“Besides, the Party was in the right. It must be so; how could the immortal, collective brain be mistaken? By what external standard could you check its judgements?”
— George Orwell, 1984, Part III, Section IV
For the French Communist Alain Badiou, philosophy is merely an elaboration of some great “Event” to which the philosopher is faithful. Badiou’s event was the Cultural Revolution, and the one intellectual on the world stage was Mao Zedong, who Badiou claims “thinks in an almost infinite way.” One can get a flavor of the quality of Badiou’s elaboration of Mao in less than a paragraph of text. Here goes:
We are familiar with Mao Zedong’s formula: “Marxism comprises many principles, but in the final analysis they can all be brought back to a single sentence: It is right to rebel against the reactionaries.” This phrase, which appears so simple, is at the same time rather mysterious: How is it conceivable that Marx’s enormous theoretical enterprise, with its ceaselessly and scrupulously reworked and recast analyses, can be concentrated in a single maxim: “It is right to rebel against the reactionaries”?
All the verbal curlicues of Badiou’s modern French Marxism are really just a mysterious benediction over any word or deed that works revolution. That is why George Orwell’s description of how the Party works in his fictional 1984 is so arresting. Like Mao’s infinities, the Party requires the belief in contradictions. “It was not easy,” Winston says, of quieting the mind.
It needed great powers of reasoning and improvisation. The arithmetical problems raised, for instance, by such a statement as “two and two make five” were beyond his intellectual grasp. It needed also a sort of athleticism of mind, an ability at one moment to make the most delicate use of logic and at the next to be unconscious of the crudest logical errors. Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.
John Henry Newman was canonized a saint a few weeks ago by the Catholic Church. His essay on the development of doctrine laid out stringent criteria by which to judge new expressions by Churchmen. Chief among them, they must not violate the law of non-contradiction. “A true development is that which is conservative of its original, and a corruption is that which tends to its destruction,” he wrote. What would he think today?
I often think of Badiou and Mao, and Orwell’s Winston Smith, when I read documents authored by the au courant prelates of my Catholic Church, or apologetics on behalf of the new way of doing things. In 2018, a Canadian priest and Catholic media maven, Fr. Thomas Rosica, wrote that Pope Francis “breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is ‘free from disordered attachments.’” One hears in this the same line about thinking in infinities. It turned out that Fr. Thomas Rosica had plagiarized this effulgent passage from an ex-Catholic turned fundamentalist, and reversed its meaning by doing so. The original author had meant it as a criticism, the latter as flattery. The latter’s use required stupidity and intelligence. On his grave, it should say, He loved Big Jesuit.
The recently concluded Synod of the Amazon has been dogged by the principle of contradiction. A scandal broke out about a statuette of a pregnant figure. Some authorities in Rome called it an image of the Blessed Virgin — a veritable Our Lady of the Amazon. Others, including Pope Francis himself, called the statue “Pachama” after the South American fertility goddess. Some activist Catholics, having been told this was an idol of a false god being erected in their Churches, took the statue and threw it into the Tiber. But Francis clarified that the display of the statues was “without blasphemous intent.” There’s a certain athleticism of mind at work.
The Synod’s concluding document suggested reopening the question of admitting women to the ordained diaconate and admitting to the priesthood qualified Amazonian men who are married.
An editorial in The Tablet champions the Synod and tries to outline a further reforming spirit issuing from it. The editorial writer says that the Second Vatican Council did not accomplish its work chiefly through the documents it issued, but “through the event of bringing bishops across the world into one place, and the spirit of renewal it sought to unleash. The moment was as important as the message.” [Emphasis mine.] It used to be “the spirit of Vatican II,” but in recent texts this is changed to “the event.”
The editorial quotes the late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, that lion of the progressives: “The church is tired in the Europe of well-being and in America. . . . Our culture has become old, our churches and our religious houses are big and empty, the bureaucratic apparatus of the church grows, our rites and our dress are pompous.”
But of course, there was nothing — nothing at all — novel or surprising discussed at the Synod, and very little that was particularly Amazonian. It was all the half-century-old preoccupations of liberal European and American clerics: married priests, women in ordained offices, and non-traditional liturgy. The Synod documents, save for some flourishes about ecology, could have been ripped from any 1970s issue of Concilium.
The Amazonian Synod itself was a brainchild of an old European, Bishop Kräutler, an advocate of women’s ordination to the priesthood. Though the step toward ordaining married men as priests in the Amazon is justified to the world as meeting the specific needs of one region, in fact Kräutler says it “can be the cause of an epochal step in the Universal Church.” This is of course how revolutions work: Allow an exception in one theoretical case, and then watch as the implementation of this exception obliterates the principle in fact.
All the bilious rhetoric about “rigidity” in the Church, all the modern ecclesiastical logorrhea about dialogue, and the burble about “the liturgical, theological, disciplinary and spiritual patrimony of the Amazon” can be distilled back down to the same iconoclastic impulse: The only rule is to revolt against the reactionaries.