For anyone who knows where the party came from, the fact that Guy Fawkes became an anarchist meme is truly hilarious. For those who aren’t, here’s the skinny.
The Gunpowder Plot
By 1605, England had been Protestant for a few generations, but with persistent (and, in some places, very large) Catholic minorities. Some people thought that England could still be restored to fellowship with Rome by force of law, if only a Catholic monarch could be installed. The Act of Supremacy made the monarch the head of the Church of England, after all.
Guy Fawkes became a Catholic in his youth and served as a mercenary for Spain during the Eighty Years War. He joined a conspiracy that planned to blow up Parliament, assassinate King James I, and place his daughter Elizabeth (whom they would later raise as Catholic) to the throne. They rented rooms under the Houses of Parliament, filled them with barrels of gunpowder, and put Fawkes on guard.
However, some of these significant Catholic minorities were in fact MPs. A member of the conspiracy sent a letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic baron, warning him to avoid entering the House of Lords on the relevant day. Lord Monteagle showed the letter to the king, and from there the plot was unraveled on November 5. The government executed Fawkes and several other conspirators, and November 5 became a national day of Thanksgiving, marked by bonfires, known as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day.
I love the smell of napalm in the morning
For us, this story is little more than a funny story. There is no more risk of anyone trying to install a Catholic monarch in America today than of a true anarchist revolution. But the definitive right turn of a lot of politics in Europe and the Americas over the past decade has ties to Catholicism, and it deserves consideration.
There are several reasons for this, historically. Authoritarianism, especially fascism, clearly attracts a certain type of Catholic in every era. I don’t think it’s inevitable, but it’s natural; believing in angelic and clerical hierarchies makes it emotionally easy to believe in rigid civil hierarchies as well, whether or not they have anything to do logically with each other. And even outside of any matter of sincere belief (even if it’s emotionally motivated), religion is a great excuse to be a busy, unofficial person, a type who thrives in authoritarian systems and which those systems tend to reward.
Then there is the aesthetic side of politics, something the fascists have always been good at. This too blends very well with Catholic pageantry, especially since – while non-European traditions of Catholicism have always existed in Asia and Africa, and have arisen among the indigenous peoples of North America and of the South – Catholicism is strongly associated with white1 Europeans in the minds of most people. The way the Church adopted the language and symbolism of Rome, up to and including their gods, again makes it easy to think of this as a romantic dynasty. Fascism plays this role to win the allegiance of Christians, not because they are interested in Christianity, but because our religion is still big enough to form a place of political, cultural and economic power.
Play with matches
So what is the Catholic response here? Obviously, there are as many answers to that as there are Catholics, but there are two that interest me: the fundamentalist answer, and another.
Integralism is a Catholic school of political thought, currently associated with a handful of intellectuals such as Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Ahmari. There are a few different versions of it; they tend to share a rejection of liberalism and a corresponding distrust of values such as autonomy and freedom. Many support a robust welfare state, and there are even forms of left-wing fundamentalism. Most fundamentalists advocate a strong, centralized, and explicitly Catholic state – the question of whether non-Catholics will enjoy freedom of worship in that state is somewhat less explicit, but they broadly agree that it is the responsibility of state to promote Catholicism and, say, incite conversion.
Many leading figures in the movement have, as one would expect, associated with fascists abroad and with Trumpism here in the United States. Personally, I doubt that it has much to do with actual enthusiasm for Trump, and is probably inspired by the desire to use this movement as a springboard to power. The problem here – aside from the fact that a cynical alliance with the fascists is, both spiritually and practically, just as bad if not worse than a sincere alliance with the fascists – is that it’s not going to work. What is that is will corrupt the faith and morals of a large number of Catholics; and indeed, he already has.
This is especially visible with the issue of anti-Semitism, a lingering disease in Catholic circles and a key element in most forms of fascism. The dot gov twitter speech had two foul-smelling eruptions just last week: one a new excuse for Pope Pius IX’s disgusting conduct in the Mortara affair, the other a placid reflection from an Austrian monk that placing the Jews in ghettos was “mostly counterproductive,” but apparently not wrong in principle.
I have said before, and I hope to repeat it, that anyone who mistreats the Jewish people is committing sacrilege against God and the Mother of God. And yes, things like kidnapping their children or separating them from the rest of the community constitutes abuse. It’s a burning shame on the entire Catholic Church that we even need to have this conversation – and that we need to have it less than a century after the worst assault on the Jewish people in recorded history. .
Smoke on the mountain
Yet even that, while dishonorable, is not the root problem with fundamentalism (although it may be the most poisonous flower of fundamentalism). Partly as an ex-Protestant, I’m not really here for the doctrine of clear scripture; some parts of the Bible are very opaque, even if you have had a background in history and literature. But I would have thought that the moral lesson of this passage was unmistakable:
Again the devil takes him to a very high mountain, and shows him all the kingdoms of the world, and their glory; aAnd said to him: “All these things, I will give them to you, if you bow down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him: “Get out of here, Satan; for it is written: You shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him alone. “—Matthew 4.8-10
Jesus’ response is not like the full response. Christ did not come to assume earthly power; when he does that, It’s the end of the world. This kind of power, like “the riches and the cares of this world”, is a temptation. The parable of the wheat and the tares speaks precisely of the fact that Christ does not assign to the angels the duty to root out evil from the Church by angelic means. This was not fixed for us by our Lord, neither by precept nor for example, with a few ambiguous exceptions such as the purification of the Temple; and even this was intended to correct an abuse committed by religious people, and not to compel pagans to enter the Temple.
When I was a bitter and nervous teenager, I used to welcome the idea that there was persecution against Christians on the horizon in this country. I no longer think that such persecution is remotely probable; but I come back to the idea that it could do us a lot more good than harm. Trying to gain or maintain Catholic power and prestige has absolutely nothing to do with the gospel. The Gospel speaks of going to the cross, and the resurrection that takes place next comes from God, not from Caesar, let alone from ourselves.
1Or, at most, swarthy, when we come to Spain and southern Italy.