It began with a newspaper article from the Philippines last week. The title of the article was, Sometimes the Catholic Church Falters Badly. The writer, Maribel Ongpin, was referring to current issues, like the RH Bill in the Congress of the Philippines, and the elephant Mali in the Manila Zoo, on which the CBCP (Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines) had made pronouncements. She warned the hierarchy that they must be well informed in making their pronouncements or they will just repeat the mistakes of the past.
“The past” was in the 1950’s when she was a schoolgirl. She remembers two issues. One was ballet dancing, which the bishops of the Philippines suddenly decreed was forbidden to all Catholics. There was no papal bull, no dogmatic teaching, no theological argument. Ballet was just banned.
The other issue was the reading of two books of the Filipino patriot José Rizal. The two books, Noli Me Tangere and Filibusterismo were required reading for students in college. The hierarchy opposed this requirement because the books contained criticism of the Church in the Philippines during colonial times.
Ongpin pointed out that with the passage of time ballet was quietly restored, and the two books became acceptable, without any of the dire consequences which the hierarchy had predicted.
I remember the crisis well, because I had just arrived in the Philippines at the time of the bishops’ protest. I had never seen ballet as a threat to faith or morals, so I presumed the prohibition must have been for purely Filipino reasons. I also read one of the books (my first reading of a book in Spanish), and found it so ordinary I wondered why it was considered objectionable.
Ms Ongpin was making the point that she thought the bishops should be adequately informed to pronounce on the current issues, or they might end up repeating the mistakes of the past.
That story about the past brought to my mind another national hierarchy blunder at an earlier time. The country was Austria, and the year was 1938. Hitler’s Germany was in an expansionist mood, and the prime minister of Austria saw his small country as a likely target. He planned a plebiscite to block a possible take-over, but the day before the plebiscite the German army occupied Austria.
The Cardinal archbishop of Vienna welcomed the German occupation, thanking God it had taken place peacefully, and urging Austrian Catholics to support the new authorities. Some days later the entire Austrian Catholic hierarchy issued a pastoral letter supporting the Cardinal.
To me this was incomprehensible. With my Irish background, long resentful at being occupied by a neighboring country, I could not imagine that Church leaders would welcome the take-over of their country by a more powerful neighbor. Was this just another instance of bishops, acting outside the area of their competence, making a big mistake?
The answer came many years later when I found Gordon Zahn, an American professor and peace activist who in 1963 produced a book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. Gordon Zahn (1918-2007) was a co-founder of the peace movement Pax Christi. He was a conscientious objector in World War II.
After World War II, he went to Europe to study how the peace movement in Germany had fared under Hitler. He found that after Hitler took over, the peace movement disappeared practically overnight. So he changed the focus of his study to how German Catholics responded to Hitler’s wars.
To his surprise he found that the German bishops’ wartime statements generally urged Catholics to loyal obedience to the legitimate authority, or more specifically rallied them to the defense of the German people and the Fatherland as a Christian duty.
Published in 1963, this book was an embarrassment to some of the German bishops still in place, who by this time were depicting themselves as staunch opponents of Hitler during the war. There were some who said it was just impossible to oppose the Nazi regime, but that also was challenged in another book published by Zahn in 1964.
This book was titled In Solitary Witness, and told the story of Franz Jagerstatter. Jagerstatter was a young Austrian farmer, with a wife and three young children. He was also church sexton and attended daily Mass. When called up to active duty in a war which he considered unjustified, he asked to be excused and refused to serve. For this he was imprisoned, and in 1943 he was executed.
In researching his book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, Gordon Zahn met Jagerstatter’s wife Franziska, who was able to show him letters and testimonies her husband had written to her from prison. Inspired by these documents Zahn was able to write and publish Jagerstatter’s biography In Solitary Witness.
The publicity given to Franz Jagerstatter by this book led to the introduction of his cause for sainthood. On October 27, 2007, 64 years after his death, he was declared “blessed”, the final stage before being declared a canonized saint.
So the train of thought is this: a Philippines columnist, to Filipino bishops, to Austrian bishops, to American Catholic layman, to German bishops, to Austrian Catholic layman. Out of all these people, one is chosen for sainthood, a young Catholic layman. Cardinal Newman reminds us that the faithful laity twice saved the early Church from error when the bishops were divided in their teaching. The Church today is suffering from failures at different levels. She once more needs the help of the faithful laity to find healing and renewal for the wounds of the recent past.
When the Roman Inquisition placed Galileo Galilei under house arrest in his home in Aricetri near Florence, Italy, in December 1633, they severely restricted his social life. He was not allowed to leave his home except to visit the nearby convent where his two daughters, Sister Maria Celeste and Sister Arcangela were members of the Poor Clare community. But he was allowed to have visitors provided they did not discuss scientific ideas with him.
One such visitor was the English poet and writer John Milton. We learn of the visit from Milton himself in Areopagitica, a writing produced by Milton in 1644. Areopagitica was a lengthy document directed to the English Parliament arguing against an order of Parliament requiring authors to submit their writings for government approval before publishing. It was Milton’s appeal against censorship.
Milton gave the document its name to associate it with the Areopagus (the Hill of Mars) near Athens in Greece, where legend says that Mars, the god of war, was put on trial by all the other gods. In classical times the Areopagus functioned as the place of the Supreme Court for the people of Athens.
In the lengthy document Milton tells his countrymen about scholars in other countries who complain about victimization and censorship, and who look to England as a beacon of philosophic freedom. Among the victims visited by him he mentioned “the famous Galileo”.
“And lest some should persuade ye, Lords and Commons, that these arguments of learned men’s discouragement at this your Order are mere flourishes and not real, I could recount what I have seen and heard in other countries, where this kind of inquisition terrorizes; when I have sat among their learned men – for that honour I had – and been counted happy to be born in such a place of philosophic freedom, as they supposed England was, while they themselves did nothing but bemoan the servile condition into which learning among them was brought; that this was it which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo, grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought” (414-421).
Milton seemed to understand that Galileo was condemned not for challenging Church doctrine, but for challenging the prevailing scientific view at the time. In the correspondence between Galileo and his daughter Sister Maria Celeste it is clear that Galileo’s faith never was in question.
Dava Sobel in her book “Galileo’s Daughter” draws attention to an interesting point. At Galileo’s condemnation in Rome, the Holy Office presented him with a document to read admitting his guilt and promising future obedience. Galileo objected to two clauses the document; one that said he had lapsed in his behavior as a good Catholic, and the other that he had acted deceitfully to get Church approval for one of his books. Only after the Inquisition removed the two clauses did he agree to sign the document.
Galileo did not see himself as an unfaithful son of the Church. He accepted what the Church taught as religious doctrine, and wondered why they would not allow him to teach science based on his scientific findings.
Galileo’s last years began badly, with the untimely death of his favorite daughter Sister Maria Celeste just shortly after he began his house arrest. Then his sight began to fail, a sad fate for the man who once saw further into the universe than any man had ever seen before,
John Milton’s visit may have come at a good time for Galileo. He needed something to help him believe in his achievements and to restore hope for the future. Milton had been a victim of censorship in his own country. His sympathetic visit must have boosted Galileo’s self-esteem.
I believe Milton’s international crusade must also have given Galileo hope for the future. It gave promise that there will always be people who insist on the freedom to search for greater understanding, and, like Galileo, to claim the right to seek the truth wherever the search may lead.