What the late Axel Springer (1912-1985) was to the world of newspaper publishing, legal scholar Jacques Ellul is to Protestants, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is to writers, the vigorous Père Raymond-Lèopold Bruckberger is to the world of contemporary Roman Catholic intellectuals—a man whose many gifts would make him a sought-after celebrity if his deepest convictions were not so dramatically out-of-fashion. These four all have in common an ardent support for the traditional ideals of the Christian civilization of the West, a passion that renders them hopelessly suspect in the eyes of most Western journalists and of much of the ecclesiastical establishment as well.
Axel Springer, for example, was commonly decried as an archconservative. In fact, he supported the German Socialist Party (SPD) for years, until Willy Brandt, on becoming Federal Chancellor, took West Germany down the road of his new Ostpolitik, i.e., of accommodation to Soviet expansionism. Springer seems to have forfeited the right to the attention his publishing eminence and many charities ought to have merited, by virtue of his outspoken commitment to ideals that the opinion-makers have rejected: such intellectually disreputable causes as democracy, the Western alliance, German reunification, and reconciliation with Israel. And Springer’s publicly declared conversion to evangelical Christianity in later life hardly improved his standing among opinion-makers. Although honored by the Israeli government as well as by Jewish organizations such as B’nai B’rith for his commitment to the state of Israel and to interfaith understanding. Springer never hesitated to state his conviction that the Jews mistakenly wait for the true Messiah who had. already come: in other words, to affirm that Judaism remains incomplete without Jesus Christ. Springer was also bold enough to tell the oil-rich world of Islam that Allah, who has no son, cannot be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of Jesus Christ.
Springer had the audacity to reaffirm the finality of Christianity—a claim that ought to be evident to all who know Christian teachings, regardless of whether they accept them or not. He did this at a time when many Protestant theologians and indeed the Pope himself seem bent on minimizing the contrast between Christianity and the other great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam.
Ellul, born in 1912, originally enjoyed considerable popularity in Protestant ecumenical circles, following World War II, in which he fought in the anti-German Résistance. His early popularity resembles that of the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed in 1945 for plotting against Hitler. Unfortunately for his reputation in ecumenical circles, Ellul, unlike Bonhoeffer, survived the Nazi terror and went on—like Solzhenitsyn—to compare it almost favorably with the terrors of Communism, going so far as to say that the only moral difference between Communism and Nazism lies in the fact that the Communists won and the Nazis were crushed. If Hitler had won, Ellul claims, our Christian intellectuals would engage in “dialogues with Nazism,” and the horrors of the Gulag rather than those of the Nazi Kazetts (KZ-Konzentrationslager, concentration camps) would be the staple fare of our news and entertainment media.
Like Ellul, Solzhenitsyn appears to have forfeited his claim to acceptability, and for similar reasons, for he not only continues to excoriate the malignancy of Communism, but also to deride American political and intellectual leaders for their lack of courage, honesty, and willpower (see Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s article, “Solzhenitsyn and Democracy,” in the November 1985 Chronicles).
Although less famous than the other three. Father Bruckberger, born in 1907, has much in common with them—not the least the fact that he is perfectly willing to stand by unpopular convictions even when they cost him much of the celebrity that his achievement otherwise would merit—and he appears to have made similar mistakes. Although each of the four is deeply committed to the Christian faith (Springer a Lutheran, Ellul a Calvinist, Solzhenitsyn Russian Orthodox, arid Bruckberger Roman Catholic), Bruckberger is the only clergyman among them—and also the only member of the Foreign Legion! In 1929 Bruckberger entered the Dominican order, the order known for producing not only the greatest of all Roman Catholic scholars, Thomas Aquinas, but also for taking a leading role in the Inquisition. Like each of the others, Bruckberger is difficult to pigeonhole, as readers may discover by acquiring his latest book, Le Capitalisme—mais c’est la vie! (Paris: Plon, 55 Fr). He is certainly not a typical representative of political, theological, or economic conservatism, but he professes a number of things that should endear him to conservatives as much as they make him odious to leftists.
For example, Bruckberger professes an admiration and love for the United States as well as a deep commitment to the historic role of France, even to France’s role as a colonial power in Africa. Any one of these attitudes alone would ruin his standing in contemporary Catholic and Protestant intellectual circles, but—as if that were not enough—he professes a fine contempt for modern theology. “Les plus misérables d’entre nous sont ceux qui n’attendent rien et le proclament bien haut avee une sorte de satisfaction hautaine, comme un eunuque serait fier d’être châtré” (The most miserable among us are those who expect nothing [from God] and who loudly proclaim it with a sort of haughty self-satisfaction, like a eunuch proud of being castrated). Needless to say, this sort of thing does not make one popular in trendy church circles, where the revolt against traditional clerical celibacy may be a sort of compensation for an increasingly evident spiritual impotence. Bruckberger’s impressive record of accomplishments, including three films as well as a long list of books, is not enough to compensate for such eccentricities.
Bruckberger is perhaps the closest thing to a Crusader knight seen among Christians since the military orders went out of fashion in the Middle Ages. As a soldier he went through the debacle of the French army in 1940, and like Ellul he joined the Résistance—much to the dismay of his Dominican superiors, who did not want to rock the Nazi and Petainist boat. Eventually he was named Aumonier (Chaplain) de la Résistance, a post for which I know no parallel elsewhere. In this capacity Bruckberger welcomed the victorious General Charles de Gaulle to the Cathedral of Notre- Dame on the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Although Bruckberger clearly respected de Gaulle, unlike de Gaulle he would continue to affirm l’Algerie française and would have fought to defend it.
Made a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, for his role in the Résistance, Bruckberger was obnoxious to his church superiors, an unpleasant reminder of their own compromises. As a consequence, he was virtually forced out of France by his monastic superiors in 1947.
