Complacent Sentries and the Sloth of Roaming Unrest

Author’s Note, on 12 May 2021: This essay was completed on 19 January 2013, which was less than a month before the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was announced (on 11 February 2013), and almost two months before Pope Francis’ election to replace Benedict XVI as the new pope (on 13 March 2013). Moreover, this essay discusses the strategic insights of two non-Catholics about many matters of moment which should be of interest to Catholics, as well: James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers.

Dr. Robert Hickson

19 January 2013

Saint Canute of Denmark (d.1086)

General Robert E. Lee’s Birthday (d.1870)

Complacent Sentries and the Sloth of Roaming Unrest:

The Ambience of Vaticanum II in its Historical-Military Context


“Given time, we hear the argument, we can gradually work our way out of the mess….Conferences of foreign [and hence ecclesiastical] ministers will step by step build up confidence and solve the problems and bring us peace and prosperity. But we are not given time, and there is now loose in the world a mighty force dedicated to the proposition that we shall not have peace and prosperity.” (James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism, 1949, 1950, p. 12.)

“If I am wrong in my assumed point of view, if the crisis is an illusion and the catastrophe an anxiety complex, then there can be no justification for either the analysis or the plan [“that I propose”]. But I do not believe that I am wrong.” (James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism, p. 12.)

“Neuroticism, insanity, and the comic are, however, largely a matter of context. Behavior and ideas that would have proved insanity under Queen Anne [in the years 1702-1714] may have a very different meaning in the 20th century. Putting money each week in the savings bank is not sensible behavior during an unrestrained inflation; bringing suit for libel is not a mark of sanity in a revolution. What is historical madness depends upon what historical reality is….But what then of the …[F.D.R.] Roosevelts…, many of whose actions can be explained only by the hypothesis that they imagined themselves to be living in another century than their own?” (James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism, pp. 10-11.)

This essay is an act of thanksgiving, not only a deeply humbling acknowledgment, to two non-Catholics, James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers—both of them long-suffering, wholehearted men—who saw more clear-sightedly and more deeply into the historical reality of the 1950s and early 1960s than many professed Catholics of the time, to include many of the leading Ecclesiastics of the day. And they tried to warn us.

On 3 June 1961, two years to the day before the death of the affectionately expressive and publicly buoyant Pope John XXIII (on 3 June 1963), James Burnham wrote a highly cultured, prescient, and far-sighted strategic article during his visit in Vienna, Austria, where he was alertly present—specifically in order to report on the euphoric and widely publicized Summit Meeting between the Soviet Chief Nikita Khrushchev and the youthful President John F. Kennedy. It may be still helpful to our grasp of historical reality, if we consider Burnham’s subtle and sobering article, which was tersely and resonantly entitled “Sleeping Sentries.”1 It may also be a timely, cleansing Parable for us.

Full of liberal hope in that early summer of 1961, as well as (after “the Bay of Pigs”) with some admitted embarrassment and ambiguous guilt, President Kennedy had gladly consented to this high-level Vienna meeting. It was taking place just some four months after his own inauguration as President on 20 January 1961. It was also but six weeks after the humiliation (and arguable betrayal) of the failed, though U.S.-supported, Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (17-19 April 1961), which had been very covertly prepared for, and then largely mounted out of Central America, namely Guatemala. More shockingly, however, soon after that 3 June Summit meeting—i.e., on 13 August 1961—the Communist construction of the Berlin Wall chillingly began.

Moreover, only a year-and-a half after this (as Burnham saw it indeed) “provocatively weak” Summit Meeting in Vienna, where Khrushchev also once again saw young John Kennedy as a callow vacillator, there came another test of power and will: the very dangerous Cuban Missile Crisis of 16-28 October 1962 (even months before that in the tense covert world), which so precariously transpired, publicly, only a week after the optimistic and effervescent opening in Rome of the Catholic Church’s new Ecumenical Council (on 11 October), usually called the Second Vatican Council or Vaticanum II. The secular and religious Mass Media of Social Communications and Propaganda were also fervently energized and set for High Drama—as some had feared, such as Pope Pius XII himself in 1950.

Slightly more than a year after the commencement of the Council— on 22 November 1963—the liberal-progressive, professedly Catholic, President Kennedy himself was assassinated. Some of the hopeful idealism, which Kennedy and his New Frontiersmen had hoped to inspire and to infuse, started then to turn dark, even cynical, especially among some of the young, and not only because of the United States’ equivocal and increasingly disillusioned involvement in the Vietnam War.

Yet, how does one account for the mood, as well as the deeper, utopian-progressive atmosphere in Rome and Vatican City and in Western Europe itself, only sixteen years after the formal conclusion of World War II? This question is certainly a challenging one, and not so easy to answer in a differentiated and adequate way. A loyal and faithful Catholic might well ask: How do we understand God’s Providence here?

