The fourteenth century was, like ours, a time of intellectual and political dissolution. Philosophy was in decay. The great religious orders of the thirteenth century had begun to lose their zeal. France and England were at war. The pope had left Rome for Avignon. The long poem Piers Plowman, written about 1389, was called by Neville Cogill the greatest English religious poem. A few words cannot touch the directness of heart, profound insight, and poetic skill that make Piers Plowman a classic. The author, William Langland, for whom Piers stands surrogate, was a cleric in minor orders, living in a fat country at a fat season, who sang the office for the dead to make a living. From his place near the bottom of the clerical hierarchy Piers wrote a story of the salvation of mankind, the tale of the progress of souls from “Do Well,” through “Do Better,” to “Do Best,” a journey made possible by Christ the Knight who took upon Himself the armor of human nature to give His life for our sins. But Piers found himself critical of the great and powerful, the merchants of course, but especially of the professional religious classes, the bishops and abbots. So critical indeed that Protestants have hastened to see this profoundly orthodox medieval poem as a kind of herald of the reformation. Aware as Langland was of the bishops and bachelors (university-educated clerics), some of whom deserted their cures under Christ for London life, who wound up working in chanceries and neglecting to hear matins and Mass, there is no malice in the poem. There is a note of regret, as in Piers’ words, “May Christ in his kindness save the cardinal and prelates / And turn their wit into wisdom and to welfare of the spirit.”
What one is witnessing in Piers Plowman is the schism between the professional clerical classes and those in the church whom we might simply call the observant. There is reverence for Peter and a profound awareness of the reality of the Church, but also criticism of priests and cardinals and abbots, not on the grounds that they have left the Faith, but on the grounds that they are imbedded in the culture in ways that make them irrelevant to the life of faith and charity.
What Piers saw as weaknesses in 1390 would become rampant failure one hundred and fifty years later, for while the English bishops, with one or two noble exceptions, were bending to the will of Henry viii for reasons that at least included a desire to maintain their wealth and station, More, Fisher and the Carthusians were marching to their martyrdoms.
This unlikely appearance of heroic sanctity in the middle of clerical defalcation goes some way to explain the paradox illustrated by Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars, which represents English parish life in the 1520s as vibrant and well-rooted. But as events would show, the prosperity of English parish life was fragile for it was leaderless. When the test came, only one bishop, perhaps two—one might count Warham of Canterbury—stood the test. Large numbers of religious took the pension offered by the government and gave up their vocations without protest. This scene would be repeated. When the crisis came in France, in the 1790s, perhaps half the clergy abandoned communion with the Holy Father for the favor of the revolutionary state.
The image is uncannily reminiscent of the 1950s, when parish life in the United States flourished in a traditional, unreflective way, with churches abuilding and seminaries and convents full. But Catholicism is a religion that flourishes best with leadership, never democratic, always hierarchical. St. Paul assured the Corinthians of one generation that while they had many teachers they had only one father and St. Clement assured the next that their clergy were not elected by their favor but appointed by authority, and from that day the faith has flourished when leadership in things pertaining to salvation was given fearlessly. When leadership fails, and of course it never fails universally, the church does not die—it cannot—but the distance between the observant and the hierarchy grows. As the interest of the hierarchy in accommodation with the culture grows, the piety of the observant may persist for a time, but the body of the faithful, most notably the vast body of the half-struggling un-heroic, is at risk.
In sixteenth-century England, the feckless neglect of the moral life of priests and people occurred in the midst of the building of King’s College Chapel and the finishing off of Westminster Abbey with the glorious chapel of Henry vii, and the embellishment of village churches that Duffy documents was carried out while the spiritual life of the Church was decaying under the hands of a clerical class that had other concerns. The bishops would be bullied into submission by Henry viii; monks, most of them, bought off with a pension. And thus the people of God were laid open to the slow destruction of their faith by a political culture that scorned it. Courage and clarity returned, as ever it does, but not until suffering and deprivation had begun to recall to clergy and laity the truth that we can never make peace with the world. By 1559 the bishops had recovered courage and upon their refusal to yield was built the great edifice of martyrdom that saved the Catholic faith in England.
Then as now the cancer was moral, a failure of courage and a confusion of conscience on the part of a people untaught and unled who have learned from a spiritually enervated clergy no longer to fear God more than man. The world Piers knew would not see a serious movement toward reform until the Council of Trent completed its work in 1564, and then it would be more than two hundred years until Trent had permeated the life of the Church.
So perhaps the 1390s come again, and with them days that require something of Piers Plowman’s ability to maintain love while realizing that the heart of the clerical leadership is too often not so much devoted to its Christ-given work of making saints—nothing against it of course—and to teaching the entire faith in its troublesome fullness, as it is committed to the survival of the institution and staying in touch with the culture, both projects rooted in the world that is passing away.
The irrelevance of the clerical caste can be measured by its failure to defend the family. A hierarchy interested in the success of the institution will avoid issues that distance the church over which they preside from the culture in which it is embedded. It is a fine and obvious thing to oppose abortion, an action condemned by human tradition and natural law—many philosophers and a majority of evangelical Protestants do no less. It is a finer thing to oppose the presupposition which allows the alienation of begetting from the context of conjugal love. The weakness of leadership with regard to Humanae vitae will ring down the history of the post-1960 years as a source of spiritual desolation issuing in a vast unwillingness to deny ourselves and, incidentally, of our political destruction at the hands of those who love life. When pleasure is alienated from procreation, the result will be warfare between men and women who no longer have a common project that teaches charity, the destruction of marriage, the acceptance of homosexuality as an alternative good rather than the curse it is, and in the end, failing a great renewal, the death of the civilization.
Piers thought the issues of his day were covetousness and sloth, the love of money, ease, and station, and believed that the clergy and religious were often part of the problem, not its solution. The terms of the battle are different now, for the ecclesiastical willingness to tolerate isolation of procreation from the rich context of human love, the persisting gentle, intransigent condescension toward tradition, and the tendency to avoid teaching and preaching the necessity of conversion from love of self to love of Christ, are not as uncharacteristic as one might hope. Once again the greater one’s love for Christ and the Church is, the more distanced in heart one may find oneself, not from its heroic, Fisher-like individuals but from the hierarchy viewed collectively.
In such periods it is important to remember that the real aristocracy of the Church is not those clerks in the chancery but the saints. Routinely to confuse the moral leadership of the church with the hierarchy is like concluding that the management committee of the National Football League, not the quarterbacks, exemplifies the best of the game as it is actually played.