Book Review: Daniel-Rops' A Fight for God

One of the things Americans politicians endlessly yammer about is the way they’re “fighting” something or someone.  It never ends–they fight special interests, they fight the President, and when they want to be more positive they’re “fighting for you”.

The result of this mentality is obvious these days.  But what if there’s really something–or someone–worth fighting for, against a real enemy?  The answer to that, from a Roman Catholic perspective at least, is Daniel-Rops’ A Fight for God, which details the history of the Church between 1871–the beginnings of the French Third Republic and the unification of the German Second Reich–and 1939, when the Third Reich invaded Poland and began World War II.  It’s an eventful and trying era for the world in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, although the “separated bretheren” didn’t escape unscathed.

Daniel-Rops opens with a sweeping view of the secularist age which he writes about.  In this “goose who gets up in a new world every morning” age we live in, his description of the various enemies of Christianity has a very contemporary feel to it, and it’s hard to see that much has changed in the half century since he wrote it.  An example of this comes when he gets to the effect secularism had on sexual morals:

No less evident was the disruption of Christian society, the second factor which marked the process of dechristianization.  The collapse of Christian social structures was both case and consequence of that process.  It was not by chance that in all countries one of the first aims of anticlerical governments had been to secure the passing of laws to legalize divorce.  Indeed one of the most flagrant signs whereby the ebb of religion might be recognized was the progress of divorce.  It gained ground wherever it was made legal.  At the same time there was a marked increase in the number of purely civil marriages.

While ecclestiastical law was thus flouted, Christian morality itself was undermined.  This becomes clear when one looks at the sexual life of countries which still called themselves Christian.  The strict principles of the Church were openly defied.  The number of children born outside of marriage steadily increased; at Paris it rose from 22 per cent in 1877 to 39 per cent in 1937.  But even that was not the most serious feature; abortion was common, and adultery, fostered by a certain type of literature, was frequent among the middle classes.  The whole western world was gliding towards that obsession with sex which is so characteristic of our age; and the cinema from its very beginning contributed largely to encourage such an outlook.

He then outlines the lives of the four Popes whose reigns span the era: Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI.  In the American church it has been fashionable to forget the era before Vatican II as a pious monolith that was blown apart by Vatican II and the 1960’s.  But each pontiff had a different personality and handled their situation differently.  Because of both the nature of the Catholic Church and the era, each pontiff also had to deal with both spiritual and temporal matters.  Daniel-Rops is careful to note that, if Vatican I had proclaimed the pope’s infallibility in spiritual matters, same did not extend to temporal ones, although he shows that in many cases the Vatican used wisdom and discretion.

He then launches into the main body of the book, the history of the Church, largely in Europe.  Secularism–and Daniel-Rops does not fail to include Freemasonry as central protagonists of that idea–was on the offensive in the last part of the nineteenth century, but how this played out relative to the Church depended upon the country.  In Germany and Switzerland, both governments launched  kulturkampfs which, if successful, would have severely curtailed the activity of the Church.  The Church managed to fight the state to a draw in both cases.

France was a more serious situation, but some of that was the result of French Catholics (lay and clergy) belligerently overplaying their hand (sound familiar?) in the early years of the Third Republic.  That led to a backlash that came to a head with l’affaire Dreyfus.  The result of that was that most of the Catholic educational system in France was forced to close, the Concordat revoked and state and church officially separated.  “Separation of church and state” meant something entirely different in France and many other parts of Europe; it generally meant the state was free of ecclesiastical control to the extent that the state controlled the activity of the church (sound familiar too?)

The situation in Italy was complicated by the fact that, in the process of unifying the country, the Kingdom of Italy had the bad taste to take over most of the Papal States.  The Pope became a “prisoner” in the Vatican.  It took more than half a century to finally straighten out this mess with the Lateran Treaty, and that signed with Benito Mussolini’s government.

In the early years of the era the Church took a dim view of the development of democratic institutions in Europe, but reality slowly sunk in.  Another reality that sunk in was that the Church had largely lost the working class.  A large part of that response was the papal formulation of Catholic social teaching and the beginning of Catholic Action movements, which included Catholic trade unions and political parties, the mix and nature of which varied from country to country.  American Catholic conservatives have expressed shock that the current pontiff has reminded the world of Catholic social teaching; part of the problem is that American Catholicism never had to develop a truly independent social action movement from the main political parties and trade unions.

Relationship with hostile states wasn’t the only difficulty the Church experienced in this period.   Pius X especially dealt with the problems posed by Modernism.  It may seem strange that Daniel-Rops is himself concerned with this after some of the things he says in books such as Sacred History, but there’s no doubt that people such as Alfred Loisy and George Tyrell went further than the church–and even Daniel-Rops–were ready to go.  Some Catholics may still be sore at the outcome of this, but it beats the outcome of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in Protestant churches–on both sides.

World War I (where the Pope was accused of taking sides) saw a softening of attitudes towards the Church, especially in France, where many priests died during the war (and that in an army without official chaplains).  This is a similar result to the one we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union during and after World War II.  But that leads us to the last part of the history: the rise of the totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union, Italy and Germany.  Concerning these Daniel-Rops has this to say:

Whatever their respective ideologies, all those new regimes were totalitarian.  According to them the State, the collectivity, was the sole legitimate reality.  Under State direction all living forces must be united in order ensure growth of the collectivity.  The State therefore had a righ to dominate man from his birth to his death, to impose upon him the principles, activities, ways of life and even opinions which it considered useful.  In such a system man is nothing: the State alone counts.  That doctrine was charcteristcs of the Soviets no less than of National Socialism, and indeed of Fascism, whose theorists coined the very word ‘totalitarian’.

The Church adopted a two prong strategy to deal with this.  One the one hand, it signed concordats with regimes such as Mussolini’s Italy (1929) and Hitler’s Germany (1933).  Daniel-Rops defends such a practice by basically stating that a concordat gave it status within such states without necessarily approving of that state; one would hope that the Vatican is taking that approach with its recent recognition of the Palestinian State.  On the other hand the Church opposed many moves of both states, especially Germany, to integrate the Church into its general program; Daniel-Rops rightfully characterises Nazism as “fundamentally antichristian.”  The book’s time scope ends with Pius XI dying as Germany prepared to invade Poland and once again drown Europe in blood.

But all was not in Italy, Germany and France; Daniel-Rops spends time on the smaller countries such as Belgium, Austria and Spain.  But he also casts his view abroad.  This is where the book really looks to the future, now our present, more than anywhere else.  He details both the Church’s situation in traditionally Catholic areas (such as Latin America), countries that transition from mission field to home front (such as the United States and Canada) and true mission fields such as Africa and Asia.  He notes the pastoral issues in Latin America and warns that they could give an opening to Protestants, which they have done in a big way.  He also notes that Islam’s “revival” and renewed opposition to Christianity started in the years leading up to World War II, something that the West was slow to realise (and, especially in the case of Britain, actually fomented that revival with its policies).

Roman Catholic missions have always been hampered by the rigid structure of the church and its priesthood.  One thing that offset that was an important decision by the Vatican shortly after World War I: the decision to actively open up the priesthood and episcopacy to non-European people.  In that regard they were ahead of just about every Protestant church out there except for the Pentecostals, whose own mission was just getting started.  The success of the Catholic mission is in no small way attributable to that decision.

The United States occupies an interesting place in his history.  It is introduced in a negative way as Daniel-Rops considers “Americanism” as a precursor to Modernism.  It’s sometimes hard to figure out what he means by Americanism, but what it boils down to is that the practical way in which the American church operated came out as something entirely different when put in front of a European (especially French) audience.

In spite of a good deal of anti-Catholicism in American society, Daniel-Rops recognises that the Roman Catholic Church had almost ideal conditions to operate in the United States.  Without an agressively secular government interfering in its affairs, it could carve out its own destiny.  Part of that destiny was the Vatican’s rejection of the concept of different systems of parishes and dioceses for the various ethnic groups.  The practical result of this was that the Irish came to dominate the life of the American church.  As was the case with Evangelicalism, Celtic Christianity set the agenda, something that doubtless needs some revision for the present situation.

The book ends with a brief biography of St. Thérèse de Liseux, who became the Church’s patron saint for missions within a few years after her death in 1897.  That may seem strange for an author as scholarly as Daniel-Rops, but he uses the simplicity and austerity of her life and the single-mindedness of her faith as a response to Friedrich Nietzsche’s proclamation of ‘God is dead’ which he starts the book with.

Protestants are generally loathe to make a positive spin on Catholic history such as this.  However, with corporatist states breathing down Christianity’s neck in so many places and in so many ways and with other types of persecution rearing their ugly heads, the relevance of his narrative of this era leaps out at you.  People decry  the decline of Christianity in Europe, but reading Daniel-Rops we should be thankful it survived at all, and we who are elsewhere should be neither so smug nor short-sighted about our own situations.  Instead we should be concentrating on the conflict we really need to be waging: A Fight for God.

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