See How Hopeless These Christians Are?
(The Angelus, November, 2016.)
I doubt that there is anyone inside the traditionalist camp who has not frequently succumbed to the temptation to long for the Apocalypse, shouting “bring it on!” when progressive secularization suggests that “the day of the Lord” is nigh. And probably all of us know at least a few members of our little band who are so forlorn over an admittedly depressing contemporary environment that they pass each day dedicated to their apocalyptic expectations. So unceasing can the understandable cries of woe emerging from traditionalist tents become that one can picture even neutral observers of our ranks turning Tertullian’s statement on its head, remarking to one another: “see how hopeless these Christians are”.
Yes, it is true that we are told to “watch”, since the Lord will come like a thief in the night, but that command to “watch” is valid for each of us as individuals, since our personal apocalypse may arrive at any moment…while the rest of the world continues seemingly undisturbed on its path to perdition. As we watch, we should take the injunction of the Acts of the Apostles seriously, and ask ourselves, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand you looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Not knowing the time or the hour, both for the world as well as for each of us individually, our task is to go about our particular work with faith, with charity…and, perhaps most importantly in our current situation, with hope.
It is always useful to keep tabs on what our successful secularist opponents have done to gain their wretched contemporary victory, and, à propos of our argument here, learn how they maintained their hope when the going was rough. An excellent example, offering valuable information regarding what we Catholics should be doing in this rather endless winter of our discontent, comes from the second half of the eighteenth century and the ranks of the supporters of the Radical Enlightenment: particularly the trio of Denis Diderot (1713-1784), Paul-Henri Thiry, the Baron d’Holbac (1723-1789), and Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771).
Allow me to begin by specifying what historians mean when they distinguish the Radical from the Moderate Enlightenment. While both of these movements favor the focusing of man’s attention on the natural world and the earthly wisdom and tools needed to develop it, Radical Enlightenment thinkers do so out of clearly atheist beliefs and generally foster a direct attack upon supernatural religion as the most destructive force in human history. Their “founding father” is Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), whose totally naturalistic outlook was vigorously opposed, among others, by the so-called “physico-theological” school of Moderate Enlightenment thinkers such as Robert Boyle (1627-1691), Isaac Newton (1643-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), and Samuel Clarke (1675-1729). These Moderates wanted to preserve belief in a Creator God and the immortality of the soul, both of which they deemed essential for that practical work with an ordered and purposeful world, whose successful development they believed to be the sole, truly pious way of worshipping a Divinity concerned for the earthly happiness of mankind.
Despite the fact that physico-theology could just as easily work with a Deist as opposed to a Trinitarian God, dismissing all dogmatic speculation as a divisive invitation to successful atheist ridicule of warring “Creationists”, its approach was looked upon with almost universal favor by the 1740’s, in religious as well as more secular minded circles alike. With Voltaire (1694-1778)---before his open confession of his Deism--- as its chief conduit into the Catholic camp, and Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) opening doors to its supporters in Rome itself, western Church and State seemed unified in promoting physico-theology as the sole response to the atheism of the Radical Enlightenment, whose organs of expression were vigorously suppressed by all social authorities.
By 1759 this suppression appeared to be irresistible. It was at that moment that public opinion, shocked by Helvétius’ disturbingly naturalist work, De l’Esprit (1758), pressed the normally divided organs of the French government jointly to prohibit his book, along with further work on the Encyclopedia. This was a long term project, most closely associated with Helvétius’ friend Diderot since 1747. Critics hostile to Helvétius and Diderot convinced the authorities that the Encyclopedia was being used it to spread radical ideas, mixed together with unobjectionable material, and under the false banner of promoting the physico-theology that it was undermining. Deist contributors to the Encyclopedia like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) now became open enemies of the atheists, denouncing them at every turn, while many convinced radicals, fearful of the consequences of continued cooperation, retreated into private studies, urging Diderot to do the same. The dream of a total naturalist transformation of society seemed to be doomed forever.
But instead of abandoning hope, the dwindling number of radical activists “retired” to their parlors merely to organize their battle plan more efficiently, both on the practical as well as the intellectual level. The spirits of the remaining band of radicals were maintained, and their network of collaborators increased, through systematic planning sessions and discussions at the home of d’Holbach and the renowned salon of Helvétius’ beautiful wife, Anne-Catherine de Ligniville (1722-1800), who continued to serve as a magnet for the true believers even after her husband’s death in 1771.
On the practical level, this involved a much more deliberate cultivation and exploitation of the means of publishing and distributing prohibited works clandestinely. This had ben the chief tool for spreading radical ideas since the late 1600’s, and one which now, from 1760 onwards, was developed to a degree that eventually overwhelmed the ability of the authorities to control. And on the intellectual plane, work on the Encyclopedia continued to take place underground---with significant aid from important fellow-travellers in the government sympathetic to the cause.
Meanwhile, the parlor “conspirators” produced a number of books that both summarized the whole of the radical position and also demonstrated just how much this required a complete overturning of the apparently irresistible existing order, united in its opposition to atheistic change. These included d’Holbach’s Le Système de la Nature and the Histoire Philosophique des Deux Indes. This latter work, attributed publically to the Abbé Guillaume Raynal (1713-1796), was actually a group project, whose various editions were more and more shaped by Diderot. More than any other work, it demonstrated how the coming revolutionary overturning of the social order had to be global in character.
The advantage possessed by these hopeful men in a seemingly hopeless situation was a logical point of view, systematically presented, in both high and low brow fashion---something which they knew that their opponents from the physico-theological camp could never enjoy. Moderate Enlightenment thinkers were trapped by the fact that their basic obsession with serving God through a focus on successful development of nature alone led them, step-by-step, to religious indifferentism and what we would call a “practical atheism” which they did not want to accept but which they could not really logically or psychologically refute. This placed them in the awkward position of either defending the radicals to prevent a full-scale anti-naturalist attack dangerous to both camps, or making an appeal to crush the Diderot-d’Holbach-Helvétius wing of the secular-minded movement on the basis of an unsubstantiated “common sense” position reflecting nothing other than the personal “will” of the Moderates alone; a repression requiring the aid of the existing political authorities. Moderates like Voltaire chose the “no enemies on a nevertheless horribly abhorrent Left” option rather than see “the infamous thing” win out. Others, like Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), rejoiced in every “common sense” filled destruction of the wild men.
Alas, the bulk of the believing Catholic camp, having sided with the Moderate, physico-theological position, as the sole effective means of destroying Radicalism, was forced into the same logical and psychological dead end. Some Catholic thinkers, committed to a “God” served only by the cultivation of nature and natural happiness, embraced the Radical cause. Most, clinging to a Faith that they did not know how to defend intellectually, tended to retreat to fideism and appeals to ecclesiastical and state authority alone to stop the floodtide of clandestine texts appearing seemingly everywhere. The result was, that when the French financial disaster, building since the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), finally reached a breaking point in 1788-1789, and the State’s confidence in dealing with the problem cracked, the only camp possessing a logical argument regarding what to do next was that of the radicals. They used their advantage immediately to take control of the political rhetoric in a way that left their moderate opponents, stripped of their authoritative State backing, literally speechless.
Thankfully, not all Catholics were speechless. There were a few apologists who were beginning to do what the nineteenth Catholic Movement would build on so brilliantly; namely, shedding their commitment to the halfway house to total naturalism of the Moderate Enlightenment, and finding their way back to the fullness of the orthodox position. This was a Catholicism rooted in Christology, in the Incarnation, and in the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ; one that understood that nature could not be used properly by men unless corrected and transformed by Revelation and grace; one that recognized that there could not be any “practical” opposition to the logic of naturalism purely on an appeal to unelaborated fideism and authoritative State suppression of the enemy. Those engaged in such activity before the revolutionary era were a tiny band of circles of priests and laymen, whose arguments would eventually come to create a powerful network of intellectual and activist groups showing their greatest strength after the Revolutions of 1848.
In the final days of the Second World War, my father served as a military policeman. He often had to deal with an incredible amount of traffic that he seemed utterly incapable of extricating from mammoth traffic jams. His instructions, when such situations arose, were not to abandon hope, but simply to leave the field of action, sit in a field, and smoke a cigarette until he felt that a better moment for effective control emerged. It is this, in effect, that the Encyclopedists did, the exception being that instead of simply lighting up a smoke, they hunkered down to study and to write and to organize privately.
And it is this, I would argue, that we traditionalist Catholics, commanded by God to cultivate not some silly optimism but realistic hope, must also do. Yes, the real Apocalypse may “solve” our naturalist problem. But we cannot know the day and the hour. In the meantime, our job is to do what the Radicals did: to organize more efficiently our means of spreading our “argument”, and, much more importantly, to know what that argument really is. If we cannot “win” at this moment in time, the least we can do is to utilize our unwanted political and social impotence to understand more fully what it is that our desired victory is truly based upon---Scripture, the Church Fathers, the scholastic achievement, the whole of the Catholic mystical, devotional, liturgical, and cultural tradition---and how best to explain it to all types of men, the world over.
None of this is easy. Encyclopedists like Diderot were not thrilled to know that most of the clandestine network that they cultivated was used for spreading pornography dressed up in revolutionary language. Mutatis mutandis, we suffer from an Internet spewing out destructive “catholic” experts by the hundreds. Many—perhaps most---of these endorse on the intellectual level the same dead end approach as our pre-revolutionary forbears: the need to support the Moderate Anglo-American Enlightenment and its vision of natural “freedom” and a fideist appeal to the “common sense” of the average man as the sole means of defending Catholicism from the Radicals. Theirs is a hopeless path. Our hope is in the name of the Lord alone, and the glorious union of Faith and Reason, the supernatural and the natural, that an understanding of and dedication to the meaning of His Incarnation assures us.
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