In every age of darkness, there is always present the Spirit of the Church, facing down the worldly spirit of the times. In seeking to understand the conflicts of our own times, we may turn allegorically to the mythical world of J.R.R. Tolkien – and the experiences of his contemporary, Dietrich Von Hildebrand – to gain greater understanding and perspective. The former constructed a world so theologically rich as to be a social barometer for the struggles of any era, while the latter saw his beloved homeland snatched away from him by a false ideology coddled and compromised into power by a disconcerting number of Catholics leaders.
Part of social discernment is to seek the underlying cause (and mover) of any contemporary conflict, discovering concrete connections between seemingly disparate elements which seem to nevertheless be coalescing into a single evil movement. Always there is the true conflict, the real emerging “spirit” which materializes and takes an increasingly greater hold on a society, even as elites and intelligentsia point to symptomatic conflicts as the real source of strife or creating straw men instead of acknowledging real demons. Like the slow re-emergence of Sauron in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the spirit of the times begins in an embryonic state, and only grows so far as the men of that age will allow it to grow. Sometimes it goes unopposed for far too long, and – as in Tolkien’s ever-prescient tale – roars out of control while a small remnant remains to face it down. Regardless of the fate of this remnant, the spirit exhausts itself, and ultimately chokes on its own demonic fumes. The “Sauron” of the age is vanquished, and there is peace for a time. An age ends, and another worldly spirit begins to gradually take form in the mists.
Considering this idea of a “spirit of the times,” there are many supporting themes and lessons that can be drawn from the recently-published memoirs of philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler. With all of the recent Synodal talk about “gradualism,” perhaps the central lesson may be seen in the inverse sinful gradualism by which society is gripped when faced with a new “Sauron.” Where Hildebrand’s relation of the gradual subsuming of Germany is concerned, these memoirs are in large part a tragic chronicle of the frightened, deceived, and willfully misled. Describing the mood in Germany in 1933, Hildebrand writes:
“But even if one can meaningfully speak about the agreeable quality of a national identity (and that, of course, is by no means a question of race!), one should not do it at this moment, since it represents, if only slightly, an “understanding” and to some extent excusing gesture toward National Socialism and thus it opens a trap door for the evil enemy. In the face of such dreadful movements and heresies as Bolshevism and Nazism, in which the Antichrist raises his head, every attempt to “understand,” every attempt at a certain neutral objectivity, is entirely impermissible. Here we are required to pronounce nothing other than an unconditional anathema sit.” (p. 83.)
It was his very Catholic tendency to examine all things from the perspective of “first principles” which allowed Hildebrand to be one among the rare Germany citizenry who understood the ultimately destructive nature of the emerging social order. Having identified the first principles of National Socialism, Hildebrand could both know their source while divining the ultimate goals of this movement. He does not fall prey to the temptation of the academic to dialogue with the Devil, but declares a “full stop” before any such conversation can take place.
Yet for a number of reasons, most of Hildebrand’s countrymen and compatriots – including prominent Catholics – failed to follow suit. Embracing the self-protectionism present amongst the elite in any era, they sought compromise and dismissed as hysterical the predictions of how far Nazism would go to achieve its stated ends. Seeing the hesitation of the faithful, the emerging order continued to sweeten the deal with promises and compromises of its own. Hildebrand describes with a perceptible nausea the sickening specter of German after German – Catholic after Catholic – taking the Nazi bait. Soon the German Catholic hierarchy were taken in by Hitler’s sweet promises, and ultimately the Vatican signed the infamous Concordat which would ring to her eternal shame. To add salt to the bitter wound, it ended up being the German centrist Catholic party which helped Hitler to cement his supermajority in the Reichstag before he later seized uncontested power. From laymen to Bishops, far too many were taken in by what Hildebrand marks as the “Zeitgeist” of their times, and the demon grew fat on their fearful compromises. Hildebrand further writes:
“Two weeks before Hitler seized power, membership in the Nazi Party still entailed excommunication, and now this affirmation! Words cannot describe how this failure of the German episcopacy grieved me. To my sorrow, I saw how right I was to fear that Catholics in Germany would allow themselves to be carried away by a shameful spirit of compromise and accommodation toward the Antichrist. Later I found out who the “evil spirits” were among the German bishops.” (p. 87.)
