Can Traditionalists Learn From the Opera dei Congressi?
A Call for a Temporary Confederation of Independent Traditionalist Organizations
(The Remnant, April 15, 2006)Naturalism is a world view which insists that revelation play no guiding role in political and social life whatsoever; that men shape their public existence on the basis of earthly wisdom alone. There are many forms that naturalism can take. My argument has always been that it is naturalism’s highly seductive pluralist version which has had the greatest impact in dismantling Christendom.
Pluralism exercises its insidious influence in two ways. On the one hand, instead of attacking the Supreme Being directly, it secularizes Him, transforming a supernatural figure into nothing other than “nature’s God”. On the other, it claims that the prudential acceptance of a public order liberated from a specifically Christian Divinity has the happy side effect of allowing a wider freedom for expression of religious belief in the private sphere than ever known before in history. American Catholics have long pointed to the growth of the Church in the United States as proof of the validity of the pluralist thesis, and they have worked politically to defend the blessings bestowed upon them by it. Since the end of the Second World War, and especially from the 1960’s onwards, Catholics everywhere across the globe have followed their example.
But naturalism in all its shapes, pluralist included, is, I would maintain, a degenerative illness. It ultimately attacks not only religious but earthly wisdom as well. This is due to the fact that natural tools of all kinds were blessed and utilized by Catholic Christendom, giving each and every one of them a supernatural aura which made them as suspect to the enemies of the Faith as the instruments of revelation themselves. After all, it did not take very long for naturalists to purge a Socratic philosophy appreciated by the Church from the acceptable baggage of “rational men” with the same disdain they had already liquidated theology. Gradually, they tossed one natural tool after another into the intellectual waste basket, all deemed tainted by their long association with Christianity. Eventually, the only guidelines left for shaping an understanding of “nature’s God” and a public sphere liberated from the influence of a supernatural Deity were the non-religious and non-rational desires of the most willful and aggressive citizens of our earthly jungle. These unbound natural men then seized control of the definition of the word “freedom” itself, and, with it, the identification of what was and was not permissible religious expression—in pluralist as well as non-pluralist lands.
In consequence, Catholic political activity, even in countries which pay lip service to the importance of “God”, now amounts to the zealous protection of a “natural religion” and a private “freedom” over whose meaning believers have no control at all; one whose practical significance is exposed to constant violation and progressive reduction. In short, Catholic political activity amounts to nothing more than cheerleading for Catholic impotence, with material benefits galore for those politicians displaying the greatest skill in emasculating their religion and its impact. Far from disproving this argument, I believe that recent “victories” for the pro-life cause—in so far as they are victories at all—help to confirm it. For such “triumphs” have only been won through wanton enslavement to a Republican Party committed to a materialist vision of existence which favors the abortion mentality, anti-family economic policies which make raising children ever more painful, and hideously unjust ideological warfare miserably tainting the image of clergy and laity cooperating with it.
This presents the serious Catholic—the Traditionalist-- with a terrible difficulty. On the one hand, he subscribes to a Faith which understands that the proper ordering of the public realm is crucial to his true religious freedom and the success or failure of his pilgrimage to God. He is the loyal son of a Church that holds him duty bound to contribute to the maintenance of a sound political and social life. On the other hand, he lives in an environment whose basic “rules of the game” make any attempt to fulfill his traditional Catholic obligations a frustrating, futile waste of time. How can he possibly resolve the dilemma?
I would suggest that an answer is offered to us by the Opera dei Congressi (The Work of the Congresses), a movement developed by Catholic thinkers and activists in 1874 in response to the hopelessly anticlerical naturalism and Machtpolitik of the recently-created Kingdom of Italy. The Opera began when it became clear that the only permissible way for Catholics to participate in the life of the new Italian regime was by subscribing to rules dishonoring their religious commitments. Hence the decision to continue to participate in civic affairs, but only through a self-conscious, militant, and vocal abstention consonant with true Catholic honor. Abstention from what? Not from politics and social life as such, which serious men must always cultivate, but merely from the existing political and social game operating by intrinsically anti-Catholic rules.
In practical terms, this meant two things, the first of which was a refusal to stand or vote for candidates for the national parliament, where acceptance of liberal axioms was a sine qua non for admission to the political club. A similar refusal was not demanded on the local level—sadly stripped of much of its clout by the centralizing measures of the liberal State--because Catholics had discovered that it was still possible to function politically on this subordinate plane without losing their souls. More importantly, however, the Opera dei Congressi’s abstention involved the organization of a militant parallel society and government, which was both “in” the miserable contemporary Italian world but not really “of it”. This parallel universe was grounded in local and provincial associations, whose representatives met regularly in national congresses and suggested projects which were then further elaborated and promoted in a myriad of fashions on the grass-roots level.
Through the Opera, men like the great Catholic social thinker, Professor Giuseppe Toniolo (1845-1918), made certain that Italians learned the truth about their age: that its dominant spirit actually worked against real human reason, freedom, and diversity; and that the supposedly retrograde and unnatural Syllabus of Errors of Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878) was, to quote Dom Luigi Sturzo, actually “a prophesy of what has happened in almost a century of political and social apostasy from Christ” (E. Omodei, ed., Orientamenti politici dei cattolici italiani dell’ottocento, Milan, 1948, p. 20).