At this point in Bruckberger’s life, when he was a monk of 40 with years of fidelity to his vow of celibacy, he fell deeply in love with a young woman. Strangely enough for modern enlightened liberal thought, and unlike so many others who had also taken a vow of chastity, Bruckberger chose to renounce romance rather than his vow. His “exile” from France took him first to North Africa, where his unusual loyalties, to the Church and to France, were rapidly becoming unfashionable. Between 1948 and 1950 he lived on a post of the French Foreign Legion, close to a community of Catholic medical missionaries known as Soeurs blanches—both of which highly different “orders” he praises as the true representatives of France—as well as of Christianity, at least in the case of the Sisters.
In an encounter that seems more reminiscent of the Crusader kingdoms of Outre-Mer than of modern Europe in the postcolonial era, Bruckberger once took it upon himself to defend “the honor of Christ” in an incident which is probably all but incomprehensible to late-20th-century Christians, although it was very well understood and admired by the Foreign Legion and earned him the status of an honorary legionnaire “first class.” One of the most admired and best-loved of the medical missionaries, a Sister Agnes, mysteriously eloped with a Moslem businessman named Benphelja, to the consternation and shame of the other Sisters, the rage of the Foreign Legion, and the amusement of the Moslem population. A “bride of Christ” had been “carried off” (even if without violence) by an unbeliever. The colonial authorities, militantly secular, saw nothing out of order, and the Church hierarchy preferred to keep a low profile.
Consequently Bruckberger took it upon himself to emerge from his Foreign Legion quarters and confront the Moslem bridegroom on his own. When the groom prudently persisted in avoiding him, Bruckberger went to the highest Moslem spiritual authority in the area, the bachaga of Ain Sefra, accompanied by a highly embarrassed French administrator. What a French administrator could not understand, the bachaga understood very well. In a courtly affaire d’honneur evocative of a dialogue between Saladin and Richard Coeur de Lion, and to the astonishment of the civil authorities, the Moslem bachaga approved Bruckberger’s mission and passed a sentence of exile on Benphelja for an affront to the honor of the Christians’ Lord.
Bruckberger contended that for a Christian, a determination to defend the honor of Christ is the only way to retain the respect of the honor-conscious Moslems. The French government was uncomprehending, but not the Foreign Legion. Legionnaires, unlike knights of the old military orders, certainly had not taken a vow of celibacy, but unlike many of the modern clergy, they still had a profound respect for those who did. While the civil and ecclesiastical authorities made plans to deal with this embarrassing Dominican, Bruckberger was given the rare honor of being made a légionnaire d’honneur de premiere classe—a highly unusual distinction for a clergyman. It is probably needless to add that Bruckberger was able to handle the mandatory “aperitif” at the dinner in his honor—a two-liter jug of strong red wine. The admiration of the Legion did not deter the Catholic hierarchy and the French colonial administration from joining hands to usher the new légionnaire d’honneur out of North Africa as rapidly as possible.
From North Africa, Bruckberger traveled to the United States, where he lived during the years 1950-1958. In North America he discovered a new cause, one that made him even more objectionable, if possible, to those who already found him a throwback to the Middle Ages: American capitalism, incarnated in Henry Ford. In the United States, he discovered that the true revolutionaries of our era were not Marx, Lenin, or Stalin, but the capitalist Henry Ford and the labor leader Samuel Gompers. Henry Ford, by his policy of paying hitherto unheard-of high wages, changed the status of industrial workers from proletarians to consumers, producing a greater social transformation than all the revolutions from the French to the Nicaraguan combined. Gompers was that highly unique “labor leader” who really respected workers and credited them with the intelligence and judgment to make their own decisions, rather than looking on them as mindless sheep to be led, by force if necessary, to Utopian pastures. Gompers saw his role as the workers’ executive in the original sense of the word, called to carry out their wishes, not to tell them what they had to wish. In La République américaine (1958, published in English translation as Image of America in 1965), Bruckberger, like de Toqueville a century earlier, recognized and honored distinctive American contributions in areas where Europeans are still inclined to think that they are the arbiters of fashion.
In 1958 Bruckberger still hoped that Algeria would remain French, arguing that this might be possible if France were willing to try an American experiment in her restive North African colony. What could be more shocking than for an intellectual to suggest that France ought to have kept her colonies? Only to propose that it might successfully and happily do so by introducing principles borrowed from American industry and labor relations! Even in 1980, long after anticolonialism had become an unquestioned dogma all over the world, provoking mandatory Western mea culpas whenever mentioned, Bruckberger still had the audacity to claim that France’s engagement in Algeria and the Algerians’ century of cooperation with France were honorable, a proud page in history. Although I have not come across any remarks by Bruckberger on the topic of South Africa, I suspect that while he would on the one hand be profoundly aware of the faults of South Africa and of the atrocity of apartheid, he would on the other hand consider it cruel as well as cowardly for the white government to yield to internal agitation and outside pressure, precisely because that would mean abandoning millions of Africans to revolutionary chaos, bloodshed, and totalitarian tyranny. Sentiments such as those Bruckberger expresses, as well as my own suggestion as to how he may think with respect to South Africa, dare hardly be thought, much less stated, in political, academic, or religious circles anywhere in the “Christian” West. In the political and economic realms as well as in church circles, the Western mind is dominated by the smug impotence so aptly characterized by Bruckberger: eunuchs proud of being castrated. This remarkable Dominican monk and honorary Foreign Legionnaire has shown that it is possible to be celibate without being emasculated—an admirable lesson in an age when so much of our intellectual world seems to be bent on demonstrating that it can be sexually promiscuous and “totally depraved” while remaining morally impotent, sexually sordid, and spiritually sterile.