Modern Catholicism is currently destroying itself with ever increasing speed. Vast numbers have left the priesthood and the monastic life, and innumerable Christians have left the Sacraments.
For Catholics, this is a bewildering disaster. How could things get so bad? How did we get to this point? Answers are often shallow, emotional, and unsatisfactory.
For non-Catholics who call upon the Holy Name of Jesus, this self-inflicted abasement of the Catholic Church may appear tragic and strange. Others may scoff with indifference at the destination of their brethren. In either case it must be admitted: the self-destruction of the Catholic Church affects every Christian.
This essay is meant to provide a historical framework in which Catholics and non-Catholics can understand this crisis. We will discuss the origins of this crisis from a dogmatic and historical perspective in part I. Then in part II we will trace the growth of these currents leading to the World Wars and the Second Vatican Council. In Part III we will discuss the post-conciliar triumph of the enemies of Holy Church, and why Conservatives and Trads must unite to overcome them.
The New Iconoclasm
There are many different factors at work in the present crisis. From a dogmatic point of view, one aspect will be highlighted here: the present crisis is the third crisis of Iconoclasm in the Church’s history. The first being that of the east, spanning about a century between the 8th and 9th centuries. The dogmatic victory over the first Iconoclasm was the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787. The definitive victory (owing to the support of the state) was the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843.
The second Iconoclasm was the Protestant revolt in the west, whose dogmatic victory came at the Council of Trent but, due to the pride of kings (particularly in England and Germany), no definitive victory obtained.
The current crisis is the New Iconoclasm. In some ways it is a continuation of the protracted fight against the second.
What is Iconoclasm?
Now Iconoclasm may be defined in several ways. In one sense it represents the Church’s struggle to overcome Muhammadanism internally as it struggles to overcome it from without. In a practical sense, it simply means destroying the monuments of our fathers. From a dogmatic sense, Iconoclasm hinges on this anathema from the Seventh Ecumenical Council:
Whoever rejects an ecclesiastical Tradition, let him be anathema.
We will take this anathema as the central principle to help us understand the current Iconoclasm. Nota bene: of necessity, this explanation will require making generalizations which always carry with them particular exceptions. Let us first introduce the different warring parties in this current crisis and then provide a historical context below to trace how these parties came to be in our day.
Otherwise known as: Liberals, Modernists.
These men are leading the New Iconoclasm and seek to reject any and all Tradition as such. As Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote recently “individual bishops rejected the Tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a new modern Catholicism.” This party gained the papacy with Francis I.
Their best intelligentsia: Tyrell, Loisy and de Chardin with Rahner, Schillebeeckx, and Kung.
Their influential bishops: Cardinals Martini, Daneels, Kasper and American Cardinals Dearden, Bernadin, McCarrick, with Cupich, Wuerl, and Bishop Wilton Gregory.
Other notables: James Martin, S.J.
Publications: National Catholic Reporter
The Moderate Iconodules
Otherwise known as: Conservatives.
These men anathematize Iconoclasm in principle, yet believe (more or less) that the Iconoclasts should be tolerated or even promoted in the Church. The Moderates seek to change various traditions which they hold to be theologoumena or else changeable tradition and not Tradition as such. At best, this is an attempt to properly develop doctrine. At worst, it is an attempt to change Tradition. Examples of such things are: the re-definition of marriage, the overhaul change in the Roman rite, and the use of post-Christian philosophy such as existentialism. This party has held the papacy from Pius XII until Benedict XVI (but had an important precursor in Leo XIII).
Influential bishops: Roncolli (John XXIII), Montini (Paul VI) and Cardinals Pell, Ouellet and bishop Chaput, Fulton Sheen.
Most bishops today generally tend toward one of these two parties. There is a significant minority, however, in a third party.
The Strict Iconodules
Otherwise known as: Traditionalists.
These men anathematize Iconoclasm very strictly, yet do not condemn change as such. They hold that on various points even the Moderates’ changes were at least unwise and have led to strengthening the New Iconoclasm. They seek to directly attack New Iconoclasm and have repeatedly called upon the Pope to suppress the Iconoclasts entirely—but in vain. At best, they are preserving Tradition against all error. At worst, they are opposing all change in itself to the point of denying charity and causing souls to be lost from the Church. This party generally held the papacy from Pius VI (d. 1799) until Pius X (d. 1914). We will discuss this further below.
These three groups form the parties in the present crisis. But how did these parties come to be? We must begin a necessary historical sketch which will eventually bring us to these three parties of today. Let us begin at the beginning.
In one sense the Iconoclasts and the Moderates form one party based on the principle of change. In another sense the Moderates and the Strict form one party based on the principle of guarding Tradition. The dividing line is always in the definition of what is Tradition and what is theologoumena.
Every Ecumenical Council can be seen as a compromise between the Moderates and the Strict in order to condemn the Iconoclasts (in the dogmatic sense). For example at Nicea, the Strict advocated that the creed should not include the homoousios, since it came from Greek philosophy instead of the Apostolic Tradition. The Moderates, however, successfully made the Nicene Creed a necessary compromise to condemn the Arians.
It is this normal cooperation between the Moderates and the Strict that makes the proper development of doctrine at every council: a formal change but not a material change (in other words, new canons and words but the faith doesn’t change). It was this cooperation that was shattered with the current crisis to exacerbate the New Iconoclasm as we shall see.
Social Changes Strain Alliances, but Trent brings Unity
The three movements of Iconoclasm were all proceeded by a massive societal change. In the First, Muhammadan armies conquered most of the eastern Christian Empire. In the Second and the New, an intellectual movement was present at a time of social change.
Prior to the Second, there was a general movement of Renaissance humanism (helped by Greeks themselves) which was a resourcement effort especially in regards to the Greek language. In addition, due to new technology, the Holy Scriptures could now be mass produced in book form.
When the Protestant revolt broke out, many Catholics were revealed as Iconoclasts, who destroyed images of the saints and broke from the dogmatic anathema mentioned above. They attempted to use Renaissance humanism against the faith. Thus the dividing line between the Moderates and the Strict was over how to deal with the Renaissance.
The Strict, seeing the bad fruit of the Protestant Iconoclasts, were skeptical of humanism and the new technology. Erasmus and St. Thomas More represent the Moderate party who were in favor of using Humanism to help the faith, but also accepted the anathema in principle.
The Moderates and the Strict were able to work together at the Council of Trent to clearly condemn the Iconoclast Protestants. Trent thus represented the dogmatic alliance of the two parties.
However, since that time there has existed Catholics who have been of the Iconoclast party. These Catholics sometimes acted in good faith, such as Descartes. However others openly defied Tradition and advocated changing the faith itself.
At the same time, since Trent closed in the 16th century and the Protestant Iconoclasts were not suppressed by kings, gradually the results of this Iconoclasm showed themselves. New ideas about politics and economics were emerging which worsened the tensions between all parties. All of this continued amid wars and bloodshed, sharpening the existing animosities.
Meanwhile, the Papacy continued to uphold and apply the alliance of Trent against the Iconoclasts. But as the colonial empires rose, political tensions began a steady increase that would eventually lead to complete, worldwide disaster.
Republican Revolutionaries Change Everything
At the end of the 18th century, a political movement began which would sweep Euro-America and the world. It would irrevocably change everything, leading to our present crisis. This movement became the most significant social change that would divide the Moderates and the Strict and tip the balance in favor of the Iconoclasts, ending the Tridentine alliance. This movement was the violent overthrow of divine-right Monarchy and the establishment of secular Republics.
In general, the Strict, with their adherence to the past, favored Monarchy and opposed the republican revolutionaries. They held that the political order could never be truly legitimate unless it acknowledged the origin of all authority in heaven and on earth—Christ the King. These political views were easily transferable to the Church, whose monarchical structure seemed to fit in well with the old order.
The Moderates were mixed in their views toward republicanism. They ranged from a toleration of secular republics for the sake of peace, to a positive support for the movement. But from the 18th century, Moderates who supported republicanism began to grow in number and influence.
The Iconoclasts, of course, favored violent revolution to overthrow all things of the past. The Protestant Iconoclasts had already done this. The Iconoclasts within the Catholic Church wanted to do the same thing to the Catholic Church. They wished to overthrow the political Monarchy and the ecclesiastical Monarchy. The old order put up a stiff resistance, but the Iconoclasts were resilient.
It should be noted here clearly that republicanism as such—that is, a broadly representative form of government in which rulers are elected—is not at odds with the faith. Catholic republics have existed in the history of the Church with no controversy. The crucial difference that occurs in this time period is the establishment of secular republics. For the first time they define their authority based on the will of the people and not in reference to Christ the King or His Holy Church. In other words, these republics begin to create a moral system wherein a political policy is good or bad not on the basis of objective good or evil, but on the basis of whether the people voted for it or not.
The American “Semi-Secular” Republic
First came the American revolution in 1776. This revolution was made up of powerful elites (Patriots) who sought to oppose the taxation of their business interests by the British Crown. They used rhetoric like “liberty” and “freedom” to help convince about a third of the colonists to join their cause, while another third were loyal to the Crown (the final third did not fight). Thus a civil war ensued with many third parties (like Indians and Africans) joining both sides.
