American Dream: Catholic Nightmare
(Published, in badly butchered form, as “I dogmi degli USA”, in Trenta Giorni, Rome, April, 1991, pp. 58-62)
Lord God of low tides and high hopes,(A “Catholic” prayer during the Statue of Liberty Centennial)
Millions of your children have come to our shores to find freedom.
Send word to Thomas Jefferson,
That we do try to fulfill his promises in the Declaration of Independence.
The first documentary dealing with the Third Reich which I saw when I was young was a piece entitled They Thought They Were Free. I am not certain whether this film accurately presented the true state of mind of the average German amidst the evils of the Nazi era, but I do know that a documentary of the same title would fittingly describe the attitude of the vast majority of my fellow Americans with respect to their life in the United States.
If I were to produce a revised version of They Thought They Were Free which focused on this nation, I would begin by bringing onto camera an American “Everyman” who would state clearly the unquestioned Dogmas which I hear chanted ritually around me, day in and day out. My Everyman would take it for granted that freedom and America are synonymous, and that both “walk with God”. He would feel assured that dangers to freedom are as incapable of emerging from the spirit of America as a dragon from a rosebud. He would argue that American freedom and social stability have progressed together underneath the guidance of a down to earth, pragmatic Common Sense. And he would look with absolute bewilderment upon anyone who could even begin to think otherwise. “Here is the American Dream”, my Everyman would enthusiastically conclude. “Here is American Pluralism. The American Way. Americanism. A perfect harmony of liberty and peace, in which different races, ethnic groups, and religions co-exist happily, without recourse to tyranny and bloodshed. The System works! And who but a madman would want to argue with a Success Story unheard of in all the pages of history?”
“I am not what I am”, Iago says in Shakespeare’s Othello, both positing an antithesis to God, who “is what He is”, and indicating the existence of a radical dichotomy between his external benevolence and internal evil. Much the same can be said of the American Dream and the system of Pluralism by means of which it becomes a reality. For behind the pleasant façade lurks a grotesque nightmare. Its special horror lies in the fact that individuals, groups, and whole nations which fail to see this nightmarish reality for what it is, are swept up in a danse macabre whose steps prohibit any critique of the rules of the game. And there are more rules to the supposedly freedom loving, pragmatic, common sensical reign of Americanism than to any openly dogmatic force in history. A dancer entering the Ballroom of the American Dream actually enters the world of the Catharist perfecti. He dances feverishly and unnaturally to his own doom, and even thanks the ticket collector at the door for being given the privilege of committing suicide. “The price of freedom”, we are regularly told on these blessed shores, “is high”. They Thought They Were Free would show that it is too high, and that the Roman Catholic Church, and Roman Catholics themselves, have been cheated more than any in the entire fraudulent transaction.
Understanding the ins and outs of the confidence game involved is partly an intellectual and partly a sociological endeavor. One must constantly keep in mind the influence upon the American character of two forces simultaneously: the outrightly revolutionary spirit of Puritan Protestantism and the subtly destructive power of a seemingly conservative Anglo-Saxon “tradition”. If one does take both these factors into consideration, the choreography of the danse macabre and the difficulty of pulling away from its seductive rhythm in order to criticize the orchestration begin to become more clear.
What does it really mean for a Roman Catholic to be free in America?
For one thing, it means that he is free only in the atomistic, nominalistic sense given to the word by that radical Protestantism rooted everywhere in American life, whether straightforwardly or disguisedly. This Protestant understanding of freedom has, of course, long since passed beyond its original, purely religious framework. Preached by generation after generation of ever-more secularized clerics, academics, journalists, and other consciousness-raisers, it now entails a fully-developed contempt not just for the oppressions of the old, ecclesiastical Whore of Babylon, but for the activity of all forms of authoritative institutions, objective standards, logic, natural limitations, and traditions as well. Hence, it demands that the Roman Catholic who is daring, creative, and iconoclastic enough to be truly free show forth his emancipation by rejecting every single aspect of his Faith which it considers to be anti-freedom. To be free under these circumstances means that the Roman Catholic must turn his Faith into a purely private matter, making no substantive demands on his relationship with other human beings or upon society in general. To be free in America obliges him to lead a self-reliant existence, open to all of the endless life-styles that atomistic individuals can devise, placing him in a perpetual near occasion of sin, requiring a constant set of miracles on the part of Providence to ensure his survival. Once such a pattern begins, especially in an environment of daily exposure to those of different background and religion, the free Catholic quickly learns the necessary lessons in all their fullness. He censors his Catholic thoughts and actions precisely at the point where they might begin to have an impact upon the world around him, emasculating and paralyzing his Faith, and he develops the habitus of seeking out and encouraging strange beliefs and behavior as models, thereby proving that no hierarchy or prejudice holds him down.
