It would be the height of arrogance to suppose that any millennial problem, not least of all so intricate, multi-layered and labyrinthine a problem as that of Christianity, might be resolved in a breath, in the space of a handful of words, when it has been the stuff of great historical disputes, and the matter of the very rise and fall of civilizations. What follows is nothing more nor less than a small and occasional selection of the author’s personal meditations on so complex an issue, which are offered up here with clear seasonal justification, in the hopes that they might be of use both to the reader and to the author himself in rumination on what is surely one of the great topics of our day.
Because no systematic appraisal of this question could be so much as approached without at least an entire book as the foundation to uphold so much weight (and leaving aside certain stylistic considerations which will be evident enough to careful readers), it has been thought best to offer these thoughts in epigrammatic or aphoristic form.
1. The Dark Age — Here is one of those excellent and terribly effective pejoratives invented by our modernity to slander, not only an age, but also its ruling ideologies: the Dark Ages. It has been well taught in our schools, well inculcated into our minds, with all its various insidious implications. And truly, one implies so many things with it: first, that these ‘Dark Ages’ were a time of ignorance, forgetfulness, oblivion; second, that the societies of this time were thrust into a hopeless barbarism, in which social orders were characterized by arbitrariness and injustice and the people despaired of life and longed for death, for an ‘afterlife’, for ‘supernatural salvation’ of any kind; third, that this was all brought by ‘fundamentalist Christianity’ and its blind corrosion of antiquity, the hateful work of logophobic clerics; fourth, that Europe finally awoke from this long tenebrous misery only with the Renaissance and the startling rekindling of the light that it brought.
To be sure, there was a true ‘Dark Age’, when the barbarians descended on Rome and sacked the capital of the once-great empire; and the centuries following, as well, when the wraith of darkness did fall on the Italian peninsula and over many of the lands that had been under its dominion, while ‘Rome’ and its special heritage fled east, to Byzantium. But how much is elided in the common, misguided misinterpretation of history, by which all of this is blamed on Christianity, and Christianity’s undermining influence! How easily one forgets that the causes of decadence are manifold, and that the victory of an empire can lead as soon to its inner rot and collapse, as any compromising ideology to permeate it in that late hour! How quickly one mistakes effect for cause here, when the very most that can be charged against Christianity is that it was a symptom of the disease of an age! We owe much of this vulgar gloss on history to those who have read their Gibbon well, or their Nietzsche badly; and even as we are decrying Christianity and its purported corruption of Italy, we utterly neglect the other and equally evident half of the same tale: that if ‘Christianity’ in Italy was responsible for bringing Rome to her knees, ‘Christianity’ in Byzantium was equally responsible for lifting her once more to her feet…
A few points must suffice here, then. The ‘Dark Ages’ ought to be understood as a geographical rather than a historical designation, indicating the plight of that physical portion of Europe which succumbed to the barbarian hordes, and remained truly in the clutches of a kind of darkness – at least so far as our histories are concerned, and certainly so far as the wider arc of European culture is concerned – for several centuries. During this period, the light fled east, to the Byzantium Empire, where it was preserved at first in depleted and eclipsed form under the aegis of a Christian rulership. These ‘Dark Ages’ thus owe their ‘darkness’, if anything, to the ‘pagans’ of the European north.
It was neither to these pagans that we owe the later transmission of antiquity, but again largely to Christianity, in the form of Christian monasteries; what at first was preserved unconsciously and accidentally, in the form, for instance, of palimpsests or in the rodent-like hoarding of manuscripts, was later formalized and institutionalized by monkish orders like the Benedictines, Carthusians and Cistercians, whose equals in patience, learning and scholarship have perhaps never existed, not even in our day which so haughtily prides itself on its scientific knowledge. Some sizeable portion of the salvation of Antiquity we owe as well to the Arabs – which is to say, again to a monotheistic people. But while Islam remained essentially hostile to philosophy, and often enough opposed the efforts of its own members toward such reclamation and re-evaluation, Christianity, through the genius of men like Augustine, William of Moerbeke, and Aquinas, absorbed it. That fateful and deeply problematic development spared untold numbers of ancient masterpieces from obliteration, and justified their transmission, even as it paved the way for the modern revolt of the philosophers.
