Another black legend, down the chute

The Thirty Years War looms large in the contemporary secularist imagination. There, it’s simply taken for granted that religious fanaticism laid waste to Europe between 1618 and 1648, and that the carnage only stopped when the exhausted powers of the day agreed to the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the wars of religion by adopting the principle of cuius regio eius religio – the prince’s religion would determine the religion of the principality. More subtle secularists find in cuius regio eius religio one root of modern statecraft, from which religious ideas and religiously informed moral judgments are to be rigorously excluded.

That’s the way it was, and that’s the lesson to be learned, right? Well, no, actually.

Or so writes Peter Wilson in The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Belknap/Harvard). As Professor Wilson’s subtitle suggests, the Thirty Years War was indeed a horrible business. When it was finally over, the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs had lost 20 percent of its population—some 8 million people—which is truly dreadful, even by 20th century European standards of mass slaughter. True, Wilson writes, the Thirty Years War began as a religiously-inspired civil war within the Hapsburg lands. But it became an international affair and a historic disaster when Sweden’s Gustavus Adophus, waging war behind a facade of Lutheran piety, saw his geopolitical chances and took ‘em. (That Richelieu and the Catholic French sided with the Lutheran Swedes in order to cut their Catholic Hapsburg rivals down to size nicely illustrates Lord Birkenhead’s comment in “Chariots of Fire:” “The Frogs aren’t a terribly principled lot…”).

Wilson’s challenge to conventional secularist wisdom lies in his summary judgment: this grisly business had far less to do with theological arguments over justification by faith than it did with dynastic ambition, greed, political incompetence, and a ruthless lack of morals among early practitioners of that foreign policy “realism” on which certain parties in Washington, D.C., pride themselves today. In short, the Thirty Years War was about politics detached from ethics, not about religion detached from reason.

If that’s true—and Professor Wilson makes a strong case—adjustments ought to be made in the Standard Version of the modern history of church-and-state.

Recent scholarship has demonstrated that Stalin, master of a hyper-secularist regime in Soviet Russia, killed more people on a slow afternoon than the dread Inquisition consigned to death in a decade. Now Peter Wilson demonstrates that the Thirty Years War (proportionally, a slaughter three times greater than World War II) was primarily a matter of unbridled politics, not maniacal religion. These two readjustments in historical understanding demonstrate, across a span of three and a half centuries, that the modern nation-state has been more deadly than the Church by orders of magnitude. That, in turn, ought to be an arrow in the rhetorical quiver of those Europeans and Americans who continue to argue, against secularist bigotry, that religiously informed moral argument has a legitimate place in the public square of 21st century democracies.

Then there’s cuius regio eius religio, which the Standard Version typically posits as a step toward the institutional separation of church and state and the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Poles taught me years ago that precisely the opposite was the case: for Poles, whose lands did not experience the European wars of religion, regard the Westphalian imposition of religious faith by state edict as the world’s first systematic experiment in totalitarianism—the coercion of consciences by a public authority that claimed control over the innermost sanctuaries of the human spirit.

Thus if we are looking for deeper and sturdier roots of religious freedom in Europe, we might look elsewhere: to the Polish theologian and canonist Pawel Wlodkowic, who argued at the 15th century Council of Constance against the forced conversion of pagans; or to the 17th century Polish king, Zygmunt August, who declined the invitation of his countrymen to resolve their religious squabbles by stating that he was not “the king of your consciences.”

In the light of Peter Wilson’s book, perhaps some intrepid soul will raise these points in the Christophobic European Parliament. The reaction would be instructive.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.