Theology of the Mystical Body

School Days

Dr. John C. Rao

Rediscovering a Lost Tradition

Rediscovery is the best word to characterize the experience of a great number of committed Catholics of the 1800’s. Throughout the post-French revolutionary Catholic world, thinkers and activists of impressive caliber demonstrated a desire to learn, develop and put into practice themes and customs which had been buried by decades and even centuries of Jansenist, naturalist, and simple parochial neglect. Depending upon energy, taste, and imagination, this drive led them back to the Fathers of the Church, to the medieval scholastics, and to a mystical, devotional, and liturgical life rich in lessons for both the Catholic community and individuals. The centers of re-discovery–German, Italian, and French, for the most part–were lay/clerical circles of believers, religious confraternities, orders restored after the devastation of the Revolution, university faculties, and groups gathering round those journals and newspapers that seemed to spring up everywhere in the course of the nineteenth century.

It was out of this movement of rediscovery that the approach of what some have called the “Roman School” was formed. Although it is impossible in a single article to name all of this “School’s” founders and proponents, one can at least orient himself historically and geographically by referring to those segments of the scholarly and popular press of the years from the 1830’s to the 1870’s which were actively engaged in popularizing it. Anyone wishing to grasp the character of the Roman School at its origins should examine the pages of Der Katholik, the Historisch-Politische Blätter, and Archiv für Katholisches Kirchenrecht in the German world; La Civiltà Cattolica in Italy; L’Univers/Le Monde in France; and the Dublin Review in the United Kingdom.

The Interaction of Nature and the Supernature

Five themes may be said to have provided the “curriculum” of the Roman School, the most basic of which was an insistence upon the impossibility of understanding anything “natural” without reference both to nature’s future supernatural destiny as well as the supernatural life surging through it now as a consequence of the Incarnation. The work of the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica and of Cardinal Louis Pie (1815-1880), Bishop of Poitiers, is extremely informative in this regard. Try as modern man might, Pie argued at Lourdes in 1876, he could never escape the fact that he lived in a world created and redeemed at the behest of a supernatural will. “The supernatural is finished”, he quoted nineteenth century man as gloating. “Well, look here, then! The supernatural pours out, overflows, sweats from the sand and from the rock, spurts out from the source, and rolls along on the long folds of the living waves of a river of prayers, of chants and of light.” (Mayeur, XI, p. 350). Similarly, the reality of the supernatural, its impact, its demands, and the folly of denying it, could be seen in politics, economics, and every other aspect of human life. The enemy of the supernatural, Cardinal Pie noted, thought that he was the friend of nature; instead he was actually nature’s most aggressive enemy, and an ignorant one to boot.

Central to this theme of natural-supernatural interaction was the role of the Church as Christ continued in time. For the Romanists, the Church was Jesus in action on earth today, possessing a spiritual significance far surpassing anything obviously natural in her structure. Discussion of the Church in this context enabled the Roman School to place the functions of pope, bishop, and priest in a different light than a purely juridical treatment of their responsibilities would allow; to stress their character as “other-Christs” active in the world. Romanists underlined the same theme in explaining every other “fleshly” aspect of the Church’s activity, from the most sacramental to the most mundane. A correct understanding of the Church as Christ-continued, Liberatore wrote in the Civiltà, would so transform one’s appreciation of her that “the very carriages of the cardinals would change their appearance in your eyes” (Civiltà Cattolica, i, 7, 533). The Church was the chief manifestation of the supernatural’s penetration of the natural world and the chief instrument for awakening consciousness of the practical meaning of that penetration.

Such a concept, while fed from many sources, was especially nourished by the ideas of Johann Adam Möhler (1796 –1838) of the University of Tübingen, whose works Giovanni Perrone (1794-1876), professor at the Gregorian in Rome from 1824-1863, made known to many of his influential students: Carlo Passaglia (1812-1887), Clemens Schrader (1820-1875), and Johannes Baptist Franzelin (1816-1886). Perrone was also a channel of Möhler’s ecclesiology to the Jesuit editors of La Civiltà Cattolica: Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793-1862), Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892), and Carlo Maria Curci (1809-1891). Year after year, these Jesuits churned out articles dealing with the consequences of the concepts of natural-supernatural interaction and of the Church as Christ-continued for all aspects of life. ”Official” acceptance of the entire argument took many decades. Pius X’s adoption of the motto “to transform all things in Christ” and the encyclical letter of Pope Pius XII on the subject of the Mystical Body in 1943 clearly illustrated its ultimate impact.

Transformation in Christ

A second theme intimately connected with the doctrine of the interaction of nature and the supernatural was that of a spirituality emphasizing the friendship offered man by God, and the ascent to the divine to which every individual was invited. On a theoretical level, such a theme entailed emphasis upon the concept of individual divinization in Christ. This, again, was a favorite topic of the editors of the Civiltà, who persistently argued that membership in the Church meant participation in the life of the God-Man, and hence in every conceivable perfection, human freedom and human personality thereby being raised to heights undreamed of by any rationalist. On a popular level, the theme of friendship and closeness to God, attained through humble union with the God-Man, brought with it a victory for the anti-Jansenist moral theology of Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), which recognized the importance of human labor in the upward path. Brunone Lanteri (1759-1830), inspirer of the lay/clerical amicizie cattoliche in Italy, Cardinal Thomas Marie Gousset (1792-1866), Archbishop of Rheims, in his Justification de la théologie du bienheureux A.M. de Liguori of 1832, in France, and the Redemptorists everywhere all waged vigorous combat for the victory of Liguorian thought. Its triumphant march was accompanied by a revivification and expansion of a variety of devotions providing flesh and blood manifestations of spiritual realities loathed by Jansenist and Enlightened Catholics of the previous era.

Nothing illustrated the divinization of a part of nature through incorporation into the life of a Divine Person better than devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This devotion, hated by the Jansenists perhaps more than any other, enjoyed enormous popularity wherever the Roman School gained influence. One can follow its recovery, from strength to strength, in the fortunes of the Apostolate of Prayer, begun in 1844, in the pages of The Sacred Heart Messenger (1861), in the ceremony of the consecration of the world to the Sacred Heart in 1875, and in Leo XIII’s encyclical letter, Annum sacrum, of May 25, 1899. A very un-Jansenist devotion to the saints was similarly encouraged by the Roman School, with the exaltation of Marian practices heading the list. The cults of the Sacred Heart of Mary, of Mary as Mediatrix, of the Miraculous Medal, of Our Lady of La Salette (1846) and of Lourdes (1858), along with Leo XIII’s fifteen encyclicals on the Rosary and the publication of the previously ignored works of Louis Grignion de Montfort (1673-1716), all testify to the importance Marian devotion attained in the course of the century. Finally, the practice of going on pilgrimage to traditional holy places was fervently revived after having been a special target for abuse in the 1700’s. Restoration of the pilgrimage to revere the Holy Coat of Trier in 1844, which attracted hundreds of thousands of participants, and the use of the very modern tool of the railroad to reach pilgrimage sites, especially impressed contemporaries as unexpected but unquestionable signs of changing times.

Perhaps most important–and anti-Jansenist–of all was the renewed nineteenth-century interest in the Eucharist as the prime means of uniting natural man with a supernatural God. Eucharistic emphasis led to the call for an earlier introduction to and more frequent reception of the Sacrament. La très sainte communion of Gaston de Ségur (1820-1881) was one of the many significant works encouraging such practices. Proponents of the Roman School were also active supporters of public Adoration of the Eucharist, both perpetual and nocturnal adoration spreading everywhere with papal approval in the years after 1850. Eucharistic Congresses, involving processions, adoration, and theological conferences, also began in the 1870’s through the work of Marie Tamisier (1834-1910), Gaston de Ségur and others. These gradually became international affairs, the Eucharistic Congress of Jerusalem in 1893 foreshadowing the worldwide significance they would attain in the 1900’s.

Liturgical revival inevitably accompanied that of eucharistic devotion. Conviction of the powerful role that the liturgy was meant to play in the life of the whole Christian community and in that of each of its individual members became a major theme for Benedictine spirituality, its starting point being the work of Dom Guéranger and his Année Liturgique(1841). A liturgical movement grew from its original center in Solesmes (1838) to the associated abbeys of Beuron (1862), in Germany, under Marius Wolter (1825-1890), and Maredsous (1872), in Belgium, with its great liturgist, Gerard van Caloen (1853-1932). It was at Maredsous that the first influential Missel des fidèles was published in 1871, fourteen years after the last papal condemnation of such a translation of the Mass into the vernacular, and twenty-six before prohibition was quietly dropped in 1897. Eucharistic and liturgical revival were given powerful support through Pius X’s endorsement of early and frequent reception of the Sacrament by a laity which knew, prayed, and sang the Mass together.


Neo-scholasticism was a third element in the Roman School’s approach. A return to the teaching of the scholastics had been advocated since the first half of the century, when men like Taparelli d’Azeglio became convinced that only a grounding in a well-organized body of Christian thought would provide the Catholic student with a means accurately to digest and judge the complexity of the modern anti-religious intellect. Similar concerns motivated Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (1811-1877) of Mainz, who was also certain that modern social problems could be efficiently addressed in a more Catholic manner if tackled logically with scholastic rigor. Italy and Germany thus became major centers for reviving scholastic studies, which, far from being merely neglected in Catholic circles during the course of the previous century, had often positively been prohibited. Neo-scholastics such as Joseph Kleutgen (1811-1883), author of Die Theologie/Philosophie der Vorzeit Verteidigt, became extremely active by the time of Vatican Council.

Although the neo-scholastic renaissance involved study of many of the different thinkers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, most of those engaged in it became convinced of the superiority of St. Thomas and of the commentaries on St. Thomas produced in the sixteenth century by Cardinal Cajetan (1469-1534). Leo XIII, through his encyclical letter Aeterni Patris of August 4th, 1879, and his patronage of the Leonine edition of the works of the Angelic Doctor (1882), gave to Thomistic studies pride of place in the Catholic world. Journal after journal, and Catholic center after Catholic center, including the great Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, began to dedicate itself to intellectual work in this tradition, theAccademia romana di San Tommaso, established 1880, providing the model for much of their labor.


