Page 10, 18th January 1991

18th January 1991
Page 10
Page 10, 18th January 1991 — Comforting legend or unpalatable truth?

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Organisations: Holy Office


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Comforting legend or unpalatable truth?

THE third week of January is traditionally the time for renewing those New Year resolutions so firmly kept during the first week but which barely survived the second.

A familiar resolution for journalists is to please his or her readers more, without boring them. Fleet Street veterans, however, have discovered that, for most readers, nothing is more boring than being pleased. They prefer being provoked.

This poses a difficulty for religious newspapers, lacking, as they generally do, the urbanity of their secular contemporaries. It is for this reason that "popular" religious journalism, with its complacent blandness, is so terrifyingly boring, but to be too provocative risks stirring ugly prejudice, even amongst a supposedly up-market readership. The basic choice is between comforting legend and unpalatable truth.

Some Catholics may thus face a dilemma this coming Christian Unity week, when the demands of "charity" undergo the acid test of actually having to kneel down and pray with other Christians. In which camp does one stand? With those who long for the cosy home-fire of sectarian myth; or with those willing to go out into the cold on the chance of learning something new?

Cold route

THOSE choosing the "cold" route may seek signposts. Some of these will point to certain current anniversaries whose • brief consideration could even prove helpful.

There is, for example, the bicentenary of the lifting in England (in 1791) of the ban on celebrating mass. Some thus think that, until then, mass had hardly ever been said here for over 200 years.

Nothing could be further form the truth. Many Catholics, particularly in country districts, had never been without mass, thanks, largely, to the blind eye of friendly neighbours and even, in many cases, of the "authorities."

Discretion was the keynote and mass was often said in private houses or other buildings that did not look like churches. Mass, in fact, was never proscribed on purely religious grounds, as we shall see.

The Penal Laws remained dormant until, at the prior instigation of the Pope (Pius V) priests, Jesuits in particular, began actively to encompass the dethronement, by death if necessary, of Queen Elizabeth i. The struggle between Pope and Queen was entirely political in its actual operation, the saying of mass merely providing evidence for being a priest, and, hence, a suspected traitor.

Even so many more Protestants were burnt (for their religion) in the reign of Mary Tudor than Catholics hanged (for treason) in the much longer reign of Elizabeth.

Such facts in no way belittle the heroism of the Catholic martyrs. It is all a question of means and motives, and their doubtful morality. Such thoughts can either be put to constructive use in Church Unity Week, or kept in cold storage for another year.

Corpse on trial

THERE are also a couple of notable anniversaries connected, though centuries apart, with papal notions of what can authoritatively be declared "null and void."

The first concerns the election in 891 of Pope Formosus. He is famous chiefly for the "cadaver synod" of 897 at which, dressed in pontifical vestments and sitting on a special throne, he was solemnly arraigned in full court by his successor (but one) Pope Stephen VI (VII).

The charges against him were perjury, violation of the canonical injunctions against episcopal translatian and coveting the papacy. He was defended by a deacon but found guilty and thrown into the Tiber.

This seemingly drastic "punishment" caused no actual physical discomfort to Formosus who was, of course, already dead. On trial had been his decaying corpse, specially disinterred for the occasion.

The chief historical significant of this macabre synod was Pope Stephen's condemnation of all Formosus's acts as null and void.

Bullish pope

WHERE have we heard that somewhat chilling expression "null and void" — before? In connection, of course, with Leo XIII, the centenary of whose most popular pronouncement, Rerum Novarum, on social matters, we are about to celebrate.

A later, more far-reaching statement of his, Apostolicae Curae, brought him more pain and considerably less popularity. (This, however, was a bull rather than, as with Rerum Novarum, an encyclical, though few appreciate the important difference between the two types of papal pronouncement).

The good Pope Leo was actually something of an innocent spectator during the

Apostolicae Curae drama, which resulted in the declaring

of Anglican orders to be ("absolutely") null and ("utterly") void. England's Cardinal Vaughan had wrongly — anticipated a massive increase in his flock from the ranks of Anglicans if their orders were to be declared invalid. A somewhat ill equipped delegation, headed by Cardinal Gasquet, went to Rome for the question to be investigated. Leo appointed a commission.

This sat for 12 sessions and was then abruptly transferred to the Holy Office. Anglican orders were condemned in the resulting bull, drafted by Mgr (later Cardinal) Merry del Val, and presented to the Pope for his approval. Pope Leo duly appended his signature.

The next important document Leo was given to read on the

subject was entitled Saepius Officio, the official answer of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to Apostolicae Curae. His holiness is said to have remarked, having read it, "I only wish my bishops wrote such good Latin."

Lost Latin

TALKING of Latin, some cats were let out of bags recently, in a Radio 4 interview, by the Vatican's principal translator (into Latin) of official papal (and other) pronouncements. Nowadays, reported the learned Carmelite, few bishops in their forties, or under, have a good working knowledge of Latin.

In the absence of any intended change of the Holy See's practice of employing Latin for its directives to the world's hierarchies, he went on to predict that no such messages, within 20 years, would be understood by any of their episcopal recipients.

He was then asked whether he had ever changed, in translation, any of the Pope's original words. Yes, once, he confessed (though he was afraid it should probably be a secret). About two years ago, he related, he had altered just one word originally employed by John Paul (whose lack of interest in Latin he had already divulged). The Pope had spoken of Latin as a "dead" language. The translator had altered this to "ancient."

The new draft was returned to the Pope who signed it without demur. Honour saved all round.

Watch this spot

THIS is also — last and least the anniversary of Charterhouse. I started it as we were on the move from Fleet Street — 20 years ago — to a new office in the shadow of the old Charterhouse.

I apologise in advance for its absence next month (under my name). I am lucky enough to have been invited to lecture in Barbados, one prospective subject having been bandied about being "Tudor Oxford."

This refers not to the Oxford of Wolsey but of Cameron (now Sir James) Tudor, a post-war Oxford star who had been the first black President of the Union. He always described himself as a "Catholic Anglican" with a keen interest in — guess what — Anglican orders.

He is now a prominent public figure in West Indian life.

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