The Gods Are Ever Near
Historical Reflections on the Unending Crisis in the Church
I often dream of the day when an ecclesiastical medal of honor will be awardedto the traditionalist movement for its courageous witness to the savaging of the Roman Church over the past half-century. Sociologically speaking, that assault has reduced the Mystical Body of Christ to the level of a pluralist ethical-cultural society, whose unparalleled descent into impotence continues to be depicted by its official propagandists as a stunning victory for both God and man. My medal of honor would proudly emphasize traditionalism’s maintenance of sanity amidst such dizziness with illusory success.
Upon awakening from dreamland, however, I have to remind myself that traditionalists still have at least one more intellectual task to perform before resting upon their prophetic laurels. That mission involves further meditation upon the issue of overall responsibility for this transformation of a powerful teaching Church into an emasculated, pluralist doormat. Traditionalists like the late Michael Davies have already correctly identified the main actors and the principal steps in the development of the current tragedy: an anti-Roman theological school; an alternative liturgical movement; the redirection of Second Vatican Council away from its prepared schemae through the work of a well organized, progressive episcopal minority; and, finally, the enthusiastic backing given by secularist clerics and politicians to all initiatives stripping religion of its social clout. Now, at the end of the reign of John Paul II, it is up to Michael’s students to stare those clear forces of destruction squarely in the eye once more, and ask themselves some hard questions regarding their underlying strength and the complicity of believing Catholics in their advance.
What is it that I would argue gives real depth and continued momentum to the assault on the Roman Catholic Church? The fact that the assailants have tapped into something which unfailingly arouses enthusiastic support from populations the world over: the spirit of raw paganism. The pagan gods are ever near. Whatever their names and external cult, they gain their raw power from their connection to matters which are very close to the human heart: basic desires for prosperity, pleasure, and power, both for individuals, as well as for the cities and nations which men love with profound filial affection.
Such immediate longings, personal and social, are generally accepted as common sense dictates by most individuals. It seems as though they just "are", and ought, therefore, to be satisfied. After recognizing them, the average man sees no need for a further investigation of their character or moral criticism. Pagan gods incarnate all these "obvious" needs, giving divine justification for their pursuit and ultimate satisfaction. Moreover, they respond to them in homely fashion, multiplying themselves to answer the specific perceived requirements of different individuals and fatherlands. Nothing that exists is challenged by such divinities. Hence, their ready acclamation and joyful acceptance on the part of the unthinking person or nation that simply wants what it wants, when and how it wants it.
Ancient societies also contained what St. Justin Martyr called "seeds of the Logos". Raw, ancient paganism could evolve into something significantly better through their cultivation. One finds these "seeds" in some of the work of the Greek epic, lyric, and dramatic poets, and in the Socratic movement as well. Men like Plato placed stop signs in the path of individuals and nations tempted to accept their basic, parochial desires unquestioningly, encouraging efforts to guide and correct them.
Anyone who did not want to hear such critical guidance could find succor from that sub-class of rhetoricians which we might label "word merchants". Word merchants found that turning their potent talents to discredit efforts to investigate and tame immediate desires provided a sure-fire path to personal prosperity and popularity. They worked mightily to confirm men and nations in their unquestioning abandonment to things "as they are" and "business as usual". In doing so, they learned how to manipulate themes involving nature, and history and mythology as well. All were employed by them to convince individuals and nations, depending upon circumstances, either to run wild with passion or acquiesce slavishly in the victory of the rich and mighty. All were called upon to make such libertinism and resignation seem inevitable, crucial to the survival of a beloved fatherland, and dear to the very gods themselves.
Brilliant word merchants like Isocrates quickly recognized that Socratics were their implacable enemies among the elite. But Christianity, with its militant insistence upon converting whole populations to belief in the teachings of a supernatural religion with a universally applicable cure for natural, parochial flaws, represented an infinitely more dangerous threat. Not only was this strange, new force willing to make use of the intellectual questioning of a Plato; it also possessed unfamiliar mystical and popular means of opening nature to self-criticism. Word merchants defending nature "as is" thus felt that they had to defeat this enemy of mankind before all others.
