Joe Biden & The Road to Canossa

  • Posted: January 28, 2021
  • Category: Blog
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One of the many rewards flowing from a socially awkward youth spent on a remote Nebraskan farm is my virtually inexhaustible store of sparkling historical anecdotes. If only my forlorn teenage self could see me now – holding forth at parties to a rapt group of listeners, enchanting them with one interesting vignette after another, giving them a look at the Middle Ages as they’ve never seen it before.

Oh well, back to reality. But what can I say, I am who God made me. I am fascinated by our – Western Civilization’s – distant past; the Roman Republic that morphed into the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages that came at Rome’s decline and fall segueing into the Middle Ages.

I must confess, I fail to understand the glazed eyes greeting my sparkling repartee at cocktail parties. Unfortunately, sparkling historical anecdotes do not collect “Likes” on Facebook either. And so I write a blog, another of the rewarding activities flowing from a socially awkward youth.

Perhaps the glazed eyes of my listeners come from their experience of history in school. Educators present history as facts, a textbook as dry and authoritative as a Physics textbook, when history is but memories painted by emotion, viewpoint and interest.

Sometimes at family gatherings, we will talk about past events, a Christmas morning or family trip. We were all there experiencing the same things but our memories are different. So it goes with the historical record. Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “History is written by the victors”. Well, duh!! But there is another bit of wisdom hoary with age, “Every dog has its day”. Our past is not the property of whoever rides high today, but a blended memory of all, the winners, the losers, the good, the bad and the ugly.

I really do think all those sparkling anecdotes, besides prompting spirited conversation among those chance met, also provide a template for understanding our present times. Try as we might, even the Millenials will come to know we cannot escape our past. As Shakespeare pithily penned in his play “The Tempest”, “What’s past is prologue.”

In our day, we see the past through the eyes of an academic establishment in thrall to an Enlightenment gone amok. Pursuing scientific and logical rigor, they count the blackened stones of ancient campfires in  pursuit of material for their next unread journal article. These devotees of minutia excel in counting the beetles on the bark of trees but are lost in the forest.

There are those of course who aspire to paint our past with a broader brush. But they have divorced themselves from that which actually drives the passions of men preferring instead to pursue modern formulations of righteous condemnation, modern Pharisees in ivied towers. No understanding of our history makes sense without a proper appreciation of the Christian faith, a concept alien to the modern academic mind.

There is a strong case to be made that our modern world was born on Christmas Day in the year of Our Lord 800 in Aachen, Germany. On that day, the Bishop of Rome (soon to be known as the Pope) crowned a German king/warlord the Emperor of a Rome reborn, the Holy Roman Empire. This newly crowned Emperor was Charlemagne or Charles the Great, the grandson of the Charles Martel who had led the heavy cavalry of the Franks to victory over the army of Mohammed at Tours in the France of 732 AD. The Holy Roman Empire which came into being on that Christmas day, a complex of territories which encompasses most of Western and Central Europe, would exist until 1806, when it was finally tossed into history’s wastebasket by Napoleon.

The coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope was the marriage ceremony of Church and State, a union that became and continues to be the backbone of Western Civilization. The rule of political power over its subjects, whether Presidents, kings, prime ministers or Lord Protectors, is made right and proper because the Christian Church has recognized its legitimacy. In its turn, the political power nurtures and protects the Christian Church.

All political institutions in the West are built on this foundation, first recognized in Pope Leo III’s crowning of Charlemagne in the Aachen of Christmas Day, 800 AD. The covenant between Spirit and State has been a tumultuous marriage, but an enduring one. Sometimes the political partner is ascendant, sometimes the spiritual power. But through twelve hundred years the marriage has endured and our present systems of government, our cultures, are inconceivable without it.

The first major crisis in the marriage was over two hundred and fifty years in the making. In 1077 AD, the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor – Henry IV, decided to show the Pope who was boss. In a move very like China’s Xi Jinping a few months past, Henry IV demanded the right to oversee the Church in his own domain, to appoint his own Bishops rather than accept those appointed by the Pope.

In an unbelievably bold move, the Pope – Gregory VII – retaliated with his most potent weapon, excommunication. Henry IV was cast out of the Catholic Church. Political turmoil resulted as the Empire reeled. The Emperor had been declared anathema, no longer able to receive fellowship or communion in the company of Christian believers. The various Duchies, Kingdoms, Dukedoms and domains of the Empire began to fragment. How could a man cast out of Christian fellowship be the sovereign of an empire held together by that Christian fellowship?

