Monsignor Ronald Knox is one of the great yet unheralded Catholic thinkers of the early 20th Century. Apart from being a writer of mystery novels, he was also a distinguished theologian and a scripture scholar; he even published his own translation of the Bible after years of study and work.
In one of his lesser-known books entitled Difficulties, A Correspondence About the Catholic Religion between Mgr. Ronald Knox & Sir Arnold Lunn (1932), Knox exchanges letters with Lunn, an English peer and Anglican, concerning the truth of Catholicism. Some of the writing is long-winded (particularly Lunn’s, who seems more interested in impressing the reader with his knowledge than anything else), but Knox usually manages to reduce his arguments very neatly. Although the book is decidedly pro-Catholic, I think that Knox objectively prevails in presenting the better position.
The primary argument proposed by Lunn in his first letter to Knox concerns the claims of history that in the past centuries, the Papacy:
…became the plaything of rival factions of Roman nobles, probably the most turbulent and vicious of all European history, who for more than a century forcibly intruded onto the papal chair Popes according to their will — licentious youths, feeble old men, worldly sycophants. In the hundred years 870-970 twenty-five Popes reigned, many of them violently done to death. It was a period of unparalleled disorder, violence, depravity in all ranks of Church and State alike.
Lunn asks how in the world the Church’s claims are true in light of this history:
I find it difficult to believe that Christ was ever officially represented on earth by ‘licentious youths, feeble old men, worldly sycophants.’ To describe a Borgia as ‘the Vicar of Christ’ seems to me almost blasphemous.
Fair enough. We see this same argument used a lot today. There’s plenty from the Church’s history: just a few examples include the Inquisition, the treatment of Galileo, and the sale of indulgences. We’ve even had a number of popes who were truly bad men. Most recent is the priestly sexual abuse scandal, cited by many opposed to the Church’s teachings in order to establish a basis for the argument that the Church has “lost its moral authority.”
Knox’s response is brief and effective. First, he notes the distinction between person and office. For instance, you pull over your car at the summons of a Chicago policeman, “because he represents law and order, although you may know that he takes bribes from bootleggers.”
If you take the “Catholic view,” Knox says, “it is hard to see why an immoral life (for example), if it does not invalidate the sacraments which a particular priest administers, should invalidate the public actions of a particular Pope, since the Pope is the Vicar of Christ in his public capacity.”
We do not automatically reject the authority of a bad person who holds an office, because the authority comes from the office itself, and not from the personal integrity of the officeholder. We hope that those in offices of authority also have personal integrity, but there is no promise that this is so. In fact as it regards the Church, none are immune to sin and all are in need of Christ’s mercy, so the expectation of virtue on the part of our leaders is nothing more than an expectation.
What it comes to is that you would have expected something different of the Church from what appears on an examination of history. You would have expected that the Popes would be a long line of Saints, or at least very good men — certainly no licentious youths or worldly sycophants among them…
If you are a priest, and have to stand at the altar day after day as God’s ambassador, with the consciousness of your own weaknesses and failings crowding in on you, you begin to be grateful for the distinction between the man and his office. But in any case the question is not what you or I would expect, but what we have a right to expect. And it does seem to me that one of the reasons why our Lord chose Judas to be an apostle was because he wanted us to be prepared, from the first, against every possible shock to our consciences. If Judas could be described as our Lord’s apostle, I don’t quite see why Alexander VI should not be his Vicar.
We want and hope for good, virtuous and holy popes, bishops, priests, etc. We want and hope for them because we know that these are the attributes Jesus wants, and the Church needs. But Jesus doesn’t say only good people will make up the Church.
Rather, looking at Peter and Judas as prime examples, both men were sinners. Both men lacked virtue in certain things at certain times. Both men denied Our Lord, even. But what distinguished Peter from Judas was that Peter returned. He recognized his failure, and he sought Christ’s mercy. Jesus restored Peter to his place, even though some might have said it was not a good idea, considering Peter’s personality and record.
Even the most virtuous men and women of the Church are still sinners. It is the obstinate refusal to repent that defeats the salvation of the soul, and brings scandal to the Church. This obstinate refusal is personal on the part of the actor, and is not attributable to the Church herself. It is the same “non serviam” spoken by the Evil One. It is in spite of, not because of, the holiness of the Church.
For the Apostles, it was 11 out of 12. Frankly, the record of good popes versus bad is better than that.
[NOTE: Vote for me for Beer Camp and all of your wildest dreams will come true!]