I saw an article from Tony Equale’s Blog about the film Catholics (aka The Conflict) that was made in 1973 from a novel.
My attention was first brought to this film when I went on a trip to the USA in 2002 and someone gave me a copy of the VHS cassette. It seemed to me to be a story of the Recusants in the 16th century transposed to the issues surrounding Roman Catholic traditionalists like Archbishop Lefebvre in that era. Then came the surprise, this staunch Irish abbot turned out to have lost his faith – the major twist in the story.
I have already had some acquaintance with articles by Tony Equale, a laicised Roman Catholic priest with a frustrating philosophy of life, a sort of materialism that claims in some way to be spiritual. I feel discouraged from going into his thought in any great depth. In terms of metaphysics, only the particular has any existence, not the universal as in Plato. The usual precedent of this notion is Nominalism, said by some to be largely at the origin of Protestantism in the sixteenth century. I have some sympathies for Nominalism, because one can love a person but not humanity or “people”. You can see and touch a chair, not the universal idea of “chairness”. I feel some repulsion in terms of strangers and people I don’t know, with whom I have never related in any way. Plato’s universal idea can give us an explanation of the notion of spirit and symbol, but seems awfully cerebral and un-Romantic. At the same time, my love for Eastern Orthodox (especially Russian) theology and philosophy brings me close to the Platonic notion of metaphysics and the essential unity of everything.
The story of Catholics is quite harrowing, on the surface a tale of hypocrisy or a complete lack of coherence. Why defend the Mass of the Ages (la “Messe de toujours”) if you have come to “grow out” of faith, belief in symbol and miracle, all that is contemplative and wondrous in Christianity, all that sets it apart from a simple moral teaching or a system for “controlling the masses”? It is almost disappointing not to see a victory of the recusants, but rather the capitulation of the leader and the scattering of the flock.
There might be an under-flowing thought that the 1970’s are back with a vengeance in the Roman Catholic Church with the election of Jorge Bergoglio to replace both John-Paul II and Benedict XVI, closing the loop with the aspects of Paul VI most influenced by the aggiornamento ideology following Vatican II. Our story may seem to one of bog-Irish folk surrounded by the harsh environment of the sea, one of stubborn Irishmen – though there was less of a traditionalist reaction in Ireland than in France. The Irish were more obedient to the Pope, as were the Italians and some of the English RC’s to an extent.
Equale suggests that the reality was much less binary than liberals and traditionalists, but that Roman conservatism simply assumed other appearances and forms: Paul VI was no less “reactionary” than Pius XII, and Francis is something of a paradox. For a “liberal”, Vatican II was never implemented, and authoritarianism continued in a re-looked version. Perhaps a less authoritarian and contemplative viewpoint would be more sympathetic to a liturgical life – where most of the RC traditionalists are more in favour of totalitarian politics to make their ideas compulsory for all, an essentially Enlightenment and moralist view. Perhaps not Hitler and Mussolini in style, but at least Pinochet and Franco!
As we get through the film, we find the tortured state of the Abbot’s spiritual life and belief. To quote Equale:
Can a monk be an atheist? … can there be Christianity without God? We learn from the private conversation between O’Malley and Kinsella, that the abbot’s support for the regressive practices of his monks is ironically driven by a guilty compassion: he does not want to deny the people the consolations of the Catholicism that his atheism rejects. The irony is profound. An abbot who does not believe in God feels compelled to promote an archaic, superstitious ritual that educated Christians and the Vatican no longer accept as valid, simply to protect the uneducated from disillusionment.
It is not always “plain sailing” for a priest or a monk when circumstances of life change the essential premisses of a religious conversion. We seem to have something that suggests the struggle of Bonhöffer as he saw the Lutheran church of which he was a pastor collaborate with Hitler. He conceived of an idea of Christianity without God. One cannot feign belief without shattering his own integrity. Equale seems to present his own motivations for leaving the priesthood and pursuing another way of life. Is it possible to remain a Christian without believing in God? What or who is God? Will we seek a scientific or a mythological explanation, or simply deny everything that is not material? Equale mentions that this agonising choice lies at the basis of the Grand Inquisitor. I do find it preferable to go to thinkers like Berdyaev who have harmonised Slavophile thought with the influence of Romanticism, German Idealism and ancient Gnosticism in its more orthodox or moderate expressions. A finer notion of God begins to emerge, one with which we can relate.
