La mort des cathédrales

Today, instead of my usual effusion, I invite Idlehands to read the post by Marcel Proust, over at the Rorate Caeli website. (Here.) His article appeared in Le Figaro on the 26th of August, 1904; John Pepino is the latest translator. It is perhaps more immediately relevant to what is happening in France today, than anything bleating on the Internet. I also find it the perfect complement to what I posted here, yesterday.

The circumstance in which Proust was writing is a recurring one. The Catholic Church, which was the architect of French and European civilization, and the source of its light, has been under siege now by her own descendants for about five hundred years. The most malignant attack was the French Revolution; the “secularism” of the present day follows from the diabolical principles which were articulated in blood at that time. The modern French state is the inheritor of those principles, expressed mildly in its policy of laïcité. That state has fluctuated, from generation to generation, in the degree of its animus towards Jesus Christ, from relative indifference to fresh rampages of destruction and violence. Under the Third French Republic, efforts to suppress Catholic schools, churches, and monasteries scattered French Catholic refugees around the world. They culminated in satanic acts by the radical socialist government of Émile Combes — on one of which Proust is commenting. Combes was father of the 1905 law to de-legitimize the Church, which remains the foundation of all subsequent French anti-clerical activities.

It is a paradox that the Church in France was in a sense “saved” by the First World War. To unite the country for war, the government could no longer afford to persecute such a substantial body of its own citizens. It had also to recover from the purges of observant Catholics in the military which, by removing the most competent officers, had left the country prey to German aggression. Of course this is a long, involved story, and takes us ahead of today’s reading.

We cannot judge of historical events in our own time. We are too close to them, and not yet aware of much that is happening below the surface and behind the scenes. While it is also murky, we can have a clearer view of the past, and the best insights we can obtain into current events come from what we can see going into them. No one can see what will come out, and claims to read the future are invariably fatuous.  It is remarkable that the Church has survived at all in France, as in many other Western countries. The number of “nominal” or “census” Catholics remains large, but only a small minority of these attend church, or are in any other way serious about their religion. This small minority is overwhelmingly “traditionalist,” and if the Church recovers, she will regrow from that stalk. This is also the part of France that is still a living, specifically French, cultural force — now under attack as much from Rome as from Paris.

Proust was himself an “agnostic,” and a “closet homosexual.” It was not as a believer, but as a friend of civilization against barbarism that he wrote for Le Figaro. He is unquestionably in the pantheon of great modern writers: more than a novelist and often a poet. His article is a reminder of a certain home truth, which like any truth should be dear to the Catholic heart. It is that, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Every sincere enemy of barbarism is an ally.

Indeed, we need all the friends we can get.