Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

The Good War and the Rite War

(Latin Mass Magazine, Spring, 2001, pp. 34-38)

A large army of historians, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists repeatedly informs those who take theological and philosophical issues seriously that they must judge the true character and validity of their cherished principles “in context”, with reference to the environment in which these were born, grew and thrived. As an historian myself, I cannot help but agree. Indeed, I would underscore the need to apply the same criterion to the investigation and judgment of every matter of significant concern to anyone. As a result, it seems to me that much more attention ought to be paid to the broad context in which the attack on the traditional Mass—the Rite War—came to life and prospered than traditionalists in general are wont to devote to it.

Tackling this context is a complex task, as this essay will indicate. Part of its complexity is due to the fact that its context is steeped in blood. For behind all of the scholarly, spiritual and pastoral factors playing their admitted roles in the destruction of the Roman Rite lies also the tremendous influence exercised by the dramatic events and consequences of the Second World War.

Actually, the drama of the Second World War stands behind and influences every aspect of life in contemporary western society even more than do most current events. Our world feels permanently threatened by Blitzkrieg. One need only pick up a copy of a major daily newspaper or, better still, its Sunday book review section, in order to test this truth. The specifics of the war years and the struggles leading up to them are the stuff of regular reminders and admonitions used perhaps more than any other tool to explain and shape the flow of present-day political and social life.

Obviously, part of the power of the Second World War in this regard is due to its intrinsic importance, its injustices and its brutally inhuman crimes. Many nineteenth and twentieth century Catholics had predicted that precisely such a conflict would emerge in a world that sought to banish religion from the public forum and that reduced the problem of morality to individual choices and social contracts subject to the most grotesque desires and the strongest wills.

Still, the Second World War gains its force from another source as well, from its usefulness to Marxism-Leninism and Pluralism, the two ideologies emerging victorious out of the conflict, as a propaganda tool demonizing all of their opponents, whoever they might be, and thereby shoring up their already dominant position still further. They had fought the Good War versus the forces of evil. By repeatedly evoking the struggle and horror of that conflict and their central role in bringing it to a conclusion, the victorious ideologies were able to drive home the argument that everything non-Marxist and non-Pluralist was ipso facto, National Socialist; that anyone who opposed bloodshed, genocide and Hitlerian politics in general had better fall in behind their banners and shudder at the thought of breaking rank. Awe before the power of the forces that had fought the Good War destroying Nazism, and terror at the prospect of being identified as a Fascist, then silenced several generations of anti-Marxists and anti-Pluralists into acquiescence in the policies sanctioned by them.

Catholics were among the most seriously affected by this awe and acquiescence, and for at least five different reasons. First of all, many Catholics followed Marxist or Pluralist guidance out of the same psychological drive that leads most people to accept the validity of whatever force dominates their environment at a given moment. The difficulties of explaining a Christian position built upon theological, philosophical and cultural arguments rejected by the victors from the outset either as pure products of class consciousness or as being dangerously divisive frustrated a second group of Catholics into silence. A third Catholic element, related to the previous group, did speak out against whichever of the two victorious ideologies it deemed more dangerous, while keeping quiet about, forgetting, and eventually even praising the errors of the other. Yet a fourth segment of the Catholic population, ashamed by the fact that some fellow believers had indeed been attracted by Fascism, or had seen in it a useful tool against a more fearful Marxism, enthusiastically embraced the message of the victors to compensate for sins which, uncontested, might be used as a pretext for casting aspersions upon the whole Church’s honor. And, finally, the atmosphere created by the Good War allowed Catholics actively committed to Marxism or Pluralism an audience and impact that they otherwise might never have had, especially if these activists had done something courageous during the great conflict that gave them enormous prestige in the postwar world. It is with this last group that this essay must concern itself.

Who were these Catholics who actively aided the ideologies emerging victorious from the Second World War? They were people influenced by certain twentieth-century efforts to improve evangelization and Catholic Action who began to explain their desires in conjunction with the philosophical-political-social theory called Personalism, tapped into the heritage of the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854) while doing so, and found encouragement in the speculations of the Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Let us look at this history of this activism, since it throws a good deal of light upon the battles and outcome of the Rite War.

