A couple of weeks ago I finished Jesuit Father Robert Graham’s The Vatican and Communism in World War II. It’s a fascinating book that recalled to mind the obvious but strangely forgettable truth that our view of history is slanted by our place in time. Through hindsight, every past outcome looks inevitable, but it rarely looks so at the time the event occurs.
For instance, from our post-Reich, post-Cold War vantage point, it is easy for us to forget that there were two monsters in Europe, not only one. It is easy to forget that these two monsters, Stalin and Hitler, were at one point allied with each other.
Father Graham says that even late in the war, there were rumors of betrayals, sometimes played up by propagandists of various powers in the fog of war, worries that the two monsters would reconcile and swallow up Europe in socialism, or, conversely, worries that the West would reach a negotiated peace with Germany and turn their combined forces against Stalin. Both ideas seem crazy now; less so then, I suspect.
In our alliance with Stalin, we not only judged him the lesser evil, we played down his atrocities, saving our “Iron Curtain” and “Evil Empire” talk for after the war, after Eastern Europe had been sacrificed. Both monsters sought Christian support even as they persecuted Christianity. Nazi propagandists sometimes played war on the Soviets as a “crusade” to protect “Christianity.” Stalin’s PR stunts included easing some persecutions and even allowing a new Russian Orthodox Patriarch to be elected.
The Vatican sometimes infuriated and confused the world’s powers by standing aloof from these machinations, if I understand Father Graham’s points. But many Catholics, living out their faith in the world, felt compelled to overtly and passionately take sides, choosing one monster against the other. Sometimes they even became part of propaganda campaigns.
I bring this up not to debate these historical points or even to condemn or excuse those individuals but to point out a trick of the Enemy. The trick is to put two evils in front of us and say: “Choose.”
Now, life is messy, and in this fallen world, we find ourselves materially cooperating with evil often, with our taxes, when we go to the store, when we vote. So long as we don’t cooperate formally — sharing the evil intentions — that can sometimes be justified. That kind of “choosing” is not necessarily a sin.
But it brings fresh temptations. Once choose to cooperate with someone doing evil and we naturally tend to play down that evil. As time goes by, we may cook the books a little as we evaluate our “proportionate reasons.”
Then maybe it goes a step more. The internal rationalizations and obfuscations, successful against our own consciences, seep out of our mouths to other souls.
From there it is only a short step to approval, and we gaze into the abyss, no longer able to see its horror.
This temptation is a greater danger than the evil itself, a threat to one’s own soul, to those of observers and to the soul of the evildoer himself, who deserves our witness to the truth, not our confirming him in sin.
But I think it partially explains the Catholics who, concerned for peace, have so obscured the horror of abortion in their hearts they can no longer imagine why anyone would object to the president’s honorary degree at Notre Dame. And the Catholics who, outraged at the abortion genocide, have blinded themselves to much else so that they can no longer identify practices straight out of The Gulag Archipelago as torture.
Chesterton said, rightly I think, that Catholicism “is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.” But the devil does his best.