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Dr. John Rao

LAKE GARDA, Italy, July 17, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Papal homilies about the “God of surprises,” discourses on the “ideologues of doctrine,” and the upcoming youth synod’s stress on the need to listen to “the voices” inside and outside the Church in order discern the Spirit, may seem new to many Catholics. 

But for one noted historian, this language isn’t new at all but is steeped in a “fascist spirit” that emerged in Catholic circles during the interwar period of the 1920s-30s, was carried forth by controversial figures like Teilhard de Chardin, and is now being unleashed.

According to Dr. John Rao, this spirit is irreconcilable with Catholic tradition, involves “a dismantling of definitive faith,” and refuses to allow anyone “to investigate history and investigate ideas.” Ironically, he says, it also uses “dictatorial force” to muzzle those who question it, casting its opponents as “enemies of the Spirit” and “fascists.”

Educated in Modern European History at Oxford University, Dr. Rao is a professor at St. John’s University in New York and is the director of the Roman Forum. His books include Luther and his progeny: 500 years of Protestantism and its Consequences for Church, State and Society, and Removing the Blindfold: 19th Century Catholics and the Myth of Modern Freedom.

The Roman Forum was set up in 1968 by Dietrich von Hildrebrand in order to defend Humanae Vitae and then expanded as other aspects of the Church’s teaching and practice came under attack. As a young man, Rao became closely involved with the project, and in 1991 it was entrusted to his direction. Observing a sometimes narrow vision among traditionally minded Catholics, Rao sought to expand the program by systematically introducing people to the whole of the Church’s tradition history, culture, philosophy and theology.

LifeSiteNews sat down with Dr. Rao at the conclusion of its annual summer symposium on the Gardone Riviera, to discuss the connection between the interwar period and the Church in the current day.

LifeSite: Dr. Rao, in your final lecture at the Roman Forum you made an interesting connection between the interwar period and the ideas that were prevalent then, and the current day.

Dr. Rao: Yes, well let me start with the incident I mentioned about being at a Mass for the commemoration of a murdered carabinieri [an Italian police officer] in 1992 — a Novus Ordo Mass. The priest said Mass properly but it was all very participatory, with everyone applauding one another and being called up to give testimonies of one sort or another, and the person sitting next to me, in Italian, said to me: “Just like the fascists.”And I didn’t know what he was talking about. 

Afterwards, he said to me that the priest who had said the Mass had been a very, very fervent fascist in the fascist period. He said the whole democratic spirit of fascism — in the sense of everyone having to be part of a unified community where they were all front-line soldiers transferred to the peace time community — is something that always reminded him of the new Mass.

I was intrigued by this, so I started doing some research, and I discovered a particular historian named John Hellman from McGill University in Montreal. He had written on subjects that revealed the truth of this comment to me. For example, he has one book called Emmanuel Mounier and the New Catholic Left. He has another one called The Knight Monks of Uriage

I started reading and following up and then realized that the whole spirit that then — I would argue — took possession of the Church in the 1960s, and a lot of the very figures that were involved with guiding commissions to put into practice the decisions of the Council, were people who were connected with movements and ideas from the 1920s and 1930s that were very much steeped in the idea of the importance of energy and will and strength, in a way that made fascism attractive to them — never nazism because it was racist — but fascism in its central theme that all fascists emphasize, which is the importance of the will, of the leader or the leading elements of society and the need to encourage the energy and cultivate and bring to perfection the energy of the people that the leader is guiding. 

What that ended up doing was demonstrating, as I did more and more research into it, that all kinds of problems of missionaries, and problems within what’s called “specialized Catholic action” i.e. how do you deal with youth? How do you deal with young laborers in factories? How do you deal with young students? and problems within the liturgical movement, which brought in ties with the ecumenical movement. These problems were very much dealt with and interpreted and answers given by varied representatives of what is very broadly referred to as personalism and the new theology, who were then very active in Vatican II and very influential in shaping men other than themselves who were active in Vatican II. 

What was their main theme?

That what had to be done in order successfully to convert the population of the world to Catholicism was to abandon what they argued was a too individualist and a too intellectual, doctrine-tied understanding of what becoming a Catholic involved, in order to understand what the vital energy of different groups was all about. And they popularized the terms “milieu” and “mystique” in this regard.

