Rorate Caeli

Special Series: "1919—2019 A Centenary Meditation on the Church and a Quest for Purification Gone Mad"
- Part I: The Peace, the War, and the Longing for Purification

A Centenary Meditation on the Church and a Quest for “Purification” Gone Mad

A Series by Professor John C. Rao, DPhil


Part I: The Peace, the War, and the Longing for Purification 

Despite its claims of openness to everyone and anything, friendliness to time gone by is sorely lacking in our pluralist society, and this for very good reason indeed. Pluralism needs to destroy knowledge of the past in order to survive. Historical wisdom makes the depth and longevity of the intellectual, spiritual, and practical divisions in our daily life all too clear to those seeking to learn its lessons. Such wisdom diverts attention away from the only acceptable pluralist solution to human problems: the satisfaction of those material passions to whose endless permutations, monotonous as they ultimately really are, fallen man in his dullness seems ceaselessly attracted.

Unfortunately, we Catholics living in an all-encompassing pluralist society are ourselves subject to its soporific effects. We also have a tendency to don an historical blindfold, to focus on immediate material concerns and their time-bound explanations of current events, and, thus, to replace real intellectual judgments with shallow, pluralist-approved mantras. The result is that our own appreciation of the causes of our present ecclesiastical debacle is both too mundane as well as much too limited historically in its scope.And, sadly, this prevents us from dealing with its horrors effectively.

January 18, 2019 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Paris Peace Conference. This conference was called to restore order after the “war to end all wars”---an “end” which endured fora mere twenty-one years, from 1918-1939. Brief though the brittle interwar period over whose birth the Paris gathering presided was, it was central to the maturation of the present-day Catholic collapse, along with the deep, pluralist-induced sleep that prevents our awakening from the living nightmare that this disintegration has engendered.

Ironically, the era gained this unhappy distinction through its nurturing of the longing of those many people who, from 1914 onwards, vocally expressed the hope that first the battlefield and then the peace to follow would somehow result in the purification of a decadent western civilization. Alas, all that the development of such a longing actually did achieve was to bring what was indeed a very deeply rooted western illness guaranteeing decadence to its terminal stage. The hundredth anniversary of this quest for purification gone mad provides a valuable framework for a serious meditation upon that tragic truth.

A useful introduction to the longing for purification and its potential problems is The Magic Mountain of Thomas Mann, published in 1924, but set in the years leading up to the outbreak of hostilities. This novel depicts for us a prewar Europe whose spiritual illnesses and divisions ensure a paralysis represented by the frenetic but frustratingly pointless interaction of the patients of a tuberculosis sanatorium in Davos, in the Swiss Alps. I seriously doubt that Mann would have agreed with me, but as far as I am concerned, all of these inmate’s woes, in one way or another, were the nefarious,long-term effect of Gnosticism, Nominalism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment on Western Civilization. Each of these forces, from the twelfth century onwards,had contributed mightily to an attack on Reason, Faith, and legitimate authority, resulting in the “liberation” of the individual irrational will from reality. What they created, bit by bit, was the chaos of modern intellectual and physical libertinism, individual as well as social. Each has also helped to ensure that the ensuing instability would be dealt with through an appeal to one form of another of the Triumph of the Will.

Hans Castorp, the protagonist of The Magic Mountain, well indicates the depth of the sickness of the society in which he lives, along with the dangerous “cure” a poisonous modernity ultimately prescribes for it.He is not seriously ill at all, but chooses to join the simultaneously sybaritic and paralytic Alpine community voluntarily. Even more in need of a purpose in life than physical recovery, he and his fellow patients are only “mobilized” for action through the pressure of brute strength: to begin with, that provided by a Dutch planter from the East Indies by the name of Mynheer Peeperkorn, and, finally, by the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 itself. At the novel’s end, it seems as though it is only be through the self-sacrificing suffering of the totally irrational “energy” of the wretched wartime front experience that Castorp---and western man as a whole---might inexplicably entertain hopes fora purification and transfiguration.

It was that same sense of awakening from a meaningless sleep to a euphoric bout of unifying, communal, vital activity,irrationally bringing purification in its train, that numerous witnesses of what the Germans called the “August Experience”testify was felt by a vocal segment of the belligerent European population in 1914.Many authors depict for us the continued impact of this theme in the front itself, with reference to the psychological experiences of soldiers in the trenches, as found, for example, in the early postwar writings of Ernst Jünger (1895-1998):Storm of Steel (1920),The Fight as an Inner Experience(1922),Sturm (1923),and Fire and Blood(1925).

The Roman Catholic Church might be said to have shared in this widespread hope for a purification coming from out of the war and its effects, but only in a negative fashion. Her wartime hope was that the insanity of the conflict might finally open the world’s eyes to the accuracy of the warnings she had been giving for three quarters of a century regarding the disastrous direction taken by “modern civilization” as a whole. Those warnings were themselves rooted in a broader, nineteenth century Catholic positive meditation upon the full meaning of the Incarnation and the role of the Mystical Body of Christ in purifying--- or, more accurately, “divinizing”---the faithful, in tandem with a social order whose authoritative aid was crucial to making men truly “sons of God”.

