Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Christendom and Christianity, Part IV

Dante was born and brought up Guelf, [1] and he liked the sturdy native quality of the Guelfs, their tang of the soil, as of an old-fashioned squirearchy, their rooted republican constitutionalism and their modern liberal outlook, their underlying puritanism in conduct and religion. But he did not like the commercialism and vulgarity of the self-made middle-class plutocracy that was growing up among them, and he came more and more to loathe and fear the temporal power of the Papacy which their policy supported and encouraged; the avarice and corruption of a wealthy church, the appalling prevalence of simony in every ecclesiastical office, and the undignified spectacle of the Vicar of Christ maneuvering, like a bishop on a chessboard, through that game of European politics in which kings and queens set the pace. 
Dorothy Sayers, Introduction to the ‘Inferno’

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I have been writing about Christendom, and why, as a Christian, I don’t hold with it. I consider it a fundamental mistake, a confusion of the proper functions of nature and grace; and I think that the monstrosities performed against heretics and reputed witches [2] are what naturally follows from that kind of confusion.

But there is a counterargument. What if all violent means were renounced by the Church in her evangelization? Which, sure, they should be anyway—they’re clean contrary to the example and express teaching of our Lord, who said My kingdom is not of this world. And sure, technically even the Mediæval Church didn’t itself torture heretics but ‘handed them over to the secular arm,’ even though she knew exactly what that was going to mean, but let’s suppose she was more honest and watchful and didn’t make that kind of hypocritical mistake next time. What if the persecutions and the wars are simply abuses of a fully, but imperfectly, Christian society—and a fully Christian society is, in itself, a good thing?

Well, first of all, let us be quite clear what we mean by a Christian society. Do we mean a society in which everybody is in fact a Christian? If so, I can accept that a Christian society is a good thing; I would add that it isn’t a particularly common or likely thing, but only because most societies are large enough that there is some diversity of belief. Outside of Vatican City, and maybe San Marino, I imagine most if not all societies include some religious diversity. But in that case, nearly every society on earth is not a Christian society and should not be expected ever to become one.

But that isn’t what most defenders of Christendom have in mind when they speak of Christian societies, or call America a Christian nation. They aren’t even (I don’t think) speaking of a culture that is predominantly Christian in confession. What they’re thinking of is God Save the Queen and In God We Trust, prayer in public schools, the President in church, the coronation in Westminster Abbey, Christmas specials with readings from Luke and Matthew; what they’re thinking of is Christianity having a privileged place in secular culture.

I am not totally sure that it’s intrinsically wrong for Christendom in that sense to exist; but I would point out that Christendom in that sense is a thing of virtually no importance. It isn’t something that Christ sought or commanded us to seek, still less to expect; on the contrary, he taught us to expect persecution, and defined persecution as something more and other than merely not being given pride of place. Hath the Lord as great delight in pledges of allegiance and federal holidays, as in obeying the voice of the Lord?
And they asked him, saying, ‘Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly: is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?’ But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, ‘Why tempt ye me? Shew me a penny. Whose image and inscription hath it?’ They answered and said, ‘Caesar’s.’ And he said unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.’ [3]
The ironical and alarming question here being, what isn’t God’s?

Okay, but what if what we’re talking about is a country that’s built on authentically Christian principles? Not just one with the trappings of Christianity, or even one where the Church has a privileged place in civil society, but one where the ideas the government and the culture operate on are in full accord with the belief of the Church?

Again—what does that mean? Because most of the principles that are actually taught by the New Testament (the primordial specifically Christian document) are not the kind of principles you can actually run a culture, still less a government, on: accept harsh treatment peacefully; endure insults and slanders joyfully; respond to violence not by standing your ground, but by running; give and expect nothing in return; imitate the one who lived and died for the good of his enemies and persecutors. Any civil government that attempted to operate on those ideas would collapse in a month: no law can be enforced when the very cops are rejoicing in being beaten, and citizens must make sure that thieves take any possessions that they missed during a mugging. This isn’t to say that there are no moral principles endorsed by the New Testament that could be embraced by a state: do not steal, do not murder, give to the poor, and so forth. But those are instantiations of justice, not grace; in other words, they are precisely exhortations to rational virtue that men know by their consciences apart from special revelation, not exhortations to the specifically Christian—that is, supernatural—mode of being. And if a Christian state doesn’t mean one that’s built on specifically Christian principles, then calling it a Christian state seems, to me, rather silly.

