The necessity of "shocking" newsletters

April 2, 1998

Dear Friends and Benefactors,

This letter does sometimes shock. I think it is necessary. Let me explain why with a story from German literature which I studied in school 40 years ago, but whose full meaning only came home to me several decades later: "Peter Schlernihl" by Adalbert Chamisso (1781-1838).

Peter Schlemihl is a bright young man who wants to get on in the world. So when a stranger in a grey frockcoat offers him all the gold he wants in exchange for his shadow, Peter accepts. After all, what use is his shadow? However, he then discovers that all the gold in the world cannot make up for the scorn he meets from everyone around him because he has no shadow. He is in despair when the man in the grey frock-coat sidles up to him again to offer him a second deal - for Peter to get his shadow back all he need do is sign away his soul. The story ends with some compromise I have forgotten: Peter does not lose his soul, but there is still some price to pay for his original foolishness.

The story is charming, as I recall, and beautifully written. The stranger in the grey frock-coat is of course the Devil. Peter is Western man who has mutilated himself and placed his soul in peril for the sake of material prosperity and well-being. But what interests us first is the Devil's technique, as grasped by Chamisso. It is simple enough when one thinks about it, but it has enormous applications to the world around us.

The Devil traps Peter Schlemihl by stages. Firstly, gold in exchange for his shadow. Secondly, his shadow in exchange for his soul. Obviously the Devil could not care less about Peter's shadow except as a snare to catch Peter's soul. As it looks to Peter, having gotten into a serious mess by trading his shadow for gold, how strong the second temptation must be to get back his shadow and keep the gold by trading away his soul! The gold may have turned to dust, but he knows by now how valuable his shadow is. What does he know about the value of his soul?

Thus the devil has got Peter into the frying-pan, and from the frying-pan tempts him into the fire. Peter has fallen for the first temptation which is relatively minor, but the consequences are still grave enough to make him want to put them right by falling for an absolutely major temptation. He has got a minor but obvious thing wrong, his shadow. How tempting to put it right by getting a not obvious but major thing wrong, his soul.

Now "Peter Schlemihl" may be only a fairy-tale, but fairy-tales can tell a lot more truth than newspapers or television. "Peter Schlemihl" may help to explain why this letter has seemed to approve horrors like the Unabomber or films of Oliver Stone, while it certainly disapproves of sweet dreams of Catholicism and supposedly lovely films like "The Sound of Music". Things are not what they appear.

Western man is like Peter Schlemihl. By the end of the Middle Ages he was getting a lot of little things wrong. So the Devil proposed a deal to Christians to put the little things right if only it would get the big things wrong. Christians split. Those who refused the deal stayed Catholic and kept the Faith. Those who accepted the deal became Protestants. They were rewarded by the Devil with prosperity and the repair of outward correctness, but they lost the Faith and lost their soul.

Thus the hallmark of the Protestant culture that emerged in England, Northern Germany where Chamisso wrote, and the United States, is prosperity and outward correctness, but inward wrongness. Outwardly everything looks fine and attractive, but inwardly there are deep and insoluble problems, insoluble because they are not recognized, because they are hidden from view by the attractive surface. To deal with these problems, Protestantism mutated into Liberalism, or the adoration of Liberty, which is in turn mutating into global tyranny, but while the surface is more brilliant than ever ("overcoming" of disease, hunger, distance), the deep-down problems are in fact worse than ever (intellectual, moral and spiritual chaos - just think of modern art). For centuries now we have been buying from the Devil minor solutions in exchange for major problems, a prettier surface in exchange for uglier depths.

As for the Catholic countries that refused the Protestantism, alas, they then let themselves be infected by the liberalism until they were swept away by neo-modernism, which was the disaster of Vatican II. When at this point the Catholic churchmen themselves lost their grip on the solution, the puzzling of men's wills by the intangible loss of soul beneath an abundance of tangible gold and worldly goods became a worldwide problem.