For it was in 1955, after all, that the Soviets had suddenly (and even somewhat perplexingly) pulled out of eastern Austria, which had been under Soviet occupation for ten years. Was this not a good sign? To some this withdrawal even seemed to be a sort of moral miracle, and even an answer to prayer and sacrifice—even though, with their own strategic alertness, the Soviets immediately thereafter then created the martial Warsaw Pact, which soon led to disorder: to the chafing East German and Polish restiveness, and finally to the bloody Hungarian Uprising in October-November 1956, which was crushed by communist power, under Khrushchev himself, with his intentional utilization of merciless Asiatic-Mongol troops against the Hungarians (when, shamefully, the West did very little to help). Nonetheless, there still seemed to be a growing attitude, not just in the Vatican, that “we can have fruitful dialogue with the Soviets” and even an open-handed “Ostpolitik.” That is to say, to help the aggressors to become more democratic and hence prosperous and non-revolutionary.

James Burnham, however, had some keenly contrasting considerations and a different understanding as to whether or not there was a momentous crisis, or even a potential catastrophe, at least in the strategic and secular political realm—the realm of Power without Grace. In any case, and for our edification, Burnham’s analysis looked maturely at the Facts, as distinct from other men’s Beliefs. As he had said in his somewhat influential 1949 book (in certain circles)—notably after the Chinese Communist conquest of China—which was entitled The Coming Defeat of Communism:2

In a measure that has been reached only twice before in Western history [“that of the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D.” and that of “the first half of the 16th century”], we are being told that we live in an age of crisis, that we face the possibility of catastrophe. But the question of whether men today [1949-1950] have a sense of crisis, believe themselves to be in the midst of crisis, is after all secondary. The more central question is not of belief but of fact. Whatever most men believe, is it in fact true that our age is in crisis? Is the catastrophic point of view, as we might call it, justified? Two world wars within a generation, with a destruction of from 50 to 100 million human lives and several trillion dollars’ worth of human products, would seem, alone, to be enough evidence for a positive answer.3

(But would the majority of the Council fathers, or the pope, of Vaticanum II, have sincerely agreed with that assessment and conclusion, much less have acted accordingly, hence proportionately? At the beginning of the Council, how many knew of the Cardinal Tisserant’s and Father Yves Congar’s earlier, secret diplomatic meetings in Metz, Nancy, and Strasbourg, France with both Communist and Hebraic Groups who themselves desired, pre-emptively, to shape—or “bracket out”?—certain topics and the strategic-doctrinal discourse of that forthcoming, professedly Pastoral, not Dogmatic, Ecumenical Council? If most of the council fathers were kept in the dark, and not even later informed of these non-public “agreements” or “deals,” why not? And where was the Honor in this course of action?)

Furthermore, to these two world wars—which were also, in effect, a new Thirty Years War in Europe (1914-1945)—Burnham then adds some items to a “long list” of other devastations and unmistakable desolations, such as:

….The 15, 20, 30 million persons thrown into slave camps; millions of peasants killed because they loved their land; crowds of tens of millions, refugees and displaced persons and exiles, wandering across Eurasia in swarms that make the barbarian hordes of the 3rd and 4th centuries seem as minor as neighborhood gangs. An economic depression that shakes the structure of the entire world, wild inflations that wipe out the money and savings of a dozen nations, trials and purges that liquidate hundreds of thousands of men of every variety, are not phenomena of normality. The great wave of revolution that broke in 1917 [the Bolshevik revolution] has waxed and ebbed, but has never since then subsided. It pounds at every shore, from the islands of East Asia to the borders of the Panama Canal.4

Making a further contrast which will later help our understanding of the roots and fruits of Vaticanum II—and maybe even its initial buoyancy—Burnham also says:

The totalitarians believe that we live in what Lenin defined as “an era of wars and revolutions,” in an age of crisis. They count on crises, and make these the fulcrum of their policies. Lenin was sure there would be a world war [circa 1914], and his energies were directed at seizing power in the breakdown which he was sure would come during the course of the war [i.e., in World War I, as Stalin also later foresaw and implemented his own strategic plans, even during “the war of rival capitalisms” in World War II, as he saw it].5

However, in delusionary contrast to these realistic and stern-minded revolutionary insights and actions, Burnham saw the softer or evasive approach, namely:

The democratic leaders have regarded the crises as abnormal exceptions to the flow of history, as errors that can be avoided by doing each day its daily short-term task. They have failed either to utilize these crises or even to prepare for them. They find themselves in the paradoxical position of having suffered the greatest social defeats from the two world wars in which they have won the greatest military victories of all time [though, admittedly, with the then-indispensable aid of the brutal Soviet Army].6