Finally, it must be noted that the idea of the Renaissance – another problematic epoch with a dubious title, whose fuller treatment we must reserve for another moment – cannot be taken, as it is so often taken, as some kind of awakening from a long and unbroken slumber. There had been high centuries following the turning of the millennium, whose artistic, architectural, scholarly, literary and musical blossoms remain to this day among the greatest treasures of our West.
We must shed from our eyes the scales of this contemporary ‘education’, which so often ‘informs’ us by rankly deceiving us. We must avoid the twin pitfalls of modern arrogance and ‘Traditionalist’ reaction: neither the Middle Ages nor the Renaissance which followed can be dismissed. If we moderns have any true patrimony, it is surely in our notion of history, which forms as it were the centrepiece of our entire worldview; then let us seek for once to live up to it, emerging finally from the truest Dark Age – our own – to look these past two millennia fairly and squarely in the face.
2. An exercise in imagination for our scholars, who surely by now must be growing bored of flogging the Church or creeping about in her cellars fossicking for skeletons. Imagine these past two thousand years shorn of all Christian influence; subtract all the art, music, architecture and literature which have owed their being to Christianity, and then everything as well which has owed its being to the opposition to Christianity. Surely, something valid would remain; but one is permitted to wonder if it would not fade into merest obsolescence as compared to the pre-Christian traditions.
There is a treasure of transcendental greatness within this our West, a trove of artistic and cultural works such as must be the envy of all the world; and if one simply ‘dismisses’ Christianity – as one is wont to do nowadays – how much the poorer would that inheritance become!
3. Through all these past twenty centuries, abiding the gyring of politics and the turning of history itself, the Church has stood as a bastion on the sea, that not even the ravenous tide of time could swallow or erode. We history-saturated moderns would do well to contemplate this fact: for over two thousand years this institution has been truly as the rock it claims to be founded upon; it is the salient fact to any investigation of the better part, and the better-recorded part, of our history. It is the only living strand to run through that entire wide tapestry of time; every other has frayed and finally snapped. Athens was but a fleeting day to this history; Rome herself, a succession of essentially different regimes, one after the other, each lasting no longer than a fragment of the time that the Church has withstood. All other analogues that we have for this in the West or the Near East remain but that – analogues, dubious of their likeness and half-buried in the sands if time.
It is no wonder that petty and envious scholars attempt to gnaw at the citadel of the Church with their rat-like teeth, to show that it had now this and now that ‘period’, that it was now this, and now that kind of a thing, that it has changed substantially here or there, some dozen times if not more.
Are they successful? Have they been successful? For one does not exaggerate when one says that the question of the truth of the Church itself stands or falls by its essential historical consistency.
Let this be measure of the trans-historical coherency of the Church: in all the stories that come down to us of its heresies and schisms, be they small or great, of its Popes and Anti-Popes, of its times of wane and of wax, of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, never does one see the Church at a moment of purely internal crisis such as now envelops it. It has time and again faced the drake of history – and slain it. It has time and again been challenged by purely outward foes, external faiths and anti-faiths, and conquered them to a one. Time and time again it has almost fallen – and been saved at the last hour by a stroke of grace to which one is tempted to ascribe something of the miraculous. Given that man is man, and that history is history, and that both the one and the other are subject to the eternal tyranny of becoming – what possible sustainment for unity like this could one dream, if not the hand of some god?
Indeed, let us, out of a spirit of generosity, even grant the critics of Christianity their belittlements, and agree that the Church has been a standing institution only since the Council of Nicea in 325, or, with even greater generosity, the Great Schism in 1054; nay, let us play our largesse to a fault and give the critic of the Church the ‘whole hog’, as it were: let us say that this Church has been united only since its last great crisis, the Papal Schism of 1378. Assuming all of this, the Church nonetheless remains the stablest and least-changing factor of all of our European history; even granting to the critic far more than is really his due, it must be admitted that the Church is the biggest ‘fact’ of these latest centuries, the one inescapable, because the one unchanging, aspect of at least modern times. And it goes without saying that we are hardly speaking of times characterized by their sober and conservative consistency.
