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Andrzej Flis


Modern European humanistic and democratic tradition has been born as a protest against the sweeping and all-embracing institutionalisation of human life by the Church. Throughout the ages, from the second century onwards, the Church had produced syncretic religion containing both Judeo-Christian and Greek-Roman elements. While the Renaissance aimed at a return to the classical tradition, the Reformation revitalized some principal ideas of Judaism. Although both movements attempted at the re-establishment of the autonomous power and purity of tradition, unwittingly they provoked its further weakening and marginalisation . Despite all differences, both contributed to the development of individualism and democratization of social relations: the Renaissance in secular dimension and Reformation in the realm of faith. Another common denominator of both movements was the idea of virtuoso. The Renaissance thinkers pictured a human being as an active agent capable of changing reality according to his wishes. The preachers of Reformation thought virtuoso a man who, despite all his natural limitations, was yet able to follow Christ's footsteps (imitatio Christi ideal).

From its beginnings, the Latin Church had dealt with tradition, both religious and secular, selectively and instrumentally. It absorbed and transformed multifarious fragments of ancient culture, combining them in a complex amalgam with the tradition of the Old and New Testaments. These latter were likewise continually manipulated according to the era and current political requirements. Such action by the Church would eventually provoke two powerful reactions in the sphere of culture, one of them on the level of the sacrum , and the other on the level of profanum. The first, whose culminating phase was called the Reformation, aimed at purging the true faith of pagan deformations and bringing about the rebirth of fundamental, ascetic religiousness. The second, called the Renaissance, set out in the opposite direction: it set itself the goal of liberating Greco-Roman culture from the corset of Christianity and returning it to Europe in its full, autonomous splendor.

Just as the slogan of the Reformation was a return to Scripture (sola scriptura), so the predominant theme of the Renaissance was the renewal of Rome (Romae renovatae). While medieval Christianity seemed both too secular and too pagan to the Reformation, it seemed insufferably integrationalist to the forerunners of the Renaissance, with its conception of life on earth as a vita transitoria and its tendency to measure all human deeds against religious criteria.

Man, argued Marsilio Ficino, is a god on earth (Theologia Platonica, book XIII, XIV). Pico della Mirandola stated in the Treatise on Human Dignity that Man can be " anything he decides to be". After all, as another representative of the Italian Renaissance, Leon Battista Alberti, taught, man is furnished with virtu--- the intellectual strength that permits him to control his surroundings and progress in the direction he chooses. The virtuoso--- a being endowed with virtu--- aims at the rational embodiment of his intentions in his own life, like an architect erecting a building in accordance with a previously worked out design. (35) The personification of the virtuoso was the artist, scholar or engineer. The activities of each resulted from the intellectual analysis of reality, referring to the empirical knowledge governed by mathematics. They created a possible world, thus contributing as well to the development of virtu in the realm of morality. The supreme goal of human existence was supposed to be, as Alberti taught, continual self-improvement through science, technology, literature and works of art. This was, it is easy to see, the Greek ideal of man, reconciled with the activist spirit of Christianity and formulated in a new language.

The Renaissance conception of the virtuoso, which contributed to the development of modern science, architecture and art and which endowed the individual with dignity, sovereignty and autonomy, was opposed by the Reformation ideal of the religious virtuoso, acting as "God's instrument". By the same token, the individual-rationalistic trend in Protestant Europe enjoyed additional, sacral reinforcement which involved far-reaching social effects. "The sects of religious virtuosi produced," as Max Weber remarked, " a ferment that favored the methodical rationalization of the way people lived, including their economic activity. (36)

The Reformation move arose in parallel to and as an alternative to the Renaissance. Both Lutheran teachings about grace and the Calvinist doctrine of predestination were deeply anti-humanistic and opposed to the ancient vision of man. Similarly, both were offshoots of the same trunk : a radical version of the Augustinian conception of free will. It should therefore not be surprising that they provoked the hostility of humanists. Nor that Erasmus, sympathetic as he was to the idea of church reform, attacked Luther for his pessimistic vision of man, to which the latter replied in his dour and uncompromising text De servo arbitrio ("On the Subjugation of the will').

Protestantism replaced religious symbolism with reading the Bible, the moral codex with ethical virtuosity, and relics, fasts and pilgrimages with an individualistic model of religiousness. Instead of a hierarchical church organization it set up loose communities of believers connected more by common articles of faith than by institutional structures. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli all abolished priestly celibacy and monastic orders, subjected the papacy and the whole contemporary world to merciless criticism, and created a new religious mentality and a new man whose mentality fully suited the emerging civilization of capitalism. Protestantism made a rule of the unprecedented principle that the important thing is not the position, but the personal attributes of the holder of that position. Neither high birth nor wealth nor influential relatives count, only the individual and his actions. This elevation of the individual above secular and sacred institutions is a dress rehearsal of such future transformations as the French Revolution, the free market and parliamentary democracy.

Protestantism created its own mores and its own way of thinking, which recast the foundations of Western European culture. This is especially true of Calvinism and its radical variety, puritanism. Calvinism gave rise to the institution of the consistory ; a collective Church leadership made up of both laymen and clergy. In Calvinism the state was first seen as a contract between the authorities and the governed, an idea later developed by Montesquieu and the bourgeois ideologues of the Enlightenment. It was Calvin who formulated the principle, later a basis of the Western system, that the wealth of a society is a function of the economic success of its individual members. The religious democracy characteristic of Calvinism in general and puritanism in particular went hand in hand with political and economic democracy. History thus remembers the slogan with which the English monarchs justified their battle with puritanism : "No bishops - no king!" The cry was highly prophetic, for it was the Puritans who created the United States. (17)

Modern Europe owed a lot to both traditions embodying their elements in both secular and religious movements. The Church was a fierce opponent of the emerging trends. This was hardly surprising. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed : 'The church ended up embracing feudalism most closely of all even though it had other origins, other destinies and a different nature.'

It is hardly strange that it defended monarchy with blind determination, as if it were the only system of government that accorded with the Gospel. Nor is it strange that it came out against republics, democracy and the rights of man even before they were fully formed. In Quod aliquantum, an apostolic letter directed to the French bishops taking part in the National Assembly in 1791, Pius VI condemned the principle that no one should be hindered because of religion and that everyone should be free to think, speak and write as he saw fit. "This monstrous law," it announced, "is suggested to the Assembly by the freedom and natural equality of people, but can there be anything more misguided than the establishment of that licentious freedom and equality? That freedom....., which the National Assembly grants to man as an inalienable natural right is contrary to the laws established by the Lord of Creation. As St. Augustine said, human society is nothing other than a general consent to obey kings whose authority derives not from a social contract but from God."

The view that democracy is contrary to the principles of the Gospels was proclaimed tirelessly by all popes until the mid-twentieth century. In his condemnation of the French Revolution, Pius VI therefore initiated the papacy's 150-year struggle against liberalism, futile and doomed to failure ; curses raining down from the throne suspended above the altar of St. Peter's Basilica could not restrain the changes set in train by the development of capitalism. One of the most spectacular stages in this struggle is marked by Pius IX's 1864 encyclical Quanta cura, which condems rationalism, freedom of the press, religious freedom under law, freedom of conscience, and a state system that fails to punish attacks on the Catholic faith. A document was appended called Syllabus errorum , the Catalogue of Errors, in which the last of eighty "errors propagated by word and deed" that the bishop of Rome condemned was the view that the pope " can and should accept progress, liberalism and modern culture."

The theses laid down in the Syllabus constituted a continuation and systematization of the church's social teaching as developed by Pius IX's predecessors , especially Gregory XVI whose 1832 encyclical Mirari vos had termed liberalism a "hideous doctrine" and freedom of conscience an "Error and absurdity, and even madness." How consistently Gregory XVI ignored the changes in the contemporary world is illustrated by the way he forbade the introduction of technical innovations, including the railroad and gas lighting, in the papal states – thus ruining economically what was potentially the wealthiest of the Italian states.

"If state authority rests with the people," Pius X asked, "what then will become of authority? It will become a shadow, a myth. Then there is no law in the true meaning of the word and no obedience." Less than two decades later, in 1929, Pius XI again recalled the church's irreconcilable opposition to the principle of freedom of conscience and discussion. "In the Catholic state," he announced authoritatively, "there can be no question of freedom of conscience." In the first half of the twentieth century, the bishops of Rome treated democratic systems as a fundamentally evil, degenerated political order, as a social system deprived not only of moral foundations, but also of any legal basis. The fascist system was seen in a totally different light. The curia never condemned such a system of exercising authority, neither at the outbreak of the Second World War not at the height of Nazi genocide! On the contrary, the Roman church "canonized" fascism, repeatedly lending it public support and concluding various agreements with it, of which the most spectacular were the Lateran Pact with Italy (1929) and the concordats with Germany (1933), Portugal (1940) and Spain (1953).

