Rorate Caeli

Special Series: "1919—2019 A Centenary Meditation on the Church and a Quest for Purification Gone Mad"
- Part II: Dangers on the "Catholic Purification" Front

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

A Series by Professor John C. Rao, DPhil

Part II: Dangers on the "Catholic Purification" Front 

Unfortunately for Catholics, the Church’s quest for purification of the spaces of public life in 1918 was a hotly contested one, with her Gnostic, Nominalist, Reformation, and Enlightenment shaped opponents either potentially or immediately wielding more power than she might ever hope to command on her own. Dangers on the purification front were international, national,and broadly cultural in character, with most of the threats in question ultimately perilous on all these levels.La Civiltà Cattolica continued to apply and develop the conclusions reached by the revival movement of the previous century to understand and parry them. Therefore, much of what I have to say below is fit into the broad framework that this journal’s interwar analysis provided.

One of the two newer, but historically rooted perils of the interwar period emerged from the United States. Due to her entry into the European conflict, and President Woodrow Wilson’s statement of allied goals in his Fourteen Points, his response to Pope Benedict XV’s peace proposals, and his popularization of the worldwide struggle as “the war to end all wars”, America loomed large as a potential purifying influence on November 11th, 1918 and in the months thereafter. Although the rejection of the Treaty of Versailles by the United States Senate and her consequent failure to participate in the League of Nations removed the imminent threat of New World competition for the political control of spaces in the Old, America’s “isolationism” in the interwar years was never truly complete. Latin America and East Asia remained public American concerns and fields of action, and New World cultural impact---the American way of life ---also continued to grow unabated in much of Europe as well. Cultural “Americanism” eased the way to American political domination of the European world in the wake of the second global conflagration. By 1945, mobilization of the American Way---what then came to be called pluralism---as a weapon for coaxing the reawakened Catholic Faith of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries back into its eighteenth century dogmatic slumber was complete.

A second new force competing with the Church for the occupation and purification of social spaces came out of Russia, which, although it played no role as a nation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, was nevertheless “present” in everyone’s mind at that gathering. For the seizure of power in Russia by Lenin’s Bolsheviks---formally known as the Communist Party from March, 1918 onwards---and the impact that Marxism-Leninism immediately exercised outside that troubled country’s fluctuating borders gave grave significance the world over to what was happening therein.This was certainly true in the defeated nations, Germany’s Communist movement sparking the Sparticist uprising of the weeks preceding the opening of the Peace Conference, and Hungary experiencing a Soviet style government briefly thereafter. But the spirit of the Revolution was not unknown to the victors either, with Red Guards seizing factories and agricultural estates and dreaming of an Italian imitation of the distant Russian model.

Naturalist competition for the occupation of the spaces of life in the interwar world also came from more familiar liberal and liberal democratic victims of the western illness. These were represented by the existing governments of the core powers of the Entente Alliance who ultimately subscribed to the treaties coming out of the Paris Peace Conference: France, Britain, and Italy. Still bound, publicly, to Wilson’s millenarian rhetoric, the victorious Entente states could not avoid working through the League of Nations whose creation he had championed, shoring up its weaknesses through a policy of Great Power “collective security” supposedly assuring Europe and the world the eternal peace that the American president had promised. The mockery, in practice,of the hopes for purification represented by a peace guided according to the pure will of the victors and their more familiar liberal manifestation of the western disease was very much emphasized by the Civiltà editors.Hence, they criticized the Paris Peace Settlement as doing nothing other than bringing all the influences of the European liberal interpretation of the Gnostic-Nominalist-Reformation-Enlightenment order of things that the journal had already outlined in 1850 to their logical conclusions.

What did this entail? To begin with, it meant a continued heyday for the materialist, parochial-minded, liberal-approved form of nationalism that still dominated the worldview of the victors. Diseased national feeling was said to be obvious in the vindictive injustices inflicted upon Germany, Austria, and Hungary in the three treaties dealing with them that came out of the Paris Peace Conference; injustices reaching their peak with the occupation of the Ruhr region in 1923, brought about by German failure to pay the exorbitant reparations demanded of that economically shattered and psychologically demoralized country.Moreover, the imperialism this unjust nationalism generated was worsened after the war by the expansion of colonialism throughout the carcass of the Ottoman Empire; something that particularly concerned the Church with respect to the British opening of Palestine to Zionist migration and what this might mean for the ultimate fate of the holy city of Jerusalem. Finally, power in the hands of a “League of Nations” with no serious roots in European society, simply ensured the organization’s manipulation at the hands of the victorious allies---or, rather, whoever it was that controlled their governments internally.