But Roman Catholic freedom in America has other conditions as well. It also must be exercised with respect for that “down to earth” recognition of the “practical” needs of the average man, and with that love for stability and unity which are integral parts of the Anglo-Saxon heritage of this nation.
Unfortunately, such apparently traditional concerns are not the protective cordon against revolutionary changes which American conservatives depict them as being. The pragmatic Anglo-Saxon foundation of American life actually contains certain devastatingly illogical Protestant building blocks, all the more dangerous in that they are mixed in with venerable beams and solid mortar from medieval times. The “realistic common sense” of this hybrid, worm-eaten structure presumes a Calvinistic understanding of the radical evil of post-lapsarian human nature which sees cynical material motivation and a jungle-like struggle for existence corrupting all earthly endeavors. Such common sense prides itself upon recognizing the uselessness of the divisive, polarizing intellectual and spiritual battles which have troubled society in the past. It rejoices in the discovery that peace and stability can be shaped from the integration of disparate groups on the level of the one thing all men “truly” share in common: concupiscence.
What, then does this mean for the Roman Catholic? It means that the daring, creative, iconoclastic freedom which has already caused him to abandon the essential social dimension of his Faith and prepared him to open himself to anything, will be encouraged from a completely different direction; that which tells him “to be sensible”. Moreover, it means that his atomistic freedom must be expressed in materialist, concupiscent ways, these being the only actions which are practical. Now, even those spiritual and intellectual concerns which are purely personal and private come under assault as being naïve, unproductive, hostile to common sense, and unpatriotic. Why? Because Buddhists and Animists, Jews and Protestants, gays and lesbians, all of whom could be joined together with the Catholic in fraternal union, if only he would devote his attention to opening a Franciscan pizzeria or a Jesuit discoteque updating hymns for a mass market, would sense continued commitment to polarizing tendencies if he did not change. Freedom demands that the Roman Catholic build those virtues which aim at achieving the only thing that mattes in life: success. True, he might not understand this at first glance. But give him enough time in a world whose monuments are shopping malls and fast food shacks. That should bring his freedom down to earth with a bang.
Still, there is yet another aspect to this Anglo-Saxon conditioning of freedom that truly turns the entire enterprise into a danse macabre ad saecula saeculorum. The Protestant Nominalism implicit in Anglo-Saxon realism and common sense equates serious intellectual discussion with impracticality, and, eventually, with Religious Wars, Ideology, Revolution, Communism, and general blood-letting as well. In forcing freedom down a pragmatic, materialistic pathway, it creates an animus against thinking that deprives man of the one tool by means of which he can judge whether the American Dream is worthwhile or not. Indeed, it guides him to a practical, professional way of life in which he works himself into a physical exhaustion in which the thought of lifting his heart and mind up to anything other than his bed is next to miraculous. He becomes so free from the burden of logical thought that he is never able to begin to see how the whole contradictory jumble of vulgar, mindless, millenarian, anarchic, cynical, reductionist absurdities contributing to the development of the American Dream merged together historically; how each of the two main influences—radical protestant and conservative Anglo-Saxon—helped one another along, each taking on part of the character and prestige of the other; how the most base materialism of the pragmatic man began to be called spiritual and the height of freedom. How the tragic isolation of radical atomism started to seem common sensical, social minded, patriotic, and a pillar of peace and stability; how the entire coincidentia oppositorum became a Faith while claiming that it is nothing of the sort.
But Faith—an unquestioning fideistic Faith—is what the American Dream is all about. Faith that America is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the source of grace, the Most Blessed Sacrament—indeed, the only Sacrament with significance. Faith that submission to America would yield all the fruits of freedom, in such a fashion as to make existence finally meaningful.
