In the happy expectation of creative tension within the Church, I thought to remind us all of the usual way of such things, to wit: the Pope speaks, and the world kvetches.
Here, then, are the 5 worst-received papal documents.
#5: Sublimeus Deus - Paul III - 1537
Plus there's that whole interpretation of the sons of Noah as being the ancestors of the "Three" races, which didn't fit with more than three continents. It ended up with a goodly number of people with a great amount of profit to make, didn't see how human dignity and human rights ought to apply in this case. Paul III made the case pretty strongly: these are humans like all others, and as such, they cannot be bought or sold. What's more, they have rights to liberty and property such as, you know, the land they live on, which set precedent for the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the legal obligation to enter treaties with these nations.
Alas, Rome was a long way from Montezuma, and European Christians went on treating indigenous peoples cruelly, subscribing to the idea that "their wealth of resources and lack of guns made them excellent trading partners." Interestingly, it was a self-described humanist who led the philosophical charge to enslave these "non-humans" with the argument that they were naturally inclined to slavery, and Europeans had a duty to violently restrict them from their immoral way of life. When some Christians, such as the Jesuits, continued to call Spain and Portugal on their refusal to honour the ruling of Sublimis Deus, those kingdoms ganged up and bullied the pope into suppressing the order.
All told, half a millennia later, the UN has recognized the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a descendent of Sublimis Deus, but some nations, such as Canada, have not yet recognized these rights. Some things are slow to sink in, apparently.
#4: Pascendi dominici gregis - Pius X - 1907
Saint Pius X smelled a foul wind, and he called it modernism. At the advent of tremendous new technologies and knowledge, some fundamentals of faith seemed under threat. This encyclical, which I refuse to spell again but instead will refer to as “Paddy Greg”, reined in the horses, circled the wagons, and wrapped the livestock in bubblewrap.
Essentially, Paddy Greg condemns any and all ideas that are “modern”. (Does that include the Ford Model T? Electric appliances? wrong question...) The problem seemed to be that the heady elation of modern advances had some people thinking religion was outdated, like the non-iron horse or whale oil lamps. Rather than make a finer distinction, or wait things out until things settle down, with this encyclical Pius X (distantly but definitely related to Malcolm X) chose to pre-emptively correct "by any means necessary," such as establishing an Oath Against Modernism that all those who taught in the Church’s name had to take, if they wanted to keep their jobs.
Now, there’s a case to be made that what was described as modernism has in fact had a deleterious impact on faith and morals, and there’s another case to be made that willful misrepresentation of what the Church teaches is neither inconsequential nor unheard of.
But, in general, many Catholics considered the Apostle’s Creed a sufficient indicator of orthodoxy, and the idea that forcing someone to sign a paper will positively affect their adherance seems a bit optimistic (HARUMM! …delusional…) Somebody thought Pius demonstrated heroic virtue, though, and heaven confirmed his sainthood with a miracle, but to many Catholics, Paddy Greg represented a reactionary, restrictive and controlling impulse that clamped down the intellectual and interactive in the Church well into Vatican II... and maybe even up until Francis himself.... Naahhh, it'll keep going strong.
#3: Rerum Novarum - Leo XIII - 1891
Here’s how he did it. First, he threw his full moral authority behind the rights and the dignity of the worker, including the right to unionize and to strike. If one person can morally refuse to work until a wage is raised, he reasoned, then several people can do so together, also morally. But deeper than that one right, Leo made clear that the goodness of humanity meant respect for human work, free and fulfilling. This was not a popular stance among the upper crust, as you might know. For a good fifty years after this encyclical, union-busting and violent repression of workers continued widespread throughout Western nations, and the pope’s encyclical could not have improved anti-Catholic prejudice.
But Leo didn’t stop with getting slashed from Sir and Madam Hoity-Toity Moneybags’ party guest list. He also made emphatic points that the right to strike was not absolute, and that the dignity of workers flowed from their status as children of God. Marx’s atheist fan club was not amused. In effect, this encyclical and church teaching throughout the century following has served to appropriate threads of socialist thought, baptize them with faith, and represent a religious alternative to atheist communism.
