January 2015 Print



by Robert de Mattei

During the course of history the enemies of the Church have attacked the Roman primacy by seeking to separate Christianity from Rome. If Romanitas is the outstanding, distinctive note of the Church, anti-Romanism can be considered the distinctive characteristic of her enemies. After the great Eastern Schism, between the fifteenth and the twentieth century, the dissociation of Rome from Christianity advanced along two often intersecting or convergent lines: on the one hand, an attempt to de-Romanize Christianity as occurred with Protestantism and then modernism; on the other hand, an attempt to de-Christianize the Roman spirit, as occurred with secular humanism, the French Revolution, and the neo-paganism of the twentieth century.

The pagan, or secular, humanism of the Renaissance and the French Revolution countered Christian Rome with the myth of Roman antiquity, whether republican or imperial. On the other hand, Protestantism and modernism saw in Christianity’s link with Rome, understood as the Constantinian dimension of the Church, the cause of its degeneration. Even Italy, the seat of the papacy, underwent its own revolution after 1789. During what is called the Risorgimento, or Italian Revolution, we see the convergence of the two tendencies: the reaffirmation of Christianity without Rome and of Rome without Christianity.

De-Romanization was expressed as a reform of the Church, a purification of its links with the temporal order. That was the position of Gioberti, who, in his Rinnovamento civilie d’Italia, asserted that the suppression of its temporal power was the necessary condition of the regeneration of the Church. The de-Christianization of Rome was advanced by authors like Giuseppe Mazzini, who made of Rome the symbol of the renewal of humanity: “For me,” he wrote in 1864, “Rome was, and still is in spite of its present abject state, the Temple of humanity. From Rome will emerge the religious transformation that will for the third time impart to Europe its moral unity.”1

This broad array of revolutionary forces, from the Renaissance to “Catholic” liberalism and to democratic radicalism, found their catalyst in the myth of a Rome “regenerated” and “reformed” because freed of the civil power of the Roman Pontiff.2

For the artisans of the Risorgimento, the transformation of the papacy meant the achievement of a philosophical and religious revolution analogous to that of Protestantism, which Italy had not undergone, and which ought to accompany the process of national unification. This is what constitutes the heart of what is referred to as “the Roman Question.”

For the artisans of the Risorgimento, the termination of the temporal power of the popes should not be reduced to the achievement of the geopolitical unification of Italy with Rome as its capital, but ought to be considered as an event of a philosophical and religious nature, something which constitutes the thematic thread and the symbolic achievement of national unification, which was celebrated in 2011.

The Lateran Accord of 1929 seemed to bring the Roman Question to a close, but a new “Roman question” exploded within the Church itself during Vatican II. “Till now,” wrote one of the Fathers of modernism, Ernesto Buonaiuti, “people have wanted to reform Rome without Rome, or even against Rome. But Rome needs to be reformed with the help of Rome, in such wise that the reform passes through the hands of those who have to be reformed. Here is the best, fail-proof method. But it will not be easy—Hic opus, hic labor.”3

Among the Council Fathers and theologians of Central Europe who flocked to Rome in 1962 in order to “bring the Church up to date,” an anti-Roman party took shape which seemed to be inspired by Buonaiuti’s words. In the conciliar assemblies, a Central European bishop decried three errors he perceived in the schema De Ecclesia, prepared by the Roman theological commission according to traditional doctrine: Roman triumphalism, clericalism, and legalism. This triptych sums up the anti-Romanism animating this faction.4

For the historian today, it appears obvious that the attack against the Roman Curia launched in the Council aula and the press during and after the Council concealed in fact an attack on the primacy of Rome. The Roman Curia, a term used to designate the dicasteries and organizations that assist the pope in the governance of the Church, is essentially the successor of the ancient presbyterium of the Bishops of Rome, of which it represents the homogeneous and authentic development. Thus it is not merely an administrative organ, but the highest “position” of the Church.5 The Curia is first and foremost constituted by the cardinals who hold their rank because they belong to the clergy of the local Church of Rome, and it is precisely in their quality as members of the Roman clergy that they elect the pope. The pope-elect, precisely because he is the Bishop of Rome, is immediately the successor of St. Peter in the primacy, the Vicar of Christ. The pope is pope because he is the Bishop of Rome and as the Bishop of Rome he is the bishop of the Roman clergy that elects him pope.

