Hegel on Catholicism

6 04 2011

Catholicism does not claim the essential direction of the Secular; religion remains an indifferent matter on the one side, while the other side of life is dissociated from it, and occupies a sphere exclusively its own. Cultivated Frenchmen therefore feel an antipathy to Protestantism because it seems to them something pedantic, dull, minutely captious in its morality; since it requires that Spirit and Thought should be directly engaged in religion: in attending mass and other ceremonies, on the contrary, no exertion of thought is required, but an imposing sensuous spectacle is presented to the eye, which does not make such a demand on one’s attention as entirely to exclude a little chit chat, while yet the duties of the occasion are not neglected.

-Hegel, The Philosophy of History

One should keep in mind in the above quote that Hegel was actually very much a Francophile. Maybe he did not appreciate the religion much, but he liked the French, and even quipped to his wife that they should go live in Paris. Also, from the description, it is not hard to imagine Hegel actually gracing the doorstep of a church in France or witnessing a procession through the streets of statues or the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t think he is particularly bigoted, even if many of his dismissals of entire continents in this work show that he is, in his core, a bigot.

But of course, now we live in a different world. I have often called Vatican II, “the clericalization of the laity”. Many hardened traditionalists call it the “Protestantization of Catholicism”. Perhaps it is both, but not for the reasons commonly thought. If anything, the clergy were supposed to be the ones who “spiritualized” the popular rites and ceremonies of the people. Most clergy were probably just functionaries, and failed to do so. (This is why Jansenism was so popular amongst many sophisticated quarters in urban France: it attempted to “interiorize” religion, and not just make it the obligatory ideology of the State.) With the modern resourcement, the Liturgical Movement, Vatican II, etc. these rites could no longer be cultural and political obligations: they had to “mean something”, be assimilated by the Spirit,, etc. even if what they meant had to be made up on the fly.

I think the average Catholic, the real average Catholic, has the last laugh in all of this. Our rites still don’t take much “exertion of thought”, people still chat in church, and so on. (Makes you less nostalgic about the “good ol’ days”.) And there are still at least some “cultivated people” (I’ll go out on a limb and put myself in their number) who still find Protestantism hopelessly pedantic and captious. While we may miss the “spectacles for the eyes” and bemoan the frivolity and lack of gravitas in current Catholic ritual, we still might choose a parish based on church architecture and decoration, music, and so on. Plus ça change