A Plumbline in the Wind

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A Plumbline in the Wind Near Lauder, Scotland: Sheep on a hillside

A New St. Erlembald?

19 October 2018 · No Comments

In response to the recent scandals in the Catholic Church, many people have called for lay initiative to cleanse the Church of priests and bishops who abuse children and otherwise violate their oaths of celibacy. Those who respond to this call might well take St. Erlembald as their patron.

Who was St. Erlembald?

In the eleventh century, St. Peter Damian complained to the Pope that “the befouling cancer of sodomy is … spreading so among the clergy.” Priests, who were required by canon law to be celibate, lived openly with concubines or unofficial wives. Under the influence of simony, bishops bought and sold offices with the collaboration of lay rulers. The first part of the century saw popes deposed and reinstated, as the Emperors and various Roman families contended for power. These abuses stimulated what has become known as the Gregorian reform, associated with Pope Gregory VII, although it began before he was elected Pope, and with the Cluniac Benedictine monks. In Milan, the laity too were deeply involved in reform.

Beginning in 1045, laymen, encouraged by a few priests, began to protest against the archbishop imposed on them by the Emperor. They refused to accept communion from priests suspected of simony or sexual immorality. When the archbishop responded by excommunicating their leaders, the canon Arialdus and the lay nobleman Lambert Cotta, they appealed to the pope, who reinstated them. Lambert died in 1065 as his brother Erlembald was returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, intending to become a monk. Arialdus called on him instead to take up his brother’s role as lay leader of the movement, now known as the Patarenes. The following year the archbishop’s thugs managed to kill Arialdus; so Erlembald and his lay followers took up the cause, attempting to replace the archbishop with a worthier candidate by force if necessary.

The Patarenes had the support of several influential cardinals, including Peter Damian, Humbert of Silva Candida, who called on “faithful laymen” to “arm themselves to avenge” the insults to the Church, and Hildebrand, who later became Gregory VII. When Hildebrand became pope and the Emperor was occupied elsewhere, the reforming candidate was able to take over in Milan, but Erlembald was killed by the Milanese resistance. Along with Arialdus, he was hailed as a martyr; both men were canonized by Pope Urban II in 1095.

The Patarene movement is only one case of the laity leading a reform in the Catholic Church. In fact, almost every reform movement in the history of the Church has been led by the laity. This lay role has been obscured by the tendency in such movements for the leaders to become clergy or for the movement itself to produce special forms of religious life.

The earliest such movement, the ascetic or monastic movement, began with individual hermits, like St. Anthony of Egypt, who was never ordained. Even a century later, in the time of St. Pachomius, most monks were still laymen. The distinct order of monks was the result of a lay movement, although the order it produced came to be associated with the clergy.

Like Anthony and Pachomius, Francis of Assisi, the founder of the first of the mendicant orders, was a layman when he began to gather followers to his new group. Although he was later ordained a deacon in order to be able to preach in churches, he was never a priest. Like the monks, the friars eventually came to be a distinct order in the Church, generally clerical in character.

At the time of the Catholic Reformation, Ignatius Loyola and Philip Neri each began their ministries as laymen, gathering followers and engaging in active apostolate. They were only ordained after their mission had been underway for some time.

Of course, no one is born a priest. In a larger sense, every decision to enter religious life or the priesthood is the decision of a lay man or woman. Saints, too, are made, not born. It is only in retrospect that sanctity is recognized. Joan of Arc, as a lay woman who saw heavenly visions and a peasant woman who led armies into battle, was very controversial in her day. Catherine of Siena, although venerated as a Dominican saint, was a tertiary who never lived in a convent. Both these women are both examples of lay piety and products of a society in which lay piety was encouraged.

The notion that the laity, or the “Christian faithful” (Christifideles), as recent Catholic documents refer to them, are the Church is often credited to the Second Vatican Council, but the reality is nothing new. In the Middle Ages the laity had considerable power in the Church at many levels. Lay activity and influence are often hard to see because the clergy produced most of the records that are our sources. The only kind of lay influence we can see easily is that of royalty and nobility in appointments to Church offices and the patronage of religious orders. What we don’t see is the constant activity of the laity at the local level.

My own research field has been urban parish life and in particular the confraternities or lay brotherhoods that were a major part of it. I have studied one parish in Liège, Belgium, at end of fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century, very closely. For the time and place, this was not an unusual parish. Here a group of laymen—well-off but not extremely wealthy burghers—administered most of the parish’s money, hired the priests who assisted the vicar (sometimes their own sons), and provided the decorations for the church and its side chapels. The administration of the parish was in the hands of two churchwardens together with the vicar. This arrangement was not unusual—at another parish in Liège, the parishioners elected the vicar themselves. In many parishes throughout Europe, the rector or vicar was chosen by lay notables, but more humble members of the community, either in the parish or in a confraternity, provided the living for the unbeneficed priests who constituted a large portion of the secular clergy.

Lay control of appointments in the Church gradually declined after the Council of Trent, but lay religious life did not. The Church of the Catholic Reformation developed new structures or adapted old ones to energize the body of the devout. St. Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life was written for lay people explicitly. The early Jesuits and other new orders organized confraternities and other lay organizations at the local level. The Jesuits educated the sons of the lay élite as a tool of conversion: in Austria, Bohemia, and Poland, they turned the sons of Protestant aristocrats into a new generation of Catholic ones. The early modern Catholic Church depended on the help of the lay elite to bring about the conversion called for by the Council of Trent.

It is, perhaps, the very success of the Tridentine strategy in bringing about the cooperation of the laity with the clergy that leads to the impression that the normal role of the laity in the Catholic Church is to be passive. Closer examination of Church history suggests otherwise. When the clergy have failed, or when older models of religious organization have been ineffective, the laity have stepped up and been the instruments of reform.

It should be clear to any observer of the Catholic Church today that something is wrong. The scandal of Archbishop McCarrick and the revelations of Archbishop Viganò, the reports of investigations not only in the United States but in Europe and Latin America as well, are evidence of a deep and pervasive corruption no less virulent that the one that Peter Damian identified in the eleventh century.

Maybe what the Church needs now is a new Saint Erlembald.

Tags: Theology and scripture