For, adds Burnham, “we are dealing now not with kings and emperors and czars, but with totalitarian mass revolutionists.”7 To what extent, however, did the Vaticanum II popes and council fathers hold Burnham’s deep understanding of at least one portion of “the war we are in,” as he called it, not only in the interval from 1944-1950, but even still in 1961? For, as Burnham argued:

The totalitarian political movements of our century, particularly the communist, have accepted a catastrophic point of view. In 1916, totalitarianism, limited at that date to a few thousand outlaw associates and followers of Lenin, was so negligible a force as to be unknown to the politically literate public. Today [in 1950], 34 years later, it dominates a quarter of the world, and closely threatens the rest. The contribution of the [Bolshevik] catastrophic point of view to this rise, which is quite without precedent, has been much more than minor. It has been so because the catastrophic point of view, as a perspective of our age, has been correct.8

(It is not clear, and we shall likely never know, whether Pope John XXIII himself would have included Burnham as one of those “prophets of doom” whom he depreciated in his opening address to Vaticanum II on 11 October 1962.)

Therefore, a further, and more specific examination of James Burnham’s lucid and admonitory 3 June 1961 article, “Sleeping Sentries,” might awaken us, even now, to some of the deeper historical realities and to the consequently important (even urgent) need, sub Gratia, for a deep “course correction.” For, during the past year of 2012, we have been volubly presented with many and varied, indeed often incommensurate, official and non-official interpretations of the Roots and Fruits of Vaticanum II. Is that not so? Do we agree?

At the time of his 3 June 1961 article, however, Burnham himself was not a believing Catholic, and had not been a professed Catholic for almost forty years. (He was to come home again to his Faith only near the end of his life in July of 1987.) But, this fact may enhance for us his own testimony, his own witness—as Whittaker Chambers had also earlier done, in his own special language as a sincere Protestant Christian, and after his own much grimmer experience and break with Communism: not only to be seen in his 1952 book, Witness, but also in his posthumously published 1964 book, Cold Friday.

But, regrettably, on 9 July 1961, very soon after Burnham’s own words from Vienna, Whittaker Chambers was to die at his Westminster, Maryland farm shortly after his last heart attack. It was, thus, only a month after Burnham’s article was written from Vienna, “Sleeping Sentries,” in which compact article as we may now come to see, Burnham conveyed the irony and the nuances of his own sobering and complementary, strategic perspicacity concerning “the war we are in.” (Would that we could also know the extent to which, if at all, at least the American bishops at Vaticanum II and their theological advisors—the “periti”—knew of the writings of Burnham and Chambers, both their savor of goodness and their salt of reality.) In any case, where were the comparable Catholic writers?

James Burnham opens his 1961 article surprisingly with a “cosmopolitan” consideration of the great art galleries and museums of Europe, as well as of New York and Washington. After visiting such artistic concentrations, he says:

It can begin to seem that all of the masterpieces of Western painting [though not of Piero della Francesca] have been funneled, along with the swarming masses, the money and luxury and power, into the colossal world-cities that characterize our epoch as they have a number of other epochs buried under the storms of time. As you walk through the scores of rooms of the Prado, the Louvre, of London’s or our own National Gallery, it seems incredible that mankind should have been able to produce so many hundreds of works of almost absolute genius as hang, one after another, along the walls of these central banks of aesthetic deposit.9

Then, he considers what one may also more negatively experience, even a certain sterilizing artificiality, amidst these colossal concentrations:

The joy and wonder at the multitudinous beauties which these walls offer the passer-by, can become cloyed, in certain moods, not only from a sense of surfeit at so rich a perceptual diet, but by a tenuous feeling that the feast as served up from these gleaming kitchens lacks an essential vitamin. That faint uneasiness does not deceive. Prime ingredients are indeed missing: in particular, except as reconstructed in the mind of the beholder [except as a sort of abstract “ens rationis”], Place and Time. These paintings…were not [originally or usually] meant to hang together on one set of walls…. But we pay the cost in the abstraction of the works from the fullness of existence [“diverse…moments over two thousand years of time and thousand of miles of space”].10

With some discouragement, he adds: “Not only have the museums ransacked so many of the Places. Mass tourism has turned most of the authentic Places into museums.”11

Speaking then of his recent experience at Assisi and of Giotto’s frescoes there, he says:

But looking at them a week ago [in late May of 1961], it was impossible to keep the eyes as well as mind from blurring from the effects of the Flemish priest-guide shouting all about them (I suppose that was what he was shouting) to his busloads of compatriots, the Germans checking every item off in their guidebooks and pulling strings of photographic equipment out of large leather cases, the few middle-aged Americans [present] dutifully but unhappily submitting to the local leeches who had fastened on them.12

There is, amidst such visual noise, as well as auditory noise, such a difficulty of “learning to see again” (in the words of Josef Pieper). Therefore, says Burnham,