Interest in the improvement of evangelization and Catholic Action can be examined together under the heading of zeal for the Missions. Nineteenth and early twentieth century Catholics began to speak of the existence of the Outer Missions (those focused on bringing the Faith to non-Christian peoples) and the Inner Missions (those aimed at the secularized populations of what were thought of generally as already Christianized lands) as two parts of an overall enterprise of evangelization. Some of those engaged in such labors, building upon the experience of generations of missionaries in the tradition of Matteo Ricci, became more and more convinced of the need for a deeper effort to “get under the skins” of those whom they were trying to evangelize—to “inculturate” the Faith, as one would say in our own day, so that Christianity did not appear to them to be an alien force, but something best suited to their own development and perfection. The names Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916) and Vincent Lebbe (1877-1940) are very important in this regard with respect to the Outer Missions, while the Inner Missions took a great deal of inspiration from men like Joseph Cardijn (1886-1967) and his conception of a Catholic Action specialized according to the nature of the groups it targeted.

Personalism, as it developed in the 1920’s and 1930’s, perhaps ought to be referred to as a movement rather than a specific idea. Many circles of thinkers used the term and some of the themes associated with it, and it is in this sense that Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), principally thought of in conjunction with the related but more structured vision of Integral Humanism, may be cited as a Personalist. Still more tied to the specific term Personalism is the figure of Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), editor of the journal, l’Esprit, and destined, like Maritain, to have a wide influence beyond Europe in radicalizing the Catholic camp after the Second World War.

Personalism has its roots in much nineteenth and early twentieth century thought concerning the importance of “vitality” and “action” as guides to truth, Lamennais’ heritage playing a major role in transmitting such interest among Catholics. The interest in vitality and action was enlivened still further by meditation upon the experience of front-line soldiers during the First World War, who heroically sacrificed themselves together in a common cause despite their divisions into so many different religious, political and social factions at home. Insofar as one can synthesize a complex and often very confusing vision, Personalism argued something like the following: The individual, trapped inside himself, is a dead man. To develop into a true “person”, capable of fulfilling all his potential and destiny, he must dive into a deeper life beyond himself, into the life of the group, the life of the community. Which group? Which community? Precisely a group or community which, by its vitality and effective, cohesive action, shows itself worthy and capable of drawing the individual outside himself.

A Christian Personalist would consider even an individual believer who submitted to the teachings and rituals of a Church outside of himself to be a crippled personality if his spiritual and secular life continued to be lived basically on his own. “Tridentine” Catholicism, with its emphasis on private devotions and concern for individual sanctification, was accused of encouraging just this sort of crippled behavior. A full grip on the Christian message and a full perfection of personhood required self-loss and a complete donation to Christ as revealed in the vital, active community or communities around him. Tie Personalism and the twofold movement of evangelization together and the missionary’s program then becomes clear. He must “get out” of himself and his narrow presuppositions about Christianity, and give himself over to the vital, effective, cohesive, active group or culture to which he is sent. The spirit of Christ that is revealed by each of them is to be nurtured by him and brought to its innate perfection. In helping it along, he is “witnessing” to his presumably still more complete Christian faith in a quiet, humble, and ultimately more successful way, and yet actually learning things about Christ that he could never otherwise have known outside the group.

The Second World War sparked a deeper and more radicalized alliance of the Outer and Inner Missions with Personalism. It demonstrated to Catholic activists how little they had really achieved in the way of influencing the many specialized groups with which the war now forced them into even closer contact and under much more difficult conditions, whether in the army or in forced labor camps in their home countries and in Germany. Many of those experiencing the hostility or indifference to Catholicism on the part of soldiers and laborers from a myriad of social and ethnic backgrounds began to argue for a total immersion in the milieu to which the activist was sent. This immersion demanded a root and branch obliteration of all previous education and practice that gave the militant missionary a different character from someone from the milieu in which he was to operate; it was to be a total immersion perhaps necessitating a greater or even complete reliance upon that specialized milieu for teaching the message of Christ. The awesome drama of the new kind of evangelization this would entail began to be linked with a faith in an evolution towards a greater universal knowledge and manifestation of the love of Christ as argued by Teilhard de Chardin. Studies on the worker-priest movement, especially that of Emile Poulat (Les prêtres-ouvriers: Naissance et fin, 1999), are particularly helpful in tracing such developments.

World War Two also served as a vehicle for spreading the message of this more radicalized alliance. It did so partly because a number of its advocates eventually became active on anti-Nazi journals or in partisan, anti-deportation and anti-forced labor movements, thereby gaining prestige as heroic exemplars for future generations. It did so also because it brought to power Marxists whose vitally and cohesive action was seen by many Personalists to be a clear sign of the presence of that spirit of Christ to which militants had to witness and help perfect for the sake of the Faith. Moreover, the Good War promoted Pluralists, who justified and praised the existence of a variety of different milieus and the validity of the messages that they all proclaimed, and Christian Democratic movements which always carried at least a germ of Lamennais’ influence in their train. Hence, both Marxism and Pluralism helped the radicalized cause. Moreover, the War and its use as a symbol by the victors gave to this cause a wonderful propaganda tool: the ability, if other arguments failed, to demonize Catholics opposing it as Fascist brutes.

