Primary politics has constricted view of morality

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By Peter McDermott

In 1940 in the Katyn Forest, 20,000 Polish officers were put to death on the orders of the Soviet dictator Stalin and his henchman Beria, who’d initially suggested the plan.

It made sense from a purely military point of view. If you kill your prisoners you don’t run the risk of having to fight them later on.

This is what General Francisco Franco was thinking when he had a far greater number of POWs done to death during and after the Spanish Civil War, a three-year conflict that followed a failed military attempt to overthrow democracy.

Factions on the pro-democracy Republican side to be sure were involved in horrific atrocities, which included the murder of religious and the burning of churches. But the Red Terror paled in comparison – no pun intended — to the White Terror.

Most leading historians of the Spanish Civil War argue that the violence in the Republican zone was a result of the breakdown of law and order and the spread of anarchy. They say that, in contrast, the larger scale killing behind Nationalist lines was sanctioned by military and political leaders. In any case, in that pre-World War II period, even Franco’s Nazi and Italian fascist allies were horrified at the executions of captured combatants. Yet, there was method in his madness. He outlived their regimes, after all, by 30 years.

Franco wasn’t an ideological fascist. He brought together, however, the Falangists, who were, with other rightists such as the Carlists into the Movimiento Nacional, which ran the one-party state for decades. Franco himself was close to Carlism, which was traditionalist, authoritarian and monarchist, and in that regard he had a kindred ally in the Catholic group Opus Dei, founded in 1928, by the young Fr.  Josemaría Escrivá (who is now Saint Josemaría).

Interestingly, there is a Republican (of the U.S. variety) with documented ties to Opus Dei running in the primaries. As you’d expect, he stresses fealty to traditional marriage and pro-life values and is rather less attached to concepts like social justice.

It should be stressed, though, that links to groups or people are merely clues to who they are or what they really believe. If you can’t add some context to such links, then they’re hardly worth bothering about. Unfortunately our political discourse has become so infantile and dumbed down – Hannitized, you might say –  that it’s become really difficult for us to address these issues sensibly.

It seems more important to put people in the same room together – i.e. good old-fashioned guilt by association – than to listen closely to what they say they are and how they define themselves. So in the last election cycle we heard a great deal about the hitherto obscure Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers, and we continue to. This is all about electoral politics. Few seem to be much bothered now that President Nixon met with Chairman Mao — though many conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr., were horrified at the time – or that Donald Rumsfeld once shook the hand of Saddam Hussein, or that President Eisenhower went to Madrid at Franco’s invitation. It’s hardly news that politicians can form some strange alliances.

I’m guessing that the former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum never palled around with the Spanish dictator. (Actually, he has said that his grandfather fled the fascists in Italy, and last week the weekly newsmagazine Oggi reported that his anti-fascist relatives, including his ancestor, had close ties to the Italian Communist Party.) But, does it matter that Santorum has spoken at Opus Dei events or that he sends two of his children to a Washington DC school run by the group? No. Does it help clarify aspects of his worldview for us? To some extent, yes, if we study his statements closely.

He once flailed presidential candidate John F. Kennedy’s distinction between private religious conviction and public responsibility and said it had done “much harm in America.” At that same event, a Rome symposium in 2002 in honor of the founder Saint Josemaría, he called George W. Bush the “first Catholic president” of the U.S.  Yes, that guy who the following year invaded a Middle Eastern country and made a complete and bloody mess of it. What’s all that about? Well, elements of the Catholic right saw in Bush someone who believed in a much closer relationship between church and state. Prominent Opus Dei priest the Rev. C. John McCloskey III even publicly expressed the hope that W. would follow his brother Jeb into the church. McCloskey, it might be added, has a well-publicized track record in converting inside-the-Beltway rightists to Catholicism, including reportedly Newt Gingrich.

Politics and societal upheaval feature in a piece of speculative fiction McCloskey wrote at the turn of the millennium entitled “2030: Looking Backwards.” In it, a 76-year-old priest, Fr. Charles, refers to the “battles” that led to the breakup of the U.S into the Regional States of North America. And before that, apparently, there was a serious persecution involving “tens of thousands of martyrs and confessors.” Fr. Charles himself was in the latter category, but tells a newly ordained priest that “those few years in prison and the torture were wonderful for my spiritual life…”

One of the fragments of the old U.S. has a Catholic majority (of the right sort, mind you – none of your liberals, thank you very much) whose ranks have been supplemented by converts from evangelical Protestantism, presumably disappointed at the failure of the rapture to materialize. And the first president’s initials are R.S. (Okay, I invented that last part.)

The uneasy settlement followed the “final short and relatively bloodless conflict.” There was nothing relatively bloodless, though, about the events that led to the last church-state fusion in the Western world. It was built on a foundation of mass murder. Opus Dei wasn’t involved in that, to be fair, but the group flourished mightily in the Francoist state. Escrivá had created a corps of militant Catholics who would take monastic vows and then go out into the world to seek leadership positions in business, media and politics. They were the brightest and the best. When, at one point, the Falangists wanted the Opus Deistas removed from cabinet, Franco defended his ministers saying: “Their loyalty to the regime and to me personally is absolute, and above all, they are perfect gentlemen.”

But fear not; those courteous men are opportunists not plotters. While Fr. McCloskey might seem to pine for a Francoist order, one without the excessive viciousness, it’s not going to happen. Santorum might like to see a Catholic theocracy (logically, that is his position), but the pundits say he can’t win a primary.

Nevertheless, it is amusing that a half-century after JFK’s candidacy fueled anti-Catholic paranoia, so many Protestants flock to a politician who really does listen to the Vatican. Not, of course, on the minor issues of invading other countries or child poverty, but the important stuff concerning faith and morals.


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