So they claimed that what the fascists were doing was understanding that there is an energy in a people, or in the German term “folk”, and that what was necessary was to dive into that energy and then guide that energy to its perfection. But what they did was to give this a Catholic interpretation, so that your job — in order to make the world Catholic — was to find out what the youth mystique was, what the young working mystique was, what the young student mystique was, what the mystique of a given parish was, what the mystique of a given people that you wanted to convert, like the Chinese or the Muslims, was all about, and then not approach this with some kind of doctrine and desire to make these people change, but to recognize that their very strength and energy and vitality and successful resistance to your conversion activities was a sign that the Holy Spirit was manifesting itself in these people, and that what you had to do rather than convert them by having them accept doctrine and a certain way of worshipping God, was to yourself dive into this milieu or mystique, hear what they had to say, and then accept this as the voice of the Holy Spirit in your time. And hence the concern about listening to the “signs of the times.” 

Then, when you might counter this argument saying that the very many milieu or mystiques that you were supposed to be diving into were contradictory to one another, you had to recognize that you can’t understand the workings of the Holy Spirit but they were all “converging” to one ultimate goal — and this is Teilhard de Chardin’s argument — and that when it emerged you would understand why the Holy Spirit wanted you to accept these. 

And it involved the mystique or milieu in the way it then penetrated other milieu of fascism and of Marxism, and of many other phenomena. And in order to be able to move these people in a Catholic direction you would then have to develop liturgies that would respond to these difference mystiques. The only thing is that in the 20s and 30s they were held back from developing this too far because of the fact that there was a strong authority in the Church, and what ended up happening is that, in the course of the Second World War and then the breaking down of basic structures, particularly in France due to France’s defeat, their ideas managed to get more and more of a hold on people. The only thing is that their original fascist interest faded away because they saw energy and strength and vitality in the forces that defeated fascism. Fascism’s greatest failing is that it lost. If it had not lost, it would have been something that would have continued being interesting. 

So they switched and they moved down the Marxist direction, and with the aid of Jacques Maritain and his appreciation of pluralism in America as a means of organizing things politically and socially that allowed different milieu to be able to have freedom, they were able to understand that attack on authority that the American system offered, enabled a kind of anarchy, if you could allow this kind of vision to penetrate into the life of the Church. It allowed a kind of anarchy whereby the message of the milieu could come to the fore, and the people who claimed to understand where this was headed would then be able to develop the teaching of the given milieu and then the liturgies that were needed to suit these different milieu in a way that would allow the Holy Spirit finally to come to fruition. 

And ironically they could utilize the anti-authority thrust of the whole American pluralist vision to attack anybody who wanted to demand Church authority to control movements down this direction. Ironically they could then attack that by claiming it was fascist in character, in a way that would appropriate the opprobrium that fell upon fascism because of the Nazi experience which they never did share, and then frighten people into silence lest they be identified as fascists, and then enable all of the prophetic figures who were supposedly diving into these different milieu in order to bring them to fruition, to answer the demand of the Holy Spirit to do their work. And everything that’s developed since — it was already developing but has developed still more since the Council in terms of Third World theology and liberation theology and a demand for liturgies and for changes in Catholic doctrine and morals to fit the needs of particular milieu, such as the “LGBT” milieu and every other kind — is connected in a line that you can demonstrate with names, with specific individuals from the 1960s and then onward back to the 20s and 30s. That’s in a nutshell what happens here. 

Who was involved in this movement?

To give a particular name in this regard, the Dominican Marie-Dominique Chenu, one of the supporters of the New Theology [Nouvelle Théologie], is a classic example. In the late 1930s, he was promoting various ideas of this sort. In 1941 and 1942, he was connected with the main school that was promoting these ideas at a place called Uriage, outside Grenoble in France, that was supported by the Pétain government. They then broke, like they all did, with Vichy once it was occupied by the Germans and was again involved in the racist policies that they had no interest in. They then moved down a friendlier attitude towards Marxism and then also all of these various Third World developments. They taught people – I'm talking about Chenu – who became active in the liberation theology movements, in Third World theology movements, and the like. And there is name after name after name of the same sort. 

