Up from the Bottom

It was in 1962, fifty-six years ago, that an article by me was first published in a U.S. periodical of consequence. I was living in France, working as a rewrite man at what was then the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, and wrote the article under a pseudonym because it was critical of General Charles DeGaulle, presented by regime propagandists as the savior of France but who was abandoning an entire department of the nation, Algeria, and promoting development of the Common Market, forerunner of the E.U. Foreigners who wrote articles critical of the general weren’t always allowed to stay in the country.

The periodical that published my article was William F. Buckley’s National Review, then a magazine far different from today’s neocon publication and well worth reading.

By 1966 I had written additional articles for NR, was back in the States, and Buckley recommended me to his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, who needed an assistant editor to help him launch a conservative Catholic monthly. I joined Bozell on the Feast of St. Athanasius and we got out the first issue of Triumph, as it was called, in August (dated September). I have been laboring in the vineyard of Catholic journalism, not simply at Triumph, but also at The Wanderer, The Remnant, Angelus magazine, this website, and elsewhere, ever since. That’s more than a half-century, a longer time than many readers of these lines have lived.

The religion hasn’t been my only interest. Politics is the biggest other one. I used to do a fair amount of speech-writing for members of Congress. (Newsweek once devoted most of a full page to quoting a speech on privacy that I wrote for Barry Goldwater, Jr., when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bozell had earlier and famously ghostwritten Goldwater Sr.’s Conscience of a Conservative.)

There was no John C. Calhoun or Daniel Webster in the U.S. Congress in the 1970s or 80s, but there were men better than ones who have followed and then stayed only long enough to set themselves up lucratively as consultants (lobbyists) for defense contractors and other special interests. Jesse Helms, U.S. Senator from North Carolina, was certainly a better man. Most of his top aides in Washington were conservative Catholics and I helped them in various ways as a free-lance.

There was also Bob Dornan in the House. He represented a District in Southern California. Before I get bogged down in Memory Lane, let me speak of him. It will get me to the point of all this reminiscence.

Dornan was a good man. I wish to say nothing that would suggest otherwise, but he had grown up in Beverley Hills and was a go-getting Los Angeles television reporter (the first on the scene of Sharon Tate’s murder by members of the Manson Family) before his election to the House. He knew how to attract attention, how to be seen favorably, and what would turn off voters.

He was Catholic and “pro-life” (why I put that in quotation marks will be clear in a moment). This made him a fixture at every annual March for Life while he was in Congress and even when he was not. When John Paul II visited Washington in 1979 and was introduced to members of Congress on the White House lawn, Dornan was the only one who dropped to his knee to kiss the papal ring.

In 1977, two years after the demise of Triumph, I combined my interests in the religion and politics by setting up an organization called Catholics for Christian Political Action (CCPA). It was meant to promote the Catholic position on questions of public interest independently of the bishops. Of course the bishops didn’t like this, as they never do apostolates outside their control, but that’s another story. I went to Dornan, then in his first term in the House, and asked if he would agree to sign a direct-mail fundraising letter. He did, but said this: “I’ll go to the wall with you on abortion. Just don’t talk about contraception. Everyone accepts it.”

Of course he was correct. The bishops had done nothing to uphold the teaching of Humanae vitae, promulgated nine years earlier by Pope Paul VI. Indeed, they had said that couples who failed to fulfill the “ideal” (the bishops’ word) taught by the encyclical might do so if their conscience “told” them they need not in their circumstances. So the result was as Dornan said.

“Everyone” did accept contraception if you discounted the small minority within Catholicism who persisted in seeing a baby as a gift from God and wouldn’t dream of refusing anything He chose to give them in His goodness.

That Dornan didn’t see, or appeared not to see, a link between the practice of contraception and abortion troubled me. However, other questions that arose from his statement did not occur to me at the time. The most important: Isn’t the point of an apostolate like CCPA being Catholic precisely that it should stake out positions on public issues which are right because they reflect the will of God, not that they are accepted by majority opinion, and even if this means the apostolate loses most or all of its battles?

