Dr. John Rao, (D. Phil, Oxford) Interviewed by Michael
Michael Matt (MJM):
So, Dr. Rao, it’s been a while since Remnant readers
have had the pleasure of reading your by-line. What have
you been up to?
John Rao (JR):
Doing something that the late, great Michael Davies
urged me to do a few years after beginning our Summer
Symposia in northern Italy, in 1992: namely, discussing
the crucial theme uniting the study of the whole of
Church History that we were undertaking as a living,
breathing, international Catholic community on Lake
Garda in one fat book. On the negative side, writing
that book took my attention away from The Remnant.
On the positive side, it also diverted my mind from a
sad development in my daily university life: student
flight from the traditional classroom experience to
online courses—online courses unlike those that my home
schooling children take, with no lecturing whatsoever;
just “group work”.
Before you tell us more about that book, explain what
you mean by college students no longer wishing to attend
class in the conventional classroom setting. Sounds a
It caught me totally by surprise. All of a sudden,
numbers in the classroom dropped from around 25 to 6. My
best students still prefer the classroom. I’m not sure
exactly what the motivation of the others is, since they
normally don’t show up for class anyway. I have the
distinct impression that the university authorities have
pushed this online business onto them because it is the
latest pedagogical fad. The training course—which I had
to take—was not concerned with technical instruction,
which I could have used, but promotion of “group
learning” through vast internet sources as the key to
overcoming the wholesale indifference to knowledge that
characterizes our culture. My colleagues who already
teach online tell me that—surprise, surprise—the online
students are just as uninterested in learning as they
are in the classroom. Educational decline is a spiritual
problem, not a technical issue.
Is there anything in history that is reminiscent of this
bizarre trend in education today?
There are certainly periods in history—like the 1700’s
and early 1800’s—when education became a big,
aristocratic joke, requiring major reforms to set things
straight again. Tom Brown’s Schooldays is not a
caricature. On the other hand, this technocratic,
pedagogical ideology is yet another by-product of the
naturalism of the Enlightenment, exacerbated by the
transformation of universities into degree factories
since the end of the Second World War.
Okay, now, about the book. I think you referred to it
recently as your “magnum opus”. That’s quite a
statement, given your vast body of work. Why is this
book THE book of your life?
Because it does summarize everything that I have been
working on, not only since the beginning of the Roman
Forum’s Gardone program but also since the time of my
doctoral dissertation. It’s really only such broad
topics that I am interested in pursuing in writing. I am
very, very grateful to people who are willing to spend
years of their lives studying a highly specific subject,
but I myself could never wrap myself around something
like the Sepoy Mutiny for a decade or so.
And the title?
Let me tackle the subtitle first—The War of Words
with the Incarnate Word. My basic argument is that
the whole of secular intellectual history and Church
History can be understood as a war. On the one side
stand those who grasp the fact that there is more to
life than meets the eye—men who see that there is a
deeper meaning behind things, and that this “Word” (that
the Socratics explored philosophically and the
Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity as Jesus
Christ completed through Revelation) requires the
correction and transformation of nature. On the other
side stand men who are horrified at the thought of
standing back and judging the world around them rather
than simply “going with the flow” of “business as
usual”. Stung by the strength of the supporters of a
deeper vision of life, this latter group uses
“words”—rhetoric and all forms of communication—to
divert men away from the Christian and Socratic vision.
These words they shape into “Black Legends” regarding
the evil effects of taking the Christian-Socratic path,
or “Nice Stories” that suck it of any correcting and
transforming significance. Everything is designed to
keep the Status Quo of fallen nature from coming into
Black Legends, then, is the title of your book—Black
Legends and the Light of the World. Can you give us
some examples of those legends?