There had been a "cold war" between the papacy and Italy from the moment in 1870 when, following the occupation of the Eternal City by Giovanni Lanza's military government and the liquidation of the papal states, Pius IX proclaimed himself a prisoner of the Vatican. This went on for more than fifty years, until the fascist coup in 1922 caused a radical change of church attitudes towards the Italian state. Thus, in the encyclical Ubi Arcano Dei announced shortly after the March on Rome, Pope Pius XI opposed the participation of the people in ruling Italy --- synonymous with support for Mussolini's dictatorship. Less than two years later, by demanding of Catholics obedience to the Duce who was ruling the state "with unprecedented strength and freshness of spirit" --- and simultaneously emphasizing that lack of such obedience was a sin --- he was of great aid to the fascists in overcoming their social isolation and a deep political crisis caused by the assassination of the popular socialist Giacomo Matteoti.

The Vatican contributed significantly to the overthrow of parliamentary government in Italy and the seizure of power by the Fascist party. Thanks to this, the ruling circles of a party that had initially been decidedly anticlerical became convinced that the Catholic hierarchy could be an important pillar of the new system. The culminating phase of the cooperation of the Fascist and the church in exercising secular-religious control over the Italian people was the Lateran Pact of February 11, 1929. In this pact, the Vatican made far greater concessions to Mussolini than it had been prepared to offer any of the pre-Fascist Italian governments : it reduced its territorial demands to a minimum, renounced any international guarantees and markedly reduced its demands for financial compensation. For their part, the Fascists repaid the Apostolic See with the most favorable concordat concluded in modern times.

As opposed to the earlier democratic cabinets, the Fascist government did not have to deal either with the tradition of the Risorgimento , or with the principle of national sovereignty, or with the anti-clericalism of the Italians. It could thus, as a consequence of the conditions of the concordat, raise Catholicism to the rank of "the one state religion", limit the religious freedom of Protestant denominations, introduce compulsory religious education in school, abolish divorce and place matrimonial law under church jurisdiction. The Roman curia accepted these regulations with the highest appreciation. Two days after the signing of the concordat, Pope Pius XI defined Mussolini as a statesman free of "liberal prejudices" sent by Providence. The Lateran Pact meant the end of democratic institutions and political pluralism in Italy for more than fifteen years. The Apostolic See expected that Mussolini's Fascist state would become a model for other Catholic countries, which would be bound to it in the future by close alliances. After the Lateran Pact, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs began actively supporting Vatican diplomacy and contributed to the undertaking of negotiations between the papacy and Hitler, capped by the concordat concluded in record time with Nazi Germany.

While democracy was putting down roots and sweeping across Europe despite various obstacles, the Catholic Church was evolving in the opposite direction, growing more and more alien from contemporary European civilization. This process of internal constitutional transformation made the Roman church into an island of absolutism and autocracy among the republican states of the West, increasing the level of its antagonism with an outside world that was largely areligious and secularized. The bitter enmity of the Catholic hierarchy towards any democratic system founded on respect for a pluralism of values had, however, another source beyond ideology. The church would never be able to make a deal with democracy over the heads of "the people of God", since the essence of democracy lay in empowering society. As opposed to monarchy or fascism, democracy was in no position to grant the church a privileged legal or political position, and so the church could not "do business" with democracy. For instance, a truly democratic system could not offer Catholicism a constitutional role as a " national religion", as the fascist dictator of Portugal, Antonio Oliveira de Salazar, did in the 1950s, or cede to the church full control over schooling, the press, publishing and filmmaking, as happened in General Franco's Spain.

This situation has survived until today. The contemporary Catholic Church seems incapable of reconciling its doctrine and teaching with Western humanistic tradition and democratic regime. This is for instance reflected in pope John Paul II's denouncement of the 'death civilization' as well as in the formation of surprising alliances between Vatican and Muslim fundamentalists, as for example, during Cairo Ul.?rpemographic Conference of 1994 and Beijing IIN Conference on Women a year later.

In 1994, the international media reported extensively on the exotic alliance concluded between Vatican diplomats and Islamic fundamentalists at the United Nations demographic conference in Cairo, in order to torpedo the conference's final declaration as supported by the United States and the European Community. A year later, at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, a similar scenario was re-enacted : with the support of the Islamic countries, the Vatican opposed the West, defined in John Paul II's encyclical Evangelicum Vitae as "the civilization of death" .

The Cairo and Beijing conferences revealed the true alienation of the Catholic Church from European culture. It has turned out that in questions of morality the Vatican has more in common with Islamic fundamentalism than with the European Parliament in Strasbourg or the Council of Europe in Brussels. What is more, the Cairo and Beijing conferences have also shown that in its unyielding fight against the democratic state (once again regarded, after the fall of communism in 1989, as enemy number one), the Vatican is ready to form alliances with its recent religious enemies --- with Islam leading the way.

The ecumenical movement sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council as an admissible form of contact with the non-Catholic outside world has notoriously failed to bear any significant fruit in the religious sphere, or to contribute in any meaningful way to a true rapprochement among the Christian " separated brethren." Yet it has rendered the church no mean service as a political instrument in the struggle against democracy. The fact that in the final analysis Catholicism's best ally has turned out to be Islam rather than Protestantism or the Orthodox churches is striking evidence that in its obsessive "dream of power", the Roman curia has alienated itself for good not only from western secular culture but also from Christianity or, to be more precise, from what remains of Christianity.


1. A. Theiner, Documents inedits, relatifs aux affaires religeuses de la France, vol. 1, Paris, 1857, pp. 32 et seq.

2. In the encyclical Quanta cura of September 8, 1864, Pius IX defined liberals as " people without dignity, who like the foam on the waves of a stormy sea spew their lies and promise freedom., although they are the slaves of decay."

3. Letter to the French Episcopate of August 25, 1910.

4. Open Letter to Cardinal Gasparri, May 30, 1929.

5. A measure of this hostility is afforded by Pius IX's strong complaints against his strict imprisonment, which denied him "the free performance of the supreme pastoral authority" (Respicientes, November 1, 1870), as well as by his unending appeals to the faithful to help him recover his freedom or, in plain terms, to rebuild the papal states. Such appeals were troubling to the Italian government. In order to intensify the resonance of such pleas by the pope, his fervent apologists spread rumors about his humiliating poverty and bits of the straw on which the successor of Peter was allegedly compelled to sleep were peddled to Pilgrims with the sanction of the appropriate church authorities (see V. Gorresio, Risorgimento scomunicato , Florence, 1958, pp.196 et seq.). This stubborn non possumus towards a weak, freshly unified Italy confirmed the influential anticlerical wing of public opinion in its aversion to the church. For instance, the national hero Giuseppe Garibaldi complained in 1875 that parliament did not want to free Italy from the yoke of the papacy and clergy, those "irreconcilable foes of the fatherland and culture." A significant part of the press reveled in attacks on the clergy and high Catholic hierarchy, even resorting to crude mockery and caricature while, despite stern steps by the state authorities, there were attacks on priests and blasphemous masquerades on the streets of Rome.

6. P. Scappola, Chiesa e stato nella storia d'Italia, bari, 1967, p. 520.

7. The dimensions of this crisis are attested by the fact that, in the face of the universal outrage at the murder of Matteoti, many fascists lacked the courage to show themselves in public, while Mussolini himself broke down and panicked. Twenty years later, Il Duce still quaked at the memory of this part of his life and admitted in a discussion with the journalist Carlo Silvestri that he had thought then of submitting his resignation to the King, and even expected to be imprisoned and sentenced to death (see P. Monelli, Mussolini piccolo borghese, Milan, 1965, p. 160).


8. Some historians speculate that Mussolini and the Vatican had already concluded a secret informal agreement before the march on Rome. Otherwise, the favorable attitude of the Roman curia to the power-grabbing fascists, who just a few months earlier had been proclaiming the slogan "abasso il papa" (down with the pope) and had been breaking up religious processions, seems incomprehensible ( see E. Rossi, Il manganello e l'aspersorio, Bari, 1968, p. 46).

9. Address of February 13, 1929 to the Faculty of the Catholic University in Milan.

10. One of the few exceptions to this rule is the Latvian concordat of May 30, 1922, in which this Lutheran state accorded far-reaching privileges to its microscopic Catholic minority. Aside from the diplomatic inexperience of the young republic, this one-sided pact can be explained in terms of the aspirations of the Latvian government to create its own, national archbishopric with borders corresponding to those of the state. The proclamation of the archdiocese of Riga was a sine qua non for liberating Latvian Catholics from foreign dependency, either on the Samogitian diocese based in Telles in Lithuania, or the Mohyla archdiocese in the Ukraine as was still the case under the terms of the 1847 concordat signed by Pius IX and Nicholas I. These natural yearnings of a small Baltic nation to reinforce its fledgling sovereignty were ruthlessly exploited by the Roman curia, which exacted a heavy price for a reorganization of the ecclesiastical administration that also lay in its own interests.

11. Aside from the Islamic states, the Vatican delegation was supported at Beijing by some African countries, Slovakia, the Philippines, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela and Colombia.