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The Papacy page 2

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In obedience to his call the twentieth Ecumenical Council convened in Rome. Nearly eight hundred priests, of whom the larger portion were bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs, formed the august assembly. The distances from which they came illustrate impressively the widely extended authority of Home. Toilsomely across Asiatic deserts, borne by swift Atlantic steamers, the soldiers of the church journeyed to her relief. The Patriarch of Babylon reminded men of the slow, unmoving societies of the East, and carried their thoughts back to the mysterious depths of unrecorded time which lie around the cradle of the. human race. The Bishop of Chicago symbolized the fiery, unresting activities of the New World. The Archbishop of Westminster brought with him distasteful suggestions of London, where in a special sense "Satan hath his seat." Crowds of dignified ecclesiastics from Eastern lands dominated by the followers of the false prophet breathed gladly for a little space the congenial air of Rome, and approached with unbounded devotion the head of their church. There were archbishops bearing the names of those famous and fallen churches to which the Apostle John conveyed mysterious words of commendation and rebuke eighteen hundred years ago. Thirty nations were represented. From France, from Austria, from Spain, from South America vexed by perennial revolution, saintly men hastened to Rome to save religion and society from the calamity of liberty and progress. The pope had summoned all Christendom to his help. But there were differences not yet ready to be reconciled. The Greek Patriarch of Constantinople declared the convening of the council to be " vain and fruitless," and ungraciously returned the letter which conveyed the papal summons. Schisniatical Russia would not even permit her Polish bishops to attend the council. Heretical Prussia declined the invitation. England, busied with matters which seemed to her more urgent, scarcely condescended to notice it. Bavaria actually sought to bring about a combination of governments which should prevent the council from being held.

The Council of the Vatican met in the great hall in the Church of St. Peter. The holy father, clothed in white, sat upon a throne, with a golden mitre on his head, made specially for this high occasion. The bishops, too, were all in white; for it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The white-robed bishops advanced in long procession, and one by one knelt down and kissed the knee of the white-robed father. The pope three times blessed his children, and then he addressed to them an opening exposition of the sorrows which they had come to heal.

The purpose of the council, as the pope himself comprehensively defined it, was "to supply a remedy for the many evils which disturbed the church and society." During the months which intervened between the summoning and the meeting of the council, there had been eager debate as to the special remedial measures which were appropriate to the crisis. Gradually from out the multitude of suggestions one rose pre-eminent, and engrossed the thought of the church. The personal infallibility of the pope ought to be asserted. The whole power of the church ought to be concentrated in the person of his holiness. The father of endangered Christendom ought to meet his enemies with an overawing claim to the prerogatives of divinity. The world, it was said, was worn out with vacillation and uncertainty. Its supreme need was to find assured truth, and a person qualified to proclaim the same. Let this need at last, after long centuries of waiting, be satisfied by the assurance that the pope is the inspired and unerring revealer of all truth.

It was no new device which the papal party now pressed upon the church. A powerful impulse has from the earliest period of her career driven Rome towards the establishment of absolute despotism. No sooner was her primacy acknowledged than her apologists began to assert the unlimited power of the pope. Somewhat later that claim was strengthened by the suggestion that it was impossible for the pope to err. Among the manifold controversies of the schoolmen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the dogma of Papal Infallibility is to be met with, and its vindicators grow bolder as the years pass on. During the century which preceded the Reformation - when the vices and errors of the Papacy became gigantic beyond human endurance - the doctrine of infallibility made rapid progress. For a time Rome was discredited by the great secession, and those who desired the increase of her authority were silenced. But the freedom of thought claimed by the Reformation was a thing too high for the enfeebled intellect of the Catholic nations. In the reaction which ensued, men sought refuge from the anxieties and responsibilities of inquiry in blind and passive obedience to authority. The order of the Jesuits, formed at this time, expressed truly, in its fundamental laws, the sentiment of the age. During the ensuing centuries, the inherent despotism of Rome advanced slowly but with unswerving tenacity to its coveted investiture with unlimited authority sanctioned by inability to err (Centuries passed while the question was under discussion whether infallibility attached to the person or the office of the pope). The revolutionary tempest which has raged around the church during the nineteenth century quickened the movement. Rome could not stay the departure of her temporal sovereignty, - could not prevent the governments of Europe from bestowing a constantly diminishing regard upon her wishes. There was all the greater need to assert loudly her supernatural pretensions. The claim to infallibility is the reply of Rome to the aggressive liberalism of the age.

