Below is this year’s opening speech for my men’s group which I run here in Rome, the Oratorio, which I delivered some weeks ago. Enjoy!
The Catacomb Option
Cancel culture. Safe spaces. Hate speech. Green passes. It’s enough to make one’s head spin, and that’s just a little bit of what has come in the past few years.
Just as God sows seeds, and the Evil One rips them up, as the Parable of the Sower tells us, so too it seems that the inverse holds true: the Evil One sows seeds, and God rips them up. If we are to take at face value the alleged prophecy given to Leo XIII about the 20th century being the Devil’s “free reign” or playground to do as much damage as he liked – a kind of “new Job” – then we should consider that evil not only wounds those who are its object in the moment, but it leaves poisonous traces and echoes; it plants seeds which eventually become trees that bear rotten fruit if not torn up. So, on this All Hallows’ Eve, let’s look at some demonic seeds that have been sown, and then look at how they might be ripped up – or how the trees might be cut down.
From 1900 to 2000 we find a small number of evil orchards being planted. While the obvious candidates are the world wars, I suggest that these, while terrible indeed, are a smoke screen for the “long game.” We are not to fear those who can kill the body and do no more, and wars in and of themselves take lives, not souls. Just as with possession and other extraordinary diabolical phenomena, the real point of the Enemy is to turn souls to sin. It is easy to say the Devil was in the wars, just as it is easy to say he is in a body that speaks strange languages or floats around or any number of phenomena which mimic the extraordinary actions of the Holy Spirit. It is much more difficult, for the uninitiated, to identify the Devil’s presence in sin, and even more difficult to see him in occasions to sin.
But the Devil always shows his feet, as the saying goes. Just as the proud Odysseus couldn’t help but taunt the blinded Cyclops by shouting his real name, bringing down the wrath of Poseidon upon him and his ship, so too is the Devil proud. He can never have a truly silent victory – he wants the credit, after all.
I propose that many of our troubles can be traced one year in particular: 1968. It was this year that perhaps best symbolizes the beginning in earnest of the “sexual revolution” and the onset of cultural Marxism and the habitual extension of adolescence – also known as “hippiedom.”
These are three particularly bad seeds, the final fruits of which we are now seeing before us in today’s Western world. We take them in order.
I doubt I need to convince anyone here of the grotesqueness of the sexual revolution, but perhaps it is helpful to drive the point home by sharply distinguishing natural sexual vice and unnatural sexual vice. The former consists fundamentally in extra-marital relations of various kinds, modified by the object or mode of action. It’s true that some species take in other sins which are not sexual, such as violence or sacrilege which greatly aggravate the offensiveness of the sin, but insofar as such acts are sexual, they remain of a lesser kind of disorder than those which are part of unnatural vice. Whereas the category of natural vice is immoral principally because it hurts kids, namely, those which could be conceived out of the safety of wedlock and thus be exposed to many kinds of dangers in their upbringing, unnatural vice is immoral because it hijacks the sexual faculty away from the design of God for the propagation of the human race, for which the sexual faculty chiefly exists for in the first place, and reorders it towards something at odds with that plan; in short, unnatural vice is wrong because it hurts the human race. Just as a single act of fornication might not actually result in the harm of a child, especially if no child is conceived, a single act of self-abuse or sodomy might not result in the harm of the future of humanity, especially if it is not encouraged, imitated, celebrated. And yet many children are conceived out of wedlock, and unnatural acts are now not only tolerated but glorified in the western world. It is much less evil to allow some individual children to grow up without fathers than it is to have the entire principle of human sexuality undermined by a positive campaign of encouragement, imitation, and celebration. The former leads to the search for replacements for fathers, usually meaning the creation of gangs in the case of boys and brothels in the case of girls and a self-serving welfare state with economically atrophied populations dependent upon hand-outs which over time they feel increasingly entitled to. The latter leads almost directly to spiritual sins. The former leads to its own problems with the Second Tablet – lies, promiscuity, violence, and disobedience towards and dishonoring of civil society. The latter leads to problems with the First Tablet – a complete collapse of the virtue of religion. The former is obviously and viscerally evil to the careless onlooker, just like a war would seem. But the Devil is more present in the latter.
