Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Tallinn Lectures--II. Christianity and Naturalism

The European Pursuit of Heaven & Hell

A. Christianity—The Acceptance, Correction, Transformation and Encouragement of Popular Belief in the Value of Nature

The Greeks were clearly open to nature’s “voice”. Nevertheless, a number of the greatest of the Hellenes became convinced that a proper opening to the cosmos and a discovery of the true path to gaining possession of its beauty, required looking behind the shallow surface of things to understand their broader and deeper messages: their inner “reason” or “logos”. We have noted that signs of a spirit both accepting and yet more intensely questioning can be found in Homer, the work of lyric poets such as Solon the Lawgiver, the classical dramatists, the first philosophers, and---finally and most importantly---in the discussions of the Socratics.

Among the many lessons that Greek civilization learned through this receptive but inquiring outlook, two stand out as being of special importance because of their relationship to Christianity. The first was the need, on the one hand, for communal life and social authority in order to achieve the individual’s perfection, and the simultaneous necessity, on the other, for individual perfection so as to appreciate the correct use of community and its authoritative agents. A second lesson, stressed in an emphatic way by Plato and his followers, was the value of continuing the hunt for an ever greater infusion of intellectual and spiritual “light”. More and more light was essential for the proper understanding of exactly how the individual and society were to resolve the seemingly insoluble dilemma outlined by lesson number one: i.e., that of achieving a joint individual and social perfection. Plato himself had suggested that perhaps some new divine light might have to penetrate into the shadows of the aspiring soul and the communities in which he lived before a satisfactory result could ever be obtained.

It was some centuries later, during the first decades of the Roman Principate, that the closed cosmos of the post-Alexandrine Hellenistic World was tossed history’s greatest and most beneficent “curveball”. At that time, the Father of Lights indeed did intervene in the world, through the Incarnation of His Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, as Jesus Christ, the God-Man. The Incarnation presented the individual in particular and society in general with fresh “light”; a new factor to deal with in each and every one of their daily calculations about the meaning of life and how to fulfill it. Both were now obliged to accept or to reject the permanent presence in life of a natural force which also claimed that it was divine; divine, that is to say, in a supernatural, and thus qualitatively different manner than Hellenistic rulers were considered to be divinities. Society and the individual had to come to terms with a God who worked to provide access to the supremely True, Good, and Beautiful in a personal, flesh-and-blood fashion, through two tightly linked bodies: the physical, human body of the God-Man Jesus Christ to begin with, and that of His Mystical Body, His Church, thereafter.

The Light coming from the Incarnation through Christ and His Church teaches wholehearted acceptance of the purpose and value of the natural world that God Himself created out of the deepest supernatural love. But that Light also teaches that mankind, marred by our first parents’ bad use of freedom---Original Sin---has a fallen tendency to be guided by the dictates of what might be called a “raw paganism”. This raw paganism pushes men to an unquestioning acceptance of the mere appearance of things; to an indulgence in the immediate passions and quickly perceived needs of both individuals and communities. Such appearances, passions, and needs were unquestioningly accepted by the “raw” pagan world because they just “were there” and were thus supposedly “obvious” to everyone.

Christianity joined its voice with that of the great Hellenes who argued that nature cannot be accepted “as it is”, and must be probed for an understanding of its deeper messages instead. For Christianity also saw that much of what individuals and societies passionately desire are reflections not of truly natural longings but, rather, of unnatural perceptions concerning what the world around them can and ought to give them. Like its Socratic precursor, it taught that giving in to these passions is dangerous for the community and for the individual alike, deforming their real natural character still further. Hence the need for correction of flawed perceptions regarding nature and the consequences of acting unthinkingly upon their dictates.

But Christian correction is of a different order than that offered by even the best of the Greeks. It recognizes that nature is marred because the bad use of freedom has brought sin into the world, and because that sin affects man and society more deeply than the poets and the Socratics could have imagined. Sin’s corrupting consequences are so serious that they can even lead those seeking honestly to probe the inner meaning of the things of nature to make mistakes, and thereby guide the individual and his communities further astray.

Thus, for Christianity, a full correction of a fallen nature’s flaws can only be obtained through membership in the society of Christ and the Mystical Body which is His Church. For, once again, life in Christ and His Church offers supernatural community and supernatural light: a new and qualitatively different kind of community and light; the final community and the final infusion of Light required to complete the individual’s knowledge of both himself and the rest of nature. Such community and such Light not only accept and correct the created universe; they also elevate and transform the natural world which responds to their teaching and their gift of new life.

They do so because they grant the individual and the natural societies in which they live the possibility of seeing all of nature and their specific roles and responsibilities within them through the eyes of Christ; in the way that God sees them. Such sight gives to men and society the opportunity to grasp and complete the coordination of the hierarchy of values in a supremely coherent, rational, though rationally unfathomable manner. It is this vision that permits the individual---the most dignified part of nature---to become all that he can be, and each community and activity in which he participates to fulfill its potential along with him, thereby overcoming Plato’s dilemma. This joint individual-social perfection creates a truly diverse “multiplicity in unity” mirroring and prefiguring the still greater perfection and diversity of eternal life. It thus can bring a responsive universe to as superhuman a perfection as is possible for a created and dependent cosmos preparing men and women for the full life of an eternity with God to experience.