It was known very early in the history of the council that an overwhelming majority of members proposed to save the church by conferring unlimited power upon her head. Only a small minority hesitated in presence of absolutism such as Christendom had never known before. Archbishop Manning, lately a Protestant, now more popish than the pope himself, was prominent among the champions of infallibility; as a French priest, the Bishop of Orleans was among its adversaries.

The council had much work laid out for it. It was arranged in four great sections, under the heads of Faith, Discipline, Affairs of the East, and Religious Orders. The fathers debated a multitude of topics. The manners and also the garments of the clergy, the catechism, the authority of the bishops over priests and of the pope over bishops, with other topics of subordinate interest, occupied the meetings of five months. "Witty fathers, if they were asked when, the council would finish, replied by inquiring when it would begin. During all these months the question of infallibility had scarcely been named. It filled-all minds; it was eagerly debated out of doors; manifold intrigues were framed by the promoters of the dogma. But as yet the council appeared to shun the supreme hour on whose decision the future of the church, for good or for evil, must depend. The excitement of approaching battle already stirred the pulses of the fathers. Already an unacceptable speech was received with " violent gestures." The saintly calm of the council hall had once been broken by a formidable uproar, which so agitated the sympathetic crowd without that the civil arm had to interpose in the interests of tranquillity. A certain Armenian vicar-general offended the pope by an act of imperfect obedience, whereupon the holy father ordered his arrest. The unruly ecclesiastic resisted the ministers of papal justice, and much scandal ensued from his audacious contumacy. But a still worse scandal arose from the action of the Turkish ambassador at Florence. That officious unbeliever, hearing of the incident, hastened to Rome to offer to an Armenian Christian ecclesiastic of dignity the protection of his odious government against the universal father of Christendom!

But time soothed these agitations, and at length the arena was cleared for the great contest. The powers of the Vatican had been diligent in forwarding a cause which was peculiarly their own. The pope himself openly promoted the dogma; openly blessed its supporters; openly prayed for the illumination of its enemies. Public processions, prayers and masses, kindled the religious enthusiasm of the faithful. The authorities watched with anxious care the currents of opinion within the council. They circulated schemes for the enactment of infallibility, with the customary anathema on all unreasonable persons who hesitated to accept the same. They modified or silently dropped these proposals when they found that opinion was scarcely ripened up to the necessary point. They "strongly advised" the parish priests of Home to sign an address in favour of infallibility, and their advice was accepted with unconcealed reluctance. With admirable strategic skill they guided the great measure onward to success.

The Bishop of Poitiers opened the debate in a long and ardent harangue. His purpose was to exalt the church by showing the superiority of St. Peter over St. Paul. As; i one conclusive evidence of that superiority, he dwelt upon the circumstance that Providence allowed Paul to be beheaded, but protected Peter from such a doom. The already convinced fathers seemed by their applause to accept the argument as satisfactory.

Henceforth the council gave itself to the absorbing controversy. The minority, which was held to number one hundred and fifty to two hundred fathers, fought with steady but despairing resolution. They foretold schisms and abjurations in the church as the consequence of this unhappy measure. An American bishop, nursed in democracy, stated that the scheme was repugnant to his countrymen, and would form an obstacle to the conversion of Protestants. The Bishop of Savannah denounced it as sacrilegious, at which statement a loud uproar burst from the angry majority. The eagerness to take part in the debate was excessive. One day seventy fathers inscribed their names as intending orators; another day the candidates numbered eighty; later on they rose to one hundred and eight. Speeches were strictly limited to twenty minutes, and a bell was provided to aid the president in the frequent necessity of silencing orators who were disposed to transgress. At length the majority became impatient of this inundation of words, and by a sudden vote declared the general debate closed. Henceforth only the details of the measure, might be spoken to.