That is why there is a special kind of excitement, and in the end the reward of a special kind of seeing, when we follow the spoor of a great work of art [like “Piero’s fresco of the Resurrection”] to its own Place [“in San Sepolcro”, which was also “Piero’s birthplace”—and where he also died, on 12 October 1492].13

After having arrived in San Sepolcho, “thirty miles east of Perugia,” Burnham and his wife had lunch, and:

When we had finished there was still an hour to go before the lunch-and-siesta-shut doors of an Italian town would be open, but a cheerful man in some sort of uniform appeared in the little piazza. He had a key to the small, old city hall, much battered by the last as by so many earlier wars. He let us into a high, arched-ceiling, well-lighted room, whitewashed, in mid-repair….But on the wall that faced us as the door opened was Piero’s [Piero della Francesca’s] fresco of the Resurrection, which we had so often seen in reproductions, surely one of the very greatest of the world’s paintings. The dazzling geometry of its structure is like a theorem in Riemann made visible, or Plato’s Form of the Good, seen by the physical eye as well as by the soul.14


In front of the tomb [“the heavy stone sepulchre”], leaning on it, on their weapons and each other and their own limbs, are the four Roman guards, richly uniformed, well-armed, sleeping, as if drugged or bemused, at their eternally critical post.15

What also impressed Burnham greatly was that portion of the fresco “behind the stone coffin,” where, “with one firm foot on its forward edge, stands the risen Christ” and, furthermore,

A Christ that has none of the physical weakness or effeminacy with which He is so often painted. Piero’s risen Christ has thrown his shroud, like a cloak, over His shoulder, to reveal a spear-slashed breast that, though gaunt, is strong and hard-muscled; in His right hand He holds a standard of an unfurled white banner, quartered by a red cross; His glance, directed straight out, is majestic, terrible, almost—through the effect of those eyes that seem to stare to infinity without particular focus—obsessive.16

Now Burnham—a very rare, historically and culturally informed, philosophical strategist—will lead us to his own special interpretation, after being unaccountably moved to deep reflection:

A great work of art has an inexhaustible variety of meanings. Piero’s fresco is first of all a painting, integrally organized and unified in terms of line and color and shape and texture. And it is a religious vision too, of course, of staggering profundity. Its dramatic and human meanings, specified or suggested, will never be fully numbered. As I reflected afterward on what I had seen, I found myself adding to these an allegorical perspective that seemed inescapable, though it becomes banal when put into words instead of color and space. What we are looking at in Piero’s picture, among so many other things, is the power and wealth and luxury of Rome gone soft and sluggish, asleep instead of alert and on guard. The closed eyes of the sentries in their handsome dress cannot see, do not even try to see, the fierce Phoenix rising from the gathering ashes of their world.17

As he saw it in burstingly prosperous Modena the very next day—with its celebrated Communist mayor (and a sprouting, miscellaneous assortment of other Leftist Political Parties, to boot) —it was clear, on the one hand, that

The sentries, the citizens of Italy—or Europe, or of all the Western world—are not physically sleeping, of course: very much the contrary, indeed; for never has there been so much rushing about [and yet, maybe, with so much prosperous luxury and its “dynamic materialism,” there is much “restlessness” and “interior uprootedness,” as well]; increased mobility [but with few children?] seems to be the most valued potential of all won by the jump above a subsistence standard of living that so much of the Western world has made in the postwar years. It is the spirit that sleepeth, in the coarse sleep of the glutton.18

We shall later see the words of Whittaker Chambers about the growing materialism in the West and the likely “dialectical” consequences, as expressed in his own posthumous book, Cold Friday, in the memorable chapter entitled “The Direct Glance.”19

Immediately after his presented image of the spiritually sleeping glutton, or lout, in his noisy coarseness, Burnham becomes more ironical as he prepares to take us with him to seductive Vienna:

What if trade with Russia [in 1961] gives her the machines her armies need and the profits which, skillfully funneled, nourish her Italian agents? From that trade we Italians get cheaper gasoline for our new cars and Vespas, and some of us get, in addition, pretty piles of lire. Hasn’t England always lived as a nation of successful shopkeepers? What is the objection, then, to the $6 million British Trade Fair in Moscow, and the sales of plant and equipment that we English drummers [energetic and enterprising “traveling salesmen”] have booked?20

After this larger and pointedly ironical framing of the larger West European situation, Burnham chooses to conclude his article with an a fortiori agument, namely it is in Vienna now, even moreso than in 1961 Italy, that we see the spiritual slackness amidst the quite charming abundance. The following words could even be called a deft description of “elegant, but insidious, decadence”:

