1942: State Absolutism

St. Thomas More said that to be a Christian, we must not only believe the Resurrection, we must continually be surprised by it. That saint, surprised daily by the empty tomb, saw what happens when people are not even surprised by God. The reinvented government that sentenced More to death was, from various angles, a prototype of the all-inclusive state latterly called fascist. It is why the saint’s dying words reminded the people that there is a distinction between service to the king and service to God.

Reviewing Testament to Democracy, a book by Lord Wedgwood (newly published in 1942) on the perils of confusing God and king, Christopher Hollis — parliamentarian and old friend of G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Msgr. Ronald Knox (and father of the present bishop of Portsmouth) — says, “Lord Wedgwood is in the great tradition of English eccentrics. He is a writer and a speaker rather than a reader, and this preference gives him a fondness, in default of better, for talking about subjects about which he knows absolutely nothing.”

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One of these subjects was fascism. Hollis says of his lordship, “He is one of the last people left in Parliament who says what he thinks — or rather, to be quite frank, who says a great deal more than he thinks — and that, in this age of sealed lips, is at least a contrast to the many who say less.” Hollis’s point is that the author in his crosshairs fails to see that fascism was latent in the democratic system, and what holds it back is the “aristocratic taste” for liberty among those with a sense of tradition and freedom from economic reliance on government assistance. “It is no coincidence that Fascism has made its appearance in the age of democracy,” he went on. “As long ago as Plato the succession of the one to the other in invariable sequence was noted. . . . Where there is no aristocratic element, you get just as much tyranny but no protest against it.”

As these subtleties were exercising men of English letters in the first week of December, a real Fascist with a megaphone, Mario Appelius, broadcast from Rome: “After the war, when people are heard speaking English in Italian towns, those around them will turn round sharply as if they heard the howling of a hyæna or the hissing of a snake, and a light of hatred will go up in the eyes of the men and women of Italy.”

In a different mood, the “Compagnons de France,” a youth group sympathetic to the Resistance, carried in procession to Le Puy a statue of Notre Dame de Strasbourg, in a not subtle rejection of German claims to Alsace and Lorraine. When the local officials of Mulhouse were constrained to rename some street for Adolf Hitler, they obliged, but the street they selected was the Rue du Sauvage. Not a youth but an elderly Breton woman near Lorient, bent under a load of firewood in an area of heavy Allied bombardment, said, ” I lost two sons in 1914, and a grandson in this war. I have two others prisoners, but I will face the loss of them if it is necessary for the life of France and so that we and our Allies win the war.”

As the Fascist radio broadcast from Rome its summons to hate, the Vatican radio announced in German a summary of the joint pastoral letter of the archbishops and bishops of Austria (the “Greater Reich”) on the “sexual revolution” of the Nazis, who encouraged immodesty and promiscuity in the name of liberation from Christian strictures. A similar pastoral letter had been written by the cardinal archbishop of Breslau in September. “There is a tendency gradually to do away with the essential segregation of sexes during youth meetings, by day and night and during lonely hiking tours and on similar occasions.” They denounced the “naturalism” promoted by Nazi university professors, which taught that “natural functions,” being “natural,” should be freed from moral inhibitions. “The helplessness and inability of parents to control their children is also greatly to blame for this sad state of affairs.”

The bishops also objected to the attempts of the government to defy natural law by making itself the sole arbiter of what constitutes marriage. “From this point of view it is merely another step to the monstrous idea of sexual relationship without recourse to marriage at all, and the scientific breeding of the superman . . . .” The bishops baldly and boldly declared: “A people that presumes to be the only and exclusive arbiter of morality, and goes to the length of sanctifying whatever means it adopts for its terrestrial purposes, must perish through its own blasphemy.”

A series of articles in L’Osservatore Romano treated the “menace to human liberty” posed by the secularist view of life. The distinction between the justice willed by God and positive regulations willed by human authority is evident in the various Latin and Germanic languages: jus and lex, recht and gesetz, droit and loi, diritto and legge, derecho and ley. The papacy has a unique position, divinely appointed, as arbiter in this economy of wills. The Reformation disrupted this, even altering the concept of the sacredness of treaty obligation, so that “from being something demanded from a nation on religious and moral grounds, it became something accepted because profitable or useful, claiming respect only in so far as it served that purpose.”

In one of his commentaries on the Advent readings for Mass, Monsignor Knox obliquely touched on how the Church herself can be arbitrary in prudential matters of positive law. Explaining the word skandalizein as “being thrown off your stride,” or “disappointed,” he says specifically for English readers, “The convert whose faith is tried by (say) finding himself in disagreement with Vatican policy, over European affairs, is a good instance of being ‘scandalized’ in this sense.”

From Lourdes, which he called “Czestochowa in the Pyrenees,” August Cardinal Hlond sent a message to the youth of Poland, among whom was an unknown named Karol Wojtyla:

The fate and future of Poland will shortly be in your hands . . . . Remember that it is the design of Divine Providence that you should be the builders of Poland’s greatness. You will finish the building of the Commonwealth and you will lead our nation into the second thousand years of our history. Even now, you should give a lofty and Christian meaning to your life, a sense of mission, duty and responsibility. Feed yourselves with truth and not with phrases.

Both by default and generosity of spirit, the Catholics in the United States responded to the international chaos by assuming financial responsibility for nearly fourth-fifths of all the world’s missions. An American chaplain was invited to preach in Westminster Cathedral, and the Daily Express reported that “the sermon was given by one of the fastest speaking preachers ever to occupy the Cathedral pulpit.” From the same pulpit, Cardinal Hinsley’s Advent message was read more slowly:


We pray week by week and month by month at Benediction for the return of England to the unity of faith. In doing so we prolong the prayers which our own martyrs and which Catholics of nearly every country of Europe have offered decade after decade for this intention . . . . Surely this has been because England was regarded as a supremely important link in the spiritual harmony of Christendom . . . . We must resist to the last any system of State absolutism such as in other lands captures the bodies and souls of the children, thus usurping the rights and duties of the parents. We find it difficult to suppose that any party in this country would dream of such an invasion of the family.

But that, of course, was in 1942.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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