A fourth theme, and the one justifying the designation of the School as a whole as “Roman”, was an emphasis upon the role of the Papacy in every aspect of Church life, and a concomitant movement towards administrative centralization. This was inspired by theological considerations, admiration for the sufferings of Pius VI and Pius VII at the hands of the republican and Napoleonic governments, concern for efficacious action in a world of ever more centralized, revolutionary, anti-Catholic political and social forces, and frustration with the inadequacies of local ecclesiastical authorities. Stirred by Joseph de Maistre (1754-1821), Félicité de Lamennais (1788-1854) and the Mennaisiens in general, a neo-ultramontanist movement began, aided also by Protestant converts to Catholicism and a host of priests angry for one reason or another at their local Ordinaries. Neo-ultramontanism’s enlistment of the Papacy in its plans dates from 1831 onwards, though it really had to await the reign of Pius IX (1846-1878) before arrival at the center of the papal stage. Vatican Council and the proclamation of the dogma of papal infallibility demonstrated its victorious progress most dramatically. Vatican Council also pointed the way to an extensive editing of canon law in a neo-ultramontanist sense, completed in 1917, emphasizing an ever-greater centralization of Catholic activities under the Holy See.

Restoration of All Things in Christ

Finally, the Roman School was charged with a sense of mission. It was convinced that it had a message for the world that could complete and exalt all of nature, a message whose neglect could only result in both supernatural and natural disaster. Catholic dogma had a supernatural and natural telos which could only be fulfilled if Christ were made the King of Society at large and of individuals personally. An early witness to this conviction can be seen in the Mennaisien Olympe Philippe Gerbet’s (1798-1864) book, Considérations sur le dogme générateur de la foi catholique (1829). Later ones appear in the writings of Juan Donoso Cortes (1809-1853) and of the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica. The sense of urgency and drama felt by all of them is well depicted in one major article of that Roman Jesuit journal: O dio re colla libertà, o l’uomo re colla forza. (“Either God as King with Liberty, or Man as King Through Force”). Catholics had to transform the world in Christ, or the world would be handed over to the perverted free will of libertine tyrants to destroy as they pleased, and sooner rather than later.

Two consequences flowed from this fifth of the Roman School’s themes. One was that, given the political and social activity connected with transforming the world in Christ, the laity, the natural militants in secular society, had to be looked to as the Church’s chief agents in ordinary daily Catholic Action. The call to arms of the laity was a nineteenth century mobilization, and the proponents of the Roman School were very much the recruiting sergeants. A second consequence was the great care and suspicion with which modern man and modern civilization had to be approached, given their rejection of the reality of the supernatural as an active and positive element in natural life. Modernity, to the Roman School, meant a desire to barricade oneself in nature alone–naturalism; and naturalism meant the destruction of the human personality and all of the perfections offered to civilization by God. Romanists could thus enthusiastically defend proposition number 80 of the Syllabus of Errors, which enunciated the impossibility of a reconciliation of the Roman Pontiff with “liberalism, progress, and modern civilization”. Such a reconciliation meant the embrace of slavery to self-deluding will and technologically-advanced barbarism. A laity armed with knowledge and grace was therefore called to a joint offensive-defensive action. Many Romanists allowed it wide scope for tactical experimentation in pursuit of victory, while urging retreat into Catholic fortresses should success be denied.

An Exaggerated Supernaturalism

There were, indeed, flaws in the approach of the Roman School that its friends ignore or deny at their own peril. In fact, in so far as these flaws were ignored or denied, they grew to undermine the very foundations of the School itself. Let us briefly pause, therefore, to glance at some of them, and in a way that parallels the main themes outlined above.

A conviction of the reality of the interaction of the natural and the supernatural may have encouraged many proponents of the Roman School dangerously to over rely on supra-rational explanations for historical events. Hence, to take but a single example, the sense that “war in heaven”, with apocalyptic overtones, was guiding the course of nineteenth-century human history, seems to have been one of the factors contributing to French Catholic inaction and resignation to the passage of anticlerical legislation during the early years of the Third Republic, from 1877 through the 1880’s. History, to some Romanists, seemed to belong to God alone, and God was therefore seen to be the physician for history’s problems, either directly or through the medium of a providential personality, such as a sacred monarch. Human organization to head off disaster could be construed almost as an insult to salvific supernatural forces. But no discernable miracles were forthcoming, and a Catholic defeat that perhaps need not have taken place ensued. France was not the only land where some believers’ response to defeat involved retreat into a ghetto to await a retribution which they thought would surely fall upon the enemy from on high. Thankfully, numerous French Catholic luminaries, such as Albert de Mun (1841-1914), rejected this pious defeatism, and helped to prepare the way for the activism of the following century. The assistance of many more men would have been required to turn the tide in his own day.

