Monolithic Catholicism? – Fr. H. A. Reinhold (1949)

[By: Reinhold, H A (Hans Ansgar). Source: Orate Fratres, 23 no 5 Mar 20 1949, p 210-215.]

YOU receive a feeling of COMFORT and RELAXATION as the GLOWS of the altar and Infant penetrate the darkness of your home. . . Christ the Shepherd at the age of four [cute, isn’t it?] holding Lamb, 8 inches high, or the HOME ALTAR with guardian Angel, 7 inches high, are both REALLY and TRULY the MOST BEAUTIFUL glowing [hold your breath, please] savings bank statues you have ever seen.”

Goodbye, good old piggy bank, un-glowing, un-inspiring, dark at night, giving no relaxation! Now it is the cute Shepherd or the 7″ guardian angel on an “altar” — and what an altar! I always thought a pig an apt symbol to store lucre in. But someone had a better idea: he consecrated (the first time ever offered: glowing, inspiring, devotional) our Lord Himself, slot in head, to drop your holy nickels in. And there was no outcry of horror from the Holy Name Society, founded against blasphemy. No authority steps in to stop this ridiculous business, this irreverence par excellence, this messing up of the holy with lucrative sentimentality. The ends justify the means, it seems.

Why are protests against such spiritual misdemeanors so rare among us? A Catholic seems to be able to attract national attention and to get his name in the “Religion” department of one of our slicker and tongue-in-cheek weeklies if he just says something that is not straight anti-communist, something in the line of the Legion of Decency, or if he makes one of the run-of-the-mill pronouncements of one of the well-approved organizations of stalwart defenders of the Body Catholic. The “outside” — which is a term well betraying our attitude as a besieged minority — must have the idea that the Catholics are what Moscow calls “monolithic”: a vast body of members controlled, moved and stopped by only one mind, the Pope’s. It is precisely this “outside” view which Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body called a misconception of the great mystery. And because of the danger that the word “Body,” used without qualification, might convey such a misconception, the Holy Father decided that the word “mystical” (though neither biblical nor of very old tradition) should always be added. The unqualified use of “Body” is all too liable to suggest the idea of but one brain and a lot of incomplete beings — cells or members.

But as I said above, the outside world does have this notion of Catholics, and expects individual Catholics, or units, such as orders, dioceses, organizations and all their mouthpieces, to be nothing but a regimented mass of centrally controlled cells. That is perhaps one * of the reasons why our love of freedom, of democracy, and of individual, creative dignity is so often questioned by others. And I am not so sure that Catholics, high and low, deep down in their unconscious, are altogether free from this robot conception of the Mystical Body, the Church. It seems that even among us so many have the idea that we are a fighting army, a minority, and that we must look monolithic to the enemy. And all who are “different” are our enemies, and must surrender unconditionally. A military conception in every respect. We are all in the Catholic “uniform,” according to this mentality. Our papers and our pastor tell us exactly what to think on every single issue. It is all as clear and simple as that. Well, is it?

The Church has different rites and languages in the liturgy. She has a married clergy in the East and an un-married Western clergy. She has religious orders that live and think in such different ways that they are worlds apart in their mentality and at one with one another only in dogma, morals and union with the Holy See. The Church’s piety ranges from Salvation Army-like revivalism to liturgical stateliness that is Anglican-like. The mystery of predestination makes the Thomists look like camouflaged Calvinists to their opponents, and the Molinists like Pelagians sneaked into the fold to theirs. And yet you may be either and still be a good Catholic provided you don’t call the other (audibly) a heretic. You may be a monarchist or a republican, a capitalist or a near (non-marxian) socialist. You may do all of this, believe one or the other, and be one or the other, and still be a good Catholic. Where on earth did we get our sectarian narrowness and “monolithic” uniformity? We need more willingness to take up an issue that may be controversial and to suffer being called names. The old saying: In necessariis (faith and morals) unitas; in dubiis (all other fields) libertas; in omnibus caritas, still applies. And one thing is pretty sure: advertising “religious” — cants a non cañendo! — goods for sale is certainly among the doubtful things.

As to “caritas” that is to reign over everything, a few distinctions are necessary. The idea that true charity consists in ignoring the cheap, the outrageous and the harmful for the sake of peace and in order to give a “monolithic” impression, is certainly a novel one. Where would St. Thomas Aquinas have been had he simply revised the existing textbooks to make them up-to-date instead of breaking away from 600 years of tradition to find a new road towards the great mysteries, guided by, of all people, a very dubious character, the old pagan Aristotle? As Dr. W. Kahles shows in his excellent study on St. Radbert of Corvey and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the latter would never have been able to inaugurate a completely novel devotional emphasis and personal mysticism, had he not first dissented — in dubiis. His greatness consists in the fact that he first recognized that he was in the territory of “dubium” and then had the courage to chart a new course.

