Alberto Methol Ferré – Catholics and Western Culture (1955)

[Alberto Methol Ferré (1929 – 2009) was a Uruguayan Catholic political theorist and theologian who was influenced by Jacques Maritain, Augusto Del Noce, Fr. Lucio Gera, and various “dialectical Thomists” (Fr. André Marc, Gaston Fessard, etc). His work has also greatly influenced Pope Francis’ own thought. More information about his work and his influence can be found in Massimo Borghesi’s The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey.]

[The following text was originally published in Revista Nexo. Year I. Montevideo, September-October, 1955. Nº2. pp. 30-38]

Preliminary Note

During the occasion of the controversies raised by the Uruguayan-American military treaty in July and August 1952, some press argued that the Catholic Church was inextricably linked to Western culture and therefore to its “defense”. The ultimate conclusion from such premises was that Catholics should support the military agreement.

With the complete solidarity of various friends (Jorge Soliño, Juan P. Terra, Dante Ronco, José P. Aramburú, Eloy Gorostidi, Eduardo y Gonzalo Navarrete, and Germán Villar Eatsman) and as an answer to rude and intentional equivocations, I drafted this exposition, which is the opinion of this group in the face of a planetary problem. The manuscript circulated […] between some people, and it did not have the chance to see the light of day in any national publication. For different and even opposing motivations, no one had interest in its dissemination, It is only fitting to thank Albert Béguin, director of “Esprit”, for his understanding, his encouragement, and for having offered hospitality in his prestigious review. But I think it is too exotic for this translation (given its circumstances) to appear several thousand miles away from Montevideo. We opted for silence.

Since this pseudo-manifesto, by its nature, does not exhaust the event which caused it, and preserves its total relevance, it seems opportune to me, now that I can do it, to proceed with its publication.

[…]

I do not always share everything that I asserted here at the time. I do not believe that it has errors, but rather a hardening polemic on some levels. The theme, at its root, is that of the dialectic of transcendence and the incarnation, of the divine and human. And in these two exigencies, it seems that I excessively accentuate the first. Or better: there is never a danger in accentuating transcendence (it would be good to go too far with transcendence!), but there was a certain propensity to treat it with rigidity, as a “factor” and thus to separate it, excessively, from what is its most precious and contrary modality: the incarnation.

However, nothing will distinguish enough, in history, the grace of God with concupiscence. All religious sensibility knows, from the bottom of its heart, that “God is innocent”. It has been the concealment of our culpability in his Innocence that has provoked the rebellion of modern man, who, from the bottom of his heart, says “God is culpable”. And he makes the negation of transcendence a requirement for all health.

Introduction

Faced with the confusion which prevails today concerning the meaning and orientation of the action of Catholics in the present situation, the undersigned want to expound what they understand to be their unavoidable personal responsibility, establishing their position in the clearest possible way. And since such confusion is, for the most part, proceeding from the proselytism of social and ideological sectors who feel their existence threatened and who endeavor to recruit under their ambiguous banners the greatest number of forces, with the purely pragmatic end of defending themselves, but which are alien to the essence and vocation of Catholicism, it is essential to carry out the effort to distinguish what requires distinction and to unite what requires unity.

[…]

The Catholic Church and Civilizations

The fundamental advent of history is not any secular revolution — be it French, fascist, or communist — but the Incarnation of Christ, the center and fullness of time. Only in and through Christ is man and the world restored, and any ideology which pretends otherwise remains in the margins of essential history, that is to say, it participates in it indirectly, insofar as it can not escape the providential designs of God. In such a sense even atheists and idolatries are instrumental collaborators of Providence within the eschatological, final structure of history.

The Incarnation diffused and communicated is the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, visible and sacramental presence of the eternal in time, which it perpetuates universally and according to the spirit of the ancient mission of Israel. The Church has its source in the transcendent, not purely immanent historical values.

However, if the Church, by essence, is supernatural, and civilizations are natural, in the sense that they intrinsically depend on space and time, it is evident that there can only exist a diversity of Christian civilizations, none of which expresses life in its plenitude, The same occurs with non-Christian civilizations., since the present [actualidad] and essence coincide in perfect identity only in God. Clearly, the only absolute “Christian civilization” is the Reign of God, which is already the Church in a “pilgrim, militant, crucified” condition and which will have full completion in the Parousia.

The whole mystery of the Church is beyond history, presenting and coexisting with history itself. The fundamental fact is that history is in Christianity and not the other way around, since, it has been said with justice, sacred history is a fourth dimension, but a dimension constituent of history.

