Reactionaries are often accused of wishing only to preserve or seize power for ourselves, as if no one could really support hierarchical relationships on principle. It is therefore a matter of pride to me that my own Church refuses to support rebellion even when it would mean Catholics seizing power from other Christians.
Henri Daniel-Rops, in his The Church in an Age of Revolution, seems positively embarrassed by the Papacy’s support for an “oppressive” Russian Orthodox autocracy over the foolish liberal aristocratic Poles, calling it “A grievous episode”.
Europe as a whole did not react to this drama. Nevertheless, every man in Europe with any ‘liberal’ leanings at all, everyone who was striving to rebuild the world, quivered with loving anguish for conquered Poland [bah ha ha]. The tragedy of a martyred people moved thousands of hearts.
What of the Pope? For him the problem was more than delicate. A huge majority of the Polish fighters were Catholics; their ranks included very many priests, and several bishops encouraged the insurrection. Badani, sent by the rebels to show Gregory the justice of their cause, emphasized one aspect of the struggle, which as events proved, could not be ignored: the resistance of Catholicism to the oppression of Orthodoxy. At the same time, however, the Czar’s representative, Prince Gagarin, assured the Pope that the leaders of the rebellion belonged to the same secret societies which were threatening law and order in Italy and elsewhere; that his master, guarantor of peace, had no intention of destroying the Catholic Church in Poland; and he asked for a ‘fatherly exhortation’ inviting the clergy not to overstep their spiritual duties.
The Czar’s protestations were submitted to Gregory XVI on the day of his coronation, at a moment when disturbances in Italy gave him little cause for sympathy with liberalism; and they carried more weight than the heart-rending appeals from the Polish Catholics. Gregory began by writing a letter to the bishops of Poland, advising them ‘to preach obedience and submission as advocated by St. Paul’; it was entrusted to Gagarin, but was apparently deemed inadequate by the government at St. Petersburg and never reached its destination. Gagarin intervened once more, supported this time by Metternich, who dropped a hint to the Holy Father that a measure of condescension on his part would enable the Czar to arrange an advantageous settlement of all Catholic problems in Poland. It must also be remarked that the lyrical outbursts and vehement recriminations of the liberals–those of L’Avenir and those of the Risorgimento–did not help to sway the mind of Gregory XVI in favor of the rebel cause. On 9th June 1832 the Brief Superiori anno stigmatized ‘those authors of lying and trickery who, under cover of rebellion, defy the legitimate power of princes, break all the ties of submission imposed by duty and plunge their country into misfortune and mourning’. It directed Polish Catholics to be on their guard against baneful doctrines, and advised them to obey their ‘mighty emperor who would show them every kindness’.
It is not hard to imagine the effect of this document, first in Poland where it arrived and was solemnly published by the Russians just as the occupying forces were beginning an orgy of repression. In France, even outside liberal Catholics circles, it caused widespread grief, and in England the Protestant press emphasized its disgraceful character. It was not then known that the Brief had been accompanied by another addressed to the Czar, in which His Holiness energetically denounced ‘the wicked chicanery’ of the Russian government in Poland, cited examples of near-persecution, and suggested sending to St. Petersburg a papal charge d’affaires to make a careful study of the whole situation.
Glorious! And how much more so that the Holy Father stood alone in the West for order and obedience.
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