“You can’t stop our heads from kissing in the guillotine’s drop-basket!” cried Danton as the Jacobins ascended the scaffold in Georg Buchner’s play. The severed heads of today’s Europeans do not kiss, but rather bite each other at the bottom of the basket. I refer, of course, to the outcome of the French referendum on the European Union’s proposed constitution. There is no “there” there in Europe, as French (and Dutchmen, and others) decide they are not really Europeans after all.

Fratricide is nothing new; every time Europe appeared ready to unite it instead chose mutual destruction. Maximilian of Habsburg’s 1508 election as Holy Roman Emperor was the closest Europe ever came to unity, for through skill and luck his dynasty ruled Spain, Austria and the Netherlands. Less than a decade later, Martin Luther began the Reformation, and religious wars dragged Europe down to a millennial low. In 1914, first or second cousins sat on all the thrones of Europe, just before World War I drowned old Europe in a sea of blood.

It would be tempting to see disarray in France as yet another hallmark of Europe’s downfall, particularly for those of us who see in Europe’s demographic death spiral a degree of decadence redolent of imperial Rome (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003). But something of the instinct for self-preservation spurred the French to vote down the European constitution. Europe’s conservative parties oppose the putrefaction of the continent into a multi-cultural mush dominated prospectively by a growing Muslim population.

Benedict XVI’s election as pope should not be underestimated as a catalyst for these tendencies. During the year prior to his election, Benedict inveighed against the admission of Turkey to the European Union and against Europe’s abandonment of its cultural heritage.

In the first two installments of this series this month (The pope, the musicians and the Jews, and Why the beautiful is not the good), I considered Benedict’s two points of emphasis: the Hebrew Bible and the classical heritage of European culture, above all its music. The trouble, I argued, is that Europe has destroyed both its cultural heritage as well as its Jews, and the tools available for rebuilding are more symbolic than real. To understand how this came to be it is useful to focus on a single place and a single moment in European history, namely a Rhineland monastery in April 1933.

The creature of Loch Ness may be a fable, but a real monster lived beside the crater lake near Trier, where stands the Benedictine Abbey of Maria Laach. It was there that a prominent wing of the institution that once had created European civilization openly embraced the new Nazi barbarism. Maria Laach’s Abbot Ildefons Herwegen stated in 1933 after Adolf Hitler took power: “Let us say ‘yes’ wholeheartedly to the new form of the total [Nazi] state, which is analogous throughout to the incarnation of the Church. The Church stands in the world as Germany stands in politics today.”

Herwegen embraced the so-called Reichstheologie, or theology of the German Empire, along with a group of prominent German Catholic theologians who saw in Hitler “a Christian counterrevolution to [the French Revolution of] 1789.”

In some respects, the entire career of Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has been dedicated to repudiating this ghastly mistake, which Herwegen himself recognized as the Nazi terror unfolded.

Left-wing Catholics have built a small manufacturing industry around the claim that the conservative wing of the Church had ties to Hitler. Years of mudslinging at Pius X, the hapless wartime pope, failed to prove him guilty of anything worse than timidity in the face of Nazi occupiers. James Carroll’s 2001 bestseller, The Sword of Constantine, makes its villain the miserable Herwegen, but Carroll discovers to his confusion that he has more in common with the pro-Hitler Benedictines of 1933 than with the present leadership of the Church. As Carroll reports, the “liturgical movement” of the 1920s introduced congregational participation in the Mass, that is, making the “people of God” (whoever might have wandered in) into the actor. Carroll approves, explaining, “No longer do we attend Mass as a collection of isolatos, each on his or her knees, face buried in hands from which dangle rosary beads. We do not approach God alone but as members of a praying community, members of a folk.” Benedict XVI rejects the “folk” Mass on the simple grounds that God, rather than the “folk,” is the actor in the Mass.

In America, where no “folk” exists, Carroll’s notion merely seems banal. In Europe, where the heathen folk has persisted in uneasy coexistence with Christianity, the people’s liturgy became a Volkisch, that is, national-racist expression. The Catholic Church created Europe by converting waves of barbarian invaders over the span of a thousand years; as I have emphasized elsewhere, its genius lay in the syncretic adoption of pagan saints and customs as a catalyst for Christianization. At best, that left the Church the uneasy overlord of restive pagan remnants, kept at bay by the dual reign of Church and empire. At its worst, as at Maria Laach, the Church “went native” and surrendered to the pagan impulses of its congregation.