The emergence of such perfection and diversity in unity cannot be predicted in some legalist or mechanist fashion, and this for two basic reasons. First of all, precisely because individuals and societies are indeed all so unique, and new persons are continually being born into them---persons who act, historically, in their own particular way---no iron-clad formula for their precise correction and transformation within the Mystical Body of Christ can ever be provided. Individuals and societies are participants in a kind of dance whose basic character and rhythms are indeed known, but whose exact execution cannot be foretold until it is performed---and this again and again until the end of time.

Secondly, the continued reality of sin allows for the possibility that the entire ballroom of life can be willfully disrupted by anyone at each and every moment, and in many varying ways. This cannot help but render the Christian transformation of nature, with all of its exalted consequences, an unpredictable and quite fragile Drama of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Hence, the essential need for Christians to be vigilant and insistent. They must be vigilant to make certain that every single natural tool available to man for the fulfillment of God’s plan always be honored and utilized, with none of them ever arbitrarily abandoned as somehow historically obsolete and superfluous. They must be insistent on an energetic effort completely to evangelize all individuals and all societies, since any attempt to keep the Truth and its full consequences for oneself alone would display a lack of charity working mightily against the will of God and one’s own self-perfection as well.

Christianity clearly practiced what it preached regarding the value of Creation, as can readily be seen in the employment that it made of the past natural achievements of the classical Greco-Roman world. So reverently did it utilize Socratic philosophy that it can be said to have given that small and often timid group of men who were attempting to use their Reason to understand and take possession of the beauty of the natural world the courage really to believe in and act upon what they had learned. Moreover, the light, grace, and supernatural strength of the Incarnation allowed Christianity to perfect and order all of the powerful natural tools of a popular religion in order to spread the otherwise “elitist” philosophical enterprise and give this courage to believe in and act upon its conclusions to the mass of the population. Faith, in other words, brought Reason to fruition.

Catholic grasp of the full meaning of the Incarnation and its consequences for nature deepened enormously over the centuries. Although it is impossible for me in this short talk to speak of that historical development of doctrine in detail, I can at least mention some of the key figures and events central to it: 1) the Church Apologists and Fathers. These included men like St. Justin Martyr (100’s, A.D.) with his teaching concerning the existence of pre-Christian “Seeds of the Logos”, brought to completion by the Incarnation, as well as those great Cappadocian Doctors (300’s) who were deeply concerned for the harmonization of the whole of classical culture with Christian Revelation; 2) St. Maximus the Confessor (600’s), whose interpretation of the hierarchy of values demonstrated the intrinsic importance of each of nature’s varied elements, from lowest to highest, in reflecting the glory of the Creator God; 3) the Iconoclast Controversy (700’s-800’s), which led to a recognition both of nature’s general iconic role, as well as the fact that its “symbolic” existence truly points to and means something eternally substantive and real; 4) the effort to transform everyone and everything in Christ promoted by the medieval reform movement, from the period of monastic revival in the 900’s through the work of Pope Innocent III and St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200’s; 5) the fight of the Catholic Reformation of the 1500’s and 1600’s for the correction and exaltation of nature, nobly represented by the Society of Jesus in its dedication of all life to “the greater glory of God”; and, finally, 6) the nineteenth century movement of Catholic revival following the devastation wrought by Regalism, Jansenism, the naturalist Enlightenment, and the secularization of society of the 1700’s, even before the events of the French Revolution. (For a deeper study of the above argument, students should examine Emile Mersch, The Whole Christ, Herder, 1949 and Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, Harvard, 1961; Also, George Goyau, L’Allemagne religieuse. Le catholicisme, Paris, 1905, Four Volumes; J.M. Mayeur et al., eds., Histoire du christianisme, Desclée, 1990-2000, Thirteen Volumes; John Rao, Removing the Blindfold, Remnant Press, 1999).

B. The Grand Coalition On Behalf of the Unexamined Life

Christianity, from the standpoint of the many conscious and unconscious followers of Isocrates who wished to give an “appropriate explanation” of human experience and aspiration based upon the acceptance of nature “as it is”, thus had to appear to be an infinitely more hideous and dangerous force than Plato, with his limited, elite audience. Here was another voice rejecting immediate satisfaction of individual and communal desires, and demanding correction of nature “as it is”; a voice with much greater popular appeal, and with new and much more mysterious arguments involving the transformation of Creation as part of a work of personal sanctification leading individuals to eternal perfection and satisfaction.

Varied groups hostile to Christianity thus began almost immediately to create what might be called a Grand Coalition on Behalf of the Unexamined Life; or, perhaps better still, a Grand Coalition in Defense of the Natural Status Quo. This Grand Coalition was composed of all those who insisted upon putting limits on questions concerning nature’s flaws, not to speak of actions aimed at their possible correction.

Gnostics who thought that nothing good could ever be done with anything in nature—either “as it is” or through some utterly impossible correction of its hideous and total depravity---were obvious and active members of this alliance. Still, we are primarily concerned here with the less extreme elements which chiefly swelled its ranks. These members included everyone from the average “raw pagan” individual and community wishing easy justification for their self-interested actions, to those philosophers disturbed by the injection of a popular universal religion into their closed, elitist, intellectual clubhouse. Rhetorically-skilled “Word Merchants” joined the Grand Coalition as well. Their formidable talents were needed to prevent the opening of a fresh discussion of the validity of satisfying the “obvious” needs of the strong men of the ancient world. Word Merchants had profitably served such masters for centuries and thus had their own self-interested motives for calling upon the physical assistance of divinized rulers to crush a Christian foe posing them a common threat. (See, for the above, Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion, Beacon, 1963; Marta Sordi, The Christians and the Roman Empire, Routledge, 1998; R.L. Wilkens, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, Yale, 1984; Also, Histoire du christianisme, Volume 1, 2000)

All of the “Either/Or” arguments applied against Plato were resurrected by such non-gnostic Coalition members with telling effect in this new, more intense, anti-Christian context. Those who accepted Catholicism were depicted as almost inhuman “losers”; as a kind of “third race”, neither male nor female, dehumanized by their rage against “real life” and its obvious pleasures. Anti-Christians accepting nature “as it is”, were again shown to be the “winners” in life’s game, their status as true philosophers proven by “successes” whose clear definition and value could, yet once more, never seriously be discussed and questioned.