Their name is Legion, and they often contradict one
another. The sole guideline for the “word merchants”
opposed to Christianity is “whatever works” to discredit
their enemy. Christianity—and by Christianity I, of
course, mean Catholic Christianity—has been accused of
being an enemy of both God and man! How is it an enemy
of God? You name it! It does not recognize that God can
only be found in the passions and dictates of Nature;
that the State is the voice of God, through the Sacred
Emperor, King, or Constitution; that the Bible and a
hidden, poor “church” is the only representative of
Christ. It is the enemy of man because it has destroyed
political order, the family, the economy, the nation,
science, art, freedom, creativity. Absolutely anything
that someone at some time, whoever he might be,
appreciates. An interesting French book called The
Jesuit Myth catalogues the incredible number of lies
this involves for the nineteenth century alone.
Interview continues below...
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Plus, a letter from John
Rao and a first look at the Table of Contents
So, is it a year-by-year, sort of chronological history
text filled with dates and names?
No, that’s precisely what I wanted to avoid. This book
is both a history and a manifesto. It discusses the
periods in Church History as representative of a
seamless, unchanging problem. My purpose is to
demonstrate that the dilemmas we face today are in many
respects the same that Plato faced in dealing with the
“word merchants” of the pre-Christian world, although,
with the Incarnation, the stakes and the demands placed
upon those who know better are much higher. Many, many
footnotes and a bibliography, along with a comprehensive
index, give guidance to those who want to follow up my
book with more specific reading.
Give us an example of the general way in which you might
cover a given epoch in history, say the Enlightenment or
the Protestant Revolt, for examples.
What I do is to relate the successes and the failures of
the Church and Catholics in history to whether or not
they are really following the message of the Word—both
in Reason and in Faith, or contenting themselves with
“word games” that play into the hands of what I call the
Grand Coalition of the Status Quo; namely, the people
who don’t want to rock the boat of fallen nature. My
discussion of the Protestant Revolt demonstrates both
how such “game playing” helps to explain Luther’s
abandonment of the entire effort to correct and
transform a “hopelessly sinful natural world” and the
Church’s sluggishness in responding to his tragic
vision. My discussion of the Enlightenment emphasizes
the same kind of problem: the abandonment of nature to
wallow in its own fallen state as promoted by the
Enlightenment was aided by a painful Catholic failure to
treat the message of the Incarnate Word seriously and to
mask this failure by “baptizing” fatuous, emasculating
interpretations of Christianity turning it into a Front
for its own enemies. Catholics don’t know this side of
their history to a large degree because learning about
it is disruptive to the current status quo.
I notice in my review copy that you have a section or
two on the Ninth Crusade. Obviously, this isn’t a
reference to the Crusades called to take back the
Holy Land. So what do you mean by the Ninth Crusade and
how does it fit into the context of your Black Legends?
Precisely with reference to the problem of the
Enlightenment mentioned above. Traditionally, historians
speak of eight Great Crusades. I am calling the
rediscovery of the full Catholic message in the
nineteenth century the Ninth Crusade. What happened
after the French Revolution was that many Catholic
scholars and activists of many countries realized that
they had swallowed a lot of Enlightenment “Black Legend”
criticisms of their Faith in the 1700’s and had
themselves stripped their armories of their best weapons
to answer them. Again, most Catholics don’t know that
political protections, devotional life, and
education—St. Thomas Aquinas was generally treated like
an embarrassing relic of a Dark Age—were undermined by
popes and bishops themselves in the course of the
eighteenth century. What the Ninth Crusaders
rediscovered was nothing short of the whole life of the
Mystical Body of Christ and its need to make Christ the
King of the Universe for the sake of its correction and
transformation. If they did not, fallen man would be
king of a fallen universe, guaranteeing the triumph of
his own perverse will. This movement then took over the
guidance of the Church through the work of Blessed Pius
IX….until, alas, recently, when the “word merchants”
regained their dominating influence.
10) MJM: You note that the central theme of your
book is twofold: to take the complete message of the
Word Incarnate in history seriously and to take that
message as something of supreme benefit for natural as
well as for supernatural life. This seems to
suggest a sort of pre-Enlightenment vision of history,
in that history as a science cannot and must not be
divorced from Christ, His Church, His salvific mission.
