Basilicas on your back

I read my books while riding the commuter train to work and back. It’s been almost exactly a year since I read Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter’s by R.A. Scotti.

It’s an epic tale, beginning in the 1450s when Pope Nicholas V proposed renovating the Vatican basilica. Constantine’s original was by then more than a thousand years old, a creaking and rickety hulk. It remained standing mostly by force of habit.

Pope Julius II broke ground on an entirely new St. Peter’s in 1506. A restless dynamo with a fondness for outsize projects, Julius envisioned the new edifice as a kind of grand showroom for his tomb, which he contracted Michelangelo to sculpt. The mausoleum plans were so ambitious, and the artistic milieu of Renaissance Rome so volatile, that Michelangelo never finished. But the basilica itself moved forward, its story studded with characters as if from a novel.

There was Michelangelo himself, the very prototype of the genius temperament. Then there was Leo X, one of the Medici popes, under whom the basilica became an immediate trigger for the Reformation. Leo’s penchant for selling indulgences and offices to pay his ceaseless train of expenses, including construction bills, enraged an obscure German Augustinian priest named Martin Luther. The rest was history.

Have you ever wondered about the giant, iconic dome? It was the biggest such project since the Pantheon dome fourteen centuries before. And in 1588, architect Giacomo della Porta told Pope Sixtus V it would take ten years to finish properly. Sixtus, who was old, impatient, and almost gleefully ruthless, gave the flabbergasted Della Porta thirty months. As it happened, the dome only took twenty-two months, and so far it hasn’t fallen on anyone.

I smiled at Pope Paul V, who oversaw the completion of the façade. He modestly commemorated his own role by emblazoning the following directly above the front door: PAVLVS V BVRGHESIVS ROMANVS PONT MAX (“Paul V, Roman of the House of Borghese, Supreme Pontiff”). You could be forgiven for thinking he poured the foundation personally.

But the most interesting person in the book was Gianlorenzo Bernini. A one-man Baroque whirlwind, he was known for painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, plays, and building his own theatrical sets. In fact he was a master of theater, of illusion, and this he brought to St. Peter’s. For by the time Bernini arrived in the 1620s, St. Peter’s needed illusion.

The new basilica was a hodgepodge of things done by different artisans in different eras with lots of interruptions. The façade was too wide for its height. And the front section of St. Peter’s, the nave, was so disproportionately big you had to stand away on a hill or down the road to appreciate what everything actually looked like. Meanwhile, the inside had no unity. Scotti describes a “sensory overload,” a “fantasia of soaring space, mosaics, gilt, colored stone, columns, niches, statues, chapels, and sepulchres.”

Enter Bernini. Over fifty-odd years, his sweeping achievement was to bring these clashing elements together. His massive bronze baldacchino, or canopy, centered the interior of the church on the pope’s altar. As for the awkward nave and façade, Bernini fused them with a colonnade topped with stone saints that encircled Piazza San Pietro. Now it’s an awe-inspiring grand entrance to the nerve center of Catholicism, both embracing the approaching world and transitioning visitors out of it.

Bernini was good at fixing stuff like that. Maybe too good. Many times since reading Scotti’s account, I’ve felt that Bernini’s projects are an overly-apt metaphor for the Vatican he served.

The global church, seen from the power center of Rome, has the appearance not only of unity but of uniformity. It’s a comforting illusion. But it wears off whenever Catholics speak too loudly about the gritty realities of their lived faith. And then the pope and bishops, who rarely live these gritty realities themselves, are typically overwhelmed by the fantasia of sensory overload.

So they go in frantic search of a baldacchino, a colonnade, something that will restore the appearance and revive the illusion. They censure theologians, warn us about LGBTQ activists, crack down on nuns, throw out Father Roy Bourgeois, and rejigger the liturgy. I’m actually sympathetic in a way: it must be really hard squinting at the world, trying to see it clearly, when the only view you have is from St. Peter’s. It must be really hard, as theologian Matthew Fox put it at the last Call To Action conference, to carry basilicas on your back.

6 thoughts on “Basilicas on your back

  1. I actually must respectfully disagree with your contention that “And then the pope and bishops, who rarely live these gritty realities themselves, are typically overwhelmed by the fantasia of sensory overload.” Do we really want to say that our popes never lived gritty reality? Like JPII who watched fellow seminarians get murdered by Nazis, had his entire family die when he was only a young man and was left alone, and watched his entire country razed not just by Nazis but also by the Soviets? There is quite some grit there. Do you know any popes or bishops intimately enough to know about their life experiences? Their families? You want less judgment cast upon those who think differently from Church teaching – yet it seems to me the stones you cast are less than charitable. That kind of attitude cannot be taken seriously at the table of compromise.

    • John Paul indeed spent forty years of his life amid Nazis and Soviets, experience that heavily informed his social thought. He also made personal trademarks expounding on experiences he never had. His Theology of the Body started with who God is and then deduced what a human being is and then deduced what a relationship is. Reinhold Niebuhr, no liberal or relativist, would have warned that when your theology departs from the givens of experience you brush up against heresy. When John Paul did consult those with sexual experience, they tended to be married Polish professionals disposed to agree with him. They did not tend to be American couples juggling several children and several jobs, or African women who were in physical danger when they refused their “duties” to their husbands. They were not people who looked at others of the same sex and realized they were, at least to them, shining like the sun.

