The Question of Res publica Christiana in Post-conciliar Catholic Doctrines (Part II)

by John C. Rao

Editor’s Note:  This is the second part of a three-part essay by Dr. John Rao on the roots of current Catholic ideas about the relationship between the Church and the secular order. The first, posted here, was mainly concerned with the work of Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ; the second, below, with the Uriage movement in France; the third will look at the implications of pluralism for the Church’s self-understanding vis-à-vis the State since Vatican II. A version of this paper appeared in: Revista VERBO número 527-528: actas Ciudad Católica (September-October, 2014).

Conciliar embrace of the pluralist ideal also struck at a Catholic or Socratic vision of the authoritative teaching role for the Church through the practical assistance that pluralism gave to a current of thought intellectually much more influential in the Rome of the 1960’s than anything coming from America— personalism.[1] Twentieth century European personalism developed out of a comparison of the failures of Catholic missionaries and activists with the continued vigor of non-Christian cultures and the successes of modern mass political and cultural movements. Among those influential in its growth were Emmanuel Mounier (1905-1950), editor of the journal Esprit, the proponents of the so-called New Theology emerging from the Dominican and Jesuit centers of Saulchoir, Latour-Maubourg, and Fourvières, and thinkers connected both with the French scouting movement as well as the specialized Catholic Action groups aimed at young Christian workers. Jacques Maritain, who served as host to personalist discussions in soirées at his home in interwar France, can be seen as a unique although rather critical bridge between their ideas and those of American pluralism, which he preferred.

A major center of the spread of personalist concepts was the École des cadres at Uriage in Vichy France, created to prepare a new elite for a new European order during the Second World War. Under the guidance of men like Pierre Dunoyer de Segonzac (1906-1968) and Hubert Beuve-Mery (1902-1989), the future founder of Le Monde, priests like Henri de Lubac, Jean Maydieu, Victor Dillard and Paul Donceour were brought to Uriage to teach. These men, in turn, introduced students to the writings of Félicité de Lamennais, Henri Bergson, Maurice Blondel, Marie-Domenique Chenu, Yves Congar, Karl Adam, Romano Guardini, Charles de Foucauld and, perhaps more importantly than anyone else, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Uriage also had links, direct and indirect, with Frs. Louis Joseph Lebret and Jacques Loew, founders of the Catholic social movement Economie et Humanisme, and, at least in Lebret’s case, influential in the genesis of Gaudium et Spes.

Transformation of the world, according to the doctrine taught at Uriage, was dependent upon the creation of “persons” as opposed to “individuals.” “Persons” were defined as men who responded to the call of “natural values” through participation in a community life elevating them above narrow individual desires. One knew that he was dealing with a valid community dedicated to a natural value constructing true persons whenever he saw that that community possessed a discernible, energetic “mystique,” and that that mystique led its individual members to creative, self-sacrificing activity. One day, the “convergence” of all such mystiques would result in the establishment of a community of communities producing, in effect, super-persons, “the greatest transformation to which humanity has ever submitted.” The nightmare of the twentieth century was actually “the bloody birth of a true collective being of men,” mysterious indeed, but providential and eminently Catholic.[2]

Catholicism’s role in this “convergence” was that of “giving witness” to the supernatural significance of every natural value, reflected in the mystiques of the active communities of self-sacrificing persons it saw around it, and helping each of them to come to its own innate perfection. It must not sit in judgment of them, because Catholicism itself could not fully know what it itself really was until everything natural had matured and converged. Catholicism was part of a multifaceted pilgrimage to God, linked together by intuition and action, whose destination was unclear. What was important at the moment was encouraging deeply willed commitment to self-sacrifice of all sorts.

Hence Uriage’s stunning ecumenism, testified to in a myriad of ways. It began with Segonzac’s ability “to form friendly relations, on the spiritual plane, with Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Moslems, agnostics,” since he “preferred (rooted) people…in their own setting, in their own culture.”[3] It passed through the Uriage Charter’s proclamation that “believers and non-believers are, in France, sufficiently impregnated with Christianity that the better among them could meet, beyond revelations and dogmas, at the level of the community of persons, in the same quest for truth, justice and love.”[4] And it arrived, in Mounier, at full-fledged Teilhardian rapture over the strange growth of the “perfect personal community,” where “love alone would be the bound, and no constraint, no vital or economic interest, no extrinsic institution”:[5]

Surely [development] is slow and long when only average men are working at it. But then heroes, geniuses, a saint come along: a Saint Paul, a Joan of Arc, a Catherine of Siena, a Saint Bernard, or a Lenin, a Hitler and a Mussolini, or a Gandhi, and suddenly everything picks up speed…[H]uman irrationality, the human will, or simply, for the Christian, the Holy Spirit suddenly provides elements which men lacking imagination would never have foreseen.

May the democrat, may the communist, may the fascist push the positive aspirations which inspire their enthusiasm to the limit and plenitude.

As John Hellman explains, “Mounier’s belief that there was an element of truth in all strong beliefs coincided with Teilhard’s vision of the inevitable spiritualization of humanity.” [6]

Uriage’s message was not a rational one. Its ultimate justification was intuition and strength of will leading to creative action. Any appeal to logic, either in support or criticism of strongly willed commitment to natural values was dismissed as either belaboring the given, or as a dangerously decadent and individualistic scholastic pedantry. Better to bury the temptations of a sickly rationalism through the development of the obvious virtue of “manliness,” again, defined in completely anti-intellectual ways: the ability to leap onto a moving streetcar; to ride a bicycle up the steep hill to the École like Jacques Chevalier; to look others “straight in the eye” and “shake hands firmly”; to endure the sweat-filled regimen defined as décrassage, devised for Uriage students under the inspiration of General Georges Hébert; to sing enthusiastically around the evening fire in the Great Hall; to know how to “take a woman”; and, always, to feel pride in “work well done.” Such manliness was said to have deep spiritual meaning, aspects of which were elaborated in lectures like de Lubac’s Ordre viril, ordre chrétien and Chenu’s book, Pour être heureux, travaillons ensemble.[7]

Finally, let us note that Uriage’s teaching was unabashedly elitist, the particular mystique of the École being that of developing the natural value of leadership. “The select youth of Uriage” were said to be “the first cell of a new world introduced into a worn-out one,”[8] “entrusted with the mission of bringing together the elite from all of the groups that ought to participate in the common task of reconstruction in the same spirit of collaboration.”[9] Since they were destined to reveal the eternal supernatural significance of the natural values witnessed to by the mystique of all virile communities, Uriage students were actually priestly figures as well. Each class was consecrated and given a great man’s name as talisman. Segonzac especially “took upon himself a certain sacerdotal role, even regarding the wives and children of his instructors”[10] This entailed also a “separation between the leaders, the lesser leaders, the lesser-lesser leaders, the almost leaders and the not-at-all leaders” irritating some of the interns. “The central team,” as one of them indicated, “were gods.”[11]

The Uriage gods at first saw Fascism as the “monstrous prefiguration” of the new personalist humanity waiting to be born under their spiritual guidance. Nevertheless, Nazi racism never appealed to men who appreciated vitality in every people and culture, while Fascism in general proved its ultimate unworthiness by its very inability to succeed. Enthusiasm was then transferred to Marxism, another “monstrous prefiguration” promising a happier future. Here, the activity of the Uriage cadres was paralleled by the efforts of priests and bishops trying to understand the “mystique” of workers in labor camps and ordinary French factories, training for the latter purpose being offered under the patronage of the supra-diocesan Mission de France. Uriage teachers were themselves involved in these priestly activities – Fr. Dillard, for example, canonizing the Soviets he encountered in the labor camps, and insisting that all workers were “born” into their tasks with specific virtues denied to other people. But an Uriage-like openness was everywhere in the air. After all, there were “riches in modern disbelief, in atheist Marxism, for example, which are presently lacking to the fullness of the Christian conscience,”[12] Enlightened spirits had “to share the faith in and the mystique of the Revolution and the Great Day (that of the total Christ),”[13] as did one priest who asked to die “turned towards Russia, mother of the proletariat, as towards that mysterious homeland where the Man of the future is being forged.”[14]

The sons of Uriage retained their wartime sense of being a priestly nation, a people set apart, chosen to judge which mystiques were and were not acceptable on the pathway to “convergence.” Objects of contempt offered themselves aplenty. Soviet apparatchiks did not seem to understand that Marxism was meant to be spiritually transcended. A Stalinist mystique, therefore, had to be jettisoned. American culture was even more hopeless. “The Americans,” Beuve-Mery complained, “could prevent us from carrying out the obligatory revolution, and their materialism does not even have the tragic grandeur of the materialism of the totalitarians.”[15]

Perhaps most of all, however, traditional Catholicism, which, from Uriage days, had feared the “insistence on bringing together men with different ‘mystiques’ while affecting a ‘manly’ irritation with clericalism, dogma and the orthodox,”[16] needed to be tossed onto the rubbish heap with contempt. “Tridentine” Catholicism, with its concern for individual sanctification and its emphasis upon private devotions to achieve it, was accused of crippling the development of the human person. A full grip on the Christian message and a full perfection of personhood required self-loss and a complete donation to Christ as revealed in the vital, active community or communities around him.

Many of those experiencing the hostility or indifference to Catholicism on the part of soldiers and laborers from a myriad of social and ethnic backgrounds began to argue for a total immersion in the milieu to which the activist was sent. This immersion demanded a root and branch obliteration of all previous education and practice that gave the militant missionary a different character from someone from the milieu in which he was to operate; it was to be the total immersion in the specialized milieu that prepared a man properly for teaching the message of Christ. The awesome drama of the new kind of evangelization this would entail then was linked with faith in that evolution towards a greater universal knowledge and manifestation of the love of Christ prophesied by Teilhard de Chardin.

Tie personalism and the “new evangelization” together and the missionary’s program then becomes clear. He must “get out” of himself and his narrow presuppositions about Christianity, and give himself over to the vital, effective, cohesive, active group or culture to which he is sent. The spirit of Christ that is revealed by each of them is to be nurtured by him and brought to its innate perfection. In helping it along, he is “witnessing” to his presumably still more complete Christian faith in a quiet, humble, and ultimately more successful way, and yet actually learning things about Christ that he could never otherwise have known outside the group in question.

