and liveries crowd the entrance of the palace on the Quirinal. In this way the Church of Rome unites in herself all the strength of establishment, and all the strength of dissent. With the utmost pomp of a dominant hierarchy above, she has all the energy of the voluntary system below. [my emphasis] It would be easy to mention very recent instances in which the hearts of hundreds of thousands, estranged from her by the selfishness, sloth, and cowardice of the beneficed clergy, have been brought back by the zeal of the begging friars.

Just think, he says, of some of the individuals who became noted Catholic saints, and imagine if they had been raised in the Anglican system: "Place Ignatius Loyola at Oxford. He is certain to become the head of a formidable secession. Place John Wesley at Rome. He is certain to be the first General of a new society devoted to the interests and honour of the Church."

Remarkably in light of modern day stereotypes, he suggests that the Catholics succeed far better than Protestants in channeling women's spiritual zeal. He cites Joanna Southcote, whom English history recalls as a deranged and somewhat shifty self-proclaimed prophetess. But what if she had grown up in a Catholic environment? "Place Joanna Southcote at Rome. She founds an order of barefooted Carmelites, every one of whom is ready to suffer martyrdom for the Church; a solemn service is consecrated to her memory; and her statue, placed over the holy water, strikes the eye of every stranger who enters St. Peter's."

Macaulay's vision could offer a practical recipe for modern-day churches contemplating how to survive and flourish in apparently impossible circumstances.

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