“Here, dull and dreary people inhabit a dull and dreary landscape.” This was the sole line written to me by a downcast friend on a postcard depicting what had to be labeled a “zone of habitation” rather than an honest to goodness city. Jobless, the poor wretch had been forced to take up work and lodgings amidst these ruins of civilization for the punishment of his sins. Abandoned to his barbaric, atomistic fate without any sursum corda from the zone of habitation around him was already sufficient torture on its own. Still, what pained him much more was the fact that his fellow citizens took such blind pride in their soulless environment that they actually marketed it on the souvenir card that he posted to me.
Students of Church history know that a somewhat equivalent “postcard” is available to them for their research purposes, this one “mailed” to them from varied circles of zealous 19th-century European Catholic clerics and laymen, particularly those working out of Germany, France, and Italy. All these circles depict in their academic postcard a body of Christendom in ruins, its soul extracted from it not only by the Revolution and the spirit of the Enlightenment lying behind it, but also the rather pathetic acquiescence of the Catholic Establishment to the work of naturalist destruction, already in the decades before 1789.
There is, however, one obvious and crucial way in which this “postcard from the past” differs from the one sent me by my friend in our time. Its picture was meant to evoke revulsion over the reduction of Christendom to a “zone of habitation.” Those nineteenth century thinkers and activists who marketed it hoped to stir up anyone contemplating what it depicted to a massive work of rebuilding the kind of civilized Catholic society needed to help the human person “lift up his heart” to the truth, goodness, and beauty of things eternal rather than lower it into the swamp of fallen nature.
Such a rebuilding project, they argued, could only be undertaken properly when men’s eyes were aimed on Christ, His Incarnation, His Mystical Body, and the truth and grace provided through them. This was because “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). The Incarnation’s confirmation of the innate value of God’s Creation coming from above, made them recognize that the contemporary ruins of Christendom could not be completely destroyed; they were “still inhabited,” offering some building blocks for the work at hand. With eyes aimed upwards, they hoped to nurture the existing, indestructible goods of nature while correcting their sinful failings and transforming them in Christ, thereby constructing a new Catholic world on the rubble of its butchered predecessor. In this new Christendom, the state, the economic order, and even—as the Nazarenes, a group of artist-converts founded by Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1879-1869) and working in Rome fervently claimed—the beauty expressed by the painter, the sculptor, the architect, the musician, and the poet, playwright, and novelist could rise to the highest level imaginable (George Goyau, L’Allemagne religieuse, I, 237, 248), providing the best possible natural civilization suitable for lifting up the hearts of individuals seeking eternal life.
Such Catholic builders of the new Christendom issued two practical warnings regarding this work, the first of which was that no one could take for granted that it could somehow be mechanically guaranteed, since the constant temptation to sin in a fallen universe would remain a basic fact of life for each and every one of us until the end of time. Moreover, the naturalist, Enlightenment, revolutionary insistence on having us look for “every good and perfect gift” from below rather than from above had politically and socially intensified the enticement to reject transformation in Christ wherever it had gained a foothold. A naturalist project of this kind worked overtime to put man and society “to sleep” regarding the pull of sin, encouraging a “spirit of independence” from the truths of reality that could not help but fuel a kind of “libido for the ugliness” of wickedness, spiraling farther and farther away from the beauty of God and God’s Creation, and ending in the construction of “zones of habitation” rather than civilized societies. This citation from the “circle” around the Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica makes that point nicely:
“Starting with the words ‘I am free’ and their newly found spirit of independence, men began to believe in the infallibility of whatever seemed natural to them, and then to call ‘nature’ everything that is sickness and weakness; to want sickness and weakness to be encouraged instead of healed; to suppose that encouraging weakness makes men healthier and happy; to conclude, finally, that human nature possesses the means to render man and society blissful on earth, and this without faith, grace, authority, or supernatural community…since ‘nature’ gives us the feeling that it must be so” (La Civiltà Cattolica, I, 6, 1851, 497-498).
A second “builders’ warning” concerned the proper hierarchy of values. Crucially important as the construction of a civilized Catholic society was in aid of the sursum corda. Individuals seeking eternal life with God need to get from the environment in which they live. The effort to reconstruct Christendom as such had to be understood as an indirect endeavor. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God” had to be the activist’s order of the day, since it is only through the human person primarily aiming at his transformation in Christ that the rest of the world could secondarily go through the crucially necessary purgation provided by the truth and the grace of the Incarnation at his hands. To cite La Civiltà Cattolica once more, there would be a real perfection of the world around us only when it was “transfigured vitally through individuals,” “by means of the individual operation of each member of the faithful…divinized by grace” (La Civiltà Cattolica, ii, 9, 1855, 134-135; iv, 3, 1859, 414-426).
