Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ruminations on the Spanish Civil War

Our Lord gave us two commandments to live by, just two. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. No complex edifice of rules and regulations, no detailed code: just two sayings by which we should guide our lives. For he said also, My yoke is easy and my burden is light. But today, no less than two thousand years ago, we find these commandments, as simple as they are, unappealing to live by.

We know how to respond to those who live by the two Great Commandments to the extent of their ability: we follow their example, and revere them as good and holy people. We know how to respond to those who deny them: we set our guard against them, and recognize them as the enemy. But how are we to respond to those who follow one of these commandments, to the best of their ability, but not the other? In a struggle between those who love God and those who love their neighbor, whose side should we choose? Our Lord says that the love of God is the first and greatest commandment, but Blessed John the Apostle says If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?

The world was tested in such a way during the Spanish Civil War, when Spain was torn apart in a truly apocalyptic struggle. It was a class war, a religious war, a struggle of ideologies, and a proxy war between Germany and Russia. The movie Pan's Labyrinth which I saw again recently dramatizes this struggle wonderful, and reminds us that below the political struggles that we see in the world is the everlasting struggle between Our Lord and his Enemy. But in the war in Spain, neither side was innocent. The world was faced with one side which refused to love God, and another which refused to love their neighbor. I think I would have sided with the Left, reasoning with Blessed John the Apostle that love of our neighbor is, in some sense, prior to the love of God. As St. James the Just tells us, faith without works is dead. But I don't think it would necessarily have been an easy choice. It's worth remembering, though, that in the years since the fall of Soviet Marxism, we've forgotten how evil Fascism truly was, and we've forgotten that the Spanish anarchists and communists, at their best, weren't fighting to establish a Stalinist tyranny or a Soviet colony. They were fighting to establish a country where people were equal, where they shared all things, worked for the common good, and loved one another. Such an ideal wasn't a bad one, and in time it could have been Christianized, just as Platonism was Christianized in its day. (Yes, the leadership of the Spanish Communists was in time taken over by the agents of Russia, but I don't believe this ever characterized the bulk of the Spanish left, and it would have been much less the case if more Christian-socialists and moderate leftists had stayed on the Left rather than siding with the Falange.)

Eduardo Peñalver, a Catholic law professor writing for Commonweal's blog, has made some powerful rebuttals of the arguments often made by conservative or Catholic partisans of the Falange. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between the atrocities of Franco and the atrocities of the short-lived Azaña regime or of the Republican partisans. Let's acknowledge that terrible things were done by the Left in Spain. Many against partisans of the right, which can be perhaps understood as the normal course of war, but many horrible atrocities against religion and the religious: churches burned down, nuns murdered, priests prevented on pain of death from carrying out their duties, and people executed as Fascists for carrying medallions of the Blessed Mother of God . But these were the fruits of anarchy, and they were carried out by renegade anarchist militias answering to no government. They were atrocities that the government of Azaña was too weak or divided to prevent. (The initial attacks on churches, while the Azaña regime was still strong, before the Falangist rising, destroyed the buildings but killed no one.) The blame for them belongs on the people who did them, and to some extent on the antireligious partisans whose words made them possible, but it doesn't pollute and corrode the whole enterprise of the Spanish republic. The atrocities of the Right, however, are different. The two hundred thousand executions, many of them in time of peace after the war was over: the prisoners randomly dragged out of prison and shot: the bombing of civilian areas: the imposition of the power of the landlords, and the oppression of the peasantry......All these were ordered from on high, and with the full approval of Franco. The Falange was responsible for these evils in a way that Azaña's regime wasn't, for it was the Falange that ordered them and carried them out as direct policy.

The history of Spain since 1975 tells us of the horrible error that the Spanish church made when it allied itself with the Falange. The church of Christ is, in the main, guided by the Comforter, the Holy Spirit that descended in the form of a dove. But the church of Christ, no less than any other human institution, has made errors, and grave ones. The moral philosophy of Plato tells us that a thing should be true to its own nature: in that lies its virtue and its excellence. The dove should guide the eagle, but it should never become an eagle itself, nor be a handmaiden to the eagle. When the dove transformed herself into an eagle she betrayed and corrupted her own nature. It was this that led, in part, to the antireligious character of the Spanish left in the first place. The Power of Evil corrupted men's hearts with the lie that Christianity was evil and reactionary, a tool of the rich and powerful- the landlords, the kings, the patriarchy- to maintain their power. That evil power speaks the same lie today, and has led innumerable men and women astray. But the nature of the evil power is that it speaks lies intermixed with a good deal of truth. Lies derive their power and danger from the truth they contain: and the more measure of truth contained in a lie, the more dangerous that lie is. It was perfectly true that too many churchmen, for too long, had made their peace with injustice and oppression, and had prized their own comfort above the love of God and the love of neighbor. The church had, in fact, become the handmaiden of landlords, conquistadors, kings, and oppressors. People saw that truth evident in centuries of Spanish history, and they took those undeniable truths just a step too far- they came to believe the suggestions of evil: that the abuses and immorality of the church meant that Christ was not God, that there was no God, that the church was just a self-interested hierarchy like any other. And this was, of course, a lie- the same lie that evil has used to come close to conquering the world under one unjust system or other, whether that system is headquartered in Moscow or Washington.

The church in Spain could have jumped off the fatal ship of alliance with wealth and power before it hit the iceberg. It could have jumped, still, in 1936, by denouncing Fascism, Bolshevism, and Capitalism with equal force. But it didn't, it allied with Franco. It could have done much worse, of course. The church didn't approve of Franco's worst deeds, its influence probably kept Franco (in spite of his anti-Judaism) from participating in World War II and the Holocaust, and in time, under the influence of the great Pope John XXIII, it roundly denounced Franco. But by then, possibly, it was too late. Spain would, in time, end up with the worst of both worlds: the savage capitalism of the Right, and the cold atheism of the Left. Too many Spaniards, in the years after 1975, decided that the last error of the church was one error too many. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. There has been a massive turn to atheism and agnosticism in what was once the most devoutly Christian nation in Europe. Today's Spain is a country that tolerates gay marriage and abortion, that has one of Europe's lowest birth rates, that is tearing down statues of St. James so as not to offend Muslim immigrants, and whose prime minister cheerfully says "We need more sports, less religion". Now, all that may be well and good for a secular nation like the United States (although abortion is a homicidal atrocity no less in a secular state than a Christian one) but not for the land where St. James is buried, and where Roland fought his last-ditch struggle against the Moors. But this is the revenge of the prince of the world, who is having his last laugh. Peguy said that "The Revolution shall be spiritual, or the Revolution shall not be". Christian Socialist that he was, he could have just as well said, "The Church shall be a friend of the poor, or the Church shall not be". He would have been as right in the case of Spain as he was in the case of Russia. The church of Spain, like all human institutions, made mistakes, for which Christ will forgive her: but mistakes, too, forgiven or not, have their price. Spain is paying the price today, in becoming a place where the evils of the right meet the evils of the left.

In 1936, the Church made a decision to buy its own security and future at the price of turning a blind eye to injustice. And like all of those who choose evil, she was answered with the words of Christ: They have their reward. She got what She paid for: forty years of unquestioned glory, status, honor, and obedience, forty years when socialism, contraception, and non-Catholic faiths were banned from Spanish soil, forty years during which Franco walked beneath the clerical canopy and was hailed as "by the Grace of God, Regent of Spain and Commander of the Last Crusade". For forty days in the desert, Christ denied the third temptation of the devil, who said All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. But we are not as strong as Christ, and neither was the Church: what Christ had denied for 40 days from the hand of the devil, the bride of Christ accepted for 40 years from the hand of the Falange, and she paid for it by discrediting herself- perhaps permanently- in the eyes of future generations of Spaniards. Today in Spain, liberal capitalism is accomplishing what the Moors failed to do in the eighth century, the French in the nineteenth, and the Bolsheviks and Anarchists in the twentieth. They sought to destroy the church of Spain in the name of the Ummah, the Republic of Virtue, or the Dictatorship of the Proletariat- all, in their way, compelling visions for all that they were flawed and wrong. But today, the church is falling at the hands of those who would replace it with an endless utopia of Play Stations, casual hookups, and fast cars. It's a sad vision, and I'm sorry for Spain and the generations of young people who will never grow up hearing these words: And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. Let us hope that God will forgive this error, and all the errors of history, as it is His nature to forgive, and that out of this evil He will bring good, which is his nature too: and that we will take from this a lesson for now and for ever. That it's better to die with one's values inviolate than to live at the price of one's values, and that we must never listen when someone tells us to love God by denying our neighbor, for Christ is present in our neighbor, as much today as when he said Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be. Amen.

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