Under advanced liberalism there is an expectation that anybody who so much as dares to speak civilly to or about any figure associated with the Confederacy is to be deemed persona non grata. For Catholics as Catholics, such sweeping and absolutist expectations are simply unacceptable.
Forth from its scabbard, high in the air
Beneath Virginia’s sky;
And they who saw it gleaming there,
And knew who bore it, knelt to swear
That where that sword led they would dare
To follow—and to die.
—“The Sword of Robert Lee”
by Father Abram Joseph Ryan
That the revolutionary left seeks to purge the Southern legacy from America is obvious. Less obvious is why this ongoing purge should be a topic of interest to my fellow Catholics. No doubt some might ask me whether we do not have plenty of uphill battles already. Is it not enough to support the countercultural Latin mass, and declare the perennial albeit unpopular truths of Church teaching, without getting embroiled in rancorous debates about the real causes of the War Between the States or the personal virtues of General Lee? While I appreciate such reservations, the truth is that we all have a dog in the fight over the Southern legacy, whether we admit it or not. It is no coincidence, after all, that the bishop who cheers the loudest for the tearing down of Confederate memorials is the same one who recently issued an LGBT prayer card in honor of Gay Pride Month. For those leftists who most fervently hate the South also hate the Church—and largely for the same reasons. And let us be clear: They hate the South not so much for its failings, real or imagined, but because they (correctly) see its various cultures as embodying a deep-rooted resistance to the egalitarian-utopian project. Moreover, I would also point out to my fellow communicants that Southern heritage and Catholic identity are not only analogous, but connected—at some junctures, even inseparably intertwined.
That, at least, is the conclusion one might draw from select passages of The Land We Love: The South and Its Heritage, a recent collection of essays by Boyd Cathey. To be sure, this wide-ranging book deals with many compelling subjects, from the thought of Presbyterian theologian Robert Louis Dabney, to the rise of neoconservatism, to the formerly positive relationship between the South and Hollywood. It is safe to say, though, that the book’s most unusual feature is its emphasis upon Dixie’s relationship with Christendom. Dr. Cathey holds a doctorate from the University of Navarra in Spain, so his book contains a lot more references to Spanish traditionalists than we might normally expect from a work of this sort.
Indeed, the section entitled “Secession and Catalonia” deals in no small part with the troubled yet inspiring history of Catholic Spain, a history which the author sees as pertinent to his own North Carolina. Historically the Spanish king was “not actually the absolute king of a unitary, centralized royal state, but rather the monarch over a collection of fiercely regionalist states, each with its own traditions, history and parliaments,” explains Dr. Cathey. This loose patchwork of a kingdom was rocked by wars of succession during the early modern period, which pitted mechanistic liberal ideology against the old regime of fueros, or regional rights:
During those several civil wars in the 19th century, Catalonia stood, by and large, with the traditionalist defenders of the ancient regime, the Carlists. It was the Carlists who defended the fueros and who advocated the return of a strong king who actually had power, but whose powers were also circumscribed by the historic regions and traditions of the country. It was the Carlists… who understood [that] 19th-century liberalism, despite its slogan of “liberty and equality,” would actually do away with and suppress those old regionalist statutes and protections, those intermediate institutions in society, that secured more liberties for the citizens.
So far, so good, and nothing surprising to the historically-conscious Christian, Catholic or otherwise, who is well aware that the Spanish Carlists were among the most tenacious opponents of that modernism so stridently condemned by Pope Saint Pius IX (of whom more will be said shortly). But what does all this have to do with the American South?
Catholic intellectuals such as Marcelino Menendez y Pelayo and Juan Vazquez de Mella have much in common with the agrarian-minded, piety-oriented Southern patriot, argues Dr. Cathey, noting that one of the Spaniards he befriended as a doctoral student went so far as to characterize the Confederate soldiers of yesteryear as “paladins of Christian civilization.” (As a personal aside, I can attest to the curious affinity certain Spanish traditionalists have for Dixie, having had on some occasions the honor of sharing drinks and cigars with a gallant Cuban who served the Tridentine mass and was wont to profess his high regard for Stonewall Jackson.)
Given the common misconception of the South as monolithically low church evangelical, many will be inclined to scoff at romantic phrases about medieval paladins, but here the romance is backed up with at least a few cold hard facts, as Dr. Cathey relates:
In Spain discovered as many as 1,000 Spanish Traditionalists, or Carlists, who rose up against Liberalism in their own country under the motto, “God, Country, our Regional Rights, and our King,” and then came to Texas to volunteer for the Confederacy. They came by way of Mexico and fought in Confederate ranks at Sabine Pass and at other battles. According to Spanish military historian, David Odalric de Caixal, some enlisted in the Louisiana Tigers. Others found their way as far afield as the 34th and 41st Tennessee regiments. A few even ended up in the Army of Northern Virginia, where General A.P. Hill called them his “rough tattered lions sent by Providence.”
Nor were Spanish Carlists the only Catholic Euro-Confederates. Following the destruction of the Neapolitan monarchy at the hands of masonic revolutionaries, several hundred former Bourbon guardsmen likewise crossed the Atlantic to fight on behalf of the Davis government, and to this very day Confederate banners fly in Naples to commemorate the South’s “Italian Brigade.”
