The View from Rome

Let me place before you a curious observation: “Compared with our infallible democracies, our infallible medical councils, our infallible astronomers, our infallible judges, our infallible parliaments, the Pope is on his knees in the dust confessing his ignorance before the throne of God, asking only that as to certain historical matters on which he has clearly more sources of information open to him than anyone else his decision shall be taken as final.”

Do you know who wrote that? No not Newman, or Chesterton, or any of the great modern English apologist. It was George Bernard Shaw – an unbeliever, a Nietzschean, and a keen observer. Shaw, wrongly, drew the line at celibate clergy advising people about sexual matters, but he knew that there were reasons, good reasons, why a believer would want to pay special attention to the Vicar of Christ.

In this he differs, of course, from many modern American Catholics. That’s hardly news, but it’s good to remember during a papal Conclave. I have seen a lot of coverage about what people think about what’s happening in Rome. There’s an interesting perspective from Rome as well.

For instance, I’ve just been reading Stephen Prothero’s recent column at CNN describing how one of his Catholic students at Boston University came to see him and said she didn’t care who the new pope was. It wouldn’t make any difference in her life.

It’s no surprise that an immature American college student said such a thing. It would be more noteworthy if she didn’t. What was suprising was Prothero’s reaction: He said the pope shouldn’t make any difference to her either.

Prothero is a prominent writer on religion in America and admits he is “religiously confused” in his own faith commitments. But what kind of professor tells a student she shouldn’t care about the next pope? Or, say, the next Dalai Lama, or the successor to Hugo Chavez because they don’t matter to your life? Is this the kind of mentoring that opens students out to new vistas, instead of confirming them in their prejudices as young members of privileged society?

I ask because this is often what American professors tell us they are doing. The late Allan Bloom, author of the notorious book The Closing of the American Mind, was once told by a colleague at the University of Chicago that their task as professors ought to be rooting out the values their students came with to campus.

Bloom wickedly replied that if they only did that, they would soon put themselves out of business. There would be no more “prejudices” to uproot. So he would take the opposite tack, instill in them a better understanding of some of the very ideas their parents, churches, and communities wanted them to understand.

        Thomas Babington Macualay

Stephen Prothero would probably regard the familiar liberal internationalism of a global body like the United Nations as worthy of attention  – for all that institution’s fecklessness when it comes to actually doing anything important. By contrast, a much more truly international institution that has, furthermore, survived the rise and fall of whole civilizations – to say nothing of the sinfulness and folly of its own leaders and people – seems to count for nothing now in institutions of higher learning.

It was not all that long ago that Lord Macaulay, one of the greatest modern historians in the English language (and a non-Catholic), wrote in a famous passage: “There is not and there never was on this earth a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest Royal houses are but of yesterday when compared to the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. The line we trace back in an unbroken series from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable.”

Macaulay was clearly hampered by not having received an American university education, because he continued at length in the same ignorant vein:

The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated her for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendancy extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri, and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished in Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broke arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Pauls.

Strange things happen in history and there are few guarantees of any kind in life. But even leaving aside questions of belief, for the moment, as you follow the Conclave, wherever you find yourself, consider whether Macaulay or an American undergraduate is a better guide to the papacy.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.