Rene Guenon and Roman Catholicism
Oct 24, 2004
Author: William H. Kennedy
Originally published in Sophia, Vol. 9 #1, Summer 2003.
The central concern of this examination is to review religious thinker Rene Guenon’s early Roman Catholic influences and to explore how his Catholic writings can benefit contemporary Christian spirituality.
Guenon’s Early Catholic Influences
Although primarily known as a religious studies expositor whose corpus focuses on metaphysical similarities between seemingly mutually exclusive metaphysical belief systems, Rene Guenon (1886-1951) produced a wide range of articles focusing on purely Roman Catholic themes in several scholarly journals. This fact is often obscured by Guenon’s initial initiation into Sufism in 1912, and by his full embracing of Islam upon his expatriation to Egypt in 1931. Guenon was raised as a devout Catholic, and this belief system was to have a penetrating and surprisingly lasting influence on all of his scholarship – a fact often ignored by his contemporary interpreters.
Rene Guenon’s aging parents had lost a child previous to his birth in 1885, and were understandably over-protective of their only offspring. The Guenon’s new son also suffered from ill health, which further fueled their fear of loosing him in infancy. Part of this over-protective attitude centered on raising young Rene under very strict Roman Catholic teachings and devotions. Fearing that their second child would die young the Guenons saw to it that their son was well-versed in the Catholic faith and practices as a means to ensure his salvation if he were taken from them.
The senior Guenon was a fairly successful architect, affording him the funds to send Rene to the local parochial school, which was a great luxury in the nineteenth century. The influence of this Roman Catholic education was been under-estimated in scholarly reviews of Guenon’s corpus. Guenon’s academic work at the Catholic-run secondary school, Notre Dame des Aydes, and the College Augustin-Theirry were, from all accounts, outstanding. Guenon won academic prizes in philosophy and religious knowledge.
After completing his secondary education, Guenon enrolled at the University of Paris as a philosophy and mathematics student. It was in Paris that Guenon began to explore the French esoteric underground, and worked with such dubious occultists as Papus and Theodore Reuss. However, Roman Catholicism was never far away from Guenon’s course of study. In fact, many of Guenon’s ideas concerning religion came not from his professors at the Sorbonne or from the esoteric crackpots he associated with, but rather from his aunt’s parish priest.
Guenon’s maternal aunt Madame Duru often invited Rene for weekend visits to her home in the village of Montlivault, were he met the local pastor Padre Ferdinand Gombault. Padre Gombault’s contribution to Traditionalist thought has been grossly underrated and rarely discussed among scholars in this field. As startling as it may seem, this village priest formed the methodology employed by Guenon and the other traditionalist thinkers many years before this perspective emerged as a discernable school of thought.
Padre Gombault remained steadfast in an authentic tradition (Roman Catholicism) and did not mix spiritual purviews. In his writing the scholarly priest examined religious beliefs that arose during the period between Adam’s Fall and Abraham’s departure from Ur (the beginning of Judaism). In this regard, Padre Gombault determined that there was a common metaphysical thread that ran between the ancient religions of China, Egypt and Babylon, or, to use Frithjof Schuon’s later phrase, a “transcendent unity of religion.” He claimed that the various forms of writing in these ancient civilizations demonstrated a clear link which suggested a common religious revelation. In his approach Padre Gombault also sought to explore the influence Brahmanism (Hindu Vedanta) had on the Judeo-Christian faith – a hallmark of later Traditionalist thought. It must be remembered that Padre Gombault explored these themes in his scholarly work entitled Similitude des Ecritures Figuratives, published in 1915, many years before Guenon and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy were to form the Traditionalist approach to religious studies.
Gombault also had a huge influence on Guenon’s view of spiritualism and the occult. Although Guenon surveyed and participated in the various esoteric groups in Paris, Gombault’s influence was always present as the two men met regularly for 25 years. In his pastoral work Gombault examined the alleged Marian apparitions at Tilly-sur-Seilles, wherein some school children claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. The priest concluded that the episode was diabolic in nature and that the children were victims of satanic forces. Such an analysis was to profoundly affect Guenon’s notion of false religion and counter-initiation, which were to accent much of his Traditional writings in the 1920’s.
Ironically, if Guenon’s aunt had lived in another village with a different priest, what is now known as the Tradionalist perspective may have taken on a radically different course, or may never have developed into a full-fledged and academically-recognized system of thought. It cannot be stressed enough that Gombault adhered to a strict orthodoxy in his spiritual practice, while employing critical analysis to discover metaphysical and symbolic commonalities between spiritual belief systems. He also considered Vedism to be the peerless model of religious perfection in the pre-Abrahamic epoch and, consequently, used Brahminism as a standard to compare with later religious developments. This is the essence of the work of Guenon, Coomaraswamy and Schuon. Padre Ferdinand Gombault is, in reality, the true father of Traditionalist thought and practice in the 20th century.
Another Catholic who influenced Guenon was the modernist Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain who later wrote the liberal classic entitled Integral Humanism (1936). Oddly, Guenon the Traditionalist and Maritain the liberal Catholic shared a friendship for many years. They sat together on various literary committees and Maritain edited and published Guenon’s rebuttal of Madame Blavatsky’s teachings, entitled Theosophy: History of a False Religion (1921). Perhaps their friendship was a case of intellectual opposites attracting, because the two men – whose ideas oftentimes contradicted each other – maintained a friendly and healthy association. They bounced ideas off each other and respected the other’s opinion. Those who accuse Guenon of being narrow and closed to opposite views should recall his “odd bedfellows” friendship with the extreme leftist Maritain.
During one public debate, Guenon contended that an examination of metaphysical doctrines from other world religions could aid Catholicism to regain a spiritual foothold in the West, which was lost in the potpourri of modernism. Maritain, on the other hand, felt that any infusion of alien religious notions would only further the decline of Christian culture in the West. In this instance, Guenon debated his traditional purview with the most intellectually astute liberal theologian in Europe.
Guenon and the Hiéron du Val d’Or
As Guenon moved into his middle years, he remained within the Roman Catholic milieu although he was still involved in the Parisian occult subculture. His initiation into Sufism by Ivan Agueli in 1912 was only one of many spiritual groups he joined at the time. He certainly began to take Islam seriously, but Roman Catholicism was still at the core of his spiritual practice. This is evinced by the fact that he married his first wife in a Roman Catholic Church that same year.
During this period, Guenon became involved with the Catholic historian and archeologist Louis Charbonneau-Lassay. Charbonneau-Lassay was an authority on medieval Christian symbolism, especially the various fantastical beasts which appeared in medieval art. For Guenon, Charbonneau-Lassay was authoritative in all matters of symbolism. Charbonneau-Lassay’s work appeared in the Catholic journal Regnabit, run by the controversial writer and oblate priest Padre Pere Felix Anizan. That Anizan was under constant suspicion by the French authorities of being a monarchical conspirator seeking to restore the House of Bourbon in France did not deter Charbonneau-Lassay from publishing in the new journal, or from suggesting that Guenon also submit articles for it.
Regnabit was a somewhat contentious journal founded in 1921 and funded by an endowment left by the strange Baron Alexis de Sarachaga (1840-1918) – a Spanish nobleman with links to the Czarist court and a close friend of Pope Pius IX. The Baron was, like Anizan, under constant suspicion by the French authorities for possibly harboring a covert monarchist agenda. This journal was merely the propaganda organ of an organization called the “Hiéron du Val d’Or”, which owned a complex of buildings situated around Paray-le-Monial where Saint Margaret Mary experienced her visions of the Sacred Heart of Jesus a few generations earlier. The Jesuit Victor Drevon (1820-1880) co-founded the “Hieron” movement with de Sarachaga and Anizan was later recruited, and took the reigns of power after the founders passed away. As a means to draw younger recruits, Anizan founded an organization called “the Society for the Intellectual Propagation of the Sacred Heart”, which was merely a front for de Sarachaga’s original movement.
The “Hiéron” (meaning “sanctuary“) founded and operated an Eucharistic museum not long after its inception in 1873 as means to draw recruits from the many pilgrims who came to Saint Margret Mary’s shrine. They offered an intellectually stimulating version of Catholicism which possessed occult and monarchical over-tones that appealed to the somewhat superstitious yet politically minded faithful.
