Cardinal Biffi and Soloviev’s Antichrist

Much attention has justly been given to Cardinal Biffi’s Lenten Retreat to the Pope and leaders of the Roman Curia (e.g., “Pope’s Retreat Preacher Speaks on Antichrist As a ‘Pacifist, Ecologist and Ecumenist’”). Soon after the retreat — because papal retreat masters are considered more papabile — Cardinal Biffi’s papal odds went up in gambling houses (“Cardinal Who Warned of ‘Antichrist’ Rises in Betting Odds”). I’m no prophet, but I doubt he will be our next pope, since Cardinal Biffi will be 79 this June 13, making him only a little more than a year younger than our current Holy Father. Cardinal Biffi is from Milan and retired as Archbishop of Bologna in 2003. He is known to be an outspoken opponent of the dilution of Europe’s Christian identity, Islamification through immigration, and Masonry. He once said “Europe will become Christian again or it will become Moslem.”

The Cardinal is a scholar of the works of Vladimir Soloviev, the nineteenth-century Russian philosopher. It was Soloviev’s thought that inspired the Antichrist comments in the Lenten retreat. Soloviev is sometimes called the “Russian Newman.” He was Russian Orthodox, but became a powerful defender of the claims of the Roman, Petrine primacy. He also got himself in hot water with Russian Orthodox clergymen for defending the Filioque (the procession of the Holy Ghost from the Father and the son), a doctrine rejected by the Orthodox. Soloviev’s ecclesiology was somewhat enigmatic. He considered himself both Catholic and Orthodox — apparently in the sense in which those words are used by the Catholic Church and the schismatic Russian body. Although his conversion to Catholicism is disputed, it is known that he confessed to a Catholic Uniate priest named Father Tolstoy. He seems to have received Holy Communion from an Orthodox priest shortly before his death. He certainly considered himself a Catholic, rightly subject to the Holy Father in Rome. Such enigmatic personages within Orthodoxy are not as rare as may be thought. Brother Francis’ longtime mentor in Lebanon, Dr. Charles Malek, was such an Orthodox. (Brother used to tell him, at the end of their long and contentious conversations, “I hope you can convince Our Lord that you are really a Catholic!”)

(We offer Soloviev’s The Russian Church and the Papacy on our bookstore site.)

Last night I read Soloviev’s short story Antichrist for the first time. It is easy to see how the eccentric philosopher found himself in trouble with Russian Orthodox officials. It is also easy to see how the reports concerning Cardinal Biffi’s retreat spoke of “Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants” who will resist the “ecumenical” anti-Christ. It’s not the contradiction it seems. In the story, the leader of the Orthodox and Protestant groups that resist Anti-Christ accept the office of the Pope. I’ll soon give it to you in Soloviev’s words, after a brief set up.

The “two witnesses” of the Apocalypse are the Pope, Peter II and a Russian Orthodox monk-bishop named Elder John. A third figure, the German Lutheran, Professor Pauli, rounds out the triumvirate who resists Antichrist at an “Ecumenical Council” that the Antichrist himself has summoned. At a pivotal moment in the story, after the Pope and Elder John are resurrected (as the Apocalypse says the two witnesses will be), Elder John turns to the Christians who see him rise again and says,

“Well, my dear children, so we are not parted after all. And this is what I tell you now: it is time we fulfilled Christ’s last prayer about His disciples that they should be one, as He and the Father are one. For the sake of this unity in Christ, my children, let us honour our beloved brother Peter. Let him pasture Christ’s sheep at the last. There, brother!” — and he embraced Peter.

Professor Pauli came up to them. “Tu es Petrus!” said he to the Pope. “Now this is thoroughly proved and established beyond all doubt.” And he warmly pressed Peter’s hand with his right hand and gave his left to John, saying: “So now, Father, we are really one in Christ.”

That was how the union of the churches took place on a dark night, in a high and solitary place. But the night’s darkness was suddenly lit up with a bright light, and a great sign appeared in the sky: a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The sign remained in the same spot for some time, and then slowly moved southwards. Pope Peter raised his staff and cried: “This is our banner! Let us follow it!” And he walked in the direction of the vision, followed by both the elders and the whole crowd of Christians — towards God’s Mount, Sinai. …

The book I read Antichrist in is A Solovyov Anthology edited by S.L. Frank. It has a preface by Cardinal Biffi, an address his Eminence gave to commemorate the centenary of the great Russian thinker’s death. I am reproducing it here the way it was posted on the Inside the Vatican site. In light of the Fatima prophesies, the Cardinal’s words have a tremendous importance.

Vladimir Sergeievich Soloviev: an unheeded prophet
H.E. Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna

Vladimir Sergeievich Soloviev passed away 100 years ago, on July 31 (August 13 according to our Gregorian calendar) of the year 1900. He passed away on the threshold of the 20th century — a century whose vicissitudes and troubles he had foreseen with striking clarity, but also a century, which, tragically, in its historical course and dominant ideologies, would reject his most profound and important teachings. His, therefore, was a teaching at once prophetic and largely unheeded.

A Prophetic Teaching

At the time of the great Russian philosopher, the general view — in keeping with the limitless optimism of the “belle epoque“‘ — foresaw a bright future for humanity in the new century: under the direction and inspiration of the new religion of progress and solidarity stripped of transcendent elements, humanity would enjoy an era of prosperity, peace, justice, security. In the “Excelsior” — a form of dance, which enjoyed an extraordinary success in the last years of the 19th century (and which later lent its name to countless theaters and hotels) — this new religion found its own liturgy, as it were. Victor Hugo proclaimed: “This century was great, the one coming will be happy.”

