Heading Home to Love, Suffering, and Mercy
Mustard Seeds: A Conservative Becomes a Catholic
By L. Brent Bozell
Publisher: Trinity Communications
Pages: 360 pages
Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski, S.J.
If the 19th century buried God, then it also buried any hope of greatness for man, apart from that diseased greatness of the antiheroes of this century. It has remained for the 20th century to bury Man, whose death is scarcely remarked. To meet a real man, then, in this time of consumers is a rare blessing; to meet one who has an aura of greatness is a rare grace.
Mustard Seeds is a collection of the writings of a great man living in stormy times. Brent Bozell was and remains a prophet. A man high on the cultural masthead who saw shipwreck, he strapped himself to the mast of the Cross, where he would be washed by waves of suffering. It is a story of conversion as the subtitle indicates, and yet the subtitle does not tell the whole story. For Bozell was a Catholic when he began writing the essays gathered here, only a different sort of Catholic from the one he would become.
The writings cover a period of 25 years. At the beginning we find ourselves in Madison Square Garden , listening to a powerful speech by Bozell about the West — a truly conservative speech in the European tradition, where one hears echoes of das Abendland, where “Western civilization, as the hopeful, human analogue of the divine order, lives.” I say the European tradition, because even then Bozell’s conservatism was no laissez-faire capitalism, nor the tawdry conservatism of yuppiedom. Rather, his thought was rooted in reflection on the nature of being, and in his 1962 essay “Freedom or Virtue” he repudiated the “libertarians who take as their first principle in political affairs the freedom of the individual person and emphasize the restriction of the power of the state and the maintenance of the free-market economy as guarantees of that freedom.” As against them, he sees himself as a “traditionalist” who “puts primary emphasis upon the authority of transcendent truth and the necessity of a political and social order in accord with the constitution of being.” He powerfully attacks the prevailing notion that true virtue can bloom without social supports, and takes up the theme that it is society’s job to make virtue possible for its citizens. Western progress has denied man both a nature and a purpose outside himself, something which Communism provides. Communism is monstrous, but at least it offers some purpose, some hope “where, with the rejection of the Christian idea of ‘absorption’ in God, there was no purpose and no hope.”
The second section of the book is the longest, covering the years 1966-1975. For those of us in the population bulge who were coming to maturity in those years, it was a time of revolution in which all moorings seemed lost. There is a particular vividness to those years — Vietnam, Humanae Vitae, race riots, Watergate — which present events — Nicaragua, Curran, Iran — seem only to echo dully. This section is a must for anyone who would understand what was really at stake in those years.
Bozell has a way of penetrating to the heart of the matter: he is brilliantly incisive. Having seen the profound cleavage from the human tradition which the Modern West embodied, he spots the consequences of that cleavage in the life of the world around him. At the heart lies the issue of contraception, of which he has written more powerfully than anyone.
Bozell’s despair over America grows with the years. In 1968 he was writing about the Supreme Court remaking the nation on the premises of secular-liberal ideology, while the rest of the nation sat idly by. He noted that “any sensitive man could be expected to devote a good part of his working day to agonizing over the West’s sickness and to searching for the keys (which are probably theological) to recuperation and health.” Yet his own search was to take many more years.
He discovered that because the founders of the nation had chosen God as merely a patron saint and not the effective source of authority, the Constitution itself “has not only failed; it was bound to fail. The architects of our constitutional order built a house in which secular liberalism could live and given the dominant urges of the age, would live. The time has come to leave that house and head for home.” Home will be the Cross, but for many years after writing these words, Bozell continued to turn his mind and pen to the issues of the day, writing with devastating power, unmasking the bankruptcy of America. In 1968, while folksingers were peddling their nostrums, he wrote of “the residents of our unspeakable suburbs who use their money to purchase a technological insulation (the reason they are always broke is that no insulation is thick enough) from reality.”
In that same year, he painfully noted that the U.S. bishops had lost their belief in a Church with a mission, and that they “now feel able to take a stand on a public issue only when they concur with the consensus of the national secular establishment. Which means the American Church has married the American state, is committed to its secular values and goals, is an arm of a political order which is down on one knee before history — but not genuflecting, falling.”
With the disillusionment with the American system and the modern West came a turning to the notion of a “Confessional Tribe,” a community surviving in the surrounding ruins. He sees two monuments that “remain intact and are now calling for the new offensive that will be the salvation of the post-modern world.” They are the Escorial and St. Peter’s.
The Escorial represents Spain, one of Bozell’s great loves: Spain, the Catholic seedbed from which explorers discovered new worlds and missionaries went forth to win them for Christ. By 1972 he was writing that Christians in the West were “on the one hand victims of a total collapse of the Christian inheritance in the public life, and on the other victims of no active repression whatever (there is nothing worth repressing).” He was hungry for a vibrant Christianity which would rise to the challenge it flings in the face of the surrounding world. If there is one thing that is clear from these pages, it is that Bozell is convinced that it is impossible to be a Christian and a comfortable American. He writes of going to jail.
But by 1973 some of the fire is gone from his writing. He is contrite about his public attacks on the bishops and has “come increasingly to trust feelings.” There is a change at work in these pages which is difficult to define. It is not that Bozell changes his mind. But his thought deepens, and he corrects his prophecy as events pass, and emphatically expands his central concern for the poor. But he never was an ugly pro-capitalist to begin with. What is the conversion at work that will usher in the third section, “Heading Home”?
I have heard it said that to be whole, a man must touch three bases in Europe: England for the mind, Italy for the body, and Poland for the soul. That might be expanded to the Teutonic world, from which Bozell comes by blood; to the Latin world, whose classical lines he so loves; and lastly the Slavic world, whose doctrine of redemptive suffering is the light from the East which dawned on Bozell after the brilliance of his own early insights no longer satisfied.
To be sure, his essays are as brilliant as anything one will read. But there is a way in which intellectual brilliance satisfies only for a while, no matter how much earthly light is shed. It is in the final essays, those written in recent years, after much suffering, that a deeper chord is sounded. Of course, the reflections are on suffering: in the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is very lonely.
I remember running across Bozell’s article “Poland’s Cross and America’s” in Bancroft Library in Berkeley, after my own return from Poland in 1984. It was the first time I had encountered his name. There it was: the plain, simple, shocking truth of Polish fidelity to the Cross under persecution, and the West’s apostasy.
The final essays are really one hymn of love to the suffering Christ, focusing on the often repeated selection, 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. The Polish Pope, the Polish War of the Crosses, and Sr. Faustina (the Polish mystic of Divine Mercy) fill these pages, as Bozell, in his search for the Christian Commonwealth, sees hope in Solidarity, hope of that Catholic politics for which he has long been hungering. The divine mercy fills his mind, a paradoxical mercy, in which God refused God mercy in Gethsemane so that His creation might know mercy.
Bozell has been heading home, finding his orientation of late in the work of Misión Guadalupe, trying to effect the conversion of North America to Mercy through her Hispanic immigrants. He contemplates the faces of Our Ladies of Guadalupe and Czestochowa. So it must be, for he writes: “All I see, besides love and mercy, is suffering.”
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