It can be great fun re-reading old books, like visiting friends you haven’t seen in a while and reminiscing about the old days. The other day, I picked up my old copy of the late, great Anne Roche Muggeridge’s seminal 1986 examination of the Church’s crisis, “The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church,” (1990, updated and expanded edition) and in a situation as confusing as ours the book is worth reading again for the clarity of her examination.
It was also fun to pick out the names she held up at that time as hopeful. In her description of the Hunthausen Affair, the sad story of one of the weak and half-hearted attempt to address the disaster in Seattle, that failed miserably, she describes as one of these young hopefuls a certain Father Donald Wuerl. Wuerl, she said, was made a bishop with the express mandate to clean up Hunthausen’s mess, particularly in the area of the latter’s “pastoral” response to homosexuality. (She describes the “Dignity Mass” in Seattle’s cathedral as the last straw for the remaining believers in his flock.) Residents of the archdiocese of Washington DC may wish to join me in a dark and hollow laugh.
But it is really with Mrs. Muggeridge’s extremely cogent and thorough analysis of the process of revolution in the Church that the book finds its enduring historical value. In fact, reading it again, The Desolate City can be taken as a kind of “future history,” useful in extrapolating what is likely to happen if events continue on their current path.
The book’s theme is an examination of the historical pattern of revolution in the secular realm and its application to the ecclesial scene, mainly, though not only, in the period immediately following Vatican II. Being more than a tedious list of Catholic grievances against the current regime, it remains today a fascinating read, and I think an essential one for those who want to understand the nature of the crisis.
In the opening chapter, she describes the revolutionary pattern that has held true in all political revolutions from 1789 forward. [In the square parentheses, I have estimated the corresponding time frame for the Catholic revolutionaries]:
- “Revolution is instigated by the group immediately below the rulers” who are “irritated by exclusion from what they consider their just prerogatives” to rule. [19th century to 1950]
- “The first step is to stop obeying while remaining in office as long as possible…At the beginning… radical intent is hidden.” [1950 – 1965]
- “Every occasion is exploited” to undermine the government’s authority “by subversion.” [1965 – 1978]
- “The revolutionaries’… withdrawal of legitimacy from the government… becomes known to the society at large.” [1978 – 1990s]
- “The government’s prestige declines rapidly.” It starts making “conciliatory gestures, which the revolution correctly interprets as weakness.”
- As the government weakens, “the revolutionaries throw off all pretense,” and they “make clear their separation from the old world view, constantly contrasting the bad old ways with the progressive new ones.”
- “Intense propaganda is directed at making the old ideas and disciplines seem outmoded and ridiculous and the new ones inevitable and irresistible.” [throughout the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI]
Some thoughts come to mind re-reading this list and applying it to the situation 25 years later.
From her description above, we understand that revolution is not an attempt by an aggrieved and oppressed lower class to redress moral wrongs. Any pretense that the revolution is being instigated on behalf of the lower orders is a ruse. Revolution is only ever about a subordinate class seizing power for itself from the ruling class immediately above.
The last of her points above, the highly successful propaganda campaign by the now-ruling revolutionaries, seems to be as far as we were in 2013 in the Church. The discrediting of the old ways was so advanced that even a pope could hardly dare to raise a tenuous voice against it. (Indeed, there are many who believe that it was his refusal to condemn the Old Mass, or to move against those who adhere to it, that led to Pope Benedict XVI being forced out of office.)
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Anne goes in depth into the history of the Modernist movement, its beginning in the 19th century, suppression and retreat “underground,” mainly into seminaries and universities, until the mid-twentieth century when, as we all know, it burst forth once again.
She mostly finishes at the point of the solidifying of the revolution’s control. She examines the pattern for the period immediately following the revolution, including the boiling point, and its immediate aftermath. The oddity of two non-revolutionaries as popes reigning in a Church that no longer has the slightest interest in following their rule – and either being unwilling or unable to curtail the revolutionaries’ excesses – is little addressed in the book that only records up to 1990.
However, we may soberly note her next few points. See if any of this sounds familiar:
- “When a revolution meets and wins this first great trial of strength, [Humanae Vitae] opposition to it virtually collapses.”
- “Incredible conversions to the revolutionary ideology on the part of those who lately enforced the opposite ideology occur overnight.”
- “Members of the ruling class co-operate… not necessarily out of conviction but… to direct or at least to mitigate revolutionary fervour. These elements… are as hostile to the conservatives [that’s us, btw] as are the dominant rebels.”
“Moderates are co-opted or neutralized, conservatives frozen out of destroyed, extremists given their head,” would seem to be a fair summary of our situation today.
“Any nascent opposition is hopelessly split, quarrelling among itself.” Yep, that’s us, all right.
A feature of a rising group is its ability to put aside its differences until victory is assured; therefore, in contrast to the loyalist opposition, the revolution seems invincibly single-minded. The pace of reform is speeded up so that when the situation finally settles down, the break with the past will be irrevocable. The revolutionaries move to ensure permanent control over the sources and channels of power.
I think perhaps “settles down” is a bit mild. Perhaps “ossified” might be a better word to describe what was allowed to happen under John Paul, a strong pope who refused to act, and Benedict, a weak pope who seemed to have no power to act.
Anne summarizes the point the Church had reached at the time of publication:
The worldwide society that is the Catholic Church is at the point at which the revolution controls most of the channels of power. The government has been discredited and isolated; radical reform is accelerating and a united counter-revolution is not yet under way.