America’s career as God-Sacrament-Liberation Theology began when the Pilgrim Fathers fled from an evil Catholic Europe to build a New Jerusalem in a New World, destined to create a New Man. Its ability to dispense grace increased when a secularized Puritanism understood America’s providential chosen role in fulfilling the potential of the self-reliant individual, and an Anglo-Saxon pragmatism saw that it could become the model land of Peace Founded Upon Concupiscence. America’s Deposit of Faith is preserved in its divinely-inspired Scriptures: the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. True, two theological schools—liberal and conservative—debate the precise meaning of the Wisdom of the Founders and their Liberation Theology in commentaries upon glosses upon texts. But both of them come together on High Holy Days to worship Heroes of the Faith in attractively-constructed Temples. Both of them believe firmly that the true American spirit infallibly provides for Freedom and Peace. Both of them are totally united in insisting that they are “practical men of action” rather than religious zealots, and that Roman Catholics who toss grains of incense in front of the Statue of Liberty are doing nothing other than that which common sense dictates, and which is in their own best interest as Catholics.
Exposing the heresy of Americanism thus becomes one of the most nerve-racking enterprises imaginable. The two-faced character of the Americanist position gives it an advantage over the rational critic which is hard to break down. If one jabs at its logical flaws, it responds by calling up its pragmatic nature, claiming that it is nothing other than a practical method for establishing Peace and Freedom amidst the irrational flow of human events. If one takes these arguments seriously and finds fault with Americanism on the practical, pragmatic level, by examining its fruits, then it pulls out the weapon of a Faith; a fideistic Faith no less, whose tenets can no more be investigated than its ideals can be realized. If one then returns to the attack by demonstrating that Pluralism and all of the other features of the Americanist Faith constitute a radical antithesis to the Catholic vision, then it is time to hear about Pragmatism again. Or, what is also likely, a psychoanalysis of one’s own hidden self-interested motives for criticism. Hence, the enemy of Americanism hears himself categorized as being simultaneously romantic, naïve, and cynical; an unmotivated, lazy misanthrope eager to demoralize virtuous simple people; and probably a totalitarian in the bargain.
In fact, writing about all of these difficulties reminds me that if I were actually to produce a revised version of They Thought They Were Free, I would be tempted immediately to find the nearest rubbish heap to burn it. Because criticism of America—real criticism, fundamental criticism, and not just praise by another name—is dismissed from court as self-condemned. Woe to the Roman Catholic converted to the American Faith! He would reject the very possibility that the conversion had taken place, deny that practical Americanism could in any way involve a betrayal of Christ. He would admit anything; anything else: that black was white, that up was down, that male was female. But the idea that integration into all-tolerant America could involve a problem? A problem like betrayal of Christ? That would be the one unthinkable thought. For Christianity is a religion and America is not. And Catholics are guaranteed freedom here. And so on, and so on, ad infinitum, straight through to perdition.
But surely Catholics did not convert, someone might object! Surely they, at least, understood that liberation comes through Christ, and not from an atomistic definition of freedom and a pragmatic reductionism running counter to the entire spirit of Catholicism and much of its official teaching! Surely they, at least, saw that men—a St. Francis of Assisi, for example—had all the tools available for reaching perfection long before 1776!
And, indeed, they did not join in the danse macabre all at once. The Americanist contagion, at first, spread chiefly among native English-speaking Catholics and a number of Irish immigrants bedazzled by Anglo-Saxon culture and their potential place within it. One can read the history of their enchantment, their frantic search for American marriage counseling for the Bride of Christ, in the hymns of praise sung to the National Dogmas just before the turn of the century by a variety of important clerics: Msgr. Denis O’Connell of the North American College in Rome; Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul; and Bishop John Keane of Richmond, sometime Rector of Catholic University of America. In fact, Catholic University, in Washington, D.C., ambitious to rise to respectability within the American academic world, has been a training center for the danse macabre from the very beginning of its existence.
Opposition to Americanism at this early stage in its development did arise among certain bishops, particularly in the state and city of New York, though its main strength came from immigrant groups whose sense of Catholic culture had been formed—and formed well—outside of the immediate Anglo-Saxon environment. German and French Catholics stood at the top of this list, including three dismayed teachers from Catholic University itself—Msgr. Joseph Pohle, and Frs. Georges Périès and Joseph Schröder—whose writings helped to identify the problem to Rome. Their concerns were shared by Archbishop Satolli, the Apostolic Delegate, who lived on the grounds of Catholic University for a period of time in the 1890’s. Convinced by such men that something unpleasant was happening, but that the oddity of the Americanist doctrine made it difficult for its supporters to understand the enormity of their error, Pope Leo XIII condemned the “possible heresy” in two encyclicals: Longinquina oceani (1895) and Testem benevolentiae (1899).
