Often, prophecies come from the most unexpected of places: a talking donkey, an old man in the Jewish temple, three poor Portuguese children. One can add to that list a prominent Southern Presbyterian theologian, Confederate army chaplain, and virulent anti-Catholic by the name of Robert Lewis Dabney. For it was Dabney who discerned (and feared) that Catholicism would ultimately be the strongest, most stubborn bastion of conservative, religious truth in the United States.
Dabney was a remarkable man of many talents, though his support for both slavery and the Confederacy have led him to be overlooked, if not condemned, by contemporary historians and woke activists. He had degrees from Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Virginia, and Union Theological Seminary. He was a missionary, pastor, theologian, seminary professor, architectural designer, chaplain to Stonewall Jackson during the Civil War, and founder of the philosophy department at the University of Texas.
He also felt especially strong about Catholicism—he preferred to call it Romanism or popery—which he viewed as a perversion of the Christian faith. For example, in his short treatise “The Attractions of Popery” (1894), he declared:
[Catholicism’s] destructive power has resulted from this: that it has not been the invention of any one cunning and hostile mind, but a gradual growth, modified by hundreds or thousands of its cultivators, who were the most acute, learned, selfish, and anti-Christian spirits of their generations, perpetually retouched and adapted to every weakness and every attribute of depraved human nature, until it became the most skillful and pernicious system of error which the world has ever known.
In other words, Dabney believed one of the most diabolical things about the Church is that she is made even more evil with each succeeding generation. In his own words, she adjusts to “every superstition, every sense of guilt, every foible and craving of the depraved human heart.”
Nevertheless, Dabney was wise enough to recognize that the character and qualities of the Church—however pernicious he might view them—were attractive to many people, including American Protestants. To wit, Catholicism’s traditionalism, sacramentalism, internal intellectual coherency, and dogged defense of objective truth served as a bulwark against the same liberalism and secularism that Dabney identified as destroying Protestantism from within. The disgruntled Dabney begrudgingly admitted: “To the shame of our damaged Protestantism, popery remains, in some essential respects, more faithful to God’s truth than its rival.” Thus, the Presbyterian divine feared: “When they tire of the banality of modern evangelicalism, North Americans will become the ripest of prey for Romish ritualism.”
Consider Dabney’s thoughts regarding theological liberalism, which expressed skepticism toward miracles and traditional orthodox teachings on God and man. He writes: “When the atheistic doctrine begins to bear its natural fruits of license, insubordination, communism, and anarchy…democratic Protestantism does not know how to rebuke them.” Indeed, already recognizing the fruits of liberalism, Dabney rightly saw that “rationalistic and skeptical Protestantism” was giving “license to dogmatize at the bidding of every caprice, every impulse of vanity, every false philosophy. The result has been a diversity and confusion of pretended creeds and theologies among nominal Protestants which perplexes and frightens sincere, but timid, minds.” One need look no further than mainline Protestantism’s embrace of the sexual revolution to see this in action, as churches accept homosexual and transgender bishops; or their rejection of the traditional trinitarian dogma; or their “feminization“ of the word “amen.”
In contrast, Dabney observed, “Rome proposes herself as the stable advocate of obedience, order, and permanent authority throughout the ages.” Catholicism, despite its theological infighting, remained faithful to the historic, conciliar teachings of the magisterium. Despite its abuses, the Presbyterian could appreciate that it retained “a strong organ of church discipline, and is employed as such in every Romish chapel.” Moreover, unlike the emotivist individualism of Protestantism, and especially evangelicalism, Rome “works her system with the steadiness and perseverance which used to characterize pastoral effort and family religion among Presbyterians.” How ironic to read a Presbyterian bemoaning that Catholics are acting the way his co-religionists used to act! O tempora, o mores!
A similar phenomenon is at play in Catholicism’s prayer and liturgy, argues Dabney. “The Romanist’s machine prayers and vain repetitions have, at least, this tendency to sustain in the soul some slight habit of religious reverence, and this is better than mere license of life.” Though he viewed the Mass, the rosary, and other formulaic prayers as repetitive vanity, the Presbyterian acknowledged that these still inculcated piety. Similarly, the Catholic liturgy appealed to the human “craving for sensuous objects of worship,” and a “visible, material object of worship.” In the pejorative “smells and bells” of Catholicism and her “relics, crucifixes, and images of the saints,” the Church appeals to man’s inherent desire for the tactile and visual.
Catholicism’s teachings on sexuality also offered an effective rebuttal to growing laziness and libertinism in Protestantism’s rank-and-file. Though Dabney believed Rome had erred in defining marriage as a sacrament, he recognized her superiority in maintaining it as a divinely ordered, inviolable institution, whereas “Protestant laws and debauched Protestant thought tend all over America to degrade it to a mere civil contract…the divorce laws in our Protestant States provide so many ways for rending the marriage tie that its vows have become almost a farce.” (Sadly, one must note that annulments have become increasingly accepted by the Church.)
Dabney also feared that Catholicism’s rejection of contraception would enable the Church to grow Catholics at a faster rate than Protestants. “Romish pastors also stand almost alone in teaching their people the enormous criminality of those nameless sins against posterity at which fashionable Protestantism connives,” he lamented. “Their houses are peopled with children, while the homes of rich Protestants are too elegant and luxurious for such nuisances.” (One must also here decry the dramatic decline in Catholic family size in recent American history.)
Finally, Catholic parochial education enabled the Church to preserve her unique religio-cultural identity in comparison to many Protestant denominations. In “secularizing our whole State education,” Dabney believed that “the bulk of the Protestants in the United States have betrayed themselves.” In contrast, the most outspoken protests against secularization in America were coming from the Catholic Church. “It is she who stands forth pre-eminent, almost single-handed, to assert the sacred rights of Christian parents in the training of the souls they have begotten, of Christ in the nurture of the souls he died to redeem.” At least in this regard, we can still find many contemporary examples of strong, faithful Catholic education, both at the grade-school and university level.
It’s not hard to perceive the prescience of Robert Lewis Dabney, whose opinion of the Catholic Church, according to Catholic historians Eugene and Elizabeth Fox Genovese, “bordered on the unprintable.” Protestantism, despite the efforts of men like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, has continued its decline to the point of irrelevance to most Americans. Catholicism has grown to become the most dominant single church in the United States. Over the last two generations, its influence and evangelical witness have waned, thanks to the same liberalizing trends found in Protestantism, as well as her own corruption and excesses.
Yet, Dabney’s insightful thoughts on Catholicism, as he stood on the threshold of the twentieth century, remain true and valuable. Despite sexual abuses, liturgy wars, and episcopal malfeasance, the Church retains its magisterial authority and serves as a bastion of traditional, objective religious truth. There is not only aesthetic but true spiritual power in the sacraments. And Catholic teaching on sexuality offers an essential refutation of the excesses and destruction of sexual libertinism and LGBTQ confusion. If American Catholics want to save their nation, they must drink deep of the supernatural powers and objective realities found in our Church and her traditions. It is a mysterious irony of divine humor that even an anti-Catholic Confederate Calvinist seemed, however inchoately, to understand that.