11 May 2017


Part 4 of 8 of the Lecture Gold out of Egypt, which I first delivered on 20 April 2017 at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.

As the Church has, from the day of Pentecost, served to unite nations, so has the ancient enemy worked to divide the Church. I see in the International Gothic an expression of Christendom; but obviously, it has been limited to the patriarchate of Rome. By the time the Gothic cathedrals were built, the patriarchies of Antioch and Alexandria and Byzantium were separate. Nonetheless, within the patriarchate of Rome, believers out of divers nations were culturally united, despite linguistic differences and historic enmities. Across Catholic Europe, sacred music and art and architecture were ordered to a common liturgical tradition that used Latin as its lingua sacra, one strongly influenced by Benedictine monasticism and the legacy of St. Gregory the Great.

One aspect of this tradition is the preeminence of Rome itself, the theological basis for which is the promise made to St. Peter by Jesus Christ: I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. As Wilfrid of York mentioned, Rome is where the blessed apostles Peter and Paul lived, taught, suffered and were buried. Its bishop is the inheritor of their authority. Because of this, there is a legitimate and necessary Romanity to the universal Church, which was recognized even in seventh-century Northumberland. It is important, however, to recall the fullness of Wilfrid’s argument. His was no blind appeal to authority; it was not sufficient for him to say that his way was the Roman way, but rather that it was also the French and Italian and African and Asian and Egyptian and Greek way. His appeal was to antiquity, universality and consensus: the very marks of authentic tradition identified by the Church Fathers.

Had Wilfrid believed that Romanity were altogether independent of these, he would not have bothered to mention them. For him, Romanity was a means of protecting what was revealed to the Apostles. This revelation is not esoteric; it is knowable to everyone through scripture and tradition. Insofar as there is a necessary key to understand it, it is the gifts of the Holy Ghost received in the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.

I can hardly imagine a more dangerous error than to think that the bishop of Rome were privy to a newer or fuller revelation; that he were the creator of tradition rather than its protector. If the faithful were to fall into this error, what would they do if the Roman way ceased to be the ancient and universal way, if the Roman way were the way that defied the Catholic Church of Christ throughout the world?


This is hardly a fantasy. In the realm of sacred art, it has been so for centuries. After the unity of the patriarchate of Rome was shattered by the wars of Reformation, a new idea emerged within the Catholic Church, an idea that has largely directed Catholic culture and art ever since. This is the idea of an overruling Romanity, altogether independent of antiquity, universality and consensus.

According to this idea, the only mark of Catholic artistic and cultural identity is imitation of Roman custom. This parallels the most exaggerated ultramontanist theology, according to which the only measure of Catholic faith is agreement with the Pope. This idea has grown over the centuries with the concentration of power, over kings and among bishops, in his person. It undoubtedly depends on the technology of mass communication, without which direct papal influence could never be so extensive.

Certain theologians within the Catholic Church have so disproportionately taken this idea as to say that Christian knowledge is altogether dependent upon papal infallibility; that neither the agreement of the Church Fathers nor the traditional law of worship has any worth except insofar as it receives papal endorsement.

Ceiling of the Monastery Church at Prüfening

The difference between this and the medieval idea of the Catholic Church can be seen in the iconic symbol of the Church itself. Medieval artists personified the Church as a dignified figure called Ecclesia. Usually, Ecclesia is depicted as a woman, crowned and regally dressed, carrying a chalice and a staff of authority surmounted with a cross. Sometimes she is depicted catching in her chalice the blood and water that flow from the side of Jesus Christ crucified, which signify the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Sometimes she is placed opposite an analogous figure representing the Old Testament, as on the portals of Strasbourg Cathedral.

There are more subtle ways of representing Ecclesia: for example, by giving certain of her attributes to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ss. Peter and Paul together sometimes stand in the place of Ecclesia; according to the medieval doctors, St. Peter signifies the Jewish Church and St. Paul the Gentile Church. Their juxtaposition is therefore not only an expression of Romanity, but of universality as well.

Ecclesia has almost entirely disappeared from sacred art. What has replaced her? What is the new iconic symbol of the Catholic Church? Imagine that I were speaking in some foreign language, no word of which you understood. What single image could I project on the screen behind me, that, upon seeing it, would make you understand that I were speaking about the Catholic Church? Most likely, the answer is one of two things: a picture of the Pope, or a picture of St. Peter’s Basilica.


Works quoted or referenced:

Ceiling of the Monastery Church at Prüfening: The Wikimedia Commons