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The Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Faith In Historical Perspective
They Are Not Necessarily the Role Models to Follow
Jesus Christ and His Family (0) Are the Ones to
Many faithful Catholics (East and West)
greatly revere those whom the Church has named "Doctor of the Church" or "Church Father." Often, their works
are quoted to prove a point or to close an argument, as if the Fathers
and Doctors were authors of Scripture. However, the words and deeds of
some of these Catholic leaders sometimes were in direct, grievous
violation of Divine Law; these men were neither infallible nor
impeccable nor examples to follow.
Here are some little-remembered, but easily verified, facts about the deeds of some of these all-too-fallible churchmen.
The era of the Church Fathers
In the "Christian" Roman Empire, during
the late 300s and early 400s, the Church went from being persecuted to
being a persecutor. Paul Johnson, a historian of the Church, said
that "The late empire was a totalitarian state, in some ways an
oriental despotism. … State torture, supposedly used only in serious
cases such as treason, was in fact employed whenever the State willed."
Pope Damasus I (305-384; Saint, Church Father, and Pope from 366-384): This alleged defender of the faith began his reign with riot and massacre. As Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Popes summarizes the bloody affair:
"...a faction that had been consistently loyal to Liberius [the
preceding Pope] met immediately in the Julian basilica of Santa Maria
in Trastavere, elected the deacon Ursinus, and had him consecrated
Bishop of Rome …Another, larger faction loyal to Felix [an antipope who
had opposed Liberius, and who was Damasus’ former employer] met in the
church of San Lorenzo in Lucina and elected the deacon Damasus, who
hired a gang of thugs to storm the Julian basilica, routing the
Ursinians in a three-day massacre. Damasus was consecrated by the
bishop of Ostia in the Lateran Basilica on October 1, after his
supporters had seized the church. Following his consecration, however,
bloody fighting continued in the streets of Rome. …
But the violence continued, and Damasus dispatched his own forces to
attack Ursinus's supporters, who had taken refuge in the Liberian
Basilica (now St. Mary Major). A contemporary historian reported that
some 137 died in the battle [which occurred on October 27, 366]. …
Although Damasus had badly blotted his ecclesiastical copybook, he
enjoyed much favor with the court and the aristocracy, especially women
of wealth. Roman gossips nicknamed him 'the matrons' ear-tickler.' His
grand lifestyle and lavish hospitality endeared him to the upper-class
pagan families. At the same time, he was relentless in opposing
heresies and other dissident movements in the Church. …
Damasus was tireless, in fact, in promoting the primacy of Rome, referring to it frequently as 'the Apostolic See,' and insisting that the test of a creed's orthodoxy is papal approval." (2)
Another historian of the Papacy described Damasus as "a ruthless power-broker" who "did not hesitate to mobilise both the city police and the Christian mob to back up his rule." (3)
A pagan historian, Ammianus Marcellinus,
commented on the zeal with which churchmen sought the Papacy: "I do not deny that men who covet this
office in order to fulfill their ambitions may well struggle for it
with every resource at their disposal. For once they have obtained it
they are ever after secure, enriched with offerings from the ladies,
riding about seated in their carriages, splendidly arrayed, giving
banquets so lavish they surpass the tables of royalty." (4)
Augustine (354-430; Saint, Church Father and Doctor of the Church): The late Roman Empire used violence against the Donatist heretics, and St. Augustine "became the theorist of persecution; and his defences were later to be those on which all defences of the Inquisition rested. ... He insisted that the use of force in the pursuit of Christian unity, and indeed total religious conformity, was necessary, efficacious, and wholly justified." (5)
In addition to developing the theology of
Inquisition, Augustine developed "just war" theology, leading to the
punishment of pacifist conscious objectors, and leading to "the anomaly
of two Christian states each fighting a 'just' war against each other."
Cyril of Alexandria
(370-444; Saint, Church Father, and Doctor of the Church) was the
Patriarch of Alexandria from 412 to 444. (7) Gruesome events occurred
Alexandria during his reign of the local Church, and the perpetrators
In 414, the first Christian-led pogrom
occurred there, wiping out the Jewish community of Alexandria for a
time. (8) In
415, a monk-incited mob tortured and murdered the Neoplatonist
philosopher Hypatia, blaming her for the dispute between Cyril and the
local governor. (9)
The killing occurred in the Caesareum, a former pagan
site that had been converted into a church building. (10) In Cyril's time,
fanaticism (disguised as defense of the faith) grew without hindrance.
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153; Saint and Doctor of the Church) preached the Second Crusade, at the request of the Pope. (11) He also was the chaplain of the Knights Templar, and wrote the following praise of "holy war" to its members:
But Christ's knights can fight
their Lord's fight in safety, fearless of sin in slaughter of their
adversaries and fearless of danger at their own deaths, since death
suffered or dealt out on Christ's behalf holds no crime and merits
great glory. …
Christ's knight deals out death in
safety, as I said, and suffers death in even greater safety. He
benefits himself when he suffers death, and benefits Christ when he
deals out death. 'He does not wear a sword without cause; he is God's
agent for punishment of evil-doers and for glorification of the good.'
Clearly, when he kills an evil-doer, he is not a homicide, but, if you
will allow me the term, a malicide, and is plainly Christ's vengeance
on those who work evil and the defense Christ provides for Christians.
When such a knight is himself killed, we know that he has not simply
perished but has won through to the end of this life. The death he inflicts accrues to Christ's
profit; the death he receives accrues to his own. The Christian
glories in a pagan's death, because Christ is glorified; in the death
of a Christian, the King's generosity is confirmed, by revelation of
the knight's reward. …
Pagans would not even have to be slaughtered, if there were some other way to prevent them from besetting and oppressing the faithful. But now it is better that they be killed than that the rod of these sinners continue to imperil the lot of the just, preventing the just from reaching out their hands against iniquity." (12)
Such is the theology of "Christian" jihad.
With minor changes, it could have been written by Osama bin Laden or
It is possible to learn much from
studying the works of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.
Nevertheless, as these instances show, great discernment must be
used in the examination of the works of these fallible - and sometimes
brutally unholy - men.
Meditation on the Scriptures and direct
interaction with God through prayer should always take priority over patristic
study. There is only one real "Father of the Church" – and only one
real "Doctor of the Church": God Himself.
(0) For whosoever shall do the will of my
Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother. [Matthew
(1) Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, Atheneum, 1976, p. 116.
(2) Richard McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to Benedict XVI, Harper San Francisco, 2006, pp. 62-63, 64; see also J. N. D. Kelly, The Oxford Dictionary of the Popes, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 32-34.
(3) Eamon Duffy, Saints & Sinners: A History of the Popes, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 38.
(4) Duffy, Saints & Sinners, p. 38.
(5) Johnson, A History of Christianity, p. 116.
(6) Johnson, A History of Christianity, p. 242.
(7) Wikipedia, “Cyril of Alexandria,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyril_of_Alexandria.
(8) James Carroll, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, Houghton Mifflin, 2001, pp, 176, 213.
(9) Diarmaid MacCullough, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, Viking, 2009, pp. 220-221.
(10) Wikipedia, “Hypatia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypatia.
(11) Wikipedia, “Bernard of Clairvaux,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_of_Clairvaux
(12) Bernard of Clairvaux, “De Laude Novae Militiae,” paragraph 4, http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/chivalry/bernard.html
Published on September 20th, 2011
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