What are we to make of the 20th Century? Like any period it is marked with its glories and its horrors. In his now classic work Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson gives a sober assessment of the 20th century and estimates, many think conservatively, that 100 million died in war and for ideological reasons in that violent century. Perhaps no century can be said to have been bloodier.
It was a century of the imposition of every sort of collectivism from communism, fascism, tribalism, and socialism , all with catastrophic results. Whole populations were the subject of social experiments; and here too, with the predictable and horrific results as economic, political, and social, theories, population “control” and other hideous visions gave way to human suffering. Millions were sacrificed in the name of collectivism in places like the USSR, China, Germany, Cambodia, Turkey, and Africa.
It was a century of endless war and further untold bloodshed that extended even into the womb as abortion too ran rampant on the globe. Our capacity to kill ourselves in huge numbers and horrifying ways reached terrifying heights in arms races and the development of gruesome weapons of mass destruction, conventional, chemical, biological and nuclear.
Faith too suffered unimaginable setbacks as Europe all but lost its Christian and Jewish faith. In both Europe and the US, Churches and Synagogues emptied as atheistic Communism, secularism, and various forms of humanism (i.e. man at the center), moral relativism, and indifferentism swept the Western World.
Families and the family structure were devastated by war, dislocation, the sexual revolution, divorce, expansive and intrusive governments with oppressive population policies, and foolish social experimentation. There are few places left in the Western World today where the family, (nuclear or extended) can be said to be strong. And as the family, the fundamental unit of civilization, has unraveled, it seems increasingly uncertain that Western culture can survive such a mortal wound.
Paradoxically, amidst all this bloodshed, war, disorder and unraveling, technological progress has been nothing less than astonishing: Electricity, radio, television, computers, telephones, the Internet, faxes, cellular technology, air-conditioning, agricultural advances, amazing medical advances and breakthroughs, astonishing scientific discovery and progress, space travel, visits to the moon and back, global communication, global economies, and remarkable market efficiencies that provide huge numbers of products and services quickly and inexpensively.
Yes, amidst all the grave darkness and bloody death of the 20th Century, we have also come (at least in the Western World) to a place or remarkably good health, nutrition and life-span with endless numbers of creature comforts and pleasantries.
The 20th Century, the worst and the best, all at once, murder and medicine, war and wealth, sorrow and science, genocide and genome projects, monstrosities and moon shots.
I am of the mind that to understand the 20th Century and its colossal contours, that no simple or natural explanation is possible. While one may see its technologies as having emerged from an organic development, I cannot personally understand the global horrors, and the great and sudden falling away from the faith in purely natural terms. Something supernatural, I would say Satanic, has afflicted us and sent “ordinary” human wickedness over the top. The bloodshed is too global, too organized and sweeping to be merely of human origin. As St. Paul says, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in high places (Ephesians 6:12).
October 13, 1884, Pope Leo XIII had just finished celebrating Mass in a chapel in the Vatican. At the Mass were a few Cardinals and members of the household staff. Suddenly the Pope stopped at the foot of the altar. He stood there for about 10 minutes, as if in a trance, his face ashen white. The going straightway from the Chapel to his office, he composed the prayer to St. Michael and later issued instructions that it be said after all Low Masses everywhere in the world. He explained that, as he was about to leave the foot of the altar, he had suddenly heard voices – two voices, one kind and gentle, the other guttural and harsh. There he heard the voice of Satan in his pride, boasting to Our Lord: “I can destroy your Church.” The gentle voice of Our Lord: “You can? Then go ahead and do so.” Satan replied, “To do so, I need more time and more power.” The Lord said, “How much time? How much power?” “75 to 100 years, and a greater power over those who will give themselves over to my service.” was Satan’s reply. Mysteriously our Lord said, “You have the time, you have the power. Do with them what you will.”
No Catholic is required to accept this event as an article of faith. But there is something about the 20th Century, something awful. As observed, the 20th century is not without its merits. But the degree and scope of wickedness, suffering and the widespread falling away from the faith in the West set apart the 20th Century and cause me to ponder if Leo’s “Job-like” vision is true.
Many questions rush through our mind in reference to this vision: Why would God permit this? Was it to test, prune and purify his Church? Why does God allow Satan any influence at all? Is this fair? When did the 100 years begin and end? Will spring come soon? Do God and Satan even talk in terms of “years” and if so, does the word correspond to our use of it? If this vision happened, why did the Lord let Leo XIII hear it?
I have no simple answers to questions like these. You are free to dismiss the notion and see the 20th century as wholly unremarkable in its wickedness and falling away from the faith. But there is something about the 20th Century, something awful. Did Pope Leo have the answer? Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets (Amos 3:7). Was Pope Leo that Prophet?
I am interested in your thoughts.
Here is a Ten Minute synopsis of the 20th Century: