A century after the Armistice

George Weigel

I’m just old enough to remember when my elders still called November 11 “Armistice Day:” the armistice in question that which stopped the shooting in the Great War. As a military matter, World War I may have ended a century ago, on November 11, 1918, allowing my Grandfather Weigel and millions of other doughboys to be demobilized. The devastating cultural effects of the Great War are still being felt today, though.

Different nationalities remember World War I differently. Nostalgics mourn the fall the Romanov, Hohenzollern, and Hapsburg empires; Poles remember those as the imperial crack-ups that permitted them to regain independent statehood. France is, in some respects, still paralyzed by the memory of the Great War. (Look online at images of the inside of the Douaumont Ossuary near Verdun to understand why.) Canadians wear red poppies in their lapels to honor the dead at Vimy Ridge and elsewhere. Australians remember Gallipoli as the crucible in which their nation was formed. Satisfaction in the U.K. over a hard-won victory is severely tempered by the knowledge that virtually an entire generation of future British leaders was killed between 1914 and 1918.

No one has ever assayed the primary cause and long-term effects of the Great War better than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn did in his 1983 Templeton Prize Lecture, “Men Have Forgotten God.” There, he argued that the 1914-18 war was the result of a collapse of moral imagination rooted in a practical atheism:

“The failings of human consciousness, deprived of its divine dimension, have been a determining factor in all the major crimes of this century. The first of these was World War I, and much of our present predicament can be traced back to it. That war…took place when Europe, bursting with health and abundance, fell into a rage of self-mutilation that could not but sap its strength for a century or more, and perhaps forever. The only possible explanation for this war is a mental eclipse among the leaders of Europe due to their lost awareness of a Supreme Power over them.”

In a 2014 essay, “The Great War Revisited: Why It Began, Why It Continued, and What That Means for Today” (reprinted in my book, The Fragility of Order), I surveyed the extensive literature on why World War I started, then asked an even more urgent question: Why did it continue, after it was clear that there would be no quick victory for anyone, only more industrial-strength slaughter? I ended that reflection on a note similar to Solzhenitsyn’s: there is no explaining this act of civilizational self-destruction absent a reckoning with the demise of biblical religion in the West. By 1914, Western high culture had come to think that it could organize the world without God: which was, in a sense, true. But what the Great War should have taught the West was that, without the God of the Bible, the only way the peoples of the West could organize things was against each other — and in the most sanguinary terms.

Three enduring impacts of World War I are worth flagging on this centenary.

The Great War destroyed Western confidence in traditional authorities and bred a deep skepticism of, and even contempt for, “the great and the good” that remains a factor in our public life.

The Great War eviscerated traditional cultural norms and boundaries, accelerated the development of the avant-garde, and stripped art in the West of its moral ballast; “art” became, in the main, a vehicle for expressing subjective feelings and passions, rather than an exploration of truths.

The Great War also deepened and intensified the secularization of the West, as one religious leader after another joined the parade of homicidal nationalists, jingoes, and social Darwinists whose bombastic appeals to base (and often racist) emotions helped preclude a negotiated settlement before the collapse of Romanov Russia and the exhaustion of imperial Germany made the Armistice inevitable.

One notable exception to this massive default in religious leadership was Pope Benedict XV, the most understudied and underrated pontiff of the 20th century. Had he been listened to by the great powers of the day, things might have been different. But Benedict was dismissed as an irrelevance, the carnage continued, and the question posed by Solzhenitsyn 35 years ago — Did World War I terminally sap the strength of Europe? — remains an open one today.

COMING UP: Roots of Catholic anger

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After a month out of the country, working in Rome at Synod-2018 and helping mark the 40th anniversary of John Paul II’s election at events in Brussels and Warsaw, I came home to find Catholic anger over the latest phase of the abuse crisis unabated and intensified in some quarters. That this crisis is not acknowledged for what it is by the highest authorities in Rome is a subject for another reflection at another time. The question today is: What are the roots of today’s Catholic anger and disgust?

Part of the answer to that, surely, is exhaustion. Why must we go through this again? Wasn’t the Long Lent of 2002 enough? Weren’t things fixed then?

Those whose anger is stoked by these understandable questions might have a look at a recent and thoughtful article by Kenneth Woodward in Commonweal. Woodward understands that ripping the cover off the serial sexual predations of the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, triggered a gag-reflex among the Catholic laity that seems to have been bred out of at least some Catholic clergy, both here in the United States and in Rome. But the longtime religion editor of Newsweek also identifies another factor in today’s Catholic rage that ought to cause all of us to pause and think for a moment. Writing about the Pennsylvania grand jury report that sent Catholic anger through the roof this summer, my friend Woodward made a crucial point:

“…the way Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro presented the report — and the way it was often described in the press — made it easy to assume that the grand jury had unearthed three hundred new clerical abusers, when in fact most of the abuse covered in the report occurred in the last century and roughly eight out of ten of the alleged abusers are dead. It was easy to overlook the good news in an otherwise disheartening report — namely, that since the U.S. bishops established stringent new procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse in 2003, only two priests from the seven dioceses studied have been accused.”

The “narrative” of an ongoing, widespread, and unaddressed rape culture in the Catholic Church in the United States is false. There are still abusive Catholic clergy in America; they must be rooted out and dismissed from the ministry. There are still bishops who don’t get it and they, too, must go. But as one state attorney general after another finds political hay to be made by investigating the Catholic past, it is essential that Catholics understand that a lot of the awfulness that is going to keep coming out — both in terms of abusive clergy and malfeasant bishops — was in the past. Effective anger today will focus on the present. And it will not be limited to local situations but will include the obtuseness (and worse) of officials in Rome.

Digging deeper, one hits another question: Why were so many Catholics, who don’t believe much else they read in the papers or see on TV, so ready to believe the misrepresentations of the Pennsylvania grand jury report? Part of the answer, I suspect, has to do with pent-up Catholic anger with clerical narcissism.

A priest or bishop who messes with the Missal and re-writes it to his taste as he celebrates Mass is a narcissist. The priest or bishop who rambles on aimlessly during a daily Mass homily, abusing the time of his people, is a narcissist. A bishop who behaves as if he were hereditary nobility, but absent the gentlemanly noblesse oblige that characterizes the truly noble man, is a narcissist. And Catholics are fed up with clerical narcissism. The angers of the present have been stoked by that narcissism for decades; the deadly combination of McCarrick and Josh Shapiro blew the boiler’s lid off. Anyone who doesn’t recognize this is not going to be much help in fixing what’s broken.

At the same time, it must be remembered that most priests and bishops in the United States are not narcissists: rather, they’re men with a deep sense of vocation who know they’re earthen vessels through whom flows unmerited but superabundant divine grace. Those men deserve our support, affection, and gratitude as they, like the rest of us, deal with the fallout of this season of humiliation and purification.

As for the narcissists, they need help — and disciplining.

Featured photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash