The Wrong Side of History

October is the month of the Most Holy Rosary, a devotion associated in modern times with the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917, during the First World War. Mary asked for prayer and penance, which she always requests in these private revelations that echo the public revelation in the Gospel: “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Mary at Fatima also entered into the history of the modern world when she told three unlettered peasant children that the Great War then being waged, President Wilson’s “war to end all wars,” would soon end, but that a greater menace to world peace would arise in Russia, whose errors would spread throughout the world and bring untold millions to violent death. In the end, however, Mary promised that her Immaculate Heart would triumph. This promise, too, echoes the Gospel itself: the risen Christ is victorious over sin and death.

Eternity enters into human history in often incomprehensible ways. God makes promises but gives no timelines. Visiting the shrine at Fatima, pilgrims enter a huge plaza, with the spot of the apparitions marked by a small chapel to one side, a large church at one end, an equally large adoration chapel at the other end, and a center for visitors and for the hearing of confessions. Just outside the main grounds, a section of the Berlin Wall has been re-built, a stark witness to what Mary had talked about almost a century ago. Communism in Russia and its satellite nations has collapsed, although many of its sinful effects are still with us.

Communism imposed a total way of life based upon the belief that God does not exist. Secularism is communism’s better-scrubbed bedfellow. A small irony of history cropped up at the United Nations a few weeks ago when Russia joined the majority of other nations to defeat the United States and the western European nations that wanted to declare that killing the unborn should be a universal human right. Who is on the wrong side of history now?

The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades. The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is.

Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring. I was responding to a question and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody’s smart phone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world. I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: “His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.” What I said is not “prophetic” but a way to force people to think outside of the usual categories that limit and sometimes poison both private and public discourse.

An earlier Archbishop of Chicago once tried his hand at reading the signs of his times. On May 18, 1937, Cardinal Mundelein, in a conference to priests of the archdiocese, called the then-German chancellor “an Austrian paper-hanger, and a darn poor one at that, I am told.” Why did Cardinal Mundelein speak in a way that drew applause from the New York Times and local papers and brought the German government to complain bitterly to the Holy See? The government of Germany, declaring its ideology the wave of the future, had dissolved Catholic youth groups and tried to discredit the church’s work among young people through trials of monks, priests and religious sisters accused of immorality. Cardinal Mundelein spoke of how the public protests of the bishops had been silenced in the German media, leaving the church in Germany more “helpless” than it had ever been.

He then added: “There is no guarantee that the battle-front may not stretch some day into our own land. Hodie mihi cras tibi. (Today it’s me; tomorrow, you). If we show no interest in this matter now, if we shrug our shoulders and mutter … it is not our fight, if we don’t back up the Holy Father when we have a chance, well, when our turn comes, we too will be fighting alone.”

“When our turn comes …” Was Cardinal Mundelein a prophet as well as an administrative genius? Hardly. At his death in 1939 he was well known as an American patriot and a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he also had a Catholic conviction that no nation state has been immaculately conceived. The unofficial anthem of secularism today is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” in which we are encouraged to imagine a world without religion. We don’t have to imagine such a world; the 20th century has given us horrific examples of such worlds.

Instead of a world living in peace because it is without religion, why not imagine a world without nation states? After all, there would be no American ambassador recently killed in Libya if there were no America and no Libya! There are, obviously, individuals and groups who still misuse religion as a reason for violent behavior, but modern nation states don’t need religion as an excuse for going to war. Every major war in the last 300 years has been fought by nation states, not by the church. In our own history, the re-conquest of the secessionist states in the Civil War was far bloodier than the re-conquest of the Holy Land by the now despised Crusaders. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.

Analogies can easily be multiplied, if one wants to push a thesis; but the point is that the greatest threat to world peace and international justice is the nation state gone bad, claiming an absolute power, deciding questions and making “laws” beyond its competence. Few there are, however, who would venture to ask if there might be a better way for humanity to organize itself for the sake of the common good. Few, that is, beyond a prophetic voice like that of Dorothy Day, speaking acerbically about “Holy Mother the State,” or the ecclesiastical voice that calls the world, from generation to generation, to live at peace in the kingdom of God.

God sustains the world, in good times and in bad. Catholics, along with many others, believe that only one person has overcome and rescued history: Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, savior of the world and head of his body, the church. Those who gather at his cross and by his empty tomb, no matter their nationality, are on the right side of history. Those who lie about him and persecute or harass his followers in any age might imagine they are bringing something new to history, but they inevitably end up ringing the changes on the old human story of sin and oppression. There is nothing “progressive” about sin, even when it is promoted as “enlightened.”

The world divorced from the God who created and redeemed it inevitably comes to a bad end. It’s on the wrong side of the only history that finally matters. The Synod on the New Evangelization is taking place in Rome this month because entire societies, especially in the West, have placed themselves on the wrong side of history. This October, let’s pray the rosary so that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen the bishops and others at the synod as they deliberate about the challenges to preaching and living the Gospel at this moment in human history.

This column first appeared in the Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago, for October 21 – November 3, 2012.

Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I


His Eminence Francis Eugene Cardinal George, O.M.I., is the eighth Archbishop of Chicago. Before his appointment to Chicago by Pope John Paul II in 1996, he served as bishop of Yakima, Washington, and archbishop of Portland, Oregon. He earned his masters in theology from the University of Ottawa and his doctorate in philosophy from Tulane University in New Orleans. His most recent book, God in Action: How Faith in God Can Address the Challenges of the World, was published in 2011.

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  • poetcomic1

    The greatest threat to humanity now is Islam. Islam is actively and openly at war in over 50 countries of the world using unspeakable acts of terror with barbaric arrogance. It is precisely because the great Western nation-states have totally secularized and become 24/7 Porn Palaces Freak Shows that we are in danger. Nothing inherently in the ‘nation state’ as such.

    • Brian A. Cook

      24/7 Porn Palaces Freak Shows? That’s a cruel caricature of liberals democracies. How do you explain efforts to protect women, the poor, and other flesh-and-blood humans (I am not saying that they’re perfectly consistent, only that they exist)? How do you explain efforts to protect the environment? How do you explain staunch opposition to Nazism and authoritarian regimes?

    • Proteios1

      Good point. The more I learn about islam the more I come back to the same thought. Whatever private experience muhommed had, either,
      A) it didn’t come from Heaven. There are visions and revelations that are demons. Maybe this was one.
      B) it was divinely inspired, but after receiving some fame and fortune decided the worldly ways were more indulgent, that with power comes many wives and concubines, murder of no believers, etc. this to me is inconsistent with God. God can neither deceive nor be deceived.
      Therefore, this was either mans abuse of a divine message for personal gain or not a divine message but an extremely unholy one. The best way to fear the cult of islam is to learn all you can. Ignorance is bliss in this case.

      • Kenneth

        Actually Proteios1, Muhammed was convinced he had seen a demonic spirit. He told his wife (who happened to be Christian) about the experience, and for whatever reason unknown to us (poorly catechized perhaps?) convinced him that it was not so and that it was really an angel of God. And so here we have the beginning of Islam.

    • pleasethink This is a link to a very informative documentary on the Islamist infiltration of America. Their only goal is Shariah law for the whole world.

  • publiusnj

    Cardinal George makes a very valid point when he writes:
    “In our own history, the re-conquest of the secessionist states in the Civil War was far bloodier than the re-conquest of the Holy Land by the now despised Crusaders. The state apparatus for investigating civilians now is far more extensive than anything dreamed up by the Spanish Inquisition, although both were created to serve the same purpose: to preserve a government’s public ideology and control of society, whether based on religion or on modern constitutional order.”
    The State, though, whether Democrat or Republican, is highly unlikely ever to admit the truth of this because the State always seeks to preserve its power in all spheres of life. But speaking the truth is nevertheless the only way forward.

