The all too common bellicosity of these different approaches, praised universally as the magnificent fruit of the modern spirit, is well represented by the following, instructive excerpts from F.M. Marinetti’s (1876-1944) “Futurist Manifesto” of 1909:
Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Poetry must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.
We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice. It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.
Let the good incendiaries with charred fingers come! Here they are! Heap up the fire to the shelves of the libraries! Divert the canals to
flood the cellars of the museums! Let the glorious canvases swim ashore! Take the picks and hammers! Undermine the foundation of enerable towns!
We can be proud that the Roman Catholic Church under the “reactionary” pontiffs of the pre-1914 era fought modernity’s irrational and war-thirsty mentality tooth and nail, predicting with scientific accuracy the horrors that it would unleash. But sad to say, large numbers of Catholics in all the warring countries displayed a sheep-like acceptance of the inexorable demands of the warlike modernist Zeitgeist, enthusiastically raising their voices in support of the purification through struggle theme.
At best, such “believers” totally ignored Pope Benedict XV’s (1914-1922) lamentation of the mindless carnage brought about by the conflict, as well as his proposals for its negotiated settlement. At worst, they vilified him for daring merely to suggest that there could be any debate whatsoever as to whose side God favored in the conflict. Even in the literary world, only a relatively small number of men—like Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the increasingly embittered admirer of the international-minded civilizing mission of the Hapsburg Empire—were willing openly to criticize the degrading contradictions of a bloody “struggle for perfection” that exiled human intelligence, secular ethics, and supernatural moral teachings alike.
The United States, with presidents like Teddy Roosevelt, who had become depressed before 1914 by the absence of sufficient warfare testing and raising the virility of the population, was by no means alien to the bloody purification thesis. Once again, some American Catholics—maybe not the bulk of the faithful, but certainly their most vocal clerical and lay leaders—simply could not shake their heads fast enough in agreement with the warmongers’ vision. For them, the First World War was a God-given means for securing “a future brighter than any past” through the opportunity that it gave for a virile promotion of the special mission of the United States in global history.
Anyone interested in exploring the strength of the “war purification” theme among Catholics in the United States would do well to study the history of the National Catholic War Council (NCWC) and the ideas expressed by its supporters. Brought to life at Catholic University in August of 1917, just a few months after American entry into the war, some of this Council’s practical projects were unobjectionable, in particular its concern to provide proper chaplains for the faithful serving in the armed forces. Nevertheless, examination of the intellectual justification for the Council’s activities provides valuable proof of the triumphant progress of that ideology of Americanism that some people still persist in calling a “phantom heresy” and the final development of the arguments that would guarantee the victory of soulless Pluralism in the universal Church by the 1960’s.
Those eager to follow up on the NCWC can do so online through an archive made available by the Catholic University of America. They will find that official statements explaining the goals of the organization could easily have been written by John Courtenay Murray as part of his preparation for Dignitatis humanae, almost fifty years later. These statements waved the bloody flag of war-driven purification on behalf of the so-called Moderate Enlightenment in its march to the final realization of God’s purpose in history through the teaching imparted by the American Foundation.
That Foundation was solemnly identified as divinely-protected, along with the sacred principles of separation of Church and State, religious liberty, constitutional government, and, of course, democracy. Moreover, the NCWC built upon earlier pronouncements by James Cardinal Gibbons that recommended conscription as a tool for finally making honest American men out of the wretched refuse of the Old World, ready to be martyred in the Christian cause of “making the world safe for democracy”.
This war cry was drilled into the Catholics under arms in the copies of the New Testament given with the Cardinal’s blessing to combatants. The only cry of jubilation that seems to have remained unwritten in the NCWC’s official documents was that raised privately to the silencing of those pesky, traitorous, obscurantist German-American Catholics whose complaints had done so much to bring on Leo XIII’s assault on God’s country and its enlightened mission in Testem benevolentiae (1899).
Woe to the American Catholic who did not heed the voice of God in Woodrow Wilson in 1917-1918! Prelates backing the NCWC warned him that no such thing as an objection to the conflict could possibly even be imagined or formulated! For the American government, as Cardinal Gibbons insisted, “knew things” about which we—and Pope Benedict XV, or anyone else concerned with moral truth—could only have mere “opinions”.