If Hildebrand’s works and life story are beginning to reverberate once again through the ranks of orthodox Catholicism, it is because our own “Sauron” has almost fully materialized. Reading the entirety of Hildebrand’s wartime memoirs, one cannot help but draw parallels between the collapse of the Catholic intellectual wing and the episcopacy in his time with the near complete capitulation of Catholic education and leadership in our own time. We are in the midst of our own Zeitgeist, the literal “Dictatorship of Relativism” which Pope Benedict XVI warned of. The demonic spirit of our time now manifests as an ideology beyond borders, cultures, and religions. Its jackboots march everywhere, with the loudest cadence being beaten out by the enforcers of political correctness and the rainbow fascists who tolerate no dissent from their uncompromising “tolerance” in the west, and the moving horror of Islamic terror in the East. Yet despite these obvious attacks, everywhere a spirit of conciliation and compromise reigns, most shamefully amongst Catholic spiritual, academic, and political leaders. So terrified are these men of unpopularity, so unwilling to entertain even the possibility of a white martyrdom, that whether through fear or feeble-mindedness they increasingly sing the tune of the international establishment. It is enough to drive the remnant – feeling “rudderless” and leaderless – to despair.
Yet when we examine Hildebrand’s response to the collapse of his beloved world, we see that his dismay is not tainted with despair. Instead our philosopher-hero makes a cold and calculating assessment of the situation and decides to take action. Escaping to the temporary safety of Austria, Hildebrand would put his greatest God given gift – his intellect – to furious use. Gathering a group of like-minded (and largely Catholic) intellectuals, he would go to great lengths to publish an academic journal dedicated to the relentless criticism of National Socialism and its supporters. In a refreshing spirit of uncompromising Catholic intellectual combat, his journal would take to task every idea, document, and supporter of National Socialism, regardless of the source of the information or the rank (ecclesial or otherwise) of the traitor. Along the way Hildebrand would be labeled an enemy of his own people, a trouble-maker, and ultimately a chief foe of Hitler. This one small academic would become a major irritant under the scales of Nazism, and would barely escape fortress Europe with his life.
The New Evangelization can be nothing if it is not first and foremost an active spirit of striving against the Zeitgeist of our times, while Hildebrand’s spirit of positive defiance lives on in the countless blogs and citizen journalist efforts of Catholics around the world. Certainly the notion of citizen journalism – and the implied lack of gatekeepers – can lead to a lack of quality control, while the very term “blogger” can have a silly and amateurish ring to it. Yet when the gatekeepers are increasingly Catholic “Kapos” and co-opted cowards, their efforts become counterproductive, while it is the counterinsurgency of the Catholic blogosphere which makes an increasingly mainstream mark. While they cannot possibly match the global reach of mainstream propagandist outlets, together they have generated a sustained and uncompromising buzz of international activity, while giving orthodoxy a brave and independent voice. The blogosphere has allowed faithful Catholics to represent their legitimate worldview and integrity, to take back their religious language, and to plot a way forward through a hostile culture (sometimes despite the policies of Bishops and the naive efforts of more mainstream Catholic sources.)
