Trust This Church? | Fr. Walter Brandmüller | From the Introduction to Light and Shadows: Church History amid Faith, Fact and Legend
Occasionally the Church is compared with Noah's ark: only his sons and daughters, only those animals that Noah took with him into the ark were saved from the great flood. In a similar way, the Church is supposed to be man's only rescue from the final catastrophe.
When discussion turns to the Last Things, to man's eternal fate, then the question assumes the utmost urgency: To whom can he entrust his eternal fate and himself? What can he rely on in life and death? Now, since the Church makes the exclusive claim to be the saving ark, this claim must be so solidly established that it does not mean a leap into uncertainty when man puts his trust in this ark.
Questions About Questions
To many of our contemporaries, such trust in the Church appears to be nothing less than an unreasonable demand upon sound common sense. Aren't there countless facts (the objection goes) that demolish the credibility of the Church? Many people have read the numerous books or seen the television programs that deal with the subject of the Qumran community and seem to offer proof that the beginnings of Jesus of Nazareth and of Christianity ought to be portrayed in a completely different way from what is recorded in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Many have also seen the earthenware receptacle containing human remains that was found in Jerusalem, on which the names Joseph, Mary and Jesus were inscribed. Isn't this compelling evidence that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that Mary was not taken body and soul into heaven? With that, however, the foundations of the Christian faith crumble into dust and ashes! Many people today suspect that this is so.
Furthermore, the Church—as they say—through clumsy errors made by her official teaching authority on numerous occasions, has repudiated her claim to hold the truth infallibly. Let us listen to Hans Küng, who lists the "classic errors of the Church's Magisterium, most of which have been admitted". First he mentions the "excommunication of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Photius, and of the Greek [Byzantine] Church, which formalized the soon-to-be millennial schism with the Eastern Church". Then Küng adduces "the prohibition against charging interest [on loans] at the beginning of the modern era, whereby the Church's Magisterium changed its opinion much too late, after various compromises". Then (what else could you expect?) he also cites the trial of Galileo in 1616 or else in 1633 and other things of this sort. The most recent major error of the Magisterium, in his view, is its rejection of artificial contraception.
Others before and after him have pilloried the Church on account of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch trials, and anyone who is still not satisfied is referred to the financial scandal of the Vatican Bank and the murder conspiracy against Pope John Paul I, who was so likeable: Mafia in the Vatican, at the heart of the Church. From another corner the cry is that a power-hungry clique of Freemasons already replaced Paul VI with a double whom they could control and that the Lodge in general seized power in the Vatican long ago—and so on. Therefore, who can still trust such a Church?
If you are really going to ask the critical question about reliability, however, then direct it not only at the Church but also at the objections that are raised against her.
The Qumran Theme
The most popular books about Qumran, The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception by Baigent and Leigh, and Jesus und die Urchristen [Jesus and the Early Christians] by Eisenmann, as well as other comparable publications on this topic, have been exposed by serious researchers as clumsy concoctions. The books are partly the result of scientific incompetence; to some extent they are based on deliberate, malicious falsification of the facts. It is precisely the archaeological findings at Qumran that, quite to the contrary. shed an extremely interesting light on the New Testament and even clear up riddles. And as for the ossuary with the names of Joseph, Mary and Jesus [Joshua], which actually comes from Jerusalem and dates back to the time of Jesus, the names mean nothing at all, when you consider that they were as common and therefore as insignificant as the names Miller, Fields and Smith would be today.
Similarly, with regard to Hans Küng's "errors" of the Church's Magisterium, we are dealing more with the errors of Hans Küng than with those of the Church. First of all, in page after page, he confuses Patriarch Photius with Patriarch Michael Cerullarius. Then Küng fails to mention that Photius was excommunicated because he had become Patriarch in an unlawful manner and furthermore had accused Rome of heresy and had tried to depose Pope Nicholas I by means of a manipulated synod. Depending on how one views the particular historical circumstances of this case, one could possibly speak about a wrong decision in ecclesiastical politics or an unjust excommunication, but never about an error of the Church's Magisterium.
The same is true for the prohibition against lending at interest and its gradual abolition by the Church. This prohibition against charging interest was based on the Old Testament and had been confirmed by popes and councils. Why this was so becomes clear when you consider that in antiquity and in the medieval world, charging interest was most often identical to usury. Lending at interest lost this sinful character, however, with the transformation of commercial structures in the late Middle Ages. Thus the reason for the prohibition against charging interest became moot over the course of time, and from then on the only concern was with the question of determining the just rate of interest. The general prohibition had thereby become null and void. So where in all this is there an error of the Church's Magisterium?
The condemnation of Galileo's teaching about the fixed position of the sun and the movement of the earth, which is also so often described as an error of the Church's Magisterium, proves upon closer inspection to have been justified at the time. With the scientific methods at his disposal, Galileo could not offer a proof that would convince the specialists either of his day or of ours that that is really the case, nor could he explain, before the discovery of gravity by Isaac Newton, how the earth could possibly revolve at breakneck speed around the sun and around its own axis while at the same time nothing of the sort is perceived by us, since everything on earth stands firm and secure instead of being tossed about in a tumultuous whirl. Most importantly, though, the whole legal proceeding against Copernicus and Galileo resulted in not one single magisterial statement that could have been described as a dogma and on that account would have been irrevocable. In this case, too, the critics fail to take into consideration the many events and facts in intellectual, cultural and scientific history that explain this decision. Furthermore, the most recent scientific findings vindicate the Church of 1633.