Although the Catholic vision did gain official acceptance by the Roman Empire and its successor states in the West, and this powerful Grand Coalition seemed to go “underground” from the Fifth through the Eleventh Centuries, the Church never won anything close to a complete victory over it. How could she have done so? Christians also had to fight a ceaseless battle against that strong temptation to accept nature “as it is” which was presented them by their opponents. For the struggle to correct and transform nature was a war against tendencies rooted in each and every flawed human heart; rooted in endless sentimental ties to flawed or simply incomplete customs and habits passed down to Christians along with everyone else from time immemorial. In many cases, it took long centuries before believers realized the extent to which their own unexamined presuppositions about life blinded them to the fullness of the correction taught and made possible by the Incarnation. In fact, the complete transformation in Christ to which it calls all men remains in many ways still unperceived by the faithful as much as by non-believers today.

What happened from the 1000’s onwards is well described by that Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Catholic revival movement already mentioned above. Emerging out of various clerical-lay circles and benefiting from the support of the Papacy after the shock of the Revolutions of 1848, this movement shared its age’s interest in exploring the historical development of ideas and institutions. Its effort to understand the disastrous loss of Faith in the century preceding 1789, and the easy assimilation by Catholics themselves of one or the other manifestations of the Enlightenment vision of life, led many of its proponents to study just how the Grand Coalition had been reconstituted. This work of reconstitution they described as an anti-Incarnational Crusade, spurred on, in the first instance, by the heightened rage of the supporters of nature “as it is” over the medieval successes of Catholicism in transforming all things in Christ.

The Grand Coalition on Behalf of the Unexamined Life slowly came back into existence by seeking to turn against Christianity one after the other of the natural tools that Catholics themselves had claimed for their own use and transformed into instruments employed for the greater glory of God: “Seeds of the Logos” ranging from Socratic Philosophy and Roman Law to the corpus of Greco-Roman literature. It did so by emphasizing the natural self-sufficiency of each of these tools and, hence, their freedom from the pronouncements of the “Incarnational Law” that had been elaborated by Catholics over the centuries to correct and transform them.

More and more, from the Renaissance beginning in the Fourteenth Century through the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth, the theme of Mother Nature as a whole and her need for freedom from judgment by any outside force was “seized” upon to fight the full Catholic vision. But just as Plato’s elevation of the status of philosophy had forced Isocrates to abandon the more humdrum and vocational definition the sophists had previously given to it, the propagandists of the Grand Coalition were forced to operate within the context of the exalted Catholic call to transformation and perfection of nature. Hence, the Grand Coalition’s initial glorification of the sublime order and purpose of the universe, along with its emphasis upon the peculiar dignity of the individual human person as a microcosm of cosmic magnificence.

Acceptance of nature “as it is”, on its own terms and presumably sinless, was now said to offer the possibility of understanding the universe’s true (enhanced) order and putting that (exalted) order to use to secure the (infinitely greater) dignity of the individual human persons living within it. On the other hand, the need for nature’s transformation through correction of its supposed flaws was identified both as an assault upon its integrity and potential and an insult to the skill of the Creator God in constructing it in the first place. Once more, acceptance of nature “as it is” was justified on the grounds of an evident common sense that laughed away as a pointless waste of time the need for deeper philosophical and theological discussion of the appearance of things. (For the above, see George de la Garde, La naissance de l’esprit laique au declin du moyen age, Beatrices, 1934, Three Volumes; Also, Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers, Yale, 1932; Christopher Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom, Sheed & Ward, 1965; Peter Gay, The Enlightenment. The Rise of Modern Paganism, Norton, 1977; John Rao, “Half the Business of Destruction Done”, Seattle Catholic, December 28, 2004; Removing the Blindfold)

New “Word Merchants”, fishing in ancient rhetorical waters, learned and even improved upon the skills enabling them to propagandize the growing anti-incarnational cause with an effectiveness similar to that of the anti-Socratic movement of past times and the early persecution of the Church. Just as might have been expected, the late ancient depiction of the Christian as the ultimate “loser”, the man who questions the obvious gifts of existence, re-emerged from the netherworld. That battery of “Black Legends”, already created in paleo-Christian times and playing on the theme of Christianity as the Enemy of the Natural Order, the Natural Man, and Nature’s God, was resurrected, expanded upon, and refined. All of Isocrates’ arguments against Plato came back to life along with them. These were augmented with horror stories outlining the ghoulish character of that wicked period when the Christian Beast imposed upon a beneficent nature its ugly and unnatural reign of terror. Even though these legends and the arguments confirming them were generally contrived and actually hid the central either-or issue---whether nature ought to be accepted “as it is” or not, and what the consequences of one’s answer to this question really were--- they gained a widespread credibility.

