27 October 2014

Two Kinds of Triumphalism

Ordinarily one hears the word "triumphalism" applied to historical narratives about the Church.  The triumphalist version of Church History treats the past centuries as an inevitable march of the Ecclesia Militans onward to eschatological victory.  I would like to identify two new kinds of Triumphalism, related not to reflections on the Church's past, but to assessments of the present state of things.

The first triumphalism is an eschatological triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).  This triumphalism is informed by the theological virtue of hope, which looks at worldly distress, doubt and tribulation and sees past it to the victory already won by our Lord, who is enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  Yes, in the world we will have suffering.  Yes, there is strife and confusion, there are false teachers and antichrists, but in the midst of the grim struggle, we need not despair, because the victory is already ours.  This eschatological triumphalism ends up looking a lot like grim realism.  It expects things to go awry frequently, it sees the present world as a vale of tears which is passing away, but when things go wrong it sees this as an occasion of fortitude befitting a miles Christi.  The light set upon a hill shines brightest at night.

The second triumphalism is an ultramontane triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  Or rather, based on a particular reading of this promise.  The ultramontane triumphalist focuses on the immanent signs of Christ's triumph, in the integrity of the Church and especially in the Vicar of Christ.  The ultramontane triumphalist does not need to worry about persecution or fear any confusion, because he sees the promised triumph of Christ as already continuously accomplished in the prudence and perfection of the papal reign.  Everything the shepherds of the Church do is interpreted as a work of the Good Shepherd, and every act and allocution of the Roman Pontiff is interpreted through the promise of infallibility.  To stay faithful to Christ is to believe in his reign, which is made present through the reign of the Pope and the fidelity of the bishops.  To doubt the perfection of the latter is to deny the triumph of the former, and is therefore an act of despair and loss of faith.

The second kind of triumphalism is based on something correct: the Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of Christ, and his reign is an earthly sign of the triumph of our Lord, and his voice as Supreme Pontiff is the voice of the whole Church, speaking truths given to her by her Bridegroom.  And yet, like all heresies, it takes this noble truth, and warps it so as to obscure part of the faith and remove (at the cost of blindness) some of the difficulties of the present life.  Ultramontane triumphalism neglects those famous passages in Scripture, in which St. Luke tells us of divisions among the apostles, when St. Paul recalls rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy, when St. Peter warns the faithful against false teachers who will arise among them.  We follow the Pope, because he has the words of everlasting life.  We obey our Bishops because they teach us the truth and nourish us with the sacraments.  But, as St. Jerome writes,
"Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord's own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans... It is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders."  
Ultramontane triumphalism often ends in despair, because when the imperfection and profound weakness of our shepherds is revealed to us, this kind of triumphalist sees what is a lamentable fact of the corruption and corruptibility of wayward men, as a contradiction at the very heart of the faith, and as a failure of Christ, who promised to sustain his Vicar and protect him from the forces of hell.

Perhaps worse still, though, is the reaction of triumphalists who refuse to admit the imperfections and errors of the shepherds when they arise, who would insist on not just ignoring the fault, but on praising Peter for his hypocrisy, or honoring Nicolas for his heretical notions, because their fideistic confidence in the integrity of the papal reign so overwhelms reason that they must embrace everything that is done by the steward as if it were done by the king himself.  This perversion of faith leads to a perversion of hope, and it manifests itself with disturbing frequency among English-language commentators on ecclesiastical affairs.