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The Eruption of Collectivism it the Holy Church

We want to turn now to another unfortunate error which goes together with the shift of emphasis to this world and to the humanitarian improvement of it, and which especially goes together with the replacing of eternity with an earthly future. I mean collectivism, and the tendency to neglect the individual person with the slogan that we live in a time in which a sense of community has awakened and in which the “collectivist” features of the Church must be emphasized. (This is the position of Fr. Lombardi in his book, Towards a Better World.) This collectivist tendency comes out especially in the new missal.

One imagines that this tendency represents real progress, a real breakthrough, an overcoming of religious egoism and “devotionalism.” But this is unfortunately a great illusion. As I mentioned before, one fails to understand that it is not only an error to emphasize community at the expense of the dignity and value of the individual person. but that this never leads to true community, but rather to a collective. One forgets that the person ranks higher than any natural community, as Max Scheler rightly insisted. Although the state and the nation have a longer life than the individual man, only man has an immortal soul, only he transcends earthly existence states and nations, when they die, simply cease to be. In addition to this, the person is what in metaphysics we call a full substance, whereas natural communities are not. The difference between personal and non-personal being is the greatest of all ontological differences except for the difference between finite and infinite being, as we have already stated.

The superiority of the individual person over all natural communities is strikingly stated by Kierkegaard in his discussion of the superiority of the individual over the species in his work, Point of View for My Work as an Author: “Mankind differs from an animal race not merely by its general superiority as a race, but by the human characteristic that every single individual within the race (not merely distinguished individuals but every individual) is more than the race.” And in his Journals he writes: “In the animal world ‘the individual’ is always less important than the race. But it is the peculiarity of the human race that just because the individual is created in the image of God ‘the individual’ is above the race.”

Now let us make the distinction within community between the I-Thou community, and the we-community. I have developed this distinction in my book, Metaphysik der Gemeinschaft (Metaphysics of Community). In all human relations these two dimensions are actualized according to the situation. But certain relations are on the whole primarily I-Thou communities, as in marriage, whereas in the relation between brother and sister, it is primarily a we-community which is at stake. 65

In the I-Thou relation the two persons face one another; for each the other is a Thou. In the we-relation persons stand as it were next to one another, and hand in hand they face some good, the truth, some other person.

Now from this difference we have to separate another one which is very important for our context. I mean the difference between the community which builds on an I-Thou relation, that is, on any kind of love, and that community with many other men whom we do not know individually. This is what we find in the case of a state or of a nation. Here men are parts of the communal body, and their relation with one another is established by the relation of the individual to the whole, that is, it is a result of the relation of part to whole as found between the individual and the communal body.

The human person is destined for both kinds of community, for both the I-Thou community as well as for life in a communal body. The person has the ability to build up a communal body with others. We cannot really understand the nature of the person without understanding that it is capable of both kinds of community and ordered to both. As I showed in my Metaphysik der Gemeinschaft, the human person is on the one hand “a world in itself” as no other contingent being is, and is on the other hand capable of a relation to other persons which completely surpasses all forms of union in the nonpersonal world, such as the fusion of several material substances into one substance. For these reasons it is completely false ever to try to put the community above the individual person, to emphasize community at the expense of the individual person. But the failure to understand the dignity and value of the person is not only one of the gravest of errors, as already stated, but it also undermines from the very beginning the nature of true community, and replaces the community with the collective. The person can never be understood apart from its ability to enter into both kinds of community, and of its being ordered to both.

Person and community are so ordered to one another that we understand the dignity and value of true community only in understanding the unique dignity of the person, and the new world of being which dawns in the person. The full understanding for the nature and value of community presupposes the ontological superiority of the person over all natural communities. On the other hand, it belongs to the nature of the human person that it is made for community and only persons are capable of community.

Now if we apply this to our subject we understand that real transcendence and the conquest of egoism lies only in self-donation to a Thou, and not in the consciousness of being part of a greater whole.

True transcendence and the real conquest of egoism comes primarily from our abandonment to God: as St. Augustine says, “You have made us. O Lord, for Yourself.” This is that I-Thou relation for which the person was primarily created. This turning to God suffices to break through all immanentism, all imprisonment in ourselves, all egoism. This is, as we will see, true expansiveness. Only in this I-Thou abandonment can we be liberated from the ghetto of our self-centeredness and narrowness. Only in this liberation do we attain at the same time to the full unfolding of our true self this is in sharp distinction to today's fashionable “self-fulfilment,” which is only self-imprisonment in the ghetto of our selfishness. As Christ says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it” (Mt. 10:39).

Of course, in love of neighbor (which, as we saw, is rooted in love for Christ and presupposes this love) there is also a real transcendence, a real conquest of egoism. But love of neighbor is directed to a thou, to an individual person, even though any man can become my neighbor in a given situation. Indeed, there is a transcendence in all the kinds of love, whether love of parents or of children, whether friendship or spousal love, although the transcendence here differs from that which we find in love of neighbor and love of God. 66

But in feeling ourselves to be parts of a whole, members of a natural community, there is, in sharp distinction to self-donation to an individual thou, neither any real transcendence nor any real conquest of egoism. This is why Dostoevsky says that love for mankind is usually only self-love (as distinguished from love of neighbor). The consciousness of being a part of something much greater, of something which I feel to be much more important than I am and my personal life is, neither liberates me from egoism. nor enables me to find myself in the God-given way.

This “feeling small” with respect to the whole in pantheism one is led to feel that one is only a speck of dust in the universe leads easily to a false loss of oneself and to a depersonalization; and the idea of being a part of a great whole easily leads at the same time to the satisfaction of pride. In The Trojan Horse, and earlier in my Transformation in Christ (Ch. 7), I have discussed this way of satisfying pride. Von Kuehnelt-Leddhin wittily calls this attitude “nostrism.” We encounter it in nationalism, where people say, “I am nothing, but the country to which I belong is the most important and outstanding in the world.” Similarly, in “epochalism” people say, “Of course, I am nothing special; but I live in an era which is superior to all earlier ones.” Such people regard their time as the most progressive, and as culturally and morally superior to all earlier times, and they look down upon these earlier times with contempt. The mere fact of living in the modern period and of moving with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) satisfies their pride. We find something analogous in trying to break the bonds of our self-imprisonment, not by self-donation to a Thou, but by feeling ourselves to be parts of a communal body. Here we are concerned with confusing the depersonalization of collectivism with a liberating transcendence, with getting out of the ghetto of our egoism. In reality this loss of interest in the individual, in favor of the community, is a lapse into depersonalization, into the destruction of true community, which is thereby reduced to a collective.

Collectivism and depersonalization are specific characteristics of our era. Many persons fail to understand that these features of today's world are prevailing more and more. Such persons even praise this collectivism by calling it something “global,” or they interpret it as a “coming closer to God” which is occurring independently of our freedom.

There is no need to speak of the collectivism in Communism. But the collectivistic tendency is not limited to Communist countries; it is present in a different form in those countries which are especially proud of their democratic constitutions and which constantly speak of democracy. As we saw in Chapter 4, the state with its laws is more and more interfering with the sacred human rights of the individual, with his intimate personal life. In America teachers are forbidden, under the slogan of “separation of Church and State,” to speak of God in school although at the same time a world view of atheism and amoralism is inflicted on the students. But this depersonalization, this disrespect of the individual person, this brain-washing is not limited to America. With few exceptions it is being spread everywhere today by the so highly celebrated mass media of radio and television. I have already spoken at length about this point. It is enough in our present context again to call attention to the collectivistic and depersonalizing tendency which prevails in our time.

