Time to Reassert the Church’s Spiritual Role

Poor old Philippo Argenti languishes in the fifth circle of his Inferno, among those condemned for the sin of wrath. He treads water in the Styx, jostling with other damned souls to stay afloat; others sink beneath the surface, forever drowning but never dying.

A contemporary of Dante’s, Argenti tries to climb aboard the boat as he and Virgil cross the river. Dante seems to recognize him, and asks: “Who art thou that hast become so squalid?” The shade replies sadly, “Thou seest that I am one who weeps.” Dante understands, but is unmoved:

With weeping and with wailing,
Thou spirit maledict, do thou remain;
For thee I know, though thou art all defiled.

Virgil sends the “dog” Argenti back into the river and, lest the reader think Dante cruel, praises the mortal’s callousness:

Disdainful soul,
Blessed be she who bore thee in her bosom.
That was an arrogant person in the world;
Goodness is none, that decks his memory;
So likewise here his shade is furious.

Sinking back into the Styx, Argenti (quite literally) becomes consumed with rage, and “turned round upon himself with his own teeth.” Sounds like a nasty character, doesn’t he, this “exasperate Florentine”?

Actually, we can’t be sure. While rumors of a personal feud between Dante and Argenti abound, the only thing we know for certain is that he was a politician: a member of the Black Guelph party in Florence. Dante was a White Guelph.

Guelph originally denoted Italian supporters of Papacy against those of the Holy Roman Emperor—who was, in turn, supported by the Ghibellines. The fracture came in the wake of Boniface VIII’s election to the Chair of St. Peter. The Blacks continued to serve the Pope and the old nobility, while the Whites threw their lot in with the merchant class and, on occasion, the Ghibellines.

Granted, one can read too much ideology into the feud. That particular chapter of Italian history is rife with la guerre pour la guerre. Still, partisans on both sides believed this conflict had profound spiritual implications. It’s one thing to oppose Boniface’s ambitions on the peninsula, and quite another to declare he’ll burn in Hell for simony.

The Guelph mantle passed into centuries of ignominy, but enjoyed something of a renaissance during the nineteenth-century Risorgimento. The “neo-Guelphs” were led by Fr. Vincenzo Gioberti, who proposed a confederation of Italy’s traditional sovereigns under the pope. Neo-Guelphism never enjoyed mass support, but was vastly over-represented among the peninsular elites: King Charles Albert of Sardinia appointed Gioberti prime minister in 1848, and he counted the ubiquitous Pellegrino Rossi as an ally. So was Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti who, as Pius IX, was referred to as “Gioberti’s pope.”

Of course, the papal federation never took off. Republicanism was simply too entrenched in the unitarian camp; the peninsula’s various monarchs and aristocrats were looked on as stumbling-blocks to Risorgimeno, not potential allies. And, as in France, there was a preponderance of Freemasonry (i.e., anti-clericalism) among Italian nationalists. They would never accept vesting the pope with more temporal authority, however symbolic.

So Gioberti gave way to Garibaldi, who gave way to Mussolini. Less than a hundred years after the destruction of traditional Italian society’s principal buttresses—the monarchies, aristocracies, and the papacy—far-left nationalism evolved into “far-right” fascism. In retrospect, it wasn’t such a fantastic leap. In fact, it was precisely the same tragedy that played out in Austria, Germany, and Russia.

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We’ve begun reviving the old nomenclature at a little Catholic salon some friends of mine are cobbling together. As before, the terms are vague and somewhat fluid: the Guelphs (including yours truly) are those who tend to look to the institutional Church for solutions; the Ghibellines are those who don’t. We’ve been having the debate long enough that I’m cognizant of the weakness of the Guelph position. Ultimately, it comes across as though we’re saying: “If only everyone would become Catholic, this wouldn’t be a problem!”

Yet, in a way, isn’t that exactly what we’re saying?

In the traditional Act of Faith, we affirm:

O my God, who are infallible Truth and can neither deceive nor be deceived, I firmly believe all that you have revealed and propose to my belief though your holy Church, because you have revealed it.

That’s an unfashionable proposition in our relativistic age. We’re supposed to concentrate on those beliefs we hold in common. The differences between Catholics and Evangelicals are incidental, so long as we can agree that “the Reformation spurred the development of rigorous historical study of ancient texts.” And we disagree with Marxists a great deal—but, more importantly, we both strive for social justice. This is a trend with which every Crisis reader is no doubt familiar, and which is in vogue both on the Right and the Left.

Yet, whether we like it or not, ours is the One True Church. She alone was founded by Christ. She alone possesses magisterial authority. She alone dispenses valid sacraments. And these aren’t mere trifles. To be without the Church is to be without the fulness of truth, grace, and authority.

Put it this way. Since Edmund Burke, conservatives have stressed the centrality of the Fall to our understanding of human society. Russell Kirk stated as one of his ten conservative principles that we

are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created… By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

This is demonstrably true, whether one is Christian, Jewish or atheist. As Catholics, however, we must add a “but.” Yes, man is imperfect; and, yes, we must keep up our traditional moral safeguards, i.e. institutional religion. But our institutional religion—the Roman Catholic Church—has value beyond the merely utilitarian. It isn’t just some vast schoolmarm, chiding the miscreants and patting do-gooders on the head.

What she offers us is a chance to heal our wounded nature. Through reconciliation, she makes us fit to approach the altar; and, through the Eucharist, she feeds us Christ’s true body and blood. This sacrifice, which we may renew daily, is efficacious: it fortifies us spiritually against sin. Through frequent and well-disposed reception of the sacraments, we can actually overcome our concupiscence and become better people—something no other sect can offer.

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Chesterton wrote in his biography of Aquinas, “it is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.” As aspiring saints, it’s our duty to contract this relativistic age. What the world needs now more than anything is for us to emphasize the singular importance of the conversion of souls to our Mother the Church. She’s always acted as a field medic, bandaging our wounded humanity in this war against the Enemy; yet not since the Reformation has the tide seemed to turn so gravely against us. Who do we help by asking the nurses to blend in, “ecumenically,” among the dead? To whom will the wounded look for succor and hope?

This is what we mean when we call ourselves Guelphs: not that we want Rome to have more temporal authority (we don’t), but that we recognize her complete spiritual authority, and the indispensable role she’ll play in restoring the world to health of body and soul. We follow the injunction of King David to “put not your trust in princes”; and of Paul, to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Barque of Dante” painted by Eugène Delacroix in 1822.

Michael Warren Davis

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Michael Warren Davis is U.S. Commissioning Editor for Catholic Herald. His work has appeared in The Spectator and The Salisbury Review, among others.

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