Fighting the New Iconoclasm by Loving Tradition

“They are just statues,” quoth the tweet of a young Portuguese man in response to my own tweets lamenting the toppling of monuments to Saint Junípero Serra in California and the proposed removal of a statue of Saint Louis in his eponymous city on the Mississippi.

My response: “True. And words are only words, ideas only ideas. In all three cases, they mean things. Some of those things are true, good, or beautiful; others false, evil, or ugly.”

According to his Twitter profile, the young man who said that these images of the Saints are “just statues” is himself a Third Order Franciscan, which is notable in light of the fact that both saints being dishonored here were Franciscan: Fray Junípero Serra was a friar of the First Order, and Saint Louis was a member of the Franciscan Third Order; in fact, he is one of the patrons of that branch of the Order, now also known as the Secular Franciscan Order (SFO). (For that matter, Christopher Columbus was a Franciscan Tertiary, too.)

We Christians, we Catholics, are terrible ingrates and sinners — myself very much included. We take far too much for granted. And because we take God’s gifts for granted, He, in his Providence, either withdraws them from us, or allows them to be taken away by those whose hostile intention is not to purify Christians, but who in spite of themselves become instruments of Providence to do just that. This ties in to what many spiritual writers tell us, namely, that God treats with us through both sufferings and consolations: the former purify us of our sins, the latter draw us closer to Him. Such divine operations are seen not only in our lives as individual Christians, but also in the larger history of the Catholic Church, and in the Old-Testament faithful before us. Seeing a figure like Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan as a Scourge of God” (flagellum Dei) is part of this Catholic outlook of history.

Much respect that the Church has had in this Republic through her historical heroes is evaporating before our eyes with the assaults against Columbus, Saint Louis, and Saint Junípero. If the tyranny of Cultural Marxism continues, many of the freedoms we have enjoyed here will also evaporate. And why? Because we took them for granted and, worse, abused or neglected them. In other words, we did not avail ourselves of the respect and the freedom we had to evangelize the nation. Instead, we have been content to be part of its pluralism — a pluralism that may soon eat us.

When our enemies attack what is or should be sacred to us, it is a wake-up call from Our Lord to help us appreciate that thing. This is, in part, why I recommend honoring the Saints all the more when our enemies hate them. So we should learn more about Saint Junípero and Saint Louis. There is a great deal of edification we can draw from learning about their lives. In the case of Saint Louis, we see a model Christian King whose medieval France marked perhaps the apogee of Christendom. Those deeply interested in Catholic social teaching and history would do well to read about Saint Louis’ France in Dr. Andrew Willard Jones’ Before Church and State. In the case of Saint Junípero, we have not only a model of Franciscan piety, but also an exemplar of Catholic missionary zeal. The attacks on his person are really attacks on that extension of the Church and of Christendom that was the enterprise of the great missionaries of his day.

Historically, when heretics attacked some particular teaching or practice of the Church, God rose up saints to defend it. We see this especially in the Ecumenical Councils — special mention in this context being due to Nicaea II and the old Iconoclasm. Loyal, brave, and loving hearts rose up to defend our patrimony, even to the point of martyrdom, at the same time articulating for the faithful a greater understanding of the object being attacked. The same should be true of all Catholic things. The intramural assault on the Church’s traditional liturgy provides another timely example. The work of Dr. Peter Kwasniewski in defending and promoting the Traditional Latin Liturgy makes him a real apologist and even philosopher of the Church’s liturgical tradition. The corpus of his work over the last few years represents a stellar example of what we are attempting to articulate here: “fighting the new iconoclasm by loving tradition.” To love a thing, we must first know it and strive to understand it. Books like Dr. Kwasniewski’s latest are invaluable for this.

Back to our assailed statues, even if our enemies are reacting out of irrational and uninformed hatred, in picking on these two particular saints, they have chosen well, for these French and Spanish sons of Saint Francis incarnate so much of the truth, goodness, and beauty of Catholicism that they are worthy targets of the enemies of the Church.

