Thursday, September 6, 2007

Flashback: An Interruption of Our Story to Relate What Has Happened to St. John’s in Later Years…Then Back to the Contrasting Bios of Humphrey and McCarthy.

[Fifty years of politics written as a memoir for my kids and grandchildren].

The Papacy: Almost Like Clockwork: Every 500 Years.

We interrupt the flow of duo bios of Humphrey and McCarthy to relate what has happened to St. John’s of Collegeville, Minnesota—my undergrad college which was, when I went there (1946-50), a truly Benedictine university-monastery, repository of learning, particularly Catholic theology, in the tradition of the founder of monasticism, Benedict of Nursia (480-547). St. John’s was founded as the oldest school (initially for Indian children and adults) in Minnesota with the monastery attached to carry on the principles of monasticism which Benedict, as father of spiritual reflection, embodied. When I went to the college as a freshman at age 17, I was one of only ten who had just missed service in World War II. The heavy balance of freshmen, some 150 in number, were ex-servicemen on the GI bill.

To say that we were overwhelmed by the ex-GIs who had just returned from the war in 1945 is an understatement. They started out the academic year of 1946 yellling “where are the broads, where is the booze?” Only Abbot Alcuin understood this danger.

Here you had an influx of students, the average age was 24, many of whom had undergone many privations in the war: Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Battle of the Bulge—and we were kids who had just begun to shave. Accordingly the wise old Abbot, Alcuin Deutsch, OSB, ruled that all of us freshmen were to take a full-four years course in theology no matter what our majors—the same theology as given to candidates for the priesthood (exclusive, of course, of the Benedictine novitiate which Gene McCarthy underwent). Abbot Alcuin understood that the entire huge freshman class had to understand the nature of monasticism, whether they were to be priesthood students or candidates for the monastery or not.

Therefore we were schooled in the same dogmatic, strenuously intellectual, orthodox Catholicity that Benedict had prescribed. We were taught—kids like me, sitting next to grizzled ex-GIs who had tasted largely of life—the essence of the Benedictine rule: to come as near as possible to imitating the life of Christ: a life of chastity, prayer, labor, temperance and obedience. (The Benedictine monks were so stretched thin by Abbot Alcuin’s order to teach laymen all four years of theology that all were pressed into service, including some ancient ones who savored retirement. Also, one of my professors was the self-same Fr. Basil Stegman, OSB, who dashed over from his service as head of the novitiate to teach us: thus I got to know him and his disciplinary tactics well).

The only life of Benedict was written by one of his monks, Gregory (later to become known as Gregory the Great), one of the greatest popes of Christendom. Benedict began the monastic movement which conserved the treasures of learning from the barbarians and in fact saved the intellectual heritage of the West. The Rule we learned even though we were not required to participate in it. It is a very wise Rule of which it has been said, “a lamb can bathe in it without drowning while an elephant can swim in it.” It contains 73 short chapter divided into two parts: how to live a Christo-centric life on earth, and administrative, how to run a monastery effectively and what to do when a monk is disobedient.

The four years of theology which we learned sitting side-by-side with aspiring monks didn’t make any of us saints…at least not that I know…but spared a number of us from undue derelictions which Benedict called “occasions of sin.” The change is made in us and many of those ex-GIs was enormous; quite a few of those grizzled veterans chose to become priests. Anyone with even a rudimentary sense of the history of the Church knows that it has been filled with leaders who are earthen vessels and that time after time its leadership has gone to mediocrities, laggards and some crimson sinners. But throughout the Church’s ups and downs, there has been a rough cycle that has produced great popes in time of adversity on a close average of every 500 years. We learned it and the cycle goes like this:

Five hundred years or so after the crucifixion of Peter when it seemed like the barbarians would sweep away all Christianity, there arose a Roman senator who had left a Benedictine monastery—Gregory. Under him the tide was turned back and the barbarians began to be converted, to form what later was the great ethnic bulwark of the Church. Then there was decadence which swept through the Church and there arose another Benedictine monk—another Gregory (Gregory the Great)—who led the drive to save the treasures of ancient civilization which preserved Christianity for the future. A half-millennium later came a great Dominican, Pius V who applied the reforms of the Council of Trent, setting into place the catechetic fundamentals, the formal doctrine that remains in place even today.

It is not happenstance (at least to me) that five hundred years after Pius V came the pontificate of John Paul II, who renewed much of the old fundamentals that threatened to be swept away with mistaken views of what is the “spirit of Vatican II.” And it is a mystery to me…an absolute mystery…that the pope who will ultimately be called “John Paul the Great” was so disliked by the originator of the new modernist theology that swept St. John’s, Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB. I related in an earlier chapter how, watching John Paul pray in his chapel, Godfrey appeared to others to look hard-eyed at the pontiff, saying when questioned, “I am trying to love him.” Anyone with a knowledge of the Church, what it was intended for and the low estate it sank into through the centuries, should not have to force himself to love John Paul II.

It is my suspicion that Godfrey, who spent six decades revolutionizing theology at my school and across the Church even internationally which he caused to be called “updating,” had in his mind his own Church, not the Church of the two Gregories, Pius and John Paul. Godfrey’s church sets aside dogma in favor of political social action, rips away orthodoxy in favor of a kind of evangelical high where sin is forgotten and we are pals with God. A very popular religion from Godfrey, who put so-called scholarship to work to build his bark, but it is not the true Church.

Challenging authority when it conflicts with his own, ridiculing “Humanae Vitae,” the ban on artificial contraception, marked Godfrey as a true dissenter where his pride swept over all. His spiritual father was Virgil Michel whose ego was such that he was distrusted by Abbot Alcuin who suspected Virgil’s celebrity was a personal excursion into fame. Virgil had what was known as a nervous breakdown and then died at age 48 of cancer. Godfrey succeeded him and generated far more followers for modernism than Virgil dreamed of. Godfrey’s spiritual children are with us yet—Hans Kung who was his good friend and a host of other non-luminaries including the generation of Eugene McCarthy, Rembert Weakland the disgraced Benedictine who is former archbishop of Milwaukee, on and on down to the present day’s Fr. Andrew Greeley.

The legacy of dissolution, failure to recognize obedience, discarding of ecclesiastical authority in favor of pop non-leadership has wrecked the university and monastery. A former Abbot was disgraced; gay partnerships have been allowed to flourish just as they are in secular communities. Whether Godfrey envisioned this or not, I hope it is true that he could not fathom that his “revolution” would come to decadence.

Godfrey’s “revolution” at St. John’s carried through to art and architecture. An ex-Benedictine, Frank Kacmarcik, reigned at St. John’s in the art department, ordering the pictorials of stark stick-like figures with ping-pong balls for eyes: ugly, twisted misrepresentations of the human figre which he told me (when I lived nearby St. John’s as a reporter) “is necessary so we are not distracted by physical beauty.” To which I said, “like Raphael and Michelangelo?”

It was Kacmarcik’s screwed up effeminacy that despised the human male form which led to his screwed up art. Under the Godfrey “revolution,” an entire new building program was launched—replacing the old buildings with stark modernism, instead of the traditional twin towers a huge cement edifice that looks like a football scoreboard (represented in yesterday’s offering on this site). The building cost a ton of money and looks unfinished, with half-cured cement that seems to beg for refinishing. The interior of the massive church does not resemble a cathedral or the dwelling place of God but the egotistical remains from a modernistic wrecking ball. It is to the everlasting credit of Fr. Andrew Greeley (a Godfrey disciple who carries a harshly partisan message wrapped up as “commentary” today) that when Godfrey showed him the model for the church—stark, ugly, unadorned, and pronounced it representation of the architecture of the future, Greeley asked: “But Godfrey, what happens if it is not?”

Godfrey clapped his hand to his head as if he had not considered this prospect.

Today St. John’s is not vaguely the institution it used to be; it is a mockery, like seeing your grand-aunt flaunting a mini-skirt. Reading the university’s brochure you have not the faintest sense that it is a Christian or Catholic institution. The university has made enormous strides to accommodate secularism—has gone co-ed, has added to its faculty big names of commerce, downplays its Catholicity. Its president is not a priest but a Benedictine brother (an easy-going shrugger who cultivates rich donors, which wouldn’t have been tolerated by Abbot Alcuin who himself was university president); soon it would appear the next president may be a layman: all to conform to the leveling pop theology of Godfrey’s memory.

About two decades ago, when then Vice President Walter Mondale suddenly found he could not speak at its commencement (get it? The pro-abort Mondale addressing graduates at Abbot Alcuin’s school, a monastery supposed to emulate Benedict), somebody on the faculty erred grievously and invited me to make the graduation address in his stead. I accepted wityh alacrity before they could change their minds. What a hell of a mistake that was for them to commit. What I said comes later but I knew when I completed it (the students and their parents gave it generally a standing salute but the faculty sat on its hands) I would never return.

This is written to further delineate the influence that came to bear on Eugene McCarthy—which is my view but which has not been said earlier. A special chair has been dedicated at St. John’s to his memory for “peace and justice.” Really. A man who after his presidential run scoffed hard-liners but secretly tried to get Mike Deaver to have him named as Reagan’s UN ambassador just to give a finger to his former Democratic allies whom he betrayed by abandoning his party. His legacy is not that he was a critic of Vietnam. It is this: Not satisfied with criticizing the Vietnam War for which he had voted and supported until he was turned down by his patron, Lyndon Johnson, for the vice presidency…Gene, whether he intended it or not…launched a generation far more than did the Kennedys which spurred a wave of cynicism about the government. It was and is pure Godfrey Diekmann: a canonization of secularism reflexive anti-Americanism in foreign-defense policy and ultra-liberalism in domestic.

Now we will return to our regularly scheduled duo bios.

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