That was nearly one hundred years ago. But the problem did not go away. All one has to do to see that it is now omnipresent is to enter the average American Catholic Church, hear the average sermon, read the average diocesan newspaper or theological journal, or talk to the average layman. Catholics have even become instructors in the latest steps of the danse macabre. So triumphant is Americanism today that I literally must present the Faith as an exotic new religion to my own university students, almost all of whom have grown up in the Catholic school system. As an advertisement from a conservative book club happily and proudly announced in a recent bulletin: “good Catholics became good Americans, which is to say good WASPs”.
Examples of the acceptance of the American Faith are legion. Conservatives abandon the Social Teachings of the Church because the latter do not respect “common sense” understandings of economic freedom. Liberals reject Humanae vitae and the “ban” on abortion for the same basic reason, because of their supposedly chilling effect on personal liberty. Politicians take it for granted as obvious that they can oppose child murder as Catholics, but approve of it with impunity in the public forum, where private religious matters cannot enter. Parish councils cast democratic votes to determine which articles of faith are acceptable in their domain. Homosexuality and lesbianism are immediate causes for canonization in an open-minded parish up the street from my apartment. Professionalism is the means of sanctity in pragmatic neighborhoods where lawyers and investment bankers are the Doctors of the Faith. Across the Hudson River, where much of my family lives, it is often de rigeur to have divorced and remarried extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist in order to display compassion for those who have been hurt by ecclesistical authority. I would not be at all surprised to hear a call for the rehabilitation of Satan, his integration into the Trinity, and an insistence upon his being raised higher than Christ at the right hand of the Father (if such sexist language were still used in a Free Country), so as to overcome years of divisiveness, prejudice, and anguish in the Diabolical Community. And, above everything, stands the mysterious interweaving of the Catholic and American “traditions”. Catholics praise the Lord at the Thanksgiving Liturgy for the providential rescue of the Pilgrim men of God tormented by their persecutors in Europe (i.e., Catholics and more Catholic-minded Protesants). We rejoice in the popular conviction that the Blessed Mother appeared to George Washington at Valley Forge, presumably to brush the wrinkles from the masonic regalia he was to wear when he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol. We toss aside the political texts of St. Thomas Aquinas, knowing, as we do, that Thomas Jefferson (who actually believed that our Faith was a filthy superstition) is nevertheless the most Catholic of social thinkers.
Lest anyone be tempted to think that Americanism is a purely racial or ethnic problem, limited to the United States alone, let me hasten to remind him that its Protestant and Anglo-Saxon components began in Europe, and their merger on this side of the Atlantic is a mere accident of history. In principle, it can spread anywhere. Wherever it goes, it inexorably emasculates and paralyzes everything substantive, authoritative, traditional, and uplifting, everything for which noble people have been willing to polarize and die for in the past, and it does so as predictably as a poison in the bloodstream. Moreover, just as mysteriously as Esau sold Jacob his birthright for a mess of pottage, the rest of the globe has rushed to buy what America has to offer since its wares first came onto the world market under Woodrow Wilson in 1917.
Still, in some sense this self-betrayal is not really all that surprising after all. Westerners are tired. Tired of this century’s endless wars, its ideological rampages, and its openly totalitarian escapades. Tired of the burden of greatness as well. Besides. America spoke so gently, so compassionately, so hopefully, opening its arms to welcome “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse yearning to be free” in a practical Christianity without the fuss of the Cross. And then, again, Americanism is a new force in the history of the world, operating by new methods, and we Catholics have never shown ourselves capable of reacting to fresh dilemmas with anything other than a yawn until we are near the extremities.
But, to quote St. Catherine of Siena, just as the Great Western Schism was about to begin, “this is milk and honey compared to what is coming next”. For a new twist on the danse macabre is noticeable lately, one that hones to perfection conceptions of will and power lurking behind an atomistic individualism dedicated to concupiscence. This whirl-a-gig works admirably to complete the assault upon the Catholic Faith.
“Will” has always played a major role in the Americanist approach, as aptly befits an outlook rooted in Nominalism. Conservatives “will” that atomistic freedom apply only to economics, and that logic not carry that freedom over into the realms that liberals “will” to imprison it (like free speech). Neither group worries about the damage which they do to Reason in the process. The entire Regime has often been supported by appeal to the “will” of the Founders. But today, the words “will” and “personal choice” are constantly reiterated, from justifications of abortion to advertisements urging Catholics to return to Church on Easter. A Free Supermarket of Ideas has been created in which even more absurdly opposed notions than ever before are thrown together happily into the shopping basket on the basis of will alone. All remaining traces of logic that have survived destruction by atomistic freedom have been removed, the pragmatic spirit assuring us, of course, that none of this need be taken seriously. People are choosing to murder their babies, to call what they did murder, but still to believe that they personally have somehow not killed the infant whose parts are being carried out the abortuary door to make skin lotion. To will and to choose have become intransitive verbs in the Free Supermarket of Ideas. They need no object of any sort to be good.