Henry IV, only a short time before the most powerful man in Europe, was forced to recant, begging forgiveness through emissaries before the Pope.  But the Pope refused these entreaties, requiring a public confession and repentance rather than a back room deal. In an act of public penance, Henry and members of his entourage walked barefoot, dressed only in sackcloth and ashes for miles through the Italian Alps to Canossa Castle where Pope Gregory was waiting in Northern Italy. This journey became known as The Road to Canossa. It served as the inspiration for Cercei Lannister’s Walk of Shame in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

Once Henry and his entourage arrived, Pope Gregory refused to open the gates of Canossa Castle. According to chroniclers, for three days and nights Henry waited on his knees in an attitude of penitence before the castle gates. This was in January, again according to the chronicles of the time, an alpine blizzard raged. Finally Pope Gregory decided that his point had been made, opened the gates and allowed the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to beg for forgiveness, on his knees – which the Pope then granted.

The spiritual power was ascendent. Not twenty years later the kingdoms of Europe beggared themselves mounting the First Crusade to retake the Holy Land from the Moslems, done at the barely veiled command of the Papacy. Over the centuries the marriage endured, sometimes the political power ascendent, sometimes the spiritual. The political power fragmented and coalesced as kingdoms waxed and waned. The spiritual power fragmented as Henry VIII of England and the Protestant Reformation brought new confessions of Christian authority into the mix.

But still the marriage between spiritual and political continued in the West. Until the present day. Unlike the time of Gregory VII and Henry IV, the temporal power is now ascendent. Once more a major crisis in the marriage threatens. The spiritual power is hesitant, weak and vacillating, often corrupt. Through the haze, chaos waits. The political order, its laws and constitutions, requires a legitimacy conferred by a higher power. Otherwise our governments and institutions are simply the apparatus the powerful use to oppress the weak.

Today, the most powerful man in the world is not Henry IV but Joe Biden. And like Henry IV, Joe Biden is in his own words, “a good Catholic”, a professing member of the Catholic Church. Recently inaugurated into office, President Biden took his oath of office on a family Bible of long standing as well as quoted St. Augustine in his Inaugural Address. Again like Henry IV, President Biden has a position of great power, but again like Henry before him, that position is a fragile one, resting on a group of quarrelsome ambitious nobles with no qualms at unseating him, no matter the damage.

Today, the Pope is not Gregory VII, but Francis I. On the face of his 8 years as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Francis I is not Gregory VII. Gregory VII, who began life as Hildebrand, the son of an Italian blacksmith, was a giant in the history of the Catholic Church and has since been recognized as Saint Gregory VII. Our Francis seems just another Adorable academic. In perusing his Wikipedia biography, his most visible accolades are of that unfortunate modern breed, the first (*****), an example of our present day need to render the pedestrian noteworthy, the placeholder significant.

While President Biden has not yet claimed the right to appoint Bishops in the United States, he aggressively promotes and executes policies in direct opposition to foundational teachings of the Church. During his campaign and the recent inaugural festivities, Joe Biden both claimed and was proclaimed a “good Catholic”. A near majority of his incoming administration’s principals, as well as much of the Congressional leadership, are “good Catholics” as well.

But to a man and woman, these “good Catholics” both promote and aggressively enforce actions directly in opposition to major Church teachings, as well as prosecute individuals and organization that hold to those basic teachings. There are persistent reports that Joe Biden has been denied communion at some of the parish churches he has attended in the less Adorable neighborhoods of America.

The world waits. That is the thing about academics like Pope Francis thrust into the firing line. The sophomoric exchange of the faculty lounge, the cut and thrust of tenure track jealousies, the grand speeches and their rich honorariums at conferences of the like-minded – they don’t reveal or temper the steel, or more commonly, its lack.

The marriage contract is a covenant between two entities, different but equal. Christianity, whether the Catholic Church or its Protestant relatives, is no longer an equal and the marriage suffers for it. Given that it is “good Catholics”, such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, who deliberately and brazenly kick sand in their Church’s face, it is up to that Catholic Church authority to deal with this barefaced disobedience.

It would be good if the top-heavy Church hierarchy in America would deal with the challenge posed by Joe Biden et alia, but the Bishops & Cardinals of America have set a new standard for the definition of pusillanimous. The buck stops at the top and it is up to the Pope, Francis I. Either he stands up as a reformer and boldly reverses nearly two thousand years of Scriptural teaching, endorsing the views of today’s Church radical progressives, or he reaffirms traditional teaching.

If he reaffirms traditional teaching, Pope Francis must do something about the very public disrespect and disobedience posed by President Joe Biden. Doing nothing, continuing to remain passive in the face of such disrespect is the action of a coward, the custodian of a tradition and institution that is in terminal decline. It was Abraham Lincoln who famously quoted Jesus saying that “a house divided cannot stand”. It is a scary thought. What would The Road to Canossa look like for Joe Biden?

Looking at Pope Francis’s position from the American back benches, it looks like a very bad hand. The easy mark with a pair of deuces playing the gambler holding a pat hand. Our culture is so overtly secular that any Church action would seem back page news, further proof of how archaic and irrelevant Christianity is in the modern world.

And yet, we must remember that the Adorable face of our world is not the world or even most of the world. Not that long ago, another man of God in the Catholic Church broke down the Iron Curtain. Karol Wojtyla grew up 20 miles from Auschwitz and in a largely Jewish community, a Jewish community that was marched through the gates of that nearby Auschwitz death camp. Karol experienced the Nazi occupation and the Soviet occupation that followed. He stood tall, working for what he believed and was instrumental in the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, and while he was denied the great historical honors that come with being the first (*****), he was a giant who inspired the world. While Pope Francis does not remind anyone of John Paul II, the Apostle Paul reminds us in I Corinthians:

“But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.”   

It is worth pondering the world as it is, not the world as our media presents it. In the recent election the guidance of the Catholic hierarchy, its Bishops & Cardinals, was overwhelmingly behind the Democratic candidates. If one looks at the populations of the blue states one finds that they have very large populations of American Catholics. And let us remember that Biden’s win was very narrow.

Polls say that Catholic voters split 50-50 between Biden & Trump. Catholic voters predominate in the battleground states, the key states that gave Joe Biden et alia a very narrow recent victory. What would happen in the next election if the Catholic Church threatened censure or excommunication to “good Catholic” public officials over the deliberate disrespect they now show?


3 Responses to “Joe Biden & The Road to Canossa”

  1. Greg Vaughan says:

    Being Catholic, I was somewhat surprised to see Fr. Leo O Donovan, SJ , former President of Georgetown University doing the Invocation at the Inauguration. I understand Fr. O Donovan has been a friend of Biden for years. Did Fr. O Donovan ever plead with Biden that he was giving a false account of the reasoning of his church on abortion? What Biden’s example offers day in and day out, in a way that cannot be missed-is that one can be a good Catholic and yet, in a most indifferent manner, just wave Catholic teaching aside. Biden’s presidency will be destructive for Catholic institutions and teach a disrespect for Catholic teaching.

  2. Judy Hoxworth says:

    Thanks for a great history lesson! My catholic friends had no idea!

  3. Stephen Westfall says:

    If Joe Biden were to pretend to be subject to the authority of the Catholic Church it probably would only be if it were politically beneficial. There are US politicians who acknowledge God and His precepts and endeavor to serve Him, but it appears that many of those in power are narcissistic self-servers. The blatant embrace of anti-God ideals, such as support and approval of abortion and sexual aberrancy are indicators that what God desires, and what the Church desires is not important, assuming that those two desires align. Western history aside, acknowledging the questionable God-imparted authority of Popes is not the ideal desired outcome – acknowledging the inerrant authority of God Almighty is. The biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation, indicates that God is interested in the hearts and actions of humans, but more so for those involved in governmental and spiritual leadership. Severity of judgement is threatened for those in leadership who morally mislead their subjects. Our country has become a country that fails, by evidence of actions, to either acknowledge the existence of God or to follow His precepts. The rapid moral decline of the USA has undoubtably been propelled by the self-serving leadership of many of those who have been in authority over the last 50 years. Professing a desire to perform one’s Constitutional obligations by placing a hand on a Bible and invoking a desire for God’s help does not necessarily indicate a sincerity of heart – actions do.

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