Published on August 6, 2020
Ralph McInerny, the late and much-loved Notre Dame scholar, once described the modern absence of great Catholic writers as “Yes, we have no Bernanos.” It’s a joke that would be lost now on most people. McInerny was harking back to a hugely popular 1923 hit song, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.” It was the sort of happy, brainless tune that stuck like superglue in our cultural memory for decades. But McInerny’s point was serious. Today’s lack of first-rank creative talents like Georges Bernanos, the French Catholic novelist and essayist who died in 1948, is a deficit for the Church. It’s also a sign, in much of the “developed” world, of her seeming infertility.
Bernanos is best known for his novels, The Diary of a Country Priest and Under Satan’s Sun, and for his play about nuns martyred by the French Revolution, Dialogues of the Carmelites, later adapted into a celebrated opera by Francis Poulenc. But he speaks to us most forcefully across the years with his final essays, available in editions here and here. His novels can be dense for the casual reader. But in his essays, he combined a deep Catholic faith with an easy, candid style and a sardonic taste for irony.
In his essay “Our Friends, the Saints,” he described the Church as a vast transport company carrying people to heaven; but one with a regrettable record of train wrecks thanks to bad management. The thing that saves the Church in every century, he said, is her saints: “Without the saints, Christianity would be nothing but a huge pile of overturned locomotives, burned-out carriages, twisted rails and scrap iron, which would end up by rusting in the rain.” And by “saints” Bernanos meant not the marquee names we all know, but the little ones we don’t: the millions of invisible, ordinary faithful, who actually believe and try to live – sincerely and as best they can – what they claim to believe and live.
Bernanos was especially harsh toward the comfortable lay piety of the bourgeoisie. He saw it as a form of religious narcolepsy and a persuasive argument for atheism. He was equally tough on stuffy ecclesial bureaucrats and self-satisfied clergy. He fiercely criticized the Spanish bishops for aligning themselves with Franco and the Nationalists, and their excesses, during Spain’s civil war. And in contrast to French Church leaders, he dismissed the brief Catholic revival in France after World War II as shallow and illusory. Which it was.
He also had an enduring distrust for the cults of excessive technology, progress and optimism, especially in their American guise. Bernanos described America as “the Rome, the Mecca” of an emerging technological civilization. He didn’t mean it as praise. American optimism, he rather felt, was a caricature of the far more demanding Christian virtue of hope, and thus a form of “whistling past the graveyard.”
“Modern civilization,” Bernanos wrote, “[is] based on a materialistic definition of man which represents him as a perfected animal.” The result is “the dictatorship of an insane technology,” which smiles as it distracts modern man with the trinkets of life, while it steals any notion of life’s higher purpose or meaning. Frank Sheed, in words Bernanos would emphatically endorse, noted that:
It is incredible how long science has succeeded in keeping men’s minds off their fundamental unhappiness and its own very limited power to remedy their fundamental unhappiness. One marvel follows another – electric light, phonograph, motor car, telephone, radio, airplane, television. It is a curious list, and very pathetic. The soul of man is crying for hope of purpose or meaning; and the scientist says, “Here is a telephone,” or “Look, television!” – exactly as one tries to distract a baby crying for its mother by offering it sugar-sticks and making funny faces.
Today’s enveloping cocoon of technology leads us to view ourselves as pampered but powerless victims of forces too great for us. But as Bernanos warned: “You must not by any means believe that the events [of] today exceed the measure of man, so that there is nothing to do but to submit to them. . . .Events are no larger than they used to be; it is men who have become smaller.”
In his essay “On Freedom,” Bernanos added that
If someone were to ask me what is the most general symptom of [today’s] spiritual anemia, I would surely reply: indifference to both truth and falsehood. Today. . .this indifference hides a weariness, something like a disgust with the faculty of judgment. But the faculty of judgment cannot be exercised without a certain interior pledge. Anyone who judges, pledges himself. Modern man does not pledge himself anymore, because he no longer has anything to pledge.
And he goes on:
Called upon to side with truth or falsehood, good or evil, Christian man pledged his soul. . .that is to say, he risked his salvation. Metaphysical faith in him was an inexhaustible source of energy. Modern man is still capable of judging. . .but his judgment doesn’t function any more than a motor functions without fuel: No part of the motor is missing, but there is no gas in the tank.
It might be tempting, based on the material above, to imagine Bernanos as a moralizing crank. That would be a mistake. Bernanos is bracing, yes; but his essays, while penetrating and passionate in their analysis, are veined with a biting, darkly wonderful, and sometimes laugh-out-loud sense of humor.
It may be a while before the Church can once again produce the blend of compelling faith in God, and exquisite skepticism about humans, that comprised the genius Georges Bernanos. In the meantime, we have his work and the lessons to draw from it. We might long for more. But it is enough.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and senior research associate at the University of Notre Dame.