A comparably nuanced, careful and comprehensive approach should be taken to the problems connected with the touchy subjects of the Crusades, the Inquisition and the witch trials. In light of recent findings and the latest research, these subjects prove to be many-layered and much more complicated than the superficial observations oft hose who look at them as a source of ammunition against the Church. Moreover, anyone who has even the foggiest notion of the complexity of Financial-political activities and their worldwide interconnections and knows, furthermore, what sort of possibilities they offer for manipulation, will assume that the aforementioned Vatican financial scandal resulted from excessive gullibility or perhaps incompetence or even frivolity in financial matters on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities rather than from criminal intrigues.
As for an opinion of Yallop's book, In God's Name, which maintains that John Paul I was murdered, it is enough to read the first thirty pages in order to pass judgment. On these pages there is talk about the popes of the nineteenth century, and so much of it is false that it is hard to imagine that the author used even an encyclopedia—for that would have sufficed to prevent the numerous errors. If Yallop does not report correctly what everyone can easily find out, how are we supposed to be able to believe him when he cites conversations and events for which, by the very nature of the matter, there can be no witnesses except those who were supposedly involved? No doubt, nothing more should be said about the double of Paul VI and other such luxuriant outgrowths of overheated imaginations.
All these things and many others besides are alleged in order to shake confidence in the Church. As we have shown in these all-too-brief remarks, however, in all these cases that supposedly vitiate the Church, historical and theological knowledge about the subject is enough to prove that such accusations are groundless.
But What About the Moral Failings?
One can with good reason retort that the most extensive knowledge about a subject of this kind will not suffice to excuse the religious and moral failings of important members of the Church throughout the centuries and in every locality, down to the papal adulterer Alexander VI. But then the question arises, on what do we actually base the trust that we place in the Church?
The real basis for our trust can never be a splendid spiritual, moral and religious manifestation of the Church in this world. This has existed and indeed does exist always and everywhere—but one likewise finds always and everywhere the much more conspicuous opposite. Thus all romanticism about the early Church, a romanticism that imagines it sees in the first generations of Christians nothing but holiness and greatness, necessarily runs aground on the hard facts: the Christian married couple Ananias and Sapphira tried to defraud the Apostle Peter; in Paul's congregation at Corinth, there was a case of incest and rebellion against the Apostle; in Philippi, Saint Paul's committed female co-workers Euodia and Symyche quarreled with each other so much that Paul had to give them a serious warning. Indeed, Paul himself parted with Mark and Barnabas during one of his journeys due to differences of opinion that were evidently insuperable. Finally, as early as the year 70, according to the latest research, there was an uprising in Corinth against the priests, such that the Bishop of Rome had to intervene forcefully.
Thus the Church has never had that spotlessly radiant appearance that she ought to have. So it is no wonder, either, that those who believed that they were especially devout were scandalized again and again by this and founded their own "church of the blameless". In contrast, the Church has always shown herself to be a great realist who has always and everywhere reckoned with the failure of her members. Not for nothing did the Lord Jesus himself, who searches and knows the depths of the human heart, institute the sacrament for the forgiveness of sins.
It cannot be said, either, that the shepherds and members of the Church have always and everywhere reacted correctly to the chal1enges of history. On the contrary, many mistakes have been made that subsequently became notorious. For example, was not it disastrous that Pope Clement V allowed himself to be intimidated by the demands of the French king Philip and abandoned the order of Knights Templar, who as a whole were certainly innocent, to a downfall that was in large pare bloody? Entire episcopates—today we would say bishops' conferences—fell into heresy during the Arian crisis of the fourth and fifth centuries. In the sixteenth century the bishops of England, with the exception of Saint John Fisher, followed King Henry Vlll into schism our of weakness and cowardice, and similarly the French episcopate, during the conflict over the freedom of the Church from the state, stood beside Louis XIV against the pope. For almost two centuries the French bishops promoted the heresy of Jansenism. There were not many exceptions, And how did the German bishops conduct themselves during the eleventh- and twelfth-century Investiture Controversy? In 1080 a majority of the German bishops, under the influence of Emperor Henry IV, made an attempt at a synod in Brixen to depose Pope Gregory VII and to elect an antipope. Those German bishops who found themselves confronted with the religious division of the sixteenth century no doubt failed in large measure, too.
Truly, all of this does not make for glorious pages in the ecclesiastical chronicles. In the end, therefore, we cannot place our trust in the wisdom and power of the shepherds, either. No promise was ever made to the Church that her shepherds and her faithful would be irreproachable or capable. What her Founder, the God-man Jesus Christ, did guarantee, nevertheless , is that she will continue unshakably and stand fast immovably in the truth until his return at the end of time. This means that the Church can never proclaim an error in matters of faith whenever she speaks in a form that is ultimately binding; that her sacraments always produce their characteristic effects of grace, provided that they are administered according to the Church's directions; and that her hierarchical-sacramental structure comprising the ministries of primacy, episcopacy and priesthood will always be maintain ed intact. Precisely thereby it is guaranteed that the graces of redemption will continue to be available to the people of all generations, until the Lord comes again.
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Father Walter Brandmuller is president of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. From 1970 to 1997, he was a professor of Church history at the University of Augsburg, Germany. He is the co-author of the German book The Fall of Galileo and Other Errors: Power, Faith and Science.
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