Marta Sordi, in Christians and the Roman Empire (Routledge, 1994), and Luce Pietri in Naissance d’une chrétienté (Histoire du christianisme, Declée, 1995, vol. 2) show that the decisive confrontation between Christianity and the Greco-Roman world, from the Second to the Fourth Century, centered round precisely these kinds of tensions. Contemporary word merchants, from Marcus Fronto to Hierocles to Julian the Apostate, formed a broad alliance to fight this despised, universalist faith which demanded a real change in personal and community behavior. Defenders of the traditional multiplicity of national and city gods joined that league. Proud philosophers enlisted, due to their refusal to permit the human mind to contemplate anything but those ideas which were "obviously" acceptable to a gentleman. Average men, outraged over Christian questioning of the crystal-clear requirements of human life, entered the ranks. An army of common sense crusaders confirming the raw pagan rejection of Christianity as the enemy of "business as usual" took the field.
Defeat at the hands of the Theodosian Emperors in the late Fourth Century proved to be indecisive. A Grand Coalition of the Status Quo continued to fight underground for unquestioned acceptance of the "natural" desires of men and nations, often with the aid of dubious sympathetic bishops. Evangelization in the name of a universal, supernatural, corrective religion was never completed. From the High Middle Ages onwards, the word merchants began to round up the usual suspects to seek their revenge against the Christian irritant more brazenly. Legalists, humanists, preachers, and philosophes, first with inflammatory pamphlets, and finally through causes celebres and the popular press, once again held up the alternative of the uncorrected, natural, parochial individual and nation to those tormented by Catholic Christianity. The flood gates shutting out immediate satisfaction of human desires were re-opened. Men and states, tired of moral struggle, bathed happily in the natural waters pouring in. The raw spirit of the old gods, ever near and ever tempting, returned in triumph.
And the chorus of hosannas was eventually heard by twentieth century Catholic activists, many of them sincere and saintly, but intensely depressed over their lack of substantive success. They looked longingly upon the vitality of the modern world. Surely, they argued, this liveliness pointed to "seeds of the Logos" which a redemptive religion could nurture and raise to the service of God. Surely a faithful Christianity diving into such a vital stream could bind victoriously with humanity in ways unknown since the Middle Ages and lead it to a higher destiny.
Dive, the Church reform movement did, but into a vitality manipulated by the Grand Coalition leading the modern world ever deeper into raw paganism. Go with the flow it went, but at the price of subordinating Catholic universality to the will of limited, parochial-minded peoples and their endlessly diverse national gods; by rejecting supernatural correction for the "common sense" desires of flawed nature, and betraying rational Socratic allies for the friendship of passionate madmen. What the Founding Fathers of Church reform assured, willfully or not, was a handing over of Christendom to the paladins of "business as usual", differing in their errors depending upon the pet corruptions of their particular parochial setting, but similar in their arrogant rejection of criticism and improvement. Everything most distinctly Christian—and justly feared for its effectiveness from the time of the Frontos, Hierocleses, and Julians—was opened to dismantling. All dogma, morality, and liturgy was offered for revamping by word merchants to satisfy what was immediately desirable. Christian activism ended in the service of the spirit of the pagan gods, and not those gods which were gradually refined through cultivation of real seeds of the Logos. It ended doing slave labor for a raw paganism more fitting to the Dark Ages of pre-Homeric Greece.
This raw paganism, in America, serves the primitive deities of individual liberty, political utopianism, and closed-minded, national willfulness. Such gods respond to base desires that absolutely devastate Christian men and nations. They lead to the creation of human persons knowing none of the natural and supernatural communal guidance that can make them understand what true freedom is all about and teach them how to use it virtuously. They transform individuals into materialist barbarians who exploit the land for what it can yield and then move on to greener pastures, never constructing a single institution capable of supporting the permanent traditions and cultural sophistication underlying a lasting, Catholic-friendly civilization. They encourage that parochial smugness which dismisses all serious criticisms of what the barbarian hordes are up to as worthless intellectual babbling, useless to profitable looting of the New York Metropolitan Area. In short, they create the pluralist, capitalist man, ethically free as a bird, whom modern American barbarism wants to export across the globe with the blessing of everyone, believing Catholics included.