In other words, Christ’s mission was not to build a civilization but to make men Sons of God who, in following His teaching could not help but work to that civilizing end anyway. Christianity was not to be taken seriously because a beautiful civilization bore its name—this was the error of a contemporary of the circles we are considering, René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). Rather, it was to be taken seriously because it was true, and it created a beautiful civilization because its faithful took these truths to heart and followed them. To think and act otherwise would be to invert the hierarchy of values and set oneself up for the kind of fall that we will address below.
One poignant way of coming to grips with the complex hopes of the project under discussion, along with the perils of neglecting the “builders’ warnings” concerning how its foundation might collapse, is by taking a closer look at one of the most important among the circles involved in this work. This was the Congregation of St. Peter, which the charismatic Abbé Félicité de Lamennais (1782-1854) assembled at his estate of La Chênaie to study methods for resuscitating dormant Christendom through vigorous Catholic Action. The Mennaisiens, as their opponents contemptuously labeled them, included in their ranks a large number of men who were to play major roles in all fields, clerical and lay, for many decades to come, often vociferously so.
Lamennais was primarily an activist, with the real theologian and “all around intellectual” of the operation being the Abbé Philippe-Olympe Gerbet (1798-1864), who from 1854 onwards served as the Bishop of Perpignan. Gerbet always remained deeply inspired by his mentor’s initial zeal for transforming the world in Christ. In 1836, along with several other former members of the La Chênaie circle, he founded a religious, philosophical, scientific, and literary monthly review of eighty pages an issue entitled L’Université catholique (The Catholic University), designed to serve as an institution of higher education for the faithful, substituting for the state structures, which were highly secular. Through forty published volumes in the nearly twenty years of his involvement with it, this journal offered courses in five realms deemed necessary to building the New Christendom, from letters and the arts to religious, philosophical, psychological, physical, mathematical, and social sciences—discussions of the nature of a Catholic economic order being particularly important in the last of these categories and destined to have a wide influence in the future.
The circle at La Chênaie was very much concerned with freeing the effort to build a new Christian civilization through transformation of all things in Christ from the political constraints that even self-proclaimed Catholic states, reflecting the continued influence of both ancient Regalism and Enlightenment Naturalism upon them, still sought to maintain. The tragedy of Lamennais lay in the fact that his passionate concern for breaking through these chains caused him to join the chain makers himself, forging these in a new and yet more insidious naturalist fashion that earned him excommunication in 1834 but survived to emerge triumphant in our own time.
His chain-making error was connected with the nineteenth century concept of historical “palingenesis” or successive “rebirth.” The Comte Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and the school of thought founded by him are the most famous promoters of the palingenesist vision. Horrified by the destructiveness of the Revolution, the Saint-Simonians argued that valuable forces in the progress of human life could never be tossed into the rubbish heap of history. Christianity was perhaps the most important of these. Even when there have been moments in time that it looked as though it were disappearing, it has always been reborn anew, but in different form, preserving what is of eternal value to it at base.
Since the Saint Simonians believe man and society to be in a continuous progress from theological to philosophical to “positive” (i.e., naturally demonstrable) scientific, technological modes of expression of the truth, Christianity, in our present, positive, scientific, technocratic “third age of humanity” must be reborn again to reflect its requirements. Christianity, Science, and Technocracy must all work as one. In other words, the modern rebirth of the religion of the Father of Lights has to take on its contemporary expression by looking downwards rather than upwards, and by baptizing the mechanical, technocratic civilization that will come into being under its banner as just as spiritual and beautiful as past Christian cultures.
Lamennais did not become a palingenesist in Saint-Simonian form. In his passion to be freed from the constraints upon transforming all things in Christ imposed by obviously politically-motivated governments and the all too many clerical forces painfully subservient to them, he came to the conclusion that the liberation of the Catholic voice required a new rebirth of society in which Church and State would be totally separated from and therefore incapable of corrupting one another. This new society would nevertheless be much more Christian than its predecessor, because it would be guided and governed by the Voice of the vital, energetic Catholic People, expressed democratically, whose vitality and energy could not help but transmit the infallible will of the Holy Spirit.
“How far we still are from that religion of devotion, of self-forgetfulness for the good of all; in sum, of that fraternity of which one speaks so much! I only find it in the People; the People surround the cradle of the future, just as the shepherds at Bethlehem surrounded that of the God about to be born. Blessings on the little ones, the simple of heart. It is those who will save the world” (Mayeur, Histoire du christianisme, x, p. 866).