A great deal of clever acrobatics are required to explain how this could have come about exclusively from ‘inertia’, from human power-hunger, greed, etc. And though we do not doubt that our good contemporary scholars are up to the task of this kind of spiritual muck-raking, it is also worth mentioning how much of this kind of deconstructive work owes its inner directionality to Critical Theory and the Marxian view of history. Really, is it not time for once that we bring a little magnanimity into our historical studies, and begin to view the past from out of eyes that are readier to give than to take? Particularly since we find ourselves at a moment of such unparalleled crisis! It is at any rate much easier, from a naïve point of view, to see in the Church a glorious and unprecedented castle, whose mighty towers, sustained by something supernatural, have withstood the siege of foe and fanatic, and of time itself.
Great then is the temptation to join oneself to this Church, this bastion, this unsinking ship, as the one single best hope for the reclamation of the Western world.
4. So much for the past. And the present, to which we have somewhat already alluded? For at this very moment, Vatican II is part and parcel of that same Catholic tradition we were only just now lauding. This taint upon the Church, this evident and to all appearances deliberate break with tradition is now an element of the tradition itself. And now the pastors go about dispersing the flock, and staining the white sheep black. Talk of homosexual marriage, talk of abortion rights, talk of – but what does one not hear in the fetid chatter of the postconciliar madness? Here is the Pope himself – kissing the Koran, denying the existence of his own Catholic God, speaking words he admits might be (for all he knows!) heretical, and urging his churchman to cease their proselytizing, which has been the foundation of the Church since Paul, if not since the Christ himself. The Church has decapitated itself; lo, the Church is headless.
What is one to say, at this moment, of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? That it has fragmented, desacrilized, and snapped its ligature with yesterday. And – is it still catholic? Oh, yes, more now than ever; the oh-so-democratic ‘ecumenism’ of John and Paul, of Roncalli and Montini, has seen to that. So catholic indeed that it has ceased being European, ceased being Western, ceased being – Catholic.
5. I am far from the first to note that we owe Christianity perhaps more to Paul even than to Jesus, insofar as without Paul, it would have remained but an ethnic and essentially local cult. (I will obviously neither be the first to note that, even insofar as this is true, it does not in any way disprove the holy mission of the faith on Earth, nor its divine or supernatural underpinnings.) The Church was born then in the enigmatic choice of this Jewish cult to become catholic, to extend itself to the gentiles, to seek to proselytize, to – transcend its origins.
In transcending its origins it became perforce a universal phenomenon, and remains so, necessarily, to this day: in seeking to speak to men beyond Judea, it spoke to the human being as such. Or rather: it spoke to the human being insofar as he was Christian or might become Christian. Historically speaking, that has meant, de facto if not de jure, that it has spoken primarily to the Europeans or the pseudo-European Russians, by whom and for whom the Church was finally constituted in its most aesthetically striking, theologically sophisticated and eternal forms. The ‘ecumenism’ of late years is another phenomenon altogether, for in point of fact it inverts the ‘universalizing’ of the Church. Paul’s position was this: all men may be made Christian, all men may be saved. Bergaglio’s position appears to be this: all men are Christian, all men are saved. But that means that the Church is nothing but an institution and a historical accident, one among a myriad, which might as well be dismantled as not. In this ‘ecumenism’ there is something sinister in the truest sense, something poisonous, an inner decay within the Church. It stands against what the Church has always stood for.
In our day, the Church might well be the last hope and bastion for reclaiming Europe without losing her first; if we would have Europe rise, phoenix-like, from these grey and desolate ashes, then we must first lift up a flame to draw that firebird hence; and that flame, enfeebled and embered though it be, may well have to be the Catholic Church, which is at once the most universal and the most Western of any religion to date.
The question is – is the Church in any way prepared for such a role?
