Category Archives: Religion

The Benedicts Society…

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s decision to step down from the papal seat has, unsurprisingly, led to a flurry of media attention. A fair amount of the initial reaction has focused on the medieval precedents for a papal resignation (or abdication, depending on whose view is taken of the nature of the papacy). Those precedents which are being cited are mainly those of Gregory XII (1406-1415), the most recent pope to resign the office, or Celestine V (1294), the last to do so for apparently self-determined reasons (Gregory XII’s resignation, triggered by the Council of Constance’s efforts to end the Western Schism, was technically involuntary).

Both are of interest–particularly Celestine, whose relics Benedict XVI has visited multiple times and whose resignation Benedict has publicly called a humble act demonstrating great courage. But, as it is a long-recognized papal tradition to use one’s choice of name to signal a bit of historical precedent, it’s worth noting that, though fewer than a dozen popes are known to have resigned, Benedict isn’t the first of his name to be among them. In fact, with two medieval antecessors, Benedict XVI will be (by most reckoning) the third Benedict to resign the position, making Benedict the most-resigned name in papal history and breaking a tie with the Gregorys (VI and XII) that has stood for nearly 600 years. As we’ll see, the names have been linked in this category before…

Benedict V (964)

Benedict V

Benedict V Grammaticus was elevated to the papacy in May of 964 against the wishes of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. In retaliation, Otto besieged Rome and set about starving the city into submission. After a month (during which Benedict repeatedly threatened to excommunicate Otto and his entire army) the gates were opened and Benedict was handed over. Otto tried Benedict on the grounds that his elevation constituted an usurpation, since Otto’s preferred candidate (the then-antipope Leo VIII) was alive and well. Faced with the possibility of execution and promised mercy if he capitulated,  Benedict admitted his “guilt” and abdicated. He died the following year in Hamburg. He was buried in the cathedral there,  but was moved to Rome sometime around 988…whereupon the record of his reburial location was lost and, if you will, remains unknown.

Benedict IX (1032-1045; 1045; 1047-1048)

Benedict IX

The last Benedict to resign was Benedict IX, one of history’s worst popes and the only one to hold the office three separate times. Benedict IX was somewhere between 12 and 20 when he first became pope through the political favor of his father, Count Alberic of Tusculum. Benedict was actually the third consecutive member of the family to hold the office–Alberic’s brothers Theophlyactus and Romanus were elevated as Benedict VIII (1012-1024) and John XIX (1024-1032) respectively. Four other relatives had held the office in recent history as well–Sergius III (904-911), John XI (931-935), John XII (955-964), and Benedict VII (974-983)–but the level of nepotism shown here was notable even for its time.

Benedict IX was a deeply unpopular pope, known and reviled primarily for his dissolute lifestyle. Commentators of his time accused him of adultery, rape, murder, orgies held within the Vatican, and “other unspeakable acts,” and the Catholic Encyclopedia calls him a “disgrace to the chair of St. Peter” who treated the papacy as a sort of family heirloom. He lost the papacy for the first time in 1045 when one of many dissatisfied factions forced him out of Rome and placed Sylvester III in his stead. Months later, Benedict returned and forced Sylvester out (though some sources still considered Sylvester the legitimate pope). His second papacy lasted only a few months, however, before he was convinced (with a hefty bribe) to resign the seat in favor of his godfather, the soon-to-be Gregory VI. Benedict would regret this decision and attempt to reclaim the seat the following year when Gregory VI was forced to abdicate after his bribery of Benedict led to a charge of simony. The German-born Clement II (who had helped to force Benedict and Gregory out of office) was elected in his place, but when Clement died only a year later (of what we now know was a poisonous dose of sugar of lead–possibly those whisperings about Benedict’s murderous tendencies weren’t exaggerating), Benedict returned to the papacy–by taking the Lateran Palace and investing it with armed troops. In 1048, a German militia was needed to oust Benedict for the third and final time, replacing him with Damascus II. A year later, Benedict refused to appear for his own trial for simony and was excommunicated, after which the historical record becomes a little fuzzy as to his ultimate fate. Two stories often told are that he either became a monk and truly repented of his youthful arrogance or that he lived in exile for decades and never stopped plotting to take back the papacy.

