Ordinarily this column is devoted to people I have known. Our current national crisis is an excuse for me to mention three exceptions.
I cannot say I really knew Winston Churchill, but once my father took me to see him when he was visiting Bernard Baruch in Manhattan. He had no idea who I was but I remember his voice: “You are a good little boy.” I took the detached protocol as an oracle. On November 10, 1942, after El Alamein, Churchill had said that the North African campaign was “not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” On February 20, 1943, the German-Italian Panzer Army attacked the United States Army II Corps at the Kasserine Pass in west central Tunisia. Our troops were ill prepared and ill led, with poor coordination between air and ground forces and inadequate tanks. One thousand Americans were killed.
Quickly there was a complete shake-up from all local units right up to the top commanders, with Patton replacing Fredendall. Eventually the end of the beginning ended in victory. This is a contemporary allegory, when we see in the wake of the 2008 elections the social consequences of poorly formed Catholics overwhelmed by secular forces.
Though I did not know Cardinal Newman, one excuse being that he died 55 years before I was born, I think that I have lived with his words so long that we would need no introduction. He predicted that naive and untested Catholics would fall into “mass apostasy” through lack of preparedness in spiritual combat:
Do you think [the Prince of Lies] is so unskillful in his craft, as to ask you openly and plainly to join him in his warfare against the Truth? No; he offers you baits to tempt you. He promises you civil liberty; he promises you equality; he promises you trade and wealth; he promises you a remission of taxes; he promises you reform. This is the way in which he conceals from you the kind of work to which he is putting you; he tempts you to rail against your rulers and superiors; he does so himself, and induces you to imitate him; or he promises you illumination, he offers you knowledge, science, philosophy, enlargement of mind. He scoffs at times gone by; he scoffs at every institution which reveres them. He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and praises you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how to become as gods. Then he laughs and jokes with you, and gets intimate with you; he takes your hand, and gets his fingers between yours, and grasps them, and then you are his.
My acquaintance with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was slim, only a passing one on occasions when I was a student. Yet I have remembered what he wrote before he became pope about governments that would pose as religions and secular leaders who would be messiahs controlling the tides: “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic” (Truth and Tolerance).
In this end of the beginning of offenses against the dignity of life, we may reasonably expect a dismantling of the pro-life work since 1973 and taxpayer support of infanticide, along with repudiation of the Mexico City accords, which blocked the funding of eugenics abroad. The freedom of the Church’s voice in the public forum will be tested by an inhibiting alliance of government and media. And there will be financial intimidation. Most immediately, in my own state of New York, the new control of both houses of the Albany legislature by the same party hostile to the good of the Church could help passage of a bill to eliminate the statute of limitations in lawsuits against Catholic and other private institutions, while exempting public institutions.
As with the lesson of the Kasserine Pass, we are learning that there is no place for amateur soldiers in the army of the Lord, neither in the infantry nor among the commanders. A short time from now, some will say in reflection: “We should have listened to the warnings.” The Churchillian response, fortified by two prophetic cardinals, will be, “Why didn’t you?”