This is my diagnosis of the Unabomber. You may say what you like about him as a criminal terrorist, etc., etc., and much of it is true. But the man, as is clear from his Manifesto (which is well worth reading), was at least trying to tacky, and publicize, serious and deep problems of man in a machine society. He has a Polish name. I wager his grandparents had the Catholic Faith, which he himself either never had, or has lost. But he still has a remotely Catholic sense of how technology brutalizes man. How Catholic on the contrary do all those technophiles deserve to be called who have - gladly - given up all such sense in order to wallow at ease in their computers? Give me the Unabomber's seriousness over their shallowness, any day of the week.

Similarly with Oliver Stone. I do not care for anything I know of the man, on the surface he is horrible, as are his films, but I can name five of them (including "Nixon", "JFK") which each from a different angle tackle one serious problem: what happened to the United States in the 60's? Outwardly, these films have nothing to do with the Faith, they are totally unsuitable for "family viewing", even for viewing by many adults (as I said at the time), but inwardly I again wager that the Catholic ancestry of Stone's French mother has much to do with his deep unease and preoccupation with the 1960's. Give me, again, any day of the week, the ogre who is serious about serious problems over the sweetie-pies who willfully deceive themselves, or are deceived, for instance, that the American Way has nothing deep-down wrong with it. The Constitution of 1787 is, for anybody who thinks it is a significant part of the solution, a significant part of the problem, and woe to any Catholic who thinks otherwise!

But even if we grant that, for instance, the horrible film "Natural Born Killers" has something serious to say about modern society beneath its ugly surface, was Oliver Stone bound to make the surface so ugly?

Unfortunately, one may say, yes, because if he made the surface nice, most of his audience would look no deeper. Their minds would happily click back into their normal Hollywood or "Sound of Music" mode. The world is sweet, all men are nice (except Nazis), life is a game, nobody goes to Hell. Serious Western artists have for the last 200 years been making their work uglier and uglier, partly to reflect Western reality, partly to shock Westerners into realizing what that reality is - the soul is more and more lost.

We are reminded of St. Augustine's famous prayer: "...Lord, if you prepare to strike, we make all kinds of promises, but if you hang back, we do not keep them... If then you strike, we cry for mercy, but if you show mercy, by again sinning we force you to strike...". As God cannot win with His sinful people, so the man with any serious message cannot win with a modern audience. If he broadcasts on their wavelength, there is no way he can say what they need to hear. If he broadcasts on his own wavelength, they tune him out. Heads they win, tails he loses. Ours is a situation in which the Lord God soon tells Mr. and Mrs. Lot to walk away, and woe betide them if they look back.

Thus if the Seminary letter uses nice language to say nice things, readers feel really good about themselves and pay no attention. If it says nasty things but in a nice way, readers can escape from the nastiness by taking refuge in the niceness of the way, and still they are not disturbed as they should be. So there is why the letter must sometimes say nasty things in a nasty way, because even if a majority of readers were to turn away in disgust, still if a minority of readers were provoked into thinking seriously about real problems, it might be worth it. There is no hope for the "American Way", now being followed world-wide, from Catholics who believe in it. Its only hope is Catholics who will tackle its deep and serious problems, going back to Protestantism.

Peter Schlemihl may get back his shadow, but what use is it if he loses his soul? The modern world may get a lot of little things right, but what use is it if, almost in proportion, it gets the big things wrong? The Unabomber, Oliver Stone and apparent nastiness may get a lot of little things wrong, but how much does that matter compared with their trying to get some of the big things right?

Dear readers, pray the Rosary. Do not believe in Wall street. Do not believe in Washington, D.C., nor in the Houses of Parliament in London. Do not believe in the dollar. Do not believe in pension funds. Do not believe in democracy, nor in the Constitution, nor in the British Monarchy. Do not believe in any of the works of modern man. He is a poor and accursed creature, by his own choice. He has built on sand, and his sand-castles are on the brink of collapsing.

Believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, who promised us that whosoever builds on His Gospel is building on rock. The winds and rain of the next few years are going to beat on that building, but it will not fall down. And if suffering comes our way, let us even be thankful, because it is the hall-mark of real Catholicism, the surest sign that we are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ on the way to Heaven.

Happy Eastertide. May God have mercy upon us all.

Sincerely yours in Christ,