To reform, not disfigure, the Church

In the face of the disarray of the contemporary ecclesiastical situation, there is no lack of those, in the traditionalist world, who go so far as to cast into doubt the very institutions of the Church, starting with the papacy. There are those who support, for example, the need to strengthen the power of the bishops, stripping the pope of prerogatives viewed as those of an autocrat; a thesis not far from the progressive one of the synodal Church, which would like to reduce the role of the pontiff to a purely honorary primacy. Others support the abolition of the Vatican City State, others still would like to abolish every form of legal and economic power of the papacy, recalling the words of the Gospel, “Carry no purse, nor bag, nor money, nor sandals, nor two tunics” (Luke 10:4). Thus the myth of the “primitive” Church as opposed to the “Constantinian” — once the hobby horse of Protestants and modernists — is today making inroads among Catholics faithful to Tradition. The split with the Tradition of the Church, at the origin of the current disaster, does not date back to the Second Vatican Council but rather to the emperor Constantine.

The confusion is great, and we would like to recall some truths taken from the perennial Magisterium of the Church. We must know and love the Church as Jesus Christ wanted it to be, and not as we would like it to be.

The Church founded by Jesus Christ is a reality that is born and lives in history and is at the same time human and divine: human on account of its members, supernatural and divine on account of its origin, its purpose, its means.

As a human society, the Church is a visible body, made up of people who are not necessarily saints or in a state of grace, but united by the same faith under the same government. This government, by the will of its Founder, is monarchical and hierarchical, and is endowed with all the means to exist and to operate. What are these means? The first is the existence of laws. The Church is, within its proper sphere, a perfect society that not only teaches but governs. Therefore it also has the right to formulate laws and inflict penalties proportionate to the gravity of their violations.

Since the Church is governed by bishops in union with the pope, a territorial organisation is also necessary. For this reason its dioceses are set up and arranged according to distinct geographical areas.

Still today, the spiritual autonomy of the pope requires his personal and territorial independence from every civil power. At one time, this independence was seen to by the Papal States, today by Vatican City State.

The Church can also dispose of temporal goods, drawn from the free contributions both of the faithful and of the state, and of anyone who is convinced of the importance of its mission and is keen to promote it. This is the origin of the Church’s patrimony, recognised by the emperors Constantine and Licinius since 313 AD.

At the end of the fifth century, in a period in which a continuous and efficient imperial administration was lacking, Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590–604) wanted to ensure a vigorous administration of the Church’s assets, because this administration was beginning to take on public responsibilities that required enormous material resources. Paul the Deacon, Gregory’s biographer, offers us a detailed account of the assets of which the Pope was a skilled administrator. The travel costs and upkeep of missionaries in different countries; the embassies to the emperor and those of the extraordinary legates, who often had to undertake long journeys on behalf of the pope; the foundations of or visits to monasteries; the exercise of justice in every regard; all this involved expenses that were provided for by the Church’s assets as a whole, called the Patrimonium Sancti Petri —“Patrimony of Saint Peter”. This patrimony was not accumulated to exercise growing political power, but to guarantee the full freedom of the Church’s evangelising activity and maintain the ecclesiastical primacy of Rome throughout Christendom.

But more generally, the mission of the Church demands its presence, supported economically, in all fields: its buildings are constructed by architects and workers in public spaces; its liturgy is linked to furnishings, vestments, historical memories; its pastoral activity requires the conditions created by technology and progress. Today, for example, this public presence also includes web platforms, used by defenders and opponents of the Church. All this presupposes the property rights of the Church.

In the address “La vostra presenza” of 4 April 1913, to the pilgrims from the diocese of Milan who had come to Rome for the celebrations of the sixteenth centenary of the Edict of Milan, Saint Pius X said:

“The Church has property rights because as a society of men and not of angels it needs the material goods that have come to it through the piety of the faithful, and it retains legitimate possession of these for the fulfilment of its ministries, for the external exercise of worship, for the construction of temples, for the works of charity entrusted to it, and in order to live and perpetuate itself until the consummation of the ages. And these rights are so sacred that the Church has always felt the duty to uphold and defend them, knowing full well that if it made the slightest concession to the demands of its enemies it would fail to fulfil the mandate it has received from Heaven and would fall into apostasy. Therefore history presents us with a series of claims and protests made by the Church against those who wanted to enslave it. Its first words to Judaism, spoken by Peter and the other Apostles, ‘We ought to obey God, rather than men’ (Acts 5:29), these sublime words have ever been repeated by their successors, and will be repeated until the end of the world, even if they should be confirmed with a baptism of blood.”

The practices of worship, the juridical organisation, the very propagation of the faith preached by men of flesh and blood who live in the world are subject to all the exigencies of historical conditions. Of course, this visible dimension of the Church is the human one, and therefore the one most subject to decadence and corruption. The solution, however, does not lie in a Revolution that disfigures the features of the Church, but in its internal reform, which recalls the invisible and mysterious action of the Holy Spirit, who always assists it. The path to follow, in a word, is not that of Luther or the modernists, but that of the great reformers like St Peter Damian, St Charles Borromeo and St Pius X himself.

This must be affirmed with trust for the future, in spite of the present disarray. The Church, unlike human societies, is not heading towards decline, but towards a fullness of life capable of enduring forever. It was founded by Jesus Christ, Man-God, and its dimension is eternity.