Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
Catholicism and Civilisation
The action of the Church, wherever it is felt, is eminently civilising in every way. As Christianity was being brought into Germany by St. Boniface, so Greco-Roman civilisation penetrated the wild Teutonic thickets. And the same wind of Christianity which eradicated the inconsistent fantasies of ancient mythology from uncivilised Germany, also swept away the savagery and cruelty that characterised the relentless hordes of barbarians that constantly plagued the frontiers of the Roman Empire.
What St. Boniface did in Germany, countless humble missionaries, as preachers of the truth, did in all the western nations, roaming throughout the expanse of wild and barbaric Europe in the early Middle Ages. Some of these missionaries were elevated to the honour of the altars. Others lie buried in oblivion. Their work, however, survived them.
The highly civilised man of our days is proud of the speed of our railways, as he travels quickly, in the clean atmosphere full of life and light, across southern Spain or Portugal, whose coasts are bathed by the Atlantic; or across frozen Sweden, eternally steeped in its sleepy and melancholic fog. But instead of puffing himself up with pride about the inventions of his time, he should first recall that there is no trace of railway, no motorway, no airport and not even a seaport, in any place outside the boundaries of the ancient Roman Empire, other than where our civilisation was brought for the first time with the staff of an anonymous and selfless missionary many, many centuries ago.
This truth does not only apply in Europe, it extends throughout the world. No flashy liner can sail towards the Orient, or America, without the shadow of the ancient Catholic missionaries as a reminder that, before the greed of the merchant, the zeal of the apostle had travelled the same paths, facing the same difficulties, removing the same obstacles and conquering, through sweetness and by preaching, the same people that the merchants would seek to conquer through arms and bloodshed.
Our main commercial area, in which American civilisation vibrates in the agitated world of banking or in countless fashion boutiques, is rightly the pride of São Paulo.
Who, however, remembers that this bustling artery is nothing but the blessed fruit of the sweat of a weak and humble missionary, Fr. José de Anchieta, who, four hundred years ago went through the same place – then so desolate and dangerous – at the risk of his own life, catechising the Indians and re-Christianising the greedy and cruel Portuguese explorers?
Who will remember that all this vitality, all this grandiosity that São Paulo boasts today, is nothing more than the fruit of a mighty tree that Blessed Anchieta planted with the seed of sacrifice, and watered with the blood of macerations and tears of repentance? Nobody!
However it is necessary at all costs that this injustice cease. Our time should be, above all, a time of reparation, in which we try to re-establish the true roots of all things. And the greatest of reparations, the most urgent – ultimately the only one – is reparation to the Church.
Much is spoken about our progress. The twentieth century, whose first decade was so frivolous, abruptly became a long and bloody tragedy, which is far from having reached its conclusion.
A long series of painful episodes still separates us from the fatal outcome of this battle among so many elements that clash today. And, as in any environment truly conducive to tragedy, we can find major defects in our own era.
Our material civilisation is superb. Man has conquered the air, and can scrutinise the secrets of the depths of the sea. He overcame distances. He flew ... Our factories have machines that can bend the strongest metal bars like pins.
However, our mentality suffers from an evil which is precisely the opposite of this. Instead of bending metal bars as if they were pins, the soul of contemporary man is weak in relation to the pins of minor moral sacrifices, as if they were metal bars.
Our aspirations are contradictory. Like children playing in a drawing room, men today unconsciously and stupidly break the last remaining ornaments and jewels of our true civilisation.
Mechanics are used for destruction and war. Chemistry matters not only to hospitals, but to producers of lethal gases. Toxic substances don’t just have laboratory applications, but also feed the addictions of a generation inept for life, that seeks to escape from reality in the exotic regions of dream and fantasy. Machinery, having devoured the traditions of the past, is now devouring the hopes of the future. Production no longer matches consumption. Everything is maladjusted. Everything disintegrates. And contemporary man is only beginning to realise that, alongside the pleasant fruits of a material civilisation rich in elegant comforts, also sprout the bitter fruits of a sybaritic life brought to its apex by the very mechanisms that our civilisation forged.
Disillusioned about everything (and unlike in the early twentieth century), modern man, in his allegorical paintings, no longer depicts progress as a woman wrapped in a Greek tunic with a bright torch in her hands, breaking the shackles of the past, gazing, with radiant hope towards a future full of promises.
