ANDREW BACEVICH, THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, AND MODERN TIMES
Andrew Bacevich, retired Army colonel and now on the faculty of Boston University, author of numerous meaty books and articles on the current state of Our political and military affairs, turns his formidable competence to the role of the Catholic Church (of which he is a member) in the present era of Our discontent (and probably derangement).
As he sees it, “confronting the 20th century, Catholicism stood fast”. He’s right. Going into the 20th, the Church had bound itself robustly to the perennial realities of human nature and the eternal Reality of God.
The 19th had been a difficult time, as European Modernism simultaneously struggled toward a political freedom of mass-democracy (so often, alas, on the model of the French rather than the American Revolution) and a philosophical ‘freedom’ that consisted in abandoning the Beyond – that ancient and solid anchoring-Ground of belief, principles, character, virtue and values – in the excited assumption that this Dimension, presided over by human beings in either their Rational or Romantic glory, could under human management fend perfectly well for itself.*
The 19th century Catholic Church had had a bellyful of the French Revolution and its ‘democracy’ that so quickly turned into the Terror and then the Napoleonic imperial wars. It wasn’t really impressed; indeed, it feared for itself (the French Revolution made Reason the only god and equated the Church with the Monarchy, as well as being an oppressor of the human mind and spirit in its own right). But also for the peace and welfare of Europe’s peoples if both unbelief and revolutionary bloodshed in the name of the ‘the people’ were to run riot. European culture, the Church feared, would be simultaneously attacked in its soul (through some form of Modernist unbelief) and in its body (through the wars to spread such ‘enlightenment’ to everyone within gunshot range).
So by the dawn of the 20th century the Church was wary as hell – as it were – of Modern Times.
Yet there was a strong dissenting opinion that, if it did not go gaga over Modernism, at least sought to somehow address it constructively. The best of the more conservative ecclesiastical opinion (and there was a lower end to that spectrum as well) figured that the whole thing was just too potentially, if not probably, dangerous to ever be tamed: the core this-worldly bent of Modernism was in and of itself utterly incompatible with a sense of the Beyond as the Ground and Guide of this-dimensional human affairs.
But thanks to the huge influx of immigration into the United States in the second half of the 19th century, there was also a large and robust Catholic community within the Universal Church that saw democracy (and Modernity) through the lens of the American, rather than the French, Revolution. And the United States, throughout the century, was growing ever stronger and more robust in all respects.
These ‘Americanist’ prelates, thinkers, and pastors were convinced that (the American model of) Modernity could be engaged constructively and usefully. Rome – with fresh and living memories of a Pope being taken off by Napoleon’s troops to do his imperial bidding and of frenzied crowds of ‘the people’ stringing up priests and nuns along with all the aristocrats – wasn’t inclined to agree.
But in the United States, the Americanist prelates soldiered on as best they could, although hampered by the growing rapidity of communications (steamships, undersea transatlantic cables) that robbed them of the beneficial ‘fog of time and distance’ that had enabled prior generations of ‘missionary’ types to address matters ‘on the ground’ without too much abstract-ifying interference from the head office back in Rome.
They wanted to demonstrate to the Waspy American governing elites and to the ‘progressive’ American Modernist elites that their Catholic flocks could be good Americans and good Catholics. But they were also anchored in the rock-ribbed view of the cosmos that placed this-dimension in ongoing and living relationship with a Higher Dimension, a Beyond, presided over – in best Catholic form – by a benevolent but decidedly adult God, ably assisted by angels and the spirits of the ‘faithful departed’ in the arranging of human affairs so as to draw all humans simultaneously to Himself and to their own genuine selves (humans were, after all, made in His image, according to the Catholic vision).
Solidly grounded but eager to engage, the American Church made its way into the 20th century, not often in a position to influence national affairs (until the 1920s and 1930s) but more than busy enough with the building-up of the Catholic parish and school system, and ministering to the needs of Catholics newly-arrived and those somewhat established, looking to improve their own and their children’s lot in this speeding but shaking (in ship terms ‘rocking and rolling’, perhaps) culture as it raced ever forward in terms of material success.