When considering their political goals it comes as no surprise that the French authorities were alarmed by the Hieron. The group was well funded and demonstrated a clear but extremely eccentric religio-political paradigm. From its inception the Hieron, with their founding Jesuit scholars, sought to demonstrate that Christianity was in fact a primordial revelation which could be traced to antediluvian Atlantis, and sought to form a brotherhood dedicated to the promotion of a universal sacred symbolism. The Hieron was also adamantly anti-Masonic, and sought to reform this brotherhood in accordance with Christian principles. (One can see the group’s influence on Guenon’s later writings on Freemasonry.)
The Hieron actively prepared for the year 2000, when they believed the religious and political reign of Christ the King would be inaugurated by an absolute pan-European sovereign with global ambitions. This purely political schema sounded alarm bells in the minds of the democratically minded French government. As mentioned, “Hieron” means “sanctuary” in Greek, but it also refers to Hieron (478-466 B.C.) the Tyrant of Syracuse, who used mercenaries to form a pan-European empire, and whose expansionist actions provoked constant bloodshed. Hieron the Tyrant was the Alexander of his day, with a vast empire and strong patronage of the arts. The term “Hieron” may have had a double meaning among Anizan’s followers, and the French authorities surely took note of this fact. One must recall that both monarchist parties and Roman Catholicism faced harsh restrictions by the French government at the dawn of the 20th century. Scholar M. Chaumeil claims that the Hieron’s political objective’s centered on:
“…a theocracy wherein nations would be no more than provinces, their leaders but procouncils in the service of a global government consisting of secret elitists. For Europe, this regime of the Great King implied a double hegemony of the Papacy and the Empire, of the Vatican and the Hapsburgs, who would have been the Vatican’s right arm…”
Anizan recruited Guenon because he was a well-known figure in French society – a much more popular writer than scholars give him credit. In fact, when Guenon died in 1951, his death was announced on French national radio and a moment of silence was called for in Guenon’s memory.
In 1925, the Hieron group successfully petitioned the Vatican for the inauguration of the “Feast of Christ the King”, which was approved by Pius XI in the Papal Bull Quas Primas. This Pontifical action secured a major victory for Anizan and his followers, as it constituted official Vatican sanction for their religious and political aspirations. Most Catholics who celebrate this feast on Nov. 21 do not realize that they are, in fact, celebrating not only the metaphysical rule of Jesus Christ but also the political ambitions of a group of French monarchical conspirators. Guenon must have been aware of the more nefarious aspects of this cabal. Even the magazine title “Regnabit” (“He [Jesus] Reigns”) may have had a duel meaning in this semi-secret society, as it may also have referred to the restoration of the Naundorffist crown to France, and the full reinstatement of the Hapsburg Dynasty to reign over a United Europe. The Pope would reign as sort of “King of the World” (“Rex Mundi”) in their scenario.
Oddly, this high Vatican recognition marked the crescendo of the Hieron group as both as a religious organization and as a public political movement. Anizan’s Swan Song came owing to the deaths of the administrators of the Hieron complex, which resulted in the closing of the group’s physical structures at Paray-le-Monial in 1926. With the signing of the Latern Accord by Pope Pius XII and Mussolini in 1929, the Hieron Group seems to have faded into political oblivion. The rise of Fascism and the Church’s complicity with the agenda of Mussolini and Hitler ended the Hieron’s political ambitions, and it seems to have been swept into the dustbin of history.
For Guenon’s part, he dissociated himself from the Hieron claiming that he was badgered by “scholastic influences” in the late 1920’s. It is not unreasonable to conclude that he may also have realized the more fiendish aspects of Anizan’s political agenda, and must have feared that the Hieron group might someday promote some sort of global despot.
The issue of Guenon’s motivation for converting from Roman Catholicism to Islam has never been properly addressed by scholars. Considering the trends that Guenon saw in the Roman Catholic Church, it is not too surprising that he rejected the religion of his birth. The Hieron’s purely temporal/political ambitions could not have appealed to the metaphysically-minded Guenon, and their promotion of an ultimate world leader must have frightened him. Guenon never found anything of value in Fascism seeing it as being devoid of higher principles. Hitler’s vow to dominate the world must have seemed like a nightmare to the peaceful Frenchman. Guenon mistrusted such political endeavors, and denounced the Theosophical Society’s promotion of Krishnamurti as a global sovereign in 1921. Such a figure does not fit into Traditional Catholic theology, as Jesus claimed “My Kingdom is not of this World.” The only figures who vie to become sole world monarch before Jesus’ return are depicted in the New Testament:
“…Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. (1 John 2:19.)