Speculation regarding the real powers behind the throne brings us to the Civiltà’s unchanging emphasis upon the basic consequences of the evisceration of legitimate social authorities, already begun by the secularizing “absolutist” monarchies of the pre-revolutionary world, and then carried forward more successfully by Enlightenment liberalism under the claim that such surgery was necessary to “free” the individual from tyranny. What this emasculation of authority had actually guaranteed was not the liberation of all but, rather, the empowering of the stronger and better-organized bullies of any given country to manipulate their fellow-citizens in the social vacuum thus created.

Incited by a given passion—and liberalism potentially blessed and divinized them all—partisan groups rushed for control of the arms of the weakened liberal State, insisting that it was transmitting into action the “will of the people” for an unquestionable good. A State directed by the “will of the people”, as interpreted by the liberating faction actually seizing power, then proceeded to destroy all remaining non-governmental social authorities that were hostile to its desires. Since potential private usurpers of the functions of the weakened liberal State were legion—capitalists, the press, unions, gangs of armed soldiers or vigilantes, libertines, and madmen of every stripe—the hostile authorities destroyed must eventually lead to the disarmament of all survival social institutions. Hence, the liberal project ends with the individual confronting an oligarchic party controlling a supposedly weak State which now,in practice, is made capable of doing whatsoever pleases the faction in question: in the name of “The People”,although against the population’sown true will.“Everything”, the Civiltà wrote at the beginning of the interwar era, “has been obscured and overturned due to the lack of a social sense, in order to serve the triumph of individual and collective egoisms”.

Financial magnates, the journal argued, were still the real oligarchic powers behind the throne of the victors at the time of the Paris Peace Conference. Atomistic liberalism, justifying an individualism which sinful men quite eagerly aimed towards obtaining property for the satisfaction of material desires, had provided the capitalist with his ticket to a destructive journey across the nineteenth-century Europe. The weakened State had collapsed before his excessive desires and therefore became his ideological tool. Justice, to the capitalist, was nothing but the assurance that the defenseless and the unambitious received no protection from his exorbitant demands. And it was not just the European continent that was littered with the results of his wrong-headed “freedom”, but also its global colonial empires andWilson’s proto-Pluralist America.

Catholic counter-revolutionaries had a long history of viewing militant socialism as a providential scourge for capitalism’s indifference to human suffering. Given this history of injustice, La Civiltà Cattolica was not surprised that liberal economic freedom had also engendered support for a militant, revolutionary, Marxism-Leninism. Yes, this movement might in one way seem to be a purely cerebral one, in that it, like all Marxist exponents, saw the emergence of the final communist stage of history as an inevitability. Nevertheless, its sense that the birth of this "end time" involved a purification of the bourgeois decadence that was the accompaniment of the penultimate phase of man's experience on the earth, and its cultivation of an elite party as the righteous torchbearer of a welcome purifying fire,demonstrated its share in the particular quest characterizing the particular age and place we are discussing.

But reaction to an internal power vacuum filled first by liberal capitalists and now threatened by a Soviet-focused, international communism was to bring up one other materialist, passionate, irrational competitor for occupation and purification of the spaces of life: fascism. Born in a victorious but severely troubled Italy, this new phenomenon was essentially shaped by Benito Mussolini’s (1883-1945) recognition of the bonding of front soldiers with one another under obedience to the orders of officers who shared their sufferings in an “egalitarian” way in the trenches. It was the vision of what the transfer of self-sacrificing, energetic, manly action in subordination to a “comrade-leader” from the trenches to the peacetime world might achieve in the way of purifying the nation and solidifying national unity that really gave the movement its strength.

And it was this same vision that fueled the creation of fascist parties throughout the world, each of them adding local variations to what was deemed essential for the purification of the country concerned properly to take effect. In Spain, this engendered the call by the Falange for purification through a worldwide revival of pride in the Hispanic achievement. In Germany, it entailed National Socialism’s insistence upon a purification of a biological nature, with racial cleansing as the necessary foundation for a fruitful national community---a Volksgemeinschaft--- all of whose elements might then work democratically “in gear” with one another---Gleichschaltung---in obedience to the will of the comrade-leader.

Interwar Europe, faced as it was with a variety of irrational, willful partisan forces, all the hatreds that their clash had to engender or intensify, and a multiplicity of projects for purification of the western disease was, in the Civiltà’s mind, a disaster waiting to happen---“and please God that a new and more profound destruction does not take place”. Alas, that destruction appeared to the editors to be more than likely. “We foresee more ferocious warfare”, they lamented as the Paris Peace Settlement went into effect, “more difficult conditions for the good, a more menacing future for society as a whole”.