Contra mundum

Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (the Apostolic, the Confessor, the Patriarch, the Great, c.296–373) is still making converts to the one Holy Church. He is venerated, still, across Former Christendom — by Catholics, by Protestants, by Greeks and Russians, by Armenians, by (many) Copts; by more, as we wobble East across the sunstroking deserts of Araby. He was what Gregory Nazianzem called him, soon after his death: “Pillar of the Church”; and others later, “Pillar of Orthodoxy.” Author, at least in spirit, of Quicunque vult — the Athanasian Creed — addressed as its incipit proposes to, “Whosoever wishes to be saved.” It varies from the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds in one important respect. It piles anathemas upon the heads of Arians and all other heretics, and so has been suppressed since Vatican II.

Verily, Saint Athanasius was known to his own time as, Athanasius Contra Mundum (“against the world”) for his willingness to defend genuine Church teaching, when necessary, alone.

This man spent his whole life fighting — emperors, bishops, archbishops, society ladies, opinion leaders, other fashionable and heretics of all kinds — starting from the top with Constantine the Great. For forty-five years, Athanasius was himself Archbishop of Alexandria; but nearly half that time he spent in multiple exiles, or otherwise on the run. For the defence of the actual Christian Faith isn’t easy, and could get you martyred in the best of times. Not, be it noted, impossible to understand, for the Faith is perfectly coherent; only hard to uphold against myriad temptations.

In “the spirit of Vatican II” of the ’sixties, continuing through the “new evangelism” of today, we have in our hierarchy, and the sleepwalking at large, a “modern” school of thought and feeling. Their desire is to teach a Faith that will be more accommodating, or at least, less offensive to the unChristian world around us. This means, in practice, not teaching it at all, for in truth our faith is highly offensive. The “Church of Nice,” as rude people call it, is the principal opponent of the Church of Rome; for Christ was many things, but “nice” He wasn’t. An Athanasius, alive today, would still be fighting to the last ditch.

He is alive today, come to that; and he is still making converts for the “traditional” side — which is to say, the faction within the contemporary Church that remains unapologetically Catholic.

One of those was Louis Bouyer (1913–2004), raised Lutheran in Paris, and in the murky years just prior to the last World War, a French Lutheran minister. He made a careful study of Athanasius, and in the course of anno 1939, he became a Catholic. Indeed, the Church has often benefited from well-educated Lutherans, coming as it were for tea, and staying. Some of them are crack Latinists, and at the moment they seem to be the Latin translators of first resort in a Vatican sadly deficient in its own native tongue. (Lord: send us more Lutheran converts, to teach us this language and remind us of our Faith.)

Athanasius brought Bouyer over, and many more — to a Church which, post-War, began falling into terrible confusion. He was in the middle of the Second Vatican Council itself, or rather, of the preparatory work for it, after which he increasingly withdrew from what he called “ecumenical craziness,” comparing the atmosphere among the more progressive delegates to that of Alice in Wonderland. Yet in the rear, he was among those instrumental in assuring that the documents of the Council were not infected with demonstrable heresies.

Pope Paul sent him into the liturgical squabbles that came after; in the end, Bouyer (a good friend and teacher to Ratzinger, incidentally) was, like Athanasius, in the middle of everything. His verbal gift for putting things truthfully, without pulling punches, made him (like Athanasius) a frequent outcast; yet to the middle he invariably returned. Blessed Paul VI, who could be cowardly (and understandably, like many other popes), wanted to give him a red hat, but backed off before the fury of the liberals — especially the “cradle case” liberal bishops in France. (I use this insulting expression for those born into Catholic homes who think they own the religion.)

That the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, François Marty, did not like him, might be guessed by the way Bouyer described Marty in print: as a person of “crass ignorance, … devoid of even the most basic capacity for discernment.”

That he did not get along with the liturgical reformers, might be seen in Bouyer’s characterization of Annibale Bugnini — the father and factotum of the Novus Ordo — as méprisable (“contemptible”), as, aussi dépourvu de culture que de simple honnêteté (“as devoid of learning as he was of basic honesty”). He describes the “reformed” Novus Ordo Calendar as, oeuvre d’un trio de maniaques (“the work of a trio of maniacs”). And other things I learnt from Father Hunwicke’s blog.

More importantly, he tells the story of how these very evil men manipulated Pope Paul — how they kept him in the dark, fed him lies, poisoned him against Archbishop Lefebvre and other competent and ingenuous advisers.

Bouyer wrote other acidic works (let us recommend, The Decomposition of Catholicism, 1969, to those suffering from low blood pressure). But they are dwarfed by his major studies, not only liturgiological, but theological, historical, and spiritual. Bouyer was an authority on his fellow Oratorian, Newman. His wartime tract, The Paschal Mystery, is an extraordinary thing, in which all strands of Christian understanding wind and bind together. Bouyer’s is among the greatest Catholic minds of the twentieth century; he should not be reduced to a figure of controversy. He was of very deep learning, and staggering breadth. His own life was also edifying.

Bouyer left, too, the manuscript of his refulgent Mémoires, finally published last year. They are fiery and Athanasian. Those who have struggled with the book, in French, will be gratified to learn that it is now in English (and available here).

I have yet to obtain my copy, but my impression through all the French, and reviews, is that this book offers perhaps the best available insight into what befell the Catholic Church, “in the spirit of Vatican II,” together with a reliably factual “secret history” of the whole catastrophe.

We will need it for the fight of coming generations, as we struggle to defeat the operation of that demonic “spirit of Vatican II” within the Church, and to expunge its traces — until that happy day when only specialist scholars will remember that the Novus Ordo ever existed — rather in the spirit of Athanasius, whose master was only Jesus Christ.