If such copernican ventures were possible and permissible in presumably dark ages, then shame to our educated Catholics who frown on any attempts to pick a better and less cluttered path in the less important issues of our own day! I know what some will say: in the first place, you are neither St. Thomas nor St. Bernard; and secondly, with our broadened public of readers the issues you raise will come to the ears of simple people who ought not to be confused. St. Bernard’s and St. Thomas’ battles were fought in academic halls and among the leaders only. Tom, Dick, and Harry knew nothing of them! But neither were they beset by advertising rogues in the disguise of holiness. Their ills may have been many, but it was not commercialism. And the issues of the day, like simony, schisms, and warring clergy, were seen by everybody, even the lowly peasants and drudges in the houses of city dwellers. If you give me a choice, I’d rather bring luminous piggy banks to the knowledge of the reader than a case of simony of an archbishop or a battle with swords between two bishops!

Outside the low brow Protestant sects which produce even worse hymns, pictures, tracts and calendars than some of our merchants of devotion, these things are very much noticed and discussed among people with a certain feeling for the majesty and quality of religious expression, and, believe me, they are doing the Catholic Church some harm. How this can escape people as conscious of their minority position as are we American Catholics is beyond me! If Harry Truman for some reason uses a Gutenberg Bible — possibly because it is the best printed Bible in Washington — Catholic papers splash it over the front page: he used the Vulgate, a Latin, a Catholic Bible! So far as I know, the President is still a Baptist, a Protestant, and is not wavering in his inherited allegiance to his Church. If we are not afraid of appearing slightly funny in our happiness, or pride, or glee, or gloating, or whatever caused this display, because we are so blessedly self-conscious, why do we let luminous Jesus-piggy-banks and other vendors in the temple get away with things that are certainly considered more typical of us than a precious old museum piece on the President’s rostrum?

There is so much that could give us real cause for pride. I am thinking of the magnificence of an article published by the Review of Politics (January, 1949, pp. 3ff.) on the “Christian Idea of Man.” That its author, Josef Pieper, could have escaped the attention of our Catholic publishers for so long is a mystery. Next to Maritain he is perhaps the greatest living Thomist. In a way, since his style is much simpler, the impact of his analyses on Catholic thinking should have been terrific. His definition and application of the four cardinal virtues, especially prudence, is a classic. The publication of his wonderful books on Christian virtues would certainly have been a greater contribution than the charming but un-enlightening book of Msgr. Knox on the Mass. Notre Dame and its splendid review have opened the gate to a great mind, and I hope that his debut will be followed by more and more articles and lectures. Just read his classic statements on prudence and justice, sanity and sanctity, his devastating analysis of “Christian moralism” (versus the cardinal virtue of prudence). Or his distinction between “Christian fortitude and the natural bravery of the gentleman.” It seems as new as a discovery when Pieper quotes and expounds St. Thomas and inserts the quotations from Thomas’ work into his dissertation.

On page 115 of the same issue, Hannah Arendt, one of the finest minds among living Jewish scholars, throws new light on terror in Totalitarianism. The fact that her splendid review appears under these auspices is certainly more reason for corporate pride of Catholics than the appearance of old Gutenberg’s ‘Vulgate at the presidential inauguration. She discusses Dallin’s book on Russian concentration camps, and after weighing its merits against its defects, has a few very shrewd observations to offer, quite different from the common ranting of eager reporters and half-educated commentators on this matter. “It seems that no other aspect of totalitarian regimes is more difficult to grasp than its emancipation from the profit motive and its non-utilitarian character in economic matters.” Here lie the causes for a “possible underestimation of the economic and industrial potential of totalitarian countries” and their political power. “Emancipation from utilitarian motives, arbitrary independence from all reasonable calculations such as the cost of certain actions in terms of men and material, together with a complete indifference toward all so-called human factors” (national interest, standard of living) have led “to the creation of absolute power.” The cheap labor angle is offset by the low rate of efficiency, their productivity is only a by-product of concentration-camp labor. Their true function is total domination. Miss Arendt builds up a conclusion that should stay in every mind: “The constant disappearance of people from circulation, the periodical elimination of huge masses from* the life of the community prevent very efficiently the rise of those normal economic, family, groups and other interests which would restrain unavoidably the total claim to power of the present ruler of Soviet Russia”; it all “demonstrates with horrible insistence the unimportance and superfluousness of all human individuals.”

This function is seldom recognized, while the other horrible aspects that meet the eye of more superficial observers — torture, gas chambers, malnutrition, inhuman labor, arbitrary actions of the guards, depravation of most inmates and enslavement of the victims — are so often discussed. Any similarity of tendency in the various forms of modern industrialism, especially disregard of individual dignity, must carefully be watched by Christians since Nazism and its milder form, Fascism, have proved that you don’t have to be a Marxist to build up total power in this fashion. All the more should we, who are now the haven for all sorts of refugees from Red illusions and their port of safety, avoid spiritual “monolithism” (pardon the horrible Marxian jargon!). The Catholic Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, and not a well-oiled, precise juggernaut of perfect organization with a propaganda front, a party line (“deviationists” to be shunned), and complete absorption of the individual. In a living organism a “purge” is only administered in a few cases indicated by medicine. Normally the gentle and natural metabolism and its concurrent aids take care of health.

H. A. R.