More on Bergin's History of 17th Century French Church

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at some of the themes in Joseph Bergin’s wonderful history of the French Church in the long seventeenth century, Church, Society and Religious Change in France, 1580-1730. Today, I would like to conclude this short “review” of this important book.

The Church is only as good as her saints. I have always been both haunted and encouraged by von Balthasar’s famous observation that “love alone is credible,” a sentiment that could scarcely be more at odds with our modern, technological worldview so often beset by biological or other reductionisms. We are told that what matters is success. We are told that what matters is control and power. We are led to believe that our deepest emotions, our yearnings, our instances of heroism or our most evil deeds, are really just the result of the pre-programmed stimuli in our brains. Against this worldview, the life of the saints is a constant reminder that for the Christian, and for the Christian Church, what matters is the capacity to evidence Christ’s love in our lives. Those who most evidence that love we call saints.

Of all the many problems I have with the Protestant Reformation, none is more severe than their attack on the Catholic cult of the saints. I understand that there were abuses regarding the cult of the saints. I understand that for the simple, a bit of superstition became intertwined with orthodox catholic belief regarding the saints. But, what Bergin shows is that the cult of the saints was inextricably part of the pre-Reformation culture in which religion was everywhere. “The historiographical commonplace, that pre-modern Europeans were surrounded, from cradle to grave, by the supernatural, loses none of its validity for being repeated one further time.” When the saints were hurled overboard by the Reformers, they threw out one of the principal avenues by which people’s understanding of the omnipresent supernatural was made real.

Part of the attraction of the saints was their familiarity. It is easy to see how people could abuse the cult of a saint by entering into a “contractual” bargain – you protect me from this plague and I will say prayers at your statue every day for a month – but such thinking grew out of the demonstrated heroism of saints, such as Charles Borromeo, who actually did die while trying to care for his people afflicted by the plague. Unlike the Protestant Reformers, the Catholic Reformers tried to reconnect this familiarity with a better grasped understanding of the gratuitousness of grace by directing the cult of the saints towards Christocentric and Marian devotions. “These attempts to reorient the cult of the saints meant that some were more suited than others for the purpose, since the miracle or wonder-work at the centre of this entire project was the incarnation, Christ’s sacrifice and the ensuing promise of human salvation,” Bergin writes. Consequently, by viewing saints less as independent contractors of miracles, and more as intercessors with Christ, the cult of those saints who were closest to Christ himself grew exponentially: Mary, his mother, Sr. Joseph, St. Anne and the Apostles.

Other changes within the Catholic Church were a result of the need to respond to the Protestant challenge. Luther had challenged the sacrament of confession, namely because he thought it invited “laxism,” putting to much emphasis on the power of the keys held by the confessor and too little on the need for contrition on the part of the one confessing. The Council of Trent had debated how deep a penitent’s sorrow for his sins must be, and had shunned Luther’s insistence that only “contrition” and not mere “attrition” for sins would suffice. This issue would be at the heart of the controversy over Jansenism. Call me silly, but I think that most attempts at “perfectionism,” be they pre-modern or post-modern, are misguided and that the beauty of the confessional is found precisely in the fact that the “power of the keys” held by the clergy-confessor is a power that is drenched in God’s mercy. Focusing on the degree of sorrow evidenced by the penitent shifts the focus from God’s mercy to the penitent’s psychology, to say nothing of how it invites scrupulosity.

Bergin spends a great deal of time looking at the role of religious orders in the reform of the French Church, and how their efforts often overlapped with other reform efforts. Yesterday, I mentioned the role of the religious orders in conducting seminaries. They also would mount missions, especially to rural areas, which would not only help eradicate the frequent ignorance of the rural population, but serve as a model for the secular clergy to follow once the mission moved on. Bergin recounts the mission preached at Brou in the diocese of Chartres in 1615 as a seminal approach to missions: Fr. Adrien Bourdoise and the clergy of Saint-Nicholas-du-Chardonnet in Paris, mobilized between thirty and ninety priests (“depending on which account one is to believe,” Bergin notes) so that they could hear confessions, give frequent sermons, and truly make a lasting impression on the faith life of the community at Brou. I was reminded on the recent campaign here in the Archdiocese of Washington during Lent, called “The Light is On” that had almost every church in Washington open every Wednesday night for confessions. The religious order clergy were not confined to serving under-served rural areas; they also dominated the pulpits of urban parishes during penitential seasons. They were then, as they often are now, a leaven to the entire Church.

The rise in Confraternities, especially those devoted to Eucharistic, Marian and catechetical observances was one of the most obvious arrows in the quiver of the post-Trent Church. Oftentimes, these confraternities were born out of religious orders, but in all instances, they succeeded only to the degree that they gained popular traction and they had to dovetail with other post-Trent reforms. For example, before Trent, many confraternities had their own chapels but in the seventeenth century, with the increasing, albeit uneven, emphasis on the importance of the territorial parish, the confraternities tended to move their shrines inside the walls of the parish church.

Bergin’s treatment of Jansenism, which closes the volume, is worth the price of admission. It is fascinating to see how the heresy intertwined with other ecclesial dynamics of the day. For example, the Jansenist emphasis on closing the gap between the status of clergy and laity was part of the reason they were viewed suspiciously: Their translation of the liturgical offices of the church into the vernacular set off more alarm bells than their translations of the Bible for just this reason! Similarly, some of the popularity of the Jansenists stemmed from their willingness to play the card of traditional Gallicanism, resentful of the intrusions of Rome into the affairs of the French Church. But, it was Jansenism’s attempt to resolve issues that the Council of Trent had quite purposefully left unresolved that put them on the road to their condemnation and this is, I think, a very pertinent lesson for our own time. Bergin writes:

It is now generally accepted that the Council of Trent, so often berated for dogmatically closing debates on key theological issues, actually feared the dangers of making definitive pronouncements on questions that had remained undecided for centuries. Its decrees on fundamental issues of original sin, freedom of the human will, and predestination to salvation or damnation, which were at the core of the legacy of Saint Augustine to medieval Christianity, and which Luther and Calvin had brought to the forefront during the reformation, were compromises that left the door open to further discussion and, therefore, disagreement.

That is certainly not the history of the Council of Trent that I learned growing up! I would venture to submit that it is not a view of Trent that would warm the hearts of today’s heresy hunters and Jansenists. But, those who think they know who should and who should not be given communion, those who think they and they alone should decide who can grace the stage of a Catholic college’s commencement ceremony, they should recognize that they are not standing with the long, varied, sometimes clumsy, always human yet somehow divinely inspired efforts of the Church to proclaim the Gospel in ways that are effective because they are loving. They are standing with the Jansenists, withdrawing from the dangers of the world because they lack the confidence that the Church displayed at Trent, the confidence that insists not every issue must be resolved, that different consciences can reach different conclusions, all within the Church to be sure, but not all the same within the Church.

As I mentioned yesterday, Bergin’s book is not light reading, but it is fascinating reading and I encourage everyone to purchase it and read it.

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