Whatever the true merits of inculturation may be—and I think that there are many—its historical alliance with Personalism and radicalization in the context of the experiences and aftermath of the war have been a disaster. A Pandora’s Box of problems has been opened in consequence. By insisting upon an unprejudiced dive into the vital, active milieu in which the spirit of Christ is taught, no contact with a vital, active historical Christ outside of and above these milieus is really permitted. The objective reality of the Incarnate God-Man is thus ultimately called into question, the very concept actually being identified as merely a “western” understanding of the work of the spirit in human life. No culture is allowed the possibility of making an objective contribution to human life capable of influencing another one, Greco-Roman civilization undergoing the supreme punishment of being stripped of all right to speak any message whatsoever, given its use for precisely this supra-cultural mission in the past. All cultures become like ships passing one another in the night, with no philosophy, no theology and no Christ as polar star above them by means of which they might navigate with precious cargo safely from port to port.

Finally, the call for unquestioning faith in the spirit of Christ operating in the vital active communities one encounters, unguided by an historical Christ and the objective achievements of any historical cultures, is a recipe for self-lobotomy. It denies all merit to reason and logical judgment, which many Personalists sarcastically denounced as just another piece of the useless baggage of the crippled individual who needs to be dragged into the supra-rational vitality of community-minded personhood for his own benefit. And it is no wonder that they do so! For the more one encourages abandonment to a spirit that neither dogmatic Christian faith nor objective norms of reason and science are allowed to judge, the less one will see what that “spirit of Christ” really is to which one is obliged to “witness”. Indeed, it can at times be something good and blessed by the hands of God. But practically speaking, under such influences, and in our day, it is most often a “spirit” inspired by a libido for the base and the ugly that is rejected as sinful or blasphemous by the Christian Tradition, a force manipulated by strong individuals and groups who themselves arbitrarily define the specifics of that providential spirit to which they demand all others bend.

Here, as far as I am concerned, is the essence of the horror unleashed by opening up the Pandora’s Box of this radicalized alliance. All calls for submission to vital, active, effective community guidance from the time of Lamennais to that of Mounier have entailed, first, the destruction of any means of distinguishing between a good and bad manifestation of communal energy, and, next, the determination, in practice, of what is or is not acceptable on the basis of the imposition of the will of charismatic interpreters of the “right kind of vitality”. “Getting outside of oneself” ends in immersion in the interior life of “vanguards of the people” who insist upon faith in their judgments as though they were not really their own dicta but those of the community, itself pressed forward by the mysterious designs of Providence.

But turning inward, away from the focus on the truly other, involves, as Dietrich von Hildebrand so well described in Transformation in Christ, a deeper and deeper plunge into the untutored self and its temptation to view what is cheapest, most immediately impressionable to the senses and most parochial as somehow more “real”, more rewarding and more expressive of the will of God. This, Professor David White notes, helps to explain why Dante’s Inferno is more appealing to our contemporaries than the Paradiso.

And this is why certain priests in German labor camps treated the hell that they endured therein as providing a more clear teaching about the reality of life than the refined peacetime world from which they had come. Christian order had to be built upon the vivid context of experienced hell; the man who wished to found that order upon reflection aiming upwards was merely a slave of the crippled past. I do not in any way deny the significance of the experience in focusing someone on existential questions; the crux of the matter is whether that overpowering hellishness should become the supreme and sole guide to the construction of Christendom.

It is crucial to recall that all of this emphasis upon vitality, charismatic leadership and effective action was of central concern to twentieth-century Fascism. And, therefore, it ought not to come as a surprise that many of those involved in the developments discussed above had a great interest and sympathy for fascist movements of all kinds, tempered only by a dislike of Nazi racism, and, of course, an ultimate rejection of a force that proved itself to be insufficiently vital to dominate the world. What is perhaps more startling is the ability displayed by those expressing such sympathy to ride the wave of vitality into either the Marxist or the Pluralist camp after the War, to disassociate themselves in the mind of the public from a philo-Fascist spirit, and even to use the accusation of Fascism against others as an effective club to brutalize and silence their enemies. That cudgel has been used to great advantage, in the Americas as much as in Europe. Pity the poor opponent who wanders into the realm of the radicalized Personalist evangelist interpreting the desires of his community! He is like someone going to a dinner party given by a man who has declared cannibalism to be the expression of his and all his other guests’ deepest spiritual longings. Terrified at the thought of criticizing his host’s proclivity lest he be identified as an unrealistic, shriveled-up individualist lacking faith in the action of the Spirit, and a Fascist to boot, the poor soul is eaten alive at the command of the only real representative of the Triumph of the Will who is present. At least the victim can console himself with the thought that he is not alone in his misery. The same fate befalls practically every enemy of the dominant forces of contemporary western society, characterized by people gleefully making willful “choices” destroying the lives of others.

