Saturday, 12 March 2011

Pope St Gregory the Great and his Dialogues

Today is the feast day of Pope St Gregory the Great, a pope who truly deserves the accolade 'Great'!

These days he is most famous for his liturgical reforms (thus the descriptor 'Gregorian' when it comes to the chant), his dispatch of the mission to convert England, and his voluminous and important writings.  You can read more about his life over at my other blog here

But I just wanted to say something here about the importance of one of his relatively neglected works, The Dialogues, because it is such an important work, and attitudes to it reflect something of the pattern of our times.

The cult of the saints

St Gregory's Dialogues are arguably among his most important works from the point of the view of the patrimony of the Church.  But they have also been much attacked and maligned - for exactly that reason - from the Reformation onwards (1). 

The Dialogues provide an exposition of the theology behind the cult of the saints, particularly in Book IV, an exposition that led to the tradition of the saying of Gregorian masses (thirty masses in a row) for the dead amongst other things.  They also contain extremely important expositions of monastic and mystical theology.  They provide most of the information we have about the lives of many near contemporary Italian saints.  And above all, Book II is entirely devoted to St Benedict, and has traditionally been regarded as one of the foundation documents of the Benedictine Order, alongside St. Benedict's Rule (2).

Are the Dialogues genuine?

Over the last few centuries, however, St Gregory's enthusiasm for miracles in the Dialogues has caused a considerable degree of discomfort amongst those infected with modernist and rationalistic ideas.  Just as some commentators on the recent canonisation of Australian St Mary of the Cross such as Paul Collins have admitted, the 'popular mind' might love miracles, but the 'modern mentality' of the liberal intellectual elite hates them, or at the very least, is made extremely nervous by them (3)!

Many modern Benedictines in the post-Vatican period, for example, strongly downplayed the value of St Gregory's Life of St Benedict.  It was dismissed as mere hagiography, something meant to edify rather than relate actual history or provide an insight into the actual character and life of the saint, despite the wealth of detail the Life actually provides, and the regular attribution of stories to named (and in some cases verifiable) sources in the document, and the archeological and other evidence in support of a number of its details (4). 

Even one who does see it as the 'portrait of the life of a soul', prominent Benedictine Dom Adalbert de Vogüé, nonetheless gave it the historico-critical treatment, pointing to what he saw as similar miracles in other works on early ascetics (5).  Though De Vogüé himself strongly denied it, the clear implication of his work to many was that some of the stories had simply been borrowed from sources like Sulpicius Severus' life of St Martin of Tours (6).

The result of these two streams of thinking was to effectively sideline the Life of St Benedict - and thus sideline the person of the very founder of the Benedictine Order - in the lives of his modern sons and daughters.

Prominent American monk Fr Terrence Kardong, for example, declined to draw on the Life at all in his Commentary on the Rule of St Benedict (7).  And he then enthusiastically lent his support to the arch-conspiracy theories of Englishman Francis Clark, who claimed the Dialogues were not by St Gregory at all, but were a Carolingian fake (8).

Fortunately, Clark's thesis has now been comprehensively demolished.  The Dialogues have been shown to be entirely consistent with St Gregory's other work and mentality, and evidence that the Dialogues were in circulation very early on indeed has come to light (9).

A paradigm for our times: ignore, deny, relativize!

One might think that the collapse of the fake theory would be the end of the story, and lead immediately to the recovery of the work in the Benedictine tradition and more broadly.  It hasn't of course.

Instead, Fr Kardong's new translation and commentary of the work attempts to relativize the stories and downplay their historicity and originality. 

Instead of the events that led St Benedict to move from Subiaco to Monte Cassino being portrayed (as the text itself strongly implies and Pope Benedict XVI has argued), as an example of God's providential guidance, something necessary for the growth of the Order and ultimately, the creation of modern Europe, Kardong portrays it all as a story showing only Benedict's personal moral and spiritual growth (10). 

This is all rather ironic since if one actually sits down and reads the work with an open mind, the Life is a distinctive, wonderful and challenging work, that truly does lead one to understand better the uniqueness of a soul living in the centre of the whirlwind of the Holy Spirit, and busily laying the foundations for Western monasticism.

Signs of recovery....