Nowhere is the [spiritual] sleep more delicious, the dreams more ravishing, than in this enchanted, enchanting city. The scars of the war and the occupation [1945-1955] in Vienna are healed or forgotten. The hotels are the most luxurious (and among the most expensive) in the world. The rich coffee topped with whipped cream, the seraphic pastries and chocolate, are back in the cafés. The gypsies play in the restaurants, while still more bottles of wine and beer are opened, as long as customers wish to linger. And this [June] is the month of the Music Festival, with every morning and afternoon and evening crowded with opera and symphony and operetta, quartets and singers and pianists playing always the best and loveliest music.21

Then comes the counterpoint of political reality:

Not a note of the Spring Concerto wavered as the K’s moved [Khrushchev and Kennedy both] toward their Summit. The [Americans’] smiling sleep was immunized by the further dream of eternal neutrality. The selection of Vienna for their encounter meant, so the dreamers dreamed, that the wished-for condition was now recognized and affirmed by the great contestants [both of them]. The sleepers snuggled back into the visions of the fabled Congress [of Vienna] of a century and nearly a half ago [from 1 November 1814—8 June 1815], when the night-long dancing, champagne, music, and love filled the hours between the elegant formalities of the diplomatic sessions.22

Now comes the designed Burnham shock amidst these perceptibly lovely illusions:

So the first [JFK himself] among the sleepwalkers, lids fallen, drugged into paralyzed and impotent sloth by the sentimental syrups of [Kennedy’s own] ideological courtiers, wafts in, like a dreaming bride sailing through a [Russian artist, florid Marc] Chagall sky, from the West. The analogy from Piero’s picture is not to be pressed too closely. This time the terrible, staring form that rises above the sleeping sentries and opened tomb—if it is a tomb—is the Anti-Christ, not the Savior. The banner he unfurls proclaims the message, not of hope springing from the dark, of redemption, freedom, and eternal life, but of slavery and death, and a degradation much worse than death.23

To what extent were the Prelates of Vaticanum II and their own “ideological courtiers”—all of whom had taken the Anti-Modernist Oath—also such dreamers and sleepwalkers, sleepwalking into servitude: a servitude unfaithful, and even perjuring, and most degrading, as well as dishonorable? With more and more trustworthy evidence and knowledge of this larger 20th-century historical-military-political warfare context, it is even harder to understand the allure of their optimistic, indeed euphoric, ecumenical (or syncretist) illusions, much less to embrace the shabby results of these “hybrid beliefs,” as if the very principle of non-contradiction no longer applied, or anyway did not matter.

Chamber’s warnings in his chapter on “The Direct Glance,” however, will teach us more, and be an additional warning for our instruction. Though not a Catholic, but a sympathetic Protestant (who greatly honored Saint Benedict and his monastic foundations), Whittaker Chambers knew the Allure of Communism and deeply grasped the long-fostered and indulged, “dynamic materialist” weaknesses and consequent vulnerabilities, even futilities, of the West, both of which developments he rejected—but he also feared that he was likely, in human and secular terms, to be “on the losing side.” Writing his chapter some time in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, his first words capture our docile attentiveness:

I speak with a certain urgency both because I believe that history is closing in on this people with a speed which, in general, they do not realize or prefer not to realize, and because I have a sense that time is closing in on me so that, at this point, I do not know whether or not I shall be given time to complete what I seek to say.24

With characteristic modesty, and once again “making himself small,” he continues:

I may not claim for the larger meanings of what I shall say: This is the truth. I say only: This is my vision of the truth; to be checked and rechecked (as I [like James Burnham, too] continually check and recheck it) against the data of experience….I write as a man who made his way back from a special experience of our time—the experience of Communism. I believe the experience to be the central one, for whichever side prevails will be shaped by what Communism is and meant to be, and by the conditions that made it possible and made possible the great conflict…. [For,] the problem of man in this [20th] century—[is] the problem of the terms on which man can wrest some semblance of his human dignity (some would say: save his soul) in a mechanizing world, which is….a revolutionary world.25

Speaking of the French author of a dark and chilling book, Man’s Fate (La Condition Humaine, “to use its French title, which fixes its meaning more clearly”), Chamber’s poignantly adds:

After he had read Witness [1952], André Malraux, the author of Man’s Fate, wrote me: “You are one of those who did not return from Hell with empty hands.” I did not answer him. How is one man to say to another: “Great healing spirit”? For it is not sympathy that the mind craves, but understanding of its purposes.26

Chambers then tries to make more explicit and more compellingly complete what he had written in his earlier 1952 book:

In Witness I sought to make two points which seemed to me more important than the narrative of unhappy events [my personal struggle] which…chiefly interested most readers. The first point had to do with the nature of Communism and the struggle against it. The crux of this matter is the question whether God exists. If God exists, a man cannot be a Communist, which begins with the rejection of God [and rejection of the supernatural order of grace]. But if God does not exist, it follows that Communism, or some suitable [collectivist-socialist] variant of it, is right. More follows. A man is obligated, if he seeks to give any effect to his brief life, to tear away all mystery that darkens or distorts, to snap all ties that bind him in the name of an untruth, to push back all limiting frontiers to the end [the purpose] that man’s intelligence may be free to realize to the fullest of its untrammeled powers a better life in a better world.27