That meditation was itself also a rediscovery; a rediscovery stimulated by the realization that Catholics had been cheated out of the fullness of their own Tradition by pastoral-minded “reformers” hiding its doctrinal treasures “under a bushel” for fear of offending the precepts of the supposedly liberating Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; an Enlightenment, once again,that had served as a conduit for the still earlier destructive influences of Gnostic, Nominalist, and Reformation character. But liberation in the Enlightenment sense was seen by nineteenth century Catholic prospectors for the real Tradition as producing the very opposite of what its promoters and their forbears might well have desired. On the one hand, its basic naturalism meant the imprisonment of human life in a purely earthly cell. On the other, its individualist attack on authority guaranteed that that stultifying naturalism resulted in an irrational and willful war of materialist wills against one another ending in the unjust victory of the stronger over the weaker. Catholic “traditionalists” of the 1800’s argued that a triumph of the strongest irrational wills could only be reversed through a return to a Faith opening everyone and everything to purification and transformation in Christ.

The Roman Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1850, was one central contributor to the nineteenth century movement of rediscovery of the fullness of the Faith, helping mightily to shape the Syllabus of Errors of Blessed Pius IX of 1864, the subsequent development of Catholic Social Doctrine, and the entire Christian understanding of how a purification of the West might be effected along with it. To expand upon the title of one of its early articles summarizing the gist of their entire argument, “either Christ will be king of the universe---with respect for Reason and with freedom for all---or man will be its king---by means of the imposition of willful, irrational force”.

Achieving Christ’s sovereignty in a “war of all against all” was seen by the thinkers stimulating the Catholic revival as a militant operation involving an “occupation” of all of the “spaces” of life: “spaces” of a spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic, as well as political and social character. Such a practical labor, as the Council of Trent had clearly taught, had to be rooted in solid doctrine. It required a full and firm presentation of the Church’s teachings to Catholics and the world at large without any apologies for the disagreements that these would arouse. Pastoral activity without strong doctrinal roots was nothing other than a “sitting duck” for manipulation of naïve believers by the innumerable representatives of the uncorrected, fallen world who form a kind of “Grand Coalition of the Status Quo”, demanding an unquestioning enslavement to earthly “business as usual”.

Commitment to the full message of the Faith, our Catholic thinkers insisted,was something quite different from adherence to the ideologies offered by the complex of forces slowly responsible for degrading Western Civilization. For the Catholic Faith was free from the various reductionist interpretations of existence, limited even in their grasp of the full promise of nature itself, whose unexamined acceptance earth-bound ideologies rigorously demanded. In consequence, the Faith was also open to understanding the important role that was played both by each and every aspect of earthly and supernatural life, as well as by the manifold communal authorities expressing them, and cooperating with one another in a proper hierarchy of values. It validated all of these authorities in their fruitful work for the ultimate benefit of individuals whom God created not as isolated atoms, but as complex social beings.

On the other hand, Trent had also underlined the fact that sound doctrine could not make its impact felt without a practical savvy displaying cognizance of the changeability of earthly conditions. Achieving Christ’s sovereignty over the world demanded a recognition that the application of Catholic teaching at any time in history was in no way a straightforward mechanical process, much less an easy one. “Feeding the sheep” always entailed insightful pastoral nuance, combining acceptance of the fact that the basic strength of the Church lies in her supernatural message and the grace that she offers for the transformation of nature with an acute awareness of the particular concrete problems of securing the victory of the Catholic position in any given historical situation.
Pastoral occupation of the” spaces of social life” was especially difficult in a western world that had been converted to the Enlightenment naturalist spirit in a highly patchy manner. This conversion had not taken place in a completely hostile fashion. Rather, it had often involved a cooption of aspects of Christian ideas and Christian inspired institutions in support of quite contradictory secularist positions---as our nineteenth century thinkers recognized had indeed happened in the Catholic world in the 1700’s. Moreover, there remained“social spaces” in Enlightenment conquered territory still subject to the continued, though weakened, influence of solid religious beliefs and authorities.

All this guaranteed that the contemporary West was a “mixed bag”. Purification of its confusing elements required a demanding surgical operation carried out in a way that removed“modernity” as a dominant and destructive ideology from the merely “modern”aspects of the social body.The potential value of what was merely modern could then be confirmed, purified of its fallen flaws, and transformed for the greater glory of God and the secular benefit of society. In performing their earthly tasks properly, the manifold purified authorities of a complex society would then also work effectively to raise individuals to the appreciation of things divine and fulfillment of the divine plan. What was left from contemporary life---the infection of modernity---could at that point happily be isolated and tossed onto the rubbish heap of history.