The Roman Curia had always been the longa mana of the pope, his tool. During Vatican II, the anti-Roman party succeeded in separating the Curia from the pope by striking at the Roman government, accused of triumphalism and centralism; by frontally attacking Roman theology, described in its newspaper by a French theologian who would subsequently be named cardinal, as “a miserable, ultramontane ecclesiology”;6 and by dismantling the Roman liturgy that was the expression of this theology.

Today the Roman spirit of the Church resides especially in our hearts, in which still resound the words Pius XII addressed to the students of Rome on January 31, 1949:

“If one day (and We are only expressing an hypothesis) the city of Rome should fall and the ruins of this Vatican Basilica, symbol of the one holy Catholic Church, invincible and victorious, should bury the historical treasures and the sacred tombs it houses, even then the Church would be neither beaten nor broken. The promise of Christ to St. Peter would be ever true. Its nature and its truth would carry on the papacy, the unique and indestructible Church founded on the pope living at that moment. Eternal Rome, in the supernatural Christian sense, is superior to historical Rome. Its nature and its truth do not depend on it.”7

Tragedy and Hope of the Present Hour

The age in which we are now living recalls that of Europe between the fifth and the eighth century. We are living in a world in ruins. The idol of Modernity, built at the expense of so much blood in the twentieth century, is collapsing, and the cultural and moral wreckage are all around us. Yet there stands a stone that cannot be eradicated because it constitutes the cornerstone of a Temple that defies the passage of time. This stone is at Rome, the place chosen by Divine Providence for the seat of the Prince of the Apostles and his successors.

Benedict XVI, in his famous speech at Regensburg, spoke of an attempted “de-Hellenization” of the Church.8 Today an analogous attempt at “de-Romanization” is under way, namely, the dissolution of the juridical structure of the Mystical Body of Christ. This attempted de-Romanization is taking place within the Church itself, and it is within it that we have to fight it.

The process of the de-Romanization of the papacy has accelerated since February 11, 2013, the date of Benedict XVI’s resignation from the supreme pontificate: an extraordinary act that has changed the history of the Church. Its exceptional character lies not only in the fact of the resignation, a legitimate act per se although extraordinary because it was the first time it had happened in six hundred years, but because of the disproportion between the exceptional nature of the act and the banality of the reasons given to justify it.

The exceptional character of the resignation is augmented by the exceptional character of the events that followed. Pope Benedict took the title of pope emeritus and continues to wear the white cassock, giving the impression that he continues to be the pope in some way. And it constitutes an exceptional event because it has clouded the horizon.

The process of de-Romanization has continued with the election of Pope Francis, who, from the outset of his pontificate, has styled himself the “Bishop of Rome” without adverting to the fact that the pope is first of all the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of St. Peter. In the gestures, words, and silences of Pope Francis everything proceeds along the line of a desacralization of the institution, that is to say, a loss of the Romanitas of the Church.

In the Roman pontificate, the Church has possessed from its origin a center of gravity: a visible, unitary principle of order and conduct embodied in the Vicar of Christ, the pope. Rome is not only the geographical center of Christianity, but the place where the ultimate truths necessary for the salvation of man and the essential values of Western Civilization are safeguarded.

The authority of the Roman See guarantees unity, which is broken every time that peoples or individuals withdraw from its governance and magisterium. It makes possible sanctity, as the fruitful coherence of the lives of the members of the Church with the faith and morals they profess; it achieves universality in its unifying mission; and, finally, it assures apostolicity in the succession that goes from St. Peter to Pope Francis and in the link between every episcopal see and that of Rome.9

The Church is not a confederation of Christian Communities or of episcopal conferences professing different or even contradictory doctrines under the honorary presidency of the pope. What characterizes the Church is not only its power of sanctifying souls by the administration of the sacraments; it is not only its power to guide them to the truth by its immutable magisterium, but it is also the power to govern them by its laws and institutions under the authority of the Roman Pontiff.

The word Rome especially evokes the visible and institutional dimension of the Church; the adjective Roman does not restrict the vocation of the Church to a certain time or place, but broadens it and qualifies it as the bearer of tidings of a supernatural salvation that is inseparable from its governance and law and which has in the Roman Pontiff its highest expression.

Today we are not only called to defend the Roman primacy, but the Eternal Rome that makes it possible.

We are called to defend Romanitas, which is the juridical and institutional dimension of the Church, the canonical framework that encompasses and supports its doctrine. We are called to defend the Roman liturgy, which is the tangible expression of this doctrine because the law of prayer corresponds to the law of faith. But especially we are called to proclaim and to live “the Roman spirit,” which is the capacity to reach the invisible through the visible, through that special atmosphere with which Rome is penetrated and which is only breathed at Rome.