It may also be argued that the Roman School was so concerned for illustrating the interaction of the supernatural and the natural in the Church institutionally that a number of its most prominent spokesmen gradually ignored the consequences of the Incarnation for the individual believer. While it is true that the reality of the divine element in the visible, hierarchical structure of the Church is in itself so awesome as to take away the breath of the reverent believer, it is equally true that a complete understanding of the divine role of this hierarchical institution requires meditation on the transformation in Christ of each of its constituent members. Romanists certainly did not begin by neglecting individual “divinization”, as consultation of the articles of La Civiltà Cattolica clearly indicates. Nevertheless, such meditations as those of its Jesuit editors may have lessened as the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth. But this is hard to say. Only further study of Romanist journals of the time period–which is sadly lacking–would be able to tell for certain.

Again, it does appear to be true to say that the rediscovery of an incarnational piety eventually took precedence over the rediscovery of other aspects of the Catholic past, thus placing the need for a scriptural, patristic, and general revival of knowledge of the theological and historical sources of the Faith in still greater relief. Contemporary apparitions came to resonate more in the minds of some individuals than the words of the Gospel or that of Councils and Popes. Ironically, the piety which is thus exalted is actually weakened, in the long run, if it is emphasized at the expense of familiarity with the apostolic and ecclesiastical testimony from which its very justification and value is derived. In other words, neglect of the ground of the Faith in exchange for an exclusive or exaggerated commitment to a particular pious practice, even one which has the highest backing of the Church, may well bring that specific practice itself into question over time. Critics of the Roman School claim that the piety thus inspired was an egotistical one, centered upon individual devotions and stressing self-sanctification at the expense of a more balanced appreciation of the unity of all believers in that communal enterprise of adoration of the True God from which personal sanctification flows. This self-centeredness was then said to stand as an obstacle to true liturgical revival. One might well note in passing, however, that such a complaint seems to contradict or at least weaken the argument that adulation of the character of the Church gradually obscured interest in personal union with Christ.

A Catholic Rationalism

A third potential defect of the Roman School, and an ironic one, is its rationalism. Despite the fact that the Enlightenment and its heritage are often popularly thought to have been rationalist in character, the “Age of Reason” was, in fact, reductionist in its arguments, allowing scope for only one kind of experimental reasoning to flourish. This experimental reasoning soon began to understand human life as something hopelessly enchained to passion, will, subjective value judgment, and irrationality. Nineteenth century Catholicism, on the other hand, was one of the few forces defending the objective value and significance of the human reason as such. First Vatican Council gave eloquent testimony to this fact with its Dogmatic Constitution Concerning the Catholic Faith, which reiterated the Church’s belief that reason could prove the existence of God.

The problem lay not in this defense of reason, but in the tendency by the end of the century and the beginning of the next to focus on one specific line of speculative reasoning—Thomist– to the exclusion of other philosophical approaches. This exclusivity was accompanied by a neglect of historical and other studies that would have helped to reveal the inadequacy of such a development. Thus, it was often only with great difficulty, and with accusations of suspicious orthodoxy to boot, that one could speak of the historical context in which men like St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, suggest that this context necessarily limited the completeness of their work, and argue that their labor could well be complemented by the efforts of other thinkers of other eras. To say that the method and writings of St. Thomas are not in and of themselves completely sufficient; to argue that they do not by themselves alone give the fullest possible expression to the Christian Faith; to discuss the historical circumstances in which St. Thomas labored and how these may have limited the scope of the questions to which he directed his attention, is not at all the same as saying that Thomism is wrong or beside the point. Similarly, to say that knowledge of Christian dogma might grow beyond the manner in which St. Thomas expressed it is not the same thing as denying to dogma an objective, God-given content, anymore than appreciation of St. Thomas’s doctrinal use of Aristotelian language amounts to a denial of the divine character of the non-Aristotelian doctrinal statements of the Apostles. Still, such inferences were often drawn by many members of the Roman School, with the consequence that any non-Thomistic, biblical, patristic, experiential, or historically-based exploration of the Faith, was often condemned as “Modernist” or intrinsically invalid. This proved to be especially unfortunate when clever students, realizing the gaps in their education, confronted less than gifted teachers who failed to address real problems in a substantive way, and yet presented their work as “authoritative”. It was under circumstances such as these, by the 1890’s, that students were seduced by true heretics with superior teaching skills and charismatic personalities; men such as the scriptural scholar, Alfred Loisy (1857-1940).

Problems of Neo-Ultramontanism

Neo-ultramontanism also had its negative side, which, alas, has become more clear to traditionalist Catholics in recent times. Like all centralizing movements, it caused problems at the diocesan level, hampering the development of local initiative. This was not so much due to the disturbing, but ultimately salutary rocking of the many rather listless parochial boats of the day, as it was to a gradual encouragement of the hope that Rome could handle all future problems on its own. When Rome could not do so, or when Rome itself became a source of confusion, local clerical and lay stimulus to confront debilitating crises was often therefore missing.