Muted for the moment was that the American race forward into material success seemed to raise a gritty but relatively golden dust-cloud that blotted out the Upward dimension. Engagement would sooner or later require some hard questions as to just how far Catholicism could go to ‘fit in’ before it began weakening its own vital connections to the Beyond. If you were going to ‘go in the American door in order to bring America out your own door’ (to use a favorite image of St. Ignatius of Loyola) you were going to have to make sure that once inside the American door you didn’t forget what you came for and lose your way in the American ‘building’ such that you couldn’t find the Catholic ‘door’ or else forget that there was some essential difference between the two.
World War 2 gave the American Church a huge opportunity to show just how patriotic and useful Catholicism and Catholics could be. By 1960, 15 years after that War ended, a Catholic was running for President. But even before that, in 1958, the Roman Curia had elected as Pope (for lack of the ability to settle on any more organizationally-connected candidate) a rotund, elderly, peasant-born former Army chaplain (the Italian Army in World War 1), pastor, and diplomat – John XXIII. He was almost the mirror-opposite of his predecessor, the aloof, scholarly, born-to-be-a-prelate Pius XII.
Having had more than enough of both ecclesiastical pomp and caution, and also of the terrors of two intensely lethal wars in less than 30 years that shattered the confidence and competence of Europe, John decided that he needed to open the ecclesial windows and let in the ‘fresh air’ of the world. Optimistically and with profound benevolence, he hoped that like a great ship too long at sea, the Church could put herself in drydock, scrape off the barnacles and unhelpful accretions, and restore the great ship’s hull to its pristine efficacy, ready to slice through troubled waters cleanly and bring her cargo of faith, hope, and charity.
It turned out to be something different; more like a great orchestra when the conductor decides to step down from the master’s podium, put down the baton and take off the white-tie-and-tails, and ask the various players and instrument-groups what they think. An excellent approach in itself, it works only so long as all the players remember that the conductor is still the conductor and – as well – is the designated interpreter of the Composer.
So you can see where things got out of hand in myriad ways.
Thus by the time it entered the 21st century, as Bacevich accurately observes, the Church “stands dishonored and discredited” and worse “that it has misconstrued the problem … the ramparts it persists in defending – a moral order based on a received, permanent truth – have long since been scaled, breached, and bypassed, and have fallen into ruin”.
The dishonor and discredit stem from its own organizational failures and also from its successes. Its failure was in trying to treat as eccentricity (ironically, with the best, modern Rogerian therapeutic indulgence and supportiveness) patterns of behavior among its priests that actually required far sterner intervention. Its successes – a series of powerful public statements in the 1980s against nuclear war, the economic maltreatment of the poor, and in favor of the Family – aroused the ire of both Right and Left, who proceeded in the 1990s and early 00’s to prevent any such further such obstructions to their various Agendas by focusing unrelentingly on the failures in order to undermine whatever public status the American Church might deploy against them.
Bacevich’s second observation – that the Church is now trying to defend a position that has already been outflanked and overrun and rendered useless – reflects, I think, not only a military vision of events (nothing necessarily wrong with that) but an insufficiently accurate vision of the actual Field of Action.
The Church operates in a Battlespace – as it were – that is multiplanar: that Battlespace comprises not only this Plane of Existence but the Beyond as well; and between those two Planes of Existence there is much dynamic communication (“angels ascending and descending” the ladder Jacob saw in his dream) and God and His workings – whether believed in or not – have a reality all their own, independent of whether humans believe in Him and His works or not.
I have used a historical reference in a prior Post and I use it again here now: at the beginning of World War 2 the Japanese Navy had a torpedo (the ‘Long Lance’, colloquially known) that could travel further than any known torpedo, and without leaving a telltale wake of whitish bubbles on the surface to give itself away. For quite some time – alas – Japanese submarines were sinking US naval vessels, especially in the dark, from distances beyond anti-submarine detection capabilities and, since the things didn’t even leave that telltale white line on the surface to mark their approach, not even the best lookouts could see them. The response of the Navy was to presume that the ship commanders were simply negligent or incompetent – thus effectively denying the reality of the Long Lance. Which, of course, made utterly no difference to the torpedo’s effectiveness; indeed, quite the opposite. In other words, as Scrooge was to learn from Marley’s ghost and the spirits of Christmas, just because you exercise your human ‘freedom’ and ‘choose’ not to believe in something (or some One), that doesn’t of itself deprive that something (or some One) of its own independent and very real existence.
So it is granted that the this-dimensional ‘footprint’ of the Divine – His earthly ‘establishment’- has been weakened: culturally and socially and not without the heavy thumb of assorted ‘elites’ and even their Beltway enablers, leaning grotesquely on the scales. At this point American society (now in its post-Modern or hyper-Modern phase**) and far too many Americans are much weaker: less adult and more infantile and childish, more government-dependent, less robust and more fragile.
Meanwhile the original Vision of the American Framing has been – in the past 40 years – replaced by the late-18th century French Vision and – worse – thickly spackled with the lethal goo of Leninist and Maoist agitprop which has unleashed – even worse – the ancient evils of Leviathan and concentrated economic-political power. Such that at this point We have a two-party system with a single policy.
And – worse – that at this point now that policy is the policy of the Soviet nomenklatura in the 1970s: can I just get out of here with my pension and boodle before the people realize what’s happened?
But the position has only been overrun on one Plane of the Battlespace; and it exists in two – the second, that Beyond, being by far the more vital and ultimately robust. For all We know, as happened with the Roman Empire, the American culture and society may go (especially if the economy or the currency go much further south) and the Church, based on and supported from and Guided by that Beyond Plane of Existence, will take root and in time grow in some new this-dimensional establishment. And if hyper-Modernism’s ongoing attacks by government-enabled secularizing elites on Western culture as a whole finally succeed and that historic vessel breaks up in the mid-ocean of this life, then the Church will – in naval parlance – shift its flag to another more capable vessel.
Mysterious are Thy workings … and so on.
Bacevich applies the analysis of Henry Adams to the Church’s problem: Adams saw Christianity as an organizing principle (what I would call a monoplanar mis-evaluation of its genuine and actual reality). Being rather monoplanar himself, Adams thus saw matters only as sort of a this-dimensional and static struggle between this and that human understanding of Christianity and Modernity (Christianity was the Medieval Virgin; Modernity was the Dynamo). What bummed Henry out was that the Dynamo had clearly eclipsed the Virgin as an organizing principle of culture.
Adams was onto something there. But as Bacevich notes, he was looking at Christianity merely as a sociological and this-dimensional belief-system. And thus, I would say, not as a) a living community that is b) anchored in a reality Beyond this dimension that is yet active and engaged with humans and their affairs. What Adams sensed was not the decline of Christianity, perhaps, so much as the decline of the West’s ability to ‘platform’ or serve as the carrying-vessel for Christianity. And perhaps, part of his unconscious foreboding – so obvious in his authorial mood and tenor – was a fear for what would happen to the West when it cut itself off from genuine Christianity.
Christianity is not simply a this-worldly, monodimensional belief-system or a project; the Church is not simply an organization like any other human organization. There is a multiplanar element to both of them that is also primarily a relationship – an active, personal relationship (both individual and communal). Like a radio-signal from London to Resistance agents in Occupied Europe, the Beyond’s influence can be attenuated temporarily by the ‘atmospherics’ and the weather, or by the incompetence or insufficient attention of the agents, or the disrepair of the receiving equipment … but the signal and the London that sends it exist independently of all the head-scratching and frustration of nonplussed or distracted agents on the ground up to their ears in hostile Occupiers.
