Towards a New Counter-Revolution

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I was in Boston on the weekend the Associated Press, and other esteemed arbiters of American democracy (Fox News, CNN, et cetera, et cetera,) preemptively declared Joseph R. Biden, Jr.—nominal son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and of the Roman Catholic Church—the forty-sixth President of the United States. You’d think the Patriots had just won the Super Bowl. A continuous stream of cars flowed by, honking in celebration. Windows and soft-tops were down, even in the brisk November air, as spontaneous paraders hollered in jubilation. (When I say I was in Boston, I ought to be more specific: this was Newbury Street, the heart of the city’s yuppie district. I doubt the mood was the same in Southie.)

The daylong blare of car horns was annoying to be sure, and the prematurity was at least as grating as it was amusing. But more than anything else, the elation that met the media’s declaration was outrageous for its delusional condescension. Parades were paired with op/eds about “the adults”, or worse, “the experts” returning to power to save us from destruction. The irony need not be pointed out to the reader.

In a particularly obnoxious flourish, the Bidenites announced the restoration of America—unbeknownst to us, it had vanished under Trump—with cloying paeans to the national flag and explicit declarations of “America is back” (whatever that means) even from the so-called president-elect himself. It was a high-and-mighty victory lap at halftime.

But above and beyond all of this bellicose asininity, our fratres seiuncti on the Religious Left fell head over heels for the return of a man of faith to the Oval Office. When Joe Biden went to Sunday Mass, (where the pro-abortion pol who delivered gay marriage to the U.S. was not denied communion), the nation was treated to doting, prime time coverage on television news. Major papers and certain Catholic journals published odes to Biden’s piety, cast against President Trump’s “transactional” relationship with religious voters.

No, Mr. Trump isn’t as theatrical in his displays of faith as Mr. Biden. But he is certainly a steadfast ally to traditional Christians. Any argument over whether religious people have been better off under President Trump than under the previous administration, in which Joe Biden served as number two, would not last very long. I will take a lukewarm non-denominational Christian who does right by me, over a churchgoing Catholic who screws me over, any day of the week.

For any believer who doubts our fate under a Biden administration, the man’s record is clear. Those who insist on calling him a moderate would like you to forget that it was not until Vice President Biden voiced his support for homosexual marriage on national TV, that President Obama was forced to change his position; the practice became legal nationwide just three years later. Even this year, Biden has promised to revive Obama’s persecution of the Little Sisters of the Poor upon taking office, a losing battle if ever there was one. And of course, murdering babies is a very bad thing to do, and we cannot give defenders of the practice a pass with mitigating language like “abortion-rights advocates.” (“He’s not pro-abortion, he’s pro-choice!” our Girondins will shout furiously next year, as Joe Biden wipes away both the Hyde Amendment and the Mexico City policy.) Our prospective “second Catholic president” is poised to make life quite unpleasant for faithful American Catholics.

Of course this is the best-case scenario, predicated on the Pollyannaish assumption that President Biden will not be pulled further leftward by other factions of his party. Conservatives often worry about radicals in Congress like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another Catholic whose progressive politics have been taken as evidence of her abiding faith. However, the biggest threat to Catholics in 2021 is likely to be Kamala Harris. With Joe Biden at a sprightly seventy eight years young, his pick for vice president is likely to drop the “vice” before these next four years are up, and possibly much sooner.

It would be imprecise to call Harris a radical leftist. She is a former prosecutor with cheerleaders on Wall Street. But President Kamala would nonetheless pose a clear and present danger to Americans of faith. The California senator carries all of the same policy problems as her septuagenarian running mate, and then some. Anyone who follows national politics closely will recall that Harris has made her strong, practical anti-Catholicism explicit.

Two years ago when Brian Buescher, a Catholic lawyer from Nebraska, was nominated to a federal judgeship by President Trump, Harris and her Democratic colleague Mazie Hirono grilled him on his membership in the Knights of Columbus during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The two women openly questioned whether someone who belongs to such an “extremist” organization that “oppose[s] a woman’s right to choose” can possibly serve in the United States government. (In context, it was entirely clear that they had already settled on an answer.) The Knights of Columbus, of course, is a mainstream fraternal organization whose positions reflect the teachings of the Church.

