Vox temporis, vox Dei: The voice of the times is the voice of God. On issue after issue we’re told the Future has spoken. History has issued its irrevocable decrees, and woe unto him who does not heed them. This atmosphere of inevitability was on my mind as I read Dietrich von Hildebrand’s Nazi-era memoirs. They have recently been translated by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, and they serve as the centerpiece of a collection of his anti-Nazi writings, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, just out from Image.
One is impressed by Hildebrand’s prescient recognition of Nazism’s threat to civilization. He often refers to it as “the Antichrist.” But more important, at least for me, these remembrances of Germany’s dark decades are filled with lament over the many instances of Catholicism’s capitulation, even collaboration. There were heroic exceptions, yes, as well as countless individuals who lived in quiet opposition. But the official Church too often went along. Facing the very different challenges posed by the sexual revolution, we can learn from this sad episode in the Church’s history.
Hildebrand converted to Catholicism in 1914, and after the war he took a teaching appointment at the University of Munich. It was during the postwar period of political unrest, assassinations, and paramilitary conflict that Hitler launched his movement in Munich and participated in the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.
Hildebrand saw in Hitler a profoundly anti-Christian spirit. This was not because of the nationalism and anti-Semitism Hitler promoted. Hildebrand vigorously opposed both, but sadly these attitudes were widespread. Rather, it was Nazism’s belief in power and its promise that the knotted difficulties facing Germany could be simply cut—and cut with a sharp, ruthless blow. This mentality was capable of justifying anything.
As Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, Hildebrand rang the alarm bell again and again. Active in Catholic intellectual circles, he gave papers denouncing “the poison of collectivism.” He tried to rally colleagues and to put spine into church leaders, but without much success.
Some were drawn to Nazism’s exaltation of sacrifice for the fatherland, thinking it a useful antidote to modern individualism. Others fixed on the peril of communism. (Hildebrand anathematized it as well.) There had been a series of socialist governments in Munich immediately after World War I. They were suppressed by right-wing militias during an extended period of communist and anticommunist violence. This memory led many Catholic leaders to feel that Nazism was the lesser evil—“No enemies on the right.” But perhaps more powerful was the general fear of being out of step with a rising power that seemed to have history on its side. Hildebrand recalls that many were resigned and accommodated themselves to Nazism’s triumph. “Growing numbers of people saw it as inevitable, even if they did not explicitly welcome it.”
Hildebrand deeply regretted the Church’s failure to witness in a clear and forceful way. “Just fourteen days after Hitler’s seizure of power, the German bishops had lifted the excommunication that previously had been attached to membership in the National Socialist Party, including both the SA and the SS.” He saw the demoralizing implications of the concordat between the Hitler-led German government and the Vatican that was signed in 1933 as Hitler was consolidating dictatorial powers. “It must have given Catholics throughout Germany the impression that the Vatican was withdrawing its rejection of National Socialism and of racism—as if it were possible to be a Catholic and a Nazi at the same time.”
He was friends with Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state responsible for negotiating the concordat and the future Pius XII. He never criticizes him in his memoirs, no doubt because he knew that the concordat was being sought by Rome to secure a basis for the Church’s survival rather than to legitimate Hitler. Nevertheless, looking back he comments: “I saw with horror that path some leading Catholics were taking, and I saw how terribly the soon-to-be concluded Concordat with Hitler was bound to affect the spirit of Catholics, how their inner resistance would be paralyzed by it.” He tried to convince others that the Church must speak clearly and forcefully. But most “were eager to shelter themselves in an illusion.” They came up with all sorts of rationalizations. He tells of a Benedictine priest who “praised the Third Reich as the realization of the Body of Christ in the secular world.” Others said that the Church had to adjust her message to “the new historical situation.” Young people were enthusiastic about Hitler, he was told. They are the voice of the future.
The sexual revolution is very different from the political and cultural revolutions advocated by Hitler. It worships individual desire, not blood and soil. There’s no love of violence in today’s progressive culture warriors who want to empower the state to eliminate “homophobia” and other barriers to desire’s freedom. Although progressives can be quite ruthless in their ritual denunciations, theirs is a latex revolution, not one of fire and steel.
The relevance of Hildebrand’s memoirs, then, is not to be found in his analysis of Nazism. Instead, it rests in his observations about why the Church was unable to maintain a clear institutional witness against Nazism. For we too are living in a time of revolution when there are great pressures to accommodate and collaborate. We too are tempted to endorse concordats with the new cultural regime envisioned by today’s sexual revolutionaries.
We’ve already accommodated. Since the furor over Humanae Vitae upon its release in 1968, the Church has largely refrained from condemning the sexual revolution. Seeing that contraception was a battle it was going to lose, church leaders adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. The same goes for other transgressions of church teaching. Priests in the parishes may deal with the sexual revolution in the confessional, but they’re not challenging it in the pulpit.
In short, Catholicism in the West has conceded the bedroom to the sexual revolution. The Church remains officially opposed, but when it comes to sex, bishops and clergy refrain from saying very much about private choices. This easygoing approach is now being tested, however. The sexual revolution has moved into a new stage, one that demands public recognition and endorsement.
The HHS contraception mandate requires church-related institutions to collaborate with the dominant, contraceptive culture of our time, and to do so in a public way. This is why the mandate has been a bone in the throat of Catholic institutions in a way that widespread use of contraceptives among Catholics hasn’t.
This is even clearer in the case of homosexuality. A dimension of the sexual revolution, it has always been unique in its claim for public space. There are gay neighborhoods and gay-pride parades. “Coming out” asserts the right to a public sexual identity. Contrary to what many outsiders suppose, the Catholic Church in America has in many ways acquiesced to homosexuality’s demand for public space. In 2012, the city council in Omaha, my former hometown, passed a gay-rights ordinance without official opposition from the Omaha archdiocese. Most dioceses with large cities have one or more gay parishes. (It’s telling that nobody speaks of a contracepting parish or a cohabiting parish, or a parish for the divorced and remarried.) Some religious orders, especially women’s orders, are known to be gay-friendly, even outspokenly so. Until the sexual-abuse crisis rocked the Church, many bishops had a policy of welcoming gay men into the priesthood. The official doctrine of the Church was quite clear and unchanged, of course, and for the most part these accommodations have been tucked away in remote corners. The Church maintains her public identity as an adversary of the sexual revolution.
Now, the terms of engagement are changing. The institution of marriage is being redefined to allow for same-sex unions. Given the central role of marriage in social life, this puts great pressure on Catholics and Catholic institutions to shift from accommodation to collaboration.
Some succumb to the pressure. My old employer, Creighton University, joined the ranks of a number of Catholic universities in providing benefits to same-sex partners of employees. University president Fr. Timothy Lannon, S.J., cited imperatives of “social justice” and defended the decision as “consistent with our efforts to foster an inclusive, compassionate and respectful campus environment.”
He goes on to assert that “the extension of benefits is not a statement of approval of same-sex marriage.” Perhaps, but the real question is whether Creighton (or anyone else) can disapprove of gay marriage while offering benefits to same-sex spouses. Unlikely.
As Hildebrand recalls with anguish, although the concordat with Hitler’s Germany did not mean the Vatican was endorsing the Nazi regime, it undermined resistance.
The same goes for recognizing gay marriages. As Archbishop Chaput observes in his Erasmus Lecture published in this issue (“Strangers in a Strange Land”), the public reality of marriage gives its redefinition powerful “sign value.” If we negotiate unofficial concordats with same-sex marriage of the sort Creighton has—not “approving,” mind you—then it’s hard to maintain the Church’s public identity as a teacher of truths about sex, marriage, and the family that are at odds with the sexual revolution.
An Uncertain Future
Will Catholicism, then, forge a concordat with the sexual revolution? The decision made by Creighton University doesn’t tell us very much. Nor does a similar decision made by Notre Dame under somewhat different circumstances. The Church is a very large, international, and diverse institution. But we can identify pressures and counterpressures likely to shape Catholicism’s response to the new challenges posed by the sexual revolution, at least in the West.
First, then, the pressures to find a modus vivendi. Today, American Catholic institutions like Creighton and Notre Dame are run by upper-middle-class Americans more loyal to their class and its values than to the Catholic Church’s historic teachings, which have in any event not been passed down over the past fifty years.
This bourgeois loyalty does not mean Catholic leaders lack faith. But it’s existentially painful for them to be out of sync with dominant opinion. Being pro–gay rights is today’s badge of honor. I don’t think many Catholics who want to move among the Great and the Good will refuse that badge. The same goes for one of today’s god terms: inclusive. It functions like a secret handshake that signals membership in the elite. That will be hard to resist. Moreover, open dissent now brings personal risks. Anyone deemed insufficiently “gay-friendly” faces career obstacles.
The pope himself offers little in the way of encouragement to resist a convenient fusion of Catholic and bourgeois life, an ironic but predictable outcome given the tenor of his papacy so far. He routinely denounces Catholic conservatives as small-minded and warns us not to “obsess” over the issues central to the sexual revolution: abortion, contraception, homosexuality. However one reads his intent in these and other statements, there can be no doubt they provide handy talking points for those who want to capitulate on gay marriage or other aspects of the sexual revolution.
