Somewhere in the Fourth Century AD the Christian Church seemed to part company with what Jesus and the early Christian writers would have seen as the essentials. Personal commitment and faith, radical discipleship and bold witness gave way to a Church that compromised with the world and that gradually became the embodiment of all the nastiest of the world’s habits.
By medieval times the Church was absolutely corrupt, the seven deadly sins marked the life of the hierarchy. Politics, intrigue, conspiracy, promiscuity, violence, and compromise with every Gospel standard were part of the landscape of the leaders of Christendom. The various waves of reform in the Church recovered some of the lost roots, but as the centuries passed and the present era was reached, there were remained leaders who wanted not a recovery of the Church of Jesus’ time, but a re-establishment of the power and the influence of the Church at the height of its worldly powers.
In 1542 the Roman Catholic Church established the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition to defend the Church against ‘heresy’. Burning dissidents accorded well with the spirit of the age, Church and Monarchy were both anxious to preserve power and privilege, all, of course, in the name of God. The Protestant nations simply created their own versions of Christendom; Church, without the Pope, and Crown tied together to defend their mutual self-interest. Martin Luther, most prominent of the Protestant Reformers, believed that peasants struggling for a better life should be violently suppressed.
The Inquisition became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it continued to enforce a rigid conformity and to remove voices of consent. In the 20th Century, it did not mean that people were burned at the stake, but it did mean that university professors were removed from their chairs and discussion of particular subjects was forbidden. The Cardinal at the head of the Congregation in recent times was Joseph Ratzinger, a man devoted to the centralisation and concentration of power and a man intolerant of dissident voices.
When Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI earlier this year, it was going to be fascinating to watch how someone committed to a medieval view of Church authority was going to use his new found influence. The news that Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, is one of the first politicians to be invited to a private audience gives some indication. Ahern is one of the few European premiers who might still be susceptible to Church influence. A charming, pragmatic, populist politician, he would still regard the Church as having an important role to play and would be aware that a photo opportunity with Pope Benedict would go down well with traditional voters here in Ireland.
Who would get the most out of the audience? Ahern, undoubtedly. He is a skilled politician and will say pleasant things that will cost him nothing.
If Benedict believes he can use Ireland as part of a base to attempt to re-establish the past, he is mistaken. Christendom, the old Church, is dead and the relics of medieval times that persist are a far remove from the carpenter from Nazareth. The Inquisition is a sad part of history – it’s time to move on.