In the depths of the lower library at the former Our Lady of Providence Seminary at Warwick Neck was a book entitled, “The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries.” The hefty tome was authored in 1907 by James J. Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., LL.D., then acting dean at Fordham University and professor at St. Francis Xavier and Cathedral colleges in New York. The volume’s 26 chapters rightly justify the title.
Dr. Walsh cites the growth of universities and libraries, including Bologna and Paris; the expansion of commerce, noting Marco Polo; the extension of popular government, citing the Magna Carta; the profusion of the arts, mentioning Dante; and of course the abundance of saintly lives, pointing out Francis, Dominic, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Catherine of Siena, Louis of France and Elizabeth of Hungary, among many others.
The century’s renewed investigation into Plato and Aristotle and a new respect for Islamic thought during the thirteenth century is a further cause for respect for that era.
Although Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and Cranmer would later take a dark view of Medieval religious practices, the 1,300 hundred years from the first Pentecost in Jerusalem to the flowering of the Christian charisma throughout Europe were largely stimulated, both in the background and in the forefront, by the energy of the Roman Catholic Church. Yes, the Church in every era had its faults, as the Reformers relished pointing out. But the Church happily prospered and enriched the world around it during its first millennium-and-a-half (and all the years since) thanks to a system of checks and balances divinely willed into the very fabric of Catholicism.
First of all, the Catholic Church continued then and continues now to preserve the complementarity between Scripture and Tradition. The written Word of God and the lived experience of early Church life are both sourced in the Holy Spirit. What the Church has proclaimed from its pulpits from the beginning must be balanced by what the Church had experienced in its daily life from the beginning. There is a holy tension here that prevents both literalism and liberalism from getting an upper hand. Scripture and Tradition are the twin fonts of Revelation and both must be respected.
Again, the Catholic Church providentially preserves the tension between the Pope of Rome and the bishops of the world, often displayed, on the one hand, through papal encyclicals and, on the other hand, through ecumenical councils. The Pope teaches authoritatively when speaking in communion with the bishops of the Catholic world and bishops teach authentically when preaching in unison with the See of Peter. There is a pontifical and episcopal balance here that must be respected if divinely revealed truths are to be preserved and illuminated.
Then again, there is a worthy tension between the Church’s Magisterium (ordinary teaching authority) and the Sensus Fidelium (the laity’s conscience). The words of the clergy and voice of the laity are both essential to authentic Church life. Churchmen, on all levels, must be respected by the general Catholic population. Decrees from Rome, announcements from chancery offices, even postings in parish bulletins should be appropriately heeded. But the managerial role of the Church must also include a sensitivity toward the daily lived experience of the average Catholic. Neither severity nor laxity is authentically Catholic; an honest assessment on both sides is the path of God’s Will.
The Protestant reformers, of course, dismissed these divinely instituted tensions within Church life and opted famously for “Sola Scriptura,” only Scripture, the Bible alone. Thus, every man became his own teacher, his own priest, and even his own pope. Reformation Christianity sadly exalted the individual conscience over the believing community’s interaction and today’s 21st century world (including Catholics) now faces an ensuing intellectual and moral chaos. Today’s believer could well sympathize with the words of Habakkuk in Sunday’s first reading: “Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.” But then the reader might continue on a verse or two, “For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” The Medieval Church spawned itself out of the martyrdom and the barbarism of the Church’s first few centuries. Today’s Church too can expect renewal if it is faithful to its own spiritual resources.