Reflections on Rome Part 1: Connecting the Mind and the Tongue

Article by   January 2010
I have spent most of my life connected in some sense to Rome.  At school and then at university, I was a Classics man.  I preferred Greek tragedy to Roman comedy; but when it came to history, politics, poetry and oratory, I was a Rome man.  Julius Caesar, Vergil, and, above all, the great Cicero, were the figures who dominated my imagination.  Then, as I moved beyond undergraduate studies into the field of Reformation history for my Ph.D., Rome was still dominant; not this time the machinations of the senate, the declamations of Cicero, or the poetic escapades of Aeneas, but the Rome of Renaissance popes, papal bulls, and Tridentine Catholicism.  Yet, for all that I have spent barely a day in the last thirty years without thinking of Rome at some point, I had never actually set foot in the city until last month.

It is difficult to articulate the impact that walking into Vatican City and up the avenue to St Peter's has on one's psyche.  You can see all the photographs of it you want, as with the Grand Canyon, but when you are actually there, the real thing exists on an entirely different plane.  As a European, I spent my childhood holidays running around large ancient buildings -- Warwick Castle was a particular favourite -- so I am not particularly impressed by size or age; but St Peter's is on a different scale.  As I turned the corner and came to the square, the colonnades seemed to be sweeping out to greet me like giant arms about to embrace the world, an intentional vision of Catholic aspirations, I am sure; and as I walked into the building itself, I was cowed into complete and awesome silence.  The only other experience I have had that came remotely close was my first trip to New York when I stepped down from the coach and looked up - and up and up and up - at buildings that seemed almost to disappear into the sky.  I felt small.  And I felt even more so as I entered the great basilica at the heart of Vatican City.   The scale of the place, the paintings, the beauty, the statues, the face of Popes gazing at me, the good, the bad but not (at least as portrayed by the artists) particularly ugly.

The overwhelming power of the place pulled me in different directions.  It was both terrifying and attractive.  I suddenly realized why so many American evangelicals are attracted to the institution: it has everything American evangelicalism lacks - history, beauty, self-conscious identity and, quite frankly, class.   I also realized that such a vast organization simply does not need anybody else. Evangelicals may like to think of themselves as `dialogue partners' with Rome in certain contexts; but this is rather like Britain partnering with the USA in foreign policy adventures.  Even those who have never heard of the Suez crisis know who is really in charge.  Indeed, the Vatican International Bookshop provided a symbolic example of the issue.  It was there that I bought a copy of Benedict XVI's memoirs, a major part of which described his doctoral work on Bonaventure and its impact on his understanding of revelation and tradition.  The only Protestant book I could find there was an Italian translation of Rick Warren on the Christmas story.  I did not purchase that, even as a way of sharpening my Italian reading skills.  Enough said.

The aesthetic sledgehammer of St Peter's was impressive enough; but when you add to that the Vatican museum, along with the Sistine Chapel, the experience is one of aesthetic overload.  From the pillars in the square to Michelanglo's depiction of creation and fall, the church in Rome projects and unequivocal message of beauty, power, and of its own immensity in comparison with any and all pretenders.

But St. Peter's and the Vatican Museum were not my only points of call in the city.   I also stopped by the great Gregorianum, the elite university where the most brilliant minds of the Jesuit Order are trained.  The building was imposing; the library impressive; and the book shop very serious: walls of biblical commentaries (many of them Protestant) and weighty tomes and textbooks of patristic theology, canon law, philosophy and of the greatest minds Catholicism has ever produced.  No evangelical therapeutic psychobabble here, nor Rick Warren for that matter; indeed, I suspect he would have to be translated into Hungarian for his books to be deemed a sufficient intellectual challenge to make it on to the inventory.

Now, let's pause for a second.  I want to go on record at this point as saying that I understand the attraction of Rome: the sheer mass of the organization (if you'll pardon the pun); the overwhelming aesthetics; the desirability of belonging to such an august and ancient institution which knows what it is, where it comes from, and where it is going; and the cornucopia of brilliant intellects that have debated, refined, and articulated its confession over the centuries.  All that I understand; all that I find attractive; all that I find superior to what evangelical Protestantism has to offer, particularly in its crassest megachurch and emergent varieties.  And, if asked whether I would rather spend an evening reading the typical evangelical offerings of my own tradition or some work by Aquinas or Newman or Kung or Ratzinger, I would be inclined to respond by inquiring as to whether such was a serious question. Against the background of the tweets, faceblogs and submoronic inanity of the evangelical `here's a pic of me and my mate Kev' brigade, such is equivalent to asking me whether I would rather get tickets to hear Miley Cyrus or a Pink Floyd reunion.  Catholic cathedrals - whether of stone or of intellect - have no real rivals, certainly not among megachurch maestros and emergent egos.

But, having said all this, I find it hard to connect the mind - the Catholic mind - to the tongue. No, this is not some claim that Catholicism is just a bit too mystical for me, that it is so ineffable that it cannot be articulated in words; nor is it to suggest that Catholics gossip more than others, or speak before they think.  Not at all.   Let me explain.   St Peter's was not the only basilica I visited whilst in Italy.  I also went to Padua and visited the famous Basilica of Saint Antony.  Again, the architecture, internal and external, was impressive; but most striking of all were the remains of St. Anthony of Padua himself.  Most of him is actually contained in a large and mercifully opaque sarcophagus; but three particular bits are on display in clear glass jars in one of the side chapels. To be precise, there you will find his lower jaw (with definite signs of the saint having endured British dentistry), his vocal chords (most pleasant), and his tongue (some things are best left unsaid).  They are easy to spot, being right next to a piece of the true cross, also on display.

What can I say about the shows of devotion and veneration which I witnessed around these cadaverous morsels?  Frankly, I found them repellent, little more than a manifestation of the crassest kind of superstitious folk religion.  This is what is so difficult to connect with Catholicism of the von Balthasar or Yves Congar or De Lubac variety.  Great and brilliant as these men were, at ground level Catholicism looks like benighted old biddies doing homage before an amputated and pickled tongue.    It does not matter how many American evangelical leaders are wined and dined by the Roman See, or are taken by some cardinal to gaze upon Codex Sinaiticus, the tongue and its accoutrements remain as a silent testimony to superstition, as much a reflection of the priorities of the hierarchy as the mandatory polyglottic competence of the students - the students! not just the lecturers - at places such as the Gregorianum.

Of course, one response is that all churches have their areas of nuttiness, corruption, and superstition.  This is true; Protestantism has its Benny Hinns, for sure, though one of the great things about denominations is that one can distance oneself somewhat from the loonies - or at least choose with which loonies one wishes to fraternize.  And no Protestant should ever try to play holier than thou with a Catholic on the church's record on sexual morality.  Even in my limited ecclesiastical experience, I've come across adultery, rape, and child abuse within orthodox Reformed circles, and seen attempts by church leaders to sweep the same under the carpet.  But it is one thing to have the odd looney or the occasional bit of whackiness or sleaze; it is quite another to promote such as good for the church and, indeed, to make it an integral part of one's piety.  Yet this is what is done with St Anthony's tongue and with other bits of his anatomy. Equally dubious - and central - are figures, such as Padre Pio, the miracle worker and stigmatic who, in 2006, was voted the person to whom Italian Catholics most often prayed.   There something surely wrong when Jesus doesn't make the top three in such a poll, and the church does not take immediate and significant remedial action.

Since visiting St Anthony's, I have tried my best through reading the right Catholic sources and talking to good Catholic friends to understand what is going on in a church which embraces the most brilliant theology and the most crass superstition; and that not simply in the way that the church should embrace the good and the bad, but as an integral part of her identity and outreach.  Thus far, I have drawn a blank.  I was particularly disappointed by Hans Kung.  Kung usually does a better hatchet job on his own church than the fiercest Protestant bigot; but on Padre Pio and his ilk, I found him sadly lacking.  In his memoirs he recalls visiting Pio in the 1950s at his mother's request, because his brother was dying of cancer.  His comments in that passage on Pio, and on Lourdes, seem to suggest that he sees their value as lying in the fact that they give people something in which to believe; that such belief has benefits; and thus the whole paraphernalia which these things represent is good.  Pragmatism; pure pragmatism in a liberal Catholic idiom.

I close with three thoughts.  First, my trip to Rome reminded me once again of how inadequate evangelical Protestant literature on contemporary Catholicism is.  It tends to be either of the `Vatican II changed nothing and the Pope is still Antichrist' variety, or the equally unhelpful and inaccurate 'Vatican II changed everything and, frankly, I cannot remember why I am still a Protestant' kind.   We need some good Protestant writing on this subject which will help future pastors, elders, and church members engage thoughtfully, respectfully, and in an informed manner, with Catholicism and Catholic friends.

Second, I was challenged by a Catholic friend, when I raised the issues of Padre Pio and St Anthony's tongue, to consider whether my own reaction was conditioned in part by my being more a son of David Hume and the Enlightenment than I care to admit.   Easy to dismiss this point, but it perhaps deserves more reflection than I have given it.  There is a fine line between credulity and skepticism; and I am mindful of that statement by Newman in his work on the Arian controversy: `[H]e who believes a little, but encompasses that little with the inventions of men, is undeniably in a better condition than he who blots out from his mind both the human inventions, and that portion of truth which was concealed in them.'  A biblical balance is needed; and I am not sure that I have necessarily found it myself.

Finally, it seems that it is very easy for American Catholic intellectuals, and those evangelicals who are attracted by Rome, to ignore the tongues, the jaws, the bits of the real cross, the stigmatics, the folk religion.  But American pick-n-mix consumerism applied to Catholicism is just one more manifestation of, dare I say it?, the modern Western aesthetic of choice; it is emphatically not the same as Catholicism as it works itself out in the very backyard of the Roman See; and it will not do simply to say that the practices of such are not significant; they are significant, at least for anyone who takes seriously their Catholicism.  The picture in Rome, in Padua, in San Giovanni Rotondo, is more complicated than ECT, and those evangelicals and would-be-converts who would put down the Codex Sinaiticus and step outside the precincts of the Vatican to observe what goes on in Italy in the name of the Church might find their excitement at meeting with a cardinal or two somewhat tempered by silent tongues that have long since ceased wagging but which continue to speak eloquently about certain priorities in Catholicism.


Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "Reflections on Rome Part 1: Connecting the Mind and the Tongue", Reformation21 (January 2009)

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