BY G. K. CHESTERTON Nihil Obstat: Arthur J. Scanlan, S.T.D. Censor Librorum. Imprimatur: Patrick Cardinal Hayes +Archbishop, New York. New York, September 16, 1926. Copyright, 1926 by MacMillan Company
It is with diffidence that anyone born into the Faith can approach
the tremendous subject of Conversion. Indeed, it is easier
for one still quite unacquainted with the Faith to approach
that subject than it is for one who has had the advantage of
the Faith from childhood. There is at once a sort of impertinence
in approaching an experience other than one's own (necessarily more
imperfectly grasped), and an ignorance of the matter.
Those born into the Faith very often go through an experience
of their own parallel to, and in some way resembling,
that experience whereby original strangers to the Faith come
to see it and to accept it. Those born into the Faith often,
I say, go through an experience of scepticism in youth,
as the years proceed, and it is still a common phenomenon
(though not so often to be observed as it was a lifetime ago)
for men of the Catholic culture, acquainted with the Church
from childhood, to leave it in early manhood and never to return.
But it is nowadays a still more frequent phenomenon--
and it is to this that I allude--for those to whom scepticism
so strongly appealed in youth to discover, by an experience of men
and of reality in all its varied forms, that the transcendental
truths they had been taught in childhood have the highest claims
upon their matured reason.
This experience of the born Catholic may, I repeat, be called
in a certain sense a phenomenon of conversion. But it differs
from conversion properly so called, which rather signifies
the gradual discovery and acceptance of the Catholic Church by men
and women who began life with no conception of its existence:
for whom it had been during their formative years no more than a name,
perhaps despised, and certainly corresponding to no known reality.
Such men and women converts are perhaps the chief factors
in the increasing vigor of the Catholic Church in our time.
The admiration which the born Catholic feels for their action
is exactly consonant to that which the Church in its earlier days
showed to the martyrs. For the word "martyr" means "witness."
The phenomenon of conversion apparent in every class, affecting every
type of character, is the great modern witness to the truth
of the claim of the Faith; to the fact that the Faith is reality,
and that in it alone is the repose of reality to be found.
In proportion as men know less and less of the subject,
in that proportion do they conceive that the entrants into
the City of God are of one type, and in that proportion do they
attempt some simple definition of the mind which ultimately
accepts Catholicism. They will call it a desire for security; or an
attraction of the senses such as is exercised by music or by verse.
Or they will ascribe it to that particular sort of weakness
(present in many minds) whereby they are easily dominated
and changed in mood by the action of another.
A very little experience of typical converts in our time makes nonsense
of such theories. Men and women enter by every conceivable gate, after
every, conceivable process of slow intellectual examination, of shock,
of vision, of moral trial and even of merely intellectual process.
They enter through the action of expanded experience.
Some obtain this through travel, some through a reading of history
beyond their fellows, some through personal accidents of life.
And not only are the avenues of approach to the Faith infinite in number
(though all converging; as must be so, since truth is one and error
infinitely divided), but the individual types in whom the process
of conversion may be observed differ in every conceivable fashion.
When you have predicated of one what emotion or what reasoning process
brought him into the fold, and you attempt to apply your predicate
exactly to another, you will find a misfit. The cynic enters,
and so does the sentimentalist; and the fool enters and so does
the wise man; the perpetual questioner and doubter and the man too
easily accepting immediate authority--they each enter after his kind.
You come across an entry into the Catholic Church undoubtedly due to
the spectacle, admiration and imitation of some great character observed.
Next day you come across an entry into the Catholic Church out of
complete loneliness, and you are astonished to find the convert still
ignorant of the great mass of the Catholic effect on character.
And yet again, immediately after, you will find a totally different
third type, the man who enters not from loneliness, nor from the effect
of another mind, but who comes in out of contempt for the insufficiency
or the evil by which he has been surrounded.
The Church is the natural home of the Human Spirit.
The truth is that if you seek for an explanation of the phenomenon
of conversion under any system which bases that phenomenon
on illusion, you arrive at no answer to your question.
If you imagine conversion to proceed from this or that or the
other erroneous or particular limited and insufficient cause,
you will soon discover it to be inexplicable.
There is only one explanation of the phenomenon--a phenomenon
always present, but particularly arresting to the educated man
outside the Catholic Church in the English-speaking countries--
there is only one explanation which will account for
the multiplicity of such entries and for the infinitely
varied quality of the minds attracted by the great change;
and that explanation is that the Catholic Church is reality.
If a distant mountain may be mistaken for a cloud by many,
but is recognised for a stable part of the world (its outline fixed
and its quality permanent) by every sort of observer, and among
these especially by men famous for their interest in the debate,
for their acuteness of vision and for their earlier doubts,
the overwhelming presumption is that the thing seen is a piece
of objective reality. Fifty men on shipboard strain their eyes
for land. Five, then ten, then twenty, make the land-fall
and recognise it and establish it for their fellows.
To the remainder, who see it not or who think it a bank of fog,
there is replied the detail of the outline, the character
of the points recognised, and that by the most varied and
therefore convergent and convincing witnesses--by some who do
not desire that land should be there at all, by some who dread
its approach, as well as those who are glad to find it, by some
who have long most ridiculed the idea that it was land at all--
and it is in this convergence of witnesses that we have one
out of the innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis
of our religion reposes.
I. INTRODUCTORY: A NEW RELIGION
II. THE OBVIOUS BLUNDERS
III. THE REAL OBSTACLES
IV. THE WORLD INSIDE OUT
V. THE EXCEPTION PROVES THE RULE
VI. A NOTE ON PRESENT PROSPECTS
CHAPTER I: INTRODUCTORY: A NEW RELIGION
The Catholic faith used to be called the Old Religion; but at the present
moment it has a recognized place among the New Religions. This has
nothing to do with its truth or falsehood; but it is a fact that has
a great deal to do with the understanding of the modern world.
It would be very undesirable that modern men should accept
Catholicism merely as a novelty; but it is a novelty.
It does act upon its existing environment with the peculiar force
and freshness of a novelty. Even those who denounce it generally
denounce it as a novelty; as an innovation and not merely a survival.
They talk of the "advanced" party in the Church of England;
they talk of the "aggression" of the Church of Rome. When they
talk of an Extremist they are as likely to mean a Ritualist
as a Socialist. Given any normal respectable Protestant family,
Anglican or Puritan, in England or America, we shall find
that Catholicism is actually for practical purposes treated
as a new religion, that is, a revolution. It is not a survival.
It is not in that sense an antiquity. It does not necessarily
owe anything to tradition. In places where tradition can do
nothing for it, in places where all the tradition is against it,
it is intruding on its own merits; not as a tradition but a truth.
The father of some such Anglican or American Puritan family
will find, very often, that all his children are breaking away
from his own more or less Christian compromise (regarded as normal
in the nineteenth century) and going off in various directions
after various faiths or fashions which he would call fads.
One of his sons will become a Socialist and hang up a portrait
of Lenin; one of his daughters will become a Spiritualist
and play with a planchette; another daughter will go over to
Christian Science and it is quite likely that another son will go
over to Rome. The point is, for the moment, that from the point
of view of the father, and even in a sense of the family,
all these things act after the manner of new religions,
of great movements, of enthusiasms that carry young people
off their feet and leave older people bewildered or annoyed.
Catholicism indeed, even more than the others, is often spoken
of as if it were actually one of the wild passions of youth.
Optimistic aunts and uncles say that the youth will "get over it,"
as if it were a childish love affair or that unfortunate
business with the barmaid. Darker and sterner aunts and uncles,
perhaps at a rather earlier period, used actually to talk
about it as an indecent indulgence, as if its literature were
literally a sort of pornography. Newman remarks quite naturally,
as if there were nothing odd about it at the time,
that an undergraduate found with an ascetic manual or a book
of monastic meditations was under a sort of cloud or taint,
as having been caught with "a bad book" in his possession.
He had been wallowing in the sensual pleasure of Nones or inflaming
his lusts by contemplating an incorrect number of candles.
It is perhaps no longer the custom to regard conversion
as a form of dissipation; but it is still common to regard
conversion as a form of revolt. And as regards the established
convention of much of the modern world, it is a revolt.
The worthy merchant of the middle class, the worthy farmer
of the Middle West, when he sends his son to college, does now
feel a faint alarm lest the boy should fall among thieves,
in the sense of Communists; but he has the same sort of fear
lest he should fall among Catholics.
Now he has no fear lest he should fall among Calvinists. He has
no fear that his children will become seventeenth-century
Supralapsarians, however much he may dislike that doctrine.
He is not even particularly troubled by the possibility
of their adopting the extreme solifidian conceptions once
common among some of the more extravagant Methodists. He is
not likely to await with terror the telegram that will inform
him that his son has become a Fifth-Monarchy man, any more
than that he has joined the Albigensians. He does not exactly
lie awake at night wondering whether Tom at Oxford has become
a Lutheran any more than a Lollard. All these religions he dimly
recognises as dead religions; or at any rate as old religions.
And he is only frightened of new religions. He is only frightened
of those fresh, provocative, paradoxical new notions that fly
to the young people's heads. But amongst these dangerous
juvenile attractions he does in practice class the freshness
and novelty of Rome.
Now this is rather odd; because Rome is not so very new.
Among these annoying new religions, one is rather an old religion;
but it is the only old religion that is so new. When it was
originally and really new, no doubt a Roman father often found
himself in the same position as the Anglican or Puritan father.
He too might find all his children going strange ways and deserting
the household gods and the sacred temple of the Capitol. He too might
find that one of those children had joined the Christians in their
Ecclesia and possibly in their Catacombs. But he would have found that,
of his other children, one cared for nothing but the Mysteries of Orpheus,
another was inclined to follow Mithras, another was a Neo-Pythagorean
who had learned vegetarianism from the Hindoos, and so on.
Though the Roman father, unlike the Victorian father, might have
the pleasure of exercising the patria potestas and cutting off the heads
of all the heretics, he could not cut off the stream of all the heresies.
Only by this time most of the streams have run rather dry.
It is now seldom necessary for the anxious parent to warn his
children against the undesirable society of the Bull of Mithras,
or even to wean him from the exclusive contemplation of Orpheus;
and though we have vegetarians always with us, they mostly know more about
proteids than about Pythagoras. But that other youthful extravagance
is still youthful. That other new religion is once again new.
That one fleeting fashion has refused to fleet; and that ancient
bit of modernity is still modern. It is still to the Protestant
parent now exactly what it was to the pagan parent then.
We might say simply that it is a nuisance; but anyhow it is a novelty.
It is not simply what the father is used to, or even what the son
is used to. It is coming in as something fresh and disturbing,
whether as it came to the Greeks who were always seeking
some new thing, or as it came to the shepherds who first heard
the cry upon the hills of the good news that our language calls
the Gospel. We can explain the fact of the Greeks in the time
of St. Paul regarding it as a new thing, because it was a new thing.
But who will explain why it is still as new to the last of the converts
as it was to the first of the shepherds? It is as if a man a hundred
years old entered the Olympian games among the young Greek athletes;
which would surely have been the basis of a Greek legend.
There is something almost as legendary about the religion that is two
thousand years old now appearing as a rival of the new religions.
That is what has to be explained and cannot be explained away;
nothing can turn the legend into a myth. We have seen with our own
eyes and heard with our own ears this great modern quarrel between
young Catholics and old Protestants; and it is the first step
to recognise in any study of modern conversion.
I am not going to talk about numbers and statistics, though I
may say something about them later. The first fact to realise is
a difference of substance which falsifies all the difference of size.
The great majority of Protestant bodies today, whether they are
strong or weak, are not strengthened in this particular fashion;
by the actual attraction of their new followers to their old doctrines.
