Gaston Fessard fought against the philosophical idolatry of both the left and the right.
He was unknown in the United States and his name was largely unfamiliar in his homeland. But when Gaston Fessard died on June 18, 1978, a full-page article was devoted to him in Le Point, a French weekly newsmagazine of the stature of Newsweek or U.S. News and World Report.
During the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, Fessard, a Jesuit, wrote the first of a series of anonymous pamphlets that had the profoundest effect on the French attitude toward Marshal Henri Philippe Pétain, the Vichy government, and the Third Reich. Pétain—the venerated World War I military leader whose reactionary political philosophy made him the ideal figurehead of the collaborationist Vichy government—had endeavored to convince the average Frenchman that Nazi Germany was the “Christian” answer to modern history, in opposition to atheistic Russian Bolshevism.
Fessard and his colleagues saw through this deceptive nonsense and produced the clandestine tracts known as Témoignage Chrétien: “Christian Witness.” These pamphlets “decoded,” as it were, the Nazi and Vichy propaganda and demonstrated how contrary to fundamental Christian truth it was. The tracts spread like wildfire throughout France, giving Christians the ideological support needed to resist the occupation. In a preface to the American edition of the tracts published in 1943, Jacques Maritain rendered homage to their authors “whose words have pierced the walls of silence and oppression, and whose courage has given full meaning to the title they chose for their work, for, in gross darkness, they have been veritable witnesses to the spirit of Christ.”
Fessard’s own tract was prophetically titled: “France, Take Care Not to Lose Your Soul” (France, prends garde de perdre ton âme). It became a classic—though it continued to be published without the author’s name even after the war. It consisted of three sections: “The Antichristian Mystique of National Socialism,” “The Methods of National Socialist Persecution” (seduction, compromise, and perversion or destruction of the church), and “Application and Results of the Antichristian Persecution in France.”
Providence had prepared Fessard well for his task. When he was 31 he happened on a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit in a Munich bookstore. At that time the work had not yet been translated into French, and Fessard ploughed through the whole of the author’s turgid German prose. He quickly realized that in Hegel was to be found the keystone for the construction of the edifice of twentieth-century totalitarianism. Fessard became part of a group of seminal French thinkers, including Raymond Aron and Merleau-Ponty, who would fight the battle for political and intellectual freedom throughout their careers.
Just before his death, Fessard completed a major work that has now been published posthumously. Its title is intentionally reminiscent of the “Christian Witness” pamphlet that appeared 38 years earlier: “Church of France, Take Care Not To Lose the Faith” (Eglise de France, prends garde de perdre la Foi [Paris: Julliard]). Having first devoted his efforts to waking his fellow Christians to the deceptions of Nazism, Fessard ended his career by warning them not to dilute the faith once delivered to the saints.
Once again Fessard employed the categories of “seduction,” “compromise,” and “perversion or destruction.” His argument is simple: whereas in the 1930s and 1940s the forces of the far right tried to draw Christianity into their orbit and liberal churchmen were perfectly willing to aid and abet the process, today—in the 1970s and 1980s—it is the Marxist-Socialist left that is engaged in an equivalent endeavor, and the naive liberal theologians and church leaders are jumping on this bandwagon with little or no restraint.
Fessard argues trenchantly that the religious left stacks the deck by pointing up the most minute errors of capitalism while idealizing socialism—thereby disregarding the biblical teaching that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and its necessary corollary that no political or economic system is perfect or worthy of ultimate commitment.
Fessard’s lifelong study of Hegel provided him with just the analytical background necessary to see the root evils of Marxism. Not only did Hegel’s amoral World Spirit of Reason provide the theoreticians of the Third Reich with a justification for mystical blood and soil nationalism, racism, and cult-of-personality totalitarianism, but his relativistic dialectic and end-as-justifying-the-means eschatology gave Marx the basis for his secular and materialistic aping of the biblical plan of salvation. Indeed, Fessard relied heavily in his last work on a superb critique he published just a year earlier: Chrétiens marxistes et théologie de la libêration (“Marxist Christians and Liberation Theology” [Paris: Lethielleux]): here also the changes were rung on the naiveté of those liberal theologians who baptize the political left without realizing the idolatry to which they commit themselves.
The heroism of Fessard lay not merely in his willingness to put his life on the line for Christian principle during the Second World War. If that were all, then he could easily be absorbed into the category of the Niemoellers and the Bonhoeffers, and would perhaps not warrant independent analysis. But Fessard’s heroism is of a very special variety. He did not criticize one idolatry from the standpoint of another. He took the most difficult road of all: firmly wedding his philosophy of life to the eternal verities of revelation, he was willing to wield the sword of the Spirit against the idolatries of both the right and the left. He perceived, indeed, that when one moves to the extreme right or to the extreme left, one arrives at the same point on the worst kind of vicious circle—the circle of human autonomy. Only Jesus Christ can give us the true faith and only in constant relation to him are we preserved from losing our ideological souls.
An attorney-theologian, John Warwick Montgomery is dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Costa Mesa, California, and director of studies at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France.
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