Louis Veuillot called it “the perfume of Rome”10—a natural and a supernatural perfume that emanates from the stones and memories heaped up in this sacred ground on which Providence set St. Peter’s Chair.

The Roman spirit is the “sensus ecclesiae”—the perception of the evils that attack the Church, the unshakable fidelity to what this City represents, the love and veneration of all the treasures of faith and tradition this City encloses. This “sensus ecclesiae,” this Roman spirit that has filled the hearts of all pilgrims who over the centuries have contemplated Rome felix et nobilis: “Roma Felix,” sung during Vespers of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, the composition of which is attributed to a Sicilian poetess, Elpis, who according to some was the first wife of Boethius. “Roma nobilis,” noble Rome, fervently saluted from the earliest centuries by the pilgrims who traveled there, praised in the words of a canticle that has come down to us as the queen of the world, red with the blood of martyrs, white with the lilies of virgins:

O Roma nobilis, orbis et domina,
Cunctarum urbium excellentissima

Roseo martyrum sanguine rubea,

Albi et virginum liliis candida,

Salutem dicimus tibi per omnia, 

Te benedicimus, salve per saecula.11

In the anxious days in which we live, and which we can only expect to continue, we ought to be once again pilgrims in spirit who lift up their eyes to Roma nobilis et felix, whence shines an undying light. It will appear to us as the city of Sion beheld by Isaias: “I will not be forgetful of thee. Why, I have cut thy image on the palms of my hands: those walls of thine dwell before my eyes continually” (Is. 49:15-16, Knox version).

These words are also traditionally applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but no other city can consider itself dearer to her than Rome. Throughout history, no city has honored the Madonna as Rome has in her basilicas, churches, and monuments. Images of Mary are enshrined in thousands of places—in streets and plazas, on palace walls, and on city towers and clocks. These Madonnas wept miraculously in 1796 just before the commencement of the Jacobin invasion, when a “liberty pole” was set up at Rome, the Republic proclaimed, and Pope Pius VI exiled.

How much more, then, ought these images to weep at this historical moment when the Eternal City is occupied by agents within intent upon her destruction. The nineteenth-century revolutionaries only succeeded in stripping her of her material treasures: gold, silver, paintings, archives. Today she has been stripped of her spiritual treasures, starting with her liturgy.

Our gaze naturally turns to Mary, Mother of the Church, and it is there that the answer to the drama of our times can be found. There is to be found the strength and confidence within us. We do indeed live in a tragic age, but as Veuillot wrote, we are awaiting chastisement, not death. We are awaiting not death, but life, the life that can only come from Rome, supernatural source and center of the certain resurrection of the Church.

1 Giuseppe Mazzini, Note autobiografiche (Milan: Rizzoli, 1986), p. 382.

2 Vincenzo Gioberti, Rinovamento civile d’Italia (Bologna, 1943), Vol. II, p. 237.

3 Ernesto Buonaiuti, Il modernismo cattolico (Modena: Guanda, 1944), p. 128.

4 Msgr. Emile De Smedt, Bishop of Bruges. Cf. Acta Synodalia, I/4, pp. 356 ff.

5 Abbé Victor A. Berto, Pour la sainte Eglise romaine: Textes et documents (Paris: DMM, 1976), p. 19.

6 Yves Congar, Council Diary [Italian version] (San Paolo: Cinisello Balsamo, 2005), Vol. II, p. 20.

7 Pius XII, Discorsi e Radiomessaggi (Rome: Tip. Poliglotta Vaticana, 1950), Vol. X, p. 358-9.

8 Pope Benedict XVI, Address at Regensburg University, September 12, 2006.

9 Rev. Mariano Cordovani, O.P., “Romanità della Chiesa,” in Roma Nobilis: L’idea, la missione, le memorie, e il destino di Roma, ed. Igino Cecchetti (Rome, Edas, 1953), pp. 103-111.

10 Louis Veuillot, Le Parfum de Rome (Victor Palmé, 1871) [online at openlibrary.org].

11 Roma Nobilis, quoted by Veuillot, op. cit., p. 90. [Historical information, from The Holy Year of Jubilee: An Account of the History and Ceremonial of the Roman Jubilee by Herbert Thurston, S.J. (London: Sands & Co., 1900). The Hymn was discovered by G. B. Niebuhr in Vatican MS. 3227 of the eleventh century and assigned by him t