In the days before e-mail, dashing off a few words to a friend or a newspaper editor could mean receiving a classic in return. In the theological realm, the New York Sun editor’s assurance to Virginia O’Hanlon that, yes, there is a Santa Claus, ranks just below St. Paul’s epistles. Imagine Charles-Jean- François Depont’s surprise at writing Edmund Burke for his take on current events and getting back Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Bosie Douglas’ case, it was his not writing to Oscar Wilde that produced De Profundis.
We don’t know the name of the Frenchman who wrote the editorial offices of the Catholic magazine Permanences in February of 1973, in order to cancel his subscription and announce his departure from the Church. But we should be able to recognize his mood at once. With no combox to fill, he seized this occasion to vent years of disgruntlement. The “incoherence of the religious situation,” including “the attitude and statement of certain clerics” and “the views expressed in the Catholic press” were more than the man could bear. “I have completely lost my Faith,” he wrote, warning the editor that corrupt clergy “will get you immediately when the opportunity presents itself, and your efforts will have been in vain; they will finally crush you.”
But Jean Ousset, the addressee, was not a man so easily crushed. A political theorist with views somewhere to the right of Louis XIV’s, he had begun with the dream of converting France’s Third Republic into a Catholic confessional state and hitched that dream to dark stars. After the débacle of 1940, he transferred his allegiance to Vichy, following the lead of Action française founder Charles Maurras, whose secretary he was. With France liberated and Maurras imprisoned for collaborating with the Germans, Ousset refined his tactics. Rising to the leadership of Cité catholique, he set about trying to convert — or, to employ the term he himself preferred, subvert — the Fourth Republic from the inside.
For a time, Ousset’s principles of subversion made him the Saul Alinsky of France’s far right, including many of the army officers who formed Organisation de l’armée secrète, a terrorist group dedicated to keeping Algeria under French control. By the time he received the subscriber’s complaint, he’d seen Algeria gain its independence, and some of his admirers, having failed to overthrow De Gaulle in a putsch, cashiered and jailed.
Proving that disappointment had made him into a first-rate philosopher, Ousset responded to the subscriber’s complaint as though speaking for the ages. He begins by chastising the man for his “brutal anger,” which he calls a sin against hope — not the “foolish optimism” of the world, but the theological virtue that only “an adequate knowledge of Church history” can sustain.
Much of this history, warns Ousset, is pretty damn bleak. Listing heresies in chronological order, from gnosticism to “neo-modernism,” he observes that the lines between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, who was on and off the bus, were rarely so clear. “Actually,” he writes:
…for those who experienced [doctrinal controversy], it was a “dark disorder”, with nobody knowing which side to take. The parish priest was on one side, his curate on the other. There was disagreement among the bishops. Saints like Athanasius and Hilary were a tiny minority. And, as always, it was the “others” who claimed to have “a sense of history” to understand their world and to be witnesses for their generation. The passage of time distorts what was, in fact, a dark and bloody disorder not really unlike what we see now.
Most apologists treat emotional experience as something beneath their attention, but Ousset tackles it head-on:
Let us now try to imagine how we would have felt had we been obliged to witness the side effects of these errors – suspicions, betrayal, polemics, insults, riots, tortures, murders, apostasies, cowardice – side effects which are no longer considered worth mentioning because history is full of them. And since you bear such a grudge against the clergy, think for a moment of the state of the Church in the 10th century, one of the worst centuries of all – no schools, no teaching. The general ignorance was such that a Church Council (in 909) was actually obliged to insist on education for the clergy, an education so elementary that the mind boggles!
Like Joan of Arc, Ousset understands that Christ and the Church are one. When the Church appears to be suffering, it’s time to make like Veronica. “We must,” he insists, “by gentle, kindly actions, restore to this cherished Face its pristine purity,” adding, “Let us not cause further suffering by our anger or impatience; let us not reopen the wounds.”
Ousset’s letter reads like a masterpiece of a homily. Opening with a rebuke, proceeding into a lecture, and building up into an exhortation, it displays the full range of tones, each perfectly chosen for its purpose. Every priest — and, probably, every pundit — should read it.
Normally, when we use the word “fascist” to describe a personality type, we mean someone overbearing and over-critical, a control freak and grudge-holder — someone like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Hard-nosed as real-life fascists could be with anyone unlucky enough to end up in one of their jail cells, they also had a genius for pumping people up by dressing the mundane in heroic trappings. (In fairness, it must be said that they shared this quality with communists.) When the trappings were tawdry — empty slogans and the like — and the reality inhumane or futile, the distance between them became obvious and absurd.
To call Ousset a fascist would be to stretch the label’s meaning, but not by much. How he talked or wrote during his Vichy days, when he moonlighted under Xavier Vallat, the bureaucrat responsible for imposing France’s version of the Nuremberg Laws, I have no idea. But here he demonstrates that thundering fit for a parade ground can work quite nicely when tempered by something as subtle and resistant to compromise as Catholic theology.
There’s a paradox in firing someone up to be gentle and patient. Maybe Ousset pulled it off because he was a failed fascist. That’s a kind of paradox in itself — a paradox that only a Catholic, trained to heroic humility, could live with.
Blame the movies, but belief in heroism has always been my soul’s chicken soup. A couple of nights ago, with the body count from the Paris massacres still mounting, I found it in images that recalled a nobler past — Joan of Arc for my Facebook newsfeed, Charlemagne for my profile pic. Today I came upon Ousset’s reminder that the past had actually been pretty rotten a lot of the time — that Joan had met her end, after all, not at the point of a glaive, but from a miscarriage of canon justice:
How the mother of Joan, and all the good Christians of Domremy must have been tempted either to revolt or to fall into despair…when news arrived of the pyre at Rouen! Joan, it is true, was rehabilitated, but not before the King of France had triumphed – diplomacy being the first consideration even when it was a question of proclaiming the truth and defending the innocent!
Two years ago, having resolved to register his opposition to gay marriage and Muslim immigration in a memorable way, Dominique Venner, another far-right French ideologist (and also a former OAS member), walked into Notre-Dame cathedral and blew his brains out. It was an act worth of a Viking or a samurai. Ousset would have known it was an act unworthy of a Christian, that heroic witness is not the same thing as being a drama queen.
Now, I am not overly bothered about the two issues that pushed Venner over the edge. Thanks be to God, I’m not nearly as frustrated as Ousset’s correspondent. But reading his letter served to remind me that I might be just a little bit impatient. Last night, as I wished aloud for “a resolution among Christians to renew our own culture in such a way that no force can prevail against it,” I seem to have let it slip my mind that this culture already exists. If the next Bernanos doesn’t happen to be on my Facebook friends list, well, renaissances take time.
Those of Ousset’s acolytes who escaped De Gaulle’s justice by fleeing to Argentina, are widely credited with training the Argentine armed forces to fight the same dirty war Pope Francis lived through. How he might have reacted to the threat posed by ISIS is an interesting question. But he doesn’t seem to have nursed any illusions about the Church or Western Civilization not teetering on the brink of disaster.
I don’t know when I’ll next get the chance to wipe Christ’s face, but thanks to Ousset, I now feel emboldened to try, very heroically, not to spazz out over the next 10 minutes. I won’t pretend to like his politics, but when it comes to spiritual works of mercy, beggars can’t be choosers.