    • hombre111

      Excellent post! And today, after all the lies they use to get us think they have our interests in mind, our representatives in Washington will go back to serving the interests of the larger masters that have them by the throat.

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  • Advocate

    I have a great respect for Cardinal George, but his comments on the nation state strike me as incredibly naive. What would he propose to take the place of them? And how would they be any different, if subsidiarity is to be maintained, than an actual nation state? Why do we think wars between whatever takes their place would be any less likely? And quoting Dorothy Day on the subject? Regardless of her personal sanctity is their any reason to believe she has some expertise or special insight into this question? Pope John Paul II was every bit a patriot, and loved his country. Would we fault him for that? And when we say that “the United States” voted with other western countries for a universal abortion right, don’t we really mean “the ambassador appointed by the Obama administration”, almost unthinkable under the Bush administration? And finally, isn’t the real reason we still have legal abortion in the United States that the bishops, by and large, have been so free to comment on every issue under the sun – almost all of which are issues of prudential judgement – that when they do speak on matters that are black and white (abortion, marriage etc.) the force of their statements are drowned in a sea of black ink issuing from the USCCB?

    • ATT

      The “nation-state” is not necessarily the country; the “nation-state” is the government that rules over the land. Karol Wojtyla “was every bit a patriot” – and he put his patriotism into practice by standing in fierce opposition to the “nation-state,” the government, that was ruling the country he loved so deeply. Clearly the Cardinal is putting his patriotism into practice by standing against the secularist nation-state that we are currently ruled by.

    • Mike

      “What . . . to take the place of them?”

      How about Christians performing the works of mercy and their duty to their neighbor?

      • irishsmile

        The Catholics/Christians in my environment bend over backwards doing both the spiritual and the temporal works of mercy. The Catholic Church is the largest private provider of charity on the face of the globe! What exactly are you referring to? I’m interested.

        • hombre111

          Get real. A very, very large part of the money used by Catholic Charities comes from the federal government. Take away that money and it is no longer the largest provider of charity on the face of the globe.

          • Kenneth

            Assuming everyone else has their grants revoked, charities of the Catholic Church certainly remains the largest provider.

            • hombre111

              Probably a good point. But it doesn’t validate the argument that government has not had a huge role to play in Catholic Charities.

              • John200

                Government has always and everywhere interfered with true charity. A particular example is the US. Get the government to go away and watch true charity unfold.

                The godless, and the lefties who think they are doing God’s will, cannot stand this truth, so they will obscure it as much as possible. Still and all, it is true and obviously true. And only a committed truth-misser can miss it.

                Our secular humanist readers are mistaken about charity. Do you think they will apologize to the needy who they consign to the tender mercies of the government?

                Neither do I.

                • hombre111

                  Conservatives love to talk about charity, as if handouts can repair the loss of jobs and dignity suffered by millions. The issue is the legal and economic structures that create the kind deep recession we have just experienced. The government has to step in because there is nobody left.

                  • John200

                    Dear Father Hombre,

                    You have some pieces of the truth in there, mixed with confusion caused by leftist thinking. Let’s try to build on what you have figured out. Some of it is usable.

                    Conservatives love to act on charity and liberals don’t, as Arthur Brooks has pointed out. You are quite right on one point: it is demented to think
                    government handouts can repair the loss of jobs and dignity suffered by
                    millions. Conservatives don’t think that, lefties do. Today we have some 49 million on food stamps (renamed “SNAP”), so we can see where the dignity has gone.

                    The issue is the free enterprise system which will bring an end to the deep recession we are experiencing. By the way, the real recovery will begin on November 7, or January at the latest. It will be predicated on leftists’ departure from the halls of power.

                    The entrepreneur has to step in because there is nobody “left” in the current “lefty” administration who knows the legal and economic structures of the free enterprise system. Nor does the government know enough to perform economic planning.

