Catholics today: Struggling when the wood is dry
I ran across a book on the Spanish Civil War the other day. I have never studied that war, but I know it was characterized by a wide variety of loyalties, often conflicting not only within families but within individual persons. By the 1930s people were hopelessly divided (and very frequently confused) by republicanism, unionism, anarchism, communism, fascism, nationalism and—probably within all of these political groups one way or another—Catholicism and the interests of the Church.
Unfortunately, the legitimately formed Second Republic was so harshly anti-clerical that the Spanish bishops believed it was no longer a legitimate government. During the war (1936 -1939) thousands of priests were murdered by anti-clericalists and Communists, so it is not surprising that the Church generally favored Francisco Franco, a leader who accepted the Church and resolutely opposed Communism. Yet there was good and evil on both sides, and plenty of confusion to go around. It was enormously difficult to navigate through all this turmoil as a faithful Catholic.
It is precisely this difficulty that has fully captured my attention. The book I read was actually a novel, but I had to remind myself it was fiction on every page. The famous Catholic novelist José Luis Olaizola won the Premio Planeta prize for this book in 1983, because he so successfully captured the huge stresses and uncertainties of those dark days, from which the Spanish were still recovering amid mutual recriminations. In the English edition just published by Ignatius Press, the title is General Escobar’s War.
Not a rollicking adventure story, General Escobar’s War reads as an endlessly fascinating memoir of the wartime decisions, actions, experiences, fears and attachments of one man—a devout Catholic—who wrote everything down in his prison cell while awaiting an inevitable sentence of death. Franco had won; overnight, the defenders of the Second Republic had become traitors.
Still, it is not the history of Spain that is important to me here. It is Olaizola’s masterful success in writing a novel that is impossible to read without forgetting it is fiction. This made me realize how different it is to live through the continual tensions of a deeply divided social and spiritual order, especially when one bears heavy responsibilities—as compared with making rapid judgments about such problems later, after the dust has settled and the victors are abundantly clear.
So too in this age of the Church
This is something I had reason to reflect on very seriously, as I wrote Friday’s major reflection on our relationship with Pope Francis during his turbulent and conflicted papacy (Warning: Our strengths are often our weaknesses. Same with the Pope.). As with the Spanish Civil War, the truth about all this will, in time, be boiled down and summarized in ways which tell us—if we read sound Catholic authors—the three to five most important things we need to know.
But these settled judgments will capture almost nothing of the daily stress, the daily challenge of making sense of the Church and the Faith in such a bizarre and stormy period. Almost nothing can be taken at face value today because the practical impact of the Pope’s most formal statements is constantly being fiddled, under his own leadership, into something else. Moreover, when one of our readers sent me a question about the Pope’s current 85% approval rating, I realized that the number is meaningless. Quite apart from an unwillingness to air dirty laundry, most Catholics know as little about what is actually happening in the Church as they do about what is required to form an authentically Catholic judgment.
It is all very sad, so much so as to give new meaning to W. B. Yeats’ 1919 poem “The Second Coming”. Written in the aftermath of World War I, when so many good things were so terribly broken, this poem (in an even deeper spiritual sense) also describes the far greater moral destruction managed in our own time, as the false prophets of a Godless culture deceive (if that were possible) even the elect.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
History will never capture the daily battle of Catholics who seek above all to walk the delicate line of complete fidelity in so confused a season. Even if we may sometimes choose wrongly, I trust that Our Lord will approve the effort, which is always—and can only be—a work of love. I know that Catholics face great darkness in every age, but I still cherish the hope that a uniquely sensitive writer like José Luis Olaizola will one day draft a novel, indistinguishable from a personal memoir, to portray sympathetically just one hero who struggled day by day through our own special darkness, which is surely the penultimate darkness of the broken yet hopelessly conceited West.
Then those who follow us might grasp something of the deeply hidden yet always glorious reality of what it means to take the Catholic faith seriously in these our own days—inexpressibly sad days when, as Our Lord foresaw, we claim barrenness as our blessing, and all the green wood has gone dry.
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