One of the book’s great values is also the revisiting of old names. Those who have paid attention to the Church in the last few decades – who read her book when it was published – may have been shocked to find Walter Kasper suddenly bursting back into prominence. With the deaths of so many of the revolution’s original fomenters, he has perhaps been the most prominently obvious member of their cadre surviving from those ancient times. It was the mere presence of Kasper on the loggia on that dreadful, cold, drizzly, March night, that was enough to tell many of us exactly what had happened, and where we were likely to be going next.
The book is not without its flaws, especially visible now from the hindsight perspective of 25 years. Anne Muggeridge was among that group of writers in the John Paul II period who were opposed in general – though in her case without the slightest rancour – to the Traditionalist position. This book was the first place I heard the conservative position clearly articulated; that the problem was not Vatican II itself but its “high jacking” by revolutionaries. She is also obviously a fan of Paul VI, but points out that his own indecision and weakness of character prevented him from stopping the revolution as it was gaining power.
She is also, writing in the late 1980s, an uncritical fan of John Paul II, which is perhaps understandable. By the time his grave weaknesses as pope had become manifest, at the revelation of the homosexual abuse crisis in the early 2000s, she was no longer writing due to illness.
Perhaps the largest omission from the book is a description of the ideology that motivated the revolutionaries. She describes modernism as a theological movement of the 19th century and accurately connects it to the Protestant principle of personal religious autonomy that was opposed to the Catholic hierarchical principle. But she fails to trace its origins to Freemasonry or its connections to the other revolutionary ideologies that motivated both the French and the Russian revolutions, and the Sexual Revolution.
Unfortunately, the weakness of both the last two popes was fatal for the hopes of conservatives like Anne Muggeridge, and in the end from those times – despite the usefulness of specific artifacts like the Catechism of the Catholic Church (authored by the egregious politician Cardinal Schonborn, remember) and Summorum Pontificum – what we got from them constituted little more than some braking power. It was, in fact, under the last two pontificates, due mainly to their inaction, that we saw the revolutionaries continuing their work to solidify their grip on the institution, albeit more quietly.
For the Long Interval of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the revolution had ruled the Church at the local level virtually without opposition. Even the public exposure of the sexual proclivities of some of its prominent members was handled expertly to cast even more mud at a “government” that had long since ceased to have any power. The sex abuse crisis of 2001 was, in a master-stroke, used to further discredit the Catholic Faith by the very men, who with their secular media collaborators and enablers, were perpetrating the crimes.
In 1990 the revolution was at the point of controlling nearly all the institutions of the Church, but had not yet seized the actual governing body. But by March 2013, they seem to have realized that, with few younger followers, their time was running out. The “conservative” pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI had accomplished one thing that they likely thought they would never have to face: a younger generation of priests, seminarians and laity, energetically engaged in undoing many of their gains.
Moreover, the Traditionalist movement, that had in the 1980s, been a tiny, fractious and insignificant vestige, had, thanks largely to the encouragement of Pope Benedict and the immense power of communication granted by the internet, flourished and blossomed everywhere. Far from being utterly stamped out as they had hoped, the Church of the Old Narnians was back on the scene and growing alarmingly. Clearly the time had come to move against them more definitively.
In the Long Interval, many Catholics convinced themselves that everything was fine because the papacy, by its divinely constituted nature, could not fall. The catastrophic finality of a pope-revolutionary was and is so unthinkable to the majority of believing Catholics that even while it happens daily before our eyes, it is still being met with stubborn denial by many.
Anne’s analysis above brings us up to the current moment, and of course, the question on everyone’s mind, particularly in the build-up to the Synod (now only three months away) is, what comes next? She writes, “The revolutionaries move to ensure permanent control over the sources and channels of power.” This certainly brings to mind ominous comments made recently by a member of Pope Francis’ inner circle that the changes he intends for the Church are being constructed in such a way that they will be irreversible by future popes.
In purely worldly terms, when the current revolutionaries were finding their way into positions of influence, in the ‘50s and 60’s, the Catholic Church must have seemed like an empire worth conquering. Sadly for them, of course, the empire had to be greatly diminished in power, beauty, prestige, wealth and temporal political influence – and thus value – to make it possible to conquer. They may be winning, but what a sorry wreck they have made of their prize.
I have some sympathy for the cadre of papal positivists who are now, with increasing desperation, turning in a panic on their natural constituency, demanding that we ignore the evidence of our senses and of logic. The idea that the pope could be an enemy of the Faith, an enemy of Christ, is so horrific as to leave very little room for hope. It is as if Sauron had got the Ring. But even in the very depths of the worst possible of worst-case scenarios, denial is not helpful. The crocodile does not care how tightly you close your eyes as it eats you.
Moreover, the hope, the indefectibility of the Church does not necessarily lie with the papacy. The promise that the Church would perdure until the consummation of history was not specifically about the papal office itself.
I once asked in confession what was the very least, the minimalist interpretation of that great promise. I was told that at its very least, in order for it to be fulfilled, at the Parousia there would be one Catholic left on earth. I was instructed to make sure that even if there was no one else left, I would be that last one. I suggest that the same instruction goes for all of us.
The book, unfortunately, is out of print, but it is not difficult to find from second-hand dealers online, particularly those based in Canada.