There are positive signs though.  An important work that made the case for the historical accuracy of the Dialogues, but which was effectively lost in the backwash of Clark's conspiracy claims, can perhaps now find its place in the useful literature on the work (11).  A number of helpful studies of St Gregory and his times have been published in recent years.  And over the last year or so,  some important academic articles have appeared that, though still operating largely from a historical/academic paradigm without much regard for the universal/providential dimension of history, at least start the process of demolishing some of the more egregious errors of translation and interpretation put forward by de Vogüé and others, and recovering the real value of the text (12). 

Moreover, the work done to demolish Francis Clark's attempt to rewrite every known fact of Benedictine history has laid the foundations for the re-emergence of the traditional narrative of Benedictine history, including in De Vogüé's multi-volume history of Western monasticism, based on its gradual spread in the period immediately after St Benedict's death, and thus challenging the revisionist view of the last forty years that portrays it as essentially a Carolingian concoction.

Now if only the Order of St. Benedict itself would accept the teaching of the Magisterium on the central importance of their founder (13), rather than portraying that teaching as 'exagerrated' and denying him his true title of founder of the Order, and Father of Western Monasticism (14).

And if only the rest of us would recover the importance of the lives of the saints, and the sense of the interconnectedness of the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant, in our thinking and practice.


(1) See particularly William McCready, William D,  Signs of Sanctity. Miracles in the Thought of Gregory the Great. Studies and Texts (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies) 91, Toronto: Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies, 1989.

(2) Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, Translated by Catherine Misrahi, New York: Fordham University Press, 1961, pp11.

(3) Go here for the basic line of Paul Collins' comments on miracles, repeated regularly in the context of the canonisation of St Mary of the Cross. Terrence G Kardong OSB, The Life of St. Benedict by Gregory the Great Translation and Commentary, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009, ppxi.

(4) The standard line is encapsulated in Timothy Fry OSB, Imogene Baker OSB, Timothy Horner OSB, Augusta Raabe OSB and Mark Sheridan OSB editors. RB 1980. The Rule of St Benedict in Latin and English with Notes, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1981, pp 73-79.

(5) Gregory the Great, The Life of St Benedict. Commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, Translated by Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe, Petersham, MA: St Bede’s Publications, 1993 provides a popular version of his academic treatment of the life in the Sources Chretiennes series.

(6) Ibid, pp xi-xiii provides a short bibliography and rebuttal of the criticism of his work; but see also Kardong, op cit, ppx-xii.

(7) Terrence Kardong OSB, Benedict’s Rule. A Translation and Commentary, Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1996.

(8) Francis Clark,The Pseudo-Gregorian Dialogues, 2 volumes. Leiden: E J Brill, 1987 (and subsequent works); Terrence G Kardong, “Who wrote the Dialogues of Saint Gregory? A report on a controversy,” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 39 (2004), 31-39.

(9) Kardong, Life of St. Benedict op cit; for a useful review of the evidence and further contribution, see Matthew dal Santo, "The Shadow of a Doubt?A note on the Dialogues and Registrum Epistolarum of Pope Gregory the Great (590-604", Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 61(1), January 2010, 3-17.

(10) Kardong, Life, 43-47; Benedict XVI, General Audience of 9 April 2008.

(11) McCreedy, op cit.

(12) in particular: Michaela Zelzer, "Gregory's Life of St Benedict: Its Historico-Literary Field",
Cistercian Studies Quarterly 43.3 (2008), 327-337; Michael Zelzer, "Gregory's Life of St Benedict and the Bible: The Decoding of an Exegetical Program, Cistercian Studies Quarterly Vol 44.1 (2009) 89-102; Matthew dal Santo, "Gregory the Great and Eustratius of Constantinople: The Dialogues on the Miracles of the Italian Fathers as an Apology for the Cult of Saints", Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 17, Number 3, Fall 2009, pp. 421-457.

(13) Pius XII, Encyclical Letter, Fulgens Radiator, 21 March 1947; Paul VI, Apostolic Letter, Sanctus Benedictus Abbas Principalis Totius Europa Patronus Eligitur, 24 October 1964.

(14) The argument that St Benedict cannot be regarded as the founder of the Benedictine Order 'in any real sense', originates, as far as I can discover, in and article by Claude Peifer: "Monastic Renewal in a Historical Perspective", American Benedictine Review, March 1969, vol 19, 1-23.

No comments: