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Pope Clement XIV.Kurtukov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

December 12, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — As I’ve had occasion to point out before, we can learn a great deal by going back to earlier papal encyclicals — expressions, all of them, of the universal ordinary Magisterium of the Church — and seeing how these successors of Peter, conscious of the spiritual mission they had received, taught “as having authority,” and not like scribes or Pharisees (cf. Mt 7:29), whose latter-day imitators strain at plastics and climate change while neglecting larger matters of justice.

To the charge that looking back to the teaching of earlier popes and using their clearer words to call into question the vacillations and venoms of today is somehow to set up a fantasy Church of the past against the actual Church of the present shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Catholicism works. As a constitutive element of their religion, Catholics maintain that the consistent teaching of the popes over the centuries is, in and of itself, a testimony to the correct understanding of Divine Revelation, and that this understanding can be recognized and grasped by men of good will. The latest pope is therefore not the sole arbiter of the content of the Christian faith or possessed of a power to dismiss or reinvent the entire Magisterium of his papal predecessors, but rather bound to follow in the same doctrine, the same meaning, the same intention. In other words, he is merely a successor of a line of popes, not superior to this line in its entirety, and that means the value of his teaching depends on its being in harmony with this collective witness. Put simply: Each later pope stands on the shoulders of earlier popes; were he not to do so, he would exclude himself from their company as a renegade.

Giovanni Vincenzo Antonio Ganganelli (1705–1774) became pope in May of 1769 and took the name Clement XIV. Two historical facts, one great in its implications, the other small and charming, are associated with his reign.

He suppressed the Society of Jesus in 1773, which, all the same, continued to exist in Prussia and Russia and would eventually be restored in 1814 by Pope Pius VII. More recent commentators have wryly remarked that this suppression came approximately two centuries too early; if only this papal act had waited for the postconciliar period, it would have been justified for theological reasons, not mere political ones!

In 1770, Pope Clement hosted the 14-year-old child prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold. In his visit to Rome, Wolfgang had heard a performance of Allegri’s Miserere, the music of which was, at that time, forbidden to be possessed by anyone outside the Sistine Chapel.

Undeterred, the young composer wrote out the work in its entirety after having heard it once and, instead of receiving a rebuke, was rewarded by Clement with the Order of the Golden Spur.

In any case, Clement XIV is on my mind because today marks the 250th anniversary of his inaugural encyclical Cum Summi, published December 12, 1769. We should pay heed to the timeless wisdom contained in his words, which in many ways come across as fresher and more pertinent to our current situation than any of the documents published so far by the current incumbent of the See of Peter. Nor should we be surprised at this: for the wisdom that guides true Christians is always timely, whereas the fashionable causes du jour bear the disposable imprint of their Zeitgeist.

Addressing first his brother bishops, he reminds them of their primary duties, and the nature of the challenges facing the Church in the modern world:

Together we must all labor for the health and safety of the church, so that, without blemish or strain, it may flourish. With God’s help we can accomplish this if each of you is enkindled by as strong a zeal for his flock as possible and if your one concern be to remove from his flock all contagion of evil and pitfalls of error and to strengthen it diligently with all the aids of sound doctrine and holiness.

If ever those in charge of the Lord’s vineyard should be concerned about the salvation of souls, they must be so in this age especially. For many ideas aimed at weakening religion arise almost daily. When men are enticed by novelty and led on by an eagerness for alien knowledge, they come together more eagerly for this very purpose and more willingly embrace it. Wherefore, We lament that the destruction of souls is propagated more widely each day. Accordingly, you must work all the harder and exercise diligence and authority to repel this audacity and insanity which stalks even divine and most holy matters. Be confident that you will accomplish this by the simplicity of sound doctrine and by the Word of God which penetrates more than any two-edged sword.

You will easily be able to contain the attack of enemies and blunt their weapons when in all your sermons you preach and present Jesus Christ crucified. By His own laws and institutions He founded and reenforced this holy city which is His Church. To it he entrusted, as it were, the deposit of faith in Him to be preserved piously and without contamination. He wished it to be the bulwark of His teaching and truth against which the gates of hell would never prevail. We, therefore, the overseers and guardians of this holy city, must preserve the magnificent heritage of Our laws and faith which has been passed down intact to Us; We must transmit it pure and sound to our successors. If We direct all our actions to this norm found in Sacred Scripture and, moreover, cling to the footsteps of our ancestors, We will be best equipped to avoid whatever could weaken and destroy the faith of the Christian people and loosen in any way the unity of the Church. Whatever pertains to religious worship, to moral training, to right living can be found in the twofold instrument of Scripture and Tradition. From this source we learn the depth of mysteries and the duties of piety, honesty, justice, and humanity.

Could any more perfect expression be found of the Catholic’s commitment to sound doctrine and a holy life, in adherence to received tradition?

Living in the heyday of the Enlightenment and its increasingly violent attacks against the Catholic Church and the ancien régime — attacks that would coalesce and burst forth into violence in the French Revolution twenty years later — Pope Clement goes on to remind the bishops of the inherent connection between right religion and good civil order. Note that the latter category includes the right to execute criminals:

From no other source than these laws of true religion do we recognize more clearly the established rights of citizens and society. Accordingly, no one has ever attacked the divine sanctions of Christ without likewise disturbing public tranquillity, without lessening obedience owed to rulers, and without rendering everything unsafe and uncertain. For there is a strong bond between divine and human rights; therefore those who realize that rulers are protected by the authority of the Christian law obey them, venerate their authority, and protect and cherish their dignity. … They are ministers of God and not without reason do they carry the sword as vindicators in wrath on him who does wrong; moreover they are beloved sons and patrons of the Church, whose part it is to cherish it like a parent and protect its interest and rights.

In his concluding remarks, Pope Clement XIV, having urged the bishops to seek holiness, charity, and humility in all things in imitation of Christ, reminds them of the force of their example:

If once you are inflamed with this desire, then this same ardor will spread among all your people. Indeed the force and authority of the pastor for moving the spirits of his flock is truly marvellous. For when they recognize that all his thoughts and actions are conformed to this model of true virtue, when they see in him nothing harsh, nothing arrogant, and nothing exalted, but rather charity, meekness, and humility, then truly they will feel themselves drawn most keenly to imitate these qualities. Moreover, when they see him paying no attention to private gain, instead serving the advantage of everyone else, coming to the aid of the needy with his resources, of the afflicted with his consolation, of the ignorant with his teaching, of all men with his service, advice, and piety, even preferring their salvation to his life, they will listen to his voice as he teaches, exhorts, implores, and even blames and reproves in a most loving manner. For if pastors are hampered by private interests and prefer worldly things to heavenly, how can they rouse others to love of God and mutual kindness? If they seek after wealth, pleasure, honors, how can they rouse others to the contempt of human things? If they are puffed up with pride and arrogance, how can they rouse others to meekness and humility?

Therefore, since you have taken upon yourselves the office of instructing souls in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, you must adhere to his holiness, innocence, and gentleness. Consider, too, that your proper business is to instruct the people in this fashion, and that by carrying out this task correctly will come all your praise and good fortune, from neglecting it, your calamity and turpitude. Therefore, seek only those riches that come from gaining souls for Christ. Seek only that glory which comes from promoting divine worship, from adding to the beauty of the house of God, and from extirpating vice and promoting virtue.

What a stirring program is here placed before the eyes of the bishops! His proper business is to instruct the people in sound doctrine, true piety, and upright morals. He must put worldly affairs and standards aside; immortal souls are the wealth he seeks, and for their benefit he prioritizes divine worship, “adding to the beauty of the house of God.” Oh, and they should uproot vices (sodomy may not be mentioned expressly, but, pace James Martin, S.J., it certainly qualifies as one of the most serious vices, according to the teaching of St. Paul, who enjoys greater authority than any Jesuit). The contrast between this “pastoral plan,” announced by Christ Jesus in His plenary sessions with the apostles, and the one that bishops have tended to adopt after the Second Vatican Council leaves one positively speechless. Could anyone refute the truth of Clement’s encyclical? From 250 years ago, his voice returns to us with redoubled urgency.

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Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar, and choral composer, is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California (B.A. Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria and the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, then helped establish Wyoming Catholic College in 2006. There he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history and directed the choirs until leaving in 2018 to devote himself full-time to writing and lecturing.

Today he contributes regularly to many websites and publications, including New Liturgical Movement, OnePeterFive, LifeSiteNews, Rorate Caeli, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News, and has published thirteen books, including four on traditional Catholicism: Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014, also available in Czech, Polish, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Belarusian), Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017), Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018), and Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over a thousand articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church.

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, visit his personal website,