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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
27 Apr 2004

The Sack of Rome: 1527, 1776

by Dr. John C. Rao

The Sack of Rome - A Parody of a Papal Procession and Blessing by Imperial Troops

One error that every historian knows he must avoid, and yet invariably finds himself committing, is that of taking certain facts for granted on face value. It is an error that he is aware that he must shun, given that detailed investigations of specific topics always yield a much deeper, nuanced understanding of a problem than any general study can ever offer. Still, it is an error that he habitually commits precisely because he cannot examine all subjects simultaneously, and is therefore obliged to make very fallible broad comments on most matters in order to press forward with the limited task before him. I caught myself in an error of this kind some years ago in preparing for the 1997 Gardone Summer Symposium of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute on the Reformation Era (1517-1648), with reference to the consequences of one of the most unfortunate events of the time: the Sack of Rome of May, 1527. In recognizing my mistake, and comparing it to similar ones that all too many people make in our own day, I realized, once more, just how dangerous the consequences of "taking things for granted" can really be.

The Sack of Rome had its origins in the French-Spanish struggle for hegemony in Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its proximate cause was the clash between the political program of the harried Medici Pope, Clement VII (1523-1534), and the ambitions of Charles V (1516-1558), King of Spain, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor. If its agents were actually mutinous, unpaid, imperial soldiers, these nevertheless could say that they were merely following the examples of their more illustrious clerical ally, the Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, who had plundered the Vatican side of the Tiber some eight months earlier.

Whatever the specific responsibilities of Pope, Catholic king-emperor, and prince of the Church might have been, the end result was indeed a nightmare. On May 6, 1527, Rome suffered the worst assault that it had ever known, far worse than anything at the time of the barbarian migrations. Nothing was spared, sacred or profane. Clement VII's escape to and confinement within the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo until December, listening to the taunting of German mercenaries calling for his death and replacement by "Pope Luther", were the least of the indignities. Various cardinals and prelates, including one future Pope, Julius III, were humiliated and tortured, altars were ransacked, the Sistine Chapel used as a stable, riches confiscated, patients in hospitals and children in orphanages gratuitously butchered. Rape and rapine, exacerbated by raids of hoodlums under the direction of the abbot of the nearby monastery of Farfa, were followed by the onset of plague. Rome and the stench of death became one.

Often, and with seemingly good reason, the Sack of Rome has been looked upon as a symbol of the boundary between the Renaissance and Catholic Reformation eras in Church History. Before this chastisement, the argument runs, control of Church affairs lay in the hands of the proponents of "business as usual", obsessed with politics, tied to corrupt and ineffective administrative methods, and insensitive to the significance of the Protestant revolt in Germany. After its visitation, however, the Great Awakening had surely begun.

Here is where my own error lay. I, too, had taken it for granted that the Sack of Rome was an eye-opener. Still, the more work that I did on the period, the more it became clear to me that this was not the case. Those whose eyes were open before the Sack may have had them opened wider still, but they were relatively few in number. With rare exceptions, men who were blind remained blind. An event of such magnitude, whose mere possibility in the abstract might have seemed apocalyptic beforehand, was digested when it finally did occur in reality as though it were simply another move on the chessboard of ordinary political life. Indeed, most Catholics, clerics and laymen alike, afterwards as before, went about their daily affairs, changing nothing, watching the collapse of the Church's position in Germany, uninspired to lift a finger to arrest it, even when possessing the authority to do so.

One thing that united many of the proponents of "business as usual" was the conviction that they represented the "traditions" of the Roman Church, by which they meant the standard operating procedures of papal and diocesan courts and curias. These "traditions" were under attack at the time, but not only by the men who, after the Diet of Speyer of 1529, would be referred to as Protestants. There were a limited number of fervent Catholics who also demanded a root and branch revamping of standard operating procedures and the canonical justifications for them, in order more effectively to fight the brutal war for the souls of men and the health of secular society that they feared the Reformation portended.

In the minds of the defenders of "tradition", such Catholic critics of papal and episcopal courts and curias were, at the very least, the sort of deluded, destructive zealots that centuries of bureaucratic prudence and pragmatism had sought to tame. At worst, they were themselves the true problem of the day, unnecessarily aggravating that Protestant tempest-in-a-teapot which could be quelled through the tried laws and methods of practical professionals. This latter line of argument, which so rejected a closer examination of Catholic failings that it literally verged on the point of treating the Protestant revolt as a non-event, was particularly deadly. For nothing, says Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent, furthered the Reformation more than a wide-spread delusion about its actual non-existence and non-importance.

Fortunately for the survival of the Church, these "conservatives" suffered at least a partial defeat, the "traditions" which they supported being exposed for what they were: abuses fortified by many spurious, self-deceptive arguments, but used for so long as to have gained the appearance of being something sacred. Fortunately for Rome, an effort was made to rebuild its walls with something more suitable and more sturdy than whatever happened to be merely familiar: a reaffirmation of the authentic and eternal Catholic Tradition, a deeper understanding of which revealed the flaws of the immediate past and indicated a surer path to a better future.

