While reorganizing my files I came across a booklet entitled The Triumph of the Church. Originally published in 1926 by the Catholic Information Society of New York, it is a catalogue not so much of Catholic successes as of heretical failures, starting with the Simonians and Cerinthians in the first century and concluding with nineteenth-century groups such as the Hicksites, Perfectionists, and Dowieites. (No, I had not heard of those three either.)
Altogether ninety groups are listed chronologically, each in a few sentences describing origins and errors. It is a redundant and almost comical tale. New groups split off from older groups and themselves fission. Old heresies are resurrected in different garb. Each sect claims it has rediscovered primitive Christianity, leaving the impression that the apostles must have believed in a hodgepodge that no one could have made sense of.
The booklet no doubt was meant to be a stern warning: This is what happens when you separate yourself from Rome. Going off on your own will lead you nowhere but into confusion and acrimony. The Catholic Church not only will triumph in the long run but already has triumphed over the disparate groups that have sought to displace her. Why waste your time in these endless and sometimes nonsensical carpings when you can repose in the security of the Catholic faith?
Inasmuch as divisions are every bit as evident today as they were in 1926, the booklet might be said to have been less than a triumph itself. Still, the underlying sentiment was right. There is but one true Church, and that Church triumphs simply by being.
When the booklet first caught my eye, the word triumph in the title brought to mind a second image. A few months ago, preparing for a trip to the German-speaking countries of Europe, I viewed for the first time Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece The Triumph of the Will. The 1935 film was both more and less than I had expected. I always presumed that it would consist chiefly of speeches by Hitler. Not so. There was not much speechifying, either by him or by other Nazi Party leaders, but there was much parading by paramilitary groups (but not by the military itself), Brownshirts, farmers, even cultural groups. The overall sense was that Germany was on the move, already was triumphing internally, and no doubt would triumph internationally.
A decade later the vaunted triumph had turned to failure, on a massive scale. Like the other “isms” of the last century, Nazism proved incapable of delivering on its promises. It was a false turn of the most horrific kind.
Nazism is gone, but so are Hicksism, Perfectionism, and Dowieism. Gone are most of the “isms,” and gone are most of the heretical groups. We no doubt will be visited by regurgitated “isms” and recast heresies: “The erroneous you will always have with you.” It is one consequence of the fall. Nevertheless, the booklet is right: In the end, and even at all times before the end, the Church will triumph.