One crucial reason for their credibility was the extremely clever manner in which they were now presented: simultaneously high-minded and grand in scope while starkly simple and popular in form. Yet again, just as Isocrates needed to have a high-minded structure for his vision, given Plato’s raising of a world view to a new, more elevated, coherent plane, high-mindedness in a high-minded, Incarnation-steeped environment was a requirement for the Black Legends. High-minded grandeur was achieved by once more “seizing images” evoking the nobility of an anti-incarnational spirit contested tooth-and-nail by a base and wicked Christian opponent--- gripping, magnificent images of enduring significance, detailing the Struggle for Freedom and Dignity against Catholic Slavery and Human Self-Debasement.

Simplicity was added to grandeur by incarnating this eschatological battle of obvious good versus palpable evil in easily-recognizable and contrasting stereotypes: e.g., noble, persecuted, naturalist philosophers, scientists, crusading journalists, and freedom fighters on the one hand; stupid, obscurantist, often insane, conspiratorial, tyrannical, persecuting popes, priests, monks, mother superiors, mystics, scholastics and all their lay slaves or cynical masters on the other.

Popularity was then pursued by promotion of the grand, seized image, incarnated in simplistic, embattled stereotypes, through a mixture of demonstrably appealing forms: in songs, novels and pamphlets; on stage; in rabble-rousing, press-guided causes célèbres; through the bons mots of upper class salons translated by their influential habitués into grounds for dealing decisive socio-political blows against the Catholic Sect; by means of a brutal ridicule which avoided substantive argument the more that it hammered the believer into the mud. Points were even effectively scored and high-minded lessons popularly taught through a selective silence, which subtly showed that Catholics and Catholicism were not to be mentioned by rational men when topics of political or social importance were under serious discussion.

Responses to Black Legends constructed in this fashion are always terribly tedious and time-consuming. Remember that the very meaning of common words which teach the wisdom and goodness of the enemy, and the idiocy and evil of Catholics, have themselves been consistently seized and battered into acceptable shape along with the particular image which the mythmakers have embraced. Catholics entering the fray after the damage has been done find that they need to convince the population to reexamine the way in which each and every term has been defined by their enemies in order to uncover the game that they are playing. The public’s mind already has been molded according to the anti-incarnational spirit, and thus takes the existing, anti-Catholic meaning of words like “freedom”, “dignity” and “love” for granted as being the absolutely obvious dictate of “common sense”.

If one argues that any given “seized image” is founded upon historical inaccuracies, its artisans may well claim that it is not the literal meaning of a specific event which ultimately counts, but the absolutely valid “Mission Statement” which the rhetorically-reconstructed historical “record” embodies. After all, only superficial, obscurantist pedants would adore all the petty particulars of a dead past!

Then, should the Catholic apologist still refuse to surrender, and boldly attack the fundamental truth of that Mission Statement, its “real” historical foundation, with all of the previously ridiculed trivial details, will be reasserted and further disseminated. Rational Catholic refutation of the veracity of the Mission Statement will once again be buried under heaps of familiar, dubious, exaggerated, stereotypical illustrations of ultramontanist stupidity and brutality of proven popular appeal. Even men and women without firm views on the issues in question will be entertained by the dramatic “historical” wrapping in which the Black Legends are presented, and pass by their scholarly, point-by-point denial with a deep and drawn-out yawn. The average man, both the basically intelligent as well as the hopelessly ignorant, will instinctively draw from the legendary well whenever called upon to make some passing comment on Catholic thought and behavior, or carry out his ordinary daily actions, many of them of immensely practical importance.

Moreover, seized images and their Mission Statements, caricatures and the popular tools used to drive them home, all have an accordion-like flexibility. They can readily be changed, based upon what temporarily “works” most effectively against the hated Catholic enemy. By the time believers finally realize how historically and intellectually false one particular assault upon them is; at the moment they understand the exact way in which Catholics are stereotyped through caricatures cleverly disseminated; just when they discover a workable means of popularly and successfully answering (and ridiculing) their opponents themselves---the seized image and the Mission Statement its stereotypes embody are changed: sometimes slightly, sometimes drastically. Catholics are then left to direct their artillery against a fortress which their enemies have completely dismantled and abandoned as strategically insignificant.

Catholic thinkers, smarting from the blows delivered by the Enlightenment and the Revolution, came to see that eighteenth century Christians had been overwhelmed by the naturalist Black Legend attack upon them. They had become so demoralized that they themselves had adopted much of the language of their opponents, seeking to defend their religion by actually enlisting in the crusade to end its supposed supernatural humbug. This placed them in an impossible---indeed, pathetic--- situation, making them appear to hover between the illogical and the hypocritical. Such an awkward position was then easily exploited by revolutionary activists appealing to Rousseau’s emphasis upon “sincerity” as the path to the truly natural life. One has only to look at the confrontation between a believing but baffled Catholic like Louis XVI and his Rousseau-inspired persecutors to grasp how such confusion could be exploited to create the impression of hypocrisy and deception. (Useful for the above as well as for later illustrations of the phenomenon are James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men, Basic Books, 1980; Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue, Cornell, 1986; William J. Bouwsma, Venice and the Defense of Republican Liberty, California, 1968; R. Darnton, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Harvard, 1982; M. Leroy, Le mythe jesuite de Béranger à Michelet, PUF, 1992, J.W. Merrick, The Desacralization of the French Monarchy in the Eighteenth Century, Louisiana State, 1990; Philips, H., Church and Culture in Seventeenth-Century France, Harvard, 1997; John Rao, “Lose the Past, Lose the Present”, Seattle Catholic, November 1, 2004; “Half the Business of Destruction Done”, Seattle Catholic, December 28, 2004; H.M. Scott, Enlightenment Absolutism, University of Michigan, 1990; and, perhaps most importantly, D. Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution, Yale, 1996).

