Loving the Lost Cause

Within the last fortnight, I finished reading The Pope’s Legion, Charles Coulombe’s book on the Papal Zouaves. Besides being intelligently written and enjoyable, the book inspires because the subject matter is itself edifying. The Pontifical Zouaves were Blessed Pius IX’s foreign legion, who fought to defend the Papal States from the anticlericals and revolutionaries that united the Italian peninsula along the lines of Freemasonic, Enlightenment thinking. Ultimately, of course, the Zouaves lost. Not only that, but the vast majority of causes that many of the Zouaves fought for after the “pope’s legion” were disbanded also lost. These would include the causes of France’s Henry V (supported by the Legitimists) and Spain’s Carlos VII (whom the Carlists supported).

Moreover, “The Catholic political parties and organizations that the Zouaves had been instrumental in creating have either folded or were transformed into groups that would be unrecognizable to their founders. Indeed, the philosophies of government and humanity that they fought against in peace and war are completely triumphant; save for a few small counties and some relatively tiny groups, the views of the Zouaves are not merely frowned on but utterly foreign to most people today” (The Pope’s Legion pg. 213).

All this would surely qualify the Zouaves for membership in the list of history’s “lost causes.”

As Americans, we love a winner. We may also love the underdog, but we love him as a winner. The underdog that perpetually remains a loser is, well… a loser. Few of us have the patience to hitch our wagon to a cause that does not look like it will win within our lifetime, so the vast majority of us go along with the dominant culture around us, which continues to trample on the word’s great lost causes and ensures that they remain lost.

Before I finish these lines, I hope to give a list of convincing reasons why we Catholics should love lost causes, not for purely romantic or poetic reasons, but as a matter of prudence. First, though, I would like to make some general considerations on lost causes.

Naturally, I will restrict myself to good lost causes. Some causes that lose are plainly evil, and simply ought to lose. It would not surprise me if some would give a romantic interpretation to the “lost cause” of Nazism, for instance, or of Mussolini’s neo-pagan vision of Italy, or, for that matter, of the “good old days” of Druid England, all of which ought to remain in obscurity.

For my present purposes, I shall define a “lost cause” as a cause that, in some manner, promotes the true, the good, and the beautiful in society, but which has been defeated militarily (by conquest), politically (by governmental coercion), or popularly (in the minds of the majority of men). This defeat may be either permanent or only temporary. Note that this definition will embrace Catholic causes, and even natural-law causes, such as the pro-life movement.

The nobility of a genuine lost cause sets it apart from the things we tend to fight wars for nowadays. Modern war is prosecuted principally for the purposes of enriching oligarchs (on Mideast oil, African mineral wealth, etc.), or empowering unjust regimes that persecute the defenseless. When some veneer of nobility must be layered over these military exploits, the undefined abstraction “freedom” is generally the most useful. We Americans, for instance, attempt to inflict our way of life upon weaker nations in the name of “freedom” and “democracy,” even while that way of life is evolving in generally the same direction as B.H. Obama’s thinking about marriage. Hence, our government is presently using your tax money to coerce African and Asian nations to embrace abortion and homosexual “rights.”

In considering lost causes, I am mindful of what J.R.R. Tolkien said of the “long defeat.” The two concepts are related. “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic,” wrote Tolkien to a friend, “so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

In the legends that he crafted in his Middle-Earth lore, Tolkien put some of those words on the graceful lips of Lady Galadriel, the wife of Caleborn, Lord of the “Tree People” (Galadrim):

“For the Lord of the Galadrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”

The Elves had the advantage (or disadvantage) of a very long life, due to which they had witnessed folly after folly, defeat after defeat. (They could observe men somewhat like we can observe fruit flies.) Indeed, the victory in the Return of the King is part of a very long history, beginning with The Silmarillion, that is rife with tragedy, treachery, and doom. This is why there is a tinge of sadness in these mythical beings endowed with such wisdom. But note that in Tolkien’s own non-fictional words, he sees “some samples or glimpses of final victory” occasionally interrupting the “long defeat.” The genuine lost cause of which we speak may appear to most observers as a casualty in the long defeat of history, but the cause itself, inasmuch as it is the cause of the true, the good, and the beautiful, will be part of that “final victory.” What’s more, occasionally the defenders of a lost cause actually score a win. When they do, it is in fact a glimpse of the final victory.

But, for the generality of worthy lost causes, the final victory — as in “in the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph” — will be their only success worthy of the name. For, given the influence wielded by the Prince of This World in the halls of power, the norm for this fallen world is expressed in the stark words of Brother Francis’ poem, “The Invisible Empire”:

Whatever you are
we can take you and make you,
And while you play ball
we need not forsake you.

But if you stand for Jesus
or battle for Mary,
We quickly will break you
and shall not tarry.

Besides the Zouaves and the Carlistas, already mentioned, we can count among the Catholic lost Causes that of the Cristeros, the French Legitimists, the Jacobites of Britain, Scotland, and Ireland, Blessed Emperor Karl and the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, Catholic Monarchy in general; more importantly, the apostolic causes of Catholic England (which was gloriously “lost” by such notables as Saint Edmund Campion, Saint Thomas More, and Saint John Fisher), the cause of a Catholic America, and — lest we forget — the Crusades. The pro-life cause in this nation is worthy of the name “lost,” and it appears that the cause for heterosexual marriage soon will be, too — God help us! (Those with favorite lost causes are invited to mention them in the comments section of the online edition of this Ad Rem.)

I promised to give some reasons why we should love lost causes. Here are a few:

  • Every martyr, inasmuch as he was killed, bore testimony to a lost cause. (Review our definition of lost causes to see how this does not contradict the promises we have of the Church’s ultimate victory.)
  • Lost causes make for heroes, even if they are often “tragic” ones.
  • By them, we can show God that we are not fair-weather friends, and we can practice such difficult Christian virtues as humility, meekness, and patience. Thus, if we are supernaturally dedicated to these causes, they are powerfully sanctifying.
  • They remind the world of true Christian standards and unpopular Catholic — or even natural-law — truths.
  • The devotees of these causes are often on the forefront of other efforts to secure the common good — like the Carlists who fought with Franco’s Falangists. Sometimes, as in the Spanish Civil war, they win.
  • When the tide changes — perhaps generations later — the loyal paladins of the lost cause will be there.
  • Even while their ideas are rejected by the vast majority, those who advocate for such causes can live their ideals in their homes, their families, their communities. In doing so, they can be a force for good.
  • Lost causes can be, and often are, a literal fulfillment of Our Lord’s words from the Gospel: “In the world you will have distress, but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).