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The New Synthesis of All Heresies: On Nietzschean Catholicism

Friedrich Nietzsche spoke of the “transvaluation of all values”: the inversion of our conceptions of good and evil in this post-Christian era. What had been regarded as good—humility, self-denial, obedience, love of the poor and of poverty, looking towards a world to come—was, in his system, to be seen as evil, and what had been regarded as evil—imposing one’s will by domination, satisfying one’s lusts, crushing the weak, dismissing thoughts of an afterlife, living for the moment—would now be virtues. The Übermensch or Superman would be the exact contrary of the Christian saint.

As the atrocity of abortion demonstrates, Nietzsche’s view has prevailed in the secular society of the West. But has not a subtler form of this “transvaluation of all values” invaded Christianity as well—including the Catholic Church, which had seemed for so many centuries to be adamantly opposed to any compromise with modernity and its atheistic spirit? In the past thirty years of my life (that is, the years in which I have been really conscious of being a Catholic and trying to live a life consistent with my faith), I have increasingly noticed a trend that certainly deserves to be called Nietzschean.

If, for example, one objects that a certain idea or practice is “Protestant,” he is likely to be dismissed as “anti-ecumenical.” In this way, a vague ecumenism has supplanted several de fide dogmas as the measure of being a Christian. “I don’t believe in dogma, I believe in love,” as a plainclothes nun once said to a priest tour-guide.

If one objects that a liturgical habit or opinion is contrary to the teaching of the Council of Trent or any other magisterial determination, he is likely to be shut down as “stuck in the past” or “not in line with the Council”—meaning, of course, the Second Vatican Super-Council in whose name all earlier councils can be ignored or negated. A new form of conciliarism has supplanted obedience to the deposit of faith in its integrity and ecclesiastical tradition in its received richness. “That’s pre-Vatican,” as a difficult elderly nun used to bark at a certain priest whenever he stated the teaching of the Church.

In a recent article, I objected to modern lector praxis as Protestant and Pelagian. The reaction of today’s progressives (that is, the mainstream Church) would undoubtedly be: “So what? We’re chummy with the Protestants, and we don’t care about obscure ancient heresies in these enlightened times. All that matters is active participation.” With one badly-understood phrase, five, ten, fifteen centuries of Catholicism can be swept aside. Remarkably, even ecclesiastics who bring up the term Pelagianism seem incapable of seeing its most dynamic symbols and reinforcing practices right under their noses.

Our Lord taught that divorcing and marrying another person was committing adultery, which is a mortal sin; but say this today and you are nearly put to death with verbal stones: “rigid, judgmental, unmerciful, unwelcoming, Pharisaical.” Never mind that the Pharisees were the ones who approved divorce and bending big rules while imposing little ones; no one today cares about either history or logic. That, too, is essential to the “new paradigm”: the banishment of history and the emasculation of logic.

Such examples could be multiplied ad nauseam. They all point to one thing: what used to be orthodoxy is now viewed as heresy, and what used to be heresy is now viewed as orthodoxy. The transvaluation of all values.

We are standing at a juncture in the history of the Catholic Church. We might call it the nadir of Pascendi Dominici Gregis—the moment when an attempt is being made, in practice if not in theory, to substitute for the teaching of St. Pius X its diametrical opposite. St. Pius X had defined Modernism as “the synthesis of all heresies.” For many of today’s church leaders and people in the pews, however, it is orthodoxy that is “the synthesis of all heresies,” and Modernism that is the Catholic Faith pure and simple. Indeed, it has become fashionable today, even in so-called conservative circles, to brand as “fundamentalists” Catholics who hold and teach what John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches.