But how has the Good War, in sparking and serving as a vehicle for the radicalized alliance of evangelization and Personalism, affected the Rite War? How could it not? Everything, from dogmatic theology to catechetics to popular devotion has been affected by it, and the liturgical movement, a number of whose advocates interacted with missionary and personalist circles, more than most. A Catholicism that is obliged not merely to take into account but to bend to what is defined as the “spirit of Christ” waiting to come to perfection in each and every vital, active group and culture that it encounters, is bound radically to alter its liturgical practices as well. It is bound to continue to do so each time a vital, active interpreter of spirits identifies yet another energetic community with a message to which the missionary must witness. A Catholicism that is told that in order to confront and develop Christ fully within these milieus it must abandon, as insensitive prejudice, all education and tradition standing in the way of a wholehearted acceptance of their messages, is stripped of any means of judging whether it really ought to be open to each and every aspect of liturgical inculturation. Indeed, it is deprived, in the long run, of any means of nurturing a memory of its past teachings, and any connection between the lex orandi and the lex credendi whatsoever. The liturgical movement merges with all other movements in Church life into one, uniform, Self-Lobotomization Movement. Leave Faith, Reason and History behind, ye who enter it!

Everything I have noted as a consequence of the radicalized alliance of evangelization and Personalism has manifested itself clearly in the Rite War. Individual devotion has not been helped, but drowned in communal rites. These are diversified ad infinitum, as each parish and each proclivity discovers its own startling new spirit, needs and message to teach—the more Spartan, the more drab, and, in fact, in many cases, the more grossly sensual, the more identified with what is truly “real”. This began by tapping into many soldiers’ memories of hearing Mass on the back of a jeep, amidst their comrades, with the sounds of artillery around them (and probably praying more devoutly than ever before), contrasting the “truth” of that experience with the “artificiality” of the liturgy and parish life under normal peacetime circumstances, and calling for reform to recapture the lost ties with a more serious “reality”. It has translated in the United States (and elsewhere) into endless liturgical revolutions “listening” to every “need” from the homosexual to the capitalist (with the latter making good money off of each change in calendar and ritual practice). Everywhere these new rites are invented not spontaneously out of communal desire, but in typical revolutionary fashion by vital teachers of the will of the community, as illustrated by the silencing I once witnessed of an Hispanic group singing traditional hymns to the Madonna so that it could be forced to stutter other hymns unknown, yet declared to be more consonant with its true spirit by the liturgical experts who had created them out of the blue. Everywhere, the starting principle of the more serious liturgical movement—the need to go back to the ancient sources—has given way to a reliance on no sources except those of the interpreters of the community, and a demand for “faith” in the manipulated spirit and signs of the times that these reveal. And luring behind it all lies the threat of chastising whoever would criticize such changes not on the basis of what such criticisms really are—a call to true faith, to objective use of reason, and to a respect for tradition that any real culture (like the Chinese) always takes seriously—but as something racist, elitist, restrictive, anti-pluralist, or, in a word, Fascist.

A study of the broad context in which the Rite War has been fought thus reveals a great deal about the nature of the victory that has temporarily been won by the innovators. It is a victory that, despite the contribution of scholars and pious men aware of the reality and value of liturgical developments, has been shaped, in practice, much more by events and a mentality connected with the Good War. It is a victory that has placed the wrong spirit in charge of the most sensitive aspects of Christian life, one that allows for an irrational, cheap and willful program to be promoted in the name of fulfilling all that is best in human nature and dearest to God’s heart. It is a victory that inverts reality and answers rational criticism with propaganda slogans and a Nietzschean disdain disguised as enlightenment, strong with the confidence of the victor who knows that he defines the meaning of words for the mass of frightened mankind. Let us hope that awareness of this context may help to free men from fear, and that the Rite War will end in a victory of Tradition calling attention to the failed promise of the Good War, so that the Truth may really overcome the Triumph of the Will.

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