Moreover, the manner in which the definition of Papal Infallibility was “resolved” at Vatican One was itself problematic. Official plans had called for a general schema on the nature of the Church to be discussed and promulgated at the Council, and it was into this schema that the issue of Papal Infallibility was introduced. Difficulties arose, however, due to intense lobbying, for and against the doctrine, inside and outside the Council. Problems also accompanied the lifting of the discussion of Papal Infallibility from the basic explanatory framework in which it was embedded, and treating it on its own–first, and out of context. The storm grew more violent still. When it was calmed, the resulting definition in no way met the expectations of more fervent Infallibilists. Fallout from the Franco-Prussian War then shut the Holy Synod down, leaving the schema on the Church a schema alone. Vatican One did indeed bequeath the Catholic world a real understanding of the importance of papal power and prerogatives, but failed adequately to explain how these were to be practiced, and what relation they had with the work of ordinary bishops in their own dioceses. It especially left a certain confusion about how Infallibility applied to the use of the Ordinary Magisterium, feeding that constant debate over whether or not it actually had been invoked in specific matters that we have witnessed for one hundred thirty four years. Parenthetically, however, in defense of the Council’s procedure, one ought to note that all such synods have tended to treat issues as they arose, in the envelope of ecclesiastical crisis. All have thus left terrible conundrums for posterity. Still, the confusion was real, and many Romanists acted, unjustifiably, as though the maximalist position which had definitely not been adopted by the Council was the one that “real Catholics”, in practice, were obliged to accept anyway.

A Rebellious Laity

Fifthly, the call for transformation of everything in Christ through the activity of a mobilized laity had the undesired consequence of promoting laicization within the Church. Such difficulties were not new. They have always followed upon attempts to achieve a deeper understanding of what the Christian life entails for all the members of the Church. They have, in fact, manifested themselves repeatedly since the tenth century, at which time the first serious attempts were made to dig deeper into the meaning and repercussions of the Incarnation. Roots of the dilemma go back far indeed, and the issue itself is examined in more detail in my accompanying article entitled All Borrowed Armor Chokes Us.

Suffice it to say, at the moment, that the laity became more conscious, through the work of the Roman School, of its own mission and responsibilities. That consciousness opened it to a willingness to judge its ecclesiastical guides and their performance as spiritual leaders. Such judging led to many laymen and laywomen presuming that the Teaching Church had, herself, to be taught, and to be taught from the bottom up by the faithful as a whole. Hence, ironically, a Jansenist presbyterianism broke through the armor of Romanist neo-ultramontanism. Moreover, dangerous Mennaisien influences reappeared through the medium of the Roman School as well as through that of its enemies, the democratic (though ultramontanist) laity claiming the right to command insufficiently intransigent priests and prelates in the new age that was a-dawning.

A Vitriolic Tendency

Harshness of spirit and tone, attribution of nothing but bad motivation and hidden heresy to opponents, and stubborn conviction of the necessity and goodness of their own approach were, indeed, not absent from the work of many prominent standard bearers of the Roman School. This was true of laity and clergy, high and low, alike. Denunciation and calls for papal support of the denouncers accompanied the growth of the movement throughout the nineteenth century and into the next.

But where did this spirit come from? It definitely did not come from Rome. Rather, it too, to a large degree, was the inheritance of that prophetic brutality of the Mennaisiens, lamented from the 1820’s onwards by many bishops, including those who were not hostile to much that the disciples of Lamennais had to say and offer. Although his followers may well have condemned and abandoned their master, many seem to have found his whole brutal, prophetic deportment more difficult to reject. Anyone interested in investigating this question further can do so by examining the rough tactics utilized by Mennaisien reformers in order to rid French seminaries of Gallican texts and to introduce the Roman Liturgy into French dioceses with different ancient traditions.

A number of the criticisms of the Roman School outlined above can be discovered in the writings of some of its most prominent members–the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica andl’Univers, theologians of the caliber of Cardinal Pie and Cardinal Victor Dechamps (1810-1883) of Malines, neo-scholastics like Joseph Kleutgen, liturgists such as Don Guéranger, the historian, Ludwig von Pastor, and Popes Leo XIII and Pius X –and often in very unexpected ways indeed. Hence, the fervent ultramontanists, Pie and Dechamps, were among the most harsh judges of exaggerations of the procedure and apologetics of the infallibalists at Vatican Council; the neo-scholastic Kleutgen demonstrated an awareness of the importance of history and mystical theology; Pastor presented individual nefarious popes in his “apologetic” history in anything but an apologetic manner; the “authoritarian legalist”, Pius X, was the man who actually, in practice, democratized the Roman Curia and encouraged the revivification of the understanding of the liturgy as the communal prayer of the Church; and the Thomist Leo XIII did more for historical and scriptural studies than any pontiff of the century. In fact, Leo’s insouciance regarding potential dangers emerging from uncontrolled studies underlines the absence of authoritative intervention during his long, centralizing pontificate:

There are some restless and worried spirits who press the Roman Congregations to pronounce upon still doubtful questions. I oppose this, I stop them, because it is necessary not to prevent the intelligent from working. It is necessary to leave them the leisure to hesitate and even to err. The Truth can only win by this. The Church will always arrive in time to put them back onto the right path. (Jedin and Dolan, IX, p. 330).