Only in calendars and prints from the beginning of the 20th century is such ingenuity found. Today these ostentatious allegories are relegated to oblivion. And if someone wanted to accurately represent our age, he should rather depict it as a child crying in terror in front of the broken pieces of a porcelain vase that he no longer knows how to fix.
The time has come to inquire about the true causes of such a disaster; to deeply scrutinise history once again, not as fodder for fantasies and liberal utopias but as a laboratory in whose episodes and accidents the present was prepared, as if distilled in the complicated twists of a still; and for Catholics to proclaim and demonstrate this great truth which is the unique source of salvation: that progress in its higher moral sense, and in its legitimate material manifestations, comes directly from the Church. The Renaissance, which truly was a retreat into barbarism, dragged in its wake a procession of vices, errors and shame. This is because the Renaissance was as barbaric as the primitive living conditions of the Hottentots.
Effectively, an essential trend for civilisation is to render ever more perfect the life of humanity.
Therefore the man who does not govern his instincts is barbarian, uncivilised and unfit for life in society. It is just a matter of setting whether this misrule of instincts covers itself with lace and silks like the Sybarites, or merely a thong like the ancient Polynesians. A nation without lace or silk, without trams or telegraphs, but in which morality reigns, is more civilised than a Sodom electrified in all its vital public works, but rotten in the whole framework of its moral structure.
The foundation of every civilisation is morality. And when a civilisation is built on the foundations of a fragile morality, the more it grows, the more it tends towards ruin. It is like a tower being built on inadequate foundations – it will collapse when it reaches a certain height. The more floors are placed on top of each other, the more its ruin is nigh. And when the debris that covers the ground has demonstrated the weakness of the building, the architects of these towers of Babel will certainly envy the house, with strong foundations and a limited number of floors, which defies storms and mocks the weather.
The work that mankind has done since the fourteenth century has weakened the foundations and increased the number of floors.
The Church, which was able to act freely until the fourteenth century, worked in the opposite direction: it extended the foundations in order to later build the powerful and admirable fruit of prudence and wisdom on them, rather than a vain monument to reckless pride.
The foundations that still bear the immense weight of a world that is collapsing are the work of the Church. Nothing is really useful without being stable. And what still remains that is stable and useful – in short, CIVILISED – was built by the Church. On the other hand, the germs that threaten our existence were born precisely from not observing the laws of the Church. This is the irrefutable diagnosis of Catholic sociology, which we should boldly defend.
One of the characteristic factors of our environmental disorder (and therefore of our anti-Catholicism, because Catholicism and order go hand in hand) is the existence of mutually antagonistic and opposite evils which, unfortunately, instead of destroying each other, merely aggravate each other.
Thus, on one hand, the excess of scientific concerns generates an abusive scientism in our days. On the other hand, the increasingly accentuated intellectual impairment of contemporary man is causing a decline in general spirituality, which is truly dismal in all its consequences.
And between these two extremes, born of paganism, Catholicism wants to introduce a balanced, and therefore Catholic, solution of a culture that is rational without being rationalistic, and sufficiently widespread to prevent a progressive brutalisation of the masses.
For the Church, science is not an end in itself. Thus, science loses the false sovereignty rationalism wanted to assign to it, returning it to its natural and logical end, namely knowledge, through reason, all of which interests the life of man.
This is a restriction that the Church imposes upon unbridled scientism. Thus the right that liberalism gives to the pseudo-scientists disappears – that is the right to hide behind false scientific principles in order to make knowledge a privilege of fomenters of disorder, and intellectual life a lever of destruction and anarchy.
But on the other hand, a certain amount of culture and education, which currently brings anarchy to the world, is a necessary prerequisite for the convenient spiritual and moral education of man.
And in this task the duty falls to us Catholics to strive against scientism, which aims to separate reason from Faith, through the elevation of the moral and intellectual level of youth, which is exposed to many dangers today.
(*) This article has been slightly adapted to remove references that would only be understood by people of Brazil. Is is translated and published by the Irish Society For Christian Civilisation, Dublin, "Christian Civilisation", 2014, pages 7-13.