I am writing these things to you so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:14-15.
So, I’m reading this book called Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich. Its about, well, I guess the tagline is extremely self-explanatory. (On a side note, that’s just cool. Recently I’ve read a lot of books with trendy titles like: Vague but Punchy Word: A Moving Rendition of the Divine Meaning of Life’s Song. I’m always, like, what?)
Not since The World of the Bible have I devoured a book with such focused absorption. I have known next to nothing about the papacy in my time on this earth. I mean, when people say, “Is the pope catholic?” I’m like, YES!, and then I trail off…….
I’m about a third of the way through this book, which means I’m in the middle of the Renaissance popes. These popes are getting more enlightened. It is so far a kinder and gentler papacy, which is a welcomed respite. The Renaissance papacy ushered in some airy reforms. These popes are not like those bad ass mofo Medieval popes. Those dudes were HARD CORE. Here are a few quaint little gems from the papacy in the middle ages:
Pope Gregory XI appointed Cardinal Robert, who immediately blockaded Bologna in an attempt to starve its citizens into surrender, laying waste to all the surrounding countryside and allowing his mercenaries to rape and murder to their hearts content. His final atrocity was to turn them loose on the neighboring town of Cesena; the result was a massacre of over four thousand men, women and children. Pg. 248.
Pope John VIII had the dubious distinction of being the first pope to be assassinated – and worse still, by priests from his own entourage. According to the Annals of the Abbey of Fulda, they first gave him poison; then, when this failed to act quickly enough, they hammered in his skull. Pg. 92.
The architect of the only papal abdication was Cardinal Benedetto Caetini, who is said to have introduced a secret speaking tube into Celestine’s cell through which, in the small hours of the night, he would simulate the voice of God, warning him of the flames of Hell were he to continue in his office…It was somehow inevitable that the successor of the luckless Pope Celestine… should be that same Cardinal Benedetto Caetini. Pg. 219.
Popes were “Vicars of Christ on earth, standing halfway between God and man.” They were the patriarchs of the church, the spiritual fathers, the divine leaders, the men on whose strong shoulders the simple, hardworking people who were mired in the grime of medieval Europe freely trusted for the illumination of earthly & heavenly truth. They were supposed to love and lead the people.
However, the popes from the middle ages were generally not spiritual men; they were politicians. They sat on a throne, they consorted with kings and emperors, they collected taxes, they declared wars, they created and upheld civic law. They lived in lavish luxury, while the people around them huddled in medieval muck. They loved and led poorly.
They were the epitome of absolute power corrupting absolutely. They used excommunication as a weapon of control, they ordered murders and massacres, they schemed to dethrone kings and each other, they sent both idealistic young soldiers and hardened sociopaths on Crusades to butcher Muslims, preferably with a maximum amount of carnage. One pope even chastised an emperor for negotiating Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender during the Sixth Crusade. It was considered a failure because there were not more heretics wallowing in bloody loss. Intrigue, deceit, gore, oppression, bickering, suspicion, paranoia, ambition, murder, torture, bribery, sensuality; the pit of corruption and power-mongering was bottomless.
They did these things in the name of God.
As I sink deeper into the unfolding of this remarkable story, I have to read a little bit at a time to absorb the reality of the disturbing underbelly of the church. I feel disoriented. I am mourning. I regularly think, “What kind of horrifying religion is this?”
O yeah, its mine.
I am not Catholic, but I believe that Catholicism is on the table of orthodoxy, or saving truth. I understand that the weight of leadership in any capacity is a heavy one, requiring a constant balance of idealism with reality. Most leaders, spiritual or secular, compromise at some point, and are still effective, sometimes even great. I already knew that the papacy has at times been corrupt, as all niches of leadership are. I am not idealistic about the reality of church. I know that God’s people have often been the most oppressive and ugly harbingers of death and destruction that the world has ever known.
I do not live under a rock.
But I do believe in the church of the living God, which is the pillar and support of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:15. That is a dizzying mantle of responsibility, a privilege of astonishing proportion. For those who believe God is who He says He is, being a part of what the Church is called to do should bring us to our knees in dazed wonder. The church is supposed to lead like Christ, love like Christ, who dripped blood onto the parched Jerusalem hillside for love of His people. Loving, leading like that is not to be taken lightly. When those carrying that banner of church leadership are debased reprobates (which is the dubious distinction of untold numbers of spiritual leaders who are not popes), it is an epic travesty.
I admit I am weary of how trendy it is to mock and belittle the church. The church is composed of flawed and broken people, so it is a flawed and broken institution. That just makes sense to me. We are all grace-bearers, mercy-receivers. Why not offer the love and mercy our hearts crave to those in the family of faith, even leaders who have failed us? Isn’t restoration after failure in the job description of love? I can choose to walk in that, even if those around me do not. I am not an advocate of churchicide. I admit that when Christians start talking about the evils of “the Western church,” I tune out, because I believe its a cop out. Its too easy. Giving up on church is for people who will not deal with the tension of flawed leadership versus transcendant truth.
So I’ve made my (admittedly opinionated) points: One, I believe in the church. Two, there have a been a series of super sucky leaders in the church (not just popes), and those sucky leaders have deeply wounded people and ideals that matter. Many have dropped that banner of love. Reading this book about the papacy has made me feel torn between those two equally valid truths.
Isn’t the word “torn” an apt description of what the Christian life is all about? Because the people of God are necessarily a people of dual citizenship, citizens simultaneously of Heaven and of earth, we are therefore obliged to function honorably in both realms, conducting ourselves in a responsible manner both towards God and towards humanity. Yet since God and humanity are at odds, what else can a godly person be but torn between the two? As Christ was racked on the cross, so His followers are people whose essential vocation is to be torn apart by tensions of cosmic proportions. Mike Mason. The Gospel According to Job. Pg. 201.
What would the church be like if leaders and followers “functioned honorably in both realms”? What if we allowed ourselves to feel the seams of heaven and earth ripping, tearing, pulling apart with the strain of good versus evil? God has designed the Church to dwell smack on the joint between heaven and hell, fighting with all of our life and strength to beat back the armies of hell who are trying to claw down every last soul they can eternally corrupt (especially leaders who have the power to inflict pain they cannot take back). The front lines of that battle are where every Christian should jostle forward to be – to make this contorted world a more redemptive, merciful, restoring place. What if we led well, loved well, by allowing ourselves to be torn, as Jesus did, for those we are called to love?
I am sorry that many of those popes abdicated the tension and lived un-torn. I am still more sorry for those leaders who have done or will do so in my lifetime, creating a generation of Christians who are turning their backs on the greatest institution the world has ever known: the Church. There is a reckoning. We will all answer for our bubble of time here.
As for me and my house, we will live and love torn.