Later returning to this theme, Chambers begins by quoting a line from the American author, Sherwood Anderson:

I want to know why,” one of the most native of our voices asked in a line that rises out of all else he did and said because it sums up all the rest. I want to know why. It is for this that we seek a little height, and because of this we do not feel it too high a price [of sacrifice] to pay if we cannot reach it crawling through a lifetime on our hands and knees, as a wounded man sometimes crawls from a battlefield, if only so as not to die as one more corpse among so many corpses. Happy is he who finds any height, however lowly. That craving for the infinitely great [as Dostoievsky said about God, in The Possessed, through and with his novel’s character, Stefan Trofimovitch] starts with the simplest necessity. It is the necessity to know reality in order, by acting on it directly [through the attentive and docilely guileless “Direct Glance”], to find the measure of man’s meaning and stature in that single chance [or grace?] of some seven decades that is allotted them to find it out in….It is anything that blocks their freedom to enact it [i.e., their possibly tragic, but inescapably suffering, life] meaningfully that kills men with despair. And if the old paths no longer lead to a reality that enables men to act with meaning, if the paths no longer seem to lead anywhere—have become a footworn, trackless maze, or, like Russian roads, end after a few miles of ambitious pavement, leading nowhere but into bottomless mud and swallowing distance—men will break new paths, though they must break their hearts. They will burst out somewhere, even if such bursting-out takes the form of aberration. For to act in aberration is at least more like living than to die of futility, or even to live in that complacency which is futility’s idiot twin.28

These piercing words help us to understand the appeal of Communism to the broken of the world, to those who might have been even slowly dying of despair—or of a sense of futility or of “that complacency which is futility’s idiot twin.” Such complacency may also be, as in the Catholic Church today, not only a lack of vigilance or even a dishonorably tepid negligence, but also a more dangerous sign of both Complicity with evil and sinful Presumption—and perhaps that combination has gradually and self-deceptively happened, as if by titration—drop by drop—over these past fifty years since the buoyant and tolerant commencement of Vaticanum II in the autumn of 1962. In any case, the words of Whittaker Chamber about the deep needs of the human spirit, show us, as with Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, his own deep heart. For, as Chambers also says: “Suffering is at the heart of every living faith.”29

Then Chambers reminds us of the second thing he implicitly said in his earlier book, Witness:

From this proposition—that the heart problem of Communism is the problem of atheism—followed the second problem I set up in Witness, also without developing its conclusions. This proposition implied that the struggle with Communism included its own solution. That is to say, in the course of its struggle with Communism, the West would develop or recover those resources (in the main spiritual and moral) which it held to constitute its superiority to Communism, or in the struggle it would go under. Going under might…take one of two forms. The West might simply lose the war in political or physical terms. But I also allowed for the fact that the West might win the war [Burnham’s “Third World War”] in such terms [“political or physical”] and still lose it, if the taxing necessities of the conflict brought the West to resemble what it was struggling against, i.e., Communism [i.e., Historical and “Dialectical Materialism (DIAMAT)” or, in less technical language, “dynamic, or electronically energetic, materialism,” for example]. A turn in this direction [i.e., toward more and more forms of materialism] has been perfectly visible in the West for several decades [i.e., not only in Burnham’s own convincing perceptions of comfortable and “energetically complacent” Italy and Vienna in 1961!].30

Throughout his chapter on “The Direct Glance,” Chambers manifoldly shows just how deeply—even before 1961—Materialism and its Spirit had taken over in the West, and had thereby constituted, not only a grave vulnerability in the true struggle, but actually became an asset and accomplice to Communism itself—the de-Christianized (now Post-Christian) West coming more and more to resemble what we were purportedly fighting against. Chambers’ eloquent words and detailed insights should be read closely in their entirety, and truly savored. His Witness here, too, will not be forgotten—and “we may run, but cannot hide.”

Chambers also saw the growing flight from suffering and sacrifice—also a flight from the Cross into a sort of “Christianity without the Cross” and thus without the indispensable need for Divine Grace. But, he repeated:

Suffering is at the heart of every living faith. That is why man can scarcely call himself a Christian for whom the Crucifixion is not a daily suffering. For it is by the hope that surmounts suffering that true tragedy surmounts pain and has always had the power [with Grace] to sweep men out of the common ugliness of ordeal to the exaltation in which the spirit rises superior to the agony which alone matures it [the human spirit] by the act of transcending it. This is what we loosely call greatness. And it is the genius of Christianity to recognize that this capacity for greatness inheres [sic] in the nature of his immortal soul [which is truly “Capax Gratiae”—capable of receiving Grace—by virtue of his personal Creation by God]….For it is by the soul that, at the price of suffering, we can break, if we choose, the shackles that an impersonal and rigid Fate otherwise locks upon us. It was the genius of Christianity to whisper to the lowliest man that by action of his own soul he could burst the iron bonds of Fate with which merely being alive seemed to encase him. Only, it could never be done except at a price, which was suffering.”31

Before Chambers contrasts this deeper insight and its fruition with the growing permeation of another ethos, he says:

It was because Christianity gave meaning to a suffering endured in all ages, and otherwise senseless, that it swept the minds of men. It still holds them, though the meaning has been blurred as Christianity [and Vaticanum II, as well?], in common with the voices of the new age, seeks new escapes from the problem of suffering. But the problem remains and the new escapes circle back on the old one. For in suffering, man motivated by hope and faith affirms that dignity which is lit by charity and truth. This is the meaning of the eternal phrases: lest one grain perish, and unless a man die [to himself and sin], he shall not live—phrases…[still now] as fresh as the moment in which they rose upon the astonishment of the saints.32

Speaking of the “new age” which now “seeks new escapes” from suffering—to include, perhaps, the danger—the risk—of final suffering in eternity, Chambers focuses emphatically on the hedonistic and self-indulgent world which James Burnham also saw and so vividly depicted, and thus he says:

Nothing is more characteristic of this age than its obsession with the avoidance of suffering. Nothing dooms it more certainly to that condition which is not childlike but an infantilism which is an incapacity for growth that implies an end [a twofold “Finis”—both a purpose and an ultimate finality]. The mind which has rejected the soul, and marched alone, has brought the age to the brink of disaster. Let us say it flatly: What the age needs is less minds than martyrs—less knowledge (knowledge was never so cheap) but that wisdom which begins with the necessity to die, if necessary, for one’s faith and thereby liberates that hope which is the virtue of the spirit.33

As The Penny Catechism would now fittingly remind us: the two sins against Hope are Presumption and Despair. Thus, there are two fundamental forms of Hopelessness: not only the dark Despair that kills a man; but also Presumption (a premature and facile anticipation of one’s final fulfillment).

For example, Burnham’s “Sleeping Sentries” can also imply Complacent Sentries. And Complacency itself is not only a kind of nonchalant Negligence, but it can also insidiously become a form of insouciant (and sinful) Presumption. Sentries—as well as Guardians of the Faith—who are spiritually asleep and complacent may also be guilty of both the lassitude and the interiorly uprooted restlessness of Spiritual Sloth (Acedia, Accidia). When Saint Thomas himself spoke of the sin of Sloth, he noted that it was marked by an ungrateful and inordinate “worldly sadness concerning a spiritual good” (“Tristitia de bono spirtuali”)—even unto a certain tedium and disgust with the whole supernatural apparatus of salvation. Saint Thomas also discerned that Spiritual Sloth was not so much characterized by mental dullness (“Hebetudo Mentis”) nor by listless sluggishness, but, rather, by a deeply formed (yet gnawing) interior uprootedness and actual itch of restlessness (or “curiositas” for “novelty”). He even called this grave incapacity “a roaming unrest of spirit” (an “Evagatio Mentis”), an unrest which also could not attentively have (much less preserve) “a repose of the mind in God” (a “Quies Mentis in Deo”).

Do not these compact and incisive formulations also illuminate for us a good portion of that vulnerable Modern Materialist Age that Burnham and Chambers saw and criticized, and that world that the Pastoral Second Vatican Council was also to have addressed, in light of the timeless and timely, missionary Catholic Faith? (And without “that itch for innovation,” in Dr. Johnson’s words, which is so indefinitely restless, just like those “itching ears” (“aures prurientes”) of which Saint Paul also spoke.)

We may now, therefore, have further just reasons to wonder what the Council Popes and Fathers truly thought they were to have done, as well as what, in fact, they often so ambiguously did—the many ill fruits of which actions and omissions we may now better see. If we ourselves are not dreaming, or spiritually asleep.

Having examined rather closely the observations and reasons of two non-Catholic thinkers—James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers—both of them men of heart and of high philosophical and strategic intelligence—we now may fittingly ask who saw more of the historical reality and the political-martial context of the times—and, thus, the true pastoral issues to be faced—just before and just after 11 October 1962 the formal opening of Vaticanum II?

In any case, I have not yet found any Catholic author writing of those times to have seen as much of the wider (mostly temporal-secular) reality as Burnham and Chambers; and I gratefully render tribute to these two long-suffering Witnesses to truth.

Admittedly, I have grown more ashamed of what our delusional Vatican II Prelates and Advisors imprudently and unfaithfully set in motion during that 11 October1962—8 December 1965 interval. For I have also been a “Fruit Inspector,” as it were, reflecting upon its cumulative 50-year Aftermath, as I likewise have long considered the deeper truths, the roots and fruits, of World War II, also so delusively and dangerously still called “the good war.” The “good war” and the “good council” should be, perhaps, cross-examined together?

The opening, buoyant but almost dismissive, words of Pope John XXIII at Vaticanum II, still using “the Papal ‘We’” said, in part (but as a representative instance of his whole, somewhat parodic and sentimental, even “naturalistic” tone), the following accented and syntactically separated sentence: “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of doom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.” Would that he, like Burnham and Chambers, had used more differentiated language and made more substantive and differentiated comments, so that they be not an occasion of travesty or hyperbole, but may, rather, reveal and not conceal reality: “the truth of things,” i.e., “reality manifesting itself to a knowing mind” (the “Veritas Rerum”), to include supernatural reality and its purposes and vivid indispensabilities, to include “Sanctifying Grace” and our continuous attentiveness to “The Four Last Things” (“Ta Eschata”), hence even to the Adventure and the Risks of the “Dies Irae.” May the Gift of Fear (the Donum Timoris)—as a Faithful Sentry—at least Guard us from Presumption. And, please God, also keep us from Spiritually Sleeping and Slothfully Complacent Sentries.

If John XXIII were now also a “Fruit Inspector,” what would he, as well as Paul VI, now honestly say after all these years? Might they not both also now gratefully honor the warning Witness of James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, much less the merciful warnings of Our Lady of Fatima?

As Whittaker Chambers himself said somewhere in his writings, although I can no longer find nor even reliably cite the text: “The great test of humility is the pain of not receiving love for love.” Our Dear Lord knew that too—and so has Our Lady.


© 2013 Robert D. Hickson

© 2021 Robert D. Hickson

1James Burnham, The War We Are In (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1967), pp. 306-311. This article, longer than usual, was originally published in National Review in his regular Column, called “The Third World War.”

2James Burnham, The Coming Defeat of Communism (New York: The John Day Company, Inc., 1949, 1950). In the U.S. Department of State, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Pentagon, Burnham was gratefully and formatively read, especially by the advocates of “liberation,” and even by the more influential Paul Nitze and George F. Kennan, those “containment” advocates who soon helped craft and implement NSC-68—“United States Objectives and Programs for National Security” (secretly issued on 14 April 1950, shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War).

3 Ibid., pp. 5, 6, and 7—my emphasis added.

4 Ibid., pp. 7-8—my emphasis added. Burnham, because of his methods, does not consider the 1917 warning-appearances of Our Lady of Fatima, nor her own fortifying and purifying admonitions. But we might fittingly do so now, especially in this sobering context of historical reality.

5 Ibid., p. 11—my emphasis added.

6Ibid.—my emphasis added.

7Ibid., p. 12—my emphasis added.

8Ibid., p. 10—my emphasis added.

9James Burnham, The War We Are In (1967), p. 306—my emphasis added.

10Ibid., pp. 306-307—my emphasis added.

11Ibid., p. 307.

12Ibid., pp. 307-308—my emphasis added.

13Ibid., pp. 307 and 309.

14Ibid., pp. 308 and 309—my emphasis added.

15Ibid. p. 309—my emphasis added.

16Ibid.—my emphasis added.

17Ibid., pp. 309-310—my emphasis added.

18Ibid., p. 310—my emphasis added.

19Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday (New York: Random House, 1964), “The Direct Glance” (Chapter 3), pp. 67-88.

20James Burnham, The War We Are In, p. 310—my emphasis added.

21Ibid., p. 311.

22Ibid.—my emphasis added.

23Ibid.—my emphasis added.

24Whittaker Chambers, Cold Friday, p. 67. We may remember that he suddenly died on 9 July 1961; and, as it should also be mentioned, the writer of this essay is ashamed to say that he himself did not then even know of Whittaker Chamber’s name, much less did he know of his writings and profound witness. For, then at 18 years of age in July of 1961, he was but a callow, new West Point yearling-cadet out at our Camp Buckner’s Recondo-and-Summer-Combat Training, although inspired nonetheless to seek martial excellence and manifold competence within our fitting limits.

25Ibid., pp. 67-68—my emphasis added. It is also, more and more, a world of stifling “bureaucratic collectivism,” as well as of “mutable electronics” and abstract “protean change,” or so it seems.

26Ibid., p. 68—my emphasis added.

27Ibid., pp. 68-69—my emphasis added.

28Ibid., pp. 85-86—my emphasis added.

29Ibid., p. 86—my emphasis added.

30Ibid., p. 70—my emphasis added

31Ibid., pp. 86-87—my emphasis added.

32Ibid., pp. 86-87—my emphasis added.

33Ibid., p. 87—my emphasis added.

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