You said that this movement sought to identify the new workings of the Holy Spirit in various milieu, even contradictory ones. How do proponents of this vision reconcile it with Tradition?

They can’t. 

So what does Tradition mean for them?

Tradition is an ever evolving phenomenon until you “converge,” I suppose, using Teilhard’s term, at the “Omega Point. ” For example, one writer named Emile Poulat, who wrote a history of the worker-priest movement, is in effect a kind of continuer of this whole vision, and he makes the work of the Church, and what you have to do to teach and guide people, analogous to the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt into the promised land, so that any questioning of this would require your wandering in the desert. You just have to accept it.

I mentioned in the lecture I gave that one of the elements that plays a role in developing these arguments are certain strains of Russian Orthodox thought that were very active and influential in Maritain’s circles in France in particular, and then in London and Oxford, which argued against the supposedly exaggerated intellectual, doctrinal position of the Roman Church, the need for trust in the Holy Spirit. There’s no way, ultimately, of judging whether this is really the Holy Spirit or not, so that a man like Jacques Maritain, who on a practical level plays with a lot of these themes, on a philosophical level can never go down that same direction. I mentioned in my lecture that he had a critique of a more radical position of a man like Emmanuel Mounier because he said that since they remove intellectual categories from this whole thing, they are ultimately spiritually barren before any Ramakrishna. 

What I also argued was that I don’t believe Maritain would have ever accepted the kinds of ideas I’ve just mentioned as such. Nor would Paul VI ultimately, because they are too tied to the whole Christian doctrinal position. But on a practical level, with their withdrawal from the use of authority and then their opening to pluralism, they created precisely the kinds conditions in which these anarchic milieu — and then the prophetic witnesses supposedly — to the Spirit of the milieu could create a million kinds of Catholic theology with a million kinds of liturgies responding to it, attacking anybody who referred to anything that happened before the Second Vatican Council as an “enemy of the Holy Spirit” and a fascist. I don’t mean this as a joke. There is lurking behind their arguments that if you bring up anything that took place before the Council, there is something in your spirit leading to Auschwitz. 

The Vatican is hosting a Synod on Youth in October. At a recent press conference to present its working document [Instrumentum laboris], synod organizers described the new document as “the moment of convergence in listening to all the components of the Church and also to different voices that do not belong to it.” These voices, they said, included those of young Catholics, non-Catholics, Muslims, atheists, and so-called “LGBT youth.” How should people see and understand this in light of what you have said?

That this is in continuity with something of what is ultimately at the basis of the fascist spirit. I think that in one way or another all of the manifestations of modernity have this character to them: all of them are involved in a dismantling of reason and the value of reason. They are all of them a dismantling of definitive faith that’s made alive through grace that’s tied to a specific historic event and what flows from that specific historic event — the Incarnation and then the Passion and the Resurrection. It involves hiding its past because of its refusal to allow anyone to investigate history and investigate ideas, and shouting louder than other people. I read some quotations in my lecture from people connected with this school that existed for a couple of years at Uriage, where all of these various influences had their impact. DeLubac was there at the school. The ideas of people like Yves Congar, who was not at the school, were present. The ideas of Teilhard were influential, and Mounier was very much involved in this school until political problems removed him from it. 

I cited certain quotations involving an attack against Christian doctrine, an attack on Christian practices and devotion that sounded exactly like certain very nasty attacks on Christian devotionalism and practices coming from very high sources indeed this day. Exactly the same. 

And while I’m talking about that, in that regard — and this is after being pointed down this direction by various other people— I personally think that the attacks on Pope Francis as somehow being a Marxist are misplaced. I think he’s a fascist. He’s a Peronist and he’s got that same mentality. The only thing is that the only way you would know what fascism really means as opposed to how people use that term in order to just belittle whoever they don’t like, is by studying history and ideas, and that’s what’s not allowed you by this. You’re against the Holy Spirit if you do that.

And the solution?

Return to tradition. It’s either the victory of raw will power and force — dictatorial force — or it’s a return to the tradition, which means a return to faith, grace and reason together. How that will happen I have no idea.