An Apology for Catholics of the Past

When teaching survey courses in French and Western literature, I sometimes note a student’s puzzled reaction to the thoughts of medieval writers. Novice readers will eagerly dive into an Old French text hoping to discover a paean to Catholic life from an age when Christendom was still mostly united, and the Church integrated into every aspect of society. And yet, when you read the great Catholic poems of that age, you quickly realize that people of the Middle Ages did not view themselves as exemplary Catholics, living in a time of great faith. On the contrary, they often judged their societies as almost hopelessly corrupt, faithless, hostile to virtue, and unworthy of the name “Christian.”

A good example of this attitude is found in the eleventh century poem, the Vie de St Alexis. What could be more Catholic than the century when many thousands responded to the appeal of Pope Urban II with shouts of “Deus vult!” for the bearing of arms in defense of Christians in the distant Holy Land? And indeed, the Life of St. Alexis is an unsophisticated work of hagiography, properly edifying, but with great emotional power. However, the opening lines of this poem are marked by disparagement, bordering on despair:

Bons fut li siecles al tens ancienor,
Quer feit i ert e justise ed amor
Si ert credance, dont or n’i at nul prot;
Toz est mudez, perdude at sa color:
Ja mais n’iert tels com fut als ancessors.                    

The world was good in former times,
For faith and justice and love there were,
Indeed there was trust, of which there is now none;
All has changed, has lost its allure:
Never again will it be as it was for our ancestors.

A world gone bad, bereft of even the most basic Christian virtues, with no hope that men yet to come will somehow be better. The sentiment expressed here is much more than just a nostalgia for a long-lost “Golden Age,” a notion that haunts not only Christian thought, but also the very earliest pagan thought, and which many Christian apologists have rightly interpreted as our race’s faint, fleeting, first memory of Eden. No, this poem (and countless others from the Catholic Middle Ages) reveals a deeply rooted sense of anguish, of unworthiness, of humility.

Of course, it is this very sentiment that makes the Middle Ages so much more Catholic than our own. More than the temporal power of bishops and popes; more than the towering miracles of white stone and colored glass; more than ancient rituals and solemn prayers chanted in a venerable language—the true Catholic spirit of the Middle Ages is found in the burning desire to cauterize the evils of the day, to recover lost virtue, to reestablish friendship with the saints.

This is not to idealize or romanticize the moral sense of the Middle Ages. There is no need to rehearse the cruelty of medieval life. Even if we know that propaganda about the “Dark Ages” greatly exaggerates its bleakness and ignorance, there is no doubt that medieval life could be “poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (to paraphrase the über-Machiavellian Hobbes). The remarkable thing is that for many people today, nastiness and brutishness is an attractive way of life unacknowledged as such. You are unlikely to hear anyone today speak like a character in a Mauriacian novel: “Don’t you think the life of people like us is terribly similar to death?”

If the people of the eleventh century were not necessarily better in conduct than those of the twenty-first, at the very least they did not boast of their moral superiority. The Catholics who wrote, and sang, and listened to poems like the Life of St. Alexis did not talk blandly about living in a “new springtime” of the Church, declaring themselves to be a force for “renewal” through their enlightened methods of “new evangelization.” They mostly prayed to avoid the worst calamities they knew their sinful culture deserved, and gave thanks to the God who thought enough of them to give them a divine Son and His Mother as daily comforters in hac lacrimarum valle.

Above all, busy contemplating their own faults, the Catholics of this earlier age did not engage in the public lamentation of other people’s presumed sins, which seems to be the “confession fashion” of our age. With at least the last three papacies, we have seen an avalanche of apologies, almost always on behalf of Catholics of a previous era, and without the historical context necessary to make sense of the actions or inactions of those believers. Pope St. John Paul II apologized so frequently and for such a wide variety of offenses that there is an entire Wikipedia page devoted to this one aspect of his pontificate. (And the page is far from complete.)

Pope Francis has taken this cult of “eorum culpa” to new heights, issuing strangely worded apologies that condemn Christians for the very things that are praiseworthy in Christianity. For example, according to the Pope, Christians should beg forgiveness “from the poor, from exploited women, [and] from children exploited as laborers,” even though, historically, no religion or other organization of any kind has ever done more for the poor, the exploited, women, and children.

Of what, ultimately, consists this fondness for issuing apologies on behalf of Christians (and specifically Catholics) of other eras? Sometimes, I ask myself whether these gestures are not just a kind of pharisaical prayer of self-praise and thanksgiving for one’s moral superiority: “The Pharisee standing, prayed thus with himself: O God, I give thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican” (Luke 18:11). (Just add the prefix “Re-” to the last word, and voila!—moral aggiornamento.)

Can one even imagine a medieval pope issuing such apologies? Certainly, Pope Innocent III expressed shock and regret for the horrific result of the Fourth Crusade, which he had launched, but that is hardly the same thing as apologizing for Christians whose deeds one knows only through history texts. Should Innocent III, (writing in 1205) also have apologized for the fifth-century murder of the pagan philosopher, Hypatia, by an over-wrought crowd of Christians in Alexandria? Never mind that the contemporary Christian historian, Socrates of Constantinople, had already condemned the Christians of his era for this crime, or the fact that the incitement of pagan violence against Christians was not rare at the time.

If we want to issue an apology, let us not apologize on behalf of Catholics of the past. Let us apologize on our behalf to future generations who will never have a chance to be, because of the indifference to the crime of abortion on the part of many present-day Catholics. We have just witnessed a very public Catholic, one Sen. Tim Kaine, receiving a standing ovation from his fellow parishioners and a vote of moral approval from his pastor, despite Kaine’s strong endorsement of the most pro-abortion position ever taken by an American political party. Although a handful of bishops have spoken out against Catholics voting for pro-abortion politicians, too often politicians like Kaine will suffer no consequences for their collaboration with absolute evil.

The Catholics of the Middle Ages would not have understood this paradox, this profusion of apologies coupled with pious indifference. They had the habit of speaking bluntly about evil, and finding it in themselves, rather than in others. We would do well to follow the light of their example, living as we are in the true dark ages of humanity.

Timothy J. Williams

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Timothy J. Williams is Professor of French and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. He is the author of Desire and Persecution in Thérèse Desqueyroux and Other Selected Novels of François Mauriac (2007). In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

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