Our Vichy Regime

Philippe Petain Vichy

Seventy-six years ago today, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) died in a Nazi gas chamber. She was Jewish Catholic nun. She had received the sacraments of Christian initiation at age thirty, in 1922. She gladly met her death, at age fifty, as an act of love for her people.

This saint, in her all-encompassing devotion to Christ, kept in focus the key thing that the real heroes in World War II never lost: reverence for the dignity of the individual human person.

The Catholic Bishops of the Netherlands had enunciated that concept and publicly condemned Nazism just two weeks before St. Edith Stein’s martyrdom. The Nazis rounded up the Catholic nuns in revenge for that condemnation.

St. Edith SteinPope St. John Paul II declared that the Catholic Church must remember the Holocaust each year, on the anniversary of Edith Stein’s death.

This year, because of the McCarrick scandal, I want to contrast St. Teresa Benedicta’s experience of the Holocaust with that of a fellow Catholic, Philippe Pétain.

Anyone know him? Maybe you do, if you’re a Jeopardy! addict like me. Pétain ran the “Vichy Regime” in France, which collaborated with the Nazis.

Edith Stein died for the Christian truth of individual human dignity; meanwhile, Pétain and the Vichy regime in France lost sight of the concept. The regime had the trappings of a legitimate government. But it was compromised at its core.

After World War II ended, a highly politicized French court convicted Pétain of treason and sentenced him to death. Charles De Gaulle commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, because of Pétain’s advanced age. At that moment in her history, the French nation had an opportunity for profound self-examination of her identity. But she didn’t really take it.

I bring all this up because: I think we may have stumbled upon a good analogy to help us understand where we are, the Catholic Church in the US, right now.

We need to keep clearly in focus what St. Teresa Benedicta died for: the dignity of the human individual. We need to start with the individual human beings that Theodore McCarrick preyed on. The dignity of those people demands that we advocate for them and insist on justice–and a public reckoning with all the facts.

The USCCB seems to mirror the inner-emptiness of the Vichy regime. What remains utterly absent from any public response to the McCarrick scandal by any American bishop so far? The mention of the individual human beings still awaiting justice in this case. Instead, the bishops can only focus on the survival of their own bureaucracy.

McCarrick flourished in this very Vichy-regime bureaucracy. The real, evangelizing, pro-life Church–submitted under the reigning spirit of the technocratic, post-modern world. The Catholic Vichy Regime of late 20th-century and early 21st-century America.

I promise to try to break down this (admittedly preposterous) generalization with specific analyzes as we move forward. May the Vichy regime fall. We can hope that it will, if we stay focused on precisely what St. Edith Stein died for, in the gas chamber, 76 years ago today: the dignity of the human individual.

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