Until now it was always one of the glorious tasks of the holy Church to work in a special way against the dangerous tendencies which as it were fill the air of an era and take on a certain historical-sociological actuality. In the age of rationalism the Church emphasized the limits of reason, in the age of romanticism she emphasized the importance and mission of reason, in the age of liberalism the magnificent Syllabus of Pius IX unmasked the dangers of liberalism. The danger of collectivism, of idolizing the state, of depersonalization was opposed in the various condemnations of Communism and in the wonderful encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. 67 But today one constantly hears: “The Church must go with the times, aggiornamento is necessary if she is to keep her life, indeed, if she is to keep on in existence at all.” One links the slogan of “adapting to the times” with the slogan of “abandoning the ghetto.” One forgets the words of him who coined the concept of aggiornamento, Pope John XXIII: the Church must imprint her image on the various countries and eras, and not the other way around.

There is no doubt but that depersonalization and collectivism go hand in hand with the shift of emphasis from the next world to this world, from sanctifying the individual to improving the face of the world, from eternity to the earthly future. As soon as the glorification of God and the eternal blessedness of souls, take second place to progress and to the improvement of the world, then the ultimate seriousness of the fate of every individual soul is no longer understood, the incomparable superiority of the individual person over all natural communities is no longer recognized. Hence the words of Cardinal Newman:

“The Church regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything. . . . She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or a whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.” 68

As soon as one no longer sees that an immortal soul is incomparably more important than all social improvement and progress of civilization, one has fallen victim to collectivism and depersonalization.

One needs only to think of the unfortunate dialogues with Communists in which Catholics try to find a common ground by the equivocal use of the term “future"; here the primacy of the individual soul is completely given up.

But this collectivistic tendency is found even in the friendly attitude toward the Communists, in the illusion of winning them over and even converting them to Catholicism by approaching them in patience. Instead of opposing the catastrophic danger of collectivism, one sees it as a sign of the times which one thinks calls for accommodation.

One forgets that Christ always addressed only individual souls; as Kierkegaard emphasizes in his Purity of Heart: God knows only the individual and not the mass.

Sacred community among Christians can only grow out of the love for Christ, as we saw above. This sacred community must “pass through” the intimate personal union with Christ. The words of Christ, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20) , are often wrongly interpreted. One thinks that community as such draws Christ into our midst. One forgets the decisive importance of the words, “in my name.” These words, which Christ also uses in speaking of that prayer to God which will be heard, include many things and refer to a basis of Christian community which goes beyond merely aiming at community.

They include full faith in Christ, a deep bond of love with Christ as He is encountered in every individual, meeting other Christians in Christ here the individual soul goes beyond its union with Jesus and attains to a holy union with others which is possible only in and through Him. We see how deep is the union with Christ which is meant by the words “in my name,” when we consider His words, “Until now you have not asked the Father anything in my name.” Prayer to God becomes something totally new through the “name of Jesus,” it takes on a completely new quality. It is not just that Christ intercedes for us, as does our Lady or a saint, thus giving our petition more weight in the eyes of God. “Prayer in His name” is prayer in Jesus, in His spirit, in deep supernatural union with Him.

On the other hand, the tremendous value which Christ ascribes to that community which is rooted in Him, is revealed in the words, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name. . . .” That He is present when men gather in His name shows the whole importance of this holy community. The important thing for us is to distinguish this unique holy community with others, from all natural communities in which one gathers together in the name of some ideal, or some practical goal. When we fall into this-worldliness, collectivism, and when we do not clearly distinguish between the sacred and the profane, then we become blind to the unique character of the sacred community in Christ, and to the immense difference between this community and purely natural communities.

We will understand this better if we briefly consider the different forms which the presence of Christ can take. The first is that presence of Christ in our soul of which St. Paul says, “Not I live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). It is that presence of Christ which comes when He builds up His kingdom in a soul, when He says, “He is in me and I am in Him” (Jn. 6:56).

From this centrally important presence in the individual soul, which of course presupposes the pouring out of a supernatural principle of life in baptism, we have to distinguish the presence of Christ in the midst of those who are gathered in His name. This is a new kind of presence, which however presupposes the first.