Is this, in fact, what you’re saying?
What I am saying is what everyone from Christ through
St. Justin Martyr to St. Pius X has said. The only way
that nature can be understood is by understanding the
plan and teaching of the God who created nature. Since
that God is a supernatural being, this means through
heeding a Faith that nevertheless tells us that Reason
and all of nature have their purpose in His plan. Anyone
heeding God’s teaching heeds something that brings life
more abundantly; that harmonizes all of the different
aspects of nature in their proper place in the hierarchy
of values. Men desperately require supernatural
assistance to be saved, but this supernatural assistance
has to be applied in the natural environment in which
they live. Both the natural and the supernatural count!
The Enlightenment does not want to hear anything about
“correcting” and “transforming” nature. It is totally on
its own. Even if, at best, some Enlightenment supporters
“believe” in God, it is a schizophrenic belief, because
nothing in God’s nature has anything to do with the
purpose of which it was created! The State, the economy,
and culture in general can only gain from union with
supernatural teaching and grace.
Would you say there’s some sort of dogmatic link, if you
will, between history and theology?
Theology and philosophy are separate from history.
History is crucial for understanding whether the message
of theology and philosophy is being taken seriously.
What I am concerned about in this book is showing that
the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo uses Black Legends
and “Nice Stories” to prevent examination of what
theology and philosophy teach as though it is a
dangerous waste of time. Hence, people think they know
what Christianity teaches but are generally misled.
Worse still, many Catholics—including leaders of the
Church—have often, in practice, accepted this pack of
lies and tried to prevent their Faith from rocking the
boat of fallen nature. They have often solemnly repeated
the correct formulas of theology and Faith while
violating them on a day-to-day basis. History cannot
make theology. It is the contradiction between ideas and
practice that history has the mission of revealing, so
that believers know they are getting the real wallop of
the Faith from their leaders and their society and not
merely slogans. Like I note in the book, at my college
graduation, students were obliged to sing hymns about
the crushing of heresy. The words of the hymns were
fine. None of the students believed what they were
singing, however, and their environment encouraged them
in their apostasy. Guess which actually guided their
lives? The song or the environment? History, among other
things, is meant to uncover frauds.
So you set out to prove in Black Legends that Christ—the
Incarnate Word—is literally, not figuratively, the Lord
of History and it is He against which the World has been
warring since the dawn of time?
The fallen world. But that fallen world contains Seeds
of the Word (St. Justin Martyr) that have experienced
the same hostility from the proponents of “business as
usual” as the Christian message.
I’m assuming that your book may well be regarded as
foundational groundwork for historical studies among
Catholics, but what about non-Catholics? Is this the
sort of book we might be able to hand to a genuinely
thoughtful Protestant friend?
I hope so, especially since one of the main points of
the book is that many people use words—like Catholic—to
hide practical lives that are hostile to what they
proclaim. If anything, it is the failures of Catholics
that I am exploring through the ages. In any case,
Protestants and Protestantism, certainly today, are two
different things, and I make this quite clear.
But still, Black Legends is not a textbook.
First and foremost it is intended for students of
history of all ages, but especially for tradition-minded
Catholics that hunger for more a Catholic worldview from
which to understand what is happening in the world
Yes. Although textbooks are necessary, they are purely
reference notes. I would call my work a popularized
philosophy of history—and a political, social, and
I see that there are a number of renowned academics both
here in the States and in Europe who have already
endorsed Black Legends. Can you name a few and tell us
what it says about the book’s uniqueness that it should
have already garnered favorable reviews from such men?
I have been very pleased to receive highly favorable
comments from Dr. Friedrich Römig from Vienna, Dr.