Carroll, a journalist from Boston, lacks an undergraduate’s acquaintance with either German or Church history. He thinks that the communist playwright Bertolt Brecht was a Jew. Nonetheless, he asks the right question:

Our interest in Reichstheologie goes beyond its significance as one of the sources of Catholic accommodation with Nazism. Indeed, our concern remains less with the Church’s failure to oppose Nazism than with the ways in which Nazism was able to tap into the fundamental currents of the Christian imagination.

But Carroll can do no better than to suggest that panic over the Bolshevik menace pushed Herwegen and his co-thinkers into the arms of the Nazis. The left has failed to make a convincing connection between Nazism and the Church, but I will show such a connection, in full awareness that this revelation grievously will wound the sensibilities of many old friends. I have kept silent on the subject for decades, but we have arrived at a point of no return at which only a last, slender chance remains for Western civilization. I will forbear no longer and say in plain language: in response to the French Revolution, the Catholic Church invented the methods of historical falsification that the Nazis applied with such horrifying success. The Church neither created nor wished to create such a monster – we have dubbed it the “Laach Maria monster” – but it did so involuntarily and tragically. That, precisely, is why the fantasists of the Catholic Middle Ages identified their theology and their liturgy with Nazism in 1933. Herwegen and his colleagues meant exactly what they said, and they were precisely correct.

Not that the Church acted without provocation; the French Jacobins abolished the Church in favor of a state “cult of the supreme being,” a few weeks before their heads kissed in the guillotine’s basket.

Napoleon emptied the monasteries and stabled horses in cathedrals. By 1805, when the Austrian monarch Francis I officially dissolved Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, barely 3,000 monks remained in the venerable Order of St Benedict. The Church responded with all the craft and fervor at its disposal.

The “Catholic imagination,” specifically, the form of “Catholic imagination” prevailing in the Benedictine Order, conjured up a miasmal “Age of Faith” in the Middle Ages that never had existed. With the skilled and indefatigable labor of thousands of specialists, it dressed this fictitious Middle Ages with the carnival mummery of a medieval art form that also never had existed. That was the purpose of the Romantic Movement, “Roman” because it hallucinated a world of knights, troubadours and priests on behalf of Catholic restoration. The best account of this charade remains that of Heinrich Heine, whose monograph on the subject can be found in English translation. [1]

Because the Church reinvented the past of Europe to suit its own purposes, it opened Pandora’s box: if religion could create a non-existent nostalgic past, then so could the racists. The Church did not create Hitler, but the means by which it concocted a fake medieval past made it easier for the race theorists of Nazism to create their own medieval past as well. If it was convenient to concoct an Age of Faith, then why not also concoct a golden age of Aryan supremacy?

When the Church undertook to counterfeit a non-existent “Age of Faith,” it set in motion the most elaborate hoax in history. By the end of the 19th century, the Benedictine Order had resettled the abandoned cloisters (including Maria Laach in 1892) and had reshaped the Catholic Church. Its tools were music and liturgy.

Only one academic discipline ever was created for the explicit purpose of perpetuating a hoax, and that is musicology. Its task was the “rediscovery” of the lost but authentic music of the Catholic Middle Ages, namely the Gregorian Chant. At the French Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, resettled in 1832, Dom Prosper Gueranger and his monks undertook a grand exercise in musical paleontology. Philologists had speculated that an original Indo-European language lay at the root of the myriad tongues of India, Persia and Western Europe; now the Benedictine musicologists sought the original, pure form of Church chant, lost to the knowledge of the Church after centuries of decadence. By 1903, Pope Pius XII by his own hand (motu proprio) enshrined the labors of the Benedictines as a “juridical code of sacred music,” making the Benedictine version of chant obligatory for all Catholic services (except by special exemption).

The trouble is that no such pure and original version of Gregorian chant ever had existed. The actual Middle Ages saw a chaotic patchwork of styles, varying from country to country, monastery to monastery and often from year to year. There was no “pure Gregorian tradition” to be rediscovered, modern musicologists have established.