6. Novus Ordo — A New Mass! A New Faith! A New Order! And thereby, the Church hoped to render itself available and attractive to this modern world, hoped to swell its ranks and to grow the fold, and to secure the faith against the rising flood of materialism and godlessness. Well? Is it not written that ye shall know the tree by its fruits? What have been the fruits of this disastrous experiment?
The population of the Church diminished and grown old. The number of new converts in steep decline. The number of Catholic marriages at historical lows, and of divorces and annulments at historical highs. The number of baptisms sinking year by year. Islam expanding faster than ever, geographically and demographically, even as Catholicism wanes on both fronts. Ideas unheard of on the lips of the highest members of the Church, and an increasing and increasingly odious kind of vice amongst the ranks of the same, which make the good old days of mere indulgences and papal nepotism seem like a golden age of reason and moral uprightness. In short – a truly new order, quite fit for the New World Order rising largely about us.
The Church seeks to make itself available and attractive to a lost and corrupted Modernity, by – inviting the latter in and espousing it. Is the Church any longer the bride of Christ? Already men like Julius Evola and Julien Benda could speak of the trahison des clercs; what would they say of the adultère de l’Eglise?
7. What kind of strategy is this? One seeks to seduce new converts and satisfy the old by making the Christian mass into a treacly and tawdry echo of the world surrounding. Popular music, popular songs, popular icons and statues, popular this and popular that – as if the Church has ever been essentially a ‘popular’ institution! As if it has not thrived always on precisely the contrary principle, and taken its life-source from hierarchy, distance, rank, the sense of the high and the low, in an order and organization which even at times seemed the least Christian thing on Earth!
Any man who would so much as dream of embracing the Church in our day does not want a ‘popular music concert’ when he steps across the sanctified threshold of the temple; he does not want to be lectured at from the podium about human rights and human equality and the most prosaic kind of ‘brotherly love’; he can get all of that in quite other and more mundane venues, and can get it better, insofar as when it appears in the Church it always appears half-hearted and hypocritical. There is always something not a little disconcerting and contradictory about this kind of moralistic pedagogy from the podium, such as makes one wonder if the pastors are really speaking in all good faith and with full will, or if they are not rather as it were glancing over their shoulders at the alter in some lingering fear of the wrath of God.
The Church has remained unchanged for more time than most men can comprehend: now you would change it all at a blow, and think thereby to impress the masses? Miscalculation of miscalculations! The moment one ceases to feel, upon entering this or that chapel or church or cathedral, that one has stepped into a different time and a more perdurable sphere altogether, is the moment the Church has withered and died.
8. Unity in faith — That is an ideal for our people in our day, both of which are, after all, wanting in few things more. And where is one to look for such unity in bustling, multicoloured democratic times like our own? To the Church? But the Church itself has divided, has become ‘trinitarian’, nor, alas, in the theological sense it might once have justified with all its unparalleled gifts in tradition and apologia.
What are the three heads of this new Cerberus? Those who accept Vatican II and the Novus Ordo, those who resist it, and those who reject it outright.
One: The meek masses, who follow the bellwether wherewither it may lead, even should that be unto the brink of the abyss – or over it – and who are only too happy to see the Catholic Church taking a ‘Christian’ turn and recalling its ‘love of neighbour’ and its gentler spirit, precisely at that moment when the Church above all should be moving in precisely the opposite direction, to defend its marvellous heritage, as well as the glory and riches of the West as such, with sword unsheathed.
Two: The doubting faithful, the faithful sceptics. Those who ‘recognize and resist’. Those who feel that something has gone horribly awry, and are full willing to put their finger on it – but not their fist.
Three: The Sedevacantists, those who reach the logical conclusion resisted by the second group; those who say, ‘Either these changes accord with tradition, in which case they must be Catholic, and we must be obedient, despite our arbitrary preferences for Latin masses and the fine old trappings of the Church – or these changes are a break with tradition, in which case we must be Catholic: we must decline to bend our knees before a false Pope. For the Throne of Peter is empty.’
So an outsider, one unbaptized and seeking the guidance that the Church might once have furnished to just such a person, looks upon this millennial Church, and what does he find? Heretics against schismatics. A fine state of affairs in Holy Mother Church! And praytell – who then shall be your converted in these our latter days, O Catholic, and to which of your faiths?
9. Ecclesia militans — Christianity did not bring monotheism into the world, but it was perhaps the first ecumenical monotheistic faith. Certainly it was the first ecumenical and evangelizing monotheistic faith, the first monotheistic faith that considered the human being as such to be a potential convert, and which actively sought the conversion of all souls. Is that not democratic of it?
Paganism proposes a multitude of gods, and one can have one’s pick of them. Some modern would call this the ‘marketplace of gods’, I have no doubt. I can feel the phrase itching on his scientistic tongue – supposing any modern could see far enough past his nose to remember that there have been other views of the world than the secular. In doubt on this last point, we shall supply his own idea for him. Here, the modern agora of the gods: one goes, one purchases one’s idol alongside one’s fruit – a plastic deity perchance, and made in China (but who gives mind to first origins any longer!) – and one returns home to set it up over one’s hearth or by one’s bedside, as one’s taste might have it, with a little likewise Sinitic candle burning before it, perchance to swap both out the week following so as to keep up with the times. And alas, but that is the better part of paganism today. Is that not democratic of it?
The defenders of paganism recall that theirs is a tolerant worldview. How nice! And just what the West needs – more tolerance. The defenders of Christianity recall that theirs is a merciful god, and becoming moreso by the day. Would that He were not! Would that He recalled, as once He knew, to drive out the sinners from the flock and to overturn the tables of the moneylenders in the temples. Would that the cross rose again as a banner of arms, and the sword as its secular shadow; would He might bring once more the sword and not the ‘peace’.
But here, perhaps, is the fundamental point. Which is most likely to become once again the defender of Europe in our day: one’s private and hearthside Lar, or the Lord of Hosts?
10. Ecclesia poenitens — The Church has entered into a crisis of historical proportions, and now has really become the the saccharine and cloying caricature of that egalitarian ressentiment that its most incisive enemies have always claimed to find at its root. Is there not something suspicious in this, a Pope who truly has dressed himself in the sheep’s clothing, and painted a philosophical target on his stole at the same time?
No one can wonder if the pews are empty and the masses pass the church doors on their way to work or purchase. She is sickly and moribund, and her milk has grown sour; she, who should have done all in her power to demonstrate that this modern world is but the hollow husk of what she herself proposes, has instead elected to make herself into the pale and feeble shadow of a pale and feeble shadow, the echo of an echo. Too often, when she is not pathetic, she is repulsive.
11. So one chooses Catholicism to defend the faith and the tradition, only to find that one must first defend – Catholicism. One chooses Catholicism to unite the West under a single banner – and discovers that the Church herself is divided under any number. One chooses Catholicism to augment the strength of one’s position, only to find that one has instead boxed oneself into a yet smaller redoubt within the supposed fortress itself, surrounded not only by our serried foes without, but a swelling host within as well.
In attempting to halve the battle before us, one has doubled it.
12. Where else today, in what other church or institution outside of the most specialized branches of some of our universities, can one count on its learned members having more than merely passing acquaintance with Latin, often enough even with Ancient Greek, with the great authors of the Roman tradition, of the classical tradition, with the greatest Westerners both Ancient and Modern? Surely, in the Eastern Orthodox Church (which we will have more to say on presently), and thus – in Christianity once again.
Talk of tradition! There is no surer link in the whole of our disoriented epoch between the present and the deep past, the deepest that we poor moderns are entitled to touch, than the Church. There is no faith, no other religion, no other spiritual existence which has even a fragment of the Church’s solid reality in Europe. All else is child’s play and ‘history’, mere archaeology and museology. ‘God is dead’ – thus proclaimed Zarathustra. And yet, what other god is even remotely so much alive?
13. What the intellectual conscience demands today — It is easier than ever to be an atheist; and a hundred times easier to be an anticlerical. Hostility toward Christianity in particular is, all said, the special dogma of our times, our own bit of ‘historical folly’ and closure. But this alone is justification enough to resist it, with all our intellectual power, at least for a time – and if for no other reason than to make the experiment of seeing how far it can be resisted.