It is seen then that the different Christian civilizations are relative and impure approximations that require transcendence of themselves, and to which [absolute] value is denied. […] Historically considered, neither primitive Christianity, nor Byzantium, nor the Western Middle Ages, nor the Spanish golden age (Baroque) or the classic French period of the 17 century, are Christianity entirely realized or realizable. We say that the Christian civilizations are the refraction, more or less disfigured, of the life of the Church. Only the Church is the suitable meditation between time and eternity. The corollary of this is that, in the strict sense, theocracy in history is an error, human impatience, which dangerously confuses the temporal with the spiritual.

The conclusion from everything exhibited here is that the Church depends only accidentally on the destiny, life, and earth, of the various civilizations. It is true that the Church inserts itself in the most heterogeneous cultural, political, social, and economic environments to fulfill its mission; it lives in these structures, whatever they may be, in its necessary human dimension, but with an essential capacity of detachment from these same structures which are subject to expiration.

These are indeed dramatic historical moments of transition, in which it is essential to grow separate from the old forms in order to take root in the new, and it is there where the anxiety for the destiny of a particular culture can be a symptom of the weakness of faith and hope. The Church saves men, not cultures, and if it also does this, it is in addition [por añadidura] [to that]. Every epoch leaves its fingerprint on the Church considered socially. And therefore its own […] human disorientations or vacillations are caused either by a material inertia, which is weakness, or by the inverse, a logical prudence of spirit. When the shifts and ruptures are triggered, the new adaption, in the face of the unseen, is difficult and risky — but no less imperative now that “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

To subordinate the essential to the […] the incidental is an inversion of values. To eternalize a moment of history is therefore idolatry; in our case it would be contamination with one of the latest forms of modern naturalist thought: culturalism. Here is our problem — having established the meaning of Catholicism more than schematically — […] to interrogate our relation with today’s so-called “Western” culture, and all the connections that such a reference signifies.

Western Culture and Us

Is Western civilization Christian? The reply can only be negative, despite there still existing large social groups that remain attached to Catholicism. On the contrary, its governing norms have been structured, since the Reformation, in polemic against the Church, in the progressive dialectical negation of the spiritual and transcendent values of Catholicism, in an increasingly accentuated naturalist line, to the point of even proclaiming the death of God and reducing religion to superstition or mere subjective belief.

The great experience which is the Modern Age (which has not lacked the spirit during many periods) is that of Christian ideas “gone mad” and secularized, off-center from their original and constituent order. It is the experience of a man of Christian origin who has amputated the transcendence which sustained him in his being, and who has proclaimed his radical autonomy, detaching himself from all superior objective normativity, reflected in the multiple contractualist theories of society.

The vocation of modern man — that is, the bourgeois, understood not simply as a social class but also as a cultural type —  is fundamentally worldly. [It is] practical horizontal action, oriented towards the dominion of nature, exclusively closed on itself without verticality, and thus atheist. It is undeniable, on the other hand, that it has realized inescapable conquests on several levels, which, however, finds its authentic justification in Christianity, and not in its respective disconnected lives that border on meaninglessness.

Bourgeois civilization, especially in its final stages, has negated God and split the supernatural and the natural in a sort of continued Averroism. It puts its hope in the fruitfulness of money, in the productivity the abstract as such, [in] acquiring things for their own sake. It has elevated the means to the category of ends, feigning indifference in the face of the truth, which is what truly makes us free, [and] increasingly replacing it with the concept of the useful. Generally agnostic or deist, it lost a sense of creation and incarnation, representing one of the most irreligious forms that has occurred in history. It has emptied it of spirit and wonder, shutting an increasingly vacant immanence, which currently produces those experiences of asphyxiation in the latest philosophical and literary thought. Nihilism is its most perfect achievement.

In its cruder forms, but with broad validity, bourgeois individualism, observes Maritain,

has been practically atheist and decoratively Christian. Too skeptical to initiate any persecution, except in the case where some material interest interposed itself, it never challenged religion; holding it as something invented by priests and which little by little would be abandoned by reason and serve it as a political force which guards property, or as a bank where  each person, while enriching themselves here below, goes to secure against any possible risk in the hereafter.

[Le rôle du principe pluraliste]

Since the essential category of the bourgeoisie is possessing or having and not being, its criticism of religion is, in reality, a polemic against its own image transplanted  into [a] type of religiosity, a caricature of the true one. It believes that faith is a form of property, that it possesses [faith] as a [kind of] thing, when it is not about having, but rather about a spiritual act which affects, penetrates, and raises the very being of a person. It is necessary to point out that not a few Christians are contaminated with such a mentality. If the bourgeois only believes in the world of visible things and does not love the eternal, what can he understand other than his own mania of appropriation and security?