It is instructive to investigate for a moment one major reason for this partial victory of real Tradition over false customs masquerading as an essential element of our heritage. Successful Catholic reformers realized that they could not deal with problems facing the Church merely by a legalist cataloguing of the endless abuses to be noted practically everywhere in Christendom and a demand for their correction. Almost nothing could shake most authorities' commitment to their standard operating procedures, corrupt and ineffective though these might be. Prelates had to be awakened to another, and qualitatively different, means of viewing their responsibilities. If churchmen could not endure a direct attack on the flawed practices to which they were devoted, or could always find inventive techniques for legally circumventing attempts to change them, then the path to improvement must be opened by trying to focus them on a second, more spiritual framework in which to judge their activities. This high road could, perhaps, "seduce" them to reform by the innate strength of its truth and beauty, and avoid more predictable, customary, time-wasting, and ultimately futile efforts to refute them in the process.

Thus, to give but one example of a seemingly na´ve approach that nevertheless proved to be very successful, Catholic reformers understood that they could not fight their opponents on their own turf. Rather than discussing in exaggerated and all too familiar legal detail the minutiae of episcopal duties and their innumerable violations, all of which would be met by the interminable counter-quibbles of the bishops' own canonical experts, it was more fruitful to approach prelates forthrightly on the plane of conscience alone. One needed openly to emphasize the mortal sin of an Ordinary who failed to be a good shepherd. A bishop who could be won over to a realization of what he was obliged to do by directing him to a vision of the day he had to justify his behavior before the throne of Almighty God would eventually become a new man. He would contrast remarkably with one whose decisions were made on the grounds of whether or not the papal court in the course of the previous four hundred years had visited this or that immoral practice with the precise penalties prescribed under one or the other of fifteen extenuating circumstances. Bishops reformed in a qualitatively higher sense would see and use even a flawed law in a purer light. In contrast, even those who sought to correct themselves from a narrow, legalist perspective, and honestly did close the door to several wrong or inadequate practices in consequence, would nevertheless miss the higher spiritual meaning of laws that were intrinsically good. It was the spiritual break with a corrupt past which was crucial. The legal change was secondary.

Sixteenth-century Catholic reform was only partially successful. The old standard operating procedures were not completely abandoned. Familiar, attitudes were not totally eradicated. However, the model of the Catholic prelate, and, with it, that of the Roman Pontiff and the Roman priest, was reinvigorated, nourished by roots grounded in the authentic Tradition, and aimed away from the merely customary legalist, political, secularist obsessions of the late medieval period. And the model was more powerful as a deterrent to abuse than were any more rigorously defined and enforced canonical penalties. The fact that it had its impact is at least somewhat revealed by the difficulty historians have in explaining to Catholics today the failure of sixteenth century bishops and priests to live in their own dioceses and parishes. Raised in a Church that has at least partly digested the spirit of the Tridentine reform, we automatically presume that residence is their duty, regardless of the existence of any canonical loopholes through which they might legitimately slip.

My purpose in bringing up the story of the Sack of Rome, its failure to change the dominant mentality of the time, the feeling on the part of proponents of "business as usual" that Catholic reformers were dangerous enemies of "tradition", and the need to tackle such an attitude by appeal to a qualitatively higher authority is, of course, to illustrate certain similarities with our difficulties as Catholics in America today.

Year by year, decade by decade, on every level, intellectual, moral and physical, we have witnessed all that we have considered to be valuable from our Christian-Greco-Roman past mercilessly attacked, torn to shreds, and mocked in its helplessness. And yet each new assault, which seems as though it ought to be the final eye-opening disaster, appears to do little to awaken us to the major cause of our impotent defense of our own heritage. Our impotence stems from our continued support for certain supposedly practical, prudent, pragmatic "traditions", which, like the "traditions" of the corrupt papal and episcopal courts and curias of the early sixteenth century, are actually not part of Catholic Tradition at all, but, rather, errors and abuses. It emerges from our conviction that critics of such false traditions are wild-eyed and destructive zealots. It is fed by our insistence on so closing our minds to the full character of the problem that we face as to remind one of Hubert Jedin's warning that nothing does more to abet a disaster than an unwillingness to recognize its real existence.

What are the false traditions that weigh us down as Catholics in this country? I have repeatedly noted that they are the traditions of that Protestant-Enlightenment vision which shaped the environment in which the American system was founded and grew. These are not our traditions, because they involve presumptions about the relationship of the individual to society, and the role of theology and metaphysical thought in practical life, which are inimical to Catholic Truth. It is this heritage which assures the use of seemingly conservative, religion-friendly institutions in an anti-Catholic manner, allowing those individuals and groups who share its false principles to manipulate the American system in a way that we cannot imitate while remaining true to our Faith. "Patriotism" and "prudence", as defined by this different heritage, command Catholics to avoid even the most basic investigation into the game being played against them. Silent, Catholic obedience of this command is then cited as a proof of the obvious truth and popularity of the principles that are used to oppress them.

