There was fierce disagreement within the Church as to how to respond to the events that followed the French Revolution of 1789 and the advent of political and social modernity. The orthodox Counter-Enlightenment position was that the Revolution had been a mistake; that the civil rights proclaimed in its wake (in particular, the right to freedom of religion) were incompatible with Catholic principles; and that the State had a duty to embrace and support the Church and to reflect her teachings in its civil legislation. From the end of the 18th century, the Revolution and the resultant evils of the modern age were identified as the work of a conspiracy of Freemasons, and in the latter part of the 19th century the Jews were assigned a role in the plot as well (though the popes, unlike some of their subordinates, were much less willing to buy the Jewish version of the conspiracy theory than the Masonic version).
The Waterloo of Counter-Enlightenment Catholicism was the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 ("Vatican II"), though the Church had been softening the positions outlined above since the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903).
On the eve of Vatican II
I want to start with a document dating from the years immediately prior to Vatican II. This is a letter written by Bishop Gerald de Proenca Sigaud of Jacarezinho in Brazil to Cardinal Tardini in Rome. It is dated 22 August 1959, and it represented the bishop's thoughts on the forthcoming Council.
Sigaud was squarely a man of the Counter-Enlightenment. He was dismayed that "the principles and the spirit of what we call the Revolution, are penetrating the Clergy and the Christian people", and he called for a "systematic combat". By "the Revolution" Sigaud seems to have meant a larger phenomenon than the French événements of 1789. He spoke of a "mortal combat" which had lasted "for six centuries now". This reflects the theory of the consistent decline of Christendom since the Middle Ages that we saw in Fr Denis Fahey's work, though Sigaud appeared to place the high point of Christian society in the 14th century rather than the 13th, as Fahey did. The "Revolution" had drawn strength from the "pagan Renaissance", advanced rapidly in the Reformation and the French Revolution, until finally "with communism, it invented the decisive instrument to delete the name of Christian from the very face of the earth".
How had this appalling train of events come about? Sigaud put forward an integrated conspiracy theory involving three sets of actors:
The Masonic sect gathers together the "Bourgeois"; the Communists gather together the "Proletarians". The aim of each group is the same: a socialist society, rationalistic, without God and without Christ. The two movements have one common head: international Jewry.
God was being replaced with liberty, the king with equality, social hierarchies with fraternity. The slippery slope to this dystopia was being lubricated with bikinis, beauty contents and "passionate movies".
The antisemitism is unashamedly paranoid. Leading Jews, Sigaud wrote, had "for centuries conspired... for the construction of a world wide Jewish empire", and they had taken control of a large part of international politics, finance and the media. It is worth noting that, alongside the Freemasons, the Jews' agents included Rotary and Lyons clubs.
Sigaud appears to have been politically authoritarian. He blasted the "idolatry of democracy" and spoke disparagingly of Christian Democracy, the mainstream conservative Catholic political force that had emerged in Germany, Italy, France and elsewhere following World War II. At one point, he seems almost nostalgic for the days of Hitler and Mussolini: "What used to be called "politics of the right" such as Fascism and National Socialism, were in fact to combat movements against the Church of Christ".
Archbishop Lefebvre and his friends
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) was the world's best-known ultra-traditionalist Catholic. I have written elsewhere about his life and career, and about how he came to be excommunicated for schism in 1988 under Pope John Paul II.
Lefebvre was not a modern liberal French Catholic, to put it mildly. His view of the world was starkly dualistic, and he blasted the contemporary Church leadership for seeking to make compromises with error:
Thus we find ourselves in front of an ecclesiastical world fully incoherent, illogical, searching for compromises between truth and error, between good and evil, between light and darkness, God and [the Devil]. (Lenten pastoral letter, 25 January 1987)
Lefebvre's political agenda was explicit and open. He condemned the "falsified ideas which have become the idols of modern man: liberty, equality, fraternity and democracy" (letter to Pope Paul VI, 17 July 1976). His antipathy towards modern Catholicism went hand in hand with an antipathy to the legacy of the French Revolution and the doctrine of religious liberty that formed part of it:
The Masonic and anti-Catholic principles of the French Revolution have taken two hundred years to enter tonsured and mitred heads. Today this is an accomplished fact....