Perhaps the case of Dietrich von Hildebrand in the twentieth century illustrates the point most clearly. Von Hildebrand spent much of his professional life criticizing the dominant neo-scholasticism of his contemporaries, pious practices obscuring the primary focus on adoration of the Godhead essential to true transformation in Christ, failures to appreciate the riches of the liturgy, and the dangers of the militant lay spirit running amok. Yet while doing so, he never, for one moment, considered himself to be anything other than a fervent supporter of a Roman School of thought. In fact, a meditation upon the example of von Hildebrand and all the other figures noted above, might lead one to reach the conclusion that the Roman School was actually a conglomerate of potentially contradictory tendencies, some of which definitely rose to the fore, though without destroying the others entirely. More than anything else, what then would appear faulty in its “curriculum” was a certain lack of coordination and rigorous self-examination, accompanied by a want of nuance and humor on the part of some neo-scholastics and exaggerated neo-ultramontanists holding important academic and curial positions

But let us now turn to the opposition.

Opposition to the Roman School

In indicating a nineteenth century anti-Roman complex, I do not intend to speak of men who merely disagreed with certain features of the Roman School’s approach, and happened to have frequent contact with those militantly rejecting it, figures like John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Fr. Marie Joseph Lagrange (1855-1938). Newman was indeed concerned for the history of the development of doctrine in a way that appeared to give him more in common with anti-speculative historians than with the anti-historical theologians increasingly dominating the papal entourage by the time of Pius X. Lagrange did indeed lament the exegetical backwardness of many powerful leaders of the Roman School, who began to cause him severe difficulties when they fully realized where he was headed with his own scriptural studies by the time of the International Congress of Fribourg in 1897. Anti-Romanists admittedly did like to claim both of these men as sympathizers. Nevertheless, we have already seen that “card carrying” Romanists themselves could utter similar criticisms. Moreover, the attack by Newman on the kind of liberal theology which would later evolve into what is called Modernism, and the assault by Lagrange on Loisy’s dogmatic refusal to allow even the possibility of a perception of supernatural activity in the natural world, created an iron curtain between their attitudes and the one that I am identifying here. Newman and Lagrange were men who thought with the Church, were sometimes unjustly treated by fellow Catholics, and whose intelligent criticisms required patience and perspicacity equal to their own to digest. One has to look elsewhere to locate the real center of opposition.

The truly committed foes of the Roman School in the nineteenth century were a formidable lot, even if (for a time) defeated. Many of them were heirs of Enlightenment and Jansenist ideas about the relationship of nature and the supernatural, piety, theological methodology, the Papacy, and Catholic militancy in general. Others were supporters of condemnedMennaisien views concerning democracy and the need to submit to “vital” contemporary forces, spokesmen for the supremacy of a purely historical or scriptural approach to truth, or one basing itself on philosophical systems allowing no room whatsoever for speculative theology. Such thinkers bemoaned the Church’s loss of esteem in the eyes of an “energetic”, modern, secular world that the Romanists condemned. Nationalists also formed an important part of the serious nineteeth-century anti-Roman complex. Roman universalism represented for them an obstacle to a full appreciation of the truths taught by the individual genius of each ethnic group; “truths” which somehow regularly seemed to emphasize the enlightened, Jansenist, democratic, vitalist, and anti-speculative attitudes indicated above.

More specifically, followers of the “Kantian” Georges Hermes and “Hegelian” Anton Günther (1783-1863), both of whom ran into certain troubles with the Holy See, helped to form the nineteenth-century anti-Roman complex in Germany. They were joined by a few angry historians, the most famous being Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1800). Döllinger resented the growing flirtation of many of his fellow countryman with what he irrationally dismissed as an outdated scholastic theology. His speech on “The Past and Present of Theology” at the Congress of Munich in September of 1863 was a declaration of war upon the Roman School. Döllinger’s anti-scholastic historicism had a great impact upon vehement anti-Romanists outside of Germany as well, Lord John Acton (1834-1902) prominent among them. Many of the disciples of Günther and Döllinger formed the backbone of the schismatic Old Catholic Church, which refused to accept the decree of Vatican One on Papal Infallibility. Admirers of the Protestant biblical exegesis of David Strauss (1808-1874) and Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860) increased the numbers of the anti-Roman cam. So did governmental bureaucrats upset by the ecclesiastical autonomy demanded by Romanists, and moralists convinced that their anti-Jansenist spirituality would shape a vulgarized, superstitious, and lazy Catholic flock. Those stirred by German national feeling were not averse to calling in the secular authority to support their positions when they believed that such intervention could guarantee them victory–hence, the Old Catholic encouragement of German states engaging in Kulturkampf in the 1870’s.

