Review by Michael Davies
The Devastated Vineyard,
Dietrich von Hildebrand (Roman Catholic Books, 1985),
paperback, 254 pages.
(Available from The Angelus Press, $12.50 pp.)
This is the second review in a series designed to help traditional Catholics build up a library which will enable them to present our cause in an informed, documented, and balanced manner. The list of books I shall be recommending is quite extensive, but nowhere near as extensive as I would wish. Some of the most valuable books are no longer available, and I deeply regretted not being able to include them on my list. Paramount among these was The Devastated Vineyard by Dietrich von Hildebrand. I have long prayed that someone, somewhere, would have the courage to republish this book, and, to my surprise and delight, it has just become available again. Such is its importance that I have brought it right to the top of my list.
The Devastated Vineyard is a crucially important book for two reasons, firstly for its content, and secondly, for the status of its author. It would hardly be necessary to convince readers of The Angelus that most American dioceses are under the effective control of Modernists. They control the entire diocesan bureaucracy dealing with every aspect of Church life, from education to the media, and, of course, they also control the Catholic media. They have adopted the very effective technique of ridiculing those who dare to protest against their innovations as being uneducated, narrow-minded, and dim. It makes little difference whether the person protesting is a priest or a layman. I recollect how, some years ago, Archbishop Hunthausen, of Seattle, dismissed with contempt the complaints made by a group of laymen concerning the dangerous publication, Christ Among Us, by Anthony Wilhelm. "Back to your hovels, peasants," was his response, "and that right quickly lest I call upon my trusty pursuivants to whip you there!" He didn't express himself in precisely these terms. His exact words were:
I consider that such an evaluation is incumbent upon me and not upon a group such as yours which, no matter how motivated by good will you might be, is nonetheless ill-equipped professionally and theologically for such a task. I assure you that I have engaged the counsel of professionally competent people to select and evaluate religious education materials. I have complete confidence in their ability to carry out this important mission.
In 1984 the imprimatur was withdrawn from the book on the specific instructions of the Vatican, which proved that the professionally and theologically incompetent laymen were correct, and the Archbishop and all his professionally competent experts were wrong. But, sadly, when the protest was made his response would have been more than adequate to convince most clergy and laymen that the critics of Christ Among Us were no more than a bunch of ill-informed cranks. All too many people assess the value of a judgment not by its intrinsic merits but by the status of the person making it. It is, therefore, of inestimable benefit to the traditional movement when a person of some academic or intellectual stature endorses our position. In the case of Dietrich von Hildebrand we do not simply have a scholar of repute, but an intellectual giant. When set beside von Hildebrand, the Hunthausens of this world, and their innumerable professionally competent people, appear as no more than a bunch of intellectual, theological and spiritual pygmies.
Dietrich von Hildebrand was the son of a famous sculptor, Adolf von Hildebrand. He was born in 1889, had obtained a doctorate by 1912, became a Catholic in 1914, and began lecturing in the University of Munich in 1919. He was one of the first Catholic intellectuals to recognize the intrinsic evil of Nazism at a time when many Catholics, including priests and bishops, were hailing Hitler as an inspired national leader. The Nazis sought to kill him for his opposition to their grotesque philosophy of racism. His life in the pre-war years could form the subject of an intensely thrilling movie. He escaped from Germany to become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna. In 1938 came the Anschluss, Austria was annexed by Hitler. Nazi agents went straight to von Hildebrand's apartment to arrest him, but he escaped in an almost miraculous fashion to Switzerland. In 1939 he took up an appointment in France as a professor at the University of Toulouse. In 1940 the Gestapo was on his track once more, this time determined to assassinate him. He escaped to Spain, traveled to Portugal, reached Brazil, and eventually got to the U.S.A. where he became Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, where he taught until 1960 when he retired.
Professor von Hildebrand died in 1977. He left a legacy of thirty books, countless articles, and thousands of pages of unpublished writing. He had a worldwide reputation as an authority on philosophy, theology, ethics, aesthetics, the liturgy, and Christian marriage. The influence of his writing on marriage, purity, and consecrated virginity can be discerned in the allocutions of Pope Pius XII who admired him greatly, as does the present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. In 1970, Pope Paul VI bestowed upon him the Order of St. Sylvester in recognition for his witness to truth.
Just as von Hildebrand had recognized the dangers of Nazism from its very inception, he was one of the first to appreciate the danger of the resurgence of Modernism following the Second Vatican Council, and disguising itself as the "spirit" of the Council. His book Trojan Horse in the City of God appeared soon after the Council, and sounded the alarm when most Catholics, priests and bishops in particular, were still in a state of euphoria. The great philosopher had shown no regard for his reputation, or his own personal safety, when he spoke out against Nazism. He showed similar courage in his denunciation of neo-modernism. This not only made him anathema to the new modernist bureaucracy, but, as the years passed and his exposure of the, Trojan Horse grew more outspoken and more specific, he began to lose the support of many conservative Catholics who had previously been among his most ardent admirers. Many conservatives found The Devastated Vineyard more than they could tolerate, and it is in no way exaggerating to speak of a conspiracy of silence within the conservative movement to restrict the circulation of this book.
The book appeared in 1973, and from the very first sentence in the Preface the author pulled no punches:
Today we can no longer call the situation in the holy Church "The Trojan Horse in the City of God." The enemies who were hidden in the Trojan Horse have stepped out of their encasement and the active work of destruction is in high gear. The epidemic has advanced from scarcely recognizable errors and falsifications of the spirit of Christ and the holy Church, up to the most flagrant heresies and blasphemies.
In this Preface he sets out the purpose of his book in very clear terms:
The purpose of this book is, first of all, to give a short, clear presentation of the principal errors which are being presented today as a breakthrough to the "modern" man who has "come of age," whom one can supposedly no longer expect to believe the teaching of the Church in the form it has taken up to now . . . Secondly, we shall especially try to unmask those hidden, subtle errors which are usually introduced under beautiful, apparently noble titles, and whose danger is often overlooked even by believing Catholics.
The Author sees the Faith being undermined from two directions. He has no doubt at all that there is an organized conspiracy involving Freemasons and Communists: "For the Church is the arch-enemy of Freemasonry, and is the principal hindrance to the Communists in their conquest of the world." He has no hesitation in postulating the existence of a "fifth column" within the Church: "People who pretend to be Catholics, who assume offices in the Church, are seeking from within, under the banner of reform and progress, to destroy the Church."
Von Hildebrand sees the second attack upon the Faith as coming from men who do not seek the disappearance of the Church, "but who rather want to transform the Church into something which completely contradicts her meaning and essence." In apportioning blame for the devastation in the vineyard of the Lord, he did not mince his words and made an outright attack upon the generality of bishops, "men who make no use whatever of their authority when it comes to intervening against heretical theologians or priests, or against blasphemous performances of public worship. They either close their eyes and try, ostrich-style, to ignore the grievous abuses as well as appeals to their duty to intervene, or they fear to be attacked by the press or the mass media and defamed as reactionary, narrow-minded, or medieval. They fear men more than God. The words of St. John Bosco apply to them: 'The power of evil men lives on in the cowardice of the good.' "
Does this sound like a description of your friendly, neighborhood bishop? If it doesn't, you are indeed blessed. It is hardly surprising that such outspokenness did not endear the author to timid conservatives who felt that they had made a significant achievement in defense of orthodoxy whenever they could persuade one of these unworthy prelates to appear upon the platform at a public meeting. "One is forced to think," he writes, "of the hireling who abandons his flock to the wolves, when one reflects on the lethargy of so many bishops and superiors . . ." He has no hesitation in adding that obedience to such bishops "becomes inappropriate at a time when uncondemned heresies wreak havoc within the Church, infecting even certain bishops, who nevertheless remain in office. Should the faithful at the time of the Arian heresy, for instance, in which the majority of bishops were Arians, have limited themselves to being nice and obedient to the ordinances of these bishops, instead of battling the heresy?"
The great philosopher cannot restrain his indignation at the hypocrisy of bishops who tolerate heresy but persecute any members of their flock who dare to make a stand for orthodoxy:
The drivel of heretics, both priests and laymen, is tolerated; the bishops tacitly acquiesce to the poisoning of the faithful. But they want to silence the faithful believers who take up the cause of orthodoxy . . .
When I review a book I usually mark passages which I would like to quote. In my copy of The Devastated Vineyard I have marked so many that it is the unmarked passages which stand out.
In chapter three he deals with the wishy-washy thesis that we must always look for a middle way between extremes. Truth often lies in the extreme position. The Church teaches that abortion can never be right. Humanists postulate a woman's "right" to abortion on demand. Truth does not lie in some middle position of abortion only under carefully defined circumstances. I am a dogmatic extremist, a moral extremist, and a liturgical extremist. I am heartened at having the endorsement of Professor von Hildebrand for my views! It is, as he expresses it, impossible to be "too orthodox." He urges us to "storm heaven with the prayer that the spirit of St. Pius X might once again fill the hierarchy, that the great words anathema sit might once again ring out against all heretics, and especially against all the members of the 'fifth column' within the Church."
Chapter Eight is entitled "The Great Disappointment," and describes, of course, the aftermath of Vatican II. He notes, in terms similar to the recent declaration of Cardinal Ratzinger, that none of the expected benefits have followed the Council. And as for the liturgical reform: "The new liturgy is without splendor, flattened, and undifferentiated . . . truly, if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy he could not have done it better."
Chapter Twelve exposing the "monstrosity of ecumenitis" is particularly fine. He sees the essence of the current ecumenical movement as an indifference to truth. But every chapter is so fine that it is invidious to select particular ones as superior to the others. The traditionalist who buys this book will become far better informed about the contemporary crisis. He will also be confirmed in the stance that he has taken. He will also be inspired to fight for the Faith with even greater vigor. The final chapter deals with our response to the crisis. We are warned against the dangers of resignation, of despair, of passivity under the guise of loyalty to the hierarchy. "The devastation of the vineyard of the Lord should instead fill us with the deepest pain, and mobilize us for the fight, to be fought with all legitimate means, against everything which is evil and offensive to God, against all heresies."
The effect of this book must certainly be to mobilize all those still imbued with a sense of the faith to fight for its survival in their own countries, and it will, at the same time, be an invaluable weapon for them to use in that fight. Dietrich von Hildebrand quotes with approval the opinion of St. Francis de Sales that: "It is a deed of love to cry the alarm when the wolf breaks into the sheepfold." The wolves of Modernism are in the sheep-fold of the Lord. Dietrich von Hildebrand has sounded the alarm. It is our duty to respond, and we can begin this response by reading his book. It is a great good fortune and a blessing for us all that it is once more available.