The following analogy was first shared with me in an email in Portuguese by a reader, who kindly gave me permission to develop it into an article. He joins many others who have sent me a seed that has germinated on my desktop, and for whose literary stimuli I am deeply grateful.
A barrel organ is a musical instrument that plays a preset tune when a crank is turned. Many have probably seen it in period movies—players turning the crank of the instrument while a little monkey presents a glass to spectators, hoping to win coins.
The barrel organ is totally mechanical. As a description reads: “You turn the crank, which turns the crankshaft that pumps two bellows, then it gathers air. This air goes into a reservoir as well as into a chamber that has 26 valves, all pressurized. The top of each valve is connected to a reading bar. This bar has 26 little holes, and each one of them is connected to the valves. The music is recorded on the music roll, with little holes. When one of these holes meets a hole in the reading bar, air will escape, creating a low pressure on top of the valve, and then the valve plug will lift, which is what had prevented the air from going to the flute. When this happens, the air goes to the flute and plays one of the 26 notes, and that’s how the music is played.”
The music is recorded on perforated rolls, which means that an organ will play only the music that is recorded on the roll. No matter how you turn the crank, it will always be the same music. It could be a little faster or slower depending on the rotation speed, but the notes are invariable.
Why am I writing about this?
Because society is full of barrel-organ men and women. People who have in their heads a “roller” with a predefined ideology, and, when confronted, they turn the crank and their mouths only repeat what is on the “roller.” You can present the truth to them, an alternative melody, even a much more beautiful piece of music, but it is useless; nothing but the “recording” comes out of their mouths.
They shouldn’t be ignorant people. Many of them have degrees in humanities, but they have been so indoctrinated by socialist professors that they can’t think outside the tiny box that was built for them. Why should they think differently? The professors know how to inflate the pride of degree-possession. They teach their students that their eventual failure in life—and it’s only a matter of time before, short of God’s grace, they will fail dramatically, in one way or another—will be the fault of their employer, of the opposite sex, of the family structure, of their eventual children, of white people, of their own body that is the “wrong” body… We see this blame game phenomenon everywhere, inspired by socialism, inculcated by schools, and as predictable as the sound from the perforated rolls.
In the political field, the left-wing militants are for the most part barrel-organ men, whose predefined mental “roll” contains lies, insults, and imprecations. You can refute the lies, you can show them the truth, but it’s useless: they continue with the same programmed narrative. They are not—at least by their habituated natural faculties—capable of questioning the programming they have received for so many years, day in, day out, reinforced by the consumption of a narrow range of social media chosen for its pre-agreement.
In the religious field, we see the barrel-organ men in the evangelical sects, whose only concern is to protest against the Catholic Church. Their mental roll repeats “It’s not in the Bible…,” “The Catholic Church contradicts St. Paul…,” “Catholics worship idols…,” “Catholics pray to Mary as to a god.”
But since I am a Catholic, I am going to comment on the barrel-organ men in the Catholic Church. For they do exist, and plentifully. It shouldn’t be this way. For two thousand years, the Church was an enlightening force in the world. Its great figures were classically trained in the liberal arts. They knew philosophy and theology. The harmony of faith and reason was not a utopian dream but an endeavor pursued diligently by lofty and daring minds. Holy men and women were imitators of Jesus Christ, His Blessed Mother, and the assembly of the saints, and century after century they inspired others, who then inspired others, reaching down to our days. Were this not so, we could never explain why the Church has always been persecuted. Catholic doctrine makes people know themselves, judge themselves before judging others, endure the sufferings of the world. It reverses worldly standards of love and hate, freedom and servitude. In short, it achieves both the healing of the man who surrenders and the provocation of the wounded who resists; nor can it be otherwise.
The current crisis in the Church started to be sown two and half centuries ago in the first gloaming of the night we now call Modernism, but all along there was a dam that contained the worldly ideologies of revolution. During and after the Second Vatican Council, that dam broke apart and released the long pent-up flood. From about 1965 on, a campaign to demolish dogmas began, transforming priests into entertainers, religious into social workers, laity into mini-clerics (when not apostates), and the hierarchy into a vaguely religious promoter of humanism and humanitarianism. The only dogmas prized by the conciliar revolutionaries were papal infallibility (distorted to make it seem that everything the pope says is law handed down from God) and obedience without question (obey even if you are told to throw yourself off a bridge).