And this metaphor doesn’t even begin to touch the myriads of folk simply trying to keep life together in difficult times and who can at best try to keep in their mind and heart a vision of a London and a civilization that will yet come to their aid and get themselves and their loved ones through the Occupation without too much collaboration. They are all very real.
(Yes, you can argue – and with some legitimacy – the wisdom and competence of London when desired and needed air-drops fail to materialize or good people suffer because somehow the great fleets and armies of rescue have not yet appeared off the landing beaches to liberate Fortress Occupation. But in the long run, as residents of an Occupied and tortured world, humans are neither ‘totally autonomous’ nor are they calling-the-shots in this cosmic Effort. To accept that boundary and limitation is neither delusion nor surrender to serfdom and despair, but is actually a liberation itself: freeing the Occupied from delusions of a grandeur and omnipotence which are themselves an enslaving delusion.)
Bacevich notes that Adams began to see the Dynamo as symbolic of an increasing human mastery of machines that could harness elemental (but, I add, still this-worldly) forces such as electricity and the powers of fueled industry. And thus Adams came to sense it as the symbol of a “moral force” itself. I think at this point it won’t seem too outré to suggest that what Adams saw as a ‘moral’ force was actually a demoralizing and de-moralizing force.
I mean ‘moral’ in the sense that it was used back then as a ‘vital principle’ or ‘life force’ as well as in the more obvious meaning of a force for doing the Good and the Right.
Inherent in that Dynamo force, then, is a potential that will, if not carefully handled, actually work as a dark-magnet, drawing the human spirit so deeply down into this single monoplane dimension that – almost like a black hole – it blots out the light and energy of the Beyond, of that Higher Plane.
Living in the Industrial Age as American abundance and its culture of work-and-freedom began to produce stupendous amounts of material goods (although not yet the widespread and amazing material luxuries of the later 20th century and its consumerist ethos), Adams could sense the queasy dizziness that was beginning to affect American life even in the 1890s and early 1900s. A kid left in Disneyworld with unlimited credit and no adult supervision and no closing-time might well feel such dizziness, especially in the company of a lot of other kids equally dizzy with such enjoyable and pleasurable ‘freedom’. You can see where something like that might go.
And there would develop a lethal dynamic: the “Trusts and Corporations” (indicative of the combination of economic and political power) would come to be seen as the providers, enabled by a Congress and Executive that gave them unbridled sway over society and culture and the economy; and which would exert powerful pressure for the military to be sent out to ensure ever-wider markets around the world. The "Trusts and Corporations" would come to be seen as the ‘real’ providers and before long as – for all practical purposes – the Ultimate Provider.
The kids, if apprised of the source of their magically unlimited credit, and of the authority to keep the park open and all the rides running and all the food shops cooking and baking away … well, the kids might just come to mistake such an authority as the Ultimate Provider. Church, Sunday-school, darkling and weighty matters such as character and virtue and sin and human limitations and consequences and responsibility and such have no place in such an apparently eternal Saturday at the amusement park. After all, the kiddies would whine, the whole idea of an amusement park is to get away from the labors and chores of quotidian life; the whole idea of an amusement park is precisely that it is not a Vale of Tears. Ronald Reagan could hardly disagree. And why bother yourself with the fact that behind the Trusts and Corporations, it is the mighty Dynamo that drives the electric lights and the machines that make the rides?
And – not to simply blame it all on ‘the Republicans’ – the assorted equivalents of those Trusts and Corporations on the Left, the advanced-level professional advocacies seeking to justify their own sugar-spun dampdream Agendas for total-autonomy and the choice-filled life actually worked to undermine any human days except the Weekend Day At The Ever-Fun Amusement Park; any other ‘day’ was merely oppression and limitation and a discourse-of-power that served only to ruin your day with worries you didn’t need to have.