But to his dismay, Lamennais could not rouse even the Catholic People of his day to do its God-given work of giving birth to a new Christian Commonwealth. It remained for Lamennais, who knew himself to be the Prophet of the Will of the People once awakened, to be the energetic, vital, popular Voice of the Holy Spirit in the meantime. Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), another democratic revolutionary who had no interest in the Catholic Faith as such worked to bolster him in his palingenesist mission:
“Why do you only write books? Humanity awaits something more from you…Do not deceive yourself, Lamennais, we need action. The thought of God is action; it is only by action that it is incarnated in us…So long as you will be alone, you will only be a philosopher and a moralist in the eyes of the masses; it is as a priest that you must appear before it, a priest of the future, of the epoch which is beginning, of that new religious manifestation of which you have a presentiment, and which must inevitably end in that new heaven and new earth which Luther glimpsed three centuries ago without being able to attain it, since the time had not yet come” (Mayeur, X, p. 893).
Ironically, the Abbé and then Bishop Gerbet played a major role in identifying the problem with his former mentor’s thinking, both through his elaboration of a Catholic Social Doctrine separating the wheat from the chaff in the project of rebuilding Christendom, as well as by being one of the early promoters of what was to become Blessed Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors of 1864. Like other activists in Catholic circles committed to the project that many of them had begun at Lamennais’ side, they knew where his error lay. His eyes were no longer aimed upwards towards the Father of Lights to gain guidance for “every good and perfect gift” necessary to construction of a Catholic civilization, but downwards towards the “vital, energetic will” of the purely natural “Voice of The People,” whose desires, interpreted during its dogmatic slumber by The Prophet were equated with the commands of the Holy Spirit. In making this dreadful choice for uncorrected humanity, Lamennais had deprived himself of all means of judging whether what he was listening to in himself as the agent of the slumbering People was really the Voice of God or that of man’s fallen nature spiraling ever downward into a positive libido for the ugliness of sin incapable of a sursum corda of any kind.
Nineteenth century Catholics hungry for rebuilding Christendom indeed found that revolutionary Enlightenment naturalism had gained a foothold, and was a hard enemy to overcome. Nevertheless, they at least knew by the time of Blessed Pius IX, that they had the ecclesiastical authorities on their side. This, of course, is no longer the case. For despite its initial condemnation, Lamennais’ downward looking “reborn” Catholicism, never died out and has come to dominate the Zeitgeist friendly “pastoral” vision of social order and civilization of the Modern Church, which interprets following the Spirit of the Times and the State authorities enforcing it as the Voice of the Holy Ghost. It is the swamp rather than the heavens that fuel the construction of “Catholic Civilization” today.
“This is Venice; my house is not a grange!” Brabantio shouts down to Rodrigo and Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, thereby dismissing straightaway their loud and wicked call to take immediate action upon what are but slanderous lies. Brabantio’s instinct is not to heed them precisely because everything in his environment gives him an initial “push” to look upwards to determine the truth, goodness, and beauty of what is being said before acting upon it. Othello later lacks this crucial push when left to his own devices in Cyprus. The awful result is that he looks downwards into himself and believes the absurdities that Brabantio in “Venice”—and that is to say in the atmosphere of the truly civilized Catholic city, lacking the libido for the ugly—was first inclined to spit out like a piece of tainted meat.
Othello in Cyprus is operating without restraint in the fallen “civilization” that St. Augustine called the “City of Man.” This City of Man will tempt the human race to join its ranks until the end of time. Why it should have such seductive powers over us is part of the incomprehensible mystery of iniquity. For it ultimately operates with that bizarre libido for the ugly that the naturalism of the Enlightenment and the Revolution, the palingenesist vision of Lamennais, and the dominant forces in the Church in our own time have made the guide for contemporary man and contemporary civilization. To paraphrase a line from H. L. Mencken—whose biting essay on the subject of the “libido for the ugly” gave me the title for this essay: “Enlightenment naturalism has chosen to build its clapboard horror of a civilization with its eyes open, and having chosen it, let it mellow into its present shocking depravity. It likes it as it is: beside it, the Parthenon would no doubt offend it.”
Nineteenth century Catholics knew men were meant to be part of the civilization of what St. Augustine calls the City of God. They knew that seeking to create this, on earth, as far as was humanly possible in a universe that would be subject to sin until the end of time was a duty that flowed from their primary task of gaining their personal salvation. And they knew that if they did not work to their utmost to give flesh to this project that nations would be comprised of nothing but “dull and dreary people populating dull and dreary zones of habitation.”