But the Opera was not merely “negative” and “polemical”--one of those traditionalist “sins” which offends modernity by indicating all too clearly its manifold flaws. Various branches of the organization “positively” and in profound scholarly fashion taught the nature and policies suitable to a State which was really fit for human persons made in the image of God to inhabit; one that respected man’s splendidly complex character, both natural and supernatural, both individual and social. Its thoughtful activists then developed “a network of social programs, including the establishment of rural credit banks…associations for the protection of emigrants… cooperatives, and peasant unions. The Opera set up a section on ‘Christian Economy’ and began to organize the urban poor, sponsoring over 600 societies in the cities by 1897.” (Frank J. Coppa, ed., Dictionary of Modern Italian History, Greenwood Press, 1985, p. 300). Italian Catholics were, in short, being trained by this unique organization for the day when direct participation would once again became possible, and, one should also note, in how to use all moral opportunities to make that possibility come about more quickly.
Admittedly, the situation of Traditionalists today is in many specific respects quite alien to that of our ancestors in nineteenth century Italy. The Opera, for one thing, was able to count upon a religious community united in its commitment to its age-old liturgy, and a hierarchy as counterrevolutionary as itself. We, at the moment, are merely beginning to have our Tridentine Passports stamped for entry into the normal life of the Church, and cannot even begin to dream of a day when our prelates will think themselves out of the political cages built for them by their enemies.
Nevertheless, I still insist that the Opera has a great deal to teach us. We can learn from its spirit the basic truth that abstention from participation in a fraudulent system is, at times, the only honorable path for a Catholic, and that this abstention does not need to mean a cowardly, curmudgeonly “cop-out”, but, rather a call to positive and militant organization of our “internal exile”. And we can learn from the Opera’s structure the possibility of utilizing our existing traditionalist associations to organize our polemic, our scholarly studies, and our active endeavors on a higher, more systematic, and more effective plane.
Why not take the cue from the Opera and have representatives from all traditionalist groups meet once a year, nationally, and once every two years in international congresses reflecting Catholic global concerns and modern political and social realities? Why not have these congresses outline projects for unmasking the fraud of naturalism? Programs indicating the positive vision of Catholicism on education, the media, art, architecture, city planning, the environment, economic life, international affairs, and war and peace? Possible practical initiatives giving flesh to theory? Why not then have these representatives return “home” to develop and elaborate the congresses’ suggestions in different ways according to each of our varied independent traditionalist “charisms”? Is it not possible that this could raise our consciousness to the complexity of the problems involved in a truly Catholic political and social life? Prepare us to handle power in a Catholic way if the opportunity of doing so ever emerged? Teach us to accelerate the arrival of such an opening? None of this would make us guilty of the “sin” of politicizing our Faith. It would merely give witness to what all of theology, philosophy, and history demonstrate as being obvious: that what happens in the public sphere counts and counts mightily for Catholic Tradition; that the Catholic laity has a special right and obligation to make its voice heard in this secular sphere where the clergy can only tread indirectly; that this is especially important when there exists no self-conscious Catholic political authority to do the average Catholic layman’s job for him.
The biggest and most historically justifiable objection to such a new Work of the Congresses would be the ease with which it could become a divisive rather than a unifying tool. All of the groups that would send representatives to it care deeply about Truth. Many have a tendency to believe that their positions are without the slightest shadow of a doubt the absolute reflection of the most significant elements of Catholic Tradition, contested only by people who are Fifth Columnists or invincibly ignorant. All have been embittered by the modernist assault upon the Faith, and have a perfectly understandable fear that discussing tender political and social issues even with different traditionalist organizations leads to inevitable compromise and treason. Skeptics might cogently argue that a greater familiarity with other traditionalist positions could breed a more intense contempt rather than mutual comprehension. The historical record is filled with examples of similar failed joint efforts, ranging from the fractious First Socialist International (1864), with its warring Marxist, Anarchist, and Labor Union elements, to the Opera dei Congressi itself, which ultimately was dissolved by Pope St. Pius X in the midst of internal dispute between a faction which wished to continue the policy of “participation through abstention” and others which wanted to end it to fight the greater menace of either liberal capitalism or socialism.
Certainly, the risk of failure is there. But when last I checked with the doctrinal record, we, as Catholics, do believe that there are such factors to consider as Reason, Faith, Hope, and Charity. Why not give to a Confederation of Traditionalist Organizations a motto such as “Firmness in Both Truth and Humility”? Why not stress as strongly as we can that we are speaking of projects emerging from a common heritage which each of the participating organizations would be independently developing on its own, without prejudice to its most cherished goals? If nothing else, why not send one’s delegates with the idea of simply witnessing to the obvious validity of the specific group’s particular positions? Maybe the ignorant “other” would not be as invincibly closed as one might have thought?
In any case, nothing is permanent in our natural world of flux, and it would inevitably be the case that such a Work of the Congresses as I am outlining here would be but a temporary phenomenon. But who knows what would come of it while it lasted? So let our small but incredibly multiform traditionalist universe mull it over and keep the alternatives firmly in its mind: either continued, hapharzard participation in a fraud that does nothing to bring dismantled Christendom one centimeter back together; or pointless, bitter criticism; or participation in a temporary Confederation of Independent Traditionalist Organizations which would militantly flaunt its abstention from the political and social life of the naturalist enemy and, just perhaps, come up with some workable plans for the age to come. We still have time to make 2006 the year that the future took shape.
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