The Catholic barrel-organ men cannot admit the problems of the Council—the problems with the concept behind it, with its execution and unfolding, with its implementation and rigidification. It has been engraved in their mental “rolls” that “the Council was such a blessing for the Church, even a new Pentecost!,” “Catholics could not understand the pre-conciliar liturgy, they never participated, they were cut off…,” “We must obey what the Holy Father says…” And now Pope Francis tells us that “Whoever does not accept the legitimacy of the Council is defying the Holy Spirit.” (We agree that such a skeptic is, indeed, defying a spirit.) For them, the Church has never been better off, and they defend, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, the demolition of the Magisterium and the bimillennial Tradition. But let us be honest: most of them are not even aware of what they are doing. Their obedience is blind, or rather, their programming is complete. There is no use arguing, clarifying, teaching. In the end, when the crank turns, only what is on the agenda comes out of their mouths.
We have all had this experience and it can be a source of great frustration, sometimes bordering on despair. How is it that, for example, there are so many Catholics (according to the polls) who think Francis is a wonderful pope, when there is so much evidence of corruption around him—damning information easily available in books, articles, at the click of a mouse? When he openly contradicts his predecessors, even the one who is still alive? When he sows divisions and confusions everywhere? When he decides to attack a minority of Catholics who adhere to the classical Roman Rite that was, for most of history, the Church’s most precious possession? How can there be so-called “conservative Catholics” who remain blind to the magnitude of the rupture and damage caused by the liturgical reform, even though it is evident in a thousand ways, and has been documented to the nth degree? Such questions could be multiplied ad nauseam.
But let us remember three things.
First, every day divine grace penetrates through some of the barrel organs, breathing into them the breath of life, of intelligence and freedom, of conscience awakened, judgment renewed, reason illumined, faith reinvigorated. The machine breaks down and a person re-emerges. Every day there are converts to Tradition, weary and sick of the unpalatable pablum of novelty. Every day the Lord breaks through as He prepares for the reemergence of the Church from the justly doomed wreckage of its counterfeit. Recent hierarchical actions against traditional Catholicism have every sign of strengthening our movement, by awakening us, pushing us to greater zeal, and giving us a publicity we could never have purchased with all our coffers combined.
Second, every moment of frustration or irritation or despair we feel or are tempted to feel is an occasion of the same grace, or better, an invitation to union with the Giver of grace. If our life were smooth sailing and we had no resistance, many of us would end up mediocre and self-indulgent. God in His Providence is pushing us to a certain limit to make us into men and women of constant prayer, of trustful surrender, and—to the point of this article—of intercession for the barrel organs.
They are not aware of what they lack, and when we are aware, we become proxies for them, like “the friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29), even as we will sometimes be unaware of what we lack and will depend on others in the Mystical Body to intercede for us. Let us not lose the tremendous opportunities for vocal and interior prayer that our world and our Church are throwing at us almost continually. The next time the brainless agenda of Branch Covidianism or the Glorious Liturgical Revolution pours out from a bishop across town or a bloke next to you, pause and say an Ave Maria for him, or a Veni, Sancte Spiritus. Or fast for him, have a Latin Mass said for him.
Third, in the common opinion of theologians and spiritual authors who have written on eschatology, as history spins toward its end the forces of good and evil will become more separated, more “pure,” and more contrary. The battle between the angels and the demons will spill over into our world in increasingly visible and audible ways.
The barrel organ phenomenon described above, in its ever-wider extension and intensity, is part of a process of dehumanization that corresponds to the increased entrance of demons invited by the revolutionaries and ideologues of modernity. Those of us who are aware of the crisis (to a greater or lesser extent—none of us sees it whole and entire or else we would surely perish) have been given a special grace, by which the Lord is calling us to take His side decisively and bravely: no more compromises, no more excuses, no more shilly-shallying. And we will need the powerful help of the angels of God, whom we should invoke daily, especially our angel guardians.
Lord, deliver us, deliver your Church on earth, from barrel organ captivity. Amen.
Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and The Catholic University of America who taught at the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austria Program, and Wyoming Catholic College, which he helped establish in 2006. Today he is a full-time writer and speaker on traditional Catholicism whose work appears online at, among others, OnePeterFive, New Liturgical Movement, LifeSiteNews, The Remnant, and Catholic Family News. He has published eighteen books, including Reclaiming Our Roman Catholic Birthright: The Genius and Timeliness of the Traditional Latin Mass (Angelico, 2020), The Ecstasy of Love in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas (Emmaus, 2021), and Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question (Arouca, 2021). His work has been translated into at least eighteen languages. Visit his website at www.peterkwasniewski.com.