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Book Review… A Classic Critique Of Postconciliar Modernism

August 14, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Charitable Anathema, new 2017 foreword by Raymond Cardinal Burke. $22.95; Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 1209, Ridgefield, CT 06877;

In his address at the July 21, 2018 “Humanae Vitae at 50” conference brilliantly organized by Fr. Sean Connolly at Immaculate Conception Church in Tuckahoe, N.Y., which I had the great pleasure of attending (see Fr. Sean Connolly’s summary, “A Parish Celebrates . . . ‘Humanae Vitae at 50’ Welcomes Outstanding Speakers,” The Wanderer, August 9, 2018, p. 1A), the moral theologian and spiritual author Fr. Donald Haggerty made the telling observation that the radical theological ideas rampant over the years immediately following Vatican II have of late enjoyed an unhappy resurgence.
It is therefore quite timely that the reflections of one of the greatest Catholic minds of the twentieth century, Dietrich Von Hildebrand (1889-1977), in countering the falsehoods of postconciliar modernism have become available again in a new edition of the collection, The Charitable Anathema, graced with a September 2017 foreword by His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke.
Cardinal Burke points out the particular value of von Hildebrand’s philosophical perspective in defining the issues at stake treated in these essays, wherein the renowned educator, lecturer, and author masterfully identifies the underlying prejudices, false assumptions, and motivations for the many manifestations of postconciliar modernism.
In the lead essay that has lent its title, “The Charitable Anathema,” to the collection as a whole, Von Hildebrand explains that essential to the Church’s identity and very purpose is “the absolute primacy of divine truth, which is the very primacy of God” (p. 1).
This is the reason why the Church goes out to evangelize the entire world (p. 2). The profession and defense of truth in its undiluted clarity necessitates the rejection of falsehood. Von Hildebrand observes that in the years following the Second Vatican Council all too many succumbed to a misguided fear of confrontation, disagreement, and disharmony to the point of refusing to combat error and falsehood in the name of an illusory and superficial “peace” of remaining silent in the face of evil (p. 2).
Von Hildebrand draws on his own experience of his personal battle against Nazism wherein he was told to make peace with the Catholics who acquiesced in Nazism rather than continuing his campaign against this evil ideology (p. 2).
Answering the critics who vilify orthodox Catholics for their refusal to go along “peaceably” with the dissemination of heresies, for their supposed refusal to “accept change,” Von Hildebrand observes, “. . . we should rejoice that there still are faithful Catholics, and that they raise their voices against heresies, for God expects that of them” (p. 3).
It is incredible just how deeply our society has been deformed by means of “verbal weapons” (p. 49), the manipulation of language by “intellectual swindlers” as Von Hildebrand calls them (p. 45). He cites the ideologically driven use of the terms “positive” and “negative” whereby the propagandists of error extol their own beliefs as “positive” and demonize any opposition or refutation to their ideas as “negative” (pp. 45-47, 83-84).
Yet to say “no” to error is no less “positive” than saying “yes” to what is true, for it expresses “the same objectivity, the same love for truth, the same reverence before reality, the same transcendence” (p. 83).
Our Lord told Pilate, “My kingship is not of this world” (John 18:36). Yet for six decades now there have been those who would have it otherwise. Such individuals, as Von Hildebrand describes them, are “in love with the spirit of the world,” and seek to steer the Church into an agenda of secular pursuits instead of “the eternal welfare” of souls and “the glorification of God” (p. 146).
In a searing critique of this phenomenon that he insightfully dubs “this-worldliness,” calling it “the most fatal disease ravaging the Church” (p. 127), Von Hildebrand observes that the obsession with secular causes as if these were the Church’s highest priorities rather than saving souls and glorifying God is a perversion of what her true mission is: “. . . the real mission of the Church is not to strive for an earthly paradise, not to humanize the world together with atheists and communists, but to establish the reign of Christ in every individual soul” (p. 128).
One topic that His Eminence Cardinal Burke singles out in his foreword to this volume is Von Hildebrand’s deep understanding of the sacred liturgy, his grasp of “the theocentric character of the liturgical action and the proper response of deep reverence before the action of God” (p. x). In two of the essays Von Hildebrand speaks of his deep love for the Traditional Latin Mass and his sorrow upon its cessation following the issuance of the Roman Missal of 1970.
In expressing his strong reservations concerning the changes to the sacred liturgy, Von Hildebrand poses a series of telling questions as to what makes the celebration of the liturgy most efficacious. Does it “stir the human spirit?” “Does it evoke a sense of eternity? Does it help raise our hearts from the concerns of everyday life — from the purely natural aspects of the world — to Christ? Does it increase reverence, an appreciation of the sacred?” (p. 36). “Whence comes the disparagement of kneeling? Why should the Eucharist be received standing? Is not kneeling, in our culture, the classic expression of adoring reverence?” (p. 42).
With regard to what Von Hildebrand calls changeable “practical decisions” of the Holy See, for example in liturgical matters, he explains that while “we must obey such decisions and submit to them in reverence and deep respect,” there is an avenue of recourse for the clergy and the laity to express their concerns when they believe a particular decision is not for the greater good of the Church:
“If we are convinced that any practical change or decision is objectively unfortunate, noxious, compromising, imprudent, or unjust, we are permitted to pray that it may be revoked, to write in a respectful manner about the topic, to direct petitions for a change of it to the Holy Father — to attempt, in a variety of ways, to influence a reversal of the decision” (p. 29).
In penning this, Von Hildebrand particularly had in mind the loss of the Traditional Latin Mass. To the joy of many his hope and prayer that the Traditional Latin Mass would be “celebrated side by side with the new Ordo” (p. 33) has been fully realized following the July 2007 Moto proprio Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI.
Many of us, I am sure, can attest to having heard homilies in which we were exhorted to be “open to the Spirit,” that “the Spirit” is going to “shake up” the Church to bring about change, with the implication being that “the Spirit” is intent upon ridding the Church of “rigid” adherence to rituals and moral absolutes. This sacrilegious reduction of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity into an ideological slogan is yet another strategy identified by Von Hildebrand as one of the manifestations of postconciliar modernism.
Such propagandists exploit the “more mysteriously hidden” nature of the Holy Spirit “to interpret Him according to their own caprice,” casting Him as “a kind of Hegelian Weltgeist [world spirit], by way of justifying a continuing revelation and, hence, a continual change in its content” (p. 134).
According to this mentality, rather than following immutable Commandments we can decide for ourselves what is right or wrong simply by subjectively intuiting what we think the Holy Spirit is personally inspiring us to do — a very convenient excuse for breaking the Commandments, with the Holy Spirit fictitiously fashioned into little more than a projection and mouthpiece of a man’s own desires (p. 134).
Von Hildebrand is unflinching in his critique of postconciliar modernism’s propagandists, “false prophets” as he repeatedly calls them (pp. 78, 82-84), finding in their talks and writings an uncanny resemblance to the arrogant Nazi propaganda that he fought face-to-face in the 1930s, “the same preference for slogans, the same intellectual mediocrity, the same looking down on all the great, timeless contributions of former ages…the same irreverence, the same adolescent pride, the same self-congratulation at living in the present age,” citing as a prime example the rhetoric of the Swiss heretic Hans Kung (pp. 138-139).

Poisoning Souls

The late 1960s and 1970s were marked by an ideologically driven disintegration of catechetics. Von Hildebrand observes that the catechisms of that era proffered “a disfigurement of the sacred humanity of Christ” (p. 64). Appalled by this “radical destruction of the transmission of Catholic faith in Catholic grammar schools, high schools and colleges” (p. 77), he summons Catholic parents to exercise their right to safeguard the faith of their children from such defective materials:
“Written all over these textbooks which are this very day poisoning the souls of little children is a hatred of the sacred and of the supernatural. This demands more from Catholic parents than arguments: it demands action. The rights of Catholic parents in these matters were reaffirmed by the Second Vatican Council. Their duty in the present hour is clear. They must not tolerate their children’s being force-fed a secularized Christianity” (p. 70).
Von Hildebrand debunks the progressives’ claim of a “real spirit of Vatican II” that trumps the actual words of the Council, that overrules the official decrees of the Council (pp. 51-53). He asks, “Whence do these persons derive the right to place themselves above the Council whenever they find it convenient?” (p. 52). Pointing out Vatican II’s repeated reaffirmations of doctrine from past councils, von Hildebrand concludes, “Vatican II was a ‘beginning’ only in the sense that every council of the Church has been a beginning….It promises not a new Church out of the old, but the same Church ever new” (p. 55).
Von Hildebrand was among the first to recognize and identify as mythological the idea of “modern man,” that mankind in our age is somehow inherently different from the generations that have come before and is therefore in need of a reformed religion fashioned to conform it to “the alleged spirit” of the modern age (pp. 84-87). He likewise recognized and warned of the great harm that was being done at the time by the concept of “experimentation” in both religious education and the sacred liturgy (pp. 87-89).
For anyone who wants to understand the crisis of the past six decades in the Church, this book is a “must read.” In Von Hildebrand we find that rare combination of deep spirituality, profound visionary insight, and clarity of expression. Running as a thread throughout these essays is his conviction that our real business in life is our transformation in Christ, not the pursuit of some earthbound utopia. In the face of materialistic, secularistic, desacralized, counterfeit versions of Catholicism, von Hildebrand summons us to the Sursum corda of raising our eyes to what it truly means to be a Catholic.

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