So as we prepare to witness the historic transfer of authority from one living pope to another, let’s be grateful (or perhaps wistful, depending on your personal bent) that the process is almost certainly to be the dullest abdication by a Benedict in Church history…although, if you’re the sort of person to credit the alleged prophecy of the 12th century St. Malachy, things could get a lot more interesting fairly quickly.

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A Medieval Mind?

Those who know me (or, more to the point, those who know that many of my “medieval instincts” were instilled by Sherri Olson at the University of Connecticut) will know that I can sometimes be a bit sensitive about the modern tendency to use “the Middle Ages”–or “Medieval Times,” or the ever-popular “Dark Ages”–as a convenient catch-all for “things that we think we’re better than.” I like to think that I’m not fanatical about this–I do generally manage to differentiate between the harmless anachronisms of The Pillars of the Earth or the silliness of A Knight’s Tale and the real and damaging habits of mind that equate “Middle Ages” with either “benighted” or “magical,” i.e., the “dark” and “light” myths of Medieval history.

Obviously, a preface like that means that I’m about to get on a soapbox on a high horse on another soapbox. Today, it’s about last week’s New Yorker article on Michele Bachmann–or, more specifically, about the responses to that article.

For those who missed the article itself: Ryan Lizza, a political writer who has done a number of profiles of political figures for The New Yorker, spent some time on the campaign trail with Minnesota Representative and current Republican/Tea Party Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann and wrote a history of Bachmann’s religious philosophy as part of his profile of her. He focused (among other things) on her admiration for Francis Schaeffer, a conservative Evangelical Christian theologian who is most well-known for his book A Christian Manifesto and, within the Evangelical community, for a documentary series titled “How Should We Then Live?” As Lizza writes, “In the films, Schaeffer…condemns the influence of the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Darwin, secular humanism, and postmodernism.” Bachmann has cited this series in her speeches as a “profound influence on…my life.”

Predictably, this has led to responses from Bachmann’s critics and from academics (with some sizable overlap between the two groups) railing against Bachmann’s (or Schaeffer’s) worldview as “medieval.” The response “Michele’s Medieval Mind,” authored by Laurie Fendrich and published on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s website on August 11, is a typical example.

Fendrich’s essay offers the following summation of Schaeffer’s work:

“To Schaeffer, the secular humanism born in the Renaissance marked a wrong turn for humanity. The solution to the twin modern problems—meaningless lives and moral relativism—unleashed by the Renaissance lay in returning to the absolutism of the Christianity that ruled Europe before the Renaissance. (Never mind that, up until the Reformation, all of Western European Christianity = Catholicism.)”

Fendrich errs in several particulars here. It is, for instance, incorrect to cede that Schaeffer’s desire for a return to a pre-Reformation Christian absolutism is informed by anything like a full understanding of the historical periods involved. Schaeffer’s work expresses a nostalgic impulse for an imagined and somewhat idealized past; it doesn’t necessarily attach to recognizably historical fact. That this is a defining quality of reactionary thought (such as that represented by Schaeffer’s anti-humanism) is perhaps self-evident, as has been suggested by work reflecting on other lost and lamented pasts, such as Svetlana Boym’s reflection on post-Communist Russia’s romanticization of the Soviet era in The Future of Nostalgia (2002) or Dennis Walder’s dissection of the aftermath of Colonialism in Postcolonial Nostalgias (2010). Indeed, Schaeffer’s own work argues for a more historically-minded Protestantism (note that Schaeffer does not suggest a return to Catholicism), but also looks forward (as all nostalgic literature ultimately must) in How Should We Then Live? to enjoin his readers to speak out against “authoritarian Government” (256). That Schaeffer’s particular brand of Christian thought should become a standard of one of the leaders of the Tea Party suddenly makes a great deal of sense–but not if one dismisses his theology as mere backward-looking primitivism.

Further, Fendrich’s blithe reduction of pre-Reformation pan-European Christianity to a simple equation suggests, one hopes inadvertently, that medieval Catholicism is reducible to a historical singularity–one orthodoxy practiced with equal assiduity and scrupulous uniformity across a continent and a millennium. This is so far from our knowledge of medieval Christianity as to require no further refutation, though a brief survey of medieval history, literature, philosophy, art, architecture, or any other subject would provide a preponderance of evidence.

Fendrich continues: “Liberals see only irrationality, anti-intellectualism and stupidity in Schaeffer’s ideas—most obviously, in his criticism of the Renaissance.”

My own status as a politically liberal medievalist (who actually finds a great deal to admire in medieval European intellectual life) apparently doesn’t fit into Fendrich’s preference for simple binaries. More significantly, Fendrich makes the same error made by many in academia, and by extremists on both ends of current American political discourse, in assuming that views in opposition to their own can only be arrived at from a position of ignorance (willful or inadvertent) or “stupidity.” Schaeffer was far from ignorant, stupid, or anti-intellectual–he was, in fact, a intelligent, well-read religious philosopher whose worldview was arrived at from different premises and conclusions than those of a modern secular humanist. To differ from the received orthodoxies of the intellectual majority is not inherently to be “stupid” or “anti-intellectual”–a fact, incidentally, that any medieval university (and not a few monastic colleges) would have been able to teach by example.

It’s important to note that Fendrich never revisits or modifies this characterization, and,  as we will see below, later explicitly allies herself with the liberal viewpoint. This is, at best, unfortunate. To resort, or appear to resort, to insults in characterizing Schaeffer’s philosophy demeans the seriousness of the modern Evangelical movement in whose name Bachmann claims to speak. Further, it ill serves the intellectual purposes of Fendrich’s essay to lower herself to name-calling (even through the transparent trick of ventriloquizing those slurs through straw man “liberals”) and thereby to miss the opportunity to engage Schaeffer’s ideas and to demonstrate by argument the flaws in his thought.

A second example of Fendrich’s too-easy binary: “Yet the Renaissance is poorly understood if it’s confined to celebrating such geniuses as Michelangelo, Raphael or Leonardo, or to talking about how the age “freed” man from the shackles of medieval religion and thought. In opening the way for modern natural science, for political systems (like democracy) that are based on individual rights of man instead of the divine right of kings, and in making it the responsibility of human beings to construct their world, it was, in a word, scary.”

Note that the ironic-distancing quotation marks in Fendrich’s first sentence appear only around the word “freed”–not around the shackles of medieval religion and thought.

Fendrich concludes her essay:

“I agree with liberals who find Michele Bachmann a dangerous politician figure who would make an awful President. Anyone who would say, as she did, in the spring of 2009, “I find it interesting that it was back in the nineteen-seventies that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat President, Jimmy Carter. And I’m not blaming this on President Obama—I just think it’s an interesting coincidence,” thinks that correlation is the same as cause-and-effect. This is the kind of Medievalism that is really scary in a modern political figure.”

Fendrich proceeds from a number of assumptions throughout this essay, but by far the most damaging is her acceptance that Schaeffer (and Bachmann) are more or less accurately living according to a medieval religious philosophy. Her criticism of Schaeffer, then, begins from a false substitution-by-analogy–Schaeffer is to postmodern secular humanism as medieval is to Renaissance.  One can argue that Schaeffer’s wrong for a number of reasons, but if one proceeds from the assumption that he is ‘irrational,’ ‘anti-intellectual,’ and ‘stupid’ why then assume that he’s correct in allying himself to a previous historical period? To put it simply, why assume that Schaeffer is correct only insofar as he asserts a “medievalness” to his philosophy? To do so is, at best, to be guilty of the same sort of faulty correlative deductions that Bachmann herself makes.


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