Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Founding Fathers vs. Church Fathers

by Dr. John Rao



Each time someone sings to me of the glories of the Founding Fathers—namely, every single day of the year-- I think of the Luca Signorelli cycle of paintings of the Antichrist in the cathedral of Orvieto. There, in Umbria, he is: posing as the Savior in front of a crowd of duped believers while his minions massacre the rest of the faithful in the background. Here, in the United States, for the punishment of our sins, they are: protestants, philosophes, a few befuddled or Enlightenment-drugged papists, and many anxious plantation owners and proto-capitalists--all idolized as architects of the "last, best hope of mankind".

Oh, but there is, admittedly, this one twist to my Signorelli analogy. The Antichrist of Orvieto clearly worked on his own steam. In contrast, the Founding Fathers did not themselves labor to convince believers that they were the last, best hope of the faithful in particular. We have to thank subsequent generations of Catholics for undertaking such a task on these demigods’ behalf. Perhaps this is a perversion only of my own little corner of the New Jerusalem, but it seems to me that in these latter days American Catholics are shouting hosannas to the Founders in sermons, in Good Friday meditations, and in calls for a return to their infallible, constitutional principles more regularly than ever before. And all with a panache that would have left the jaws of those hard-headed Anglo-Saxons dropping in amazement.

I can just imagine what George Washington, a Freemason whose library at Mount Vernon was filled with works on cement-making and other such devotional topics, would really have thought if he had known that he would one day be incensed as a Catholic icon; a new Constantine; and even a Marian visionary to boot. The belly-laugh he would have enjoyed with his buddies at the Arlington Lodge! And what about Benjamin Franklin, fresh from an illuminist workshop in Paris? Did he realize that he was laboring alongside Augustine to build up a Catholic City of God? Or consider the musings of the "liberal " (and non-Mason) Thomas Jefferson with the "conservative" John Adams, recently cited in The New York Sunday Times: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away {with} all this artificial scaffolding…" (11 April, 1823, Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon, II, 594). How astonished would they have been to learn that Founder-intoxicated Americanists would not permit such dreams to interfere with their identification as card-carrying Catholic intellectuals: in fact, more reliable ones than men who actually had the temerity to believe in the Trinity, Original Sin, Redemption, and the Resurrection?

Let’s face it. If any of these Founder characters had lived outside of the United States, American Catholics would send them to hell in a hand basket. Too bad poor Robespierre could not have built a career on our side of the Atlantic. Given his own repeated deist references to God, he would have found himself qualifying as a Catholic candidate for canonization rather than for an eternal roasting as a terrorist Frog.

In any case, each time those sweet hosannas to the Founding Fathers ring, my mind turns to a different fatherly fraternity, this one truly worthy of the name—that of the Church Fathers. How many American Catholics can name them? Or, perhaps more fairly, how many American Catholics honestly take them and their works seriously? I mean, really seriously? Oh, they may be piously remembered for miracles associated with their lives, or for one or two anti-Arian citations, or even a couple of passages from their writings, rendered noteworthy through repeated quotation on EWTN. Nevertheless, insofar as daily practical life are concerned, they are dead, buried, and forgotten, consigned to the doctrinal rubbish bin. There is simply no contest in this battle of the ancestors, fraudulent and echt. The score is always the same: Founding Fathers "666"; Church Fathers "0".

American Catholics thinkers, liberal and conservative alike, are ever more confidently inciting the faithful to desert the army of their true spiritual forebears in order to embrace the "let’s-get-real" Founders of the last, best hope of mankind. They are so flush with Founderology that they promote it as though it were the only valid, practical Patrology. This has made a deeper interest in the old Church Fathers not only superfluous, but even harmful and downright impious. Hasn’t everything really valuable that the Fathers could teach us regarding social life been taught more suitably, and in English, by the American Founders? Some narrow patristic arguments, plucked from out of their overarching spiritual vision, may, of course, still be tolerated--if, that is to say, they can support the truly salvific constitutional and economic dogmas of Founderology. But all else is political and social trash, part of that human side of the Church’s Tradition which can easily be shed when reason and science and the inspired eighteenth century American aristocracy has spoken.

What does doctrine-soaked Cappadocia have to do with common sense Philadelphia anyway? What did Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa have to say about states’ rights? Where were Augustine’s comments on checks and balances? Cyril’s meditations on the pre-Civil War perfection of the dance of the sugar plum executives, legislators, and judges? Or Cyprian’s concerns about the right to bear catapults? What about that unconscionable collectivist John Chrysostom, whose neglect of the scientific laws of free enterprise helped disrupt the imperial GNP? Away with them! And the same worship of the Founder-friendly patristic phrase, accompanied by a dismissal of the Founder-phobic patristic spirit is employed to butcher the global vision of Thomas Aquinas, the late Scholastics, and the Church’s whole counterrevolutionary tradition as well.

Give me a determination to make all things jive with the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers, and Adam Smith and I’ll give you back a scriptural exegesis which will reveal the Incarnation to have been a humdrum prelude to the real excitement caused by 1776, 1787, and the daily figures from the New York Stock Exchange. Mutatis mutandis, what shows its face in Founderology is the same methodology familiar to us from the modernists of the turn of the twentieth century: that of restraining Christ’s message within a secular strait jacket. Christianity means the mundane as interpreted by this specific band of exegetes and nothing more. Take it or leave it. Live free according to these secular rules or die.

What most intrigues me as an historian is the sustained assault on Catholic History which such Patricide reflects. War on history has, of course, been declared everywhere in Christendom today. Rome has reduced the world before the1960’s to a house of horrors useful only in providing topics for self-deprecating addresses before frenzied anti-Catholic audiences out for blood. Local dioceses bulldoze their past with a passion matched only by Nicolae Ceausescu in pre-1989 Romania. Many elderly Catholics whom I know will deny on a stack of bibles all memory of doctrines and customs which I heard them piously repeat and saw them fervently practice in my childhood in the 1950’s.

None of this history killing, however, has the long term effect of that which is perpetrated on the school front. Anti-historical warmongering is rampant in Catholic education, and this, sad to say, is as true in conservative and even some traditionalist circles as in liberal centers. Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg? Don’t look to Goebbels for the handbook. He was a piker compared to the propagandists at the Sportpalasts of conservative American Catholic instruction. One can easily take stock of the damage by examining certain home schooling programs, whose record of human civilization begins with Virginia and Massachusetts rather than with Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Hebrews, Greece and Rome. Another proof of it is the outright prohibition by some "alternative" Catholic academies or colleges of any substantive presentation of our historical tradition, with its inevitable revelation of radical differences with the pottage served up by the American Dream. Talk about the sin against the Holy Ghost! Disclosure of Catholic History, for all too many conservatives, is the only thing that truly fits the bill. The equation Founders=Fathers=Catholic has more clout in our supposedly countercultural educational camp of the saints than any canon of the Council of Nicaea. Woe to the orthodox teacher who might threaten to weaken it! Would that he had never lived! Would, instead, that a twenty-first century Luca Signorelli might emerge to portray the way this mentality works to smooth the road down which the Antichrist will eventually happily sashay, with our fellow believers pulling his carriage. Once again, Founder Fathers, "666", Church Fathers--along with the rest of Catholic History-- "0".

But why would a believer voluntarily enlist in the ranks of the Catholic heritage killers and happily throw the game to the Founderologists? I have spent my whole adult life trying to explain the answer to that question, and have made my local wine merchant rich while trying to do so. Right now, I should like to approach the issue from the standpoint of one factor alone: the seemingly irresistible influence upon many well-intentioned Catholics of the concept of "American Values". As guides to Catholic morality go, this one is a pure gem. Build your moral life on the foundation of American Values and you will never lack for arguments justifying detours from the Church’s real Tradition again.

What, exactly, are these "American Values"? Presumably, values associated with America or accepted by Americans. Grasping what such values entail is not a terribly difficult enterprise. It merely involves a basic knowledge of the nature and interaction of the two different elements that have gone into forming them: ideas and men.

Ideas are real things, possessing a life and logic of their own, separate from the intentions of those who create or utilize them. No matter what the formulators of ideas might "will" regarding the meaning and development of their principles, these still enjoy their own innate character and direction. The Iron Law of Ideas applies to the labors of the Founders as much as to ordinary human beings who do not inhabit their special Olympus. And no matter how much the assertion may disturb a Founderologist’s breakfast, the Protestant and Enlightenment ideas which have shaped the Founders and America work with relentless logic to destroy all aspects of Catholic culture.

Individual men on their own, however, do not always think and act coherently or completely. They do not necessarily understand all the consequences of what they say and do. Many of the individual heretics and philosophes who created or promoted the ideas informing the United States of America are perfect examples of this phenomenon. There is much that they happily accepted as part of the obvious, unchanging "common sense" structure of the world around them, while nevertheless espousing subversive ideas undermining the very positions they cherished and thought to be unassailable.

The original Protestants and Enlightenment thinkers grew up in an environment that was either dominated by Catholicism or still nurtured numerous residual Catholic influences. Many thus took for granted and worked with familiar Catholic words and themes, even as they gave to them new anti-Catholic meanings. Many also presupposed the continued practice of Catholic ways of behavior even as their own ideas began to create a New Adam who would eventually act in a decidedly anti-Catholic manner. Thus, to note but one example, while using the concepts "freedom" and "nature", both of them themes familiar and friendly to Catholic ears, they brutally perverted their orthodox significance. While assuming that human beings would always act freely and naturally in a Catholic way, they destabilized the support system encouraging such traditional behavior. Doors were opened to the gradual construction of a new style of life for a new kind of man reflecting their changed ideas more accurately. What, exactly, their own New Adam would be like they could not even themselves imagine, precisely because they had no practical experience of him yet. In fact, if they had had a clear picture of this Frankenstein they might have quickly jettisoned him and returned to the bosom of Holy Church.

I am reminded in this regard of the instructive tale about Jeremy Bentham, who sought "the greatest good for the greatest number" on the basis of a materialist definition of what was "useful". Someone supposedly once asked him what would happen if 51% of Englishmen found that their greater good would be achieved by killing the other 49% of their countrymen. "Don’t be ridiculous", he is said to have responded, incredulously, "Englishmen do not act that way". Apocryphal or not, this would have been a valid comment, so long as they continued to behave as Christians, and in gross contradiction to the utilitarian ideas that he was teaching. But once men really understood what the full logic of his vision was; once they started to act in harmony with its precepts, they would begin to pursue what was useful in less scrupulous ways. The Twentieth and budding Twenty-First Centuries are filled with examples of utilitarians of many nations ready to "choose" their version of the good through actions that even Bentham would have had to call murder.

Proponents of so-called "American Values" are in a similar position to Jeremy, the Founders, and the original Protestants and philosophes behind them. These men of values enthusiastically repeat the fundamentally erroneous and radical ideas of the Reformation and the Enlightenment on such matters as freedom and nature, but are often held back from recognizing and accepting the wicked consequences of their false teachings due to the impact upon them of residual traditional presuppositions and "gut feelings". Here are men who are repeatedly horrified by the behavior of people who actually do draw the logical consequences from their formative ideas and radicalize their comportment accordingly. In short, supporters of so-called American Values are a house divided against itself. They wish to maintain a traditional behavior to which they are both non-rationally and irrationally committed, together with rational, radical principles that will make the survival of this traditional behavior absolutely impossible. In the long run, the only honest-to-goodness American Value is actually the incoherent willful desire to have one’s cake and eat it too. A banner should be flown over the American Values camp depicting a whining child banging its head on the floor to protest the nausea caused by the lollipop which it furiously persists in sucking.

Further, rather bizarre complications for the American Values camp emerge from the press of the myriad of different groups seeking to squeeze inside. For, despite paleo-conservative claims to be the sole legitimate representative of the real thing, many others have insisted upon pitching their tents within its precincts. Each faction really has the right to do so, since all can be shown to share the same Protestant and philosophe background, and to differ merely in their various applications of Reformation and Enlightenment ideas regarding freedom and nature with diverging degrees of logic. Each sect arbitrarily limits the import of its ideas to one or two realms, willfully cutting off concern for their effects in all others. Each finds a gaggle of Founders who shared its views or can at least be used as a starting point for promoting them. Liberal proponents of American Values praise the freedom that opens the floodgates to gay marriage and pornography; conservatives, the liberty unleashing that locust plague called unrestrained capitalism; neo-conservatives the license for lying, murderous Machtpolitik. Each then expresses shock at the unnatural distortion of American Values and the will of the Founders perpetrated by the other, just as Luther proclaimed his outrage at the manipulation of his ideas by Anabaptists or Rousseau by atheists. Fists are shaken and tongues stuck out. An incongruous War Between the Heirs erupts.

None of these monotonous battles and mutual recriminations, treated oh so seriously by the earnest warriors of American Values, reflect anything other than the desperate attempts of the members of one big, unhappy libertine family to hide their common spiritual and intellectual bloodline; to escape the inescapable curse that descends with birth into the whole blasted clan. Hiding the family history in order to deny and flee from the family curse has literally become second nature to its members. They have written more glosses on the subject of the differences among them than the most pedantic of late medieval nitpickers, and almost all of these at some point drag in the question of their relationship with the Founders.

Perhaps this is as good a time as any to note that the "argument by appeal to the Founders", used by all supporters of American Values, has a long history of rhetorical effectiveness behind it, and one that is much older than the United States. Isocrates used it to batter Plato, who was accused of betraying the will of the Founders of Athens with his non pragmatic pursuit of truth. Ancient Roman patricians defended senatorial prerogatives with reference to the desires of their own ancestors. This same theme was valuable to secularized bishops of the 1300’s and 1400’s, who appealed to an imagined will of Apostles in their efforts to subject the Papacy to General Councils. Venetian statists divinized the passions of those who first waded into the waters of the lagoons when trying to fend off the advance of the Catholic Reformation. The recipe is always the same. Clarify your narrow self-interested goals of wealth, power, and fame. Incense them as the obvious, God-given or Newtonian pillars of order and freedom. Distinguish them from the grubby desires of competitors. Repeat unceasingly the unbreakable connection of your particular longings with those of the most ancient, prestigious dead men who can no longer contradict you, and whose true dicta can be revealed, suppressed, or rehashed ad infinitum. Ridicule your opponents claims to Founder friendship, and, with it, all their ties to the past. So much will you hit the jackpot with this con game, that, after a short while, you will begin to believe your own mythological propaganda yourself.

Still, to emphasize a phrase popular with one of the most prominent representatives of American Values in politics today, the varied supporters of this scam "can run but they can’t hide". Ultimately, they all voluntarily line up together, liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, neo-cons and libertarians, to beat their heads on the immovable brick wall called reality. Bit by bit, each faction begins to radicalize its behavior and slips, easily, into an appeal to the natural freedoms of the kind of morality and sort of New Adam praised by its competitors. They badly need one another. Each supplies a gap in the other’s logic and progress. Capitalists have to resort, eventually, to pornographers’ arguments, pornographers to the positions of unrestrained capitalism.

Internationalist warmongers can easily become enthusiasts for a temporary isolation of the Western Paradise from corrupting outside influences; isolationists, when necessary, for temporary warmongering. When you board the heretical Protestant-Enlightenment express, you arrive at the same drab and pointless destination, jazzed up though it might be with glitzy banners, and baptized with the patriotic-sounding name of American Values. The American Values train is headed straight to perdition. No dose of Founderology will fend off the day of reckoning with God and with the rest of the world.

The fact that that day of reckoning seems to be rapidly approaching makes Catholic participation in the losing game of Founderology all the more tragic. A strengthening of the Catholic presence in the United States ought to have served not only as an obstacle to the construction of a new morality and a New Adam, but also as an aid for the correction of the rotten teachings shaping them.

Unfortunately, Catholics failed to pick through the confusions of homeland culture. They were seduced into accepting the benefits of American Values. Catholics saw that supporters of "American morality" were horrified by varied types of perverse behavior which offended them as well. They heard wickedness attacked and goodness defended in familiar, Catholic-like language. They were taught that the Founders lay behind this homely fight for the right. Liberals assured them that the Enlightenment and Reformation on which those Founders fed were really quite conducive to social justice; conservatives, that they were perfectly tradition-friendly, offering no stimulus whatsoever for the sort of madcap Revolution that silly France had experienced.

Eager to accommodate their new land, Catholics then quite happily drew the conclusion that American Values and the Founders responsible for them could legitimately be cheered on as if they were as Catholic as St. Irenaeus; that the philosophes behind them must all be budding catechists at the school of Alexandria; that their Protestant ancestors would surely have been welcome at the table of St. Hilary of Poitiers. Yes, Protestantism and the Enlightenment were wicked in 1517 and 1750, back in Geneva and Paris, but their effects could definitely be transmuted and become good through the magic of America and the Founders’ Touch. Doctrines foul enough to raise generations of Europeans ready to risk martyrdom to oppose them were perfectly suitable for serving as the unalterable foundations for the good life on the other side of the Atlantic. Ignatius of Antioch might be used to thunder versus Lutheranism in the Old World, but in America he would doubtless have been the bosom buddy of Calvin, John Locke, and James Madison. Fight Protestantism, the Enlightenment, and the Founders? Why, you might as well fight the ante- and post-Nicaean Fathers and Catholicism itself.

Catholics also gradually embraced the notion that Founderology required their active participation in building a new morality and a New Adam. They understood that, radically changed though these would be, they must still be labelled traditional and Catholic. Great progress has been made in recent years in declaring the new morality and the New Adam to be as papist as penance and indulgences. Conservatives supporting the American Empire have completely stripped Catholic ideas involving just wars of any kind of practical clout, dismissing the moral revulsion of people who know that they have been lied to as mere "opinions" that must bend to the will of the omnipotent secular Leader. Torture has come to be taken for granted as the appropriate method for dealing with "terrorists" who would have been labeled freedom fighters and praised for their unorthodox fighting styles if only they had been insurgents in 1776 at Lexington and Concord. Doing good has more and more come to be equated with making big time bucks in capitalist cultural killing and environmental devastation. And even the appropriate kind of ancient Christian leader matching their adulation of George W. as a new Constantine has been located: Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, Arian imperial apologist, patron "saint" of Catholic political boot licking.

Finally, Catholics grasped the reality that the society shaped by Founderology rewards its idolators as heroes and punishes its principled enemies as losers, most effectively by economically emarginating them and depriving them of the ever-increasing incomes that basic survival within the Western Paradise demands. They understood that there was no salvation outside the Founderology world, temporal as well as spiritual; that having been baptized into it, they could pick up the works of the real Fathers for information regarding the character of a Christian society only at the risk of kissing influence in the world at large goodbye. Such social and economic suicide they could not bring themselves to commit. Hence, their further support for a recognition of the dicta of the Founders as the sole guide to daily living worth calling Catholic.

In 1989, as the last of the East Bloc regimes tumbled onto the rubbish heap of history, I sat together with an older Catholic friend in a café near my apartment in the Village. "All that I have fought for has triumphed", he mused; "and yet my enemies are stronger than ever". Though obviously troubled by this truth, he made his comment with a certain justified spirit of hope. He was, after all, a sadder but wiser man. He had recognized what I have noted above. That his "friends" were actually his enemies as well, men who shared the same parents and who relied on the same arbitrary willfulness to refuse connecting the dots that would lead them to temporal and divine wisdom.

This, I think, will be my last article for The Remnant directly dealing with the Founders. There is no point saying anything more about them. It simply does not matter. I believe that many American Catholics would continue to appreciate and love them even if all of us were lined up and shot by the whole crew to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandy. Belief in the Founders, along with the Enlightenment and Protestantism that stand behind them, as the source of all that is good is too strongly rooted in our culture to topple with rational arguments. Catholics have become New Adams themselves and would never accept Catholic History and the teachings of the Church Fathers on face value, if for nothing else, because you cannot make a buck out of them. Antichrist, here we come.

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