Behind will, however, hides the power of the strongest. The preachers who radicalized Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries always stood above and directed the individual wills of the democratic congregations electing them. And now, the will of those who choose most radically, most firmly, and most pragmatically, is carrying everything before it. The willful are brazenly and openly using methods which they would have avoided in the past, confident that the disorientation is so great that no one will call them to account for their actions. Hence, pro-life activists can be beaten mercilessly and held without trial, while the strong choose to insist that they are actually enjoying all the normal rights of free Americans. Teachers upholding Catholic or Socratic principles can be fired under the rubric of “error having no rights”, by the very people who choose to believe that there is no such thing as an objective standard. Catholics themselves are often the most fervent enforcers of this perverse will power, and without the slightest conscience qualms. For, yet again, whenever they crush their own Faith, they are told by the American Religion that they are really doing nothing of the sort. And what would it matter even if they were aware of betraying Christian moral principles? Weren’t Catholics “making it”? Hadn’t Catholic politicians reached the top? Isn’t that what counts after all in this best of all possible depraved worlds? Wouldn’t Thomas Jefferson have been pleased that such a vile superstition no longer burdens liberated American citizens down?
At best, the difficulties of standing firmly against the Iago-like seductions of the Americanist Religion have always been enormous. Nevertheless, the overbearing confidence and self-righteousness felt by the American Way since the collapse of Marxism in Eastern Europe, and the seeming impotence of Islam as a potential enemy, have lately made the pressures to succumb to them—dare I say?—superhuman. “He’s back!”, the advertisement at my bus stop pompously announced during the Gulf War, displaying pictures of Stalin, Hitler, and Sadaam Hussein. “Let’s pray this is the last time!” Who is “he”? I don’t know. Why the “last time”? This I do. Because the Americanist, conscious of having emasculated Catholicism, built shopping malls and MacDonalds behind the Iron Curtain, and cowed the Moslems, smells the chance to integrate everything and to end all divisiveness once and for all. He senses that the time has come to make all human action pragmatic, and thereby usher in the age of perfect openness and freedom. He smells the dawn of a day when no one will ever remember that there was any other option than the liberating message of America.
When John the Baptist wanted to know for certain who Jesus was, he sent his disciples to ask Christ questions. “Go and report to John what you have heard and seen”, the Savior answered. “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead rise, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” (Luke 7, 22-23).
What would the Americanist respond if the same deputation appeared at his doorstep? That unity and peace are not really to be found in Christ, but emerging out of a vague diversity itself, e pluribus unum, as if by magic? That the message of love welcoming the tired and the poor is not to be read at the foot of the Cross, but at the pedestal of a pagan goddess of Liberty? That personal salvation can be gained in an environment of endless temptation? “Few have the power”, an ad for the Marines boasted a few years ago, next to a picture of a lightning storm clearly evoking the strength of Almighty God. Would the Americanist tell the Baptist’s deputation that his Faith had become so powerful that Catholics themselves could not grasp a clear Regime blasphemy even when beaten over the head with it, and would probably hang copies of the patriotic vaunt next to their crucifixes? What possible conclusions would they draw to report to their Master?
Christ will triumph in the end, as gloriously over an insidious enemy as over an open one. But how many souls will be lost in the interim? And where are they more likely to be lost than in a system that does provide incredible material benefits—and not illusory ones as in Marxism—as long as one bows down and worships it? Isn’t the Catholic obliged to use all the weapons in his possession to warn people of the danger that burial in the zeitgeist shaped by this anti-Christ so blithely ignores? Shouldn’t he say to people, as to those viewing Germany in 1945, that they ought to look around them and see what their society has become if they want to learn the legacy of the dominating force shaping their world?
Perhaps I would save They Thought They Were Free from the rubbish heap after all. Perhaps it could have a beneficial impact upon someone. It certainly could not hurt. But I would not put my hopes on it. Not in dealing with this mystery of Americanism; this mystery of iniquity; the sole confident dogmatic force in the world today. No. They Thought They Were Free could only be of secondary importance. For this kind is only cast out by fasting and prayer.
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