But Soloviev refused to allow himself to be swept up in this de-sacralized vision. On the contrary, he predicted with prophetic clarity all of the disasters which in fact occurred.

As early as 1882, in his “Second Discourse on Dostoevsky,” Soloviev foresaw — and condemned — the sterility and cruelty of the collectivist tyranny which a few years later would oppress Russia and mankind. “The world must not be saved by recourse to force.” Soloviev said. “One could imagine men toiling together toward some great end to which they would submit all of their own individual activity; but if this end is imposed on them, if it represents for them something fated and oppressive… then, even if this unity were to embrace all of mankind, universal brotherhood would not be the result, but only a giant anthill.” This “anthill” was later constructed through the obtuse and cruel ideology of Lenin and Stalin.

In his final work, The Three Dialogues and the Story of the Antichrist (finished on Easter Sunday 1900), one is struck by how clearly Soloviev foresaw that the 20th century would be “the epoch of great wars, civil strife and revolutions” All this, he said, would prepare the way for the disappearance of “the old structure of separate nations” and “almost everywhere the remains of the ancient monarchical institutions would disappear.” This would pave the way for a “United States of Europe.”

The accuracy of Soloviev’s vision of the great crisis that would strike Christianity at the end of the 20th century is astonishing.

He represents this crisis using the figure of the Antichrist. This fascinating personage will succeed in influencing and persuading almost everyone. It is not difficult to see in this figure of Soloviev the reflection, almost the incarnation, of the confused and ambiguous religiosity of our time.

The Antichrist will be a “convinced spiritualist” Soloviev says, an admirable philanthropist, a committed, active pacifist, a practicing vegetarian, a determined defender of animal rights.

He will also be, among other things, an expert exegete. His knowledge of the bible will even lead the theology faculty of Tubingen to award him an honorary doctorate. Above all, he will be a superb ecumenist, able to engage in dialogue “with words full of sweetness, wisdom and eloquence.”

He will not be hostile “in principle” to Christ. Indeed, he will appreciate Christ’s teaching. But he will reject the teaching that Christ is unique, and will deny that Christ is risen and alive today.

One sees here described — and condemned — a Christianity of “values,” of “openings,” of “dialogue,” a Christianity where it seems there is little room left for the person of the Son of God crucified for us and risen, little room for the actual event of salvation.

A scenario, I think, that should cause us to reflect…

A scenario in which the faith militant is reduced to humanitarian and generically cultural action, the Gospel message is located in an irenic encounter with all philosophies and all religions and the Church of God is transformed into an organization for social work.

Are we sure Soloviev did not foresee what has actually come to pass? Are we sure it is not precisely this that is the most perilous threat today facing the “holy nation” redeemed by the blood of Christ — the Church?

It is a disturbing question and one we must not avoid.

A Teaching Unheeded

Soloviev understood the 20th century like no one else, but the 20th century did not understand Soloviev.

It isn’t that he has not been not recognized and honored. He is often called the greatest Russian philosopher, and few contest this appellation.

Von Balthasar regarded his work “the most universal speculative creation of the modern period” (Gloria III, p. 263) and even goes so far as to set him on the level of Thomas Aquinas.

But there is no doubt that the 20th century, as a whole, gave him no heed. Indeed, the 20th century, at every turn, has gone in the direction opposed to the one he indicated.

The mental attitudes prevalent today, even among many ecclesially active and knowledgeable Christians, are very far indeed from Soloviev’s vision of reality.

Among many, here are a few examples:

  • Egoistic individualism, which is ever more profoundly leaving its mark on our behaviors and laws;

  • Moral subjectivism, which leads people to hold that it is licit and even praiseworthy to assume positions in the legislative and political spheres different from the behavioral norms one personally adheres to;

  • Pacifism and non-violence of the Tolstoyan type confused with the Gospel ideals of peace and fraternity to the point of surrendering to tyranny and abandoning the weak and the good to the powerful;

  • A theological view which, out of fear of being labeled reactionary, forgets the unity of God’s plan, renounces spreading divine truth in all spheres, and abdicates the attempt to live out a coherent Christian life.

In one special way, the 20th century, in its movements and in its social, political and cultural results, strikingly rejected Soloviev’s great moral construction. Soloviev held that fundamental ethical principles were rooted in three primordial experiences, naturally present in all men: that is to say, modesty, piety toward others and the religious sentiment.

Yet the 20th century, following an egoistic and unwise sexual revolution, reached levels of permissivism, openly displayed vulgarity and public shamelessness, which seem to have few parallels in history.

Moreover, the 20th century was the most oppressive and bloody of all history, a century without respect for human life and without mercy.

We cannot, certainly, forget the horror of the extermination of the Jews, which can never be execrated sufficiently. But it was not the only extermination. No one remembers the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War.

No one commemorates the tens of millions killed under the Soviet regime.

No one ventures to calculate the number of victims sacrificed uselessly in the various parts of the earth to the communist Utopia.

As for the religious sentiment during the 20th century, in the East for the first time state atheism was both proposed and imposed on a vast portion of humanity, while in the secularized West a hedonistic and libertarian atheism spread until it arrived at the grotesque idea of the “death of God.”

In conclusion: Soloviev was undoubtedly a prophet and a teacher, but a teacher who was, in a way, irrelevant. And this, paradoxically, is why he was great and why he is precious for our time.

A passionate defender of the human person and allergic to every philanthropy; a tireless apostle of peace and adversary of pacifism; a promoter of Christian unity and critic of every irenicism: a lover of nature and yet very far from today’s ecological infatuations — in a word, a friend of truth and an enemy of ideology.

Of leaders like him we have today great need.