March 1978 Print


Kent Emery, Jr.

In his addresses and sermons Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre refers frequently to the principles of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity. Whereas previous Popes have rejected these principles from their conception, those currently governing the Church, the Archbishop points out, have accepted them. The Archbishop charges that the acceptance of these principles conceived in hatred of the Church and alien to her traditions, underlies the current disaster. In the nineteenth century Catholic liberals urged the faithful to pursue ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity in the temporal order, where man works out much of his eternal salvation. Now the descendants of those earlier liberals have applied the notions of liberty, equality and fraternity to the Church's supernatural order. The result is evident in the three innovative themes of Vatican II: religious liberty, community and collegiality, and ecumenism.

Catholics in France understand well what the Archbishop is saying, as do the ecclesiastical authorities in Rome. American Catholics, however, seem confused by Archbishop Lefebvre's repeated allusions to the French Revolution. Some dismiss his remarks as relevant only to the European situation; others judge them to be political considerations unrelated to the question of the Mass. These opinions are incorrect. The novus ordo missae is the chief instrument for a new religion which interprets the Gospel in light of the naturalistic principles of the Revolution. Modernists know as well as traditionalists that the lex orandi is the lex credendi.

It is not surprising that Americans do not comprehend the force of Archbishop Lefebvre's remarks concerning the French Revolution and it guiding principles. For decades American Catholics have been taught that the Catholic Faith and the American Way are in perfect harmony. Unfortunately, there is no historical or theoretical basis for such a belief, unless one accepts the novel theories of John Courtney Murray, the principal author of the Vatican II document on religious liberty. Seldom have we reflected that our founding fathers were inspired by the same basic principles which produced the French Revolution; seldom have we meditated the import of the words proudly blazoned on our major sacramental, the dollar bill: novus ordo seclorum. Historians embarrassed by the violence of the French Revolution have tried to separate it from our own. If our revolution was less violent, however, it is because the American revolutionaries did not have to topple a regime in which ancient religious and social traditions were embodied in powerful, on-the-spot institutions.

The United States is the first western nation never to have had a Catholic past. It is the first aboriginal protestant state, serving also as a tabula rasa for the experiments of enlightenment thinkers. This historical reality has affected greatly Catholic life in this country. At the turn of the century St. Frances Xavier Cabrini understood that the United States was not a Christian (i.e. Catholic) country and therefore needed to be missionized from scratch. Significantly, Paul VI failed to include Mother Cabrini in his roll-call of American saints and heroes at recent canonizations, probably because she represents an "old" way of thinking. On the other hand, it is striking that conventional American Catholic notables, men such as Bishops John Carroll, John Ireland and John England, Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, and in a refined fashion, Orestes Brownson, are distinguished by their reconciliation of Catholic teaching with the political and social principles of the new republic. Leo XIII rejected such a reconciliation in his Apostolic Letter against what he called "Americanism" (Testem Benevolentiae, 1899). Leo XIII treated Americanism as a localized subspecies of Modernism, then as now ravaging the Church. Characteristically, American Catholic historians have called Americanism a "phantom heresy," arguing that Leo XIII was the victim of false factual information (in much the same way, one supposes, that he was subject to "false information" when he declared Anglican orders null and void). It is more probable, however, that Leo XIII knew perfectly well what he was condemning.

Americanism, which has permeated American Catholic life, has in turn paved the way for the easy acceptance of the New Church in this country. As Modernism was born in the attempt to reconcile Catholic teaching with the revolutionary principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, so Americanism was born in a similar attempt to reconcile the Faith with the same principles as they are expressed in American life. Hilaire Belloc in his penetrating Characters of the Reformation, says that Protestantism would have died without the economic and political support of the rising English nation. Likewise, Modernism, originally the plaything of a few European intellectuals, has been nurtured by the conscious or unthinking support of American Catholic leaders and the many dollars they command. As England in the sixteenth century was open market for the grab-bag of continental Reformation ideas, so modern America is the dumping ground for the ideas of modern reformers such as Maritain, Rahner, Schillebeckx, Kung, etc. It is we who provide a mass market for their expensive books and expensive lectures. It is our bishops who travel to Rome as groupies to be instructed by these reformers, returning home inebriated, perhaps for the first time, by IDEAS.

It is frightful to think, as I have implied, that there have been few American Catholic leaders who have not compromised, at least in some small degree, an wholly traditional Catholic teaching. It is painful to think that our habitual, facile synthesis of the Faith and the Bill of Rights may contribute to the current autodemolition of the Church. It is painful also to admit that bigots such as Paul Blanchard may have an half-correct intuition that if America were fully imbued with Catholic teaching, it would be a quite different place (slightly uncomfortable, one might add, for protestants and freethinkers).

In subsequent portions of this essay I shall try to show why Archbishop Lefebvre is correct in placing responsibility for the ills of the modern Church on those of her members who compromise with the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. Ultimately I shall show why each of these principles, as understood by modernity, is inimical to the Catholic Faith. Firstly, however, I must sketch briefly a history of the conflict between tradition and revolution within the Church. Our story begins, as so much in Catholic history does, in France. The eldest daughter of the Church is much like the girl in the nursery rhyme:

"When she is good, she is very, very good,
But when she is bad, she is horrid".

Go To Part II