Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad, is the story of the war waged by Greece against the city of Troy. Unable to vanquish the Trojans on the battlefield, the Greeks came up with a ploy. They built a gigantic wooden horse, filled its belly with soldiers, left it on the beach and boarded their ships, pretending to go home. The Trojans, thinking the Greeks had left behind a gift of tribute to their courage, drew the great horse into the city for all the citizens to admire. That night the Greek ships secretly returned. The soldiers inside the horse descended to the ground and opened the gates to the city. The Greek army invaded and destroyed Troy.
Dietrich von Hildebrand (1899-1977) was a German philosopher and Catholic theologian feared by Hitler and praised by Pope Pius XII as “the twentieth century Doctor of the Church.” He studied philosophy under Max Scheler and the great Edmund Husserl, who said that Hildebrand’s doctoral dissertation was a work of genius. At the age of 37 he and his wife were received into the Catholic Church. After Hitler came to power, Hildebrand fled to Austria where he started a weekly newspaper opposed to the Nazi ideology. Subsequently, the Nazis sentenced him to death in absentia. When Hitler annexed Austria, Hildebrand fled again, and through connections arranged by Jacques Maritain made his way to the United States in 1940.
Of Hildebrand’s thirty books surely one of the most interesting for our generation is Trojan Horse in the City of God: The Catholic Crisis Explained (1967). An early post-Vatican II book written more than fifty years ago, Hildebrand proved once again, as he did in the 1920s when he was among the first to warn about the coming disaster of Nazism, that he was prophetic in detecting the ominous storm clouds gathering over the Catholic Church. His wife Alice reported that on his deathbed Hildebrand referred to himself as having the soul of a lion. It could be said that in this book he roared like a lion at the herd of Trojan horses galloping toward the vaulted halls of the Vatican.
John Cardinal O’Connor in his introduction to The Trojan Horse remarked that the glorious achievements of Vatican II were undermined and sabotaged by those who sought to remake the Church in their own image. Hildebrand saw this happening, and Cardinal O’Connor believed there is reason to believe that what Hildebrand saw in 1967, and warned us against with all his powers of persuasion, is even more worthy of being opposed and defeated today by those who see clearly the secularist invasion of the Church. In his own introduction to the book, Hildebrand makes clear his thesis: “We shall try to shed some light on the confusions, the apostasies, and the disclosures of loss of faith that are to be found among those who trumpet forth the claim that they are the true interpreters of the Council…. we shall try to examine all the horrible errors that are being propagated now by the so-called progressives.”
Certainly one of the prime objectives of Vatican II was a renewal of the true spirit of Christ in the Church. In fact the documents did achieve that end, yet the interpretations of those documents resulted in what Hildebrand calls “the superficial, insipid pronouncements of various theologians and laymen that have broken out everywhere like an infectious disease.” And then, to top it off, those people spreading the disease gave Catholics two dismal alternatives: either accept their vulgar secularization of the Church, or deny the authority of the Council. What resulted from this choice was the dividing of Catholics into conservative and progressive camps. But, Hildebrand notes, there can be no such thing as a progressive Catholic. Christ’s teachings do not progress; they are eternally true and nothing can be done to improve on them. The third and only goal of Vatican II that should have been made clear to everyone, and chosen by everyone, was the goal of being transformed in Christ by being faithful to the Magisterium (the official teaching authority of the Church) which conveys the will of Christ in the world. But to hear the progressives, it was the Magisterium that needed to be transformed by certain theologians who supposed they knew better than the Magisterium how to transform it.
The Church through the ages, by way of councils and papal encyclicals, has known how to renew itself by combating wrongful elements that have entered and threatened to corrupt it. Vatican II was called not to “improve” the Church by introducing elements that contradict its past teachings, but to cleanse it of those wrongful elements that threaten to overcome the doctrines and spirit of Christ. Soon after the work of Vatican II was done, Pope Paul VI warned against the wrongful notion that the Council was intended to produce an easier and less exacting Christianity. He cautioned against “an indulgent concession to the fragile and versatile relativistic mentality of a world without principles or a transcendent end.” In particular, Hildebrand notes that one of the great achievements of the Council was to stress the need to overcome a certain legalism that had permeated the mission of the Church, a certain narrowness of mind that “tended to obscure the authentic face of the Church.” But also needed, Hildebrand insists, was the necessity to avoid supposing that the narrowness of mind could be corrected by liberal progressives who do not know the bounds of restraint or propriety. That would amount to replacing the devil you know with the devil you don’t know, and the devil you don’t know has the advantage of wreaking more havoc than the first devil because he has duped so many into thinking he is an angel.
