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From the July/August, 2010
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Hagiophobia by Anthony Esolen

Hagiophobia

Hatred of Sanctity Runs Deep

A Jewish historian doing research at the Vatican recently discovered directives recommending the excommunication of any Catholic who joined the Nazi party or even flew the swastika. They date from 1930–1933, during the pontificate of Pius XI, when Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, was Secretary of State and therefore largely responsible for Vatican dealings with Germany. The documents, according to the historian, are evidence of an ongoing ideological war between Rome and the Nazi regime, even before Hitler became chancellor.

If this news seeped into the iron skull of the mass media, I did not hear of it. For the word on Pius XII is that, worse than doing too little to assist the Jews during the Nazi oppression, he was actually sympathetic to Nazism. This, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and despite contemporary evaluations of his ceaseless efforts to use whatever means the church had at her disposal to hide and protect Jews in Italy and help them escape from the Nazis. Pius was a saintly scholar, but after he died, he became the object of slander when a Communist playwright, one Rolf Hochhuth, wishing to undermine the credibility of the Catholic Church, tagged him as Hitler’s man. The rest, we may say, is a gleeful rush to “history,” not of what happened, but of what many people wish had happened.

Or take Mother Teresa. Here is a simple woman who never affirmed anything else about herself than that she was stupid and unworthy of the greatness of the task to which God had called her. She took people dying on the streets, lying in their own filth, abandoned by their fellow men, unwanted and unloved, and helped them, when they were past cure, to die with human dignity, in the company of someone who gave them food and water and, more important than that, a human touch and a smile. She set up dispensaries for lepers, and helped them build a village where they could live with their families and grow some food and earn a little money. She took abandoned children and fed them and housed them in orphanages. She and her sisters now have some 650 houses of charity established all over the world.

She did all these things while living among the poor, eating simply, possessing nothing more than the clothes on her back, her blue and white sari, a rosary, and a bag for first aid. No one in the past century has been anywhere near so tireless as she was in loving the poor; she brought them the love of Jesus, no matter what their religion happened to be. She brought them joy, when she herself, as we now know, suffered through a long dark night of the soul, such as the greatest of Christian mystics have experienced. Yet she of all people has been called “Hell’s Angel” by the remarkably venomous Christopher Hitchens, who searched through the thousands of deeds of love that she and her sisters performed, to find fault, somewhere, anywhere.

Or take the current pope, Benedict XVI. He is a redoubtable scholar whose many writings return again and again to the centrality of Jesus Christ to all human history, and to the human questions that the individual man, believer or not, must ask. He affirms that the very being of God is a communion of love, and thus that our being created in the image and likeness of God means that we can only become ourselves when we freely give of ourselves in love.

Yet precisely because he holds so high a view of man’s destiny and, more to the point, because he will not divorce man’s sexuality from love and from truth, his words are readily misunderstood, his actions misinterpreted, and his whole ministry tarred as a tyrannical desire to impose his views upon millions of people. The reaction against him is so absurd that the aforementioned Hitchens and his fellow infidel Richard Dawkins have expressed a desire to arrest him for crimes against humanity.

As the preceding editorial reiterates, we are of one mind on the severity of the sex abuse crisis. It is clear, however, that the problem with predatory priests is not with Benedict, but rather with a loss of fidelity he and others have sought to correct over the last fifty years, a mission denounced by his critics. It is little more than political opportunism that Benedict’s haters now wish to move so quickly from denouncing him as “God’s Rottweiler” in defending the purity of the church to denouncing him for not being “Rottweiler” enough.

Fear of the Holy

My purpose here is not to uphold the sanctity of various prominent Catholics, but to ask what it is about the holy that strikes fear into the hearts of so many. We think that the saints are beautiful, and they are. Then how do people miss it?

Then again, why should we be surprised that they miss it, when in Jesus himself, as far as many a Pharisee would concede, no beauty was to be found? When Jesus wrought his signs and wonders, and when he taught with authority about the kingdom of God, what did those Pharisees ask him, but why his disciples did not wash their hands before eating, and suchlike? They had before them the Lord, the long-awaited anointed of God, who had made the blind to see and the deaf to hear, and somehow the truth could not penetrate the shells of their self-regard.

For the holy is a challenge to us, and therefore an affront. It does not curry our favor. It does not mingle with the guests at parties in our own honor, eating cucumber sandwiches and speaking empty pleasantries. It is not nice. It stands in fearful judgment before us. The holy is set apart; its ways are not our ways; yet it calls us to surrender our ways, and to be converted.

God is the Holy One, and therefore God is to be feared. His worshipers fear him filially. They wish, as sons and daughters, to do his will, to be, by his grace, wholly his. But those who do not worship him fear him still, as the One whose presence they can never entirely ignore, and who calls them to a transcendent truth they find too powerful, too demanding, too good.

That is why Jesus himself was hated, and will always be hated; his cross will always be that sign of contradiction. His holiness demands a decision. It makes the affability of a Socrates, or the restrained worldly wisdom of a Confucius, look pale and insubstantial. In Jesus we truly see holiness in the flesh. He calls us likewise to be holy. And there are some who say, “Yes, Lord, make me holy, unworthy as I am!” And there are others who say, “Let this holiness be far from me. I will not serve.”

The Only Humanists

Let us, finally, be quite clear about one thing. Those who believe in God, and who honor his holiness, longing to be transformed in mind and soul—they are the true and only humanists. They hold so high a view of man that, if they were to see a victim of cholera dying in a ditch in Calcutta, they would burn in shame that the image of God should be treated with such contempt; or should they see a rich man destroying his soul with the vices that money can buy, they would pray that he might someday see what man is called to be.

Because God is holy, man, made in his image, a little less than the angels, is worthy of our reverence. But those who deny the holiness of God will be the quickest to deny the holiness of man. They will reduce their neighbors and, in the end, themselves to animals, to machines, to something to be managed and controlled. They who begin by hating God and his saints must end by hating man. It cannot be otherwise.

— Anthony Esolen, for the editors


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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“Hagiophobia” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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