Proponents of Catholic revival understood that Church effectiveness could only be assured by a return to a wholehearted embrace of her supernatural origin in the Incarnation and a full appreciation of what that Incarnation brings along with it in its train. They saw that the more that Catholics grasped the significance of the Incarnation, they more clearly they would realize just how their mystery-steeped, God-centered Faith, while primarily focused on the worship of the Almighty and the task of individual salvation, nevertheless also worked indirectly to perfect the whole of the natural world. The Catholic who was fully conscious of the accepting, correcting, and transforming function of the Incarnation would more confidently and joyfully rejoice in the knowledge that his Faith and the grace that it offered put all the diversity and riches of the universe at his fingertips; that it enabled individuals to obtain everything that life promised: eternally, with God in Heaven, but also here, upon the earth, and this to the greatest degree that his frail, mortal, dependent character permitted. Hence, these passages from La Civiltà Cattolica:

God…has established one sole order composed of two parts: nature exalted by grace, and grace vivifying nature. He has not confused these two orders, but He has coordinated them. One force alone is the model and one thing alone the motive principle and ultimate end of divine creation: Christ…All of the rest is subordinated to Him. The goal of human existence is to form the Mystical Body of this Christ, of this Head of the elect, of this Eternal Priest, of this King of the immortal Kingdom, and the society of those who will eternally glorify him. (“The Encyclical of 8 December”, La Civiltà Cattolica, Series VI, Volume 1, 1865, 287-288).

Therefore, the faithful believer, in loving and exalting the Church, directly loves and exalts the glory of God, and sacrificing himself for her makes a sacrifice to God: that is to say, not for a good which is extrinsic and alien to him, but for a good which is in the greatest manner his own, and which is the sole that can make him truly blessed. Therefore, in doing this, he is neither abandoning himself nor annihilating his own personality, but perfecting it and rendering it sublime, making it worthy of the possession of God, his ultimate and irreplaceable end, principle and terminus from which each and every one of his goods proceeds and reaches its conclusion. (“The Restoration of Human Personality Through Christianity”, Ibid., Series I, Volume 2, 1850, 536).

The legitimate consequences not only for the individual but also for society and both individual and social happiness {are thus} the greatest that can possibly be enjoyed upon this earth. (“Social Happiness”, Ibid., Series I, Volume 4, 1850, 578).

Increased recognition of “Incarnational Law” would inevitably bring with it a much more firm assertion of the fraud and uselessness of the determinedly anti-incarnational message of the Grand Coalition. Naturalism, with its warm embrace of an earthly status quo, marred by sin, as a “self-evident, practical guide to life”, would be clearly identified as a force putting awakened Catholic man to sleep regarding the complete potential and multiform character of the universe that God intended men to inhabit and enjoy. Along with gnosticism and all the other anti-incarnational visions taught throughout the ages, it would be indisputably shown to cheapen and diminish the individual; to prevent him from properly using Creation to obtain eternal life, while encouraging him to embrace earthly “goods” which unfailingly proved to be peripheral, ephemeral, or utterly meaningless and repulsive shadows.

In fact, the supporters of the Catholic revival insisted, the victory of naturalism in the modern world led directly to the opposite conclusion anticipated by its most sincere proponents. Honestly convinced members of the Grand Coalition thought that naturalism would inevitably yield a deeper understanding of the order of the universe and individual human dignity. But such things were really gifts of the message and grace of the Incarnation. Without Catholic belief in the purpose and value of nature; without the grace which gives to otherwise weak human persons the courage not only to look consistently beyond the appearances of things to their deeper inner reason or “logos”, but also to act upon their conclusions, men would generally yield to their immediate perceptions and temptations. They would be much more likely to disregard the practical consequences of their best rational speculations. In fact, they would be even more likely to do so in a period of return to nature “as it is”. For the noble Socratic hunt for form and meaning in nature would appear to those looking for a “second childhood” to have been hideously deformed through its adoption and baptism by the hated Catholic world. In fact, all Reason would eventually be lost alongside Faith.

“Once they abolished the supernatural realm and returned to pagan rationalism, the modernizers of society found that they could not stop. They had to continue their demolition, beginning with the moral truths that serve as a foundation for the existence and order of society, and then society’s whole natural organic structure….All that remains to do now is to have the individual unlearn all the essences of things, deny all the laws of logic, and burrow into the Night of complete ignorance in order that he be said to reach the apex of perfect liberty.” ( “The State and the Fatherland”, Ibid, Series I, Volume 7, 1851, 45; “The Guests of Casorate”, Ibid., Series II, Volume 1, 1853, 31.)
In practice, as the history of naturalism since its very inception revealed, men and women working with the same “basic common sense” began to see in nature different and very contrasting things. For some, nature was perceived to be a machine whose apparatus and laws could be explained through one or another simple “key” to its functioning. Such “mechanists” had no appreciation for human freedom or for any special dignity of what could merely programmed, individual human “machine parts”. Others saw in the universe a realm of freedom, diversity, rights, and will, and thus tended to dismiss the intrinsic value of any overriding natural law guaranteeing man’s ultimate meaning and purpose, or the community life and social authority embodying this law in practical forms. For such “atomistic” thinkers, the innate character of law, community and authority is to work to smother the free natural spirit.

