Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Lessons from a Failed Council and a Failed Reform

One of the most important reforms of the Council of Trent was the abolition of a very common and long-standing abuse known as “plurality of benefice”, or “pluralism” for short. The history of this abuse, and how it was not remedied by the previous ecumenical council, Lateran V, is, I think, something quite instructive for us today. However, because Trent did remedy it so effectively, it is a matter now totally removed from our collective experience as Catholics, and thus first requires some historical explanation.
A painting of the choir of the cathedral of St Vigilius in Trent, showing how it was set up for the sessions of the ecumenical council. Photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.
“Benefice”, from the Latin “beneficium – a benefit”, is the term for the material means by which the clergy were paid for the performance of their liturgical, sacramental, and administrative duties. The word is, of course, related to the term “benefactor.” In the earliest days of the Church, when a benefactor made a donation of either money or property, the administration thereof was generally left entirely to the discretion of the bishop, who as head of the local church received the donation in its name. It is not difficult to imagine how this system, especially when in the hands of less worthy successors of the Apostles, could become unpopular with both the clergy and laity alike.
Therefore, already beginning in the 6th century, it became common to earmark such donations, as we would say today, for specific purposes, the purposes in question being very often the performance of specific jobs within an ecclesiastical institution. To give a purely theoretical example: if the Duke of Alicubi wished to dedicate the revenues of some of his properties to the use of the Church, he would not simply give them on a regular basis to the bishop to do with as the latter pleased. He would rather legally assign the rents of a certain farm to become part of the salary of the dean of the local cathedral chapter, the tolls collected on a certain bridge to the salary of the precentor, the tithes collected at a certain mill to the cathedral schoolmaster, etc. In return, the recipients of his benefices were generally required to say specific prayers (often a great many of them) for his welfare and intentions, in honor of his patron Saint, and for the eternal repose of him and his family members.
A portion of the choir stalls of Sarum Cathedral. Within the medieval benefice system, it would not be unusual for individual stalls within the same choir to be differently endowed by different families (note the various crests above the seats), and thus offer different salaries to the clerics who held them. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Hugh Llewelyn, CC BY-SA 2.0)
By the 11th century, such earmarking was established as a nearly universal custom in Western Europe. As a system, it brought many benefits to the Church, guaranteeing the maintenance of the clergy, and hence the regular performance of their duties, as well the upkeep of church buildings, schools, and vast charitable activities of every conceivable sort. Remnants of it exist in various places to this day, and will be familiar to the readers of certain English writers; for example, the clerical “livings” often mentioned in Jane Austen’s novels are essentially the same as medieval benefices. The Warden, the first novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles (if indeed so thoroughly plotless a book can be called a novel), concerns the clerical administration of a charitable institution and the lucrative benefice (although not named as such) attached to the job of running it.
But like all systems created by human beings, it was liable to any number of abuses, one of the worst of which was called “plurality”, the holding of more than one benefice at a time by the same person. Originally, this emerged because many of them were small and limited in scope, and thus, it was possible for a single person to fulfill the duties attached to more than one of them. Over time, however, as many benefices became spectacularly lucrative for their holders, the abuse arose by which a cleric, often the scion of a noble or powerful family, was granted a formal dispensation to hold more than one of them, even though it was impossible for a single person to do all the work required by the various positions. Out of the huge income thus accumulated, he would pay “vicars” (from the Latin “vicarius – one who holds the place” of someone else), generally men of lower social class, to do the work which the benefices had been created to pay for.
Pope Sixtus IV Making Bartolomeo Platina the First Librarian of the Vatican; fresco by Melozzi da Forlì, 1477, now in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums. At the time this painting was made, the cardinal facing the Pope, his nephew Giuliano, was simultaneously bishop of the French sees of Carpentras, Avignon and Coutances, plus Lausanne in Switzerland and Catania in Sicily, and cardinal priest of St Peter in Chains. Before becoming Pope in 1503 with the name Julius II, he would acquire two more French sees, Viviers and Mende (resigning the latter after 5 years), as well as Bologna and the suburbicarian sees of Sabina and Ostia, and be made archpriest of the Lateran basilica.