The Abbot is characterised by his altruism, his care for simple Catholic folk who sought faith and hope in symbol and miracle. He and other real and fictitious characters have fought this combat between their loss of faith and sense of pastoral duty, and it is interesting to dwell on this state of things. Sometimes we find ourselves in a way of life that is absolutely not ours. It can be the priesthood or marriage – or both. We all have to return to roots to perform essential “reality checks” on ourselves – and only the bravest will act according to their convictions. Then there is our notion of God: has it developed beyond the “Demiurge” of the Old Testament who rewards and punishes towards a notion of a universal consciousness in which everything participates with our own consciousness? We can know nothing of the essence of God if not by Revelation, but we can make the effort to get some idea. That is the point of studying theology.
I have only ever heard of miracles at second or third hand. A miracle is not simply something wonderful like a sunset or a scintillating sea, a towering cliff or a mountain or the birth of baby humans and animals. It is something like the unexplained cure of a disease or disability, exorcisms, blind recovering their sight, someone with almost no brain tissue having a normal life and rational faculties. I have lived a very ordinary kind of life, but I do remember an exorcism at Triors Abbey, and I overheard some of the guttural cries from one of the rooms of the guest house. Whatever it was, it was not mental illness and it frightened the wits out of me! Some people do relate sincere accounts of miracles and wonders. Why should we assume they are not telling the truth even without scientific proof? Some people are charlatans, and others are honest and sincere.
There are the miracles of the New Testament and in the history of the Church. Why should they be all assumed to be false or lies? Miracles also happen in worlds outside our experience of “matter”. Unlike Equale, I don’t believe in matter, but rather in energy and consciousness which produce an illusion of matter. In such a perspective, anything is possible.
Certainly the Church has made too much of a “machine” of God, grace, miracles, forgiveness of sin and everything we hope for from God and the Church. Country parish religion can sometimes be a little much to swallow for someone with a humanist education, but it beats materialism hands down!
It is perhaps salutary to see how priests have lost the faith and kicked everything in. What do they end up with? I can only begin to imagine what many priests went through in the 1960’s as they eschewed an authoritarian Church in the pursuit of something closer to the plain reading of the Gospels and a fairly anarchical Christ. Many priests met women and married. Others sought solace in science and sociology to get away from the Deux ex machina of neo-Scholasticism. Others become Protestant pastors or converted to other religions. Dom Bede Griffiths sought to harmonise the Christian message with Hinduism and its tradition of the wise elder. The quest for the spiritual can take us in all kinds of directions as happened with Thomas Merton. When I was a working guest at Triors Abbey, I quickly saw that I was entirely foreign to a monastic vocation in the reality of that community – even though I respected and esteemed the Abbot and the monks. The spiritual idea in our Romanticism is so elusive and unattainable. Either it is false and illusory – or simply we are unworthy due to our sins and blindness.
Another message comes through from Catholics. As we read in Pascal’s Pensées: L’homme n’est ni ange ni bête, et le malheur veut que qui veut faire l’ange fait la bête. Man is neither an angel nor a beast, and the problem is that whoever wants to act like an angel, acts like a beast. The translation isn’t perfect but it will have to do… When we try to excel in spiritual life beyond reasonable limits, it is often the “dark side” or simply our weakness that takes over. The worst enemies of the Church have often been the most bigoted and devout, as many of the worst revolutionaries in the 1790’s were former Jansenists. We need to seek reasonableness and moderation, which are not to be confused with mediocrity or lukewarmness. This has always been a strength in Anglicanism.
I would not tar all traditionalists with the same brush as the Abbot who was faithless yet tried to be a father to his community and the lay people who attended his Mass. Many are excessive, and others are worthy of respect in their constance and Christian witness. We need to make vital distinctions.
We all have lessons to learn.