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we've had it worse, boys

By Diogenes (articles ) | Apr 01, 2005

For the ecclesiastically despondent Catholic, few forms of self-medication are as effective as a careful read through Owen Chadwick's The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: 1981). When one realizes just how grim the situation looked from the vantage point of the late 18th century, our current woes, and the woefully inadequate leaders arrayed against them, appear comparatively manageable -- not illusory, but less than lethal. In 1768, for example, after a series of defeats and political humiliations, Pope Clement XIII issued a threatening edict against the Duke of Parma that was impossible to enforce, and the Englishman Horace Walpole, writing to gloat over the disaster to his friend Horace Mann in Florence, said "This is a crisis for the Court of Rome from which it will be impossible to recover." And again, after the death of Clement the following year, Walpole wrote Mann asking when the cardinals would elect "the last Pope."

Walpole was not without grounds for his belief. The man elected as Clement XIV was Lorenzo Ganganelli, whose papacy is best known for the suppression of the Jesuits, and who seems eerily contemporary in his style of churchmanship:

He remained for hours at his desk but he found it difficult to be responsible for even minor decisions, and was confronted with one of the most agonizing decisions which ever faced a Pope. He liked to be liked, shrank from displeasing, and therefore suffered temptation to say pleasant things to both sides and to procrastinate lest decision be unpleasant.

Sound familiar?

Walpole and similar-minded despisers of Catholicism rejoiced in the disarray in which the Church found herself in the early 19th century, but didn't and couldn't predict a Pope Pius IX, nor imagine how loss of temporal power could correlate with an increase of moral authority. So too it's worrisome, in our own time -- when pride, sodomy, and the love of compromise have softened the episcopacy to a Ganganelli-like level of timidity -- to contemplate the way forward. That's why it's nourishing, as Catholics, to have the consolation of history. Been there. Done that. Bought the hairshirt.

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