Doubt regarding man’s ability to understand nature’s structure was strengthened by any number of different factors, including the writings of philosophes like David Hume who argued that examination of the outside world could yield a history of empirical observation, but not itself establish permanent scientific “laws”. The potential fatalism and nihilism threatened by this and other humbling views of empiricism were “checked”, and a “make-believe” certainty about nature’s order and individual dignity maintained, through a combination of philosophical willfulness and appeal to practical success. Some writers sought to build law and order upon the “strongly felt reality” of the “non-hypocritical”, “natural” man; the man who could confidently legislate for all the universe and simultaneously purge the external world of any “insincere” and hence “unnatural” obstacles to human freedom. Such ideas were expressed in two contrasting but complementary ways by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant. Other Enlightenment thinkers simply chose to act “as if” historically-evolved systems which seemed to them to work to protect property, reason and order, were in harmony with nature, reconciling them with individual liberty by attributing their foundation to free contractual agreement. Both groups promised life, liberty, property, and happiness to those who were true to sincere sentiment or the foundation contract. Future pragmatic success would then put the seal of nature upon their theoretical arguments.

Success was also an important confirming element in the arguments of many supporters of eighteenth century Christian Pietism. This was a potent force in a Prussia and a Britain blessed after 1740 by one political and military triumph after another. Pietists, like naturalists, denigrated the importance of Christian doctrine, but for different reasons, chiefly because discussing theology held up Protestant divisions for public Catholic ridicule. Both ended, however, in making “whatever worked” in a fallen universe appear as though it were an essential guideline for human life. Hence the possibility of building an unholy alliance in which “might makes right” could be presented both as the product of “common sense” and as the will of God.

Given the fact the “obvious meaning of nature” was construed in so many different forms, the Grand Coalition was in many respects a very badly split alliance. Nevertheless, all of its members were united in their desire to prevent supernatural religious doctrines from having an impact on political and social life. Moreover, they were also bound by their basic reliance on willful as opposed to rational choice of their underlying principles (a “voluntarism” leading some to Pietism, others to a freedom-drunk atomism) and their appeal to success (one of the terms for which is “vitalism”) to justify their respective preferences. Even those who thought that nature was a law-filled machine, whose central “key” could be scientifically discovered and exploited, willed rather than reasoned their way to this reductionism and claimed validity for their viewpoint on the basis of the active, successful, vital control of nature and men that application of it entailed. One or the other aspect of this “voluntarism” and “vitalism” then entered into the standard operating procedure of every revolutionary movement from the late eighteenth century onwards: from a relatively peaceful Liberalism to Democratic Nationalism, Anarchism, and Marxism-Leninism. (See Becker, Op. Cit., Gawthrop, R., Pietism and the Making of Eighteenth Century Prussia, Cambridge, 1993; Rao, Removing the Blindfold). Louis Veuillot, the mid-nineteenth century editor of the Catholic journal l’Univers, summed up the foundation of the naturalist-revolutionary position in this way:

…{F}erocious pride is correctly the genius of the Revolution; it has established a control in the world which pleases reason out of the struggle. It has a horror of reason, it gags it, it hunts it, and if it can kill it, it kills it. Prove to it the divinity of Christianity, its intellectual and philosophical reality, its historical reality, its moral and social reality: it wants none of it. That is its reason, and it is the strongest. It has placed a blindfold of impenetrable sophisms on the face of European civilization. It cannot see the heavens, nor hear the thunder. L. Veuillot, Mélanges, Oeuvres complete, Paris, iii series, 1933, x, 45-46; On Veuillot, see John Rao, “Louis Veuillot and Catholic ‘Intransigence’: A Re-Evaluation”, Faith and Reason, Winter, 1983, pp. 282-306)
By the mid-nineteenth century, supporters of the Catholic revival were convinced that the Grand Coalition working for the laws of a fallen nature against the laws of a supposedly unnatural incarnational religion could be said to be composed of two main groups of members: 1) truly sincere, but irrational, ideological believers in the uncorrected and untransformed powers of nature “as it is”; and, 2) cynics who utilized this vision, which ultimately reduced life to a struggle of willful, power-hungry naturalists, for the purpose of aiding their lives of vice and crime. Both these elements were said to be served by Word Merchants. Their work was needed by the ideologue to masquerade the perversion of high ideals caused by his appeal to the help of the vicious and the criminal to bring his new, more natural order into existence. But Word Merchant labor was also essential to the vicious and the criminal, so as to associate their willful, cynical, and wicked deeds with their ideological ally’s “noble” cause. Both ideologues and criminals tended to become like unto one another due to their need to cooperate for success, although temporary, explosive suspensions of their alliance were always possible whenever the clear differences between their opposing goals became too blatantly apparent. Still, neither could rid himself of the other without risking defeat. If the Catholic Drama of Truth involved a mysterious but glorious “dance”, these pathetic gyrations of the differing members of the Grand Coalition ensured their performance of a danse macabre.