As Dr. Cathey rightly points out, neither the Louisiana Tigers nor the Bourbonists in grey fit tidily into the common conception of the war as a noble Northern crusade against wicked slavedrivers—and whatever we may think of this Richard M. Weaver Fellow’s account, let him not be mistaken for some isolated crank. There have been many Catholic writers and thinkers who would more or less agree with the historiography of yet another Catholic, the poet-scholar Allen Tate, who wrote that “in the South the most conservative of the European orders had, with great power, come back to life,” even as the antebellum North, “opposing Southern feudalism, had grown to be a powerful industrial state which epitomized in spirit all those middle-class, urban impulses directed against the agrarian aristocracies of Europe after the Reformation.” Whether we ourselves concur, there is no denying that the 19th century was indeed the era of liberal nationalism in Europe, as proponents of the consolidated, urbanized nation- state usually succeeded in imposing their vision upon champions of traditional agrarian order. There is also no denying that around the same time, the Know-Nothing movement enjoyed vastly more support in the urbanized and Puritan-rooted North than in the South. From there, it is not hard to see why many European Catholics identified with Dixie during the fratricidal American war.
Another concrete historical episode to which Dr. Cathey alludes deals with the arch-Confederate himself, Jefferson Davis, who was educated at a Dominican priory in Kentucky, maintained throughout his life close and warm relations with a number of individual Catholics and Catholic religious communities, and eventually embraced a number of Catholic practices, such as the scapular. In contrast to Lincoln, whose interest in God remained mostly confined to speeches, Davis took with him after the war into his prison cell a Bible, a prayer-book, and a copy of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ. Were Davis’s personal spirituality the whole story, perhaps it would not be worth mentioning, but what must also be fished out of the memory-hole of inconvenient truths is his correspondence with the pope.
Writing to Blessed Pius IX, Davis lamented “the ruin and devastation caused by the war which is now being waged by the United States against the States and people which have selected me as their President,” and thanked the pontiff for his efforts to broker a truce, or at least mitigate the ferocity of the conflict. “I pray your Holiness to accept on the part of myself and the people of the Confederate States, our sincere thanks for your efforts in favor of peace.”
“We attach you to us by a perfect friendship,” Blessed Pius IX replied warmly:
It is particularly agreeable to us to see that you, illustrious and honorable President, and your people, are animated with the same desires of peace and tranquility which we have in our letters inculcated upon our venerable brothers. May it please God at the same time to make the other peoples of America, and their rulers, reflecting seriously how terrible is civil war, and what calamities it engenders, listen to the inspiration of a calmer spirit, and adopt resolutely the part of peace.
Let us admit that the pope’s express wish for peace does not quite constitute the full-throated endorsement for which Davis might have hoped. At the same time, what is also quite clear is that neither Pius IX’s clearly expressed desire for a negotiated settlement, nor his acknowledgement of a plurality of disparate American peoples, nor honorifics such as “illustrious and honorable President” can be reconciled with the 21st-century politically-correct sensibilities. So should we be embarrassed on behalf of Blessed Pius IX for his not having denounced the vile rebellion, for his not having seized the chance to align himself with “the right side of history”? Shall we perform the hallowed ritual dance of white liberal guilt because in 1863 pro-Southern articles authored by Bishop Martin J. Spalding appeared in the papal newspaper Osservatore Romano?
Although I myself find Dr. Cathey’s position persuasive in many respects, for Catholics how we assess his argument is almost irrelevant. It makes little difference how much weight we give to the factors various thoughtful, rival historians have presented as the true cause or causes for the American “Civil War”—slavery, states’ rights, tariffs, the industrial-agrarian cultural divide, and so on. So far as I am concerned Yankees—Catholic or otherwise—are quite welcome to keep busts of President Lincoln on their desks and roll their eyes whenever they hear someone whistling “Dixie.”
There is one point I must insist upon, however. As I mentioned at the beginning, no honest person can deny that The New York Times, National Public Radio, and other organs of globalist liberal orthodoxy despise the South and characterize it as the land of racist hillbilly rednecks. The journalists and bureaucrats who run such organs take for granted that all decent people distance themselves as far as possible from anyone who ever fought for the CSA. For that matter, under advanced liberalism there is an expectation that anybody who so much as dares to speak civilly to or about any figure associated with the Confederacy is to be deemed persona non grata. For Catholics as Catholics, such sweeping and absolutist expectations are simply unacceptable.
They are unacceptable not because the antebellum South was necessarily a quasi-Catholic ideal, but because no serious member of a serious body allows outsiders to dictate to him where the pale is, or who is to be within or without it. When the Catholic totally condemns Confederates, he is not merely guilty of uncharitably condemning men who sought to do their duty to their respective home states. Rather, he is in many cases condemning men who were his co-religionists to boot; Euro-Confederates aside, during the war the overwhelming majority of Catholic sons of the South remained loyal to their native region, such that a notably high percentage of Confederate leadership came from Catholic ranks.
These Catholic Confederates may not have been saints, true, and just for the sake of argument we will grant for the moment the Unionist assumption that they were politically misguided. Even then, the fact would remain that such Catholic Confederates seem to have been at least as devoted and earnest parishioners as are many of us today. Were we to disavow such bygone brethren of ours simply because the shrill voice of political-correctness tells us to, for their having worn the gray, I am not sure how different we would be from those quislings who obediently scurried to disavow the Covington Catholic students for having worn MAGA caps.
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The featured image is a watercolor painting of Elkhorn Tavern (1887) at Pea Ridge, Arkansas, the site of a Civil War battle in 1862, by Martha H. Hoke (1861-1939), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.