Unnatural vice, including the use of contraceptives, which became so popular in 1968 that the Pope intervened with the encyclical Humanae Vitae, is a greater sexual disorder than natural vice. The daughters of lust, or the effects of lust on the individual sinner, are therefore more quickly and more strongly rooted in those taken in by self-abuse, contraception, and homosexual acts than in those who simply sleep around. The daughters are eight, four affecting the intellect, four affecting the will. They are: blindness of mind, thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred of God, love of this world, and despair of the next world. It would be difficult to summarize better the current state of western civilization in as few words as these. Even for those who are not themselves mired in sexual vice, the overall long-term effect of the proliferation of sexual sins since 1968 has contributed to a general dumbing down of discourse, especially spiritual discourse, and an overall de-spiritualization to our understanding and practice of the virtue of religion, especially in the liturgy, and to our understanding of how to relate with other human beings in the communal search for goodness and truth. Unnatural vice in particular creates a kind of lack of fortitude, such that Thomas calls self-abuse “effeminacy.” If we gather all these data – the daughters of lust in general having become the social milieu in the west, together with the propagation of vices which especially lead to or characterize “softness,” or a lack of fortitude, we can understand a good deal about the state of things in our world right now, including, I suggest, how and why a mild respiratory illness coupled with a bit of media hype can cause mass psychosis.
With all of this intellectual darkness and weakness of will, the western youth need protection – not just from mild respiratory illnesses – and certainly not from China or from unchecked immigrants from Latin America or the Middle East – but from ideas which cause them discomfort by suggesting they are individually responsible for their own actions, that they are not owed anything just for existing but must actually earn a living by real work, that they cannot be whatever they want to be, and that “their truth” does not exist. Because of the emaciation of the intellect and will and their right interaction, or, as C. S. Lewis would put it, “men without chests,” unwelcome speech has become physical violence – because I am unable to think and process an unwelcome thought which causes me physical discomfort, “hate speech” is actually physically violent, thus it can justify physical violence in return. So goes the logic. Of course, the weak are still empowered by sufficient grace to do God’s will, so they are not therefore excused from sin on account of weakness.
Just as the welfare state serves itself by creating more patrons who are increasingly dependent, so too does “cancel culture” serve itself by taking hostage the intellect and will which are mired in the daughters of lust. The more “intersectional” one is, the more one ought to be protected and favored – race, sexuality and gender, nationality, creed, even health and bodyweight, could all remove individual responsibility. This is what “social justice” has become, a once solid neothomistic idea serving as a foil to subsidiarity which is now the method of cultural Marxism. The minorities are always oppressed, simply in virtue of being the minority, so they ought to be allowed to dominate over the majority and thus be liberated. We owe this unhappy thought to Herbert Marcuse, who was the intellectual father-figure of the radicalized youth of 1968.
The student revolt in Paris in May of that year – which became so bad that not only were sections of the University of Paris shut down, but President Charles de Gaulle actually fled France for a short time – was a reaction against what was perceived as an unjust bureaucracy plagued by “consumerism,” a system that needed reform, revolution, reconstruction by the newly allied Socialists and Communists of France, in view of a creative utopia There is perhaps some truth to there having been a depressing, machine-like malaise of 1960’s bureaucracy – let alone French bureaucracy – but an overbearing system which generally works for the right values still ought to be respected, just like an overbearing parent with right intentions. We expect little kids and teenagers to act like spoiled brats and throw a fit when they don’t get their way. We now expect college students to do the same, instead of having their minds opened to classic literature, honing professional skills, and so on. And then they complain that their loans should be paid off with tax dollars. “Jouissez sans entraves,” went one slogan of the Parisian students – enjoy without hindrance. Indeed.
And so the cycle of dependence and sin and the daughters of lust continues, on and on. Perhaps – or even probably – the deeper roots of all of this are found in nominalism and voluntarism, but we will leave aside such an analysis today.
What is the solution? Is there one, other than grace, or the end of the world? What can we sane people do to protect themselves from the cultural onslaught, and perhaps soon, espionage and even physical threats?
Ten years after 1968, a lengthy essay was written by one Václav Havel, later to become the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic. Havel had been a major figure on the right side of Czechoslovakia’s own troubles in ’68, with the Prague Spring which was shut down by the Warsaw Pact troops from Germany and the USSR. Reflecting on all of this, in “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel describes the dynamic of ideology and dissent from ideology. A bad idea with just a little truth to it can overtake a population and a bureaucracy to such a degree that even those who seem to have power do not – they are beholden to the ideology, which has its own inner life. All are afraid of being held accountable to the ideology, including by others who do not believe in it. The greengrocer who puts up a pro-Communist sign in his window is not really a Communist, he is just “not-not Communist,” and he wants everyone to know that he is doing what he has been told so he can avoid conflict. This should sound especially familiar these days, as we endure the ideology of “Covidism,” but it holds true as well for discussing frankly in open fora the moral and religious values which we hold as Catholics, some of which we have just been exploring and would most certainly be cancelled for.
Havel’s thesis is something in between a program and a prediction. Human beings want to live in the truth, according to pre-political commitments and values. We want to be authentic, true to ourselves. We want the freedom to speak, to write, to disagree, to create art, even if it is bad art. Interestingly, Havel notes that one of the main tipping points in Czechoslovakia in the post-totalitarian regime which he is describing was not some famous dissident like himself publishing an essay like the one he was currently writing, but it was the public trial of a mediocre punk-rock group for not staying in line with the status quo. The trial woke people up to the reality of their situation, and Charter 77, one of the most significant moments in Czechoslovakian political history, came as a result, eventually leading to the Velvet Revolution, Havel’s own presidency, and finally the dissolution of the country. Havel notes how odd it is that this would come from the persecution of an underground rock band. It helps to demonstrate his thesis that the natural quest to live within the truth is the most threatening thing to the power of ideology – it declares that the emperor has no clothes, and it thus frees others to do the same.
While I doubt most of us are interested in playing punk-rock, we are interested in other activities and ideas which are increasingly viewed with suspicion and even outright hostility by those who tend the Devil’s rotten orchard. Rod Dreher’s book “The Benedict Option” presents a vision which ought to provoke deep personal and communal reflection. Is western civilization not worth trying to save anymore through traditional means? Probably not. But heading for the hills is not exactly possible, nor is imitating the life of Benedict advisable for most people. While this is not precisely the suggestion of Dreher or others who follow him, there is a group which we are well-familiar with which provides us with a model for Catholic life today. It is the same group whose old neighborhood we are now presently in, the Suburra, the original “sub-urb”; it is the early Christians of Rome.
May I present to you the Catacomb Option. The first thing to know is that Christians never lived in catacombs – anyone who has visited should be able to tell you that the air is toxic and thus is not a place to stay for too long. Instead, the catacombs, which were originally mines that were turned into burial grounds, were essentially the “side-streets of the side-streets.” Just as police in major cities know that criminals are on such streets plying their trades, as long as they are not on the main roads they are often more or less left alone. It is just too much effort to go chasing down every single lowlife down every single alley. It was likewise with our brothers and sisters in the first centuries here in the City up until Constantine. Everyone knew what was going on in the catacombs, but it was not the Forum and not even the Suburra. It was out in the graveyards by the farms. “Who cares? Just leave them alone, we will keep an eye on them.” So went the thought of most emperors. Well, as we can see, the quiet and patient pursuit of holiness in a “parallel society,” literally underground, without much energy spent trying to convert the City eventually bore fruit over and against the wild paganism of ancient Rome. They prayed, they celebrated the sacraments, they improved themselves, they kept quiet and out of sight, and God came down to help. Perhaps there is a lesson here.
Most of us cannot head out into the mountains to form monasteries like Benedict, or even form real intentional and cohesive communities of families, given the way life is today, though both of these endeavors are good. The path, then, is something a bit different. We need to be creating spaces for free exchanges of ideas, and groups which can function as intermediary associations when appropriate to keep the “system” at bay. The system needs to be bypassed, because we can’t simply face it on our own. We are worse off than Havel’s greengrocer. We need groups and clubs and networks with negotiating power, we need ways to communicate, we need space to be ourselves and to live within the truth as we wait for God’s extraordinary help in reconverting the West, if He wants to do so. We can’t rip up the Devil’s seeds, but God can and eventually will, even if this is simply by leading structures of sin to self-destruction, not so unlike the Midianite camp in the face of sudden threat from Gideon’s small but terrifying army. (Judges 7:17-22)
That is one of the goals of this group. The Oratorio is here for such things – less for intermediation, more for communication and authentic self-expression, in prayer, recreation, and fraternity. This is a “safe space” for Catholic lay men, to share ideas, to engage in masculine vulnerability, to aspire to the Greatest Good. There’s nothing toxic about such masculinity! Welcome, brothers, and I look forward to praying and playing with you.