Catholics also joined both sides. The Patriots had a small Catholic minority, being dominated by Protestant Englishmen. But the American revolutionaries also used anti-Catholic rhetoric to gain support for their revolution among the Protestant colonists (following the Quebec Act 1774), which provoked other Catholics. Their main goal, however, was to tear down the Protestant Monarchy, which had been killing Catholics for centuries. In addition, Catholic France also entered the war on the side of the revolutionaries.
Thus Catholics were divided on the American Republic. The American Catholics led by John Carroll (later the first American Bishop) favored the revolution, while the French Canadian bishop Jean-Olivier Briand excommunicated Carroll for supporting the revolution (during the revolution Canada was at war with the revolutionaries).
The American revolutionaries won the war and set up a secular Republic which went into effect in March of 1789 (after a failed limited government under the Articles of Confederation). Unlike their parent English government, the American government did not recognize divine authority in their national Constitution. Still, the majority of their state constitutions had a state-funded (Protestant) Church. Thus the American government was secular in its federal government, yet semi-religious in its state governments. The revolutionaries had also been willing make Catholic allies—as long as they supported the revolution.
But because America had so few Catholics, it was still considered Mission Territory for the Papacy, and very little attention was paid to America. But this far away, seemingly insignificant country would eventually provide a final push to change the balance of power in favor of the Iconoclasts more than a century later.
The French Revolution Humbles the Papacy
A few months after the Americans put their secular Constitution into effect, another republican revolution broke out, this time in Catholic France. The revolutionaries did not distinguish between the Catholic Church and the Monarchy, but targeted all religion. The Catholic Divine authority of the government was abolished. With the help of American Thomas Jefferson, the French revolutionaries drew up a new republican creed like the Americans, acknowledging only a “Supreme Being” (l’Être suprême).
But unlike the American secular republic which tolerated Catholics and religion, the French revolutionaries forced all Catholics to swear allegiance to their secular ideas or be put to death. The Iconoclasts swore allegiance, and the Moderates and Strict were put to death.
Thus whereas the American revolution divided the Strict and Moderates, the French Revolution united them in blood. Even as the French Revolution was raging in 1789, Pope Pius VI appointed John Carroll as the first American Bishop (he had to travel to England for consecration due to his local excommunication). But Pius VI completely condemned the French Revolution, which murdered hundreds of Catholics.
When it was clear that the faith was being suppressed, French Catholics of the Vendee region launched a counter-revolution. In response, the republicans initiated a policy of Vendee genocide—men, women, and children (even infants)—-in order to “secure liberty.” Whole towns of Catholics were massacred.
It was during the French Revolution that ordinary men from all social classes were drafted to be soldiers. This was the first mass conscription in history, foreshadowing the crescendo of bloodshed to come.
In 1793, the French executed their king by guillotine, whom the pope hailed as a martyr. The following year Pius VI condemned the Italian local synod of Pistoia (held between the American and French revolutions) which was an effort to apply republican ideas to the ecclesiastical monarchy of the Church.
But the tensions between the French republicans and the Papacy exploded when Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796. After efforts at peace failed, the pope himself was taken prisoner and carried from Rome in 1798, powerless to stop the progress of the revolutionaries. The French Kingdom was strewn with the dead bodies of whole Catholic families.
In the same year, another Catholic country, Ireland, supported by France, launched another republican revolution. As Napoleon’s forces continued to make war on Europe, Pius VI was moved through northern Italian states until he finally arrived in southeastern France. Six weeks after he arrived at his new prison, he died. It was August, 1799.
That fall, the body of the pope of Rome, the head of the Roman Catholic Church lay unburied in the kingdom of France. That December, the Catholic faithful throughout the world celebrated Christmas with no pope. Many of the French Catholics had no priests to celebrate Christmas at all. The Iconoclasts celebrated the bloodshed. The revolutionary forces had won. Napoleon’s wars continued. They had cut off the head of the King of France. Now the head of the Catholic Church was dead. In just a few short years of violence, the New Iconoclasm had begun.
In the next section we will discuss how the Tridentine alliance collapsed in the 19th century and led to the triumph of the New Iconoclasts in the 20th century. Stay tuned.
For further reading on many of these topics, I suggest the following sources:
Catholic Republic: Why America Will Perish Without Rome by Timothy Gordon (Moderate)
Liberty, The God that Failed: Policing the Sacred and Creating the Myths of the Secular State from Locke to Obama by Christopher Ferrera (Strict)
The Framework of a Christian State by Rev. E. Cahill, SJ (Strict, published 1932)
The Catholic Enlightenment: The Forgotten History of a Global Movement by Ulrich L. Lehner (Iconoclast)
Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church by John O’Malley (Iconoclast/Moderate)
Timothy S. Flanders