There were also, of course, the modernist and democratic trends of his friend Maritain, which influenced an entire generation of Catholic intellectuals. Maritain was a major figure in the democratization of the Church, which came to fruition after the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Pope Paul VI –who single handedly liberalized the Church – was greatly influenced by Maritain, having written an introduction to the Italian translation of Integral Humanism in 1937. The notion of “Catholic Democracy”, which Maritain and other liberals in the Church were actively promoting, was to emerge as the hallmark of 20th century Catholicism. Such egalitarian pursuits were inimical to what Guenon considered to be authentic Tradition, which was accented by a strong hierarchical structure, a clear distinction between the saved and unsaved, and an overall distain of purely materialist purviews. In Guenon’s reckoning, the primary trait of Catholic Liberalism consists of democratizing and, in effect, minimizing the Christian spiritual experience on both a cultural and personal level.
Guenon’s flight from Christianity came as a reaction to both the possible emergence of a tyrannical figure as promoted by the Hieron (remember their success at the time was huge), or in the possible democratizing of the Church of Rome promoted by Maritain (which was eventually adopted at the Second Vatican Council). Either scenario was anathema to the “First Principles”, which Guenon believed were generated by the Divine. Any deviation – like Anizan’s and Maritiain’s political endeavors - could only lead to the corruption and decay within Western civilization. Guenon’s adoption of Islam as a spiritual practice did not come because he felt Christiandom had completely declined, but rather because Sufism seem a more stable divine expression, and did not as yet carry within it the seeds of modernity which were being sowed in the Church of Rome.
Guenon’s Message for Contemporary Traditional Catholics
In assessing Guenon’s message for contemporary Traditional Catholics, one must keep in mind that Guenon never made any blanket rejection of Catholicism as an authentic expression of divine revelation. It must also be remembered that a great many of his Catholic essays were written before his conversion to Islam, and were geared for a Christian audience, making them of value even to those Christians who dismiss his other writings.
Much of Guenon’s message for Traditional Catholics comes in the form of the critiques of the contemporary situation compared with the paradigm of the medieval Catholic epoch. In this regard two essays best exemplify Guenon’s viewpoint. The first is entitled Reform of the Modern Mentality, which appeared in Regnabit in the1920s. A few select quotes and commentary would be of benefit in understanding how Guenon’s corpus can help in understanding the contemporary situation in the Church:
“…we only have to look at Christianity was like in the Middle Ages; but today the relationships are reversed…instead of having the entire social order attached to it, religion is, on the contrary, no longer regarded as anything but just one element among those that constitute the social order…”
That religion no longer plays a central role in the lives of Catholics is the most important lesson Guenon has to teach. The Second Vatican Council destroyed many of the cultural features which gave Catholics the social shape of their faith. Various work and dietary restrictions gave devout Catholics a clear identity within their community and a defining boundary with anyone outside of the Church of Rome. Such distinctions acted as the generators of Catholic spiritual experience and halted the limiting of religion to purely social categories with no metaphysical content. Without these checks and defining characteristics the Catholic Tradition became a faint shadow in the lives of the devout, and became more or less meaningless in the 21st century Roman Catholic Church. Guenon opines:
“…Practically, believers and unbelievers behave in almost the same way: for many Catholics, the affirmation of the supernatural has no more than a completely theoretical value, and they would be quite embarrassed to have to take note of a miracle…this is what might be called a de facto materialism…”
The rapid merging of Catholic rites and culture into the mainstream of Western secular society is astounding. The ecumenical Masses and watering down of the liturgy into Protestant-like hybrids is a testimony to modernity’s hasty methods of corrosion. The devotions, once the chief characteristic of daily Catholic living, have been more or less abandoned. Young Catholics do not know how to say the rosary or what such things as May Processions, the Infant of Prague, The Sacred Heart or the Immaculate Conception even mean. These sacraments have been denied to Catholics, and replaced with folk masses, along with a theology which centers on the Church’s past sexist abuses. Guenon’s prediction concerning the metaphysical decline of Catholicism was quite accurate.
