Saturday, March 07, 2009

A Century of Wasted Opportunities

Andrea di Cristoforo Bregno (1418 – Rome 1506)
The Funeral Monument to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (died 1464)
Polychrome relief of Saint Peter flanked by the kneeling cardinal and the Angel of Resurrection.
San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome

Anthony Kenny is a former Master of Balliol College, Oxford.

In the TLS he reviews two new books of Nicholas of Cusa and Erasmus:

Nicholas of Cusa:WRITINGS ON CHURCH AND REFORM, Translated by Thomas M. Izbicki: 688pp. Harvard University Press. £19.95 (US $29.95); and Desiderius Erasmus:
IN PRAISE OF FOLLY AND POPE JULIUS BARRED FROM HEAVEN: Translated by Roger Clarke 334pp. Oneworld Classics. £8.99 (US $17.95)

At the same time he provides an essay which is a tour de force on how the Catholic Church failed to save itself from the Reformation

It is perhaps a period of history which is not known well enough. The repercussions from the events and disputes within that period still reverberate today.

The period (1417-1517) is fascinating yet, as Kenny describes it, "the most tragic in the history of the Church."

"To the ecclesiastical historian the century immediately preceding the Reformation (1417–1517) is one of the most fascinating and also the most tragic in the history of the Church.

In 1417, the Council of Constance elected Pope Martin V, putting an end to decades of schism in which there had been two, and eventually three, rival claimants to the papacy. In 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation with his Ninety-Five Wittenberg theses.

In the hundred years in between, Christian Europe was a cauldron of seething conflicts: between Greek and Latin, between papalists and conciliarists, between scholastics and humanists, and between kingdoms and principalities large and small. The century was a tragedy of lost opportunities: the division among the political powers caused the loss to the Turks of Constantinople and much of Eastern Europe; the failure of every attempt to reform the Catholic Church from within led to the break-up of Christendom into separate and warring confessions. Two figures stand out who, nobly but vainly, tried in different ways to arrest the descent into the abyss: Nicholas of Cusa (or Cusanus) at the beginning of the century, and Desiderius Erasmus at the end.

The Council of Constance had deposed the schismatic Pope who convened it, and defined the conciliarist thesis that a general council was the supreme body in the Church, which popes must obey. It also called for councils to be regularly held to oversee papal activity. The first such council was convened at Basle in 1431, with Nicholas of Cusa (then a young university canonist) as one of its prominent members. On behalf of the Council he negotiated with the Hussites in Bohemia, urging them to rejoin the Church which they had left because of its refusal of the chalice to the laity. In 1433 he wrote his major work on church government, The Catholic Concordance, a manifesto of conciliarism.

In the abstract, there was much to be said for the notion of a constitutional papacy subject to the authority of a council representative of the different parts of Christendom. Unfortunately, the Council of Basle proceeded to bring the idea into rapid disrepute. The reforms it proposed got no further than the diversion of church taxes from Rome to local prelates and princes, and when the reigning Pope, Eugenius IV, complained of its activities, it declared him deposed. In 1439, when the last thing the Church needed was another schism, it elected an antipope, Felix V. But by this time Nicholas had lost patience with his Basle colleagues, and had gone over to Eugenius.

In 1437, Nicholas was sent by the Pope on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople to invite the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople to join an attempt to end the schism between the Greek and Latin Churches. Outmanoeuvring the assembly at Basle, which was also negotiating with the Greeks, Eugenius held a council in Italy, which at Florence in 1439 proclaimed the reunion of the two Churches. The Pope smuggled into the decree a statement of papal supremacy.

The Latins hoped that as a result of the Council, the Greek Church would accept a number of disputed doctrines. The Greeks hoped that the Western nations would come to their aid against the Turks. The hopes of both sides were dashed. The doctrinal concessions of the Emperor and Patriarch in Florence were disowned in the East, and in the absence of effective European aid, Constantinople fell in 1453.

The division between Basle and Rome continued after the Council of Florence. The German princes of the Holy Roman Empire in 1439 declared themselves neutral between the two. Nicholas laboured as Papal Legate to bring them over to the Roman side, notably at the Diet of Frankfurt in 1442. These efforts were crowned when in 1449 the antipope Felix resigned, the Council of Basle dissolved itself, and the German Emperor accepted the authority of Eugenius. On the other hand, Nicholas failed in the task of reconciling the Hussites to the papacy’s repudiation of a compromise they had been offered by the divines of Basle. Within the Catholic domain, he instituted a programme of reform of corrupt religious orders, restoring discipline among friars, monks and nuns. But the reforms did not survive his death.

The handsomely produced volume in the I Tatti series presents, with an en face translation, the Latin text of a number of Nicholas’s lesser-known works related to these diplomatic and reforming endeavours. We are given three pamphlets from the conciliar phase, supplementary to The Catholic Concordance. There follow six works after the change of allegiance, notably the speech at the Diet of Frankfurt, which earned Nicholas the title of “The Hercules of the Eugenians”. Several sermons about St Peter give a moderately papalist explanation of the text “You are Peter, and on this rock I shall build my Church”. The final section of the volume ends with a bull Nicholas drafted for Pope Pius II (Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, a fellow ex-conciliarist) on reform of the Church in its head and members. It provides for a trio of eminent independent assessors to evaluate and amend, against precise standards, the performance of pope, cardinals and curia. Sadly Pius, preoccupied with a crusade against the Turks, never put the programme into effect.

