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Dialogue with the Living Dead

A Deadening Moment in the Civiltà’s Present Critiqued by its Living Past

John Rao POSTED: 10/3/13


“The Syllabus in complete form is already in La Civiltà Cattolica in 1850. It is nothing other than the codification, the unconditional  approval, the supreme papal sanction of those principles and doctrines that, already at the time of the definition of the Immaculate Conception, that periodical had assumed the task of promoting, and which for years and years it tenaciously supported.” (A. Dioscordi, “La rivoluzione italiana e la Civiltà Cattolica”, Atti del XXXII congresso del Risorgimento italiano, Rome, 1956, p. 94.)

The Catholic world has been shaken by the recent interview with Pope Francis appearing in the Jesuit journal, La Civiltà Cattolica [Italian for Catholic Civilization, it is a periodical published since 1850 without interruptions by the Jesuits in Rome. It is among the oldest of Catholic Italian periodicals and is directly revised by the Secretariat of State of the Holy See before being published.] Having done my doctoral dissertation on the first twenty years of that periodical’s history, I thought it might be interesting to Remnant readers to know that they can find in its original articles—and, in fact, in its very reason for existence—all the grounds necessary for a faithful critique of the pope’s words. For La Civiltà Cattolica was founded in 1850 precisely to combat the obvious Church weakness and surrender to willfulness that were the inevitable by-product of the kind of “open” approach to “diverse” modern men that the Holy Father is now once again promoting. Perhaps recalling this life-giving lesson from the journal’s past may inspire second thoughts tempering the truly deadening effect of the words found in its current pages.

Only a self-destructive failure to consult the historical record can support the false impression that narrow-minded Catholics began opening themselves to modern men and their concerns for the first time in the 1960’s. Catholics were already vigorously engaged in this enterprise from the 1820’s onwards.

Pope Gregory XVI

Yes, one form of such dialogue, that which was conducted by the Abbé Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854), was indeed condemned by Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846)—about which more at the end of this article. Nevertheless, contemporary Catholic activists, many of them Lamennais’ own followers, were in no way hindered from carrying out their varied efforts to understand and work with a kaleidoscope of the self-proclaimed spokesmen for “modernity”. This was especially true when they joined with revolutionary opponents of the Restoration monarchies of the post-Napoleonic period in a common call for “freedom” from governmental restrictions imposed upon the work of all kinds of private associations seeking influence over social life, Catholic ones included. Who could blame such believers, weak as they felt themselves to be, for wanting to find allies in liberating the Church from the grip of supposedly friendly states who tended to view her mission as that of mere spiritual cheerleading for the existing political order?

Persistent and growing calls for “freedom of association” contributed mightily to the outbreak and course of the Revolutions of 1848 in France, Italy, and the German world. It was no surprise, given the growth of the alliance mentioned above, that well-meaning Catholics joined in the revolts when they began. But to believers’ bewilderment and horror, they soon found themselves in conflict with and actively persecuted by the “modern” men whom they had presumed to be their “friends” in the same fight for “liberty”.

Bl. Pius IX

One major casualty of the clash was Blessed Pius IX (1846-1878), who could not find it in his heart to approve the Holy War against a Catholic Austria that the modern democratic nationalists who had taken over the Eternal City insisted he must praise as a sacred struggle of overriding importance. Forced by such impossibly warmongering demands to flee a now anti-Catholic revolutionary Rome for the nearby “safe house” of the Kingdom of Naples, he used his exile to hunt for an answer to one simple question: “what went wrong with believers’ attempts to initiate a sympathetic dialogue with ‘the modern world’?”

La Civiltà Cattolica was established to give him that answer, and it did so, systematically, and in union with other Catholic journals, prelates, and laymen from around Europe who were faced with similar post-1848 problems. The response, which was best formulated by Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (1793-1862), the spiritual leader of the band of Jesuits forming the editorial board of the new journal, was as obvious as it was painful. It was obvious because Taparelli, like all those who had engaged in “dialogue”, had learned from experience that “openness” in the minds of their interlocutors actually only meant the right of believers to find “Catholic” reasons why the professional representatives of “modernity” were absolutely and unalterably correct in all their thoughts and in all their actions. But it was also painful because a man of Taparelli’s intellectual and spiritual integrity had really believed that this dialogue with the modern world would be an honest one, reflecting an effort to understand positions on both sides, and felt like “one who loved and who suffers at feeling himself deceived”. (Taparelli, Carteggi, 23; Also, 243-244, 260-261, 292-295, 352, 572; G. di Rosa, “Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio e I moti del ’48 in Sicilia”, Miscellanea Taparelli, pp. 115-118.)

Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio

Once he realized that the “openness” that he had cherished and practiced had actually been used to deceive him, Taparelli, along with his colleagues on the Civiltà, drilled the full import of this terrible truth into his readers; namely, that one had to be as wise as serpents in confronting these grim usurpers of the title “modern men”. Their open dialogue was actually a monologue, for they clearly rejected all reference to supernatural concepts as utterly invalid debating points. They and they alone could say something meaningful about the terms “nature”, “reason”, “freedom”, “personality”, “dignity”, and “progress”. Having done so, they then required an act of faith in their purely naturalist positions as the indisputable starting point for “dialogue”—an act of faith that they perversely designated an act of reason. This act of what was really a willful and mindless fideism they then falsely constituted the infallible standard for “reasonable debate”, permitting no opportunity for serious rational questioning of both their fundamental pre-suppositions as well as the myriad of totally conflicting conclusions that their innumerable ideological offspring drew from them—all of which ought to have been among the principle topics of discussion. Once such mindless fideism disguised as reason took hold, a blindfold descended over their eyes that so obscured their own rational apparatus as to make thinking themselves out of their narrow-minded corners and into the elevated realms of complex Catholic thought almost impossible. Nevertheless, its victims still praised themselves as the standard bearers of “openness”, and their total dismissal, distortion, and ridicule of every contrary position as ipso facto irrational proceeded apace. Hence, La Civiltà Cattolicà’s lamentation that continued efforts to reopen dialogue with its opponents were so twisted by them that “we have often asked ourselves if we have written in Sanskrit or Chinese”. (Taparelli, Carteggi, 371.)

Worse still, the Civiltà realized, experience had shown that believers were themselves not ready for a truly serious dialogue even if it could be reopened in an honest fashion. They needed clarification of their understanding of their own religion and its implications. Such clarification was absolutely essential because a study of the past one hundred years revealed that Catholics, from top to bottom, had lost much of their sense of the supernatural, and exactly how the precepts and practices of the Faith were meant to correct and transform the world around them. The naturalist juggernaut had been all too successful. Catholics had become practical modern naturalists themselves, and had to be awakened from their dogmatic slumbers in order to regain their equilibrium. If they were not so awakened, and then attempted to dialogue with outright and full-fledged modern naturalists—each of whose ideas were pronounced ex cathedra, and backed up with an iron fist when the opportunity arose to implement them—they were highly likely to cower before the superior logic and arrogance of this all too self-confident enemy. Moreover, given the manifold divisions among all of the diverse, though equally intransigent, rational students of nature, Catholics would be likely to be drawn into a myriad of different opposing “modern” camps, each at war with the other, depending upon which exercised the strongest willful influence among them. “Openness” under such circumstances would guarantee destruction of whatever remained of their already thin Catholic vision. In short, Catholics were woefully, woefully, weak and needed to rearm before going into a battle they would otherwise most certainly lose.

Hence La Civiltà Cattolia’s commitment to providing a new “basic training” in Catholicism and its full implications, something that could only come about by opening up that jewel box that was the entirety of the past Catholic Tradition. This led its editors and their many allies throughout Europe to a rediscovery of lost truths and practices that we in 2013 might find hard to believe had ever faded from the sensus catholicus: interest in the concept and consequences of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ; the patristic understanding of “divinization” in Christ; the importance of frequent Communion; and the value of Marian devotion, just to name a few of the many, many casualties accompanying the victory of practical eighteenth century naturalism.

Anyone examining the literally thousands of pages of La Civiltà Cattolica (and allied journals) in the decades after 1850 will find a treasure trove of articles on such topics, all designed: 1) to demonstrate that nature, reason, individual personality and dignity, true diversity, social justice, and a holistic human progress could only be fully understood and made fruitful with reference to the reality of the supernatural, the impact of the Incarnation upon the created world, and the acceptance of Christ as King of the universe; and 2) to show, historically, exactly how Catholics had lost their grasp of basic truths, and come to act, in practice, as though nature had to “fall asleep” to the supernatural context of its existence in order finally to fulfill itself. They did this so as to provide Catholics with the tools to prevent such a nightmare befalling them once more in the future.  “God and nature!”, along with “Never again!” could well have been the motto adorning the offices of such fighters for the transformation of all things in Christ. Reading these pieces will also reveal the fact that what the Holy Father might call the Civiltà’s “Restorationism” in no way excluded openness to new and therefore modern developments and experiences, all of which, the editors insisted, could indeed enhance understanding of God’s message and its demands upon us. They proclaimed themselves “modern men” with as much right as anyone else—in fact much more right, as we shall soon see.