And then we come to “the” Synod on the Family. The Zeitgeist of our own time may be a global phenomenon, but in the Church it has unfortunately taken much of its intellectual and political steam from the efforts of the German clergy, who increasingly show themselves to be in opposition to truth and therefore in an unconfirmed schism. Cardinal Walter Kasper and his historical and contemporary ilk, after watching their policies decimate the Church of Europe, have now aimed their disastrous efforts at the heart of the Catholic world. Despite the clear synodal manipulation now well-documented by the Catholic blogosphere and independent press, this first battle was won at the eleventh hour as Kasper impaled himself on his own lies and pride. The true story of his hypocrisy spread like wildfire throughout the Catholic world thanks to the efforts of secondary sources, and the dismayed outcry of the faithful was printed in return. One cannot help but think that as the justifiably incensed Bishops rediscovered their intestinal fortitude and began to rise against the Zeitgeist, they did so with the knowledge that the “remnant” was firmly behind them. Since witnessing these historic events, further light has been shed on the “smoke of Satan” within the Church, and the machinations of those like Cardinal Balidesseri held up to the light.
Unfortunately the German hierarchy has seemingly taken heart from their near-successes at the last portion of the Synod, and they have openly revealed themselves as the ring-leaders of the attempted de-Christianization of the Roman Catholic Church. While there will be no surprise if they proceed with their planned betrayals in the upcoming Synod, thankfully, their gathering of allies, scheming, and further upheavals have been well documented and disseminated by faithful Catholic writers. As Bishop Athanasius Schneider recently said in his now-famous interview in Polonia Christiana:
“That in the very bosom of the Church, there are people who undermine the teaching of Our Lord became an obvious fact and one for the whole world to see thanks to the internet and the work of some Catholic journalists who were not indifferent to what was happening to the Catholic faith which they consider to be the treasure of Christ. I was pleased to see that some Catholic journalists and internet bloggers behaved as good soldiers of Christ and drew attention to this clerical agenda of undermining the perennial teaching of Our Lord. Cardinals, bishops, priests, Catholic families, Catholic young people have to say to themselves: I refuse to conform to the neo-pagan spirit of this world, even when this spirit is spread by some bishops and cardinals; I will not accept their fallacious and perverse use of holy Divine mercy and of “new Pentecost”; I refuse to throw grains of incense before the statue of the idol of the gender ideology, before the idol of second marriages, of concubinage, even if my bishop would do so, I will not do so; with the grace of God I will choose to suffer rather than betray the whole truth of Christ on human sexuality and on marriage.”
Such a necessarily uncompromising approach – based on first principles and a refusal to dialogue with the demon – are what must continue to animate the independent Catholic writers of the world. If there is any hope that the next Synod will function on a more even keel, it lies in the fact that the Catholic intellect is digitally engaged and listening. Gone are the years when a subcommittee of dubious ecclesial personalities can decimate the liturgy or hijack a Synod unimpeded, and it is precisely that troublesome, flawed, yet seemingly indispensable Catholic blogosphere that we have to thank for this. Little wonder then that an annoyed Vatican insider and cleric would go as far as to threaten to sue a small Catholic blogger for doing no more than printing the unvarnished truth. It may be a tough world (and Church) for orthodox Catholics to live in, but it is also increasingly a difficult world for those who are attempting to usurp the Church as well. Sauron may be raging, but the faithful remnant is now armed and organized, and taking heart from the growth of their numbers.
Those who abuse their power – along with their comfortable allies in the general populace – will always attempt to disparage people of words, derisively dismissing the “keyboard warriors” of their time. Yet in every underground movement and counterinsurgency, the word precedes blood and action. We can think of the brave and highly organized Warsaw underground: in the long years before their eventual explosive uprising against their Nazi occupier, they took great pains to publish and distribute anti-nazi and anti-propagandist literature to the citizens of Poland, while also organizing underground schools to continue authentic Polish – and Catholic – education. They would lose the physical battle, but win the heart of the country just as it was about to be subsumed by decades of demoralizing Communism.
We cannot know the result of the battle, but we can trust truth to echo well beyond the limits of the present struggle. The current insurgency in the Church is being raged in word, in art, in speech, and most importantly, in liturgy. Where truth is the master and the goal, there can be no dividing commentary and prose from song and action.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.