I like to think that when you make both extremes equally and extremely angry, you are in a pretty solid position, morally speaking. Of course, you’re also more likely to get killed. Fortunately, Leo dodged that unhappy end. We all wish Russia and Germany could have done the same.
#2: Council of Chalcedon - Emperor Marcian - 491
Everywhere North and West of Chalcedon accepted Chalcedon's teaching that Christ was fully God and fully human, without mixing or confusion of his two natures. South and East, it wasn’t so popular. In fact, my learned church history professor taught that the bishops who rejected Chalcedon said, “If we agree to this, when we return home our people will kill us.” They weren't exaggerating. When the people of Alexandria heard of Chalcedon, they rose up and massacred the imperial garrison, then murdered the archbishop in his cathedral. Those cockamamie Egyptians!
What was the problem? That's easy! The previous councils affirmed Jesus was God and was man, and then that Jesus was one person, not two different people. Chalcedon affirmed Jesus was one person “in two natures” while a number of dissenting bishops insisted on “out of two natures”.
That's right. In yo' FACE!
This seemed important at the time and, indeed, it is important today, in that 84 million Christians belong to the Oriental Orthodox Churches who descended from that schism. These churches are not in communion with Rome or with Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Yes, Martha, there is a difference between an “innie” Jesus and an “outtie” Jesus.
I just don’t know what it is.
#1: Humanae Vitae - Paul VI - 1968
Not surprised, are you?
So while the whole world was reveling in a sexual revolution that liberated some things (such as not talking about sex) and condemned others (such as any sense of responsibility), the Church was hopped up on Vatican II vibes. So much seemed to change, especially in some of the most visible aspects such as the Mass and devotions, that many thought the Church would change its teaching condemning artificial contraception. A panel of advisers advising Pope Paul VI advised that he do so, teaching that married persons under certain circumstances could use contraception at times. He took the advice under advisement. Aaaand... didn't do it.
I wasn't there, but for many Catholics, it sounds like there was "no joy in Mudville - mighty Paul has struck out."
There was something in Paul's acknowledgement of natural family planning methods, still undeveloped, as moral for couples discerning the size of their family - this in itself shook others in the Church as radical - but the 20th century's love affair with unrestricted sex and technology meant that Humanae Vitae would receive a double thumbs-down, and not in any way that was pleasurable.
While it actually did not make any change in Church teaching, Humanae Vitae represented perhaps the most unique moment in all of Church history: For the first time ever, a pope taught authoritatively (though not infallibly), and the vast majority of the Church did not assent.
We aren't just talking about nominal Catholics who don't go to church and instead sleep around, nor even just good married Catholics who followed their own moral spidey-senses. In fact, it was some bishops and many priests who simply did not promulgate the teaching. Theologians were especially articulate in their dissent, and so they especially were censured by the papal congregations, but Father Joe Schmoe, with limited theological training, simply refused to preach on Humanae Vitae. While some priests made up for it by preaching anti-condoms EVERY SINGLE HOMILY (including Gaudate Sunday in Advent - I'm talking to YOU Father Frank!) most Catholics in the West hear about the teaching via the tsk-tsking of secular media shaking their heads at the "Hierarchy" which wants more Africans to get AIDS. Who can take that seriously?
So it's tough to say it's actually "Church teaching" when the Church is defined as the people, many of the clergy refuse to teach it, and somewhere in the area of 1% practicing Catholic married couples are following it. Now, depending on the side of the fence you're on, your going to point to different areas to determine just what is happening - is it a breakdown and crisis of the Church's obedience to authority, or a breakdown and crisis of the Church's authority for the faithful?
No question about it, HumVit has been at the centre of substantial conflict within and beyond the Church. Whatever Pope Francis has to say about the environment, it's hard to imagine it will make the same kind of splash.