One of the “progressive” reactions to the legalism of the pre-Council era was to critique the notion that marriage is all about procreation. This emphasis on procreation is what Hildebrand called an “incomplete truth.” Now the false reaction was not to correct the incomplete truth by adding emphasis on the aspect of love in marriage; it was rather to reverse (and therefore repeat) an incomplete truth my making marriage more about love than about procreation. For the progressives, supporting birth control became an inviting alternative to the Church’s ban on birth control just because it left love (or in all too many cases lust) all alone as the purpose of marriage. But this amounted to no more than replacing one incomplete truth with another incomplete truth. From the growing incidence of divorced Catholics, one might infer that the progressive cause has been proven to be false. Emphasis on love alone has produced fewer long term marriages (by way of divorce) and more children deprived of a complete and safe family environment. Likewise, the abandonment of the emphasis on procreation has morphed, even among married couples, into the advocacy of birth control, abortion, and a wholly ego-centered obsession with childlessness.
Yet another false reaction of the progressives to legalism is to assert, as they so often do, that love of neighbor is necessary to show our love of God. This is, of course, the reverse of the right order of things. In order to love our neighbour truly we must first love God truly. That is the first and greatest commandment from Jesus himself. And so the progressive stresses, to a fault, the obligation to prove love of neighbor, usually to the neglect of our need to love God first and above all. As Hildebrand puts it: “Wrong as it is to restrict love exclusively to God and to deny real love to one’s neighbor, it is still much worse to exclude direct love of God.” There are many Christians nowadays, under the regime of the social justice guardians, who are consumed with good works but have a bare acquaintance with prayer and meditation. Such Christians wrongly suppose they have done their good deeds and can rest assure they are saved.
Then there are certain types of religious (priests or nuns) who have been infected by the progressive secularization of rightful authority in the Church. The old vows of obedience, voluntarily taken, are now just as voluntarily abandoned. Supposedly progressive pundits want to correct ecclesiastical authority by doing away with it altogether. Hence the invention of the priests’ union in the archdiocese of Los Angeles (admittedly an extreme example) that was supposed to mimic the settlement of disputes practiced in the secular professions. Hildebrand also complains of the progressive Catholics’ demand that we not seek to evangelize those outside the faith, for this amounts to an attempt to impose our faith on others. Progressives, Hildebrand notes, “consider this presumption, intolerance, disrespect for the freedom of others, and ‘triumphalism’….They even go so far as to claim that we should learn about spiritual matters from atheists.”
According to Hildebrand, some progressive Catholics are willing to submit their religion to scientific examination and verification. If miracles are declared by the secularists impossible or childishly believed in, the progressive Catholic openly doubts, or even declares disbelief. Biblical miracles are especially suspect. Science is allowed to checkmate Revelation. When science is consulted, Adam and Eve are just symbols of human frailty, not actual historical persons. The devil is a mere made-up caricature of evil incarnate. In other words, the same secularism that began to invade mainstream Protestantism centuries ago has arrived in the Catholic Church. No wonder Pope Paul VI in 1972 could announce with chagrin that the smoke of Satan had entered the temple of God. If living today he might get a more fully charged whiff of it.
Hildebrand is not reluctant to acknowledge that the spirit of renewal was an important goal of Vatican II. The bishops knew very well that a certain narrow legalism had entered into the psychology of Catholics. This was one reason why Paul VI urged the laity to take on a more significant role in the life of the Church. But right away the progressives interpreted this as meaning the laity should get involved in busy work, committees, clubs, etc. Secular activities were put before spiritual ones. Bingo was preferred to Benediction. Some thought it was progressive to displace the old and favored sacred hymns that everyone could sing with those meandering up-and-down the scale songs that only a trained choir could render. These songs in their turn were succeeded by mundane guitars and drums with a rumba beat and clapping hands to boot. And so, Hildebrand concludes, “The progressives tend to believe that narrowness is the only kind of mediocrity. They forget that being blind to those things which are antagonistic to true greatness and true culture, and lavishing enthusiasm on shallow worldliness, are expressions of a more blatant mediocrity and are even more incompatible with religion.”
Other instances of intellectually shallow progressive theology abound. For instance, in Catholic churches in France and Holland (at the time Trojan Horse was written) all references to Hell were omitted. Since Vatican II it has not gone unnoticed by millions of Catholics that hell is hardly ever, if ever, mentioned in a Sunday homily … as if its existence was not important enough to be mentioned despite Christ’s warning in Matthew 25. How, one might ask, is it making progress to convey the notion we need not worry about our soul as it enters eternity? On another note, as Hildebrand cites the Catholic philosopher Leslie Dewart, “Christian theism might in the future not conceive God as a Person or indeed as a Trinity of persons.” It is difficult to imagine how the holder of such a “progressive” opinion can possess a license to teach Catholic theology, since his opinion goes entirely against the Nicene Creed. If the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are abandoned, to paraphrase the Apostle, to whom else shall we turn?
Another feature of “progressive” influence in the Church is the emasculation of the hierarchy. Radical liberalism has run its course to an extreme. This is a historic fact. In virtually every country the bishops have failed to rise to the occasion. In Nazi Germany this was so. After 1932 the policy was to accommodate the national socialist Hitler wherever possible. The bishops shouting condemnation of him from the housetops was unthinkable. In the United States the censuring of liberal abortion policies was done by the bishops, but in a manner too clinical, infrequent, and remote to have much effect. Did five hundred bishops (welcome to my fantasy), fully robed, march down Pennsylvania Avenue with their miters and crosiers in hand to protest America’s national disgrace (Roe v Wade)? They could have done that in Washington, D.C. with considerable impunity, whereas the German bishops could not have boycotted Hitler in Berlin without fear of being arrested, imprisoned, and eventually unheard from.
Although the bishops had a chance to quietly uncover and expel pedophile priests beginning several decades ago, they seemed more anxious to hide and protect them, even move them from parish to parish or transfer them to far away dioceses. Today some bishops have disarmed themselves by having been exposed as complicit; not to mention the bishops in general having lost their considerable moral authority so far as the general public is concerned. None of this unhappy history is at all “progressive” in the real sense, though it might have pleased the progressives to observe a soft tolerance of sexual perversity. As Hildebrand remarks regarding episcopal policy in his time: “Condemnation and the unmasking of errors is widely seen today as something hostile to love. No longer understood is the basic principle enunciated by St. Augustine – interficere errorem, diligere errantem (kill the error, love the one who errs).”
Next Hildebrand tackles the fundamental presupposition of the progressives: that truth is whatever happens to be the dominant spirit of the age in which one lives. Thus it is possible for the progressive to argue that we might as well replace and improve the values of the former ages, whether ancient or medieval or even relatively modern. There is no such thing as objective truth, the progressives would have us believe, and the progressives know this because they know that you cannot progress beyond objective truth. You can only make real truth irrelevant so that it can be supplanted by the new spirit of the age. This is largely a consequence of the philosophy called pragmatism – emphasizing whatever is most ‘practical’ – which is highly subjective. The spirit of the age is valued higher than the spirit of an earlier age only because it is the spirit of the age. Atheism is valued higher than religion, not because it is truer than religion (no one can prove there is no God) but because it is the spirit of the age that is convenient to the age. As Hildebrand put it: “Whether something is alive and dynamic seems more important than whether it is true and good. This substitution is a symptom of intellectual and moral decay.”
How else do we account for the wholesale attacks on religion today in the media and academia? The assumption of progressives is that religion is not the spirit of our age, but is the spirit of past ages, and so we must enter an age of progress by shedding all our religious illusions. Not only must we shed the ancient “mythologies,” we must also shed the moral values those mythologies are identified with. The question is never asked whether those moral values are true or false, but only whether they fit the comfort zone of the age in which we live. The absurdity of this position is that progressivism dethrones objective truth while at the same time presenting itself as an objective truth.
Thus, if abortion and homosexuality come to be accepted as the convenient morals of an age (with the implication that this is progress), all discussion of the merit of abortion and homosexuality is cut off, and those who protest that the discussion should continue are labeled religious neanderthals. Inherent in progressivism is something approximating a religious faith that progress always improves the human condition. But no skeptics are allowed to contest whether it is a true or false religious faith the progressives have acquired. The question must be asked: has no progressive civilization ever gone into retrograde so profound that it fell apart at the end? Ask the ancient Greeks. After they have answered, ask the Caesars of ancient Rome. Then look at the curriculum course offerings of your average Catholic college today and compare them with the course offerings of 60 years ago. Likely will be found little if any study of St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine, but plenty of courses on the jungle of modern ethical systems.
The movements of history are not so simple as some would have us believe, Hildebrand observes. When the progressives speak of the progressive era as the wave of the present cresting into the future, they would have us believe that the entire culture is on board with progressivism. This is not true of the dominant spirit in any age, because every age, though it might display a dominant trend, also exhibits counter-trends. The paganism of the Roman empire was dominant, but the appearance of Christ on earth made paganism not the least bit likely to survive as the religion of progress. Progressive Catholics in our time seem to fear the expansive power of secularism. Perhaps they conclude that the Church must adapt itself to secularism or perish. Compromise with the devil is at first advised; then commanded after a while by the cowardly. But, as Hildebrand insists, all the so-called progress of the modern world cannot contend with or cancel out the one great moment of progress in the entire history of the human race: “There is and has been but one essential historical change in the metaphysical and moral situation of man: the advent of Christ and the salvation of mankind and reconciliation with God through Christ’s death on the cross.”
Hildebrand believed that many Catholics are ignorant of the dangers of progressive secularism. They are unaware of already being infected by this disease. One such infection is any modern priest’s reluctance to find much value in the sacred liturgy. Copying their Protestant colleagues in the pulpit, they might see in the music and sacred art and ceremonials a kind of medievalism that is no longer relevant when compared to the modern quest for social justice that fuels pastoral passions. What these priests may not recognize is that the average layman yearns to be captivated and uplifted by the sense of the sacred. Why then do priests remove the tabernacle from the altar and place it where it can barely be seen, or not seen at all? This was never the practice of past ages, and yet it sends a signal that Christ’s own presence on the altar, his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, might be less the focus of the worshiper than the presence of the priest and the deacon and the altar servers. The downgrading of the Eucharistic presence must be a sign that secularism has made progress even on the altar of Christ. As Hildebrand otherwise put it: “Truly, if one of the devils in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters had been entrusted with the ruin of the liturgy, he could not have done it better.”
Science and Mysticism
According to Hildebrand, the power of secularism extends far and deep into the consciousness of many Catholic clergy and laity. Scientism, one of the more daunting weapons of progressive secularism, inclines those who are held under its hypnotic glare to obey the siren call of obedience. Those truths of the faith that require much faith, especially the miracles, are held up to severe skeptical questioning. Are miracles even possible given the mechanistic laws of nature as science has described them? Thus the progressive Catholic ignores or plays down not only the miraculous, but even the mystical. The Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin’s attempt to fuse the scientific with the mystical fails because in his writings it is always science that eclipses the mysterious and renders it even more unintelligible than before. Anyone who has read much of Chardin knows this to be true. Following the judgment of Gilson and Maritain, Hildebrand offers a devastating 28 page Appendix on Chardin as a false prophet. He then invokes the wisdom of Chesterton as an astute critic of scientism, who said in his paradoxical way: “If a man believes in unalterable natural law, he cannot believe in any miracle in any age. If a man believes in a will behind law, he can believe in any miracle in any age.”
Amoralism among Catholics
Among Catholics, Hildebrand found a strong element of amoralism, which he defines as the demotion of morals to an inferior status compared to other aspects of the religious experience. Whereas the importance of sin was recognized as paramount before Vatican II, sin had decidedly climbed down the ladder of significance to the point that many clergy were preaching about everything but the need to confess and be reconciled with the Almighty. Even the highly esteemed theologian Karl Rahner (another Jesuit) is taken to task by Hilderbrand for conceding that “many moral values may disappear in the future and only the dignity of the human person and some other values remain.” Hildebrand’s insight in 1967 has found more recent fulfillment in the widespread diminishing attendance of Catholics at the confessional. (I have my own childhood memory of long lines of people outside several confessional boxes waiting to be absolved of their guilt. Today, hours posted times for confession are minimal; even then, one might feel a bit sorry for a priest twiddling his thumbs waiting for the occasional sinner to appear.) Hildebrand goes on to document with several examples (most of them Jesuits) the proponents of a new morality to replace the old one that existed before Vatican II, as if the Church had repudiated the old morality and all that mattered any more is the “feel good” aspects of human welfare and social justice.
Next Hildebrand takes issue with those Catholics who have ceased to put truth before all else. An extreme passion for peace in the world has overcome many Catholics. Thus, the word “heretic” has fallen into disuse for fear of seeming to be uncharitable toward those who have lost their way. But the anathemas of the early Church condemned the perverse twisting of God’s truth by those who believe themselves to know better. Hilderbrand says: “As predicted by Christ and the Apostles, heretics will try again and again to invade the Church. What would have become of Christian revelation had the Church not condemned Ariansim, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, and Albigensianism? What would have happened if these heresies had been tolerated?” Very likely they would have triumphed if not for the open warfare declared upon them by the orthodox Church, itself guided to overcome heresy by the Holy Spirit.
It is, in fact, charity that calls us to teach others how they have erred, to correct their errors rather than to leave them alone and satisfied with themselves. The only restraint upon such correction is that “it should not be done in a cool doctrinaire way that is tainted with pride,” which would tend to reinforce obstinate heresy rather than to correct it. The mistake of those who preach peace before truth is that in the end they get neither; unity and peace are only possible with the possession of truth. False teaching inevitably destroys unity. This can be seen in the multiplicity of Protestant denominations, who by dividing themselves against each other have divided the truth of Christianity and weakened its power in the world. Ecumenism (reaching out in friendship and searching for common ground), which was promoted by the Church’s leadership following Vatican II, will surely fail if by ecumenism is also meant either a compromise with Church doctrines or giving a misguided priority to peace at any cost and a surrender of the Church’s obligation to continually evangelize all those outside the Church.
The Great Tradition
The great enemy of progressive thought (and progressive Catholics) is the power of tradition inside the Catholic Church. Hildebrand saw clearly that progressivism was dedicated to moral relativism and the denial of absolute values that are carried by tradition all through the history of the human race. If there are not objective and timeless values to be preserved, then history is just meaningless living from moment to moment. Or as Kierkegaard put it, “If the moment is everything, the moment is nothing.” Only humans have a sense of history, and only humans know that history is preserved by tradition. The simple fact is that without tradition we would not have Christ, for only the traditions of the Bible and the Eucharist keep Christ alive on our tongues and in our hearts.
The two most so-called progressive movements in modern history were by no means benevolent: one of them, National Socialism in Germany, produced millions of violent deaths growing out of a profound hatred for religion by Hitler himself; the other, international Communism, produced several times as many fatalities, and still generates cruelty and violation of civil rights in parts of the world where communism survives, such as in China and North Korea. All this is done in the name of so-called progress. As George Santayana said, if we do not learn from the traditions of the past, we will be consumed by the tragedies of the future. We can witness in the deterioration of academic standards, especially in the liberal arts, a persistent decline in focus on the achievements of the past. This bodes poorly for the future; it would be as if you would build houses in the air with no respect for the science of foundations.
Trojan Horse in the City of God cannot be fully appreciated here and deserves a thoughtful reading in its entirety. There is one aspect of the Trojan horse theme that was not treated by Hildebrand, but was introduced more recently by his wife, Alice, who is now 95. In a short excerpt from an interview which can be viewed here she has related how she and Hildebrand discovered there was a sinister plot by Stalin’s regime in the 1920s to secretly infiltrate Catholic seminaries with “superbly trained” communist candidates for the priesthood. (At the age of nineteen Stalin had been expelled from a seminary for being a Marxist … perhaps he had a score to settle?) The Hildebrands learned of the plot from Bella Dodd, an apostate Catholic who joined the communists in the 1920s and later in life returned to the Church. Dodd testified to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 that during the 1930s and ’40s she had personally recruited well over 1,000 seminarians (who were “without faith or morals”) for the purpose of entering the priesthood to undermine the Catholic Church and turn it in a socialist direction. By the time of Vatican II, those seminarians (and any cohorts they had acquired) would have been in their 40s and 50s and well able to undermine the Council by preaching a leftist or “progressive” interpretation of its findings, and by encouraging widespread doubts about Catholic orthodoxy. Concrete proof of Stalin’s effort to undermine the Catholic Church by sabotaging its seminaries could only be discovered at this point by locating hidden files buried inside secret Kremlin vaults … unless of course they were completely destroyed long ago.
According to Alice (something of a lioness herself) of the 225 American Catholic colleges only about 20 of them are now orthodox and deserve to be called Catholic. To what extent Bella Dodd’s seminarian recruits with their leftist politics and theology have helped to bring that about we may never know. What we do know is that the Left is forever sponsoring rainbow coalitions; these include alliances of Marxists, radical feminists, homosexuals, minorities, and malcontents of every stripe. If, among the thousand seminarians recruited by Dodd (and possibly thousands of others recruited by other communists) there were active sexual perverts (including pedophiles), they could have become the seedbed that has sprouted into the ghastly sex scandals today plaguing the Church worldwide.
The objection will be offered by some that this notion is incredible. Why would anyone in his right mind enter the priesthood for the sole purpose of secretly undermining the Catholic Church? Good question. Likely no one in his right mind would do so. But it only needs to be remembered that this “not being in one’s right mind” sort of business was prevalent on a massive scale in the first half of the twentieth century. Especially in Germany and Russia, thousands of people who were not in their right mind secretly gave themselves over to evil careers that were later exposed long after the damage had been done. They did monstrous deeds, killing millions of Jews and Christians, under the guise of doing good and making the world a better place in which to live. That too is incredible, but it happened.
Given that Bella Dodd’s story is true, it would have been the motive of the thousand dedicated Marxist seminarians, who nearly a century ago infiltrated the Catholic Church in the United States, to undermine its mission and by doing so to make the world in their socialist minds a better place in which to live. The sabotage was effective over the long haul. Because of the endless abuse scandals of the last two decades, followed by lawsuits and indictments detailing the extent of child molestation going back to the 1950s, it could be said that so far as the general public is concerned the Catholic Church has lost considerable credibility across the board. Moreover, it seems that many Catholic laity, far removed from the inner circles of ecclesiastical councils and unable to ask questions or get answers, are in the throes of either debilitating despair or reactionary uproar.
How soon things can be turned around sufficiently to restore a respectable semblance of the Church’s moral authority in public affairs remains to be seen. If there is the faintest trace of a silver lining in all of this, it is that pedophiles need no longer suppose they have the protection of the clerical cassock and collar, since by all accounts every legal and prosecutorial weapon is presently being used to find them out, expel them from the clergy, and put them behind bars. In the meantime, as the Vatican and bishops worldwide struggle mightily to solve their worldwide dilemma, and disagree just as mightily about the solution, those weekly lurid headlines continue to dominate the news.
The Prince of Darkness knows the Church for what it is: the instrument of Christ to purify his children and rescue them from the power of Satan. The precise words uttered by the priest at the time of baptism make this goal of the Church very clear. “Do you reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness?” After two thousand years of failed strategies to annihilate Christianity, Satan must settle for impeding the mission of the Church by now and then exploiting every opportunity to throw up roadblocks of hideous scandal. To a degree it could be said, by way of Trojan horses inside the Church, that Satan has made some progress in this regard. Yet to the contrary, it could also be said that Satan’s purpose to oppose the Church is eternally foiled because of one supreme, everlasting, and irrefutable fact: the assuring promise in Matthew 16:18, made by the One who ought to know, that the gates of hell will never prevail against Him.