Even to Live

The Pope? How many divisions has he got?
~Joseph Stalin

In a famous photo of Pope Pius XII praying with the survivors of the Allied bombing of Rome, the Pope stands before the shell-shocked victims in his white cassock and greca with arms outstretched and eyes raised to the heavens. Some of the American-dropped bombs had drifted off course and landed in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, with its famous basilica and ancient cemetery, killing more than 1,500 civilians and destroying the tomb in which the Pope’s parents were buried. By the time Papa Pacelli and his right-hand man, Monsignor Montini — the future Pope Paul VI, left San Lorenzo to return to the safety of the Vatican, the Pope’s cassock and greca were stained red with the blood of the injured and dying. The event was a turning point for Pius XII, who had previously trusted the Americans to keep their word of honor and refrain from bombing Rome, as any aerial bombing was sure to kill civilians and destroy ancient sites held as sacred by Christians around the world. A nobleman by birth and a career diplomat, Pius XII was just a little too sure of his own diplomatic prowess and far too trusting of those who were supposed to be the “good guys”. The Pope learned that in war men readily sacrifice their honor and the lives of others for the sake of power.

The betrayal of the Holy See by the Allies and the carnage wrought by reckless American military leaders — who, unlike priests and popes, do not have to bury the dead, console the dying, wipe the tears of those who mourn, find shelter for the homeless, and feed the hungry who wander among the ruins of war — left a lasting impression on Montini. Both his tenure as archbishop of Milan and his papacy would be marked by a saintly obsession with the well-being of the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and despised. In fact, it is believed that, as pope, he seriously considered auctioning Michelangelo’s Pietà to raise money for the poor in the developing world. To Papa Montini, the poor were more important than the Pietà!

War. Just a few days ago we honored the anniversary of the end of the First World War ninety-nine years ago. The War-to-End-All-Wars turned out to be the introduction to an era of continual war, bloodshed, and destruction. It is the very same era that you and I live in and think nothing of, so numb have we grown to the suffering and wounds of war — wounds which are usually borne not by us but by others.

Since my seminary days I’ve regarded Pope Paul VI as one of the greatest and most heroic leaders of the Catholic Church in the past 500 years. Underappreciated, misunderstood, and dismissed as the “Hamlet Pope”, he’s not a popular or fashionable figure, yet Papa Montini was a man of populist sentiment, commitment to tradition, openness to the realities of the present day, and astonishing cultural sophistication. (I also feel a personal connection to the pope who ordained the man who made me a priest 16 years ago.)

More importantly, Paul VI saw a future swiftly approaching in which the old ways of relating to the world and each other would fail us. Only now, 50 years later, is the Church and the entire world coming to terms with Papa Montini’s call for a novus habitus mentis — a new way of understanding the ancient realities of faith, politics, life, our world, and the marvels that await us in the Universe.

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

The terrifying specter of war as experienced from the inside shocked Pius XII awake and later inspired his protégé, Paul VI, to announce to the world the approach of previously unimaginable conditions that would demand a new way of thinking, relating, living, and imagining the future. The powerful of the world have not, alas, grown wiser or more prudent, but the papacy has remained a dependable voice of reason and insight. When I look at the madness of the world around me, I wonder how Montini would respond. I think he would follow his own advice and apply a novus habitus mentis to the only tools a pope has beyond preaching and diplomacy: the censures of excommunication, deposition, and interdiction.

In the Middle Ages, these moral and spiritual punishments were unleashed against temporal rulers who imposed upon their subjects heresy or immorality; likewise, kings and emperors who violated the sovereign independence of the Pope and Holy See were declared incapable of exercising authority over their subjects, who were absolved from all ties of fealty. Some theologians posited that it was not immoral for such subjects to deprive their illegitimate rulers of property and even life.

If memory serves, ancient censures such as excommunication, deposition, and interdiction were, on occasion, used in time of war. For that reason, it seems to me that there is no reason why a competent ecclesiastical authority — such as a pope, a bishop, or an episcopal conference — might not consider these spiritual, nonviolent tools as a remedy to nuclear war, the threat of which grows daily. (There were no episcopal conferences in the Middle Ages, but certainly the pope could authorize episcopal conferences to use those powers previously reserved to him alone.)

As it happens, Orthodox and Anglican Christian bishops also claim the right to these tools, even if they don’t use them. It seems that Anglican bishops haven’t used these powers since the Reformation, though the Supreme Head of the Church of England could empower them to make use of these censures in order to prevent the annihilation of the world by nuclear war. If, for example, Protestant Christians in the US were loathe to recognize or assent to the authority of the Pope and the Roman Church, they might offer their free consent to the juridical, canonical, spiritual, and moral authority of Orthodox bishops or bishops within the worldwide Anglican Communion, for example. The divisions within the Christian Church since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation need not prevent Christians of today from their duty to protect and care for God’s creation — and to save the world.

Why do I mention this? Not to incite insurrection or disobedience to legitimate civil authority. Rather, it is a reminder that the masters of this world are not as powerful as they believe. And even the poor, the uneducated, the powerless, and the “nobodies” of this world — coming together as a spiritual family — possess the power to change the course of history. All civil authorities, whether king, president, or dictator, depend upon the consent and cooperation of their people and those who are governed may not deny consent to those who govern unless there is serious, legitimate cause. But in times of extreme crisis citizens and subjects should have no qualm of conscience in depriving their leaders of office and power.  All of this is to say that you and I are not helpless victims compelled to participate in the end of the world.

No one can force us to worship at the altar of the God of War.

~BT Waldbillig
November 16, 2017


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