      Benedict grew up under the Nazis and lived near the Iron Curtain. He also spent most of his life after ordination in an academic bubble, in universities and at the CDF. Asked if he had ever met any gay people, he infamously answered that he saw them one time in Berlin when they were protesting John Paul. When he cracked down on liberation theology (not just pistol-packing revolutionaries who ran off with the language, but the whole school), he compared it to Marxist and utopian thought. But he did not go to the source, did not conduct an extensive ground tour of Latin America, did not live for a time with a base community, did not do last rites for the dismembered bodies of the disappeared on the roadsides.

      Closer to home, the U.S. bishops speak of unprecedented assaults on religious liberty. I wonder what my grandmother, who was born in Russia and watched Stalin’s troops turn her local Orthodox church into a barn, would have thought of bishops who have powerful political backing and ready access to the President, but apparently genuinely think they have no freedom. Cardinal George has compared gay pride parades to KKK parades. Has he been to either? Garry Wills wrote in Papal Sin that “most bishops conduct their lives sequestered from the people. I had occasion, at one time, to seek a bishop’s attention. It was easier to get that of my senator.” Having been an involved parishioner under multiple bishops in my home diocese and only meeting one at Confirmation, I see no reason to disagree.

  2. Thank you, Justin, for you interesting reply. My initial comment was meant to point out that your initial argument seems like a weak ad hominem. And if you want your claims to be taken seriously, you must be more nuanced and charitable. It seems you find John Paul II to have had more ‘grit’ than Pope Benedict XVI. However, I wonder why in your reply (and post), you equate Benedict’s knowing or rather observing a gay person with his grit. I am not sure I actually follow your logic in that respect and would like to understand more of what you mean.

    And I have been reading Benedict’s academic writing on liberation theology for some time, since I have published an article on his political thought. Interestingly, it is much more nuanced than you present it here. There were indeed, some strands of liberation theology that were (and are) more disturbing than helpful which actually ended up exploiting people and harming the poor more than helping them. However, I am also aware that Benedict’s caveat about liberation theology was just that: a caveat against some of the more damaging strands that lost their basis in the Gospel. He certainly saw and sees much to be applauded in their work and efforts. (And given that he is a German and not a Latin American, I imagine it would have been difficult for him perform last rites for those suffering under oppressive regimes in Latin America, so let’s try not to judge him too harshly for not being able to be omnipresent.) Do not forget that when Oscar Romero was cleared for canonization, it was then Cardinal Ratzinger in charge of the auditing process.

    The point is, I would like to take your criticisms to heart more readily, but I simply cannot when your only logic seems to be “the Church should accept the moral norms I think it should.” I’d love to see a more charitable argument that really lays out the case.

    All best and God bless you.

  3. I had one more thought on the religious liberty issue. While I cannot speak to your grandmother’s experience (utterly horrible!!), I am a little skeptical about your claim that the US Bishops have ‘ready access’ to the president. While Cardinal Dolan has certainly been in contact, attempted negotiations on the HHS mandate, and hosted the Al Smith dinner, I wouldn’t say he is a regular contributor to any president’s agenda setting or a regular cabinet member.

    What I can say is that Dignitatis Humanae, the Church has re-articulated her own right to Libertas Ecclesiae — simply meaning that she has the right to defend the freedom of her members to live in society according to their Catholic principles and to order her own institutions accordingly. Whether you agree with the Church’s teaching on birth control or homosexual unions, the fact is that both issues are dealt with in Church teaching in a particular way. No government should ever have the power to enforce policies that compel the Church to violate those teachings (e.g. HHS mandate, forcing Catholic adoption agencies to place children with homosexual couples). I am a little unsure how that is not a violation of religious freedom. Further, I believe that the marketplace is large enough to handle conflicting moral claims in this matter and that such an approach would allow social pluralism, diversity, and the common good to contribute to human flourishing in a way that is palatable to all.

    • I’m going to focus on a thread that I think unites the concerns of these last two comments with the concerns of my post: “The point is, I would like to take your criticisms to heart more readily, but I simply cannot when your only logic seems to be ‘the Church should accept the moral norms I think it should.'” And: “Whether you agree with the Church’s teaching on birth control or homosexual unions, the fact is that both issues are dealt with in Church teaching in a particular way.” The Church. The Church’s teaching. Who is the Church? Who teaches? Does the Holy See, in the phrasing of Rosemary Ruether, own a copyright on what it means to be Catholic? The progressive movement, to which I confess I belong, moves from the premise that when power and privilege (whether it calls itself that or not) concentrates itself too heavily in one part of the Church, then that part of the Church, and those who inhabit it, go blind.

      On religious liberty, I found this interesting: “No government should ever have the power to enforce policies that compel the Church to violate those teachings…Further, I believe that the marketplace is large enough to handle conflicting moral claims in this matter…” To accept federal money is to accept federal law, which in a pluralistic society is always, from someone’s perspective, messy. If the marketplace is truly large enough, then then the bishops should look to it more seriously to do what the federal government of a pluralistic society cannot do.

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