The Romantic reconstruction of a mythical Ur-chant blended into the racist-nationalist search for the heathen roots of Europe’s peoples. This was evident in the first treatise on Gregorian chant to be sanctioned by Solemnes’ Dom Gueranger, Augustin Gontier’s Methode raisonnee de plain-chant. Musicologist Katherine Bergeron reports:

In the same spirit that the Romantic philologists conceived the value of so many vanishing dialects, in whose accents they longed to distinguish the sound of lost voices, Gontier imagined that these lingering melodies, like debris salvaged “from the shipwreck of true principles,” contained traces of the lost Gregorian tradition. What was Gregorian in these songs had been preserved, he believed, with the kind of purity one still found “among the peoples who, from time immemorial, have sung the same songs and the same words, without the benefit of any musical education.” [2]

Heinrich Heine lampooned the Catholic Romantics in a dream-dialogue with the German Emperor Barbarossa (died 1190), who according to myth did not die on Crusade but remained hidden in the Kyffhauser Mountain, waiting for the signal to return and restore Germany to its old glory. In the poem Germany: A Winter’s Tale, Heine begs Barbarossa as follows:

Restore the Holy Roman realm
In entirety, and encumber
The land with its obfuscated trash
And musty-fusty lumber.

“To endure the mediaeval facts
I fancy I might nerve me;
But from this wretched mongrel thing
Heaven in its grace preserve me!

This pedantic revival of chivalrous times,
That such a nauseous dish is
Of Gothic delusion and modern pose
That neither flesh nor fish is.

Shut up the theaters; clear the boards
Of those antics, with their mumming
Who parody thus an age gone by.
O Kaiser, speed your coming! [3]

So radical were the Solemnes Benedictines in their quest for “authentic” tradition that they threatened the stability of Church traditions. After adopting the “primitive purity” of the Solemnes version of Church chant, Pius X dismissed the Solemnes school as modernists. Catholic musicologist Peter Wagner warned in 1904 that monks of Solemnes “produce melodies which have never existed in that form. The purely statistical method of research for the ‘oldest’ version can thus logically turn into the other extreme, to the denial of any tradition.” [4]

“By erasing preconceived notions,” Bergeron comments, “the Gregorian student became a tabula rasa on which the past could be rewritten in all its purity.”

The Benedictine monastery of Beuron near the German-Swiss border (the source of Carmina Burana) was Solemnes’ closest German correspondent, and monks from Beuron resettled the long-abandoned abbey of Maria Laach in 1892. A generation later, with the advent of Hitler, Abbot Herwegen embraced the Nazis, in a grotesque display reminiscent of the soft-shoe act performed by Dr. Frankenstein together with his monster in Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein.

Only because a pope now reigns who spent his career attempting to set matters right do I venture to report this today. The “theology of aesthetics,” as I described it in the last installment of this series, “Why the beautiful is not the good,” attempts to win back the true high culture of the West for Christianity. Benedict honors, as a matter of course, the Church musical tradition of Palestrina-style polyphony and Gregorian chant, but he looks to the music of Mozart and Bach as a demonstration of faith. As I wrote, Western classical music creates a goal in time, that is, teleology, making sensuous the Christian promise of life beyond the grave. There is nothing particularly Christian, by contrast, in so-called Gregorian chant, except to the extent that people used to associate it with Catholic service, like incense. New-age types who dabble in Eastern religions comprise the largest audience for recordings of chant, for its timelessness and lack of directionality conform to their state of mind.

Benedict is right to draw on the musicians – by which I mean the high classic art of Mozart – as well as the Jews, that is to say, the Hebrew Bible. The musicians are dead and the Jews are departed, but the pope must play the hand that history has dealt him. He works under the sign of the mustard seed – the infinitesimal quantity of faith that moves mountains. The inspirational character of scripture and of classical music are the weapons he has at hand, rusty though they might be. Something is stirring in the ashes of the West, and Benedict XVI yet might bring forth a flame.

[1] Heinrich Heine, The Romantic School and Other Essays; Robert C Holub and Volkmar Sander, editors (Continuum 1993).

[2] Katherine Bergeron, Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes (University of California Press: Berkeley 1998).

[3] Translation by James Wald, see Waldheimat.

[4] Bergeron, op cit, p 152.


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