From both Right and Left wayyyy too many Americans became kiddies – infantilized, as the professionals would say.
In his fears about the Dynamo – though he was not yet in an era of enveloping amusement parks that beggared any such simple joys as a country-fair – I think Adams has been proven correct.
Acutely, Bacevich homes in on Adams’s fear that “Christianity as a formula for ordering human affairs” has been supplanted.
Yes and more than Yes. Because this matter cannot be construed simply as a case of one ‘approach’ replacing another in the endless human cycle of invention and re-invention. Christianity is not simply a fashion – like the length of skirts or the width of ties – that come in and go out like the unending tides. What is at stake – and what demands an answer – is the Question: does genuine Christianity accurately represent the actual (multiplanar) reality and Reality? Because if it does, then whether or not it is the ‘in’ fashion or the ‘out’ fashion among humans is – not to put too fine a point on it – irrelevant.
If genuine Christianity is accurate, then there is a Reality ‘Up There’ that will continue to exist (and operate) regardless of whether some humans care to realize it.
Nor do I here worry that that Reality will punish humans for such an act of lese majeste. Rather, human ignorance will itself punish humans, much as an untrained driver who doesn’t realize that the car has several forward gears spends years driving around in 1st gear (or Drive Low), subjecting the driving experience to far more delay and expense and frustration, and cutting off far more of the positive benefits of driving, then ever needed to have been the case. Disregard of the Real punishes itself; the Real doesn’t have to come down and do much of that at all.
Thus the consequences and Consequences (those nasty and oppressive things) of “the frantic pursuit of self-liberation” in Bacevich’s phrase.
No vessel – no matter how small or how large – exists as an island unto itself (to mix a metaphor, but you get the idea). It exists in an infinitely larger surround of huge natural forces and their potential to wreak lethal havoc, relies on ports along its path, other ships (especially if things go south), and it must constantly monitor itself for the operational integrity of its own vital inner dynamics and its inner systems and their workings. There is no such thing as total-autonomy and not even the most competent or tyrannical or megalomaniac captain is ‘totally free’ (ocean-going ships cannot be driven along on land, for example) and for that matter, even in their own element and in pursuit of their own purpose they can be wrecked, as you saw with Ahab monomaniacally chasing his Great White Whale and none of his crew able to muster the political will to put a stop to it before he took himself, the ship and all of them (except Ishmael floating on that coffin) to ultimate wrack and ruin.
A realistic awareness of Shape – which itself imposes limitations – liberates one from the insidious and queasy and death-making seduction of the boundary-less (and thus Shape-less) self and life.
This has not been a wisdom ever easy for Americans to accept. This was a land of abundance and in terms of world-historical affairs an almost story-book insulation from the consequences of having to live cheek-by-jowl with potential rivals, invaders, and that darkling host of historical entities and actors who have served other nations and peoples as helpful reminders that the world doesn’t revolve around you and your own affairs. (Recall J. G. Ballard’s book – and the film made from it – “Empire of the Sun”, where the coddled little English kid growing up in Singapore in 1942 suddenly finds out, through a resounding whack in the chops from his heretofore submissive and attentive native nanny, that the Brits have blown it, the forces of a surging Asia are in the ascendant, the Japanese Army is coming down the street, and the world – who knew? – didn’t exist merely as a playground for his personal desires and whimsies).
But the current cohort of Americans, in their several generations and age-groups, has now an opportunity presented to no other Americans before them: not only is the country in a very tight spot indeed, but it is in most certain decline. Indeed, the whole thing has happened so fast that many who had attained the age of reason in that magical quarter-century of 1945-1970 have seen everything go south under their very noses. We are rapidly becoming Great Britain in 1946, except that for Us there will be no New World giant on whose coat-tails at least a decent simulacrum of international status and economic viability might be maintained.
This is a challenge greater even than that which confronted the generations who had to face that rendezvous with destiny imposed by World War 2.
We are on Destiny’s home turf now, and not as conquerors or hegemons.
