Some people have the custom of making New Year Resolutions, usually things for better health like giving up drinking alcohol or smoking. Others resolve to keep a tidy home, be better organised at work, many things. How long do such intentions last? Perhaps our resolutions can turn to our inward beliefs and values.
I was shaken by a conversation with a good friend who loves sailing and is an artist. He discussed the death of Pope Benedict XVI. For him, Josef Ratzinger was a reactionary and God’s Rottweiler, and did much harm by opposing and persecuting the proponents of Liberation Theology. The version put out by the media does not correspond with the image that came over to me as a Roman Catholic deacon and a Continuing Anglican priest. My friend denied the existence of any kind of afterlife and all that exists is this world in a dead universe representing our (lack of) existence before birth and after death. Perhaps I am putting words in his mouth, especially as he considers consciousness and energy to be creative of matter. We have remained friends and we seem to respect each other in spite of the gut-wrenching feeling of “What if he’s right“.
For him, Jesus existed, but his life and mission were purely moral and bringing about the kingdom (whatever that would have been) of this world. Jesus the political revolutionary, the proto-woke activist. I have seen elsewhere the kind of theory that suggests that he sought to promote liberation of the poor from the oppressor, he survived the crucifixion (no mention of the Centurion piercing his heart with a spear – which he would not survive if he were still alive), he was taken out of the tomb alive, he married Mary Magdalene and had children, he went to live in India since the south of France was still dominated by the Roman Empire. He might even have been a convert to Buddhism. I have read the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln , and the highly entertaining novel of Dan Brown on the same theme, the Da Vinci Code. We all love a good mystery and a conspiracy theory for dessert. But, the sober thought is depressing if that is true, that Jesus was no more than a political activist and that the atheists have won. Perhaps there is a form of theism that believes the same thing, whilst admitting something that gives some meaning to life and humanity.
Just today, in the midst of the for and against of Roman Catholics and others about Ratzinger, I read this article by Gavin Ashendon, What Pope Benedict can teach us about New Year resolutions. It is a thoughtful article, and it brings us to that fundamental question of whether it is all about revolutionary politics or a transcendent Kingdom, what we Romantics would call the Blue Flower, but which is none other than God and a mode of existence that is beyond the material laws of this world. We should not forget that Christians have often been in history the only ones to consider looking after the sick and the poor, and to campaign for their welfare with kings and other state authorities. The famous film Mission after the book by Robert Bolt also teaches us that thin dividing line between the Church’s service to the poor and oppressed – and bloody warfare against the oppressors. There is another line in the Scarlet and the Black, set in the darkest days of World War II in Rome. A priest expresses his desire to join the resistance and kill Nazis. Msgr O’Flaherty reminds him that they are there to help the victims of war, not to add to the killing. This is the essential difference between the teaching of the Gospel and revolutionary politics. It is too subtle for many, but I feel it profoundly.
During my time in Rome, I met several souls in the corridors of the Angelicum and the seminary where I was living. It was the Pontifical Nepomucene College, and the Czechs were still under Communism and persecution. I heard many heroic stories as well as tales of treachery, such as a seminarian sending radio messages to Communist agents with the names of the seminarians in the College. What a sad place to live, with the dourness of the American community I was with as a first-year seminarian and the spiritual refugees training for the priesthood to serve the Underground Church. It was only later, during my time at Fribourg, that the Iron Curtain came down.
What was that dreadful darkness in the eastern countries, other than replacing the spiritual Kingdom and eschatology by the imposition by force and violence of a caricature of that Kingdom on earth. Totalitarianism is expressed in both Fascism (and Nazism) and Communism, and I can only lament the similarity between the two. It is the kingdom of hell, the dystopia, what C.S. Lewis called the Abolition of Man. In those sad corridors of the Eternal City, which brought me anguish and stress, I heard among some almost a desire for death as expressed by Novalis, which I quoted in my eulogy to Benedict XVI:
In Tautropfen will ich hinuntersinken und mit der Asche mich vermischen. — Fernen der Erinnerung, Wünsche der Jugend, der Kindheit Träume, des ganzen langen Lebens kurze Freuden und vergebliche Hoffnungen kommen in grauen Kleidern, wie Abendnebel nach der Sonne Untergang. In andern Räumen schlug die lustigen Gezelte das Licht auf. Sollte es nie zu seinen Kindern wiederkommen, die mit der Unschuld Glauben seiner harren?
Two figures emerge from the mists of my memory. They had been seminarians with the Society of St Pius X and sought their vocation in the official Church. Their names were Jean-Michel Duport and François Crausaz. Both died at a young age from some form of cancer and are now in another world, so we hope and believe. I walked with both from the Via Concordia to university each morning, and we tried to understand the incomprehensible. How easy it would have been to reject and deny everything! And find oneself in a much worse predicament! Of the three convittori, Fr Alain Contat, who speaks his native French so beautifully and clearly, lives and teaches theology and philosophy in Rome to this day.
You must be optimistic! – they tell us. If there is nothing other than this world, we could concentrate on improving this world by means of politics and activism, working to help the poor. But that is an illusion. Human nature is geared towards aggression, competition and power – money being the means to these ends. Being obsessed with catastrophe and evil is also not the way. Where are we in all this? What direction will history take? A kingdom of peace? A dystopia much worse than Stalin, Hitler and Orwell’s imagination? Is our civilisation about to collapse? Many left-wing and environmental activists and Christians are fearful of this prospect. It has happened before in history, and there is no reason why it should not happen again.
