John Rao Black Legends and the Light of the World (Forest Lake, MN, Remnant Press, 2011) ISBN: 1-890740-17-9
Dr. John C. Rao, D. Phil., Oxford, is Associate Professor of History at St. John’s University and director of the Roman Forum. Black Legends is the product of years of research on Church history, and includes reflections from lectures he has given for the Roman Forum’s Summer Symposium at Lake Garda in Italy between 1993 and 2011. Readers of The Remnant may recall his series “A View from Rocco’s.” Some of his lectures are available at keepthefaith.org and many of his essays can be read at jcrao.freeshell.org.
In an unpublished memoir, “From Hoboken to Eternity,” Rao describes his high school years, 1965-69 in Oakland, NJ, during which, though a practicing Roman Catholic, he had little awareness of the impending ecclesiastical disaster, nor of how insufficient was the view he had of first things. Excellent grades assured entrance to top-notch universities and the promise of all the material riches America could offer. But at Georgetown University, reality started to take hold: he left after his first semester! Enrolling later at Drew University, a secularized Methodist school, “the darkness began to dissipate.” A Methodist minister arranged a semester abroad at Oxford, which led to a stay of five years, a Doctorate in History, the start of a long friendship with Michael Davies, and a discovery of Catholic tradition. Others who would influence him were Drs. Dietrich von Hildebrand, William Marra and Thomas Molnar.
On his return, in 1978, Dr. William Marra asked him to lecture at the Roman Forum on the problems at Catholic University. As he developed this, it transmuted into a study of the Americanist Crisis in the Church. It unveiled the peculiar nature of the “anti-intellectual, materialist, ‘pragmatic’, but non-violent and seemingly ‘friendly’ way in which the Enlightenment had made its progress in both Britain and the United States…to the most effective detriment of the Catholic cause known to history.”
It also helped to explain why “my elementary and high school education had aimed me away from any serious investigation of the questions most important to life in general and towards narrow, mindless, materialist goals; why ‘pointless’ intellectual discussions were generally avoided by American society; why both Faith and Reason failed to have a social impact; how a naturalist and revolutionary principle could find a way to masquerade as a solid bulwark of Tradition and the essence of patriotism; how ‘pragmatism’ and the need to avoid ‘divisiveness’ were used to prevent people from finding their way out of a spiritual dead end and back to Catholic sanity, was also won for the cause of mindlessness.”
“Everybody in the world is infected with this Americanist virus”, Dr. Marra told him.
“Your life’s work has been laid out. I don’t envy you.” As his essays, lectures and this book indicate: Dr. Rao has indeed accepted the challenge.
During my initial visit to SBC in Richmond, NH, in the early 1990s, Brother Francis, who had accepted a similar challenge about 40 years earlier, invited me to stay for lunch. In our discussion he charitably made me imagine we had much in common: we were both converts (his conversion had happened over 50 years previously; mine about 5 days back); our fathers were both Freemasons; we both had affection for math (Brother had and still taught it; I was a math major), and we both loved G.K. Chesterton. What really got my attention was his admission that before his conversion he had little use for history. I also consistently avoided the subject. Even though my high school history teacher was my “idol,” I still disliked it. He had been a college basketball star, and was now my coach (most important to a pagan attending government run public school in the early 1960s, hoping, above all else, to play in college too); he had been a captain in the Air Force, and had a Ph.D. — in history!
Brother’s comments, however, surprised me. He mentioned a conversation he had with Father Leonard Feeney, his mentor. Father, to Brother’s surprise, and joy, quickly instilled in him an interest in history, calling it simply: “the story of error.” When Brother smilingly described Father’s phrase that captured him, I sensed I too would soon be caught: “History,” he said very slowly, “is the chronicle of the battles of the Church Militant!” What a phrase. I left Richmond that day with books by William Thomas Walsh and Hilaire Belloc. Others followed. Belloc, I would soon discover, insisted only a Catholic could write a true and worthwhile history.
Black Legends is indeed a worthwhile history, especially for us lifetime students. This is not, Dr. Rao insists, an academic presentation, but is intended to provide the interested laymen with a general, readable, thematic and bibliographic guide through a mass of otherwise daunting historical data. “History,” he writes, “can only properly be grasped with reference to the irrepressible, unending, and ever more global war that the genesis, birth, and growth of the Catholic Faith have everywhere provoked.”