Here we are speaking only of the various kinds of presence of Christ, and not of the ways of being united with Him. We are of course in an eminent way united with Him by being a member of His Mystical Body. This union with Christ is inseparably linked with the new supernatural principle of life which is received in baptism.

A completely new kind of presence of Christ is His presence on the altar. The great miracle of consecration at Mass lies of course in the transformation of bread into the real living, glorified Body of Christ, and of wine into His real Blood united with His Body. This bodily presence of Christ in the consecrated Host is something utterly different from His presence in the midst of those who are gathered together in His name. 69

From this bodily presence in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, we have to distinguish the completely different presence of Christ in the soul of him who receives Holy Communion. This mysterious union comes from the fact that the individual receives as food the real Body of Christ.

Against the background of this brief discussion of the different kinds of the presence of Christ, we want now to deal with the danger of emphasizing the collective.

In emphasizing the meal rather than the unbloody re-enactment of the sacrifice of Calvary, rather than His becoming really present in the Mass, community with the other faithful is made the main thing. The main theme of the holy Mass the re-enactment of the sacrifice of Calvary, by which God is unspeakably glorified is thrust into the background. One forgets that the glorification of God is the center of the holy Mass, and that each individual, together with all the other faithful, has the privilege of participating in this glorification which the priest as representative of Christ carries out. The earlier practice of the priest facing the altar was a deep expression of this: the faithful looked with the priest toward the altar, and they were drawn by him into the mystery of the sacrifice. This was a deep Christ-centered gesture: the priest, who represents Christ, was shown to be that mediator at Mass whom we follow and he was himself completely directed to God.

At Communion comes the unique and mysterious union of the individual soul with Jesus. This is a new theme organically linked with the main theme of the Mass. First there is the complete turning to the Father, ultimate abandonment to Him; then Christ's love overflows and He comes to each individual soul, He enters into each individual soul and feeds it with His bodily presence, and at the same time He takes the individual soul into Himself. Through this union of Christ with the individual soul, there comes into being a bond of union with all those who receive His holy Body. It is an incomprehensible mystery: Christ remains one and the same, it is the same Body which we all receive, it is undivided and through it a unity with the other faithful is established which goes far beyond that unity which comes from gathering in His name.

But as soon as one makes the shared meal the main thing, one is trying to skip over that which is incomparably more important. In this way even the sacred community, the supernatural meal, is distorted. Here we have a specific infection of collectivism, an emphasis on community at the expense of the individual person. The result is that one loses precisely that which one wants to attain. For this holy community with others or at least the consciousness of community at the sacred meal, a community which is radically different from all natural communities. can never be achieved when the true hierarchy of things is upset. This is the true sacred hierarchy: first the glorification of God, where we are directed exclusively to God in adoration, then the intimate union of love with Jesus in Holy Communion, and finally the triumphant unity with all the faithful who are present, as well as with the entire Church. As soon as one aims at this unity directly and ignores this sacred hierarchy, one loses the unity and replaces it, at least subjectively, with a profane unity, such as we might find in an association of army veterans. Blindness to the sacred as well as secularization go hand in hand with an overemphasis on the “collective.” with the triumph of collectivism.


65. Cf, the Introduction to my Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith. pp. xxix-xxxiv.

66. My book Das Wesen der Liebe has dealt with the various forms of transcendence.

67. See note 57.

68. Newman. Difficulties of Anglicans, vol. II, part II, lecture 8, par. 4.

69. Henri de Lubac, in his book, Le Surnaturel, reports that this presence, which today we call the mystical presence, was in the earliest age of the Church called the real presence, and the presence of Christ in the consecrated Host was called the mystical presence. This changes nothing with regard to the radical difference of the two kinds of presence. The later terminology, which is also that of Trent, is in any case much more adequate, because it is appropriate to call a bodily presence by the name of Real Presence.


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