A young man will suddenly become a Catholic priest, or even
a Catholic monk, because he has a spontaneous and even impatient
personal enthusiasm for the doctrine of Virginity as it appeared
to St. Catherine or St. Clare. But how many men become Baptist
ministers because they have a personal horror of the idea
of an innocent infant coming unconsciously to Christ? How many
honest Presbyterian ministers in Scotland really want to go back
to John Knox, as a Catholic mystic might want to go back to John
of the Cross? These men inherit positions which they feel they
can hold with reasonable consistency and general agreement;
but they do inherit them. For them religion is tradition.
We Catholics naturally do not sneer at tradition; but we say
that in this case it is really tradition and nothing else.
Not one man in a hundred of these people would ever have
joined his present communion if he had been born outside it.
Not one man in a thousand of them would have invented anything
like his church formulas if they had not been laid down for him.
None of them has any real reason for being in their own
particular church, whatever good reason they may still have
for being outside ours. In other words, the old creed of their
communion has ceased to function as a fresh and stimulating idea.
It is at best a motto or a war cry and at the worst a catchword.
But it is not meeting contemporary ideas like a contemporary idea.
In their time and in their turn we believe that those
other contemporary ideas will also prove their mortality
by having also become mottoes and catchwords and traditions.
A century or two hence Spiritualism may be a tradition and Socialism
may be a tradition and Christian Science may be a tradition.
But Catholicism will not be a tradition. It will still be a nuisance
and a new and dangerous thing.
These are the general considerations which govern any personal
study of conversion to the Catholic faith. The Church has defended
tradition in a time which stupidly denied and despised tradition.
But that is simply because the Church is always the only thing defending
whatever is at the moment stupidly despised. It is already beginning
to appear as the only champion of reason in the twentieth century,
as it was the only champion of tradition in the nineteenth.
We know that the higher mathematics is trying to deny that two
and two make four and the higher mysticism to imagine something
that is beyond good and evil. Amid all these anti-rational
philosophies, ours will remain the only rational philosophy.
In the same spirit the Church did indeed point out the value
of tradition to a time which treated it as quite valueless.
The nineteenth-century neglect of tradition and mania for mere documents
were altogether nonsensical. They amounted to saying that men
always tell lies to children but men never make mistakes in books.
But though our sympathies are traditional because they are human,
it is not that part of the thing which stamps it as divine.
The mark of the Faith is not tradition; it is conversion.
It is the miracle by which men find truth in spite of tradition
and often with the rending of all the roots of humanity.
It is with the nature of this process that I propose to deal;
and it is difficult to deal with it without introducing something
of a personal element. My own is only a very trivial case but
naturally it is the case I know best; and I shall be compelled
in the pages that follow to take many illustrations from it.
I have therefore thought it well to put first this general note
on the nature of the movement in my time; to show that I am well
aware that it is a very much larger and even a very much later
movement than is implied in describing my own life or generation.
I believe it will be more and more an issue for the rising
generation and for the generation after that, as they discover
the actual alternative in the awful actualities of our time.
And Catholics when they stand up together and sing "Faith
of our Fathers" may realise almost with amusement that they
might well be singing "Faith of our Children." And in many cases
the return has been so recent as almost to deserve the description
of a Children's Crusade.
CHAPTER II: THE OBVIOUS BLUNDERS
I have noted that Catholicism really is in the twentieth century
what it was in the second century; it is the New Religion. Indeed its
very antiquity preserves an attitude of novelty. I have always
thought it striking and even stirring that in the venerable
invocation of the "Tantum Ergo," which for us seems to come loaded
with accumulated ages, there is still the language of innovation;
of the antique document that must yield to a new rite.
For us the hymn is something of an antique document itself.
But the rite is always new.
But if a convert is to write of conversion he must try
to retrace his steps out of that shrine back into that
ultimate wilderness where he once really believed that this
eternal youth was only the "Old Religion." It is a thing
exceedingly difficult to do and not often done well, and I
for one have little hope of doing it even tolerably well.
The difficulty was expressed to me by another convert who said,
"I cannot explain why I am a Catholic; because now that I
am a Catholic I cannot imagine myself as anything else."
Nevertheless, it is right to make the imaginative effort.