It would help – perhaps hugely – if We as a nation understood Ourselves to be on Providence’s home turf (as if any humans ever weren’t), but the Correct Stance of anti-Beyond imposed by secularizing elements and pandering pols has robbed many of even that (marvelous and robust) Consolation and Strength.
So, as one Civil War general once put it, we are going into battle with “one boot on”, and only one … if even one.
As scripture might put it, We have not been wise-virgins at all (the image works on sooooo many levels).
Now comes a crucible of fire. But for those who understand the ways of the Beyond, the challenge is an invitation to a maturity and solid real-ness that this velveteen-rabbit political and societal culture of latter days has willfully thrown aside, even as an ideal to which one might aspire and around which one might Trellis one’s personal and collective hopes and energies and purposes and goals. Thus is decline (or worse) a “muse of fire” for those willing to enter into its searing aura.
It was Roland Barthes (if I recall correctly) who rejected ideals because where you have an ideal you will sooner or later have “coercion”: you will have to try to forcefully master your lower urges in order to get your Self in hand, and perhaps oppress others by making them conform as well, or even ‘oppress’ them just by the vivid force of your own example.
Thus genuine Christianity’s potential as an alternative to the flattening monoplanar and ultimately megalomaniac cockiness of the totally-autonomous ‘secular liberation’ exists as an affront and a rival to the New Correct Order.
It has always struck me as odd: if you could travel on an airline whose pilots demonstrated the Correct ideals of the choice-filled, totally-autonomous self, would you? If they started out across the field from the terminal with no regard to the lines painted on the tarmac or the myriad flashing lights and arrows and with no regard for the tower’s instructions; if they decided once airborne that they didn’t feel like flying at the prescribed altitude for (say) West-bound flights and were exercising their ‘choice’ to fly at the altitude they felt like tonight; if they decided they really didn’t feel like flying to the Coast at all but preferred to go look at Canada today; if they really considered themselves oppressed by the Prime Directive never to try to fly in reverse … who would fly such an airline?
You see where this sort of thing can go.
*Yes, there were also more mundane reasons: the maintenance of the Papal States as a secure base of the Church’s and Papacy’s influence occupied the Popes of the 19th century. So did the divisions between those – even in the upper ranks of the hierarchy – who sought to somehow engage Modernity in order to somehow co-exist with it and those who feared that – as one doughty Cardinal put it, and not without some acuity – “freedom of religion is freedom for irreligion”; his assumption being that if you have a ship loaded with passengers (‘souls’ as they were known then) that is floating tolerably well on the ever-dangerous sea, then the ‘freedom’ to tinker with its core dynamics or overhaul them or dispense with them altogether is madness; how – he wondered – could you consider the license to deform, destroy, or dispense with the genuine grasp of humanity to be any sort of actual and genuine ‘freedom’ at all?
**Some authors suggest that since Modernism was the movement toward a monoplanar human reality (only this Plane of Existence exists; rather than the multiplanar human reality of this-world and also a Beyond), then technically post-Modernism would indicate a swing back to the state of affairs before Modernism took hold (the Age of Faith, as it might be called, which flourished some centuries ago but retained its efficacy until relatively recently). In their view what many call today ‘post-modernism’ is actually not that at all; rather it is a form of hyper-Modernism where all the most lethal potentials of Modernism (the denial not only of a Beyond but of the possibility of any human ability to ‘know’ anything – which thus utterly undermines any workable and sufficiently strong Grounding or Shaping of human life individually or collectively). In this Post, just to let your mind get used to it, I will use ‘hyper-Modern’ to describe Our current wracked state of culture, and post-Modern will refer to that heark-back to a time when humans had some workable Grounding in the Beyond and were Shaped by it (resulting in the genuine freedom that stems from knowing their own purpose and role in the cosmos, in Creation).
Labels: American culture and philosophy, Andrew Bacevich, christianity, secularism