This type of — modern — civilization, is that which today has found itself put into question. The central fact is that we are in the presence of agony, in the epilogue of the bourgeois world ripped apart by its own contradictions and with a certain bad conscience regarding the validity of its reasons. We are in the presence, moreover, of the insurrection of colonial peoples and inferior social classes who demand justice in the face of the exploitation of liberal capitalism, and who have been victims of modern ideologies, because such ideologies, in the concrete, have reduced man to a category of exchangeable merchandise, and a mere economic factor of production, either under private capitalist enterprise, or under state power.

And then, it intends to cover up the real conflict, reducing it to the fallacious opposition between East or West, liberty or dictatorship — cheap antitheses — when the real conflict is much more grave. It is the metaphysical, social, economic, and religious crisis of the West itself, which is facing, as much in the interior as in the exterior, its own work and caricature: Marxism.

Marxism, a monstrous composite of just vindication and the negation of the spirit, participates in its substance in the naturalist and immanentist posture of the liberal bourgeoisie, and even prolongs its ultimate consequences. The analogies in this respect are numerous, it suffices by way of illustration, to indicate the obvious bond between the conception of the third positivist stage [a reference to Comte’s theory of history], and the future society without classes, or the use of aspects of Darwinism, the warhorse of the bourgeoisie in its vocation to resemble monkeys more than God. It is relevant here to point out that in this sense the biologism of the Nazis was more consistent than those who contradictorily speak of liberty of the spirit while not believing in it, pretending that it is not essentially different from matter. What a way to establish the dignity of man!

Thus, when we live in the coercive bipolarity of two single blocs, the product of a lack of historical imagination and the inability of producing new possibilities, in the middle of an infantile Manichaeism of simple oppositions between good and evil, light and shadow, etc., it is essential to see that such an idea is closer to [life] here — and not the hereafter of Christianity. It always moves in the pure immanence of history, of a history without God.

In the face of all this, what can be done? The principal thing is that, if we see ourselves committed to history, and in the oppositions raised by circumstances, we can opt only for the same values which we are responsible for. To be a Christian is not to run away from history, but rather its most total acceptance; it is not to renounce the incarnation of values, regardless of the political or social regime. In a sense, it can be affirmed that there does not exist, nor ever can exist, a regime in history that is absolutely impermeable to Christianity —  in the same manner also, every regime, whatever it may be, is an obstacle to the complete realization of Christianity.

We are not horrified, therefore, apart from what possess heartbreaking human tragedy, by the end of Modern Western Civilization, which is not a Christian civilization, which is not the end of history, nor of man, nor of the Church, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail.

We are not ignorant of all our guilt in what happens today, but we are not willing to confuse the temporal with the spiritual, to claim that the incidental and even the alien redeems what is essential, or to insist on the old error of doing politics first [hace política ante todo — probably a reference to Maurras’ slogan “politique d’abord!”].

How can we want to commit our faith to something contingent and on its way to dying? It is necessary to prepare the spirit for new historical forms, since liberal democracy is passing, just like […] all other political regimes have passed. Paradoxically, to maintain what is valuable today, one must let it die. It is understandable that whoever has put all their faith in it, by shutting out transcendence, despairs and resists. But it is not possible to accept it in those who are not in such a situation, and who [nevertheless] speak of being faithful to transcendent values. The minimum required is to state their differences and to not use God (which is the worst atheism) in defending something else besides these values.

To want historical forms to never expire is the most total abjuration of history as such. It is to debase the eternal in time and to forget that history is the place of disappointment, where God outwits the idolatries which do not consent to the law of death inherent in every finite thing. It is to lose history and the eternal at the same time.

Finally, we want to indicate that we do not believe in partial revolutions. Faced with the present situation of man, it is imperative to make an integral economic, social, and religious transformation. Whoever pretends to make it solely economic will continue to move inside the field of the bourgeois spirit, in a sterile reformism — the worst of reactionary ideas.

The structuring of an integral humanism is the most urgent — although difficult and slow — task. In this sense Christ is the permanent revolution, and it is by submitting to His demands that it will be possible, within the historical circumstances, to establish a temporal city where the person ceases to live alienated in things.

Our option does not desire to be penultimate. Thus, we are far from the farce that the present conflict is the essential conflict. And in the face of the new Babel of ideologies whose motto is “man saves himself” it is fitting to remember that “the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60). The rest will be given and done in addition.