|Monsignor Ronald A. Knox|
The better to understand the situation the Oxford Movement faced — and that few people realize even today — it is essential to realize what was happening in the early nineteenth century not merely in organized religion, but throughout the whole of society: the most successful assault of what Monsignor Ronald Knox termed “enthusiasm” in his 1950 book of the same title.
This was nothing new. Knox’s book, the work of a lifetime, begins with an analysis of what was happening in the early Christian community at Corinth. To summarize, among the Christians at Corinth there were at one and the same time people who indulged in extremely lax behavior, and those who insisted on an extremely rigorous, even obsessive observance of certain moral precepts. Oddly, as Knox pointed out, the same people appeared to be the ones insisting on extreme rigorism and exhibiting lax morality.
Knox explained this in terms that have become familiar in the decades following his death. The “enthusiast” naturally separates him- or herself from the general run of “ungodly” humanity, the sinful, or the unenlightened. “Ungodly” in this context does not necessarily mean something specifically religious — unless one includes State worship and similar false idols among religions, as some do — but inevitably boils down to anyone who disagrees with the one who considers him- or herself as having reached a higher level of consciousness.
|E.F. Schumacher, New Age guru, Fabian socialist|
Thus — so the reasoning of the enthusiast goes — what is forbidden to those at a lower level of consciousness is permitted, even encouraged sometimes even required for those at higher levels of consciousness to demonstrate their membership in the elect. Even truth itself is presumed to change as a person shifts from one level of consciousness to another. This was the premise of the New Age classic, A Guide for the Perplexed (1979) by Fabian socialist E.F. Schumacher, who is even better known for his “Guide to New Age Economics,” Small Is Beautiful (1977).
Similarly, there are things permitted at the lower levels of consciousness or enlightenment that are not suitable for a more enlightened state. Of these, private property is usually the one most often singled out. The “degenerate Franciscans” (as G.K. Chesterton called them) of the Middle Ages known as the Spirituals or the Fraticelli, believed among other things that private property, even property itself, was something permitted to fallen humanity, but not to Christians if they had any claim to the true and pure Christianity of Saint Francis of Assisi instead of that promoted by the institutional Church.
What resulted was a precursor of the very thing John Henry Newman and the other members of the Oxford Movement were working to counter: the invention by the “Broad Church” party of the Church of England of a new religion under the name of Christianity. As Chesterton noted in his brief biographical sketch of Saint Francis of Assisi,
St. Francis was so great and original a man that he had something in him of what makes the founder of a religion. Many of his followers were more or less ready, in their hearts, to treat him as the founder of a religion. They were willing to let the Franciscan spirit escape from Christendom as the Christian spirit had escaped from Israel. They were willing to let it eclipse Christendom as the Christian spirit had eclipsed Israel. Francis, the fire that ran through the roads of Italy, was to be the beginning of a conflagration in which the old Christian civilization was to be consumed. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi, London: Hodder and Stoughton, Ltd., 1923, 175.)
In the chaos following the Industrial and French Revolutions traditional religious and political institutions were seen as inadequate. This gave the enthusiastic impulse a new direction. Rather than attempt to destroy society or leave it to found a new order in the wilderness, the goal changed to transforming existing institutions to establish and maintain the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Perhaps Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) said it best in his posthumous 1825 book, Le Nouveau Christianisme, “The New Christianity.” As he declared, after identifying himself as the prophet of the New Christianity, “The whole of society ought to strive towards the amelioration of the moral and physical existence of the poorest class; society ought to organize itself in the way best adapted for attaining this end.”
This sounds very close to traditional Christianity, and it is. There is, however, a difference that most people miss, one of those small errors in the beginning that lead to great errors in the end. As Chesterton noted in his follow up to his book on Saint Francis of Assisi,
[T]he strange history of Christendom [is] marked by one rather queer quality; which has always been the unique note of the Faith, though it is not noticed by its modern enemies, and rarely by its modern friends. It is the fact symbolized in the legend of Antichrist, who was the double of Christ; in the profound proverb that the Devil is the ape of God. It is the fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true. It is when the stab comes near the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain. (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox.” New York: Image Books, 1956, 91-92.)
|Henri Saint-Simon, New Christian prophet|
And the difference? Total disregard for human nature and the natural rights of life, liberty, and private property. For Saint-Simon and the other New Christians, Neo-Catholics, Universal Catholics, etc., etc., etc., rights are not inherent in each and every human being, but in humanity, the abstraction of the collective.
The bottom line? An abstraction created by man is greater than man created by God, meaning that collective man is greater than God! Since God does not merely dictate the natural law but IS the natural law (“I AM”), this means that man ultimately creates God, and right and wrong are determined by what the majority want, not what nature reveals. This is the one thing uniting all the various forms of the democratic religion, whether it remains nominally Christian or devolves into an esoteric cult such as the Religion of Man, Universal Catholicism, Theosophy, Ariosophy, or anything else, and whether it calls itself socialism, modernism, or the New Age.
As a matter of fact, the democratic religion — whatever you call it specifically — goes by at least as many names and has as many variations as there are democratic religionists. As Alexis de Tocqueville observed during the 1848 revolution in France shortly after Broad Church adherents and nervous politicians succeeded in sabotaging the Oxford Movement,
From the 25th of February onwards, a thousand strange systems came issuing pell-mell from the minds of innovators, and spread among the troubled minds of the crowd. . . . These theories were of very varied natures, often opposed and sometimes hostile to one another; but all of them, aiming lower than the government and striving to reach society itself, on which government rests, adopted the common name of Socialism.
Socialism will always remain the essential characteristic and the most redoubtable remembrance of the Revolution of February. The Republic will only appear to the on-looker to have come upon the scene as a means not as an end. (Alexis de Tocqueville, The Recollections of Alexis de Tocqueville. Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Company, 1959, 78-79.)
The New Christians had determined that Newman and the Oxford Movement must be stopped if they were to implement the democratic religion — although no one could agree on anything except that they wanted socialism and modernism — and that was to be done by any means necessary.