By Nicolas Bonnal
The majority of the highest classes of that age, even the popes and the ecclesiastics, really believed in nothing at all.
We have been used to consider the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church as impotent witnesses or victims of progress, modernity and various conspirators. Dan Brown with his grotesque intrigues has helped a lot in this configuration of theories and plots that induced a subtle victimization of the Church. Yet some writers of considerable profile do not share this view.
Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy illustrate a radically opposite point of view: Rome and the Vatican as lairs of modern subversion; of modern paganism, during the Renaissance; and even of socialism, as a reaction to the clergy excesses which revolted too in this time Martin Luther.
In his beautiful essay 'what is Art', Tolstoy insists on the role of the Catholic Church in the making of modern subversion. That author of War and peace considers that the Borgia, the popes of the Renaissance and a very secular clergy had lost the faith and conducted a policy of paganism that paved the way of spiritual decadence in the West then elsewhere. This is anyway what Nietzsche thought on the matter (of course the atheist and 'superman' philosopher was an admirer of the pagan papacy of the Renaissance that had destroyed Christianity!)
Men of these rich, governing classes popes, kings, dukes, and all the great ones of the earth were left without any religion, with but the external forms of one, which they supported as being profitable and even necessary for themselves, since these forms screened a teaching which justified those privileges which they made use of.
Tolstoy doesn't even allude to the scandalous behaviour of the clerks in the so troubled times that caused so many misery and disturbance in Europe. Think of the pagan and sexy motives of the Chapel Sistine that seemed comics since their restoration. Tolstoy adds on this matter:
It was so at the time of the Renaissance and after it, when the chief subject of works of art was the laudation of the strong popes, kings, and dukes... Next, the element of sexual desire began more and more to enter into art, and (with very few exceptions, and in novels and dramas almost without exception) it has now become an essential feature of every art product of the rich classes.
The example of the art is excellent to understand that point: since the Renaissance the West abandons the perennial Christendom and succumbs to fashions, to camarillas and to cabals. The main factor of the culture is pleasure, a pleasure linked to power and sex-appeal, not the medieval teachings of the Church.
But the Roman Catholic Church is not spared either by Dostoyevsky, who insists on social and politic domains. Her responsibilities are often evoked by the great novelist in his works, like the famous tirade of the great inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov. Here the target is not only the baroque church but modernity (which is the same) that produces comfort and therefore annihilates spiritual freedom. The man becomes a pawn in the global chessboard of progress; the nations are dissolved into a flock of consuming ants.
I prefer to quote a less famous passage form the Idiot (part 4, chapter 7). Here the prince Muishkin, no more the idiot misunderstood by hasty commentators, speaks freely and violently, shocking his comprehensive entourage. He preaches a message of his own, which is incredibly controversial:
Roman Catholicism is, so to speak, simply the same thing as un-Christianity,' he added with flashing eyes, which seemed to take in everybody in the room. 'It is not a Christian religion, in the first place,' said the latter, in extreme agitation, quite out of proportion to the necessity of the moment. 'And in the second place, Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes- that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ-it preaches Antichrist-I assure you, I swear it!
Then the prince Muishkin gives his reasons. Of course he exaggerates; of course he is caricatured, somewhat ridiculed, like all the heralds of Dostoyevsky's novels:
This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire and everything is subordinated to this idea- beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling.
The harvest of such misconduct was near: republicanism, socialism and atheism that appeared mainly in France and Italy. Remember the role of France in the production of modern atheism and the importance of communist parties in all the catholic countries during modern era. Muishkin gives us here a key:
How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? Atheism is the child of Roman Catholicism-it proceeded from these Romans themselves, though perhaps they would not believe it. It grew and fattened on hatred of its parents; it is the progeny of their lies and spiritual feebleness. Atheism! In our country it is only among the upper classes that you find unbelievers; men who have lost the root or spirit of their faith; but abroad whole masses of
the people are beginning to profess unbelief-at first because of the darkness and lies by which they were surrounded; but now out of fanaticism, out of loathing for the Church and Christianity!... Socialism is the progeny of Romanism and of the Romanist spirit.
As if he were intuiting the future role of revolutionary and nihilistic troops in Russia, Muishkin preaches for a Russian national reaction:
And we must not suppose that all this is harmless and without danger to ourselves. Oh, no; we must resist, and quickly, quickly! We must let out Christ shine forth upon the Western nations, our Christ whom we have preserved intact, and whom they have never known.
I was just wishing to underline another vision of western history and another role of papacy in constructing the modern world: think of the calendar, including of Jesuitical science. The fabrication of a central papal figure in the middle ages is certainly one of the main facts in western history. The great Belgian sociologist Jean-Claude Paye recently wrote that "the war for democracy is the post-modern version of the Christian holy war conducted against the Saracens, holy war that was sacred because it was preached by the pope, the infallible agent of God on earth".