What to do? Views from the past

Mid-20th-century works by Fr. Romano Guardini and Carol Jackson Robinson help us better understand the technocratic landscape of today while offering hope and a vision of necessary heroic effort rooted in supernatural faith.

(Image: Greg Willson/Unsplash.com)

Catholics today are in a difficult position. They have come to believe that active involvement in social and political life is a basic part of living the Faith. But the general conditions leading to that view—which include a growing conviction of the importance of worldly things—are also promoting industrial, commercial, and bureaucratic ways of thinking that leave no room for the natural law principles that pervade Catholic social and moral teaching.

Catholic responses to that situation vary. One is to keep plugging away, and present Catholic and natural law arguments in hopes that some will eventually listen. After all, insanity eventually falls apart, and instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy. Also, secular orthodoxy is becoming more imperialistic, and vigorously asserting Catholic positions seems necessary for defending the ability of Catholic families and communities to live normal, faithful lives.

But that approach seems more and more like preaching to the choir. Not many are buying it. To make matters worse, the choir leaves out those Catholics, some in very high positions, whose watchwords are encounter and accompaniment, and would rather adopt or accommodate to current secular ways of thinking than confront them or argue for alternatives.

One response to such difficulties has been to propose bringing back, at least informally, the bastions that were torn down in the wake of Vatican II. Draw Christians together in cohesive communities that would provide a setting from which champions of the Faith could sally forth, and also—at least as importantly—support ordinary people in their efforts to carry on a way of life informed by Christian teachings.

The proposal has helped Rod Dreher sell a lot of books, but it too has problems. How do you set up a bastion when modern communications, transportation, and economic life mix everything in the world together with everything else? Or when our ruling class has made inclusion—“you will be assimilated”—its Prime Directive? And above all, how do you do it when your own leaders don’t much like the idea?

The “bastion” approach nonetheless seems possible, and it’s hard to think of anything else that would reduce the pressure on ordinary Catholics and their families. But none of our problems are new, and Catholics have been thinking about them for a long time. So it may provide perspective to discuss what a couple of intelligent Catholics thought about them right after the Second World War.

Romano Guardini was a Catholic priest, theologian, and philosophy professor. In spite of his Italian name and birth he is considered German, since his family moved from Verona to Germany when he was one year old, and he lived and worked there the rest of his life.

His book The End of the Modern World, which was based on lectures delivered a couple of years after the end of the war, appeared in 1950. It was an attempt to find hope in the technological mass society that was succeeding what he called “the modern world,” the period of humanistic culture that had itself succeeded the more theocentric medieval period.

Fr. Guardini believed technological ways of thinking were reducing everything to function and utility, destroying religious feeling, inherited culture, differences among peoples, and even familial and sexual distinctions. Man was losing his place in the world, and the enormous growth of power without moral responsibility was putting even his survival at risk.

He saw hard times coming:

The new culture will be incomparably more harsh and more intense. It will lack the organic both in its sense of growth and of proportions … it presents a vision of factories and barracks to the eyes of the mind.

To deal with that situation, he called for earnestness, gravity and asceticism, and hoped the very difficulty of the circumstances would provoke these qualities. As he said,

Such a challenge demands … a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive. Nothing else, however, can withstand the powers of anonymity which grow more immense day by day.

When ordinary social life can no longer sustain humanity, we will be left with a choice between annihilation of what is human and an absolute turning toward what transcends us. He therefore called for “a pure obedience. Christianity will arm itself for an illiberal stand directed unconditionally toward Him Who is Unconditioned.”

Thus will return a sort of Old Testament God of battles:

…in the coming world, the Old Testament will take on a new significance. The Old Testament reveals the Living God Who smashes the mythical bonds of the earth, Who casts down the powers and the pagan rulers of life…. These Old Testament truths will grow in meaning and import.

So in response to an inhuman world Fr. Guardini called for extreme Christian heroism sustained by nothing but supernatural faith.

The necessary heroes have been slow to arrive. “Not with a bang but a wimper” seems to summarize current developments. The dominant notes of public life are less clarity, danger, or struggle than inertia and insistence on security and ease. Instead of cool realism and uncompromising commitment to dogma we have ambiguity, sentimentality, and compromise.

Life goes on. Human nature remains, and tradition never dies, because what can be made explicit and objective in human life is always embedded in what is implicit, personal, and customary. So if our rulers try to impose a wholly technological society, they will fail. Official rhetoric will diverge more and more from reality, and we will end up with irrationality and corruption set in a mixture of anarchy, tyranny, and social isolation.

And that is what we see growing up around us. So what the future will need may be less the Christian supermen Fr. Guardini envisioned than people who combine strong religious commitments with strong personal and community attachments—in other words, good Catholics and citizens as traditionally conceived, but with less attachment perhaps to official principles and secular legal structures..

Such considerations play more of a role in This Perverse Generation, published in 1949 by the American journalist Carol Jackson Robinson, whose works are now being republished by Arouca Press. Like Fr. Guardini, her big concern was technological mass society. As an American, though, she saw that society from a less dramatic and grandly historical viewpoint.

America had escaped the horrors of war and tyranny, and life in the postwar period was peaceful, prosperous, and complacent. That was the problem. Life wasn’t harsh and dangerous, it was trivial and boring. We were trying to build a happy life without God, based on prosperity, security, and an ever more open-ended principle of doing what we want.

It wasn’t working, and for the Church and Christian life the results were disastrous. We were building on a bad foundation that made life in community in accordance with reason and virtue impossible barring the most heroic efforts. So she agreed with Romano Guardini on the necessity of heroic effort.

What she had in mind, though, was less austere, less individualistic, and less affected by the idea of an unchangeable historical scheme. It involved Aquinas to clarify our thought, the promotion of a Catholic society so ordinary people could live a good life, and Catholic Action to enlist the laity in the task of transforming the social order and restoring all things in Christ.

The project seemed promising, and typical of other initiatives of the time. Even so it has collapsed, largely because Church authorities have given up on it. How can the laity try to restore all things in Christ when the official line is that we should downplay conversion and specific beliefs, and emphasize nonjudgmental dialog with non-believers and technocratic concepts of well-being that provide a basis for cooperation with them?

And that is one reason a well-known journalist who gave up on the Catholic Church because of episcopal corruption and fecklessness has made such a splash with his proposal that lay believers join together to form their own small-scale Christian communities. For the most part, our leadership has abdicated, leaving us little else that offers hope.


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About James Kalb 116 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

23 Comments

  1. I find it amusing how so many Catholics have this knee-jerk negative reaction to the Benedict Option as if everyone is rushing to form new Catholic communities to ‘man the barricades’ based on a book. They are not. But you can be certain of one thing: as societal persecution of all things Catholic worsens, Catholics will seek to band together for mutual support in a naturalistic, dynamic, almost imperceptible manner. One thing for sure – this will not be a highly organized and centralized effort. After all, we are talking about the Catholic Church.

    • You make a good point – I think societal persecution will eventually draw together those who hold fast to the faith, but that doesn’t mean it will be organized! In fact, given the state of the Church today I think it likely that it will be very disorganized…but it will hold together based on God’s will.

      • Okay. But, could it be organized and, if so, how? Rod Dreher offered a sketch. Where does one begin building – before the societal persecution?

    • Not sure what you have in mind. The point of the column is that Catholics must undoubtedly join and support each other, but there are some problems:

      1. What form will that have to take to be effective when practical life is increasingly absorbed by networks of relationships and commercial and bureaucratic institutions imbued with a radically anti-Catholic ethos?

      2. Will a governing ideology that wants us all to be one in the manner it favors cause big problems? E.g., will it be possible for Catholic schools to exist in more than name? For that matter, will Catholicism within the family be treated as child abuse?

      3. And we’re a hierarchical Church. Is it a problem if much of the hierarchy is accommodationist? Church reform has always been difficult if it’s not supported at the top.

      The piece also notes that intelligent observers have called for heroism in the face of difficult circumstances. Heroism seems in short supply though. Twenty-first century Americans, it seems, have been deeply formed by their circumstances.

  2. If we cannot be bolstered by the present hierarchy we can at least be bolstered by the corpus of Catholic teaching that stands boldly against the eugenics industrial complex and demand our preachers preach it.

    • Not sure I totally agree with this, but it sounds more in keeping with the “program” God has outlined for us.

  3. Hi James,

    Such a heartfelt conundrum; well laid-out. But, say we begin that stream of conscience of yours, not with the ills of today’s world and the church, but with Christ our King’s total rule of everything physical and everything spiritual . . ?

    Some ask why Jesus did not organize for everything to be miraculously put right all the time. They misunderstand the purpose of this universe. Holy miracles occasionally give us a foretaste of God’s glory but amidst a harsh generality that’s brilliantly created to progressively, comprehensively separate all who will to love God from all who don’t wish to (let the reader fill in the many scriptures that teach this).

    This everyday apocalyptic process, is very patient, just and merciful, requiring many millennia, as Peter reminds us (2 Peter 3:9); yet he also says we could hasten it if we stir ourselves a bit (2 Peter 3:12) and stir up one another’s trust in Jesus.
    Reminds me of a great song: Martin Smith – Rise Up (Official Live Video) – YouTube

    Have been blessed to be in John 10 today. Impressed by Jesus Christ as the ONE door that souls past, present, and future have to enter through. That includes all the Patriarchs and Prophets and Saints and Martyrs. There simply ain’t no other way . . .
    All those who suggest there’s another door are deceiving thieves and robbers. God’s chosen sheep wisely never follow the syncretists and universalists.

    Our mission? By all means to help people realize, above all else, they must seek their own close relationship with Jesus. They can do that with supreme confidence, for our Beloved Lord said: “If anyone turns to Me, I will by no means turn them away!” [John 6:37]. Politics and commerce and even Church life MUST be second fiddle to ensuring Christ’s life thrives in us. Martha had to learn that it is Christ alive in her that enables all those many material things to be done peacefully and well.

    So often, when working with fellow Catholics (including eminent clergy) one becomes aware of what could be called: CAOU 🙄 (no, that’s not the: Centro Acuatico Olympio Universitario in Mexico; rather, it’s the depressing: Catholic Agony of Uncertainty).

    So many lovely people, but such a pity how few regularly read their New Testament with understanding, as Pope Francis has exhorted us all to do; even asking us to carry a small New Testament on our person, to delve into, wherever we are. The Pope so wisely said how we’ll be amazed at the never-failing stream of new and apposite wisdom given to us by God in this simple, accessible way.

    It’s true: “The impossibilities of this world (and Church) will grow strangely dim in the light of Christ’s glory and grace!” Jesus actually does have the answers we need.

    Thanks for stimulating these thoughts dear James; please keep safe and well. Always in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ; love and blessings from Marty

  4. Kalb truly captures the moment. And, he concludes: “For the most part, our leadership has abdicated, leaving us little else that offers hope.”

    Alongside computer languages and the cultural solvent of Technocracy, with regard to Islam we are offered the language of multi-cultural “pluralism” and “fraternity.” Fair enough so far as it goes, but what then of the foundational language of incarnated Fatherhood, and “paternity” and the family? At the ground level, how is the family to be championed and restored? Long before the Sexual Revolution, a layman already posed this question:

    “What it is to belong to a family, and to be attached to it, is something which it seems to me that neither biology nor sociology is capable of probing right to the core; and on the other hand, speaking rather generally, one might say that the family relationship is not one which up to the present has sufficiently engaged the attention of metaphysics” (Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, 1950).

    Well, attention was well-engaged by Pope St. John Paul II. But, today there’s the lucid and now undermined “Familiaris Consortio,” the courageous, fulfilling and now politically assaulted “Theology of the Body,” and the steadfast and now buried “Veritatis Splendor” (Pope St. John Paul II, 1981; 1979-84; 1993).

    Finally, Kalb’s “hope” is a theological virtue.

  5. “And that is one reason a well-known journalist who gave up on the Catholic Church because of episcopal corruption and fecklessness has made such a splash with his proposal that lay believers join together to form their own small-scale Christian communities”

    Catholic laymen must be the leaders in such endeavors, and they must aim at real community (not fake ones like Ave Maria Town) with economic resiliency.

  6. Regarding Mr. Kalb’s comment that episcopal “leadership has abdicated, leaving us little else that offers hope”: We have a gem in the Second Vatican Council which re-empowered the laity. I believe that this conciliar action was directed at the bequest of the Holy Spirit which saw the coming fury.

    In other words, God has empowered the laity to take charge of the mission of the Church when episcopal leadership fails.

    • The mission of the church, as given to us by Jesus himself, is to grow and nurture the church. That is, to make disciples and teach them the ways of Christ —not to transform the social order to make it more like the church, or to try to eliminate sin from the world (good luck with that). After several generations of bad catechesis, do lay Catholics today even know what the mission of the church is?

      • Dear G. Poulin, thanks for an admirable observation; spot-on.

        The New Testament evidence to Jesus Christ, our Head, is that true Christians – Catholics and others – are to soberly assess ourselves by our success as WITNESSES not as WINNERS.

        The deep instinct of wanting to be a winner in this world is the error that pervades the Old Testament and why there had to be a New Testament! The Cross of Jesus Christ permanently cancelled that error – but far too many in the Church, especially ambitious clerics, keep mindlessly trying to resuscitate it.

        Their false gospel is: “If only we can get enough lay and religious, wealth, properties, schools, universities, hospitals, charities, social status, political power, etc., etc., we can dominate everyone else, and God’s Kingdom will come.”

        Of course, that’s exactly what every other worldly, POWER-OVER group aims for. No wonder there are endless vicious competitions and cruel wars and genocides.

        Far worse: so many ‘catholics’ and other ‘christians’ legitimize power-over by making freemason or witchcraft or syncretistic or universalist or new-age vows. They feel their paganism is justified by worldly successes and high positions. But in truth, as far as The Gospel is concerned, they are lost souls*.

        Our comfort: amidst the discombobulating melee, God always has faithful witnesses, showing a lost world that it is King Jesus’ POWER-UNDER that has eternal relevance.

        Peace and blessing and love to all in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

        Prescript: *lost souls must sincerely abjure their pagan vows and turn singleheartedly to trust in Jesus Christ alone, while they still have breath.

        • Many people think it’s good for lay Catholics to participate as citizens in public life to help promote the common good. Do you agree with that? Is it OK, for example, for them to vote? Express opinions on legislation? Drum up support for their opinions? Run for public office? Or is all that too much involvement in power politics and the desire to win?

          • Thanks, James, I agree with you, that’s a highly pertinent matter.

            The guidance supplied again and again in The New Testament is much more lucid, however, than disputants about world involvement have made out.

            As with everything in The New Testament it is completely Jesus Christ centered: e.g. Matthew 10:37-42, with Luke 14:25-35, show us what must come first: total lifelong commitment to Jesus Christ above all else – even our own bodily welfare and life in this world joyfully yielded to obeying the commandments and witnessing to the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

            This is SO different to the nominal acknowledgement of Christ we observe even in lovely, regular Church attendees; even in the better clerics and religious. In these days the hearts of so many of our fellow Catholics have grown cold and formalistic; uncertain; riven by disputes; estranged from The Lamb. Isn’t it just another irrelevance, James, whether they enter power politics, etc. or not?

            In contrast: living full of Christ and the Father (see John 14:23; 2 Corinthians 13:5; etc.) and having The Holy Spirit (e.g. Romans 8:9), we are constantly counselled as to what we should do with our lives.

            The Holy Trinity of God is well able to train us and organize for us to participate as citizens in public life to help promote the common good, to vote, express opinions on legislation, drum-up support for our opinions, run for public office. It’s God’s call not ours.

            For those who listen to and follow Christ (see crucial key verses in John 10:27-30) involvement in politics and the desire to serve God by faithful public witness, whether winning or losing, is only ever done as an act of humble obedience to Jesus and His servanthood of people.

            Never under a façade of Catholicism or Christianity that is actually a measure of our personal and collective urge to dominate and grab ‘our share’ of Power-Over control, having comprehensively neglected to position ourselves to receive God’s on-going plan for our lives.

            A plan that may include our unjust rejection by the world and even persecution over our uncompromisable allegiance to Christ. Sometimes we are called to make up what is missing in the Church. Surely that’s all part of POWER-UNDER.

            My apologies, James, for a long answer but am hoping it’s all meaningful.

            Ever in the love of Jesus; blessings from marty

          • Of course Catholics may participate in social and political life, if they desire too. The question is whether such involvement is really essential to living the Christian life — whether it is part of the church’s sacred mission. No it isn’t, and no it isn’t. Those who say otherwise are pushing a false gospel. We’re not here to make the world a better place.

  7. This is unnecessarily defeatist. The thing about nowadays is that communication is so “viral.” What is necessary is that a person takes a stand, it is publicized, that he survives, and that he is capable of communicating. When there is some horrible injustice that is committed and TPTB are “caught red-handed” in abusing an innocent person, then the reasoning behind the evil can be exposed. Then there is a chance that people will embrace the truth that sets men free.

    Remember that many ordinary people in the past were martyred. It is not impossible to be a hero, only to stand firm in the face of evil.

  8. “Such a challenge demands, a strengthening of character which we can scarcely conceive. Nothing else, however, can withstand the powers of anonymity which grow more immense day by day” (Romano Guardini). A teeming ant colony NYC post WWII America booming economically. Each ant logistically aware of others striving to remain anonymous in subways, in buses, on streets and finally at work in anonymous office settings. Dutifully instinctively fulfilling his contribution to the Colony to gain his reward and allotted leisurely indulgence . “We were trying to build a happy life without God doing what we want” (Carol Jackson Robinson). An accommodating hierarchy is spiritually dead. It cannot lead. Left to our own devices Kalb urges we keep plugging away. “After all, instructing the ignorant is a spiritual work of mercy”. Pockets, remnants of the living faithful are bound to form because the Holy Spirit will not abandon. Whatever form of integration there may be, likely led by good bishops the future is not apparent. Madness may prevail at length. What is apparent is our required effort in that spiritual work of mercy. In that we are assured of doing Christ’s work.

  9. Great article. “Whose watchwords, encounter, and accompaniment”. There is a whole era of babble in the Church with words such as these. Meaningless words which mean nothing at all. The real Council of St. Pope John XXlll was promising. The 70 Decrees minced no words. His Council was this, it is not the Church that needs to change, it is the man who needs to change. But his Council was voted out and Modernists made their own Council. A Council bereft of God, not Blessed by God. Know them by their fruits, 55 years of failure. Was the Holy Ghost with the Council of the Modernists. NO! The Holy Ghost was with the Council of St. Pope John XXlll. I have found the Council of St. Pope John XXlll in the Deharbe’s Cathechism, in the Catechism of St. Pius X, and of course the Baltimore Catechism 1-4. This was what the real Council of St. Pope John XXlll was, and we want it back. The Council of the Modernists must be declared illegitimate because illegitimate it was!

  10. talk, and relentless talk. The mind numbing tedium of the endless, pointless conversation. We defeat ourselves.
    Jesus, The Evangelists tell us, by his mere presence, stopped the conversation.
    Be still, be quiet, and know that I am God.
    Get out of the head. get into the heart. It all will be given to you.