Since the modern appeal to unaided and uncorrected “feeling”, “history and contract”, “vitality” and “success” was trapped in the fallen natural realm, it could not help but be highly self-deceptive and self-destructive. Nineteenth century Catholics argued that there had already been a noteworthy spiraling downward of the thought and behavior of men appealing to such principles; a progressive degeneration of the environment wherever their precepts had been heeded. Efforts to reconstruct order and freedom upon these bases would spiral downwards to still more false perceptions about life, into ever more vulgar and violent moral and social practices, and attempts both transparent and subtle for cutting off discussion of the mistake that had been made and the path back to sanity. Nature would unquestionably fall into the deepest and sickest slumber, with the strongest and yet most dreary and drab “felt reality” winning out in the end. Hence, the Civiltà’s description of the situation:

Starting with the words “I am free” and their new-found spirit of independence, men began to believe in the infallibility of whatever seemed natural to them, and then to call “nature” everything that is sickness and weakness; to want sickness and weakness to be encouraged instead of healed; to suppose that encouraging weakness makes men healthier and happy; to conclude, finally, that human nature {conceived of as sickness and weakness} possesses the means to render man and society blissful on earth---and this without faith, grace, authority, or supernatural community---since “nature” gives us the feeling that it must be so. (“Modern Representative Government”, La Civiltà Cattolica, Series I, Volume 6, 1851, 497-498)

All societies at all times have seen wickedness and wicked people, ambitious and oppressed men. But when such wickedness and oppression were only born from the passions, the guilty man, free as he was to dominate his passions through the use of reason, began to come to his senses almost as soon as he put his mind to it. Modern society, in contrast, entertains principles and theories that are at the root of the evil. Hence, the more a man reasons the more he is constrained to oppress society, and, vice versa, the more society is oppressed the better logicians the oppressors are. (“Epilogue”, Ibid, Series I, Volume 11, 1852, 438)

Louis Veuillot shares this bleak Civiltà judgment:
Between the sensualists of the past and the sensualists of our day, there is the same difference as between the great lords who ran about the world astonishing it with their prodigalities, and those sons of the enriched of whom one section of Paris sees the splendor and decadence. The first wanted to ruin themselves and did not succumb to it; the latter calculate, are rich, yet succumb without even having known to make a semblance of being magnificent. Everything is lacking to the poverty of our times, including the brilliance and often even the substance of the vices it would like to have. (Op. Cit., iv, 2-3)

No more men anywhere! The production of man has ceased in France. Some men of more or less complete honesty, but lacking talent; some very incomplete men of talent lacking all honesty; no attachment to any truth, but the most senseless attachment to the most mad errors; no more good sense, except in damning uselessly the impotent and evil works one persists in pursuing; no more pride in the face of anything base, yet puerile and dangerous and even cowardly arrogance in face of all that which one must fear….(Ibid., xii, 360-361)

He was particularly worried about what an America steeped in Enlightenment principles would do to aid naturalist degeneration:
This people does not cry for its dead. It only knows how to cry for money. Fire can grip its cities, but it devours in them neither a monument nor an art object, nor a memory, and the money melted is not money lost at all. One draws it from the ruins; it is often even good business. (Ibid., xi, 34).

One can look at North America and the direction in which it is headed: its rapid progress, owed to the most brutalizing work, has fascinated Europe: but already the true results of this exclusively material progress appear. Barbarism, wicked behavior, bankruptcy, systematic destruction of the natives, imbecilic slavery of the victors, devoted to the most harsh and nauseating life under the yoke of their own machines. America might sink completely into the ocean and the human race would not have lost anything. Not a saint, not an artist, not a thinker—at least if one does not also call thought that aptitude for twisting iron to open pathways to packages. (Ibid., xii, 359-360).

Veuillot’s final conclusion was that all would end with the conquest of the globe by an Empire of the World, a world both bureaucratic and consumerist, where platitudes would reign and deep ennui would be treated with cheap and boring pleasures:
Everywhere the conqueror will find one thing, everywhere the same, the only thing that war and the Revolution will nowhere have overturned: bureaucracy. Everywhere, the bureau will have prepared the way for him, everywhere they await him with a servile eagerness. He will support himself on them, the universal Empire will be the administrative Empire par excellence. Adding without end to that precious machinery, he will carry it to a point of incomparable power. Thus perfected, administration will satisfy simultaneously its own genius and the designs of its master in applying itself to two main works: the realization of equality and of material well-being to an unheard degree; the suppression of liberty to an unheard degree. (Ibid. viii, 366-367).

The police will take care that one is amused and that its reins never trouble the flesh. The administration will dispense the citizen of all care. It will fix his situation, his habitation, his vocation, his occupations. It will dress him and allot to him the quantity of air that he must breathe. It will have chosen him his mother, it will choose him his temporary wife; it will raise his children; it will take care of him in his illnesses; it will bury and burn his body, and dispose of his ashes in a record box with his name and his number. (Ibid., 369)

But why would he change places and climates? There will not be any more different places or climates, nor any curiosity anywhere. Man will find everywhere the same moderate temperature, the same customs, the same administrative rules, and infallibly the same police taking the same care of him. Everywhere the same language will be spoken, the bayadères will everywhere dance the same ballet. The old diversity would be a memory of the old liberty, an outrage to the new equality, a greater outrage to the bureau which would be suspected of not being able to establish uniformity everywhere. Their pride will not suffer that. Everything will be done in the image of the main city of the Empire and of the world. (Ibid.)