But for any fresh and modern development to be fruitful, they argued,  the confrontation of new and old had to be a two-way encounter. Nothing “different” could claim to be protected by a kind of “modern exceptionalism”, freeing it from coordination with every contribution to grasping the truth about God and nature that came beforehand. Such possible contributions would then prove to be “still births”, condemned to meaninglessness and oblivion once future developments appealed to exactly this same spirit of exceptionalism to exclude what was “new” but yesterday in turn—as the product of an irretrievably dead and buried past. Moreover, the sterility of such exceptionalist contributions to knowledge would be even more pronounced if, along with their attempt to understand the entire world by means of a tunnel vision brought about by arrogantly and self-sufficiently staring at their own navels, they also denied from the outset all possible correction through revelation and grace of whatever it was they might potentially offer—presenting their “fresh approach” as an untouchable unity, and equating this with the undeniable voice of “nature” as such.

Paulo Miki Roman Catholic Japanese Jesuit seminarian, martyr and saint

A series of articles on Japanese culture illustrates the Civiltà’s truly open mentality. While certainly eager to bring the Faith to the Empire of the Rising Sun, it expressed its awe before Japan’s natural achievements, which had to be cherished, understood, and brought to their perfection even as Catholics sought to demonstrate to the Japanese the need to purge them of what they believed to be their incomplete and sinful elements. A Catholic Japan, in the Civiltà’s eyes, would be a distinct jewel in the crown of Christ, yet another manifestation of the “multiplicity in unity” emerging from submission to the universal Creator and Redeemer God. The Christian world would actually learn from the Japan that it was simultaneously seeking to teach.

In contrast, “open” “modern” western society displayed a total closure to something new to it and truly different as well. The secularized West insisted that it and it alone knew what it meant to be “natural”. Everything that resisted its infallible knowledge was therefore “unnatural”, “closed”, and “backward”. The only way for Japan to prove its openness to nature was to become a mirror image of the materialist and commerce-obsessed modern West. And, appropriately enough, western imperialism  “opened” Japan to the outside world through the use of the political equivalent of the fideist ex cathedra pronouncements of naturalist exceptionalist “debaters”: cannon fire. Modernity was condemned to learn nothing from a culture whose riches were new to it, and which it had barely begun to encounter and probe.

Pope Leo XIII

La Civiltà Cattolica worked hard to bring about that Catholic clarification that would enable believers to confront and appreciate what was new and different while they sought to correct, transform, and render it fully fruitful—in union with past natural and supernatural wisdom. It saw progress in this task of clarification through the “negative” condemnations of contemporary errors to be found in Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864, as well as in the “positive” development of Catholic Social Doctrine under Leo XIII and his successors. Both went hand in hand. It was only by “calling a spade a spade” and by encouraging knowledge of the ever-valid Catholic Tradition that believers could protect man and society from the willful strength of a modern, naturalist, and exceptionalist world that “could not see the light nor hear the thunder” outside the range of its narrow-minded tunnel vision.

This is the living teaching that comes from the Civiltà’s glorious past. But that living teaching was not reflected in its recent famous papal interview. That interview’s renewed insistence on openness and dialogue with modern men was coupled with a bewildering disdain for the lessons learned through history in general, and—albeit unintentionally—through the insights of the Civiltà in particular. Tragically, and ironically, such disdain nevertheless led its author to a “Restorationism” of his own—a restoration of that state of forgetfulness of the full Catholic Tradition and its life-giving strength that the Jesuit journal worked so vigorously to correct and prevent from coming about once more; a state of forgetfulness concerning what already had been shown to happen when “modernity” was taken at face value, and Catholics were forced to prove their openness by abandoning every argument that was supernatural in character and even slightly critical of this or that group’s iron-clad “natural right” to its willful, narrow, and fallen obsession; and, last but not least, a state of forgetfulness regarding the supposed “freshness” of an ecclesiastical approach whose heyday was actually the long dead 1970’s; an ecclesiastical approach which brought about the moral plunge for which dioceses around the western world are now literally paying  through the nose—in lawsuit after pedophile lawsuit.