The French anti-Roman complex was created by an alliance between Gallicans and certain Mennaisiens that would have been deemed inconceivable before 1850. Gallican-minded bishops had, up till that point, been deeply angered by the assault on their seminaries and their liturgies by the neo-ultramontanism of which the Mennaisiens had been a major stimulus. Such bishops, however, generally supported French governmental policies, whatever they might be. Thus, when the Second Empire entered the lists against militant, anti-modernist “Romanism”, they were gradually able to make common cause with Mennaisiens like the Liberal Catholic, Charles de Montalembert (1810-1870). Montalembert’s speech on liberal concepts of freedom and separation of Church and State at the Congress of Malines of 1863 had the same impact, mutatis mutandis, as that of Döllinger at Munich. Although French bishops tended to be restrained in their outright anti-Romanism, some, like Henri Louis Maret (1805-1884), were quite openly eager to fight attempts by the Romanists to free the Church and Catholics from complete submission to the civil law. Again, as in Germany, they were joined by bureaucrats and Jansenists who lamented the turn of the tide against naturalism and enlightened piety. It was only gradually that the biblical criticism of a Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-1895), perfected by the work of men such as Alfred Loisy, and Kantian-based philosophical approaches populated the ranks of the anti-Romanists with a different clientele. French influences, along with those coming from Germany, were then central to the formation of the anti-Roman complex in other countries, Italy and the United Kingdom prominent among them.

Flaws of the Roman School

All-out foes of the Roman School were by no means always self-interested or off-target in their attacks. However, they differed from scholars like Newman and Lagrange in that their perspicacity was seriously marred by a bitterness and an arrogance that were as unedifying–if not, indeed, much more so–than anything they ascribed to their opposition. Every defeat rankled with them, justified or not. One sees in their writings and actions a desire for vengeance at the first available opportunity. One can almost imagine a collective unclenching of teeth in the graves of anti-Romanists across Christendom during the 1960’s, as one ecclesiastical change after another apparently vindicated their own position.

Conspiratorial myth-making was one of the anti-Romanist fortes. This is a bit ironic. Here were men who satirized as overblown and a-historical all efforts by speculative thinkers to tie together theological principles, historical developments, and pastoral approaches in modern times into some cohesive intelligible whole; men whose dislike of speculation contributed mightily to killing that speculative schema on the Church at Vatican One which would have made the infallibility decree more cohesive, comprehensible, and efficacious. And yet they insisted upon belief in the existence of a murky, age-old intellectual-political plot, led by intransigent Jesuits and their scholastic drones, responsible for every setback and defeat that they and progress-loving peoples everywhere experienced. One would be tempted to say–as Modernists do when rejecting Pius X’s attack upon them as members of a unified alliance–that there would be no “Roman School” to criticize at all were it not for the work anti-Romanists did in bringing its disparate elements together into what was actually an artificial and illusory union.

Though it is tempting to argue that the Roman School existed only in the minds of its opponents, there were clearly those who relished the title of Romanist, and felt a spirit of camaraderie with others of like mind. Let us, therefore, if only for their sakes, admit its substantial reality. Insofar as it did exist, however, it was, as indicated repeatedly above, both a more divided and a much more nuanced and positive force than its opponents from the 1800’s onwards have made it out to be. What is most striking about the picture painted of the Roman School by the twentieth century anti-Roman complex is just how much its strong and weak features are simultaneously neglected by it. Why should this be the case? A conscious desire on the part of the anti-Romanists to distort “Romanism” cannot be excluded as an hypothesis, though the effort to prove and document this would require a book-length study. In any case, there is another, ironic explanation for the shortcomings of the critique which is readily available.

It is, once again, fair to say that the dominant Romanists did not give to historical studies the importance that they deserved, and that despite the School’s birth in a rediscovery of the Christian past. Nevertheless, infinitely more damage has been done to Church History in the long run by the anti-Romanists of our own day. This is due to the fact that contemporary anti-Romanists have embedded the appreciation for a rigorous historical methodology which they inherited from their nineteenth century ancestors in that overall Modernist vision of life which glorifies will, action, and prophetic democracy. And this vision has the contrary effect of justifying a complete disdain for the “dead past”. In other words, twentieth century anti-Romanists teach us a great deal, in practical terms, about how to research and write history in a superior manner, but they also have given us all the reasons for not bothering to take up that historical activity in the first place! History, like metaphysics, is a block to a completely vital, action-centered, liberated life. It provides too many lessons, too many models to follow, all of which hamper guidance from one’s own creative will, whose veracity and goodness is proven through success. A Mennaisien faith in an emerging, evolving Christianity, taught by the People and its Prophets, provides another impulse to look forward and ignore what lies behind.

Actually, the same result follows with respect to other studies neglected or treated with restraint by the Roman School, such as sociology. A powerful stimulus to rigorous sociological work is given by the critics, but fitted into that view of life which (to paraphrase James Burnham’s critique of Eleanor Roosevelt) dissolves every solid bit of evidence in a murky goo of directionless will and democratic rapture. In the last analysis, the anti-Romanists of our own day seat us upon a mountain of data, and then tell us to make our judgments on the basis of what we “will” and “feel”; on the grounds of whatever succeeds in giving us that which we desire. They then appeal to our “faith-in-the-future” to revive our flagging spirits when unhappiness ensues.