Finally, there are powerful sociological and economic forces at work. For more than a millennium the Catholic Church has been intertwined with other establishment institutions in the West. The sexual revolution now has the full loyalty of these institutions. The university promotes its causes. Google has announced that it will pay for female employees to freeze their eggs, a sure sign that the great corporate engines of capitalism are now allied with it. Even the military now officially endorses it. As the sexual revolution becomes the new normal, the Church will be tempted to relax its opposition and reconcile itself to “the inevitable.” This will seem prudent, the course of action deemed more likely to protect the Church’s interests and preserve its historical alliances with other powerful institutions. Put more crassly, it’s harder for bishops to raise money from a secularized Catholic elite that’s increasingly angry about the Church’s intransigence.
These pressures make me think it impossible for the Catholic Church to avoid some degree of accommodation and even collaboration with the sexual revolution. That’s already happening, as I observed above. This should neither surprise nor scandalize us. There is no instance in the Church’s history in the post-Constantinian era when she hasn’t accommodated herself to powerful political and cultural trends. I strongly believe that Catholicism provides an enduring witness to the truths of the faith. But it tends to work from within as leaven rather than from without as a radical alternative.
However, there are factors that work the other way. The first and most powerful is the Bible. It has a great deal to say about sex, all of which speaks against a concordat with the sexual revolution. This was not true of the Church’s accommodation of the warrior culture of the early Middle Ages; the Old Testament is full of warriors, many commended as exemplars. Nor was it true of the Church’s accommodation of Renaissance opulence or early modern ideologies about the divine right of kings. There are great banquets and richly decorated temples in Scripture, as well as kings anointed by prophets.
Moreover, the Bible supports a countercultural imagination, which is why Catholic religious orders and movements can often be profoundly antiestablishment even as the institutional Church rests comfortably as vicar of the status quo. Israel and the early Church are marginal and at odds with worldly powers. Scripture presents this as a sign of spiritual strength, not weakness. It’s a mode of victory, not defeat. The experience of the Church in the West may have been largely one of being at home with power and influence. But Christian imagination has little difficulty imagining the Church as the young, poorly armed David, facing the world’s Goliaths.
The second factor is not so much a counterpressure as institutional ballast. Alone among religious movements in the West, Catholicism preserves the ancient vision of the priesthood as a set-apart caste. The distinctness of the sacerdotal role gets reinforced by the discipline of celibacy, which is intuitively (and rightly) interpreted as a rejection of the world’s rules for human flourishing. However deeply the local bishop is integrated into the power structures of his country and culture, as a member of the priestly caste he’s seen as, and sees himself as, a special case. In my experience, bishops think they belong at the center of things but for reasons entirely different from why other powerful people are powerful. This set-apart identity gives bishops and priests a remarkable capacity to sustain their sense of self-importance independent of trends in culture (something liberal Catholics often find exasperating). This provides an important bulwark against establishmentarian pressures to conform to the dictates of the sexual revolution.
And then there’s the revolution itself. It’s tempting to think the sexual revolution has sought hedonism’s triumph. But that’s not true, or at least not nearly true enough. The sexual revolution has been a Gnostic one. It wants to convince us that human bodies provide us with raw material to be formed and reformed as we think best suits our dreams and aspirations. This is antithetical to Christian humanism.
That’s why, to my mind, the more telling issue isn’t that we want to have sex without worrying about the possibility of children—that’s a desire as old as humanity, now made much easier to satisfy with contraceptive technology. Instead, it’s that a woman freezes her eggs, wanting to have a whole season of life unhindered by her body’s natural fertility and, later, to have recourse to her body’s fertility. The same goes for homosexuality. There have always been men who want to have sex with men. But now gay men hire surrogates to bear children. In both instances the sexual revolution asserts that we have a “right” to the mode of life of our choosing without regard to our bodies. This attitude toward the body is especially clear with the assertion of a “right” to be transgendered or the “right” to a sex-change operation—and in the legal determination that a pregnant woman can treat the child’s body in her womb in whatever way suits her. The redefinition of marriage to exclude the difference between male and female bodies is deeply symbolic of this Gnostic revolution, which is why it’s a focal point.
There can be no doubt about the importance of the sexual revolution. As Roger Scruton (“Is Sex Necessary?”) and James Kalb (“Sex and the Religion of Me”) observed in the last issue, today’s progressivism no longer concerns itself with promoting alternatives to capitalism but instead fixes on sex and sexual freedom as its core commitment. Yale University does not have a Dignity of the Worker Week. It does not have a Save the Planet Week. Instead, it has Sex Week, an occasion to catechize tomorrow’s leaders in the Gnostic dogma that our bodies—and the bodies of others universally available under the sole limitation of consent—are there for us to do with as we wish.
The Catholic Church is in a perilous moment, as are all Christian communities. By renouncing the discipline of the Friday fast after Vatican II, the Church abandoned the stomach—after which collapsed an entire social system of Friday-focused marketplace and restaurant businesses that was organized around the Church’s claim upon the body. The same goes for the Church’s provision of Saturday-evening Masses. This decision relaxed Christianity’s claim to “own” our bodies on Sunday. Now the pressures of the sexual revolution are tempting the Church to loosen her claim on the bodily act that Scripture consistently treats as most deeply implicated in spiritual things—sex. Faithless Israel is most often portrayed as a harlot, not a glutton, not an adulterer, not a drunkard. Each step in this retreat from the body reinforces the Gnostic claim that God cares only about the soul, that what is right and good and holy transcends the body, that the created order is no order at all.
I find myself deeply sympathetic with Dietrich von Hildebrand. I fear many Catholic leaders, including the pope, perhaps, think they can forge a concordat with the sexual revolution that won’t damage the Church’s witness to the Gospel. We can certainly muddle along—and we will. Catholicism in the West is not an institution designed to be a protest movement. There will be compromises, accommodations, and, sadly, moments of collaboration. But we cannot set ourselves up to do business with the sexual revolution. For if a man or a woman’s body—or his or her status as a married person, or his capacity to be a father or hers to be a mother—doesn’t matter for his or her sex life, why, then, should anyone imagine that the body of the Son of God matters, whether it is in a manger, on a cross, risen, or fully and really present under the signs of bread and wine?
The William F. Buckley Jr. Program was founded in 2010 to provide a forum for the conservative ideas so often excluded from Yale’s classrooms. I was invited to participate in their fall conference. The topic was James Burnham’s 1964 classic, The Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.
Reading Burnham in preparation for my remarks, I found myself feeling nostalgia for the moral clarity of the Cold War. Communism staked a claim to the future, and did so with an articulate, metaphysically serious account of the nature of man and the proper end of politics. With these high stakes in mind, Burnham did not engage in wonkish policy analysis to show how high taxes and regulation constrain economic growth, a mode of argument now predominant among conservatives. Instead he probed the soul of liberalism. The gravamen of his book is that postwar American liberalism was too unrealistic, too accommodating, too thin and weak-kneed to meet the communist challenge.
Burnham was wrong about the future of the West, perhaps because the Cold War seduced him into treating communism as anti-Western, when in fact it was an expression of Western modernity. Communism westernized the Russian political imagination in a perverse way, to be sure, but its triumph put a complete end to older, more traditional ways of understanding society as a hierarchical system underwritten by a sacred authority. The same was true for communism in China and elsewhere. Mao and others were ruthless westernizers.
As a consequence, Burnham did not see that commissars and liberal managers and technocrats were rivals competing for dominance in post-traditional societies. In that competition, liberalism uses seemingly self-destructive techniques for establishing and maintaining power. One is the posture of neutrality; another is that of tolerance. Both seem to entail a unilateral cultural disarmament, which was Burnham’s most fundamental concern.
But he misjudged the way liberalism functions as a technique for managing “diversity” in a system run by liberals. It works very well as a method of social control, for it allows for discrete censorship and the reinforcement of socially enforced orthodoxies well disguised by the rhetoric of neutrality and tolerance in his day, and of diversity and inclusion in ours. These and other techniques turned out to be more effective than communist command-and-control approaches to other nations, cultures, and ideologies. So, yes, Reagan won the Cold War, but liberals have happily administered the peace, and with such success that they largely control the new global institutions.
Even if he was wrong about the destiny of liberalism, Burnham was right about its meaning. Liberalism does tend to be out of touch with reality. But that stems from the fact that liberalism isn’t a philosophy or an ideology. It is instead a set of well-meaning sentiments that are sufficiently vague to allow for pragmatic adjustment when necessary. Example: Liberalism is committed to ending discrimination, except when discriminating on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation is required to end discrimination. This “flexibility” is one reason why liberalism has not committed suicide but instead renews itself in every generation as something different yet recognizably liberal and always claiming the moral right to rule.
Burnham seeks to pin down the meaning of liberalism by formulating thirty-nine propositions that it affirms. That’s helpful, but it’s better to think of liberalism as a metaphysical dream, or perhaps more accurately an anti-metaphysical dream. Politically, it’s a dream of social justice without virtue. Morally, it’s a dream of virtue without censure. Spiritually, it’s a dream of redemption without repentance.
Liberalism remains extraordinarily powerful because this threefold dream is attractive, so much so that a great deal of what’s called conservatism in America is really just a rival form of liberalism. That’s not something a policy debate will help us see, which is why I’m grateful to the Buckley Program for providing an opportunity to return to the metaphysical seriousness of an earlier era of political analysis.