Do Catholics pronounce that blessing? Our contemporary "Catholic Club" offers little resistance to Attila’s modern imitators. It leaves the globe undisturbed in its dedication to the serious game of building a new order of freedom and money. If anything, it contents itself with a low-brow religious cheerleading from the sidelines, occasionally cranky, but fundamentally unthreatening in its whispered suggestions of possible foul play on the part of the he-men shaping reality out on the field. Conservatives like Michael Novak, George Weigel, and John Neuhaus revel in the new, free, democratic-capitalist man who recognizes his radical distinction from the old Catholic Adam. And all too many traditionalists appear to be willing, on the political and social level, to join them in the benediction.
It is easy to learn the truth about one’s own position. A self-confessed traditionalist need only consider what he would do if a Pius XIII appeared on the scene tomorrow to rebuild international, traditional Catholic Christendom. Would he really accept orthodox papal guidelines and correctives in their entirety? Or would he excise large spheres of immediate personal and national desire--involving everything from economic liberty to pronouncements of the Founding Fathers to imperialist expansionism--from any possible criticism offered by the universal, supernatural religion that he honors in other realms? If the latter, he would prove that he had succumbed to the spirit of raw paganism and was worshipping the gods of Olympian Libertinism, Delphic Constitutionalism, and Optimus Might Makes Right who incarnate and respond to it. He would differ from a Modernist in accident but not in essence, for, like them, he would be putting a limit on what Christianity was and was not allowed to correct in nature. Give him a Pius XIII and a new, healthy, Christendom and he would begin the work of dismantling it within the hour. Shocked though he might be by the results, the old, familiar crisis would return. Doctrine and liturgy would swiftly degenerate into meaninglessness, sold out to the latest ideological and market-driven demands of individuals and nations.
Much of the responsibility for believers’ failure to recognize their complicity in destruction comes from Catholics’ tendency to judge life all too rationally. Believing Catholics all too often presume that bad ideas and morals dishonor the life of the Church today because they have been straightforwardly promoted by clearly evil heretics with blackened souls. They are tempted to ascribe all the convoluted twists and turns of Church and secular affairs to secret conspiracies which operate with an intellectual thoroughness and discipline that the holiest of enterprises never display. On the one hand, this all reveals just how much they have digested the Church’s appreciation of the innate importance of Reason. On the other, overvaluing the role of the rational leads to a terribly distorted sense of historical reality. For while they sharpen their pencils for the lecture notes which will clear up current events with scholastic precision, they ignore their own welcoming into their homes of the armies of the night, and entertain them as they de-catholicize their household.
All of this strikes me as extraordinarily ironic, since we Catholics, of all people, ought to draw our explanations of historical events from a complete vision of the immense variety of different elements, rational and irrational, which play their role in the human experience. We, of all people, ought to be able to see that bad things can happen through the unwitting collaboration of good-willed men who succumb to temptation; in this case, temptation by the raw pagan spirit and its primitive modern gods. What we could use to open our eyes is a bath in rhetoric at its best, with all of its feel for the richness of nuance in human action. What a wealth of knowledge about historical developments we could gain from Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot, with its depiction of the temptations of social climbing on well-intentioned youth, or his Cousine Bette, illustrating how an entire family can be led to perdition by a monster whom it thinks to be either harmless or even friendly and indispensable.
Traditionalism still deserves its medal. Another grounds for awarding it is its success in calling forth the kind of concerned lay action which progressive Catholicism theoretically praises to the highest skies, but actually shoots down as an unidentified flying object when it becomes a practical force in defense of anything orthodox and substantive. Such traditionalist lay action will inevitably play a major role in any general Catholic awakening from self-delusion and "seppuku with a smile".
Nevertheless, before it can deploy its militant lay recruits effectively, traditionalism has to make certain that it knows where the enemy's strength and its own weakness lie. Enemy strength is rooted in the spirit calling men to the service of the gods who are ever near; traditionalist weakness, in the general human temptation to succumb to that spirit’s allurements, and at a time when the gods offered for adoration allow no seeds of the Logos whatsoever to elevate them.
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