Winning, not losing, is what politics is about. CCPA was doomed from its start.

However, we lumbered on into the 80s as an entity of what was then called the New Right and I received my little rewards for it. For instance: a signed photograph of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan with myself when I was the token Catholic on the Advisory Council of National Religious Leaders, a vehicle for Jerry Falwell to drum up Evangelical support for the Reagan campaign. (I used to cringe whenever I heard Falwell say, as he did in most of his speeches, that he believed so-and-so was wrong to say such-and-such, but “I will defend unto death his right to say it.”)

Where am I going with what I’ve already called here “all this reminiscence”?

I was aware even before I began being published that since World War II, and with a few exceptions (Salazar’s Portugal, Franco’s Spain, DeValera’s Republic of Ireland, Ongania’s Argentina, maybe a couple of others) secular liberalism’s sway had become universal over former Christendom and many places beyond, and that the longer it was the political, spiritual and moral downward spiral of society would continue and even accelerate. I could remember when divorce was common for no one except Hollywood movie stars who would go to Reno for six weeks to obtain one; that the very word abortion was not spoken in polite company and its ever being legal was inconceivable; when condoms were sold from drawers behind pharmacy counters, not displayed next to the cash register in neighborhood grocery stores; when there was a gap between what bosses made and employees earned, not an obscene abyss; when movies showed even married couples in separate twin beds instead of there being obligatory scenes of simulated sex between couples on their first date; when the military might cover up atrocities committed by troops but not baldface lie about them as began in Vietnam; when addictive drugs were understood as something you messed with at your physical and mental peril instead of being prescribed by smiling MDs; when the extra-marital dalliances of a U.S. President might be the subject of whispered gossip but voters would never elect a man who openly bragged about his; when the wartime targeting of the residential neighborhoods of enemy cities, evil as that was, was nothing compared to a national defense policy that hinged on the capacity to obliterate civilian population centers with thermonuclear missiles; when the level of public-school education was not sunk so low that its victims lacked the vocabulary to express intense emotion except with language once confined to army barracks; when bankers and stockbrokers who swindled the public faced prison and were not “too big to jail”; when parochial school children learned at least enough Latin to follow Mass, not graduate without knowing even the prayers of the Rosary in English.

The point is I spent more than a half century tracking this downward spiral, reporting it, writing about it — such a long time that it was what I expected to the degree that I missed seeing signs of a counter-current, or mistook them for flukes. I wasn’t alone. I could name other writers, other commentators, some of them friends, who were like me. Warren Carroll, my old friend and colleague from Triumph days (and for my money the best writer among us) came out with his big book on Communism right when the Berlin Wall came down (not that that event could be seen as a mere fluke). We were like the secular left liberals, but the opposite. The downward spiral was “progress” to them, and they thought it would continue. That it would indefinitely was our fear.

We were wrong. No one can say with confidence that the exact bottom of the spiral has been reached. There will still be plenty of bad stuff to write about, but the signs of a turnaround, an upward movement, are unmistakable. It was this that I was recognizing when I wrote for this website a couple of weeks ago about “The Civilizationists.”

That young persons appear largely to account for this upward movement, at least in the European lands where it is strongest, augers well for its future. The new reality is encapsulated in a bit of film I’ve seen that shows 34-year-old Austrian Chancellor and civilizationist Sebastian Kurz, without ropes or other gear, climbing with just boots, shorts a shirt and his bare hands, to the top of a mountain and then standing next to an iron Cross at the summit, looking out over his country down below. I suspect the shot was from a TV campaign ad, and boy did it work. It was exciting. It was inspiring. The question is why are young persons like Kurz, who can also look positively courtly when you watch film of him at meetings of fellow European leaders, at the heart of the upward movement from near bottom?

There are several reasons. I’ll speak to what I think is the main one in a continuation of this article.

(To be continued)