American conservatives continuously refer to American traditions as though they were the traditions of the West, both secular and sacred, and not the product of a few centuries of intellectual and cultural confusion that they really are. Conservatives tell Catholics that a full embrace of this "heritage" actually enhances the "Catholic Moment" in history. Catholics have embraced this patrimony. A corrupt eighteenth century vision has been treated as though it were the perennial message of the Church. And the effect has been deadly. The Church might as well have seized the Catholic Moment at the time of the Reformation by abetting the growth of Protestantism; the Romans called to defend their city from the Sack of 1527 might courageously have seized the Roman Moment by joining the mutinous soldiers in breaching the Aurelian Walls.

Louis Veuillot, the nineteenth century French Catholic journalist, has a valuable insight useful to recall at this juncture. Veuillot noted the following difference between Catholicism and essentially flawed intellectual and belief systems: Catholics and Catholic societies are bad insofar as they do not live up to the message of Catholicism, while people and societies shaped by intrinsically false visions are bad insofar as they do reflect their ideals. Catholics and Catholic societies are good insofar as they do heed their beliefs, while people and societies shaped by false ideologies are good insofar as they do not systematically follow their central defining principles, and modify them under the pressure of other, better influences.

Catholic acceptance of, and failure to understand the problems of the false, American "tradition" is at least somewhat tied to a failure to digest the judgment of Veuillot. America has developed under a bad set of principles which have produced good results only insofar as their logic has been thwarted by counteracting influences, including, sometimes, even Catholic ones. Left to its own devices, the American Ideology was bound to wreck havoc with the world that Catholics loved. When Catholics attributed the good that they saw in America to the truth of the false principles guiding the nation, and even declared such ideals to be Catholic ones, they helped to bring on the disaster. They ceased to apply that healthy, distinctively Catholic pressure that had contributed to diverting the sickly American tradition away from the logic of its own beliefs, and towards more suitable goals. In doing so, they allowed the opportunity for American culture to develop more quickly and systematically into the nightmarish nowhere land we see around us now. With nothing uniquely Catholic to contain it, a Protestant-Enlightenment society that had been falsely identified as Catholic-friendly has resulted in what it was bound to produce: a new Sack of Rome.

The proponents of false traditions in the first half of the sixteenth century did not see that their standard operating procedures were helpless to deal with the disaster of 1527. Similarly, Catholics who have accepted the false traditions of America cannot understand that the standard operating procedures of this heritage render them helpless in fending off further collapse. In being convinced that patriotism required recognition of the American Way, they bound love of country together with love of a destructive Protestantism and Enlightenment. Such an attitude would, mutatis mutandi, have forced sixteenth-century Englishmen to believe that patriotism required their espousal of a religious revolution promoted by a small clique of exiles and imposed by a tyrannical queen. In believing that prudent defense of their Faith demands the embrace of constitutional "business as usual", they have embraced the highly impractical routine of the American political arena, where whole lives are wasted trying to overturn one or another wrong at the price of praising the principles and methods that bring these very injustices into being in the first place. In fearing that they might be considered nostalgic for bygone social institutions if they criticize American ones, they ignore the fact that they have been irrevocably condemned to use of an irrational political rhetoric praising the "will" of long-dead Founders who are transfigured as much as any ancient God-Kings. In contending that they must offer a complete vision of an alternative system that can solve all problems of the world before they can justifiably utter one tiny word of protest about the functioning of the American Regime they have, in effect, told a father that he has no right to object to his daughter betrothing herself to a scoundrel until he can produce someone perfectly suitable to make her a counter-proposal.

No, Catholics relying on the false traditions of the American Framers and the "infallible" labyrinth of check-and-balance standard operating procedures which are molded by the Protestant-Enlightenment environment around them, can do as little to avoid their own destruction as legalist, sixteenth-century administrators operating purely on existing curial and canonical grounds. The only way that substantial progress for the Catholic cause in the United States can be made is by following the method of the more successful Tridentine activists and making a complete spiritual break with the American Ideology. We must learn to place a vision of how we will answer to God for the Catholicity of our lives continually before our eyes, and clarify that vision by revisiting the "traditions" we accept on face value to determine if they stand up to deeper scrutiny. If we do so, we will see that it is to Church Fathers and not to eighteenth century Founding Father counterfeits that we must look for guidance in understanding what our spiritual heritage counsels. Obvious as it ought to be, but contested as it always is by both "liberals" and "conservatives" of all eras, Catholics can only prosper when they are Catholics; never, when they are something else.

What would be the result of a real spiritual and intellectual break with a false heritage? It is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, referring back to our sixteenth-century analogy, it is safe to say that someone who is honestly formed according to the model of the fullness of the Catholic Tradition will see the pitfalls of "business as usual" for what they are: so many obstacles on the pathway to a life in union with God. We might imagine that some future generation of our fellow believers, brought up on the authentic heritage, will incredulously question historians as to how any Catholic could ever have convinced himself that a system rooted in the twin errors of Protestantism and Enlightenment thought might have produced anything but rotten fruit. Looking back from this light-filled, future vantage point, they might recognize the lesson to be drawn both from the Sack of 1776 as well as that of 1527: the need to get back to the sources; to the living waters of the Tradition of Christ's Church.

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