I am very concerned about the denial and ridiculing of Christianity and the advent of a new puritanism: veganism, an exaggerated reaction to climate issues, the Great Reset. There is a kind of psychosis growing, even if these issues do need to be addressed. The archetypes of this transposition from eschatology to this material world were well understood by Josef Ratzinger. As I mentioned, I never met him. I once (1986) saw him cross St Peter’s Square dressed in a simple black cassock and a beret. In itself, that would tell me nothing. But, in Rome, people talk – and that’s an understatement. He has spoken many times, written articles and scholarly books. I share his ressourcement theological view, which is neither Scholastic, nor is it “Modernist” for want of a better term. He based his belief and knowledge on the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church, especially St Augustine. His philosophy and metaphysics were Platonic rather than Aristotelian. I warmed to reading his writings.
When I read Gavin Ashendon’s “He compared the current era to that of Pope Pius VI who was abducted by troops of the French Republic and died in prison in 1799“, I came back to my own thought of a need for a new Romantic movement, a way of thinking that seeks to restore imagination to humanity and the Sehnsucht for the Transcendent. In the nineteenth century, Romanticism made the revival of Christianity possible. Romantics like Byron and Shelley were atheists but their views and poetry represented a break from the arid Rationalism of the eighteenth century.
Ratzinger’s prophetic view of the Church was perhaps something like our little Continuing Anglican Churches, isolated monasteries and parishes, an Underground Church like in Russia and the Warsaw Pact countries. The clericalism and the corruption would be stripped away and the beautiful churches and much of our Christian culture would be lost. It is happening. I am an isolated priest with absolutely no pastoral ministry, but I did make choices in my life that were not very wise.
Wherever politics tried to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic. (Truth & Tolerance: Belief and World Religions).
Everything is said in two brief sentences. These are not the words of a snarling guard dog! His philosophical knowledge made him understand the same things as Orwell, Huxley and so many of us since those far-off days when those two men died. Significantly for me, Gavin Ashendon mentions Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, which my friend (mentioned above) and I watched. We saw the shortened version of the Fellowship of the Ring. I have since bought the DVDs of the long version, and I prepare myself for some very long sessions. Then, I will have to read the books to get Tolkien’s most profound philosophical insights. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is entertaining as a film, but the book is a complete education on medieval philosophy with some clear moral teachings. Tolkien will be that much more challenging for me. Perhaps the three books for Lent… Talk about New Year resolutions!
A long defeat? I once asked a priest what he thought of the idea that man was not progressing but rather regressing physically, intellectually and spiritually. As a traditionalist, he blamed it all on Original Sin and confirmed me in my question. I have many doubts about such a simplistic viewpoint, and I even suspect the Gnostic point of view that the Original Sin is not in creation, but in God himself. This will be blasphemy for many, but I do wonder as did Jakob Böhme and those who followed his thought and writings. Is this degeneration built into everything? Is there no final victory of Christ, consequence of the Resurrection and its eternal “validity”. That was another question I asked as a seminarian – Was the Redemption only of limited duration of effectiveness? The question is unthinkable to most Christians, and I am highly reserved about it myself. We are dealing with mystery, the unknown and a lack of evidence, either empirical or as a result of logical deduction.
Our feelings and thoughts go right the way back in history to the persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire, and throughout the earthquakes of the Reformation, the French Revolution, Communism and Nazism and the growing Beast among us right now. The sense of growing weakness is expressed in the Maranatha! – Come, Lord Jesus! of St John. We yearn not for death but the recapitulation of all things in Christ, an end to this degenerating world of sin. Even the more scientific among us there is an end to everything – unless history is cyclic as we find in eastern philosophies.
One thing I notice in our contemporaries is a waning of the use of reason. I am fortunate to have had an education, a real Bildung in the way of learning to reason and debate. I say this in all humility, thanking my late parents and teachers. Where do we see these things, even among educated politicians, like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both of whom among others went to Eton. At a popular level, what is there other than small-talk about football? The ladies have other subjects, often just as boring to outsiders. I am astounded by the ignorance of journalists when they describe Benedict XVI as having been a Nazi (other than being conscripted in the Hitlerjugend on pain of severe sanctions) or having been a spiteful man. They did not research their subject but went by idées reçues. The same kind of intolerance as during the Kristallnacht is returning. The braying crowd shouts Cancel culture, unaware that they call for their very abolition as human beings. On the other side, multi-billionaires are preparing their new feudalism on almost the entire world population – if they get away with it.
Joseph Ratzinger also said (quoted from Gavin Ashendon):
To have Christian hope means to know about evil and yet to go to meet the future with confidence. The core of faith rests upon accepting being loved by God, and therefore to believe is to say Yes, not only to him, but to creation, to creatures, above all, to men, to try to see the image of God in each person and thereby to become a lover.
It is this faith and hope that confers a right reason on us, the capacity for love, kindness and tolerance. These are definitely my own values, which make me pass for a weak person, without will to be competitive.
If might is right, then love has no place in the world. It may be so, it may be so. But I don’t have the strength to live in a world like that. – Fr Gabriel in Mission.
Keep out of politics. Carry the Blessed Sacrament and let the bastards shoot you. It is the death of a martyr. The atheists and materialists would ask “What’s the use? There is nothing after death. You cease to exist”. Even that would be preferable to such anti-humanism and bestiality. Christ said many times in the Gospel that self-sacrifice is preferable to politics and violence. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.
I remain a Christian in spite of the temptations. Christianity, in spite of the sins and shortcomings of many of its clergy, remains a force for good. This is the purpose of my life, expressed in little things for which I will not become powerful or famous.
May you all go through your values and become aware of this inestimable gift to be called to be good, do good and encourage good in others. Happy New Year 2023!
Dear Fr. Anthony: many thanks for your deep and reflective wisdom. And God’s blessings on be upon you this year and always!