The transvaluation, or perhaps at times merely the devaluation, of all values can be seen if we survey popular theologians of our time. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s downright bizarre Trinitarian theology is in no way reconcileable with the Church’s orthodox Trinitarian theology.[1] Taking his cue from another of Balthasar’s novelties, Bishop Robert Barron thinks that he can seriously claim that all men might be saved—a view that Our Lord in the Gospels, Our Lady of Fatima, and the entire tradition of Christianity prior to Vatican II would have taken exception to. The standard “Bud Lite” version of Christology bears little resemblance to the Christology articulated and defended at such great cost by so many Fathers of the Church, such as St. Athanasius and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Compared to that of St. Alphonsus or St. Louis de Montfort, our Mariology is either non-existent, sentimental, or reductive. Catholic Social Teaching has been co-opted by the socialist Left and the capitalist Right, each for its own purposes, while the fundamental themes as we find them in Leo XIII, e.g., the ontologically and institutionally necessary relationship of Church and State, are unknown or caricatured. As for our sacramental and liturgical theology, one may be pardoned for wondering if there is any orthodox theology left at the popular level, apart from a (simplistic) conception of validity and licitness.

How did we get here? The path is a long and winding one that leads back several centuries at least, with nominalism, voluntarism, Protestantism, rationalism, and liberalism each playing star roles. But in terms of how this Nietzscheanism came to find its home in almost every Catholic church and Catholic bosom, seeping into the nave, rising into the sanctuary, erasing or jackhammering the memories of our forefathers and the faces of saints and angels, I think the answer is more straightforward.

This transvaluation of all values follows necessarily from the transformation of all forms.

I refer to the way in which nothing of Catholic life was left untouched after Vatican II. Every bit of the Mass, every aspect of the Divine Office, every sacramental rite, every blessing, every piece of clerical and liturgical clothing, every page of Canon Law and the Catechism—all had to be revamped, reworked, revised, usually in the direction of diminution and softening: “the Word was made bland, and dwelt in the suburbs.” The beauty and power of our tradition was muted at best, silenced at worst. No form was safe, stable, or deemed worthy of preservation as it stood, as it had been received.

The open or subliminal message isn’t hard to infer: The Catholic Church went off the rails many centuries ago, and now has to play catch up with the modern world. Everything is up for grabs. What measure to apply, what ideal to aspire to, what goal to reach before the changing stops—even these are indeterminate, disputable, open-ended, like a badly written stream-of-consciousness story. Nothing is to be left intact in humble, grateful acknowledgement of its longevity and belovedness. We are done building on rock, for it is unchanging; shifting sand is what suits the evolution, flexibility, and pluralism of Modern Man.

It was simply not possible for such an iconoclastic, vandalistic, self-doubting and self-creative process to occur without profoundly calling into question all Catholic beliefs, all Catholic practices. Ostensibly, the Church’s liturgy was being reformed; in reality, Catholicism was being questioned from top to bottom, or shall we say, campanella to crypt. One crack in the dam is enough to lead to its entire collapse.

Hence, from the transformation of all forms came, as inevitably as exhaustion and dictatorship follow after revolution, the transvaluation of all values. One could almost approach it like a theorem in Euclid: “Assuming aggiornamento, demonstrate that orthodoxy will become the synthesis of all heresies.” And so it happened as one might have predicted. Q.E.D.

This is the larger context that explains and, in fact, impels the dizzying events we are witnessing under this pontificate, such as the dismantling of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Immaculate, the suppression of the Trappist monastery of Mariawald, the push for optionalizing clerical celibacy, the push to expand female ministries, the bitter hatred of Summorum Pontificum and every traditional liturgical practice (e.g., ad orientem celebration) that has resurfaced in its wake, the antics of the Amorites who are working sleeplessly (in imitation of their master) to gain acceptance in the Church for every sexual “expression,” and on and on.