Catholic conscientious objectors to the conflict—of whom, sadly, there were fewer than in any other major denomination—were literally hounded by the bien-pensants armericanistes into the mad house. Congress had voted; war was ipso facto just; this was the “Catholic Moment” violently to push “mankind’s last best hope”, as Lincoln called it, just that little bit further toward global realization. World War One was the “now or never” chance for the purification of the riff-raff of Catholic Europe.
Wartime “purification” continued after the conflict’s end, through the transmutation of the National Catholic War Council into the National Catholic Welfare Conference, and this partly due to Rome’s indifference to a few American prelates’ warnings that it would become an instrument for building a national State Church. Yes, the pronounced ecumenism that was one of the open features of the wartime effort (“Many pious people at home would be scandalized at what we are doing here”, Pat O’Brien’s Fr. Duffy is correctly made to say in the Fighting Sixty Ninth film regarding the war, released in 1940) was temporarily dropped. But the isolationist and highly parochial atmosphere of the interwar period ensured that even though the war had not yet made the world safe for American democracy, it had helped mightily in convincing those Catholics living in the United States to equate Catholicism with the worship of the American System. The Pluralism divinized by Vatican Two merely confirmed what American Catholics already worshipped by the time of Pearl Harbor.
I do have to admit that there was a strong element of naiveté in the work of the NCWC. Its promoters were still real believers, deceived regarding the true character of the American “experiment”. Hence, to take but one major example, the social program that it envisaged for the future post-war America was praiseworthy, and quite in line with the mainstream of Catholic Social Doctrine. Its noble proponents simply did not realize that John Locke’s demand for religious toleration and checks and balances allowed no room for a Catholic Social Doctrine that was not purely individualist and anti-authoritarian in character. The poor dears lacked the exegesis of John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Robert Sirico. They did not understand that Catholicism and unbridled plutocracy, along with endless wars to promote American domination of the globe, were actually one and the same thing.
That brings me to the last part of this brief meditation on November 11th. Let’s face it. Most of the readers of this website are as fed up with the current situation—religious, politically, and socially—as I am. The question I am sure that all of us often ask ourselves in seeing the total wreckage of Christian civilization is a simple one: “Why does God stay his hand?” When will His chastisement begin? How long, O Lord, how long?
Please permit me to indulge a Church historian’s temptation to vain speculation in responding to this heartfelt emotion. Perhaps God “stays his hand” because he wants to see a full appreciation of what Christ’s mission and Christendom were meant to be in the first place before His definitive intervention bringing this experiment with human action to a conclusion. Perhaps He is not going to allow this mess to reach a conclusion before we all “get it”, just once, for a single, brief moment in time.
I say this because my own studies of Church History indicate that we have never really “got it”. There has always been something missing to the holistic vision of what “transformation in Christ” truly involves. We have always been selective and limiting in what we will permit the Incarnation to correct and exalt in fallen nature. Even in the High Middle Ages, when we came closest to a grasp of everything that was of concern, there was always too much exclusive emphasis on one aspect of the Christian experience or another—whether Papacy, Sacred Emperor, Scholastics, Church Fathers, mystical experiences, the proper natural environment, etc.—and not all of them together.
Sadly, many traditionalist Catholics in our own day still think that the era before the Council was a Golden Age. That the pre-1962 Papacy and the teaching Magisterium under its guidance were at a peak compared to most of Church History I do not deny. That Catholics in general were living up to the model that the Papacy and its teaching presented I reject. Most Catholics had long lost a sense of all that is most central to a proper understanding of Catholic Christendom—with its essentially international character, and its need to root the building of a just and beautiful environment in a system guided not by individual libertinism but proper social authority at the top of the list. Most Catholics, by 1914, had become conscious or unconscious mercenaries for one or another “purgative” warring faction, parochial and naturalist in character, with the spokesmen for American Catholics among the most formidable of the problem children in question.
May all you dead of the First World War rest in peace! May your death not have been in vain! Unfortunately, I fear that it was. You lived in a globe that could not accept the fact that God’s Creation is something other than a jungle ruled by the war of all against all. St. Pius X, Pope of Peace, pray for a world gone mad. St. Pius X, pray for American Catholics: that they will all come to understand the errors of their own land and become a militant force for “making the world safe for transformation in Christ”.