This final paper is the most impressive among a collection of texts which, it must be said, are of very uneven interest. It must also be added that the texts have been very inadequately translated. Admittedly, Cusanus’s Latin can be crabbed and difficult: but in the English text we meet not only misunderstandings of particular terms, but a failure to distinguish between subjects and objects and between indicatives and subjunctives. The confusion is such that the sense of the original is sometimes totally reversed, and at least once the Latin text is amended in order to bring it into harmony with an English mistranslation.

During his busy life Nicholas wrote a number of significant mathematical and philosophical works, the best known of which is On Informed Ignorance of 1440. Human knowledge, he there argues, is so limited that rational attempts to reach the ultimate truth are like a polygon inscribed in a circle: however many sides we add to the polygon, it will never coincide with the circumference. In philosophy, Nicholas stands on the cusp between medieval and modern ways of thought. By the time of his death in 1464, the dominant intellectual current was humanism. In the fifteenth century “humanism” did not mean the replacement of religious values with secular ones. Rather, it denoted a belief in the educational value of the “humane letters” of Greek and Latin classics. Humanists turned away from the technical logical and philosophical studies of scholasticism, and placed new emphasis on the study of grammar and rhetoric. They believed that their scholarship, when applied to the ancient texts, would restore to Europe forgotten arts and sciences, and when applied to the Bible and the Church Fathers, would help Christendom to a purer and more authentic understanding of Christian truth.

Five years after Cusa’s death, there was born in Rotterdam the man who came to be regarded as the prince of the humanists, Desiderius Erasmus. Educated in the devout community of the Brethren of the Common Life, Erasmus became an Augustinian friar and was ordained priest in 1492. Life in a religious order did not suit him, however, and he became an independent scholar, studying and teaching in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge and Louvain. In 1499, on his first visit to England, he met Thomas More, eight years his junior, and was introduced by him to the eight-year-old Prince who was to become Henry VIII.

Erasmus and More remained lifelong friends. They shared an enthusiasm for humanism and a distaste for scholasticism: Erasmus had been unhappy at the Sorbonne and More mocked the logic he had been taught at Oxford. The two of them collaborated in a translation into Latin of the works of the Greek satirist Lucian.

In 1511, Erasmus dedicated to More a light-hearted Latin work with the punning title Encomium Moriae, which translates as Praise of Folly. According to his own account, this was composed on a long horseback journey from Italy to England, and written down during a brief illness in More’s house. It is this work which is now offered in a paperback English edition by Oneworld Classics. The Latin text is not printed en face, but an appendix includes a portion of it sufficient to convince the reader that Roger Clarke’s translation, while idiomatic and sometimes racy, is quite faithful to the original.

No one today is going to read Praise of Folly for laughs. By the time the reader has deciphered the classical allusions by referring to Clarke’s generally excellent notes, the jokes have worn rather thin. Folly speaks in the first person throughout, claiming credit for most human institutions. Were it not for folly, who would ever get married? It is their foolishness that makes women and babies attractive, and only folly keeps families together (“What divorces, or worse, would take place everywhere, were it not for the support and nourishment that the domestic companionship of man and wife draws from flattery, from teasing, from permissiveness, deceit, dissimulation!”). Riches, reputation and learning bring far less happiness than folly does, and all human activity is full of folly.

Through the mouth of Folly, Erasmus presents himself as the court jester of the Renaissance, mocking all the professions: physicians, alchemists, lawyers, theologians, even grammarians like himself. He shows the futility of the pomp of secular and ecclesiastical courts; he aims some of his fiercest barbs at superstitious practices encouraged by rapacious priests. He jeers at the chauvinism whereby each nation prides itself about its own special gifts. (Britons, we are told rather surprisingly, claim as their speciality good looks, music and fine meals).

The book moves from mockery of the follies that surface in every age of human history to denunciation of the ills peculiar to the dissolute courts of the Renaissance and the corrupt institutions of the unreformed Church. This second prong of the attack is given a sharp point in the second text included in the Oneworld volume, Pope Julius Barred from Heaven, a witty dialogue in which St Peter, the keeper of the keys of heaven, refuses to admit, or to recognize as his successor, Julius II, the warlike Pope who died in 1513. The dialogue was published anonymously, and Erasmus himself always denied that he was its author. Some modern scholars accept his denial, but most readers, then and now, have assumed that it is his work.

From the time of Pius II, the popes had devoted the greater part of their energies to building and defending a mid-Italian princedom. In pursuit of this, they used both temporal and spiritual weapons, creating their own armies and excommunicating their enemies. Julius II was the most pugilistic of all the popes, tramping through Italy at the head of his armies, clad in silver armour, thwacking any cardinal who fell behind in the march. He was an abomination to Erasmus, who hated war as the worst of human crimes.

In 1512 Julius, battered in conflict and ailing in health, called a council to meet at the Lateran to emend a Church now universally agreed to be corrupt. This was the last chance to reform Catholicism from within along conciliarist lines. The opportunity was not taken. Shortly after it was convened, Julius died and was succeeded by the Medici Pope Leo X, who effectively tore up the reform agenda. Only five years later the issues were brought back by Luther to haunt the papacy for ever. When at last a reforming council was convened, at Trent in 1545, it represented only a portion of Christendom. One of its results was the placing of Praise of Folly on an Index of Forbidden Books."

For more about Nicholas of Cusa, you may wish to consult this site