The passing of the great Robert Conquest at the age of 98 reminds us all of the important, indeed essential, role that historians play in any healthy society. Conquest was the man who discredited Stalinism, revealing its horrors to the world, at a time when may were heavily committed to defending not just Stalin but also the system of Soviet socialism. Conquest showed, and showed in a way that could not be contradicted, that Soviet socialism was indefensible. There were of course a few hold outs such as Eric Hobsbawm, who clung to the Stalinist faith as a true believer when all, or almost all, others had abandoned it. But the measure of Conquest’s achievement is that people like Hobsbawm looked not simply isolated, but also, in the end, mad.
It is somewhat naughty of me to describe Hobsbawm and other diehard Stalinists as men of faith. They never were such, because faith is something that co-exists with reason, is nourished by reason, and enriches reason it its turn. It never ever exists in contradiction to reason. Anyone who has read Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et Ratio knows what I am talking about; as well I would recommend the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council, a remarkably short document, but one that is eminently worth reading.
It says, with admirable clarity: “But, although faith is above reason, nevertheless, between faith and reason no true dissension can ever exist, since the same God, who reveals mysteries and infuses faith, has bestowed on the human soul the light of reason; moreover, God cannot deny Himself, nor ever contradict truth with truth.”
The document then goes on to condemn – yes, condemn – the heresies of rationalism (the belief that reason alone is sufficient) and traditionalism (the idea that one can dispense with reason altogether). These two heresies represent the Scylla and Charybdis of modern thought. Stalinists, Nazis, the ideologues of the so called Islamic State, and various flat earthers and conspiracy theorists hold to doctrines that are completely at variance with the truth as it appears and the facts as can easily be discoverable by rational enquiry. Moreover, at the other end of the spectrum, some outwardly rational people seem to think that truth is best served by the complete suppression of faith, which is utterly unreasonable, given that religious experience and the spiritual dimension are constants in human history. One such would be Hillary Clinton if her words on abortion and the necessity of changing religious beliefs is to be taken at face value.
Nothing much has changed since the time of Dei Filius. The big challenge is the same as it ever was: how faith and reason are to be reconciled. And as then, so now: many are failing the test. There is a considerable body of Christian opinion outside the Catholic Church that sees the call to traditionalism as enough on its own to justify faith, and to see faith as a rejection of reason, and any rapprochement between philosophy and theology as a betrayal of faith. This is not a path the Catholic Church can ever go down, though some may be tempted. That temptation is to be sternly resisted.
To get back to Robert Conquest. His work fatally undermined the credibility of Soviet socialism. He was a sayer of the truth, and before that truth Stalinism withered, though, tragically, that took a long time, and the withering came too late for many. Scientific truth will eventually lead to the withering of the ideology that underpins ISIS, and all other Satanic creeds – but it will take time, for humanity is full of slow learners.
Meanwhile, let us continue to have faith, and faith in history too. For history is on our side. Let us refute all non-historical myth making about the Catholic Church. The Black Legend is a good place to start! But why stop there? More or less anything coming out of Russia Today falls into the same category.
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