C. The Revival of the Either-Or Battle

Only a return to the incarnational vision of accepting, correcting, elevating and transforming nature could awaken the world, human communities, and the individual person to an understanding and realization of their full potential and real diversity. A militant commitment to pursuit of this recovery, to the removing of the blindfold shutting out the light of reason and faith, and to the importance of spreading the knowledge gained throughout all classes of society was required. Such militancy had to be accompanied with a realistic sense of the difficulties of the task ahead, the most importance of which was, as we saw in the first lecture of this series, the control that the naturalists had gained over the language; control over the popular definition of the words central to the issue in question; control over words such as “nature”, “natural law”, “freedom”, “individual dignity” and “progress”.

The Catholic revival movement gained the full support of the Papacy in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions in Italy, France, the German Confederation, and Hungary. These disturbances began as a love feast, an agape where all differences were thought capable of resolution through sincerity and general appeals to freedom. They ended in deep disillusionment and awareness of the need for much greater clarification of the exact positions of Catholics and the varied naturalist schools of Liberalism, Democratic Nationalism, and Socialism.

A Catholic work of clarification began with the “negative” condemnations of naturalism and its manifold consequences to be found in Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864). It continued with the “positive” guidance to be found in what became known as Catholic Social Doctrine, formulated from the time of the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) onwards. Those militants following its dictates took many pathways, developing what was referred to as the Inner and the Outer Missions, the first dedicated to revivifying already Christian lands devastated by naturalism; the second to the work of first conversion in Africa and Asia.

If we apply the arguments of these thinkers and activists to the theme of our conference, we can summarizes their conclusions in the following way: Either Christ or uncorrected Nature would be the King of Europe. The victory of Christ would see a Europe whose natural potential could be fulfilled in line with the proper hierarchy of spiritual and rational values, and thus with the greatest possible role for the freedom, dignity and diversity of each of the nations composing it and their individual citizens as well. Any international political structure (which, let it be noted, the editors of the Civiltà took for granted was coming) emerging in a Europe with Christ as her King would be one whose first political and social principle would be attainment of the common good of all; a principle which would end in the intense and brilliant diversity of in unity which Dante describes in the last section of the Paradiso.

In stark contrast, the victory of uncorrected Nature would bring incalculable disasters in its train: the annihilation of the human spirit, willful greed in material concerns, disconnected uses of Europe’s natural blessings, disdain for and persecution of true national distinctions and the individual citizens of each country. The foresightedness of these mid-nineteenth century thinkers was such that they even understood how the consequences of nature as King would include abortion, euthanasia, racial engineering, and genocide. Europe would be dominated by disordered forces which placed freedom for national ethnic groups or anarchic individuals in a higher and unwarranted place in the hierarchy of values, higher than commitment to the common good, with endless war and revolution the inescapable fate of the continent. Any internationalism that an uncorrected nature would dictate to right such wrongs would simply foster new vices and crimes. Europe would find herself oppressed by dull-witted but strong-willed masters who would always present their crimes as the victory of Nature, Reason, Freedom, Dignity and Progress.

While man commands, nothing can reassure the conscience of the subject who obeys, neither with regard to the truth presupposed in the command, nor with regard to justice. Obedience without such persuasion would not be the obedience of man, because not rational, and, therefore, not voluntary. It cannot, therefore, be obtained without the force either of arms or of deceitful intelligence. The liberty of the ruled, either violated or deceived, will always be tampered with. Therefore, while man is king only as man, he will govern with force. ( “Either God as King wih Freedom or Man as King with Force”, La Civiltà Cattolica, Series II, Volume 3, 1853, 618).

Now I have demonstrated one hundred times in the course of these articles that pagan civilization is a regression for humanity, its liberty entailing the most shameful slavery and the liquidation of the human personality, absorbed by the omnipotence of the God-State. Therefore, even without my saying it, anyone can see by himself that modern liberalism, under the fiction of promoting liberty, tends to destroy it; under the shadow of desiring progress, it desires barbarism….It is not aversion to liberty or sympathies for despotism that lead the Church to fight their wicked efforts….Rather it is the love it feels for true liberty, its native repugnance for all kinds of despotism, the mission it has from God to save the personal independence of man that inspires it, and urges it to such a battle. (“Does Human Personality Have Anything to Fear From the Church”, Ibid., Series I, Volume 2, 1850, 540-541),

Even a sleeping, inactive Church was an irritant to the supporters of the natural status quo. If nothing else, at least such a half-dead body still weakly suggested the possibility of an alternative to “unquestionable” guidelines for human existence. A truly awakened, militant Bride of Christ, however, was a much more threatening phenomenon. A force of this kind must inevitably be viewed by the defenders of nature as king “as it is” as an intolerable assault on the good life. Thus, the Civiltà argued, it was logical that they felt the obliged to meet an active Catholic challenge by unleashing a total war to eradicate such an intrusive, unnatural (and reborn) monster.
This intolerance must extend everywhere in the measure that the supernatural claims to transform human nature, which accompanies a man wherever he extends his influence. This is why I added that the supernatural principle must be excluded from all of humanity. (“Naturalism”, Ibid., Series I, Volume 4, 1850, 452.)
Hence, it was no surprise that the latter half of the nineteenth century saw the outbreak in numerous countries of what in Germany was labeled a Culture War against awakened Catholicism. (See John Rao, “All Borrowed Armor Chokes Us”, Seattle Catholic, July, 2005). This war has so-far led to a Catholic rout. We will examine the peculiar reasons for that defeat, one that involved a subversion and radical dilution of the Church’s discernible but “depraved” sociological influence, in the next and final lecture.

September 27, 2007

Email Dr. John Rao.

Return to main page.