We’ve Been Here Before: Marriage and the Room of Tears

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Just last week, I had the privilege of spending four hours in the Sistine Chapel with my Word on Fire team. Toward the end of our filming, the director of the Vatican Museums, who had accompanied us throughout the process, asked whether I wanted to see the “Room of Tears.” This is the little antechamber, just off of the Sistine Chapel, where the newly-elected Pope repairs in order to change into his white cassock. Understandably, tears begin to flow in that room, once the poor man realizes the weight of his office.

Inside the small space, there were documents and other memorabilia, but what got my attention was a row of impressive albs, chasubles, and copes worn by various Popes across the years. I noticed the specially decorated cope of Pope Pius VI, who was one of the longest serving Pontiffs in history, reigning from 1775 to 1799. Pius was an outspoken opponent of the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath—and his forthrightness cost him dearly. French troops invaded Italy and demanded that the Pope renounce his claim to the Papal States. When he refused, he was arrested and imprisoned in a citadel in Valence, where he died six weeks later. In the room of tears, there was also a stole worn by Pius VI’s successor, Pius VII. This Pope Pius also ran afoul of the French, who, under Napoleon, invaded Italy in 1809 and took him prisoner. During his grim exile, he did manage to get off one of the greatest lines in Papal history. Evidently, Napoleon himself announced to the Pope that he was going to destroy the Church, to which Pius VII responded, “Oh my little man, you think you’re going to succeed in accomplishing what centuries of priests and bishops have tried and failed to do!”

Both popes find themselves, of course, in a long line of Church people persecuted by the avatars of the regnant culture. In the earliest centuries of the Church’s life, thousands—including Peter, Paul, Agnes, Cecelia, Clement, Felicity, Perpetua, Sebastian, Lawrence, and Cyprian—were brutally put to death by officials of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose was opposed by the emperor Theodosius; in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII locked horns with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV; in the nineteenth century, Bismarck waged a Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church in Germany, and in the twentieth century, more martyrs gave their lives for the faith than in all the previous centuries combined.

Now why am I rehearsing this rather sad history? In the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision regarding gay marriage, a not inconsiderable number of Catholics feel beleaguered and more than a little afraid. Their fear comes from the manner in which the decision was framed and justified. Since same-sex marriage is now recognized as a fundamental human right guaranteed by the Constitution, those who oppose it can only be characterized as bigots animated by an irrational prejudice. To be sure, Justice Kennedy and his colleagues assure us that those who have religious objections to same-sex marriage will be respected, but one wonders how such respect is congruent with the logic of the decision. Would one respect the owners of a business who refuse to hire black people as a matter of principle? Would not the government, in point of fact, be compelled to act against those owners? The proponents of gay marriage have rather brilliantly adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement, precisely so as to force this conclusion. And this is why my mentor, the late Francis Cardinal George, so often warned against the incursions of an increasingly aggressive secular state, which, he argued, will first force us off the public stage into privacy and then seek to criminalize those practices of ours that it deems unacceptable.

One reason that this has been rather shocking to American Catholics is that we have had, at least for the last century or so, a fairly benign relationship with the environing culture. Until around 1970, there was, throughout the society and across religious boundaries, a broad moral consensus in our country, especially in regard to sexual and family matters. This is one reason why, in the 1950’s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen could find such a wide and appreciative audience among Protestants and Jews, even as he laid out fundamentally Catholic perspectives on morality. But now that consensus has largely been shattered, and the Church finds itself opposed, not so much by other religious denominations, as it was in the 19th century, but by the ideology of secularism and the self-defining individual—admirably expressed, by the way, in Justice Kennedy’s articulation of the majority position in the case under consideration.

So what do we do? We continue to put forth our point of view winsomely, invitingly, and non-violently, loving our opponents and reaching out to those with whom we disagree. As St. John Paul II said, the Church always proposes, never imposes. And we take a deep breath, preparing for what could be some aggression from the secular society, but we take courage from a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. The Church has faced this sort of thing before—and we’re still standing.

COMING UP: The bullies and that book 

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Immediately after news broke on January 12 that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written a book on the crisis of the priesthood in the 21st-century Church, online hysteria erupted — which rather underscored the prudence of a New Year’s resolution I had recommended to concerned Catholics in a January 1 column: “Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere.”  

The extraordinary venom spewed at the pope emeritus and the cardinal by more than a few commentators did not advance the Church’s discussion of the reform of the priesthood one jot or tittle. It actually retarded that urgent discussion, diverting attention from some urgent issues (including the deep roots of the abuse crisis and the meaning of clerical celibacy) by treating a serious book as if it were a partisan political tract.  

Yet the cacophony over the Benedict/Sarah book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, did serve two useful purposes: it spoke volumes about the character of the venomous, and it clarified some of the dynamics roiling the Church as the pontificate of Pope Francis approaches its seventh anniversary on March 13. 

The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty — and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time;” another wizard from the left field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.” Neither man has the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality? 

The attack on Cardinal Sarah was equally vicious and just as ill-informed. I have had the honor of knowing the Guinean cardinal for several years and, like anyone who has spent significant time with him, I have found him a man of profound holiness: a truly converted disciple of Jesus Christ whose ministry flows from his radical fidelity to the Lord. Despite the caricatures perpetrated by those who evidently fear his present and future influence in the Church, Cardinal Sarah has also struck me as a man of Christian joy, still amazed at the grace of God that has been at work in his life, and therefore able to laugh (in that robust way that only Africans can) at the human foibles of the moment. Cardinal Sarah was not laughing, however, at the claim that he had lied about the origin and nature of From the Depths of Our Hearts and his righteous, if controlled, anger confirmed what those who actually know him understand: this is an honest man.  

These calumnies against Benedict and Sarah were amplified by another absurd charge: that by discharging their minds and consciences on what is necessary for an authentic reform of the priesthood, the pope emeritus and the cardinal were somehow interfering with Pope Francis’s “discernment” after the Amazonian synod of this past October. So it has now come down (and I do mean down) to this: the partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.  

These are not the tactics of advocates convinced that they have won the substantive argument and are likely to continue winning. These are the tactics of those who, fearful that time is running out, imagine that their only recourse is to resort to bullying.  

There is nothing of churchmanship in this, nor is there anything of Christian charity. The reform of the priesthood is essential for the evangelizing mission of the Church. Those who dismissed a serious proposal for such reform, in large part by vilifying its authors, branded themselves as less interested in reforming the priesthood of the New Covenant than in ecclesiastical power-games. 

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano