I’m a good Anglo, and thus it is my obligation as a pathological altruist to take my opponent’s side from time to time. (And yes, I know the papists won’t reciprocate. It’s okay, I love our clannish para-Europeans.)
So: what is there to be said in defense of Rome? Let me start by restricting the scope of this question. I believe there were a number of features of the medieval Church which were extremely valuable, during the Middle Ages. (The eucivic effects of the extremely broad construal of incestum, for example.) This post is not about those features, which are an interesting topic in their own right. I also don’t consider every aspect of the medieval Western Church to be popish, but only those that were attacked and eventually abolished by the reformers, yet defended by the Counter-Reformation.
Similarly, there are certain things indifferent which ought to be organized differently in different dioceses with an eye on the different needs of each population. This too is its own topic and to the extent that Mediterranean countries have their own unique needs and so deserve their own autocephalous branch of the Church, I will leave that question for another day.
However, I’m not going to try to segregate the good of the Church from the good of a Christian society in these notes. (Hopefully the two distinct sets of concerns will come across clearly, but each note collects together concerns of both kind.) So without further ado:
Medieval monks intermittently came into ill repute because of their atrocious behavior. By the Renaissance, the monasteries were becoming something of a scandal. The reformers linked their criticism of the theology/ideology of the monastic orders to denunciations of monkish behavior, and Rome took the bait and defended the honor of the monks and abbots.
The rhetorical intuition that motivated the defense of monks is easy to understand. So is the group-unity dynamic that made it difficult to throw the monastic orders overboard in the midst of a crisis. But by holding up the monks as good boys who dindu nuffin, the papacy closed off an important perspective on monasticism.
Do monasteries protect monks from the laity, or laity from the monks? In the ideology of the monks, it’s the former. Outside the monastery is a fallen world, the City of Man, full of temptations: all paths lead to Sin. The monks are simply those who perceived this dire truth most clearly and retreated into the cloistered life for the good of their souls.
An alternate way to say this is that a certain group of people had been harming their neighbors and their communities so much that, out of their own free will, they elected to remove themselves far away from occasions of sin (i.e., victims) and live in cells in a closely supervised environment.
Now, nothing’s perfect. Obviously there were many entirely depraved sinners who never submitted to, nor were pressured into, the monastic life. And due to the self-aggrandizing ideology of the monastic orders and the reflected glory of the Desert Fathers and other early saints (whose spiritual experiments helped define the monastic tradition), many unusually pure and pious young men were drawn into the orders: an explosive situation. But on the whole, if a group of people withdraw from society because they cannot cope with how much they sin in ordinary life, and some of them remain fairly vicious even after withdrawing from the world, where’s the problem?
The tacit premise of the sixteenth-century debate was that monastic orders should be restricted if the monastic life is vicious and supported if the monastic life is virtuous. But what if any society has especially vicious men; can’t they receive support for openly confessing that they are in dire need of special restraint, even if they never reform?
In the quarrel over whether to honor work-family-autonomy or poverty-celibacy-obedience, the defenders of asceticism took for granted that if the monks were parasites on the body of a Christian society, they should be done away with. But don’t all societies have parasites? Parasites scheme tirelessly for the power and influence they need to leech off of others. Perhaps the best way to deal with a certain class of parasite is to reward them for removing themselves from public life. Scheming after three meals a day (give or take a few fasts) puts the parasite permanently* out of competition for political power.
(*Almost. Monks are a slippery bunch.)