We know, of course, that the new iconoclasts will not stop with Saints Louis and Junípero. When the recent round of statue smashing started, a friend joked, “Maybe we should take down all statues of people who ever sinned. That way, we would only have statues of Jesus and Mary left standing.” That extreme (and not-so-traditional) Catholic solution could not possibly satisfy the iconoclasts. As if in response to my friend, one of the iconoclast provocateurs, who is getting a name for himself by saying ridiculous things, just declared that all images of Jesus and Mary that show them looking “European” must also come down. Apparently, only perfectly accurate depictions of first-century Jews will be tolerated. No inculturation allowed! Certainly not European, and, we assume — because our enlightened iconoclast cannot possibly be a racist — we must also destroy all depictions of Jesus and Mary as Asian, African, Eskimo, or Latina. Too bad. I rather like these historically inaccurate images of our Savior and His Mother, just as I love the inaccurate Huron Carol of Saint John de Brebeuf (hear it in Huron on YouTube).

Iconoclasts and Philistines just don’t get art. In the case of today’s new iconoclasts, art is seen through the lens of the Marxist class struggle.

Why aren’t Catholic men — Bishops, priests, Knights of Columbus (ahem!), etc. — defending our sacred patrimony when it is being assailed? The answer is implicit in what I’ve already written. It is a failure of love, a failure to appreciate the good things, and good people, God has given us and to show them the honor that is their due. Because so many of the leadership of Catholic institutions — including many of our clergy — have been intellectually colonized by the enemy via liberalism, modernism, and other toxic -isms, they have become willing accomplices in the destruction of our patrimony, even if only by a halfhearted response to the assaults. In the case of ideologically compromised Catholics, the failure to love what should be loved includes another element: not perceiving the enemy as an enemy, but as an ally. This misperception among intellectually colonized Catholics is a very present reality at so many levels — doctrinal, philosophical, academic, and political. (For an illustration of a large-scale political aspect of the phenomenon, see Defund the USCCB” and “Welcoming the $tranger: What’s Really Motivating the USCCB on Immigration & Refugees?”)

Aside from defending our sacred objects (churches, statues, etc.) from physical attack, there needs to be the longer-term and more sustained effort at learning to love them and what they represent. Why “love” a piece of bronze formed into the likeness of a man with a sword on a horse? What is there to love in that? It is, after all, “just a statue.” Or is it something more? Does the Apotheosis of Saint Louis portray the standards of valor, honor, and chivalry of a Christian Crusader and King, ideals still appreciated on the Feast of Saint Francis, October 4, 1906, when that statue was first unveiled in the “Rome of the West”? If those and similar ideals are what the statue represents, then we should love it. But then, today, those very standards — Christian standards — are also under attack, so we must learn to love them the more, too.

Throughout this piece, I have used the words “enemy” and “enemies” a lot — seven times so far, if my computer isn’t lying to me. In one sense, I use the word unapologetically, but that will not prevent me from offering an apologia. After all, these days, we are likely to be lectured for claiming to have enemies. Of course we have enemies. Our Lord had enemies and He promised that, as the servant is not greater than the master, we will, too (Cf. Matt. 10:24-25 and context, John 15:18-20). The difference is that we Christians are commanded to love our enemies, and that in a supernatural sense, as terms of our adoption as children of the heavenly Father (Matt. 5:44-45). When a certain prominent churchmen once told Brother Francis, “the Church has no enemies anymore” (“after Vatican II,” was, I believe, the unstated adverbial phrase), Brother replied, “Then we cannot follow Our Lord’s command to love our enemies, Your Excellency.”

The fact is that we have enemies. The challenge is that we must love them.

While we must love our enemies, there are also things we must hate, and there are things we ought not tolerate. Ven. Emmanuel D’Alzon has some sage words on this subject:

We love Christ with the same kind of love as the early Christians because He still faces the same kind of enemies that he faced then. We love Him with the love that made the Apostles say “if anyone does not love Jesus Christ, let him be cursed” [1 Cor. 16:22]. This may not be very tolerant, but you know that those who love much tolerate little. Properly speaking, true love is revealed in the power of a noble and frank intolerance. In these days with no energy left for either love or hate, men do not see that their tolerance is just another form of weakness. We are intolerant because we draw our strength from our love of Jesus Christ.

The kind of “intolerance” being promoted by the Venerable founder of the Assumptionists is not violent, oppressive, or totalitarian. Those adjectives rather attach to the new iconoclasts, whom it is our challenge to love supernaturally even as they seek to destroy what we hold sacred. In loving both our holy treasures and our enemies we show ourselves to be Christian.