Pacifists, Ecologists and Ecumenists: Antichrist at Work
The retired Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, says the Antichrist presents himself as a “pacifist, ecologist, and ecumenist.” He said this in the Lenten Retreat he finished preaching on March 3rd to Benedict XVI and the leaders of the Roman Curia. After the final session, the Pope praised the Cardinal, saying he had delivered a “very accurate and precise diagnosis of our situation today.” What can this mean?
Cardinal Biffi’s assertion is drawn from the work of the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev. Following Soloviev, Biffi wanted to put both the Pope and the Curia on guard against being weakened by the spirit of the age. His point is that in every age huge numbers of people adopt various “enthusiasms” which they invest with a noble aura. But, Biffi warned, the anti-Christ is in these enthusiasms insofar as they distract us from Christ who must be kept at the center of all our work.
“Today,” said the Cardinal, “we run the risk of having a Christianity that puts aside Jesus, the Cross, and the Resurrection” and replaces it with “a mere set of values”. In Soloviev’s portrait, Biffi pointed out, the Antichrist dilutes the truths of the faith, accommodating every interest, and becoming more and more popular. But those who are not fooled hold out to the end: “You have given us everything except the one thing that we want: Jesus Christ.”
Isms, Isms, Everywhere, and not a Thought to Think
It is the essence of an “ism” that it attempts to explain reality in terms of a single idea. It is the nature of an “ist” that he finds his identity in that idea and believes himself to be serving the common good by promoting that idea in a kind of vacuum, without regard for the network of principles and values of which it forms but a part. As such, “isms” and “ists” are invariably as popular as they are simplistic, as exciting as they are inadequate. Such are the enthusiasms of every age. They give the illusion of moral purpose while distracting man from the rigorous integrating principles on which he ought to build his life.
Among many possibilities, the three modern enthusiasms Cardinal Biffi selected to make his point were, again, pacifism, environmentalism (ecologism) and ecumenism. There is, of course, nothing wrong with working for unity among Christians, or with improving our stewardship over the environment, or with choosing (in the face of threats to oneself) never to shed blood. On the contrary, all of these are good. But it is precisely when each is elevated to an “ism” that the trouble begins. The more popular the “ism”, the greater the harm it causes.
For example: Pacifism applied as a universal idea seriously undermines not only the ability to defend what is worth defending (home and family, country and faith) but even the ability to discern that some things are, after all, important enough to defend even by blood. Or, again, environmentalism writ large so emphasizes the environment that it forgets the primary importance of the human person, which it begins to redefine as one thing among many (and probably the least amiable). Or, finally, ecumenism proposed as a sovereign good elevates unity over truth, thereby abandoning the only possible unifying principle capable of bearing fruit.
The “Ism” in “Catholicism”
It will immediately be objected that Catholicism is an “ism”. While this is true linguistically, we must remember that the word “Catholic” means “universal”. Catholicism is oriented to reality as a whole, in all its myriad aspects and tensions. At its core is the very sensible understanding that only God knows perfectly how it all fits together. While prizing every form of human knowledge, Catholics eschew all human “isms” in favor of focusing on what God, in His superior wisdom, has called us to do.
In this way, Catholicism is the very opposite of every “ism” and every ideology, which may be loosely defined as an “ism” which has passed from enthusiasm to force. In its foundational respect for both reality and the human person who must interpret it, Catholicism proposes the integration of all ideas in the wisdom of Christ. As Catholics, we get things right not so much in this or that particular idea as in the balance among them, the relationship to the whole.
Catholicism also proposes that no merely human cause can bring human fulfillment. This comes only through union with God Himself. A great deal of self-abnegation is necessary for each person to understand his own poverty, perceive the riches of God, and desire this union. It is an all-encompassing process which can benefit from every human experience, including suffering, by which we are purged of self and are opened to wider horizons. Part of this process is the giving up of precisely those “isms” to which we feel so naturally and easily drawn, lest we end by responding disproportionately to one particularly alluring aspect of reality while ignoring all the rest.
What is the Antichrist?
In contrast, the Antichrist is found in whatever distracts us from Christ, whatever absorbs our energies apart from Christ, whatever occupies our attention without being integrated into the total vision which Christ wants us to possess. It is no small part of the character of our age that we are endlessly capable of manufacturing “isms” (causes) which enable us to feel as if we are discharging important moral responsibilities while consistently turning away from the task of reforming ourselves. It is hardly surprising that we avoid self-reform. We find it excruciating, that is, from the cross.
We have such a capacity to deceive ourselves! We are not only pacifists, ecologists and ecumenists, but socialists and capitalists, individualists and anarchists. We are nationalists and internationalists, leftists and rightists, We are even animalists (rights), vegetablists (diet), and mineralists (crystals). Some of us are terrorists. (Some of us are even liturgists, but let it go.) If we have a pet idea, we’d rather make it into an “ism” than embrace the hard work that Christ demands.
Apparently we may eagerly embrace nearly any idea as long as we dissociate it from Christ. The clarity of insight! The heady enthusiasm! So simple, yet so illuminating. But Cardinal Biffi has it right. These “isms” are the bread and butter of the Antichrist.
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