May 20, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Imperiled Church: The 18th century was a disaster

John F. Fink(Sixth in a series of columns)

If there’s anything that demonstrates just how imperiled the Catholic Church was during the 18th century, it’s the fact that the rulers of European countries forced the pope to suppress the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). But before we get to that next week, let’s review the state of affairs in Europe during that time.

In France, the combined reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV were more than 130 years—from 1643 to 1774. Louis XIV reigned for 72 years and Louis XV for 59 years. It’s the latter’s reign, though, from 1715 to 1774, that was a disaster as far as the Church was concerned.

It was a period when Catholicism itself was satirized (especially by Voltaire) because of the unbelief and immorality of prominent Catholics at the time. Louis XV kept a series of mistresses (the most famous of which were Madame de Pompadour and Madame Du Barry). He also ruled the Church, appointing bishops whose only qualifications were that they were of noble birth. The pope had nothing to say about the appointments.

At the same time, in Spain, the first Bourbon king, Philip V, ruled from 1700 to 1746. He, too, insisted on making ecclesiastical appointments, and disputes with the papacy grew to such an extent that the papal nunciature in Madrid was closed in 1709. The bishops of Spain were openly antagonistic toward the Roman Curia.

Two concordats between Spain and the papacy (1737 and 1753) brought some peace, but also assured the Spanish king control over ecclesiastical appointments. (So the Church’s modern dispute with China over appointment of bishops is hardly unprecedented.)

In Portugal, King John V (1706-1750) was a contemporary of Spain’s Philip V. He was known for his scandalous life. That, plus the general demoralization of the nobility, did much to weaken the faith of the Portuguese people.

To put all this in context, this was also the age of some powerful rulers in other parts of Europe. In Germany and Austria, the rulers, respectively, were Frederick the Great (1740-1786) in the former and Maria Theresa (1745-1780) in the latter.

In 18th-century England, the Catholic Church reached its lowest point. There were no bishops, only vicar apostolics who exercised jurisdiction. Catholics’ civil rights were severely curtailed. They could not vote and their right to own property was greatly limited.

In Russia, Peter the Great had tried to make his country like Western Europe. He also tried to unify the country by making all his subjects Orthodox rather than Catholic. After his death in 1725, the country was ruled by women for most of the rest of the century.

The most powerful was Catherine II (known as Catherine the Great), the German wife of Peter III, who reigned very briefly in 1762. After he quarreled with Catherine and tried to banish her to Peterhof, she gathered an army of 20,000 men, marched against her husband, forced his abdication, and ruled Russia for 30 years. Like Peter the Great, she oppressed the Catholic Church but, as we will see next week, played an important part in the tragedy of the Jesuits. †

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