But I have more against this idea than its philosophical incoherence (if more were needed). I believe that the attempt on the part of Catholics and other Christians to obtain a socially central place for the Church and her beliefs is not only unnecessary, but a radical distraction from the Church’s proper prophetic role in society, and that it has led her astray from her genuine mission of justice and mercy. The ambivalent and tragic role of the Catholic Church in the history of the Third Reich and its treatment of the Jews is, maybe, the most dreadful instantiation of this straying. Fr Martin Rhonheimer, in his loving, exact, mournful piece on the Holocaust in First Things, writes:
The clearest example of this attitude was the pastoral letter of the Austrian Bishop Johannes Gföllner of Linz … which branded as ‘radically un-Christian’ all ‘contempt, hatred, and persecution of the Jewish people.’ No less irreconcilable with ‘the position of the Church’ was ‘the rejection of the Holy Scriptures of the Old Testament on racial grounds.’ ‘Nazi racial theories,’ Gföllner explained, were ‘regression into the worst kind of paganism’ … At the same time, however, he didn’t hesitate to claim that many ‘irreligious Jews had a very damaging influence in almost all areas of contemporary cultural life.’ This influence was also visible in business and trade, in the law, and in medicine. Indeed, ‘many of our social and political upheavals are permeated by materialistic and liberal principles stemming primarily from Jews. Every committed Christian has … the conscientious duty to fight and overcome the pernicious influence of such decadent Judaism.’ 
… Such an outlook made it difficult for Catholics to develop any clear and fundamental opposition to the Nazis’ Jewish policy. The constantly repeated rejection of ‘hatred’ and ‘persecution’ of Jews, with the insistence that the ‘Jewish question’ could only be solved in a framework of ‘justice and charity,’ should not blind us to the fact that Church spokesmen fundamentally approved of measures to limit Jewish influence. … Catholics were unable to react clearly to Nazi racial policy until the opportunity to influence events had long passed. … It is of course true that the Catholic Church was itself exposed to brutal persecution. Catholics of that time felt that they had quite enough to do defending their own interests. The tragedy is that due to Church-generated anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, [4] and also because of the Church’s initial sympathy for a government that fought against liberalism [5] and communism, the Church itself had done much to legitimize the very regime that persecuted it. 
… A letter [was] written by Cardinal Faulhaber on April 8, 1933 (a week after the Nazi-instigated boycott of Jews), to Alois Wurm. A Regensburg priest, Wurm had written the Cardinal protesting that following the proclamation of the boycott ‘not a single Catholic paper has had the courage to proclaim the teaching of the Catechism, that no one may be hated or persecuted’ … Wurm pleaded for a clear protest by the bishops against Nazi policy. What the Nazis were doing to the Jews, Faulhaber wrote, was ‘so un-Christian that not only every priest but every Christian must protest.’ At the moment, however, Church leaders had more important matters to deal with. ‘The preservation of our schools and Catholic organizations and the question of compulsory sterilization [of the mentally ill] are more important matters for Christianity in our country—especially when we consider that the Jews, as we have already seen in some recent instances, are quite able to look after themselves. We must not give the government an opportunity to turn the campaign against the Jews into a campaign against the Jesuits.’ … And at the same time, Church leaders were hoping they could achieve an understand with the regime regarding the ‘more important matters’ mentioned in Faulhaber’s letter to Wurm.

This is of course an extreme example. It is, also, a historical example; and the hideous fact is that we don’t need to search the archives of history to find instances of this warped approach to the Church. The more recent child abuse scandals are an even handier example: to do them justice, the priests and prelates who concealed abusers may not have been concerned to protect their own reputations as much as to protect the Church’s reputation—and not only ravaged that reputation far worse than the abusers by their hypocrisy, but showed that they literally cared more about the Church’s reputation than her work. On a smaller scale, the recent scandal at Christendom College exhibits the same contempt for the image of God, in its scrambling to keep the image of the Church spick and span (or rather, not even the image of the Church, but of a mere academic institution).

It all betrays a lack of confidence that God can do his work without us: this determination to protect a good name, whether our own or our order’s or our family’s or our chancery’s or that of the very Church Invisible, at the expense of the actual good of any individual. For of course it is expedient that one man should die for the people.

The attempt to build Christendom has had good as well as bad results. I’m grateful for them. But just as abusus non tollit usum, equally, usus non tollit abusum, or in other language, the ends do not justify the means. For the end is contained in the means. Whatever the intention of an act, the means used to effect the end control the end, and political means, however virtuous, however moderated, however gentle, will always and only and by nature effect political ends. Not spiritual ones. Not ever.

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[1] The Guelfs were one of the two principal political factions in Italy in the High Middle Ages, and were (roughly speaking) the constitutionalist, anti-imperial party. The other party, the Ghibellines, were aristocratic and more frequently anticlerical than the Guelfs. The names originally derived from the Germanic noble families of Welf and Wibellingen, though by Dante’s time the names had lost their dynastic connections.

[2] I don’t rule out the possibility that witchfinders and inquisitors may occasionally have captured actual witches. And there are a small number of witchcraft trials, like those of Duchess Eleanor Cobham of Gloucester, Baron Gilles de Rais, Catherine Monvoisin, and the Marquise Athenaïs de Montespan, whose evidence (as far as one can tell, centuries later) does seem to indicate that devils were really invoked in those cases; though it is harder to say whether devils responded. But the nature of mass hysteria is to find convenient scapegoats for the populace’s terror, whether or not they are guilty and whether or not there is in fact any guilt in the matter. And the results of the Inquisition in Spain (which, contrary to popular belief, was very strict about obtaining and checking concrete evidence in witchcraft trials) would suggest that the overwhelming majority of those tortured and executed for witchcraft were innocent, even if nothing else did.

[3] Luke 20.21-25.

[4] Fr Rhonheimer distinguishes between anti-Semitism, i.e. hatred or contempt of Jews as an ethnic group, and anti-Judaism, or hostility to the Jewish religion. The latter has been part of Christian history in varying degrees since the Church’s inception; the former was sometimes rebuked, sometimes tolerated, and sometimes even embraced. Since anti-Semitism received philosophical formulation in the nineteenth century, the Church has seen clearly enough to reject it, spotty though the record of her conduct is.

[5] I.e., the democratic ideals of the Enlightenment, as expressed in the American and French Revolutions. A lot of contemporary Americans, Catholic and otherwise, don’t realize that the Catholic Church and democracy have an extremely rocky, mutually suspicious history; Catholicism had been dealing with monarchies for well over a thousand years when democracies without even a veneer of monarchy emerged, and many Popes, notably Pius IX, preferred to keep it that way. It wasn’t until World War Two and the Cold War forced the papacy into a quasi-alliance with the NATO democracies, that the two began to be viewed as interrelated.

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