It all falls into place the moment one sees that the new masters of the universe hold exactly the opposite of what you and I hold. We believe what Catholics have always believed; we want to live and pray as Catholics have always done[2]; and we are shocked to find ourselves the object of mockery, hostility, and persecution. But we should not be shocked. We are living by the old paradigm, in which Modernism was the synthesis of all heresies. Our enemies follow a new paradigm—the paradigm, in fact, of systematic newness or novelty. The newer something is, the better, the more authentic, the more real, in the ever-evolving process of human maturation. For them, the so-called “orthodox Faith” defended by the likes of St. Augustine, St. John Damascene, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, St. Pius X, this is absolutely no longer “relevant” to Modern Man; it is a frozen relic of a dead past, an obstacle to the Progress that the Spirit of Newness wishes to bestow.[3]

The noveltymongers will stop short, perhaps, at canonizing the more illustrious members of their house—Ockham, Descartes, Luther, Hegel, or Nietzsche—but they will do their best to canonize lesser factotums such as Giovanni Battista Montini, Annibale Bugnini, and Teilhard de Chardin. We should prepare ourselves spiritually to endure a season of sacrileges, blasphemies, and apostasies that Catholics have never dreamed of in the worst periods of pagan persecution or internal confusion.

We may take comfort in the certainty, as John Paul II reminded us in his last book Memory and Identity, that the Lord always puts a limit to evil, as He did with National Socialism and Soviet Communism. He will not tempt any man beyond what he can bear. And, sobering as the thought is, we may also draw some comfort from the certainty that Our Lord puts a limit to the evils each of us must endure by setting a boundary to our lives. For the faithful disciple who clings to Christ and His life-giving Gospel, death accepted in self-abandonment is, in addition to being a curse of the Fall, a blessing that liberates us from a world that is not and was never intended to be our lasting home (cf. Heb 13:14). This inevitable fact is not an invitation to quietism—work we must, and work we shall—but rather a call to preserve our peace of soul in the midst of earthly trials, which will never be lacking and which are meant to wean us, bit by bit, from our attachments, as we prepare for the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.

Meanwhile, during our pilgrimage in this life, it is ours to fight the good fight, to keep the true Faith, and to resist any and every deformity of it that raises its ugly head, as we strive to pass on what we have received and seek to enthrone Christ as King of our hearts, homes, parishes, countries, and all of creation.



[1] Fr. Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., published a short but scathing “Note on Balthasar’s Trinitarian Theology” in The Thomist 64 (2000): 127–30, in which he quotes various heretical texts from Balthasar’s work and comments: “We have here a paradox: some modern authors, evidently concerned with spirituality, have unwittingly fallen into a conception of the divine Being that is overly materialistic. … A kind of human psychologism risks drawing the readers of the Swiss theologian in the direction of tritheism. … Given the strong affirmations in the Gospels of the unity between the Father and the Son-affirmations reiterated by several ecumenical councils in underscoring their consubstantiality, we cannot accept the dialectical, obscure, and, above all, dangerous language of Balthasar, who appears to affirm and to deny it at the same time.”


[2] The favorite comeback of progressives is that “the liturgy kept developing over time, so you can’t say that Catholics ‘always’ worshiped this or that way.” But that is a superficial response. The deeper truth is that Catholics have always worshiped according to the liturgy they have received, and any development occurred within this fundamental assumption of the continuity of the rituals, chants, and texts. The work of the Consilium of the 1960s rejected this assumption in altering almost every aspect of the liturgy, adding and deleting material according to their own theories. Therefore what they produced is not and can never be an expression of Catholic tradition; it will always remain a foreign body.


[3] It is in keeping with this Darwinian-Hegelian evolutionism that we find today’s “conservatives” so ready to embrace the view that whatever the current reigning pope says automatically trumps all that his predecessors have said on the same subject. In reality, a pope’s teaching possesses authority precisely insofar as it contains and confirms the teaching of his predecessors, even if it expands on it in ways harmonious with what has already been taught. Moreover, elementary rules of magisterial interpretation tell us that a teaching given with a greater level of authority, no matter how many decades or centuries old it may be, carries more weight than a recent teaching given with a lower level of authority. Level of authority is gauged by the type of document in which, or the occasion on which, it is issued, the verbal formula employed, and other such signs.

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