Rorate Caeli

Dietrich von Hildebrand on Pope Francis

Readers of my blog (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) will know that I've been trying to get to grips with what Pope Francis has been saying, and how Catholics attached to the Church's traditions can best respond to it. We need both a conceptual and a rhetorical framework for responding to a critique which is coming from an unexpected direction.

Unexpected, but not unprecedented. We have, in fact, been here before, and I was very struck by the relevance of a chapter in Dietrich von Hildebrand's book Trojan Horse in the City of God. This was published in 1967 (I have the slightly revised 1993 edition), with a Foreword by John, Cardinal O'Connor. I offer an extended quotation here; I've had the whole chapter (10 pages of the book) retyped and you can download it here. I think Pope Francis would like it too.

Hildebrand was one of the founders of the Traditional movement, and specifically of the Roman Forum, directed by Dr John Rao, which continues the work of education he thought so important. They are currently appealing for funds; go over there and have a look.


Another example is the tendency to substitute for real faith a mere loyalty to the Church as an organization with rules for its members. Instead of being aware of the awful privilege of assisting at Holy Mass, many Catholics go to church on Sunday just as they fulfill profane duties out of loyalty to the country or to an institution to which they belong. That is, they perform this task because they just happen to be Catholics. Here, indeed, the letter has replaced the spirit. This substitution of loyalty for holy obedience and grateful love indicates the loss of a true understanding of the nature of the Church. It suggests that the Church is a merely human institution.
I remember how often, during the first persecutions of the Jews from 1933 to 1936, Catholics could be heard saying that as long as Hitler did not attack the Church, he could not be called an enemy of the Church. These persons did not understand that the Church was attacked each time God was offended by an injustice. They had become blind to the universality of the Church. They had forgotten the words of Pope Benedict XV who said that he was the father of all, whether they wanted to accept it or not, whether they knew it or not. They had forgotten that St. Ambrose refused to let the Emperor Theodosius into church because he had killed six thousand innocent persons in Samos. St. Ambrose did not ask whether those murdered innocents were Catholics or not.
The consideration of the Church as a state or, even worse, as a political party could indeed be called a Catholic ghetto mentality. This outlook fails to see that unlike all natural institutions, the Church has no other interests than those of God.

Bureaucratic attitudes stifle faith

Still another example of dried-up religion is a phenomenon one could well call employeeism. Instead of emanating a spirit of holy unction, of loving zeal for the glorification of God and for guiding the faithful to Christ, priests have sometimes behaved as if they were employees of the Church. The way they say Mass suggests the performance of a professional duty. Their contact with the faithful is similar to that of an organization official dealing with clients.
In contrast to the priest who leads an immoral life or who is immersed in worldly preoccupations—a danger widespread in the Renaissance—these employee-priests who have taken the letter for the spirit do not have a bad conscience. They feel themselves to be very correct and loyal. This makes their attitude, though not sinful as the other is, very dangerous to the life of the Church. They not only tend to reduce their own religious life to correctness and loyalty; they also influence the faithful to take such an approach.

Organizations can never replace personal commitment

A widespread symptom of a formalistic or legalistic religion is overestimation of organization. Full personal commitment, as well as immediate contact from person to person, is being more and more replaced by organizations. The efficiency or organizations in the life of civilization—in activities of a social, practical order—has created the illusion that this more mechanized, impersonal way of dealing with problems is just what religious life needs. And yet, in religion everything depends upon personal contact.
A typical example of this illusion is the way many interpreted the original idea of Catholic Action as set forth by Pope Pius XI in his Encyclical Pax Christi in Regno Christi. The Pope called for penetration of the entire life of the layman by the spirit of Christ and for a new participation of laymen in the apostolate. This sublime call to full personal commitment was interpreted by many as a summons to mere organizational activity—as if the main task was to establish a headquarters for all Catholic associations.

Religious naturalism leads to formalism and legalism

The cause of formalism and legalism consists precisely in approaching supernatural truth through natural categories. Even though the supernatural was stressed in the abstract, those responsible for ossification in the Church retained a way of thinking and acting that was secular. The moment they left the abstract plane, their approach to religion breathed only a secular atmosphere which could not sustain authentic Christian revelation. Absent was the breath of Christ, the epiphany of God; absent was the perfume of holiness, the splendor of the supernatural, all so gloriously present in the saints and homines religiosi to whom we have referred. This lack drains life from religion, creates a Catholic ghetto, and deprives the message of Christ of its irresistible power.

Revitalization requires emphasis on the supernatural

It is against the background of a legalistic and formalistic conception of religion, then, that we must see the appeal of Vatican II for a vivification of our religion. Father Lombardi wrote of this even before the Council started. One of the things he said the Council should achieve was to make the bishops less administrators than fathers of their dioceses.
It is difficult to understand how the vivification of religion can be sought in a secularization of religion, as the progressive Catholics advocate. If religion is to penetrate our lives, the primary requisite is that it be itself authentic religion. The first step toward vivification, therefore, is to replace mere learning with a discovery of the glory of Christian faith. The Church must be recognized as the Mystical Body of Christ and profane loyalty must be replaced with holy obedience and the ardent love of the Church. Moreover, instead of concentrating exclusively and maliciously on the narrowness and legalism that have appeared in the Church over the last centuries, one should rather call attention to the host of saints and great religious personalities which blossomed during this period. They are the pattern of true vitality, the very opposite of the inhabitants of a Catholic ghetto. Their example reveals how to overcome the arid, formalistic, legalistic tendencies that ossify religion. To think of a Don Bosco, a Lacordaire, or a Newman is to discern the path leading to true vivification.
True vivification requires that the supernatural spirit of Christ be fully thrown into relief. This means eliminating any blurring of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural. Yet the progressive Catholics opt for more blurring. They believe that vivification can come to pass through secularization. They want to increase the thrust of natural categories. They thus advocate a cure that was the very cause of the formalism of religious life in the past. In calling for a full and deliberate secularization, they recommend worldly activism and bohemian freedom. They forget that what was wrong with the dried-up, formalistic approach that stressed the letter over the spirit was precisely that the Holy Spirit was screened out by abstraction and by too great a concession to purely natural methods.

Secularization suffocates religion

The victory of Christ in every domain of life is the real end. Yet we bury the Christian faith and Christian life when we attempt to overcome the sterility of legalistic religion by turning from the spirit of Christ to the saeculum, by substituting for the holy fire of Christ a secular enthusiasm, by forgetting the supernatural vitality of the saints and embracing the nervous, hectic, profane preoccupations of the modern world.
It is easy to feel oneself alive and free if one forgets about the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, and directs all one’s powers toward secular endeavors. It is easy to feel oneself bursting with energy if, for example, the clearance of slums concerns one more than transformation in Christ. What the progressives call “leaving the Catholic ghetto” is in reality giving up the Catholic and keeping the ghetto. They would replace the universal Church with the ghetto of secularism, with imprisonment in a stifling  immanentism, with isolation in a world that sits in umbra mortis, in the shadow of death.[2] To achieve a unity of religion and life by adapting religion to the saeculum does not result in a union of religion with our daily life, but reduces religion to the pursuit of purely mundane goals.[3]
   It must certainly be admitted that priests have, at times, scandalized people because of their religious mediocrity. Oftentimes, they were harmless bourgeois whose personalities never breathed a religious atmosphere. Sometimes they were filled with suspicion against every sort of élan. They oversimplified all questions. They were incapable of understanding the message of God contained in great art and in other great natural works of man.
These were regrettable features, indeed, of the practical life of the Church. But the way to overcome them is certainly not to encourage priests to fall into another extreme by abandoning their former narrowness for indiscriminate ravings about secular crudities or for a taste insensitive to vulgarity. This is to flee from one mediocrity to another. The progressives tend to believe that narrowness is the only kind of mediocrity. They forget that being blind to those things which are antagonistic to true greatness and true culture and lavishing enthusiasm on shallow worldliness are expressions of a more blatant mediocrity and are even more incompatible with religion.[4]
The fallacy in the progressivist approach is obvious. If we assert that religion should permeate our lives, the implication is that we should break through to the realization of the primary vocation, the very meaning of our lives, which is our re-creation in Christ. We should then no longer be exclusively absorbed by the immanent logic of our professional lives or by everyday preoccupations, but should see them and all things in the light of Christ. Indeed, the echo of our self-donation to Christ should resound through all the scenes of our lives.

Efficiency is not holiness

It is the very opposite of uniting true religion with everyday life to believe that all that is demanded from a Christian is to fulfill the duties prescribed by the logic of his secular life. This would mean the absorption of religion by secular activities, so that we would be satisfied that in fulfilling the requirements of these we were doing everything that God could ask of us. In reality this is to avoid the confrontation with Christ. Those who act in this way are Christians in name only. The decisive question for the vivification of religion today is whether through the light of Christ our everyday lives will become deeply changed and adapted to Him, or whether the Christian religion is to be adapted to the immanent logic of mundane concerns.
The mistaken approach to uniting the Christian religion with the whole of our life promotes efficiency over holiness. We have dealt with this confusion in The New Tower of Babel.[5] This error, which marks the proposals of Daniel Callahan and others, betrays the loss of the sensus supranaturalis. The quality of holiness and the self-revelation of God in Christ are simply not seen or, if seen, misunderstood and downgraded. The ideal of these progressive reformers seems to be that instead of aiming at a transformation in Christ and being a witness to the Christian revelation, a Catholic should be as little as possible distinguishable from a humanitarian philanthropist.

[2] Ps. 22:4 (RSV = Ps. 23:4).
[3] In reading Daniel Callahan, for example, one gets the impression that the clearance of slums should have precedence over redemption.
[4] We are thinking of the attempt to introduce jazz or rock and roll into religious services.
[5] Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1977.