On the Present Crisis: Some Advice From the Past

Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085)

The current crisis in the 21st-century Church was very similar to what was occurring during its reciprocal century, the 12th, namely, clerical sexual misconduct. Since Church authorities during the High Middle Ages were successful in cleaning it up, perhaps they can inform today’s Church on what steps to take in dealing with it.

It is agreed among historians that the clergy of Latin Christendom in the late 11th through the early 12th-century were generally dissolute and corrupt. A majority of priests ignored celibacy and were either married or keeping a concubine (or both) and busy pursuing wealth in the manner typical of feudal society. Many considered their physical church and its attendant land their own property, which their eldest son would eventually inherit and become the new local priest.

Determined to clean it up, Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) initiated a series of reforms which were continued by many of his successors. They took a tough juridical approach to the issue; its progress can be followed in the documents of the four famous Lateran Councils.

The first law banned marriage to all clergy and directed them to banish their wives and children from Church property (but with no provision made for the family). Unsurprisingly, this did not go over very well. Some bishops were assaulted upon presenting the order and had to flee for their safety. But the reformers in Rome were undeterred, a new law took it a step further and simply nullified those marriages. This had the effect of rendering any children of these marriages illegitimate and unable to inherit. This was problematic since in medieval Europe illegitimate children would usually end up as social outcastes.

The reformers then added a third, prohibiting anyone from attending a mass celebrated by a married priest. This meant that the priest himself would become a social outcast. Finally, and this solved the problem once and for all, they cut off their income. Churches were supported out of the taxes paid to the feudal lord; married priest’s paychecks were going to be withheld.

The Present Crisis

Detail from Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s homoerotic church mural

Of course, nothing resembling this is taking place today. There is no reform movement, and those that govern the Church today display only complacency and disinterest toward the current crisis. They don’t seem to care that bishops have lost moral credibility with their own flock. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski admits it:

“Our people still do believe in God; but they don’t believe in us. …Of course, they’re supposed to believe in the Lord, not us; but if we are going to lead them — as bishops, as pastors and parish priests — they need to be able to trust us.” (Link)

But you might have caught that there was something the Gregorian reformers did that can easily be applied to our situation. They had decreed that the offender’s income would be withheld. In today’s Church, unlike the Middle Ages, the budgets of our bishops are supported by the generosity of it’s parishioners, not tax revenue. If financial support was temporarily redirected, the bishops would surely panic, and Rome would hear about it.

Actually, this has already been taking place and I’m seeing a heightened concern about it just in my own diocese. If interrupting the money flow worked for the faithful Vicars of Christ in the 12th-century, it might work for the faithful laity of the 21st-century.


Post Scriptum: Incidentally, as I was drafting this post, an article written by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, an authority on Church history, was published in an Italian journal which made the same comparison of the current crisis with that of the crisis in the Church of the 12th-century.

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