His review, "The Church: God Writing Straight with Crooked Lines" (New Oxford Review, July-August 2014), is substantial and full of fascinating detail. The excerpts about some of the historical popes alone are enough to bolster the confidence of anyone concerned about rocky periods in Church history. Here are several excerpts:
Celibacy was eventually mandated in the eleventh century to prevent family dynasties — even in the papacy. For example, in the sixth century, Pope St. Hormisdas was the father of Pope Silverius, and Pope Felix III was the grandfather of Gregory the Great....Read the whole article >> Hitchcock's conclusion is a good bit more upbeat and optimistic than many would seem to be the blogosphere these days. But as Kainz says, by way of conclusion, "Perhaps the sedevacantists in our midst, by boning up on Church history, warts and all, might realize that her present state is miraculous -- not the work of men, but of God, who writes straight with crooked lines." And how crooked those lines have been for those willing to examine them! As I have oft contended, the better versed one is in Church history, the more one's faith, counter-intuitively, is bolstered by the miracle that is the Church.
... In the ninth and tenth centuries, corruption of kings and clerics was common. Charlemagne married five times, had six concubines, and forced his daughters to have their children out of wedlock in order to avoid potential political entanglements with his sons-in-law. The institution of the papacy was often in disarray. For example, Pope Stephen VI ordered the body of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, to be exhumed and tried for violations of Church law; Formosus was found guilty, stripped of his vestments, and desecrated. Later that year, Stephen himself was strangled in prison. Bribery was common. Benedict IX paid to become pope in the eleventh century, but later resigned on the condition that he receive his money back. The general picture by the fifteenth century was not very pretty. As Hitchcock observes, “Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484), a Franciscan who was notoriously immoral in his private life, set out to make the papacy a feared military force, placed his nephews in important principalities, and arranged their marriages with an eye to effecting strategic alliances. He supported a plot to assassinate the Medicis, the ruling Florentine family, who were to be killed at Mass by two priests…. Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503) was a Spanish cardinal, a member of the Borgia family, [and]…became one of the most notorious of all the popes, the worst since the tenth century.” Hitchcock adds that the future Pope Pius II came from a background of pornographic authorship.
... Popes themselves conflicted with one another: In 1570, for example, Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth; but a few years later Pope Sixtus V declared that she was an admirable woman. The Church hierarchy was sometimes involved in criminality; for example, some cardinals in the sixteenth century tried to poison Pope Leo X, who got wind of the plot and executed their leader. Leo’s unfortunate decision to recognize the right of the king of France to nominate bishops caused problems of authority for the following three centuries.
... In the fourteenth century there were three claimants to the papacy — Urban VI, Clement VII, and John XXII — which helped give rise to the conciliar movement, so that cardinals could depose popes in such cases. But this “solution” turned out to be a vicious circle, since councils are customarily called by popes. In the twelfth century, Peter Abelard, famous for his romantic affair with Heloise, eventually became a reforming abbot whose monks tried to poison him. And in the sixteenth century, some unlikely popes began to lead the way to reform. As Hitchcock writes, “Papal support for the reforming impulse in the Church began with Paul III, who led a scandalous life. He fathered children, and his ecclesiastical career flourished primarily because of his aristocratic Farnese family connections and the fact that his sister had been one of Pope Alexander VI’s mistresses. By the time of his election, he had undergone a change of heart, although he still used his office to favor his children.” But the Church was unable to head off the very different approaches to “reform” carried out by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others. So the Council of Trent was called to stem the disruptive tides, beginning with the Protestant Reformation.
Many such councils have been called in the hope that they would clear up ambiguities and differences once and for all. But, as Hitchcock observes, the history of Church councils would lead us to a different conclusion. The fourth-century Council of Nicaea left unresolved the question of Christ’s divinity. The fifth-century Council of Chalcedon seemed to make Constantinople and Rome equal sees. And Trent opened up with disputes that seemed to portend similar or even worse ambiguities. For starters, France boycotted the proceedings, leaving mostly Italian bishops, along with a few other European bishops. Pope Paul IV opposed the Council as a threat to papal authority, causing a hiatus. But as Trent resumed under the aegis of Pope Pius IV, acrimonious national and doctrinal factions developed, leading to some ambiguity in the final decrees. For example, Christ was declared to be present “whole and entire” under both species, bread and wine, and frequent Communion was encouraged; but the “frequent Communion” recommended for seminarians was once a week, and for nuns once a month. Disputed questions about justification and the relation of grace and free will were left unresolved. And Mass in the vernacular was prohibited, even though, as we saw above, Latin was first chosen because it was the vernacular.
... About a third of the Council Fathers at Vatican I were either opposed to the declaration of infallibility or wanted to attach conditions to its announcement. A lingering problem was that, in the past, two popes had dabbled in heresy — Pope Honorius in the seventh century accepted monothelitism, and Pope John XXII in the fourteenth century supported (but later recanted) the doctrine of “soul sleep” before the Last Judgment. So the condition of “speaking ex cathedra” was finally emphasized, to take into account the possibility of occasional papal infelicities.