Friday, February 04, 2022

Confirmations, the SSPX, and Alessandro Manzoni

Photo by John Aron

One of the greatest Catholic works of literature, of any age and language, is Alessandro Manzoni's novel I Promessi Sposi: the Betrothed. Among the characters is Frederick, Cardinal Borromeo, of Milan, the nephew of St Charles Borromeo; the simple village parish priest, Don Abbondio, and the engaged couple, Renzo and Lucy.

In the opening pages of the book a powerful local landowner threatens Don Abbondio with death should he marry the young couple; he has designs on Lucy. The couple attempt to force the issue, by contracting marriage before the priest as an unwilling witness. This would be recognised by the Church, under the canon law of the day, as valid but illicit.

Eventually, Cardinal Borromeo hears of the case and confronts Don Abbondio. The latter protests:

“But these persons who have told your lordship these things, have they not also told you that they introduced themselves treacherously into my house, for the purpose of compelling me to perform the marriage ceremony, in a manner unauthorised by the church?”

“They have told me, my son; but what afflicts and depresses me, is to see you still seeking excuses; still excusing yourself by accusing others; still accusing others of that which should have formed a part of your own confession. Who placed these unfortunates, I do not say under the necessity, but under the temptation, to do what they have? Would they have sought this irregular method, if the legitimate way had not been closed to them?”

It is interesting to note the forceful nature of the obligation to provide the sacraments, which the Cardinal insists on. Marriage, unlike Baptism and Confession, is not a 'sacrament of the dead': it is not a matter of spiritual life and death. And yet, all the same, the people have a right to it.

Earlier, the Cardinal had remonstrated with Don Abbondio. The latter protested:

“Perhaps I have not clearly explained myself. It was under pain of death that they ordered me not to perform the ceremony.”

“And this reason appeared sufficient to prevent the fulfilment of a rigorous duty?”

“I know my obligation is to do my duty, even to my greatest detriment; but when life is at stake——”

“And when you presented yourself to the church,” said Frederick, with increased severity of manner, “to be admitted to the holy ministry, were there any such reservations made? Were you told that the duties imposed by the ministry were free from every obstacle, exempt from every peril? Were you told that personal safety was to be the guide and limit of your duty? Were you not told expressly the reverse of all this? Were you not warned that you were sent as a lamb among wolves? Did you not even then know that there were violent men in the world, who would oppose you in the performance of your duty? He, whose example should be our guide, in imitation of whom we call ourselves shepherds, when he came on earth to accomplish the designs of his benevolence, did he pay regard to his own safety? And if your object be to preserve your miserable existence, at the expense of charity and duty, there was no necessity for your receiving holy unction, and entering into the priesthood. The world imparts this virtue, teaches this doctrine. What do I say? O shame! the world itself rejects it. It has likewise its laws, which prescribe good, and prohibit evil; it has also its gospel, a gospel of pride and hatred, which will not admit the love of life to be offered as a plea for the transgression of its laws. It commands, and is obeyed; but we, we children and messengers of the promise! what would become of the church, if your language was held by all your brethren? Where would she now be, if she had originally come forth with such doctrines?”

Today bishops and priests all over the world are steeling themselves to tell us--because this is the logical next step in the process unleashed by Traditionis Custodes--that we may not have many of the sacraments in the traditional form; that they are available from the SSPX (among others); to seek them from these would be, admittedly, valid, but, they will insist, illicit; and they cannot recommend such a step. Well, who could recommend such a thing?

It is certainly not for me to do so. I would just like to draw to the attention of these bishops and priests the words of Manzoni, placed in the mouth of the great Cardinal:

Who placed these unfortunates, I do not say under the necessity, but under the temptation, to do what they have? Would they have sought this irregular method, if the legitimate way had not been closed to them?

I would recommend those who seem so pleased with the prospect of Catholics attached to the traditional liturgical forms being driven out of the canonical structures of the Church to tear their minds away from the state of conscience these individuals may or may not have, and examine their own. Are you innocent here? Are your intentions charitable? Have you done what you could to preserve the unity of the Church? 

They would do well to meditate on the words of Pope Benedict XVI:

Looking back over the past, to the divisions which in the course of the centuries have rent the Body of Christ, one continually has the impression that, at critical moments when divisions were coming about, not enough was done by the Church’s leaders to maintain or regain reconciliation and unity. One has the impression that omissions on the part of the Church have had their share of blame for the fact that these divisions were able to harden.

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  1. I think the time has come for you to take a lead in this. People look up to you and are hoping for guidance and reassurance. Perhaps this is not the time to question people's motives. Nobody is "pleased" as you put it. More, they are worried and taken aback by the course of events. Once you have decided what to do, Joseph, then others may well follow your lead.

  2. I have heard tell of this novel The Betrothed. I think it was a certain Catholic bishop who commended it to the faithful. What was his name again . . .

  3. There's also a passage in the first chapter of the book about disobedience to unenforceable laws which is quite apt: "Notwithstanding this, or, it may be, in consequence of this, these proclamations, reiterated and reinforced from time to time, served only to proclaim in pompous language the impotence of those who issued them; or, if they produced any immediate effect, it was that of adding to the vexations which the peaceful and feeble suffered from the disturbers of society. Impunity was organised and effected in so many ways as to render the proclamations powerless."

  4. Usual soft soap from the LMS... more incisive (and honest) analysis here: