In my previous article about the gross “artistic” aggressions against the Catholic faith that recently took place in France, I tried to weigh the motives of the self-proclaimed artists responsible for them. Now I shall turn to the reactions they provoked, both among the public at large and within the Catholic Church itself.
Seen from a dispassionate point of view, I think one word is sufficient to sum them up: apart from the demonstrations of protest staged by Catholic traditionalists, what was heard was silence, total deafening silence. A silence all the more striking as one can hardly argue it was a natural reaction to the aloofness or intellectual delicacy of esoteric masterpieces. A silence all the more intriguing as it verges on the systematic: according to the French Gendarmerie, which reluctantly released the figures, one act of desecration currently occurs every day in France, but with no public reaction.
Then the question is obvious: why this total absence of reaction?
There are different possible explanations for this fact, the most dismal of which is, I fear, the most convincing. Apart from the few rabid anti-Christians, who are of the same breed as the aforementioned half-witted artists, no doubt there are people snooty and stupid enough to claim they see significance in something that has none, and who consider as proof of high intellectual standing not to be shocked by something which in fact has no other intention than to shock. The story of the emperor who wore no clothes is an old one.
There is also in France a much greater number of people who have simply been brain-washed, with ever increasing intensity as the years go by, by decades of subjection to politically correct public education, the press, and state-controlled television. Thus they have been induced to think of Pope Pius XII as an accomplice of the Nazis, Catholic priests as child abusers, Catholic church-goers as members of the KKK, and Catholicism as a front for the protection of the rich and Jew-haters. In opposition to this more and more orchestrated propaganda, what resistance can be offered by people who are less and less equipped to form their own opinions? Ironically enough, this is particularly the case with the waning of truly Catholic (or truly religious) education, whose aim was to provide the citizens with some criterion of what is true or false, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.
It is conceivable that there is a third reason—a typically French one—for the silence of the public, even the supposedly Catholic public. Anti-clericalism has been a resilient, time-honored tradition in France since the eighteenth century and the merry events in which it culminated: it has been current opinion since the French Revolution that faith is by itself respectable, as opposed to the Catholic Church which usurps it. Since many of the so-called actors of the so-called plays were portrayed as priests, one may suppose that to a fair proportion of the viewers the whole performance was just a remake, be it a particularly vulgar one, of the age-old debunking of the clergy, a newer version of traditional jokes about them.
I’m afraid though that such tentative accounts of the basic evidence are somehow too optimistic, for they imply more or less explicitly that the public has either been somehow “framed” (literally and figuratively), or entertains no definite nor new hostility towards Christianity, but is simply ready to welcome a new style of knockabout farce. I’m afraid we are facing here not the paternal silent smile of elders used to the pranks of youngsters, but the silence of jellyfish drifting about with a total lack of interest in what lies beyond the reach of their tentacles—the silence of passengers riding a train with headphones on, iPod in hand, beating the measure of the noise that engulfs them without bothering to glance at their neighbors or the landscape. We are facing indifference to religion pure and simple. Neither active atheism, nor hostility to religious creeds, but sheer inability to consider faith important for men and society, particularly compared with real worries like the price of gasoline or the score of the upcoming soccer match. In other words, the silence of the French in this particular case seems to me to mean that the average Frenchman is not even Pascal’s “thinking reed” (“roseau pensant”) any more. (One might argue that there is an obvious interest in France for what I would call exotic creeds, but the answer to this objection will have to wait for a later issue.)
To turn now to the reaction, or, rather, the absence of reaction, from those most directly concerned with the desecration of Christ, i.e. the Catholic Church, and notably the French bishops, its meaning is no less appalling.
The silence of the official Church—for the traditionalist Catholics were not silent—was, I repeat, simply ear-splitting. Of the hundreds of French bishops, there were only two, to my knowledge, who raised any objection, and one of them in rather circumlocutory terms, to put it mildly. Whenever the events happened to be alluded to by various spiritual authorities, it was to alleviate the seriousness of the offense, and I even heard a particularly original opinion suggesting one should consider the hatred displayed as an unwitting plea for spiritual assistance, to be understood with sympathy.
There was moreover a general consensus among the hierarchy to blame the traditionalist French Catholics for taking the issue to the streets by organizing demonstrations and public prayer in front of the theaters. The Church, it was argued, is not a political party, and not only is it not fitting to act as one, but engaging in such public action would be a breach of law and order. This claim is as silly as it is hypocritical: since when has setting up demonstrations and public prayer been considered unnatural for the Church? If anything, the argument constitutes a symptom of a hidden will to stay put and do nothing. It is equally obvious that had the Catholic Church of France been willing to do something, a great deal was possible, and to start with, since public subsidies had been provided to her enemy under the pretext of artistic freedom, the Church could have asked for comparable subsidies to be given to the Christians to defend their creed in the name of a non-discriminatory policy.
So the quasi monolithic refusal of the French Catholic Church—if not the entire Catholic Church—to face the brutal challenge hurled at her raises anew the question raised by the public’s silence: why?
Again different answers come to the mind, but the most convincing seems to me to be also the most sinister.
Traditionally the Church was supposed to be a teacher, a tutor, an authority, a benevolent but ruling spiritual power. The priests used to be men endowed with a special quality, given special mysterious powers that do not pertain to men as ordinary men. However, a revolution has obviously occurred, which may be summed up by saying that the Church and her ministers now act as if vaguely ashamed not to be mere men, embarrassed not to behave like other ordinary human beings, as if averse to certain things being sacred. An example that says it all is the fact that when performing the Mass, the priests turn not towards God, but towards the people, as if to enter communion not with Christ, but with the people. It is as if the Roman Church no longer wanted men to stretch their nature towards God, but God to stoop to men. It is as if the Church did not want God to help men, but men to help themselves—which they literally do when the laymen, supposedly true believers, take the Eucharistic bread in their own hands and literally feed themselves. It is as if the Church thinks God not to have rights, but men to have them, or at least men to have them first, as if the prevailing will were not God’s, but the people’s. In a word, it is as if for the Church God were, as Ernest Renan used to say, essentially “an extraordinary man.” No wonder some priests are tempted to think the spiritual question is first of all a political and social one. Like a street vendor, the Church wants to appear unassuming and pleasant as if thinking: to be a leader, one must follow the troops. Therefore the Church must nod and smile while the people throw excrement at her: the Church is afraid of the people.
And it shows—oh so clearly in France—on the philosophical level. For there is something that frightens the Church more than the wrath of God: it is to appear intolerant. Tolerance, chant our bishops. Dialogue! Understanding! Openness! Freedom of conscience for every man and freedom to express it! Respect for others! Tolerance is the new law to be taught by the new prophets, the new meaning of God’s love for men, the only truthful expression of brotherhood among men. Tolerance is the lesson that must be taught now and again to the ever renascent unspeakable species of men who, claiming to have been awarded some special knowledge, dare challenge the right of any individual or any democratic majority to declare the truth.
Now, there must be no beating about the bush. Tolerance may mean that error should not be punishable by death—that does not entail leaving error uncorrected. But if it means there is no such thing as an error because everyone is entitled to his own opinion, tolerance is the death wish of the Church. To be tolerant is not, as people usually have it, to hate fanaticism, but to hate truth without showing it. To choose such tolerance is for the Church to choose the words of men over the word of Christ, the will of the people over the will of God, and, instead of taking her stand, to go down the drain—or rather, as in Paris, down the toilet. How on earth can the French bishops be so blind as to discard the evidence that their tolerance will be taken as the public confession of their doubts about their own worth? For them to be tolerant is exactly what their enemies seek and, just as fear aggravates the aggressiveness of the wild beast, the Church’s tolerance will spark and fuel the animosity of the ungodly, who usually enjoy trampling on what they once dreaded, as soon as it becomes obvious they were being frightened by a mere scarecrow.
Unfortunately there may be more to the silence of the priestly lambs than a desire to be popular and/or the fear they might appear antiquated or despotic. It may be that they actually have another fear, that of displaying their faith. A new instance of a too human attitude? after all Peter denied Christ three times. But it could also be that courage requires faith, and where there is no faith, there reigns supreme the deep urge to be like others, and the temptation to howl with the wolves. Then the silence of the Church may not result from an intellectual or prudential error, but from a spiritual failure.