The Desolate City

By Ann Roche Muggeridge

The worldwide implosion of the Roman Catholic Church during the years 1960-1980 is, in my opinion, one of history’s greatest mysteries.  How could a millennia-old institution so large, vigorous, and self-disciplined collapse essentially overnight?  I’ve read several books on this topic, and The Desolate City is, by far, the best.  Muggeridge claims that the Church has suffered a revolution, and so she proceeds to study the crucial post-conciliar years by analogies with revolutions in the secular/political sphere.

Her template for a revolution begins with a vigorous but disgruntled class—usually the class next to the top rather than one of the lower orders—that feels that it is not being given the power its merits deserve.  The disgruntled class uses its authority within the system to undermine the system by criticizing and ridiculing the ruling order in front of the lower classes.  These “rituals of revolution” prepare the public psychologically for the overthrow of the old order.  The government tries in various ways to appease the revolutionaries, which they take to be a sign of weakness.  Finally, the revolutionaries move into open defiance.  When the government fails to suppress them, people start defecting to the new revolutionary power center en masse.  The revolution solidifies its control of all public institutions, and the old government is effectively overthrown.

This, Muggeridge claims, is what’s happened to the Catholic Church.  Here, the government is the Magisterium:  the Pope and loyal bishops.  The disgruntled class is the clerical intelligentsia:  the teaching religious orders, the bureaucrats in the national episcopal conferences, and (especially) the theologians.  The revolution, as Muggeridge calls it, has succeeded in establishing control over the Church at all levels except the very top.  How did the revolutionary intelligentsia gain so much power?   It came through a dreadful miscalculation on the part of the bishops.  The latter had hoped at Vatican II to secure more freedom from curial (i.e. papal) interference, and to this end they allied themselves with the radicals (who at the time were pretending to be mostly orthodox).  Once the radicals had established their control over the conciliar implementation commissions and the bishops’ bureaucracies, the masks were discarded and the bishops found they could no longer control their own diocese.

One of the strengths of this book is that it quotes copiously from revolutionaries like Edward Schillebeeckx and Rosemary Ruether to show just how radical their denial of the Catholic faith is.  They reject core doctrines like the existence of God the Father and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, and they reject key Catholic moral teachings like those regarding contraception, abortion, and communism.   Catholic feminist nuns have gone particularly far:  they reject the entirety of Catholic doctrine and morality, and they engage in bizarre neo-pagan self-worship rituals, some of which are described in this book.  The revolutionaries have been very aggressive in promoting their views.  One organ for spreading the revolution was the RENEW program, which went from parish to parish telling lay Catholics that the New Testament is a bunch of lies—all with the approval of local bishops!  The two main fronts of the revolutionary assault have been in the areas of liturgy and sexual morality.  Muggeridge does a good job of emphasizing how crucial these two areas are, how they embody and symbolize the Catholic sacramental worldview, and how quickly this worldview disappears when they are tampered with.  The whole purpose of the changes to the Mass (as she proves by quoting the revolutionaries themselves) was to change Catholic belief.  The transcendental/sacrificial/sacramental aspects of the Mass were deliberately obscured, so what was left was just a communal gathering.  By facing east, the priest led the people in prayer to God.  By facing the people, the priest becomes a performer and the congregation his audience.

The revolution’s attacks might not have been so successful without the help of a sympathetic secular press.  Muggeridge shows how the rebels manipulated the press and used their journalist allies to apply pressure to the Vatican and to delegitimize its authority in the eyes of ordinary Catholics.  The importance of media partisanship during the Council and the rebellion against Humanae Vitae cannot be overestimated.

Muggeridge tells a number of “Catholic horror” stories about clergy attacking Catholic doctrine or engaging in sacrilegious acts.  It should be pointed out that these are not accusations she’s making about things that allegedly happened in secret.  These are things publicly done, publicly recorded, and publicly boasted about by the perpetrators.  It’s simply no good to pretend that what she’s talking about isn’t real or isn’t widespread.  Anyone who’s spent much time in Catholic churches has his own clerical blasphemy stories, myself included.

Muggeridge ends the book on a somewhat hopeful note.  John Paul II has recently been elected Pope, and she sees this as a sign that the Church will now stop appeasing her enemies, start working with her friends, and launch a counter-revolution.  A quarter-century later, though, the revolution seems as powerful and Catholic orthodoxy as marginalized as ever.  I admit I found the optimistic parts of the book more depressing than the pessimistic parts.

Does this book solve the mystery of how the Church fell?  It certainly does a better job than most, but some things are still unexplained.  Most importantly, why did the theologians turn to heresy in the first place?  If power was what they wanted, the Church would have been much likelier to accommodate them if they had remained orthodox.  Why weren’t orthodox Catholics able to counter the influence of a biased secular press with their own journalistic organs?  There still seems to have been an almost preternatural competence of the revolutionaries and incompetence of the orthodox that I still don’t understand.

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