The easiest columns become the hardest to write. When I learned that Anne Roche Muggeridge had died, my first thought was incommunicable; but my second was, I must write a column to tell my readers, since I’m not sure they’ll find out from the news pages. My third was: Now, that is a column that will write itself!
She died Tuesday, in an institution in Toronto, after many years of an excruciating illness; the funeral mass is in the care of the Toronto Oratory, this morning.
That much news will serve the many Roman Catholics, and other Christians, for whom Anne was a life-changing influence, whether directly, or through media, or most often through two remarkable books: The Gates of Hell (1975), and The Desolate City (1986, revised 1990). The first is now almost impossible to obtain, the second difficult. This is not the occasion to explain why.
The latter, which carried the subtitle, The Catholic Church in Ruins, will survive and ultimately be reprinted, because it is a historical and religious classic. A reader in some future time, who wishes to know what happened to the Church not only in Canada but everywhere, in the shadow of Vatican II, will find in it a mine of diamonds. For not only does it put names and faces to the revolution that happened within the Church, in the 1960s and ‘70s, it gives the flavour of the times, superbly.
The attack from within, on the authority of Rome, can be understood only by analogy to a secular revolution. It came to climax over Pope Paul’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, from the summer of 1968, which affirmed the traditional teaching of the Church “on human life,” and thus necessarily reprised sexual morality. The flashpoint was doctrinal opposition not only to abortion, but to contraception. This teaching was openly mocked, as “totally out of touch with the times.”
One might say the problem was not with the teaching, but with the times; Anne went deeper. She realized that, for the revolutionary or “progressive” factions within the Church, contraception wasn’t really the issue. It did not impinge on the lives of the radical priests, feminist nuns, and others who feigned apoplexy over it. For them it was the crowbar with which to challenge papal authority openly, after years of more secret and subversive operations; and those who had pretended to speak for the Church’s “better traditions,” now came fully out of the woodwork to oppose everything, and attempt their coup.
It was also a lever. The radicals could not expect to quickly change the doctrines of 20 centuries and, after the publication of the encyclical, had no foreseeable hope of advancing their agenda to things like married or woman priests. That front line was holding. But they soon held the whip hand in something perhaps more powerful: “liturgical reform.”
In the space of a very few years, the Catholic Mass was changed almost out of recognition, with the substitution of sludgy and anti-poetical modern-language translations for the rich, precise, ancient Latin texts. But beneath that were two startling innovations (neither of them done with any authority from Vatican II itself). The first was to turn the priest around, so that he would be facing the congregation, instead of the Sanctuary. The second was to permit, and then encourage people to take Communion in the hand.
Those changes were revolutionary in a way non-Catholics must struggle to understand. Instead of man being for God, they declared God to be for man. The whole purport of Catholic teaching was reversed in these symbolic gestures, and the most solemn act of worship turned into what could finally be reduced to a rather dreary public entertainment.
The Catholic Church was indeed in ruins. What was done ostensibly to fill the churches, in fact emptied them, and left a “me generation” with faith hanging by a thread. That the Church would recover, Anne never doubted; but her purpose was to document and explain the catastrophe, in historical terms.
Her book was also a religious classic. Taking its title from the Lamentations of Jeremiah—“How doth the city sit desolate that was full of people; how is she become a widow that was mistress among nations”—she inquired also into the Church’s deep past, and invoked the Christ who had righted her after many previous topplings. Anne carried a light of faith, even through desolation.
More than this, and more personal than this, I cannot write in a column; beyond mentioning that Anne was a beloved friend and true inspiration, long before I was myself received into the Catholic Church. And for all her reputation as an “axe-swinging reactionary” (she genuinely scared liberal priests and bishops), a warm, charitable, often deliciously funny, and very beautiful human being.