The liberals’ dream for the last century and a half has been to unite the Church to the Revolution. For a century and a half also, the Popes have condemned liberal Catholicism....
[T]he Church, by accepting the status of common law in civil society, runs the risk of becoming merely one sect among others. She even runs the risk of disappearing, since it is obvious that truth cannot concede rights to error without denying itself. (Open Letter to Confused Catholics)
To be fair, as Lefebvre was careful to note, liberal churchmen had themselves made the same claim about the ideas of the Revolution migrating into the Church.
It should come as no surprised that Lefebvre preferred absolute monarchy to the French Republic and liberal democracy ("a specifically secular system"), though Pétain would do if no king was available:
This period [of Lefebvre's service as a missionary in Africa] was marked by the Gaullist invasion. We could see the victory of Masonry over the Catholic order of Pétain. It was the invasion of the barbarians, without faith or law! (Spiritual Journey)
Inevitably, there is a streak of conspiracism. Lefebvre told Pope Paul VI that there had been "a secret understanding between high dignitaries in the Church and those of Masonic lodges, since before the Council" (letter, 17 July 1976). To his credit, Lefebvre was generally less antisemitic than other ultra-traditionalists, though he did write in his last work, Spiritual Journey, that the Church's present-day leaders in Rome were "active collaborators of international Jewish Freemasonry and of world socialism". He also wrote in the same work:
[The two World Wars] led the way for the war inside the Church by helping to bring about the ruin of Christian institutions and the domination of Freemasonry, which became so powerful that it penetrated deeply with its liberal and modernist doctrine into the governing organs of the Church.....
Lefebvre was not the only Catholic bishop to promote ultra-traditionalist views in recent years. One prelate who became sympathetic to his take on the world was the Filipino bishop Salvador Lazo, who wrote to Pope John Paul II on 21 May 1998 saying:
I am for eternal Rome, the Rome of Saints Peter and Paul. I do not follow Masonic Rome.... I do not serve the Rome that is controlled by Freemasons who are the agents of Lucifer, the Prince of devils.
At the present time, the best-known Lefebvrist bishop is probably the eccentric Englishman Richard Williamson, a man whose views on politics and society are controversial even within ultra-traditionalist circles. In a letter to his supporters dated 5 April 1995, he blasted "egalitarian and democratist modernism", which he caricatured in this way: "man is God; so man, not Christ, is king; so all men are king, so one man must have one vote". In the same letter, he blames democracy for the Rwandan genocide and criticises Pope Pius XI, a man who played a significant role in bringing Mussolini to power in Italy, for being too liberal.
Most of the world must know by now that Williamson has trouble believing the standard account of the Holocaust, and it is clear that he is more outspokenly antisemitic than Lefebvre was. Reading another of his letters, dated 1 May 2000, there isn't much doubt that when he talks about "the internationalist plotters for world control by money" he is thinking of plotters of the circumcised variety. He also tells his readers that "God puts in men’s hands the 'Protocols of the Sages of Sion'... if men want to know the truth, but few do". Well, quite.
The same letter gives further evidence of a mad, extreme right-wing political outlook. He asserts that internationalist Communists are the "real rulers of the modern world" and that "the United States... is now a Communist country in all but name". He even complains sarcastically about Hitler getting the rough end of the stick: "as everybody is told, it was the wicked Hitler and not 'Uncle Joe' Stalin who was responsible for the start of WW II". In fact, as Williamson explains with the aid of another frivolous conspiracy theory, World War II actually started in Moscow in 1938.
Further evidence of how far Williamson has imbibed the Protocols of Zion view of the world is provided by the letter that he wrote on 1 October 2001, shortly after 9/11. "[A]s Catholics", he wrote, "have grown over the centuries since [the Middle Ages] weaker and weaker in the faith, especially since Vatican II, so the Jews have come closer and closer to fulfilling their substitute-Messianic drive towards world dominion".