Miguel Ayuso, from Madrid, and Dr. Patrick Brennan from
Villanova University among many others. All of these men
have been working in their own fields with the same
basic ideas in their mind. The irony behind its “unique”
character was well expressed by Dr. Dietrich von
Hildebrand. Christ is everything. Believing Catholics
hear that, say “of course”, and then move on to live
lives of “business as usual” without digesting what this
really means. But it means that everything in a natural
world that God created and loves has been given its
transforming marching orders—and even the American
Government and Wall Street have to listen.
They say either rage or love is the prime motivation
behind the authorship of every great book. What, then,
are you mad at? Or, with what/whom are you in love?
I fully agree with you, but, given personal differences,
rage and love can play diverse roles. Personally, rage
stirs me up, but the power of those forces against which
I want to vent my spleen is so great that anger alone
sometimes reduces me to despair. For me, it is the love
that counts. I love food, wine, music, art, learning,
and a natural world that I hate to see manipulated and
destroyed. It is all so beautiful. Dietrich von
Hildebrand, Dr. William Marra, and two books—Emile
Mersch’s The Whole Christ and Werner Jaeger’s
Paideia—awakened me to what is behind all of this
beauty: the Triune God. This book—along with my work on
behalf of the Traditional Mass—is my personal act of
worship of the Triune God, and I hope that it will cover
a multitude of personal sins.
17) MJM: Still, aren’t you something of an
extreme optimist, given the way things are today and the
sheer size of the boulder you’re trying to push up the
Michael, you, of all people, asking me such a question!
My own tendency is more towards pessimism—which,
luckily, a plate of pasta and a glass of Chianti calm
considerably. But despite my pessimism I am aware of one
thing that repeatedly happens historically: When big
crises emerge, forces that seem impotent to the
“practical” men of “business as usual” show their real
fangs. And a big crisis is upon us. I am happy to be on
record, with this book, as to where I stand, before
“things fall apart” and “the center does not hold”. And
fairness requires that I thank both you and Chris
Ferrara for pushing me along when I have been “down”.
Okay, John, you’re an Oxford-educated historian; as
such, I can’t let you go without asking you for some
predictions, based on history if you like, regarding the
future. What do you see happening next? Where do we
really stand on the timeline of history?
Following up on what I said before, both my Faith and my
Reason indicate that we not only are at a huge turning
point, but actually in the midst of it. As many
historians have indicated, the period since the First
World War has been the crisis of the Enlightenment and
not of Christianity. That Enlightenment was represented
by mid-century by the Soviet Communist Bloc and the
American Pluralist Bloc. The one is in shambles and the
other falls apart more each day. In short, we live in
Could this be the so-called “end of history”?
That, I hesitate to say. Thankfully, that is up to God
and not to me. Part of me longs to see “the end”, but
Scripture says not to wish for the Day of the Lord, and
my apocalyptic tendencies are, in reality, more
intellectual than substantive. Watching the apocalypse
on screen with popcorn in my hands sounds like fun;
living it would not be. We may simply be at the
beginning of a new era in this mysterious plan of
Almighty God. Despite everything, the twentieth century
produced a lot of sound Catholic saints and writers who
have contributed to a deepening of our understanding of
the Faith and dangers to which it is subject. Maybe we
need more time to complete this labor.
In a nutshell: Why should readers purchase a copy of
Black Legends? And I don’t mean to put you on the
spot by asking you sing your own praises. Rather, in
your honest opinion, as author of an important new book,
what is the main advantage going to be for a person to
have your book on his shelf?
To teach him to stop “smiling as he dies”. This book
concerns two things: It is about following Christ and
therefore “living life more abundantly”, here on earth
and in eternity; but it is also about uncovering and
rejecting the many forces that claim to be friends of
God, Man, Reason, and Freedom that enslave and destroy
us, and have an intimate kinship among themselves from
the time of the Greeks to modern-day America. These all
want us to do their bidding and to sing the praises of
their destruction of our bodies and our souls. Long live
Christ the King!
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