    Andrew Agnelo “There is a whole era of babble in the Church with words such as these”.
    The Tower of Babble

    • William D. Cesaletti, Since before the Council ended there has been what I call straight out, babble. No one understands what they mean, I don’t even believe the heretics understand what they talk about with their spirit of Vatican ll new language. Tower of Babble may be more appropriate. Our “talk” is not pointless, our talk is for the greater Glory and Honor of God, which could never be pointless. Since during the Council Modernists have been incensing the Church with the “smoke of satan”. “talk and relentless talk” We are not simply doing idle talking. We are shouting it from the rooftops that there is a catastrophic problem in the Church and we must address it with, “talk and relentless talk” until Christ decides it’s time for His Victory over heresy.

  11. Responding to G. Poulin – May 10, 2021: “We’re not here to make the world a better place.” Well said, again!

    In a universe derived from nothing; present as a partial quantum vacuum that flummoxes physicists; and, running fast and dangerously to absolute dissolution, could anything really make it better?

    Yet, John heard The Lamb of God say we-who-follow will bear: “fruit that will last”. Ah! Something then will remain. What fruit could be immune from universal decay? Paul comes to our rescue: “Love and Peace and Joy and Patience and Goodness and Generosity and Faithfulness and Humbleness and Self-Control”.

    Such witness gives the world a glimpse of God’s Power-Under Realm. By our simply doing that we may certainly improve life for some people.

    Yet, if we and those who chose to join us stay true to hearing and following The Lamb, rejection by the world of Power-Over is inevitable. Even Jung could see the mutual incompatibility of the will to power and genuine love.

    In season & out, our call is to witness to God’s commandments & to the Love of Christ. That this also provokes hidden evil to show its hand is part of God’s brilliant plan of binary ethical apocalypsis. BEA is the solid purpose of this temporary, flimsy universe, because it justly opens the door to The Harvest and the Banquet.

    Asked when & where, we reply: “The apocalypse is continually right here & right now!”

    Ever in the love of Jesus; blessings from Marty

  12. The fundamental problem from which all the other problems of contemporary Christianity flow is this: The Church, by not responding to Caesar’s usurpation of authority over innocent human life that belongs to God alone in a manner commensurate with the urgency of the situation, signals to Caesar its basic approval of his pretending to have the authority to “legalize” the murder of innocent humanity by the billions. That is idolatrous. It is burning incense to Caesar. Yes, worldwide, the count of children “legally” murdered in the womb is now in the billions.

    That is an assault on humanity made in the Image and Likeness of God that is unprecedented in human history. God’s people have an obligation to use all moral means to resist this state of affairs, not only in order to care for Christ in the least of His brethren, but also in order to avoid, through their complacency signalling to Caesar their approval, engaging in idolatry.

    Christ couldn’t have made it more clear that failing to care for Him in the least of His brethren imperils our salvation. St. Paul made it equally clear that idolaters will not inherit the Kingdom of God.

    It should surprise no serious Christian that a Church so infected with idolatry of this magnitude will unceasingly develop other problems. We can discuss those problems forever and if we do not take appropriate action in regard to the source of all these problems we will get nowhere. It is not like an idolatrous Church is going to make progress. It won’t.

    The refusal to render unto Caesar that which belongs only to God is as fundamental to the success of Christianity today as it was in the early Church.

    • Not sure if I follow. Why should Caesar be involved at all, either way, on this? Relying on Caesar seems off point from the Gospel message. We have the example of Joseph with Mary on how to deal with problem pregnancies. And we have the example of Jesus and the apostles on meeting others needs before satisfying wants. The church has a long way to go in following these examples before resorting to Caesar.
      Leaving a woman a choice in a situation where she has been let down or even pressured by some man to end a pregnancy seems a moral and not necessarily a legal problem. Us guys could do much better. If there is a civil law it should somehow apply to men too, not just women. We need to think this through and discuss it more–and do our best to keep it within the church rather than rely on Caesar.

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