Both conservative and Catholic leaders hastily denounced the spectacle, and concerns were raised about its contravention of the American constitutional order. Article VI of the Constitution prohibits the imposition of any religious test for office in the United States, and for a good reason. This is no small thing; the banishment of faithful Catholics from political life, which a woman poised to ascend to the highest office in the land has openly pursued, is unconscionable. One wonders if Harris and her Catholic apologists know that wars have been fought, crowns stolen, governments destroyed over this very question. King James II, a servant of God and as fine a patron as any for politically defeated Catholics, could attest to that.

When James ascended to the throne of England is 1685, he became the first Catholic monarch in nearly 130 years. (Though his brother and predecessor, Charles II, was received into the Church on his deathbed, James was England’s first and last 17th-century monarch to actually rule as a Catholic.)  The defining project of James’s short reign was to lift the religious restrictions put in place by the ascendant Protestant parliament. Chief among his undertakings was the general dispensation from laws prohibiting Catholics from public office. A three-year whirlwind of conflict and conspiracy led to a Dutch invasion headed by James’s Protestant nephew William, at the invitation of seven English Protestant nobles.

James retreated, first to Ireland and then to France, both of which were more strongly Catholic and more supportive of his claims. But the ensuing decades saw numerous attempts by Catholics to restore their brother in faith to the throne.

The Catholics’ last stand came in 1745, when James’s grandson Charles led an army against the Protestant forces to regain the throne for his father, James III. The fight saw some success, with the Jacobite army taking Edinburgh within two months. But resources were low, and manpower was limited. In April of 1746, Charles’s exhausted force faced the Protestant army of the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden, where as many as 2,000 Jacobites were killed in a single hour. The Catholics left the field that day without hope, and Cumberland left with the sobriquet “Butcher.” De jure oppression of non-Protestants would continue for nearly another century, until 1832.

Nonetheless, the perseverance of the faithful is remarkable. By Culloden, Catholics had endured for fifty-eight years. They resisted when they could, and they practiced as best they could under a government that would not allow their faith to be lived out. That must be added, too, to the century and a half of oppression they had already experienced from the advent of English Protestantism to the coronation of James. Even after the decisive defeat of 1746, the flame did not die out. In the worst of circumstances—effective proscription from public practice and engagement in public life—the Church still endured.

That Catholic resistance in England outlived James, who died in exile in France in 1701. His body was interred at an English church in Paris, where it remained for nearly 90 years, until France experienced a revolution of its own whose anti-Catholic ferocity made 1688 look mild by comparison. As the radicals tore through the city’s churches, James’s tomb was desecrated and destroyed.

It is well known that the Jacobins spilled Catholic blood with an almost single-minded intensity. Among the faithful victims, the sixteen Carmelite martyrs of Compiègne loom especially large in the popular imagination. For the Left, the ransacking of the French Church is just another indicator of the revolution’s (necessarily bloody) dedication to modernity and progress. For the Right, it contributes to a historical understanding of progress running roughshod over the Ancien Régime, of which the Catholic Church was an integral part. Neither narrative remembers much of the noble Catholic rebels who, like the Jacobites at Culloden half a century earlier, fought until their dying breaths.

The resistance was concentrated in the Vendée, a largely agrarian and Catholic coastal region south of the Loire. There can be no confusion about the cause of the Vendée uprising: the men there were fighting for the Catholic faith against a government that saw no place for it. They were royalists, yes, but they were royalists second, and Catholics first. In fact, one of their leaders, Maurice d’Elbée, had been a supporter of the revolution until its anti-Catholicism became clear.

Leaders like d’Elbée were giants among men. His predecessor as commander of the Vendéan army, Jacques Cathelineau, was a middle-class peddler in Anjou. As the Revolution’s war against the faithful intensified, Cathelineau began quietly assembling Catholic men to fight. On March 12, 1793, Jacques Cathelineau marched to war with twenty-seven men. By the March 14, he had over three thousand, and had captured three towns from republican forces.

One of the many fascinating aspects of the Catholic uprising in the Vendée is that it did not begin as a single uprising at all. Communities across the region decided independently that the atrocities committed by the Republic could not be endured, and took up arms to defend their faiths and homelands. There was no central organization, nor even much of a general call to arms. The spontaneous forces simply merged together, and Cathelineau was chosen to lead the troops.

The best portrait we have of Cathelineau, commissioned by Louis XVIII decades after his death, depicts a gallant Catholic soldier. Flowing golden hair and a grand cape suggest a kind of majesty, but a simple gray jacket and soldier’s boots identify the man with the peasant uprising he led. There is a pistol nestled in his belt, and a rosary slung from left to right across his chest.

