In my newsfeed yesterday I read that the Cathedral of St. Helena in the Montana state capital was defaced by vandals who remain as yet unidentified. This was by no means the first story of this kind I had read in recent memory. I lived in Montana for a decade, was received into the Catholic Church during my time there, and know of similar incidents of spiteful desecration that other church properties in the state have suffered during that period. Bozeman’s Holy Rosary, of which I was a parishioner, was broken into and grossly disfigured in 2013. And in 2019, St. Agnes Church in Red Lodge suffered comparable damages on no fewer than three occasions. Neither are these the only instances.
Hatred of the Catholic Faith per se is obviously one motive in these attacks, though I am not inclined to think that is the only one-in Helena, the guilty party or parties also left their mark on the historic First Presbyterian Church which stands one street away from the cathedral; and in the Bozeman incident previously mentioned, a Baptist and a Mormon sanctuary were violated in addition to Holy Rosary. The nature of the graffiti left on the Helena churches was as one might expect: pentagrams, stale quotations from Nietzsche, and male genitalia that might have been executed with greater skill by a baboon of moderate dexterity. In a case such as this, it is unlikely that the guilty will be apprehended.
I have read far too many stories of this kind in the past several years to be especially angry anymore when yet another appears in Aleteia or the National Catholic Register. Certainly I hope, though I do not expect, that the vandals will eventually be caught and punished as the law allows, and that acts of architectural sacrilege will cease to be so frequent an occurrence. For the near future, I am not optimistic.
The sacred has a beauty proper to itself, and beauty of this kind will always stand as an offense in the eyes of a particular sort of person. This person need not be an atheist or a neo-pagan, and as likely as not, may not hold any substantive views in the matters of religion or philosophy which he is capable of articulating with anything resembling lucidity. Hatred of the beauty of holiness is, perplexingly, not the special property of any party or faction; the Philistine, for all his weaknesses, is an adaptive character, equally capable of doing his part among the Iconoclasts of the 8th Century, in the anarchic Beeldenstorm of the 16th, or in the purely secular destructions of 20th Century Russia, Spain, China, and other countries too numerous to name. In fact, there have been comparatively few movements in which nihilistic hatred of the visible expressions of Grace in marble, bronze or oil has not served as a factor of considerable weight. I suspect that the simplicity of the barbarian should likewise not be underestimated in this matter: the barbarian, whether he is a bearded Visigoth with a battleaxe, a dimly educated contemporary American with a can of spray paint, or a Salafi Muslim with a vestful of explosives, cannot for long endure the dangerous presence of any loveliness that speaks of things more than human, lest he allow it to enchant him, and separate him from whatever fetish or tribe or slogan in which he lives and moves and has his being. Hence his mindless wreckage of altar and Crucifix.
I hope that what I have written here does not sound desperate. To be a Catholic in the United States today is no great hardship. Our churches may be defaced with monotonous frequency, and one could point to a thousand scandals and public evils within and without our communion which our bishops are, or appear to be, too embarrassed or too frightened by to address, yet our daily case is not one of anticipated persecution or martyrdom, and any American layman who believes it is ought to compare his condition with that of his coreligionists in Sudan or Nigeria. The danger of our current situation is not that we should be snuffed out by angry mobs or the power of the state. Rather it is that we should be tempted to bury ourselves and our spirits in the slovenly distractions and bastardized ideals advertised to us at a thousand moments every single day in what we with too little irony still refer to as our cultural milieu. What we inhabit is not a culture; a more apt description of it would be a factory of degraded entertainments constructed on a national scale, the “citizens” of which are more or less free to select for themselves their own preferred means of infantilization, a class of goods that remains, at least for the moment, available in a supply of really quite impressive abundance.
“God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which;
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.”
As for the more or less sane layman who finds himself in the midst of this, what remains for him to do? Any suggestions I might offer here are minimal: he would be wise to bear in mind that he and you and I are living in neither the best nor the worst of worlds, and especially to guard against the latter assumption, tempting always to a certain type of Christian who suffers from the desire to be the last of the just left alive and bearing witness-a second St. Anthony in an imagined desert. Victor Hugo, in exile after the destruction of the Second Republic, famously wrote that if there remained only ten good men on earth to oppose the usurper Napoleon III, he would be among them; and if there remained only one, then he would be that last. Victor Hugo was fond of striking poses like this. They were more comical than he probably intended. Here is a lesson for many of us.
Our imaginary layman will do well to take a minimal view of his civic duties. He should be skeptical of any exhortation to involve himself in the causes of any party, however fashionable, and while he may in good conscience seek the peace and prosperity of the city, as the prophet advised, he should remind himself from time to time that the city might not wish its own good. Often, the city seems bent on its own destruction. And sometimes those who would tear down appear to have the advantage over those who would build up, as so many ransacked churches testify.