This post was originally posted as The Enmity Between Catholicism and Totalitarianism. It has been revised and reposted for new Sky View readers.
Christians: Not Totalitarian Enough
Christopher Dawson wrote in 1935, just a few years before World War II, that it is only by belonging to the City of God that “we shall find an answer to the claims of the Totalitarian State.” “For if the State,” he continues, “has become too totalitarian, that is because the average Christian has not been totalitarian enough." During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Europe had become more and more secularized. What Christianity lost in terms of influence, totalitarianism gained in power. As James Cardinal Gibbons said in his pastoral letter to the Church in America in1919, “[I]t lies in the very nature of man that something must be supreme, something must take the place of the divine when this has been excluded; and this substitute for God, according to a predominant philosophy, is the State.”
A Proven Record:
History bears witness to one of the saddest episodes of human cruelty in the twentieth century. The Third Reich's campaign against the Jews in Germany shows just how cruel unredeemed humanity can be. Albert Einstein, who was of Jewish descent, was surprised as to who would and who would not come to the defense of his persecuted people. He assumed that his intellectual friends in the universities and in the press would come to their defense. But he was wrong. They were silenced. Due to his prejudices he could not anticipate who would answer the claims of the totalitarian State. In the December’s edition of Time Magazine, 1940, he was quoted as saying the following:
"Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly."
Time and time again throughout her two thousand year history, the Catholic Church served as the balance against the overreaching arm of the State. From the very beginning, that is, from the Apostolic era and onwards, the followers of Christ and the pastors of his flock were persecuted by the State. Catholic historian, H. Daniel-Rops, characterized these pastors in the following manner: “The Church neither held her tongue nor capitulated. These voices of Christian liberty were noble and strong. There was Ossius of Cordova, the aged Spanish bishop, who wrote to the all-powerful [Emperor] Constantius: ‘You have no right to meddle in religious affairs. God has given you the authority over the Empire, but He has given us authority over the Church. In matters of faith it is you who must listen to our instructions.’” St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, reminded Roman Emperor Theodosius II: “Remember you are a mortal!’"
St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, reminded Catholics just how totalitarian- in a spiritual manner -the Church is. He said, “The power of the Church surpasses that of the civil power in the same way as the heavens surpass the earth, or rather, even more so…” Due to the dignity bestowed on her by Christ, the Catholic Church has always been conscious of that tension between her mission to save souls and political rulers who, from time to time, sought more power than what is rightfully theirs. It wasn’t the State "as such" which came into conflict with the Church. Rather, it was a despotic or an all-powerful State which proved hostile towards her mission and liberties. Today in America we find this old political error raising its ugly again.
The Church's Answer: Four Reasons
There are two kinds of totalitarianism that are mounting a campaign against the American way of life: Secular totalitarianism from within and an Islamic totalitarianism from without. Both are poised to radically change life as we know it. This post, however, is addresses the secular threat of totalitarianism.
It is important to keep in mind that Jesus Christ did not come to save nations, social or ethnic groups, or social structures. God took on human nature to save the individual soul. The main thrust of the Gospel is directed towards that end. To be sure, one of the reasons why he was persecuted by his own is because he refused to restore the nation of Israel. In no way did he conform to any kind of nationalism. Inspired by his example, the Catholic Church taught that the individual person has priority over the State or any other institution. Public institutions come and go, but unlike institutions the individual person possesses an immortal soul. As Pope Pius XI said in his encyclical On Atheistic Communism, man is a microcosm, a world in miniature. The revolutionary contribution of the Gospel to humanity was this: It illuminated the dignity of the human soul and for that reason the State ceased to be supreme.
With that said, there are four reasons why Catholicism can answer the claims of the totalitarian State. Ultimately, any kind of sectarian religion or ideology which relies only on ideas- and here I include conservatism -cannot stem the tide of an all-powerful State or the culture of death. The answer to totalitarianism has to go deep into the soul and it has to be totalitarian; that is, it has to appeal to every aspect of human existence.
1. Catholicism is totalitarian in the best sense of the word. There is not a facet of life which does not come under the purview of God and which is not ministered to by the Catholic Church. From infant baptisms to weddings, from confessions to funerals, the Catholic clergy enters into all stages of life to communicate God's blessing. With that said, the response to the totalitarian State cannot be met with partial commitments or half measures; the answer must be one of totality.
2. Unlike Judaism, Islam or Protestantism, the Catholic Church possesses a well-defined central-authority. This prophetic teaching office of the pope is known as the papacy and it is one that speaks for all Catholics. Through its two-thousand year old office, St. Peter continues to proclaim the truth about God and man with the charism of infallibility. Indeed, the Holy Father, that is, the Vicar of Christ and successor of St. Peter, is that visible principle of unity for the Body of Christ; the force that binds her members together. Furthermore, the hierarchy of the Church, being well defined and rooted in a long tradition, has served to keep the Church from being absorbed into the State.
3. The Catholic Church is the only religious body that has a two thousand year moral and political theology. This is important. With a well developed system of thought accompanied by well-defined principles, Catholics can mount a consistent and coherent response to political totalitarianism in her theology and philosophy, one that is grounded in both natural and divine law. However, if a church is as unfixed as, let’s say, the Anglican Church (i.e., changing fundamental doctrines), then such a church is made vulnerable to being absorbed by an all-powerful State.
4. And finally, and probably the most important, the Lord confers upon Catholic Church that fullness grace and moral vigor so necessary to carry out her mission. Through the Sacraments, and principally through the Divine Liturgy, Jesus Christ gives his life to the world. It was through the initiation of the mysteries of Christ that ancient pagans were sanctified and civilized. As Fr. Rosmini, a nineteenth century priest, said, "The doctrines which they [the Fathers of the Church] spread abroad by preaching were not so many abstract assertions; but the practical force, the force of action, arose from that worship, whereby man could attain the grace of the Almighty.”
Ideas alone or even the truth alone is insufficient in sustaining a Christian civilization. Secular-liberalism must be met with God’s power. As St. Paul said, "My message and my proclamation were not with persuasive (words of) wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power.” And it is with this power that the Catholic Church, if her members are equal to their mission, can resolutely answer the totalitarian claims of the State. And the sooner these unjust claims are answered, the better.