                    That deep recession is what “lefty” economic thought brings you — every time. “The government has to step in because there is nobody left” is an excuse for doing what has always failed, and always will.

                    Father, there is a reason why every Pope since Pius IX (except JP I, who – I think – served only 27 days) has condemned socialism. I don’t expect a priest to know economic systems, it isn’t part of your formation and that is fine.

                    But there is a responsibility to back off on what is clearly wrong.

                    • hombre111

                      Dear John200,
                      Thanks for your post. I think you put your finger on part of the problem when you wrote, “Conservatives love to act on charity and liberals don’t.” I was taught from the beginning to think in terms of justice. It’s like today’s Office of Readings, which took a selection from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, and talked again and again agout justice. That would be pleasant reading to a liberal, but a conservative might clamp his mind shut like a trap, and not even see the word, which he would blindly associate with “socialism.” .
                      I lived during the glory days which you or your children will probably never ever see. It was the late forties, the fifties, and the sixties. A family could survive well on the salary of a single wage earner. He had good health insurance, could save money, buy a house, and send his kids off to college. As productivity rose, so did his wages. A mother could actually stay at home and take care of her kids.
                      But then along came a generation which, like you, had no memory of how the whole thing came together. They imagined that the life their parents were living was ordained by the stars, not won by the hard work of the unions. They let the ruling class convince them that unions were actually a bad thing, because they had to pay union dues. And so they helped break the unions, until, today, they form only 7% of the work force.
                      As soon as this happened, their wages went flat. Productivity continued to rise, but now the benefits went to the upper class, who chose not to share and were not obligated to share by pesky unions. You had new models, like Walmart, which payed as little as possible. Gone was good health insurance for millions. Even modest inflation had a huge impact on life at home. Pretty soon the wife was forced to work, pooling her low salary with her husbands flat salary. Pretty soon many were forced to work at two jobs.
                      This, of course, had a huge impact on children, who were now raised by child-care providers. I will have to put some of the blame on feminists, who wanted women to work, but millions of non-feminst women are working, not because they want to but because they have to. Anyway, back to the kids. My nephew routinely works ten hour days and so does his wife. He often works six or seven hours a week. In the meanwhile, the “pro-family” Republicans who dominate this state, are blind to the effect this economy is having on kids who come home to an empty house and spend hours waiting for their parents to come home.

    • hombre111

      What could possibly take the place of the nation state? It is a question of imagination, or the failure of imagination.

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  • Greenman

    I think his Eminence makes a great case for government to go back and do what it is supposed to do. It has it’s own manifesto, the Constitution. Right now ‘holy mother state’ wants to decide issues it has absolutely no competence about. What his Eminence has concisely stated today would have been relegated to the realm of ‘conspiracy theory’ a scant time ago.

  • Doug

    “Entire civilizations have faded from history after divorcing themselves from God. Will we be next?”E
    That’s the heading on

    The answer is “Yes!”, but not because of ‘divorcing’ God. God’s word itself says so: ” But in the days of those kingdoms, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, and his kingdom shall not be delivered up to another people: and it shall break in pieces, and shall consume all these kingdoms: and itself shall stand for ever.” Some have applied this to the ancient nation of Israel (the one founded by Jehovah, not the modern secular one), but the language of the prophecy goes far beyond that. In any event, Christians aren’t relying on any nation for anything important. Jesus himself pointed out the only hope of a Christian: “… thy kingdom come…”

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  • Gerard

    With all due respect to the Cardinal, I wish everyone, and especially Catholics, would dispense with the “wrong side of history” nonsense. What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history? People on every side of an issue throw out this ridiculous phrase as if it were some kind of objective and infallible judgement. What is history but the subjective re-telling of today’s story through the lens of whatever tomorrow’s zeitgeist happens to be. The telling of history usually reveals much more about the storyteller than the story. The way our culture seems to be trending in many areas of morality, most of us would probably be comforted to know that we will be on “the wrong side of history”! All that should be important to us is that we are not on the wrong side of objective moral law.

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