Guenon’s other valuable essay for Traditional Catholics is entitled On the Significance of Carnivals, which appeared in Etudes Traditionnelles in 1945. Medieval carnivals or peasant feasts were never popular with the authorities. Such disorderly festivals – like the Feast of Fools and Feast of the Boy King – gave the lower classes one day in which to lampoon and insult their feudal masters. An ass would be made king, a prostitute became bishop, and a dwarf dressed up as Pope would be present during these exorcises in revelry. The peasants wore elaborate masks and costumes, and reversed the social order. In fact a series of feasts were held during January thus dissipating irrational drives for the coming calendar year. Such impious celebrations, Guenon argues, operated to purge the greater community of weird tendencies, which would simmer and eventually boil over if not allowed to manifest under controlled circumstances.
While defending the Feast of Fools the theological Faculty of Paris argued in 1440 that “even a wine vat would burst if the hole were not opened occasionally to let out the air!”
The Feast of Fools especially lampooned all facets of medieval Catholicism, including the Mass. Priests and other clergy could be seen wearing masks at religious offices. Sometimes clerics dressed up as women, and minstrels and would dance around the whole Church, devouring sausages at the altar while a celebrant was reciting the Mass. There would be sung gibberish taken from upside down service books. Priests would wear torn or inside-out vestments while conducting services. Donkey brays would replace group responses during services, among other absurd actions. We see a very faint glimmer of this in the European celebration of New Years Eve and the American celebration of Halloween as a major holiday.
Since the decline of such festivals the absurd tendencies have usurped the very heart of Roman Catholicism. Today we live in what Guenon called a “sinister perpetual carnival.” The Tridentine Mass, which held the Church together during the onslaught of Luther’s reform, was altered to the New Mass, which greatly resembles the debased Feast of Fools parody Mass more than the service conducted by the Traditional Church of Rome. There are Church sanctioned “Rave Masses”, “Clown Masses”, “Guitar Masses”, “Ecumenical Masses”, and “Workers Masses.” Georgian chant was replaced with the folk droning of Bob Dylan wannabees. Such absurd daily rites mimic the surreal rituals which the Church called for on the Feast of Fools. The Traditional Latin Mass was replaced with the New Mass in 1968, and now absurdity rules the See of Peter. Degenerate priests are given daily free reign by bishops, who could less about the welfare of children. With all of the bizarreness which has been allowed to go on, one can only wonder if the Pope should call for a “Feast of Normalcy” to help correct our present abnormal liturgical course.
Guenon was, in a sense, a canary in the coalmine of Roman Catholicism. This learned Frenchman began to choke on the modernist fumes that were to suffocate the metaphysical truth within the Church of Rome a little over a decade after his passing. He escaped from the cage of modernity and the deep toxic cave into which Catholicism was descending before the near-lethal gaseous smothering of the Second Vatican Council (SV2). The fact that Guenon flew away to the metaphysical certainty of Sufism really does not concern the discerning Traditional Roman Catholic.
Guenon saw the corrosive aspects of progressive thinking and the destructive trends of modernity which are devastating the spirituality within the Roman Catholic Church and Western Civilization. Just being aware of this state of affairs can only help those who seek authentic Christian spirituality within the Church of Rome, as awareness can only lead to Truth.
In this regard, Traditional Catholics (i.e., those who reject SV2) can definitely learn from Guenon’s Catholic writings concerning the Church and his teachings centering on the decline of metaphysical truth in the West. In fact, his insights can act as a philosophical foundation for retaining pre-SV2 teachings and doctrines in the modern world. If, as Saint Boetheus teaches, philosophy is the handmaiden of theology, then Guenon is a philosopher par excellence for authentic Christian expression in the modern World. In the same sense that the ideas of Plato and Aristotle shaped much of medieval Catholicism even though they were not part of the Christian experience, Guenon can help mold the Traditional Catholic milieu in the 21st century.
Holy Grail: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Rhodes/3946/santocaliz/cronol.htm
French Monarchism http://www.monarchy.net/articles/France1.htm
Notes to Letters Guenon: http://www.cesnur.org/paraclet/guenon.html
Maritian Liberal: http://www.visi.com/~contra_m/cm/features/cm08_theolib.html
Chaumeil, J.L., Le Tresor du triangle d’ or, Paris 1979 page 139ff.
Feast of the Boy Bishop: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02725a.htm
Feast of Fools: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06132a.htm