Where does all this lead us with respect to an accurate historical appreciation of the Roman School? Into a black hole. For the anti-Romanist foot soldier of modernity, history is really only valid in so far as it can help to guide us to a confidence in will, action, and democratic faith. Historical research into an understanding of the growth of this confidence is undertaken and praised, and, given the Roman School’s basic failure to support such confidence-building, much attention is devoted to its terrible error in this regard. Positive teachings of the Roman School, which explain the reasons for its theological and philosophical stance, are ignored as a useless waste of vital human time and energy. Any of its true flaws that might impact badly on the modern vitalist argument are tossed into the abyss along with them.

Creative historical writing thus becomes the rule. To hate the Roman School is to know it; to know it in its fullness is beside the point. One all too famous history of the reign of Pope Pius IX devotes pages to a description of the “vital” and “forward-looking” journal l’Ere nouvelle, which lasted but briefly in 1848, while it pays scant attention to La Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1850, and still published today. This is because La Civiltà Cattolica testified to the positive character of the anti-modern Roman School. I, personally, had discussions at Oxford with a scholar who criticized vehemently the “obscurantist” character of that journal, while at the same time I was enjoying the privilege of cutting open large numbers of the thousand pages of its volumes for the fifteen year period from 1850-1865, thus, presumably, becoming the first man actually to read them in the university library as well. I would not be surprised if the same were true for students in other libraries elsewhere. The committed opponents of the Roman School have no interest in its history as such; a scholar making a painstaking case for its achievements according to the best rules of the modern historiography to which they themselves ascribe is lost in space. A public formed in the spirit of willful, democratic, prophetic action has no time for him. It has more vital, energetic, important things to do than finding out the simple, boring truth.

The Roman School’s Forgotten Merits

The result is that very few people have any idea of the positive accomplishments of the Roman School. They know little or nothing about its concern for the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ and of individual divinization, concepts partly inspired by men like Möhler, whom proponents of the New Theology of the 1930’s and 1940’s claimed to be rediscovering for the first time. They know little or nothing of the Roman School’s sustained fight for Catholic universalism against arrogant, condescending, secularist, modernist imperialists. They leave buried in scholarly texts the record of the Romanist battle versus nationalist parochialism, alongside rabid, chauvinist, progressive pronouncements which would make most twenty-first century liberals shudder. They are, in short, ignorant of the central nature of the struggle of the Roman School against modernity, which was a fight for human freedom and dignity against the fraudulent gods of democracy and arbitrary willfulness.

Similarly, few people are aware of what I think to be the greatest (though unwitting) flaw of the Roman School: namely, its tendency, in seeking to galvanize the entire Catholic population, to open the backdoor to the carping presbyterianism and lay, democratic, Mennaisien spirit which I discuss in All Borrowed Armor Chokes Us. And, finally, almost no one recognizes that the anti-Roman complex is really not new at all; that a great deal of what it stands for, both in general and in its specifics, concerning themes ranging from Church organization to liturgy to the relationship of the ecclesiastical authority to the State and to common law, is actually resurrected Enlightenment and Jansenist theology, philosophy, and pastoral vision, gussied up in ball gowns designed by Lamennais.

I have often quoted Louis Veuillot’s observation that Catholics grow worse the farther they stray from their beliefs, while their opponents grow worse the more faithful they stay to theirs. Something similar might be said for the proponents of the Roman School and their enemies. The spirit of the Roman School contained within it the stimulus to the rediscovery and development of the whole Catholic Tradition; the narrowness and bitterness of a number of its followers led them away from that high road down limiting and even self-destructive byways. The critical spirit of many of the enemies of the Roman School, on the other hand, enabled them to pass down immensely valuable insights to their present-day heirs. But that critical outlook was set to work in minds shaped essentially by bitterness, Jansenism, and an adulation of the will, energetic action of whatever variety, and the religion of democracy. Such minds were poisoned, and their Catholic Faith badly obscured, provoking understandably vigorous, though sometimes disjointed, and often equally acerbic reactions from Romanists. A retreat from the cult of modernity would put the specifics of the criticisms of the anti-Roman camp into rational perspective. The Roman School needed better and more fully-rounded Romans, something that merely critical opponents could have helped to produce. It did not need a full-scale dismantling, and the establishment of a company of enlightened, Jansenist, Mennaisien cheerleaders in the campus of the saints.

Works Cited

Butler, C., The Vatican Council (Newman, 1962)
Gough, A., Paris and Rome. The Gallican Church and the Ultramontane Campaign (Oxford, 1986)
Jedin, H., and Dolan, J., History of the Church (Vols. VII, VIII, IX, Crossroads, 1981)
Mayeur, J.M., ed., Histoire du christianisme (Vols. X, XI, Desclée, 1995/1997)
Rao, J., Removing the Blindfold (Remnant, 1999)

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