Mounier is particularly instructive with respect to this growing dismissal of an authoritative Church. His vision had always logically involved the possibility of shelving whole realms of Christian scripture, theology and spirituality, should they clash with the “emerging convergence.” By the last years of the war, “there was little place for sin, redemption and resurrection in the debate; the central acts of the Christian drama were set aside.”[17] Nietzsche’s critique of slavish Christianity now seemed to him to be unanswerable, and he “came to think that Roman Catholicism was an integral part of almost all he hated. Then, when he searched his soul, he discovered that the aspects of himself which he appreciated least were his ‘Catholic’ traits.”[18] Doing what one willed was the unum necessarium. Everything rational from the Greek tradition used to support Christianity and dampen the will was execrated as well. If there was anything valuable in the Greco-Christian heritage it had to come from personalists rebuilding it from scratch; those appealing to the Catholic name and Catholic practice in his day required psychiatric diagnosis and medical help.

Mounier now flatly denounced traditional Christianity and Christians. Christianity, he wrote, was “conservative, defensive, sulky, afraid of the future.” Whether it “collapses in a struggle or sinks slowly in a coma of self-complacency,” it was doomed. “Christians,” he castigated in even stronger terms in a rhapsodic style worthy of his new master (Nietzsche): “These crooked beings who go forward in life only sidelong with downcast eyes, these ungainly souls, these weighers-up of virtues, these dominical victims, these pious cowards, these lymphatic heroes, these colourless virgins, these vessels of ennui, these bags of syllogisms, these shadows of shadows…”[19]

Metaphysical speculation, Mounier declared, was a characteristic of “lifeless schizoid personalities.”…Mounier even referred to intelligence and spirituality as “bodily diseases” and attributed the indecisiveness of many Christians to their ignorance of “how to jump a ditch or strike a blow.” … “Modern psychiatry,” Mounier wrote, had shed light on the morbid taste for the “spiritual,” for “higher things,” for the ideal and for effusions of the soul…. Thus, many forms of religious devotion were the result of psychosis, self-deception or vanity. Prayer was often a sign of psychological illness and weakness.”[20]

Let us parenthetically note that worker-Marxist-Soviet mania from 1942 onwards increased the demand for a liturgy based on pastoral response to particular mystiques to fever pitch. Henri Godin’s famous work, France: Pays de Mission? (1943), outlining worker dechristianization, had created a sense of a crisis that had to be overcome at all costs. Lack of any precise plan for diving into the worker mystique was attributed to genius and faith in the Spirit. One thing alone was certain: the liturgy and the priesthood were out of sync with the world of labor. All that was associated with what Paul Claudel called the “mass with one’s back to the people” had to be abandoned. It had become the precious toy of little minds and bigots who could not understand the New Order coming into being around them. Hence the critique offered by Fr. Dillard, who both dismissed the difficulties of a total rejection of the past, and also took it for granted that the worker clientele would be able to sense the superior spirituality of what we would call a secularized clergy due to the je ne sais quoi emanating from its own new mystique:[21]

My Latin, my liturgy, my mass, my prayer, my sacerdotal ornaments, all of that made me a being apart, a curious phenomenon, something like a (Greek) pope or a Japanese bonze, of whom there remain still some specimen, provisionally, while waiting for the race to die out.

Religion as they [the workers] knew it is a type of bigotry for pious women and chic people served by disguised characters who are servants of capitalism…. If we succeed in ridding our religion of the unhealthy elements that encumber it, petty superstitions, the bourgeois “go to Mass” hypocrisy, etc. we will find easily with the Spirit of Christ the mystique which we need to reestablish our homeland.

[The third and final installment will be posted tomorrow…]


[1] On the historical development of the influence of Personalism see John Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left, 1930-1950 (University of Toronto Press, 1981); (John Hellman, The Knight Monks of Vichy France: Uriage, 1940-1945, McGill, 1997, p. 56); Emile Poulat, Les prêtres-ouvriers: Naissance et fin (Cerf, 1999).

[2] Hellman, Knight Monks, p. 178.

[3] Ibid., p. 83.

[4] Ibid., p. 59.

[5] Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier, p. 85, 90.

[6] Ibid., p. 128.

[7] Hellman, Knight Monks, pp. 71-76.

[8] Ibid., p. 65.

[9] Ibid., p. 63.

[10] Ibid., p. 90.

[11] Ibid., p. 75.

[12] Emile Poulat, Les prêtres-ouvrières: Naissance et fin, Cerf, 1999, p. 408.

[13] Ibid., p. 386

[14] Ibid., p. 244

[15] Hellman, Knight Monks., p. 213

[16] Ibid.,p. 88.

[17] Hellman, Emmanuel Mounier, p. 255

[18] Ibid., p. 190.

[19] Ibid., p. 191.

[20] Ibid., pp. 192-193

[21] Poulat, pp. 329, 333.

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