Given that even writing was on the back burner for a few months in favor of a demanding summer, I was a little surprised when I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for my summer reading. Maybe it was the relentless drumming of Russia, Russia, Russia over the airwaves every time I turned around. Or perhaps at a more subtle level it was the constant reference to socialism as a possible solution to our own country’s woes [Socialism, according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen is a “wet nurse to Communism” – Capitalism and Socialism Or Capitalism and Communism are Related?]. Or maybe I just really needed the intellectual stimulation that a classic would offer. Whatever the case, for a while I was basking in the sunlight and fragrance that only the most poetic language and intriguing ideas can offer. This man addresses issues that weigh on the soul of every human being. Family life, love, humanity and love of country. At some point I began to feel I’d found a kindred spirit in Tolstoy. Given the depth with which I was moved by his pointed defenses of the family, his patriotism and his romantic notion of traditional values and the idyllic lifestyle of the Russian farmer, I wasn’t exactly surprised by my infatuation. The more steeped I became in high society Russia, the more I began to wonder about the views of this man so driven to warn the world about the dangers he recognized in his own time – dangers that appear not so different from those I see in ours.
A Man who Cherished the Family
I began my research by turning back to the Introduction – something I am often loathe to do when it comes to classic fiction (In my experience, reading introductions takes away from the freshness of a novel). But in this case it was different. Reading the introduction made me all the more interested in Tolstoy and his writing. He witnessed tumult in his time as I do in ours, harboring great concerns about the direction of his beloved Russia. And he took to the pen to illustrate in a beautifully intimate way what he recognized as grave threats to a great country.
Anna Karenina was published only 40 years before the Russian Revolution of 1917. There are references throughout the book to communist ideology and to a distinct move toward nihilism in the way of sexual freedom and away from the traditional values associated with family life.
I was especially moved by these words in the Intro:
To publish such a book in the 1870s was an act of defiance, and Tolstoy meant it as one. By then the family novel was hopelessly out of fashion. The satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin noted at the time that the family, ‘that warm and cosy element…which once gave the novel its content, has vanished from sight…The novel of contemporary man finds its resolution in the street, on the public way, anywhere but in the home.’ The radical intelligentsia had been attacking the ‘institution’ of the family for more than a decade. Newspapers, pamphlets, ideological novel-tracts like N.G. Chernyshevsky’s “What Is to Be Done?”, advocated sexual freedom, communal living and the communal raising of children. Questions of women’s education, women’s enfranchisement, the role of women in public life, were hotly debated in the press. On all these matters, Tolstoy held conservative views. For him…family happiness was the highest human ideal. As Nabokov observed in his lecture notes on Anna Karenina, ‘Tolstoy considers that two married people with children are tied together by divine law forever.’ An intentional anachronism, his novel was meant as a challenge, both artistic and ideological, to the ideas of the Russian nihilists. — Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, p. ix (emphasis mine)
For his heroic defense of this foundational institution, I fell in love with Tolstoy.
But then I began to dig a little deeper.
A Man Who Misunderstood the Word Authority
I decided to Google Tolstoy and Religion, just to see where he stood with respect to the Church. After all, he shared with the Catholic Church a rather sacred view of family life. I wondered whether he was strongly convicted by Church teaching.
Rather than find a great conversion story in his bio, I found that Tolstoy was actually excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901 for his vocal rejection of traditional Christianity. He responded to his excommunication with a rather revealing entry in his diary:
“A conversion about divinity has suggested to me a great idea…the founding of a new religion…the religion of Christianity but purged of dogmatics and mysticism; a practical religion not promising future bliss, but giving bliss on earth.”
It turns out that his rejection of organized religion influenced huge numbers of people, including other writers, philosophers, critics and public voices; this growing rejection of authority grew into a crescendo of “intelligentsia” who rejected any and all authority in Russia, which ultimately led to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, out of which – ironically enough – came a despotic authoritarianism the likes of which no Russian ever could have imagined. Communist rule resulted in the deaths of over 20 million Russian citizens (Soviet citizens) and over 5 million Ukrainians.
In the August 1917 issue of The Catholic World, a theologian called out Tolstoy for his great responsibility in the promotion of what was ultimately an evil that worked to destroy all that Tolstoy, himself, held dear:
He devoted the last years of his life to a ruthless war against Christianity. By terms he strove to deform the content and the teaching of the Gospels, to sneer at and repudiate the fundamental theses of Christian dogmatics; to launch the most violent invective against the clergy; to nullify or deny the supernatural and moral influence of the sacraments of Christian life. The religion of Tolstoy effaces all the characteristic features of Christian revelation. Under the pen of Tolstoy and his disciples Christianity was stripped of its supernatural brilliancy…Tolstoy and his school promoted a radical socialism with mystical anarchistic tendencies and imbued with a hatred against historical Christianity.
According to one report I read, even Dostoyevsky, his contemporary and another of my favorite authors, accused Tolstoy of “promoting, in effect, a Christianity without Christ.”
I must admit that I was shocked and devastatingly disappointed to find that Tolstoy, who considered the family to be a sacred institution, was complicit in its destruction in Russia. And we should take this opportunity to learn from his serious mistake.
Like the misguided Ayn Rand, who fled from the destructive authoritarianism of communism a generation later, Tolstoy threw all authority into the same pot, rather than distinguish between the good and the bad. He believed the authority offered by the Church was as destructive as that offered by czar. But according to Archbishop Fulton Sheen,
Authoritarianism is based on force, and therefore is physical, but authority is founded on reverence and love, and therefore is moral. – Life is Worth Living, 5th Series
The authority of the Church is necessary. It is that familial authority that secures the foundations of civilization. It reinforces the sanctity of sacred institutions such as marriage and family. This is the authority that, in love, could have protected Tolstoy’s beloved Russia.
This confusion remains in effect today, perhaps as a result of Tolstoy, Rand and other well-known writers, speakers and media representatives. Sheen addressed the confusion, which is no doubt worse, today, then when these thoughts were shared:
There is nothing more misunderstood by the modern mind than the authority of the Church. Just as soon as one mentions the authority of the Vicar of Christ there are visions of slavery, intellectual servitude, mental chains, tyrannical obedience, and blind service on the part of those who, it is said, are forbidden to think for themselves. That is positively untrue. Why has the world been so reluctant to accept the authority of the Father’s house? Why has it so often identified the Catholic Church with intellectual slaver? The answer is, because the world has forgotten the meaning of liberty. – Communism and the Conscience of the West, 1948
In these days where Russia is so often in the news, perhaps we should acknowledge that, while we may stand in solidarity against the government that came to power in Russia in 1917, Americans may hold in common the threshold of a Russian people that sought to eradicate authority and thereby nearly suffocated beneath it.
This is where the West sits today. In a world that is increasingly hostile toward the idea of an organized Church. Of anything that resembles a moral authority, for authority has become a dirty word in the West. And yet, Christ, who is Christianity, exhorted us to submit to the Church. His Church.
We need His Church. Yes, she is made up of faulty human beings. Yes, some of her representatives have done horrible things. But that is exactly why we need her. Because horrible things are being done by people in every institution. Yet, unlike those institutions – which are also made up of sinners – from the beginning we were promised that The Holy Spirit would be with us forever, guiding the Church in all her work (John 14:16). That God, the Son, would never leave Her (Matthew 28: 18-20). Most importantly, we have been assured that the gates of Hell would never prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18).
It is critical that we understand this. As we stand here today, Americans share a lot in common with the Russians of Tolstoy’s time. The gates of hell are fast encroaching upon the institutions and values we hold most dear. How much have we already lost in the name of individual “freedom”? Are we going to follow Russia’s path? Will we make Tolstoy’s mistake? Are we confusing the authority of the Church with the authority of a rogue government? Like Tolstoy and Rand, will we ideologically lump them both together and toss them both out? If so, where will Americans sit in 50 years? Will history repeat itself in an ultimate display of irony, the likes of which the world has never seen?
We may want to think twice about how we’re addressing our nation’s greatest problems; because in the grand scheme of things, the Church may be our only safe haven from – nay, our only defense against – a culture that seems hell-bent on pursuing “freedom” (ahem. license) at all costs. At the rate we’re going, it’s only a matter of time before our most sacred institutions are destroyed as well.
The gravest danger to American democracy…is not from the outside; it is from the inside — the hearts of citizens in whom the light of faith has gone out. Keep God as the origin of authority and you keep the ethical character of authority; reject Him and the authority becomes power subject to no law except its own. — Archbishop Fulton Sheen, Whence Come Wars, p. 64