Reading Jeanne Schuler’s Creighton reflection on the daily scripture on April 24 piqued my interest in re-reading Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor. Amid yet another ill-advised Vatican crackdown on religious women, everyone should consider the dire consequences inherent in Dostoevsky’s story.
In brief, the story goes this way as Ivan explains his “poem.” It is the 16th century and Spain is in the throes of the Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor—a cardinal of the catholic church—has witnessed an auto de fé in Toledo on the previous day where hundreds of “heretics” were burned at the stake.
Guess who came to Spain? Jesus the Christ made a brief appearance and resumed his work of healing people and raising people from the dead. The Grand Inquisitor has him jailed. During the night, the Inquisitor visits the Christ in his jail cell and harangues him about his predilection for human freedom. If Jesus had only accepted the devil’s invitations in the desert, Jesus would have garnered a large following. Human freedom in fact had turned out to be a rather bothersome thing to church officials who by the time of the Inquisition had convinced the people that giving up their freedom was much less stressful than living with the consequences of freedom. (No wonder that Dostoevsky is considered one of the first existentialists.) In so doing the Inquisitor had actually entered into a pact with the devil—the anti-Christ. The last thing the Grand Inquisitor and church officials needed was for Jesus to come meddling in their control of the church. Remaining silent during the entire harangue against human freedom, Jesus then arises, kisses the old cardinal on the lips and walks away from the prison.
Jesus has a way of getting in the way of the self-serving power that corrupts the church. Were Jesus to make another return appearance today he would spend his time healing those wounded by abuses of church power, greed, and sexual misconduct. He would be jailed and tried by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Office in charge of the Inquisition in its day).
Well, folks, there is more to the story. Ratzinger who headed the aforementioned Congregation prior to his successful campaign for the papacy, has never been a fan of freedom. He indeed is the Grand Inquisitor reincarnated. Known as a somewhat liberal, young peritus (expert advisor) at the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger underwent a dramatic change during the student “revolts” of 1968. Students feeling their oats were taking over university classrooms and sometimes rioting in the streets. Hans Küng, who hired Ratzinger to teach on the faculty of the University of Tubingen, recounts that Ratzinger packed his brief case and walked out of his classroom when students challenged him. Freedom had gone much too far in his mind. Like the Grand Inquisitor, he saw freedom, especially the freedom in the church that was unleashed by Vatican II, as risky and dangerous. He and his protégé, John Paul II, have spent years trying to return members of the church to the complete and total submission to the authority of the institutional church that is said to have existed in the pre-Vatican II church.
Responding to Alyosha, Ivan says:
Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. ‘For now’ (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) ‘for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned,’ he says to Him. ‘Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings; Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?”
Fast forward to the attack on the women religious. The freedom Jesus bestowed on his followers has been hijacked by power-hungry patriarchs who wear dresses and do not want women in pants hindering them and, in most cases, outshining them in Gospel living.
The Inquisitor toward the end of the chapter says:
Receiving bread from us, they will see clearly that we take the bread made by their hands from them, to give it to them, without any miracle. They will see that we do not change the stones to bread, but in truth they will be more thankful for taking it from our hands than for the bread itself! For they will remember only too well that in old days, without our help, even the bread they made turned to stones in their hands, while since they have come back to us, the very stones have turned to bread in their hands. Too, too well will they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy. Who is most to blame for their not knowing it?-speak! Who scattered the flock and sent it astray on unknown paths? But the flock will come together again and will submit once more, and then it will be once for all. Then we shall give them the quiet humble happiness of weak creatures such as they are by nature. Oh, we shall persuade them at last not to be proud, for Thou didst lift them up and thereby taught them to be proud. We shall show them that they are weak, that they are only pitiful children, but that childlike happiness is the sweetest of all. They will become timid and will look to us and huddle close to us in fear, as chicks to the hen. They will marvel at us and will be awe-stricken before us, and will be proud at our being so powerful and clever that we have been able to subdue such a turbulent flock of thousands of millions. They will tremble impotently before our wrath, their minds will grow fearful, they will be quick to shed tears like women and children, but they will be just as ready at a sign from us to pass to laughter and rejoicing, to happy mirth and childish song. Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance.
Complete submission would seem to be the goal of the patriarchs when it comes to the women religious. Merton’s prediction is coming true; the patriarchs are building tombstones over the grave of the church.