Cathelineau, unlike the armchair revolutionaries whose regime he opposed so fiercely, fought on the front lines with his troops. It proved his undoing. At the end of June, on the crest of a wave of astonishing success, Cathelineau led his army into the major city of Nantes. The incursion fared well, and at the Place Viarme he knelt to give thanks to God. He was shot by a sniper while on his knees, and died two weeks later from the wound.

Maurice d’Elbée assumed control of the Vendéan army, and it saw more remarkable success in the ensuing months—a slew of republican generals proved unable to quell the Catholic forces. But the strain of the ongoing siege at Nantes (which lost substantial momentum upon Cathelineau’s death) proved too much for the largely peasant army to bear. The tides turned, and the government in Paris devoted everything they could to the extermination of Catholic rebels. What followed has been termed a genocide by many, with the total number of Vendéan Catholic civilians and soldiers killed numbering well over one hundred thousand, even by conservative estimates.

As late as 1815, Vendéan Catholics were able to mount a force against Napoleon’s armies—a kind of Culloden of their own. They did not win, but they fought—for years, and by the thousands, and against the bitterest of odds—and for that their faith was preserved, and their faith remains as a testament even for us today.

It was a hundred years and more after the Vendéans’ last stand that another revolution—this time half a world away—forced an uprising of agrarian Catholics. The Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 established a secular state, in law and in practice, after the overthrowing of President Porfirio Díaz, who had neglected to enforce the anti-Catholic provisions of the pre-revolutionary Constitution of 1857.

The post-revolutionary government became increasingly anticlerical. The number of priests was restricted by the government, religious services were regulated, and the intellectual descendants of the French revolutionaries perpetrated similar violence and vandalism against the Church and her faithful. The educational system of the heavily Catholic nation was secularized, with the new constitution mandated that schooling “be based on scientific progress and shall fight against ignorance, ignorance’s effects, servitudes, fanaticism and prejudice.” The language here is eerily familiar.

For years, the faithful of Mexico attempted peaceful resistance, hoping simply for the right to practice their faith freely in their native land. The government treated the objections of religious people as sedition, however, and responded only with harsher restrictions on their ability to live their lives as practicing Christians.

By June of 1926, the situation became unbearable, as President Plutarco Elías Calles instituted penal laws concerning public religion and religious institutions. On August 3, four hundred Catholic peasants armed themselves to defend the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Guadalajara from government troops, surrendering only when they ran out of ammunition, with eighteen dead and forty wounded. The next day, two priests were assassinated in their parish church by a force of more than two hundred soldiers. On January 1 of the next year, the rebels announced war.

The conflict that ensued shocked the world for one simple reason: the rebels were unbelievably successful. Very few of them had any military experience, and supplies were scarce at best. But there was among them an astounding faith that proved a truly powerful force. The secular government was forced to broker peace with the Cristeros, so called because of their battle cry: “Viva Cristo Rey!”

In a deal mediated by the U.S. ambassador, Mexico lifted many of its harshest secularist restrictions. By the summer of 1929, some sense of normalcy returned for Mexican Christians. Ninety thousand people had died, and by a ratio of about two-to-one, they were disproportionately governmental casualties. The Cristeros were a genuinely remarkable force.

Equally important, however, is the fact that many restrictions remained in place. In fact, many remain in place to this very day. We are not nearly so removed as we might think from the hard realities of history. The injustices against which the Cristeros fought live on, and not just among our neighbors to the south.

It is easy to dismiss any possibility of finding ourselves in the Cristeros’ unenviable position. But it is worth studying carefully each of the abuses to which those Catholic rebels objected. None of them—not a single one—is impossible, or even particularly difficult, to picture in the U.S. in the relatively near future. Kamala Harris would have felt right at home in the Calles administration.

At the end of this annus horribilis—in which a strange Chinese virus has ravaged the globe, public worship has been suspended in countless jurisdictions, and two people who will wage war on our faith and values have claimed victory in a disputed election—there is little indication that we will be better off when the calendar changes over.

We ought to pray fervently that we will never need the lessons of our history: the history of Catholics in a hostile world. But just in case, we should know it. We should know what glorious victories are won by men who fight beneath the banner of Christ the King.

Declan Leary

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Mr. Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University.

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