Abbé de Lamennais

It is not surprising that the weakness accompanying this Restoration of Forgetfulness would come hand in hand with an increased strength of the most powerful strain of willful naturalist exceptionalism continuously active inside the Catholic Church, despite the best efforts of the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica and its friends: that of the Abbé de Lamennais. For Lamennais’ influence in Catholic circles never disappeared, even after his condemnation in the 1830’s. His followers have always remained active, regularly imitating Lamennais’ arrogant assertion of the absolute validity of his convictions and his derisive dismissal and distortion of all of his opponents’ most reasoned arguments. More importantly still, many of his heirs have continuously retained commitment to their master’s most basic and most dangerous error: the hunt for Catholic Truth in that which is identified as “vital” and “energetic”.

It is true that Lamennais’ popular reputation is that of calling for Church guidance by the holy “will of the People”—which is itself defined as infallibly Catholic. Nevertheless, the real reason why he considers the “will of the People” so untouchable is because of its expression of a “vital energy” that ultimately cannot help but reveal the presence of the Holy Spirit. Lamennais reckons all opposition to such vital energy due to narrow-minded criticisms coming from outside individuals, doctrines, or authorities as nothing other than attempts on the part of forces that are spiritually dead to manacle the spiritually living. Yes, he admits, such outside forces were still tragically brought to bear on “the will of the People” in his day, stifling and misdirecting its true vital energy, and giving it the outward appearance of wanting what it really in its heart of hearts did not want. It was the task of the Prophet who had recognized this sad reality not to respond to the will of the People as it falsely appeared to be, but to raise popular consciousness to understand the unnatural dead end into which outside doctrines and authorities had led it, and put it back on the Spirit’s chosen path. All this is nothing other than the translation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his arrogation of the right to speak for all men as nature’s only avant-garde prophetic voice into a Catholic poison.

Sad to say, these arguments, in one way or another, were appropriated by those highly variegated successor movements to Lamennais’ that we call “Vitalism”, “Modernism”, and “Personalism”. Whatever it is that this or that vitalist, modernist, or personalist spokesman for the needs of a particular nation or group or individual declares to be “vitally” and “energetically” felt by them must be accepted as a holistic and untouchable expression of the Spirit operative in its life. “Dead” external intellectual principles and authoritative forces cannot be brought to criticize and work upon such energetic, Spirit-filled realities. No historical, theological, philosophical, or cultural second thoughts concerning their truth and justice are permitted. All that the believer can do is to confront them as a whole, “witness” to their particular “mystique”, and by so witnessing help to draw out their unquestionable Catholic implications. Meanwhile, any forces operative within such nations, groups, or persons that are still under the influence of outside teachings and authorities, and themselves energetically express concerns different from those identified as being acceptably vital in character, must be opposed with fideist prophetic zeal. And woe to those who do not hear the prophets’ words! They remain dead, manipulated, “instrumentalized” souls lying on the rubbish heap of history: even if they actually represent 99% of a population or the only truly active members of a society or group to boot!

We have long seen how such arguments have been used by the proponents of Liberation and Third World Theology to “respond” to the “will” of oppressed peoples and Catholic faithful emerging from native pagan religions. First they tell the men and women they claim to follow that they are merely expressing the popular longing to place political revolution or worship of their traditional gods and goddesses before and even to the total exclusion of the Catholic Faith. Then, when “the people” fail to demonstrate enthusiasm for the materialist or polytheist opinion to which the “friends of the people” are said merely to respond and witness, prophetic zeal rises to the fore. Obviously, they lament, those failing vitally and energetically to give the answers the Spirit wishes them to give are being “instrumentalized” by dead ideas and outside authorities. Hence the need for the prophets to undertake a consciousness-raising, either by expelling from the ranks of the population in question all those who refuse to “feel” the way they truly want to feel, or by dragging them into “base communities” where they can be brought more forcefully back into the ranks of the living.

Unfortunately, we have also long seen how insistently and ferociously willful modern lobbies resort to the same themes and tactics. First they declare themselves to be the spokesmen for modern men, women, youth, educators, and that free development of human personality as a whole that has only recently been fully studied and understood. Then, they take control of the loudspeakers of the western world, blaring out their non-negotiable demands for satisfaction of whatever narrow and generally perverse desires that they equate with the “essence” of their chosen clientele and causes. And, finally, they drum out of “the dialogue” regarding these non-negotiable matters all who disagree with them, even if those disagreeing with them represent a majority of their supposed constituents. Not only do they distort and ridicule the views of their opponents, but they also identify them as unfortunate victims of oppression and irrational corrupting authorities themselves—clearly deeply in need of psychoanalysis for their own good (which they are happy to provide).

