Last week in Italy, my friend Casella, a Catholic who had lots of consternation over recent events in his church, said to me, “It’s time for us Catholics to quit being so docile about our bishops. I really wish that we could find courage that Catholics had in the past, and stand up to them when they’re wrecking the faith.”

“You sound like an anti-Mottramist,” I said.

“What’s a Mottramist?” he said.

A few years ago, I wrote this:

I would like to propose a name for this phenomenon of inveterate support for any and all Papal actions, imputing to him wisdom and spiritual insight beyond all the Saints and Popes of past ages: Mottramism.

This takes its name, of course, from Rex Mottram, Julia Flyte’s husband in Brideshead Revisited. At one point, Rex decides to convert to Catholicism in order to have a proper Church wedding with Julia. But the sincerity of his conversion becomes suspect when he is willing to agree with any absurdity proposed in the name of Catholic authority, and shows no intellectual curiosity into its truth or falsehood. As his Jesuit instructor, Father Mowbray describes his catechetical progress:

“Yesterday I asked him whether Our Lord had more than one nature. He said: ‘Just as many as you say, Father.’ Then again I asked him: ‘Supposing the Pope looked up and saw a cloud and said ‘It’s going to rain’, would that be bound to happen?’ ‘Oh, yes, Father.’ ‘But supposing it didn’t?’ He thought a moment and said, “I suppose it would be sort of raining spiritually, only we were too sinful to see it.’”

If it’s a cure for Mottramism you seek, turn to the pages of the Divine Comedy. Dante is utterly unsparing of corrupt popes, bishops, priests and monks. He speaks of them in terms and in a tone worthy of the Biblical prophets. Here, for example, are the words Dante puts in the mouth of St. Peter, denouncing his successor, Pope Boniface VIII:

“He who on earth usurps my place,

my place, my place, which in the eyes

of God’s own Son is vacant,

“has made my tomb a sewer of blood and filth,

so that the Evil One, who fell from here above,

takes satisfaction there below.”

I’ve seen on my Facebook feed and elsewhere in the past few days that some faithful Catholics are denouncing critics of the Synod as “divisive” and “wounding the Body of Christ” by their complaints. It is certainly possible that one’s protest is only destructive, and therefore wrong. But I get the idea that there are more than a few people who, perhaps out of fear, adopt an essentially Mottramist stance toward the bishops and the Pope, when what is needed is a full-throated defense of the Truth. Mottramism, a subset of clericalism, is one of the reasons the sexual abuse scandal metastasized within the Body of Christ. Outside of the saints, you will find no more faithful Catholic of the High Middle Ages than Dante Alighieri, and it is precisely because of his Catholic faith that he stood up, in verse, to the clerics that traduced it. He understood that the Church is not merely the institution, and that the deposit of faith belongs to all Catholics, not just the priestly class.

Six hundred years after the Divine Comedy first appeared, a leading Catholic had this to say about it, and its author, as a guide to faith. Excerpt:

No need to recall Alighieri’s great reverence for the authority of the Catholic Church, the account in which he holds the power of the Roman Pontiff as the base of every law and institution of that Church. Hence the outspoken warning to Christians: You have the Old and the New Testament: the Pastor of the Church as Guide; Let that suffice for your salvation. He felt the troubles of the Church as his own, and while he deplored and condemned all rebellion against its Supreme Head he wrote as follows to the Italian Cardinals during the stay at Avignon: “To us who confess the same Father and Son, the same God and Man, the same Mother and Virgin; to us for whom and for whose salvation the message was given, after the triple Lovest thou Me? Feed My sacred sheepfold; to us, driven to mourn with Jeremias – but not over things to come but over things that are – for Rome – that Rome on which Christ, after all the old pomp and triumph, confirmed by word and work the empire of the world, and which Peter, too, and Paul the Apostle of the Nations consecrated with their very blood as Apostolic See – now widowed and desolate; to us it is as terrible grief to see this as to see the tragedy of heresy” (Epist. VIII). For him the Roman Church is The Most Holy Mother, Bride of Him Crucified and to Peter, infallible judge of revealed truths, is owing perfect submission in matters of faith and morals. Hence, however much he may hold that the dignity of the Emperor is derived immediately from God, still he asserts that this truth “must not be understood so strictly as to mean that the Roman Prince is not subject to the Roman Pontiff in anything, because this mortal happiness is subjected in certain measure to immortal happiness” (Mon. III, 16). Excellent and wise principle indeed which, if it were observed today as it ought to be, would bring to States abundant fruits of civil prosperity. But, it will be said, he inveighs with terrible bitterness against the Supreme Pontiffs of his times. True; but it was against those who differed from him in politics and he thought were on the side of those who had driven him from his country. One can feel for a man so beaten down by fortune, if with lacerated mind he breaks out sometimes into words of excessive blame, the more so that, to increase his feeling, false statements were being made by his political enemies ready, as always happens, to give an evil interpretation to everything. And indeed, since, through mortal infirmity, “by worldly dust even religious hearts must needs be soiled” (St. Leo M. S. IV de Quadrag), it cannot be denied that at that time there were matters on which the clergy might be reproved, and a mind as devoted to the Church as was that of Dante could not but feel disgust while we know, too, that reproof came also from men of conspicuous holiness. But, however he might inveigh, rightly or wrongly, against ecclesiastical personages, never did he fail in respect due to the Church and reverence for the “Supreme Keys”; and on the political side he laid down as rule for his views “the reverence which a good son should show towards his father, a dutiful son to his mother, to Christ, to the Church, to the Supreme Pastor, to all who profess the Christian religion, for the safeguarding of truth.”

I think that slightly overstates matters — you don’t get from this a real sense of how scathing Dante was about the churchmen of his day — but then again, the author of that passage was the pope, Benedict XV, in an encyclical (!) commending Dante’s work and memory.

The point is, Dante’s criticism of the Church’s pastors came from a position of unswerving faith in God, and loyalty to the Church. And in time — lots of time — even a Pope wrote an encyclical praising him for his criticism in the context of loyalty to Catholic orthodoxy. Dante was calling on the popes and the priests not to abandon Catholic truth, but rather to be truly Catholic. His is an example worth remembering and emulating for Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox alike.

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