Displeased with this violence, a few of the liberal bishops quitted the council and returned to their dioceses. The minority was now held to number about one hundred and thirty. A nearly unanimous vote was indispensable, and the strength of the opposition gave much concern to the Vatican. All attempts to divide or win over having failed, the Archbishop of Malines suggested that the council should terminate the difficulty by cursing the obstructive fathers, and driving them from the church. It was said that the Archbishop of Westminster approved of this vigorous policy. But when it appeared that the proposal would seriously divide the majority, more moderate counsels prevailed.

All through the month of June the debate drew out its interminable length. July came with its burning heat, its pestilential airs from the marshes of the Campagna. The thermometer stood at one hundred and fifteen degrees in the shade. The fathers, all elderly men, drooped in the sickening heat, and many of them - especially those accustomed to northern temperatures - became ill. Some of them died. The opposition besought the pope to adjourn the council. But the Vatican would not be baffled, and the petition was refused. The minority resolved to discontinue a vain resistance, and the debate closed.

The council met in public to confirm what had already been done at private meetings. There were present only five hundred and thirty-five members, the minority being wholly absent. Two votes were recorded against the measure. One was given by an Italian, the other by the Bishop of Little Rock in Arkansas. While the vote was being taken, thunder pealed and lightning flashed around the fathers. The enemies of infallibility recognized the voice of divine indignation; its friends were reminded of Sinai and the Ten Commandments. The pope in a short speech acknowledged the greatness of the dignity now assured to him. The monks, nuns, and other religious persons who hovered around the doors of the hall gave clamorous expression to the joy which this great victory inspired. In the evening the public buildings and a few private houses were illuminated, but the city maintained an attitude of indifference. Sixty-three bishops protested formally against the step which the council had taken. Next day the official journal announced that the decision was unanimous, with the exception of two votes.

The declaration of Papal Infallibility was delivered to the church enveloped in malediction, the familiar drapery of papal decrees. It solemnly anathematized the following persons: -

Those who deny that the blessed Apostle Peter was chief of the apostles and head of the whole visible church.

Those who deny that Peter had perpetual successors, or that the Roman pontiffs are his successors.

Those who deny the supreme authority of the pope over all churches and pastors in all parts of the world, not only in regard to faith and morals, but also in regard to discipline and government.

Those who deny that the official decisions of the Roman pontiff, on questions of faith and morals, are infallible, without any consent of the church.

On the surface it seems merely an idle jest that five hundred elderly gentlemen, after months of agitating debate, should gravely declare another gentleman, also elderly and conspicuously erring, to be wholly incapable of error. But this view, however just, does by no means exhaust the significance of the transaction. The assertion of infallibility is a reiterated declaration of irreconcilable hostility against all enlightening modern impulses. It is the assumption of power more despotic than the world ever knew before, in order the better to give effect to that hostility. Such a despotism, accepted by two hundred million Christians, and animated by such a motive, cannot be lightly regarded.

But it furnishes no ground of alarm. This vast and threatening aggression upon human liberty is, in truth, an evidence of decay. It is a device of church officials, forced upon them by the decline of faith among their people. The supporters of infallibility were especially numerous in France and Italy, where the power of the church is waning; in England and in Eastern countries, where the faithful are a little band living among enemies. The growing intelligence of Europe saps the foundations of papal authority. Men who are learning to read and reflect, and who have tasted the enlightening influences of travel, cannot help an increasing alienation from a power which abhors railways and the printing-press, and would gladly suppress freedom of thought if it could. Men used to self-government in state feel the yoke of absolute authority in church becoming constantly more irksome. Priests, conscious of the change, flock to Rome and vainly strive to recall by the vote of a council the diminishing supremacy of the church. It is the only defensive measure that is possible for them. Once Rome could prevent progress; now she can but curse it.

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