Those provoked (of ruined intellect and corrupt heart as Pope Leo XIII described them) Rao refers to as the Grand Coalition of the Status Quo (GCSQ), interested only in the “business as usual” demands of “nature as is,” resulting in the “Rut Triumphant.” For two thousand years the Church’s enemies have either launched a total war “to eradicate what is perceived as an unwelcome and dangerous intruder;” or, failing here, have made strenuous and continued effort “to deconstruct, subvert, and radically dilute the Church’s influence.”
Dr. Rao traces the perennial conflict from the time of Christ until today; from the sophists of the later Roman Empire to the personalists, pluralists, neoconservatives, and libertarians of our own era, whose basically unchanging battle plan and weaponry he examines, always showing us where he found his information, and where more can be had. And he does this, throughout the book, with an intensity which might be called “high octane,” adding brilliant analysis, often in polemical fashion, in a language not only readily understandable, but frequently as one might imagine he’d use in conversation.
The enemy’s overwhelming strategic advantage, Rao points out, can be explained with reference to two points: the character of the arms that he carries, and the unwillingness of believing Catholics both to open their eyes to the weakness in their own line of defense, as well as to employ the most powerful weapons at their disposal on the terrain most suitable to gaining victory.
Better than the arms that have drawn blood, the enemy of the Word does best with written and spoken words. Rao describes two related types of myth employed: 1. “Black legends” designed to ridicule the Mystical Body and Catholic efforts to correct and transform the world in Christ;’” and 2. Alternative “good stories” mimicking the language of Faith, while stripping it of all substantive Christian meaning. He calls this a war between “words” and “the Word.” He ends the introduction asking us to see if this work, despite all its obvious limitations, can nonetheless tell something of a “good story about a true story.”
His good story starts with the Greeks, applauding the work of Plato. While pointing out its limitations, Plato (and Aristotle, and others), nevertheless, laid the natural groundwork on which, with the grace of God, the seeds of the Logos might grow. But “philosophy” as defined by sophists, like Isocrates, his first model of an enemy rhetoritician against the Word, can easily be manipulated through clever use of appealing words and images to seize control of the familiar concerns of the average man or State and run them where he wills. Isocrates made a virtue out of abandoning any deeper investigation of the meaning of life once he shaped what appeared to him a rhetorically beautiful point of view, that is, one with a chance of obtaining a “successful” outcome. And if attractive and potentially useful, this point of view must be accepted as though it were Truth itself (pg.19). And this point of view will be used to back the “business as usual” favored by the enemies of the Word, the GCSQ. So, the question history wants answered is: Who will control the State, and for what purpose? Who will control the Church, and for what purpose: The Word, or the words of those not interested in transformation in Christ?
Dr. Rao’s theme is twofold: 1. “…the need to take the complete message of the Word in history seriously in order to fulfill the corrective and transforming mission of Christ” and 2. “…the recognition that taking that message of the Word seriously is of supreme benefit for natural as well as for supernatural life.” Though the theme is stated near the end of the book, on page 610, by then it is easy to see how very successful he has been in weaving a vivid, detailed and well analyzed record of Church history.
Unlike a modern artist whose highest achievement often seems to occur when dropping cans of paint on a canvas from the top of a ladder, for who knows what revolutionary purpose, John Rao, while also using a very great quantity of paint, gives us a work that is, or should be to a well ordered mind, objectively pleasing to the intellect. Working his way through the centuries in his composition, always providing a long and comprehensive list of combatants on both sides, his twofold theme is the constant melody of a long battle; the harmony, always to be hoped for, is within the Church, though often hard to see, while outside is the ongoing contrapuntal sophistry; the constant rhythm might be described as ever increasing and diminishing sounds of war, with short intervals of peace.
Dr. Rao’s last chapters are, in my estimation, the best of his spectacular book. The response to the naturalist revolution some called “the Ninth Crusade;” an idea uncovered in his research, which he develops expansively. The crusaders were derisively called intransigents, by liberal Catholics like Montalembert and Dollinger, but this Rao applauds, loudly and often. (Reading this section, I recalled the response Brother Francis gave to Bishop Wright when asked to soften SBC’s defense of its assigned dogma: No Compromise!).