I do not know enough about the Holy Father’s personal history to say whether or not he became familiar with such arguments through the influence of the many people within the Catholic world who passed them down from Lamennais through those modernists and personalists of Europe who were enamored of the vitality and energy of fascism and communism and American pluralism from the 1920’s onwards, to post-World War Two South America. For all I know, he latched onto them simply because they are so much “in the air”, and have been so effectively utilized since the onset of that Second Age of Naturalist Forgetfulness brought about by the terrible weakening of Church authority since the 1960’s that has turned the various “spaces” of Christendom into the playground of the professionally willful prophets of modernity.

But latch onto them he unfortunately has done, urging that modern-style “open” dialogue, disdainful of the original lesson of La Civiltà Cattolica, to begin anew. Tragically, that means dialogue with the living dead; dialogue with determinedly naturalist men and women, asleep to any rational argument that might lead them to turn their eyes away from the dark, back wall of Plato’s cave and seek the light; dialogue, not even with the vast majority of honestly confused modern men and women (with whom Catholics can and must have a real discussion!) but only with their professional interpreters: namely, those tyrannical loudmouths who have learned that contemporary definitions of freedom are meant to allow them to instrumentalize the weak in the service of the strong.

Hence, I am expected to dialogue not with real “persons”, but with men and women who have willfully reduced their definition of their “personality” to their vital, energetic commitment to actions which my love for them as creatures of God oblige me to use Catholic Truth to correct. I am expected to dialogue with “gay persons” and “abortion advocates” rather than human persons of body and soul, engaged illicitly in gay sexual activity and dedication to the murder of the unborn. And if I am to “dialogue” with these false and willful “persons”, I know from both La Civilta Cattolicà’s original lesson, and the way in which Lamennais’ arguments work, exactly what will happen: that the gay and abortion and otherwise obsessed “voices of the modern world” will be identified as conduits for the Spirit “speaking in our times”; that dead Catholic doctrines and authorities will be said to have nothing to teach them; that in order to come to life, these doctrines and authorities will be obliged to accept the vital energetic voices they are engaging; and, quite frankly, that witnesses to the mystiques these voices represent may well feel the need to raise the consciousness of Catholic children to that “gay or abortion friendly nature” that the Church’s previous deadening intervention has suppressed in their oppressed past. In short, I am expected to prove my openness through my abject surrender. What right have I to proselytize those who have crawled into a naturalist coffin and wish to drag me into it as they close the lid to the light that comes from above, the Father of Lights? Apparently, none at all.

Would that the pope’s openness to dialogue with vital, energetic modernity applied to the Traditionalist Movement, with its teeming seminaries, young priests, home schooling juggernaut, and full to overflowing parishes. But that, alas, is the kind of bad energy reflecting continuing dead but manipulative doctrinal and authoritative influences that those prophetic forces that began to empty churches in the 1970’s have to guard the faithful from heeding. Traditionalist vitality and energy is instrumentalization pure and simple. Perhaps Traditionalists, as my good friend Tom Henderson notes, only count as 3/5ths of persons in the post-conciliar Church. And yet they are the only active Catholics truly open to the full meaning of what a person actually is, in a western world filled with reductionists who equate a man’s nature with his favorite physical sins and nothing else. This true openness is why I am proud to be a Traditionalist (though I prefer the word Catholic pure and simple)—and why I have no problem “dialoguing” with real modern persons—Moslems and pagans and my confused neighbors in Greenwich Village, who form the majority of its population, among them—as opposed to the ideologues who alone are granted permission to speak for “the People”.

We, as modern Catholics, forced to live in the world created for us by the abandonment of the lessons learned by La Civiltà Cattolica in the 1850’s, are now in almost exactly the same boat that its editors were in the year that they founded that journal—except with bigger leaks in the hull. Despite what the Holy Father says, we, in 2013, have no recollection of the Church’s ever having given up that dialogue with the modern world that began anew in the 1960’s (an era that I truly wish were dead and buried for good). We have been living with that dialogue for over fifty years now, armed with precepts promoted by the progeny of Lamennais, and we have never ceased to pay the price for it. We are all the victims of Restorationism—the Restoration of the State of Forgetfulness about the entirety of the Catholic Faith that we escaped from in the Nineteenth Century. We have once again successfully forgotten the Tradition we already forgot once before. We have succeeded in voluntarily achieving a Second Childhood whose inevitable ill effects were described for us in detail in the 1850’s. We have been handed over, hook, line, and sinker into the hands of the willful, who have been publically exulting that we are longing for still “more of the same”. We are, as St. Peter says, like dogs returned to their vomit.

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