Thus, for example, the same person might be simultaneously bishop of a see in Italy, abbot of an abbey in France, archpriest of a church in Germany, and archdeacon of a church in Spain, drawing the salaries attached to these offices, but doing little or none of the work required of any of them. Not only is such a theoretical scenario not an exaggeration; this form of corruption ascended to the very highest levels of the Church. In the ten years before his election to the Papacy as Clement VII, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was at one point simultaneously bishop of three different sees (one in Italy and two in France), and the holder of three cardinalitial titles. From 1525 until his election to the Papacy in 1534 as Paul III, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese held five of the seven suburbicarian sees whose bishops are ex-officio members of the college of cardinals, while also being bishop of Parma and archpriest of the Lateran basilica in Rome. One of the many reasons why St Charles Borromeo stood out as a model Counter-Reformation bishop was that his eight predecessors had left the running of the see of Milan to vicars, and he was the first archbishop to actually reside there in 80 years. (The highly deleterious practice of episcopal non-residence was also strictly forbidden by Trent.)
Of course, many less prominent pluralists (say, the cousin of an Irish duke who held stalls in the choirs of four different churches) passed unnoticed by the Holy See. But a man does not hold five of the seven suburbicarian sees simultaneously without the full knowledge of the Pope and his curia, and the issuance of the pertinent dispensations. The first lesson to be drawn from this is, therefore, that it is perfectly possible for the Pope do something which is legal, in the sense that he has the authority to do it (e.g., granting the necessary dispensations to pluralists), and nevertheless completely immoral. Plurality of benefice, from which many important prelates benefitted, and more than one future Pope among them, was just such a thing, because after all, it was no more than a legalized form of theft, by which the monies donated to the Church for the performance of specific duties were given over to other purposes.
A reconstruction of the Lateran complex as it stood in the Middle Ages; the hall where five of the ecumenical councils were held is in the structure in the middle with five small apses sticking out the side. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The Fifth Lateran Council was called in 1512 by a very successful pluralist, Pope Julius II (once the holder of eight sees simultaneously), but he did not live to preside over it. That duty fell to his successor, Pope Leo X, who had personally never been more than a cardinal resident in Rome and the administrator of a single see, but showered his cousin Giulio with incompatible ecclesiastical jobs. Nevertheless, the council recognized that plurality of benefice was a scandal that needed to be addressed, and therefore decreed that no one was allowed to hold more than four of them simultaneously.
Here, then, is the second lesson to be drawn from this matter: it is perfectly possible for an ecumenical council (such as Lateran V) to correctly identify a problem within the Church (the abuse of plurality of benefice), without correctly identifying the solution to that problem. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for said council to correctly identify a problem, and offer as a solution the exact opposite of what was needed to solve it, by de facto allowing it to continue. And it is perfectly possible to say this without denying the legitimacy of Lateran V as an ecumenical council.
Likewise, it is perfectly possible that Vatican II correctly identified a problem within the Church, the then-current state of its liturgical life, without correctly identifying the solution to that problem. Indeed, it is perfectly possible for said council to have correctly identified the problem, and offered as a solution the exact opposite of what was needed to solve it. (Of course, no two councils or the events that follow them are exactly alike, and so we must here once again note that the post-Conciliar reform is what it is in large measure because it rejected what Vatican II had said about the liturgy.) And it is perfectly possible to say this without denying the legitimacy of Vatican II as an ecumenical council.
In his book The Church in Crisis: A History of the General Councils, 325-1870, Mons Philip Hughes wrote that “Of all the chronic scandals of the fourteen to the sixteenth centuries none had given rise to more continuous resentment than the papal licences to ecclesiastics to hold more than one see, or abbey, or parish simultaneously--scandals connected with what is called compendiously, the benefice system. Trent utterly forbade this practice--even where the beneficiaries were cardinals--and the council ordered all existing pluralists to surrender all but one of the benefices they held.” A third lesson, therefore: there is no reason to be scandalized at the idea that an ecumenical council can fail in one way or another, or indeed, fail completely. Trent was a success because it did correctly what Lateran V had done incorrectly. We may well hope that the firestorm of problems which have broken out in the Church in the wake of Vatican II will likewise be remedied by a future Council, and we may hope for this without “rejecting” Vatican II any more than we “reject” Lateran V.

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