“Joseph de Maistre,” one of the first ninth-crusaders, “blew the trumpet and I heard it,” said Louis Veuillot, who would follow his brilliant journalistic work with a spectacular career of his own. While the influence of such writers was great and more popular, thorough coverage is also given to La Civilta Cattolica, a Roman periodical founded in 1850 by the Jesuits, the first editor being Padre Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. “Civilta writers were influential, if not directly responsible for the inspiration of papal documents ranging from the Syllabus of Errors (1864) to Rerum novarum (1891), all of them central to the growth of what would be referred to as Catholic Social Doctrine.”(p. 437)
The Intransigent attack on the ideas which have brought about our present catastrophe is matched, as Rao shows throughout the book, by those defending these erroneous ideas, insisting the blame for the horror for which they are responsible should be laid at the feet of the very force that had sought to prevent such a situation developing in the first place (p.527).
Liberalism is “rooted in the anti-social, anti-authority vision of the principle of independence as transmitted by the Moderate Enlightenment through Locke” (p.459-460). The moneymen supporting this understood this to mean making the world safe for personal property and its exponential multiplication alone. From liberalism comes indifference in religion; the secularization of the State, and its separation from the Church; rationalism in thought; and greed in economics. It places, according to Antonio Salazar, “villains” in control of society, plutocrats who do not recognize the rights of labor, moral exigencies, or the laws of humanity (p. 550). Salazar had an aversion to parliamentary constitutionalism, not to advocate a dictatorship, but because of the “fraudulence of liberal claims to defend human freedom through its operation” (p. 551).
Intransigents argued “A coherent Catholic response to contemporary evils had to emphasize the truth that liberal capitalism and democratic socialism were actually blood brothers; that both had exactly the same naturalist Enlightenment roots…” (p. 471). Try explaining this to the average American, including many of our Catholic brethren!
The Church’s Social Teaching designed to combat these great errors is summed up by Civilta’s basic argument: “Either God was King with Liberty, in a system open to the corrective and transforming message of the Word in History, which taught that it was the truth that made men free; or Man was King, through the force lying behind the whole of the vision of ‘nature as is.’”
For Americans, Dr. Rao’s brilliant analysis of the underlying philosophy of our nation should be compelling. “A Protestant rooted America found the path to unity in the midst of such diversity through an anchoring in the one characteristic every fallen man shared in common: Original Sin” (p. 584). “Strong and unscrupulous men whose eyes were open gradually realized that the ‘even-handed’ American pluralist methodology put them in a position ‘freely’ to create a public ‘order’ in which they devoured the weak… All these strongmen maintained their alliance with honest American pluralist ideologues who did not realize that they were being ‘mugged’ by their own beloved system…. They also allied their cause with that of dishonest rhetorical word merchants who made their living by justifying and ennobling the oppression of the weak and the gullible, exploiting the powerful American civil religion and its images to ease their own labors…. In other words, at best, the truly law-abiding pluralist minded community or individual would commit spiritual and intellectual suicide.”
“American pluralism and it Divine Republic continue this ‘tradition’ with a special vengeance and a particular success….And yet the irony is, as Louis Veuillot noted, that those who consider themselves the victors and the rulers of this civilization cannot even sin with any real gusto. It is a cheapened, inhuman way of life in arid suburban shopping malls and freeways to nowhere that stirs their ambitions and libido. Every aspect of modernity smacks of death. It was fitting, therefore, that American pluralism should arise to give to modernity a thoroughgoing culture of living death—a living euthanasia…” (p. 585).
Dr. Rao concludes his truly worthwhile book with many excellent reasons for hope and gives solid advice for our journey to eternity. Friends of SBC will not be surprised at his call for immersion in the whole of Catholic Tradition through the study of the Popes, Councils, Saints, Holy Scripture, theology, philosophy, and, of course, history.
But puzzling to me, Dr. Rao makes no mention of Fatima, the most important event in the 20th century, and, perhaps, since the founding of the Church Militant. There may be some consideration of which I am unaware, but I would have been so very pleased to read his expanded analysis of Our Lady’s words: “Only I can help you,” and how they have mistakenly been ignored and disregarded by the popes, bishops, and, yes, many lay folk, for too long.