It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry
to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.
It is my duty to try to understand what H. G. Wells can possibly
mean when he says that the medieval Church did not care for
education but only for imposing dogmas; it is my duty to speculate
(however darkly) on what can have made an intelligent man like
Arnold Bennett stone-blind to all the plainest facts about Spain;
it is my duty to find if I can the thread of connected thought
in George Moore's various condemnations of Catholic Ireland;
and it is equally my duty to labour till I understand
the strange mental state of G. K. Chesterton when he really
assumed that the Catholic Church was a sort of ruined abbey,
almost as deserted as Stonehenge.
I must say first that, in my own case, it was at worst a matter
of slights rather than slanders. Many converts far more important
than I have had to wrestle with a hundred devils of howling falsehood;
with a swarm of lies and libels. I owe it to the liberal and Universalist
atmosphere of my family, of Stopford Brooke and the Unitarian preachers
they followed, that I was always just sufficiently enlightened
to be out of the reach of Maria Monk. Nevertheless, as this
is but a private privilege for which I have to be thankful,
it is necessary to say something of what I might be tempted to call
the obvious slanders, but that better men than I have not always seen
that the slander was obvious. I do not think that they exercise
much influence on the generation that is younger than mine.
The worst temptation of the most pagan youth is not so much to denounce
monks for breaking their vow as to wonder at them for keeping it.
But there is a state of transition that must be allowed for in which
a vague Protestant prejudice would rather like to have it both ways.
There is still a sort of woolly-minded philistine who would be content to
consider a friar a knave for his unchastity and a fool for his chastity.
In other words, these dying calumnies are dying but not dead;
and there are still enough people who may still be held back by such
crude and clumsy obstacles that it is necessary to some extent
to clear them away. After that we can consider what may be called
the real obstacles, the real difficulties we find, which, as a fact,
are generally the very opposite of the difficulties we are told about.
But let us consider the evidence of all these things being black,
before we go on to the inconvenient fact of their being white.
The usual protest of the Protestant, that the Church of Rome
is afraid of the Bible, did not, as I shall explain in a moment,
have any great terrors for me at any time. This was by no
merit of my own, but by the accident of my age and situation.
For I grew up in a world in which the Protestants, who had just
proved that Rome did not believe the Bible, were excitedly
discovering that they did not believe the Bible themselves.
Some of them even tried to combine the two condemnations and say
that they were steps of progress. The next step in progress
consisted in a man kicking his father for having locked up a book
of such beauty and value, a book which the son then proceeded
to tear into a thousand pieces. I early discovered that progress
is worse than Protestantism so far as stupidity is concerned.
But most of the free-thinkers who were friends of mine happened
to think sufficiently freely to see that the Higher Criticism
was much more of an attack on Protestant Bible-worship than on
Roman authority. Anyhow, my family and friends were more concerned
with the opening of the book of Darwin than the book of Daniel;
and most of them regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as if they were
Hittite sculptures. But, even then, it would seem odd to worship
the sculptures as gods and then smash them as idols and still go
on blaming somebody else for not having worshipped them enough.
But here again it is hard for me to know how far my own experience
is representative, or whether it would not be well to say
more of these purely Protestant prejudices and doubts than I,
from my own experience, am able to say.
The Church is a house with a hundred gates; and no two men
enter at exactly the same angle. Mine was at least as much
Agnostic as Anglican, though I accepted for a time the borderland
of Anglicanism; but only on the assumption that it could really
be Anglo-Catholicism. There is a distinction of ultimate intention
there which in the vague English atmosphere is often missed.
It is not a difference of degree but of definite aim.
There are High Churchmen as much as Low Churchmen who are concerned
first and last to save the Church of England. Some of them think
it can be saved by calling it Catholic, or making it Catholic,
or believing that it is Catholic; but that is what they want to save.
But I did not start out with the idea of saving the English Church,
but of finding the Catholic Church. If the two were one, so much
the better; but I had never conceived of Catholicism as a sort of showy
attribute or attraction to be tacked on to my own national body,
but as the inmost soul of the true body, wherever it might be.
It might be said that Anglo-Catholicism was simply my own uncompleted
conversion to Catholicism. But it was from a position originally
much more detached and indefinite that I had been converted,
an atmosphere if not agnostic at least pantheistic or unitarian.
To this I owe the fact that I find it very difficult to take
some of the Protestant propositions even seriously.
What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance,
to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are
condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy
tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at
any time see the sense. The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan
is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man
in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests
of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under
a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying
symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records,
others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them,
others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on.
I can understand the spectator saying, "This is all hocus-pocus";
I can even understand him, in moments of irritation,
breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up
the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that
might express that general view. I can understand his saying,
"Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues
and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh."
But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to
select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one
particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them
and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus);
why in the world should the man in the street say that one
particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only
truth by which all the other things were to be condemned?
Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls
as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it
not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls,
by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests,
"Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,"
is sensible. To say, "Your statues are condemned by your scrolls,
and we are going to worship one part of your procession
and wreck the rest," is not sensible from any standpoint,
least of all that of the man in the street.
Similarly, I could never take seriously the fear of the priest,
as of something unnatural and unholy; a dangerous man in the home.
Why should man who wanted to be wicked encumber himself with special
and elaborate promises to be good? There might sometimes be a
reason for a priest being a profligate. But what was the reason
for a profligate being a priest? There are many more lucrative
walks of life in which a person with such shining talents for vice
and villainy might have made a brighter use of his gifts.
Why should a man encumber himself with vows that nobody could
expect him to take and he did not himself expect to keep?
Would any man make himself poor in order that he might become avaricious;
or take a vow of chastity frightfully difficult to keep in order
to get into a little more trouble when he did not keep it?
All that early and sensational picture of the sins of Rome always
seemed to me silly even when I was a boy or an unbeliever; and I
cannot describe how I passed out of it because I was never in it.
I remember asking some friends at Cambridge, people of the
Puritan tradition, why in the world they were so afraid of Papists;
why a priest in somebody's house was a peril or an Irish servant
the beginning of a pestilence. I asked them why they could not simply
disagree with Papists and say so, as they did with Theosophists
or Anarchists. They seemed at once pleased and shocked with my daring,
as if I had undertaken to convert a burglar or tame a mad dog.
Perhaps their alarm was really wiser than my bravado.
Anyhow, I had not then the most shadowy notion that the burglar
would convert me. That, however, I am inclined to think,
is the subconscious intuition in the whole business.
It must either mean that they suspect that our religion has
something about it so wrong that the hint of it is bad for anybody;
or else that it has something so right that the presence of it
would convert anybody. To do them justice, I think most of them
darkly suspect the second and not the first.
A shade more plausible than the notion that Popish priests merely
seek after evil was the notion that they are exceptionally
ready to seek good by means of evil. In vulgar language,
it is the notion that if they are not sensual they are always sly.
To dissipate this is a mere matter of experience; but before I had any
experience I had seen some objections to the thing even in theory.
The theory attributed to the Jesuits was very often almost
identical with the practice adopted by nearly everybody I knew.
Everybody in society practised verbal economies, equivocations and
often direct fictions, without any sense of essential falsehood.
Every gentleman was expected to say he would be delighted
to dine with a bore; every lady said that somebody else's
baby was beautiful if she thought it as ugly as sin:
for they did not think it a sin to avoid saying ugly things.
This might be right or wrong; but it was absurd to pillory half
a dozen Popish priests for a crime committed daily by half a million,
Protestant laymen. The only difference was that the Jesuits
had been worried enough about the matter to try to make rules
and limitations saving as much verbal veracity as possible;
whereas the happy Protestants were not worried about it at all,
but told lies from morning to night as merrily and innocently
as the birds sing in the trees. The fact is, of course,
that the modern world is full of an utterly lawless casuistry
because the Jesuits were prevented from making a lawful casuistry.
But every man is a casuist or a lunatic.
It is true that this general truth was hidden from many by certain
definite assertions. I can only call them, in simple language,
Protestant lies about Catholic lying. The men who repeated
them were not necessarily lying, because they were repeating.
But the statements were of the same lucid and precise order as a
statement that the Pope has three legs or that Rome is situated at
the North Pole. There is no more doubt about their nature than that.
One of them, for instance, is the positive statement, once heard
everywhere and still heard often: "Roman Catholics are taught
that anything is lawful if done for the good of the Church." This is
not the fact; and there is an end of it. It refers to a definite
statement of an institution whose statements are very definite;
and it can be proved to be totally false. Here as always
the critics cannot see that they are trying to have it both ways.
They are always complaining that our creed is cut and dried;
that we are told what to believe and must believe nothing else;
that it is all written down for us in bulls and confessions of faith.
In so far as this is true, it brings a matter like this
to the point of legal and literal truth, which can be tested;
and so tested, it is a lie. But even here I was saved at a very
early stage by noticing a curious fact. I noticed that those who
were most ready to blame priests for relying on rigid formulas
seldom took the trouble to find out what the formulas were.
I happened to pick up some of the amusing pamphlets of James Britten,
as I might have picked up any other pamphlets of any other propaganda;
but they set me on the track of that delightful branch
of literature which he called Protestant Fiction. I found
some of that fiction on my own account, dipping into novels
by Joseph Hocking and others. I am only concerned with them here
to illustrate this particular and curious fact about exactitude.
I could not understand why these romancers never took the trouble
to find out a few elementary facts about the thing they denounced.
The facts might easily have helped the denunciation,
where the fictions discredited it. There were any number of real
Catholic doctrines I should then have thought disgraceful
to the Church. There are any number which I can still easily
imagine being made to look disgraceful to the Church. But the
enemies of the Church never found these real rocks of offence.
They never looked for them. They never looked for anything.
They seemed to have simply made up out of their own heads a number
of phrases, such as a Scarlet Woman of deficient intellect
might be supposed to launch on the world; and left it at that.
Boundless freedom reigned; it was not treated as if it were a question
of fact at all. A priest might say anything about the Faith;
because a Protestant might say anything about the priest.
These novels were padded with pronouncements like this one, for instance,
which I happen to remember: "Disobeying a priest is the one sin
for which there is no absolution. We term it a reserved case."
Now obviously a man writing like that is simply imagining
what might exist; it has never occurred to him to go and ask
if it does exist. He has heard the phrase "a reserved case"
and considers, in a poetic reverie, what he shall make it mean.
He does not go and ask the nearest priest what it does mean.
He does not look it up in an encyclopedia or any ordinary work
of reference. There is no doubt about the fact that it simply
means a case reserved for ecclesiastical superiors and not to be
settled finally by the priest. That may be a fact to be denounced;
but anyhow it is a fact. But the man much prefers to denounce
his own fancy. Any manual would tell him that there is no sin
"for which there is no absolution"; not disobeying the priest;
not assassinating the Pope. It would be easy to find out these
facts and quite easy to base a Protestant invective upon them.
It puzzled me very much, even at that early stage, to imagine
why people bringing controversial charges against a powerful and
prominent institution should thus neglect to test their own case,
and should draw in this random way on their own imagination.
It did not make me any more inclined to be a Catholic; in those
days the very idea of such a thing would have seemed crazy.
But it did save me from swallowing all the solid and solemn
assertion about what Jesuits said and did. I did not accept quite
so completely as others the well-ascertained and widely accepted fact
that "Roman Catholics may do anything for the good of the Church";
because I had already learned to smile at equally accepted truths
like "Disobeying a priest is the one sin for which there is
no absolution." I never dreamed that the Roman religion was true;
but I knew that its accusers, for some reason or other,
were curiously inaccurate.
It is strange to me to go back to these things now, and to think
that I ever took them even as seriously as that. But I was not
very serious even then; and certainly I was not serious long.
The last lingering shadow of the Jesuit, gliding behind curtains
and concealing himself in cupboards, faded from my young life
about the time when I first caught a distant glimpse of the late
Father Bernard Vaughan. He was the only Jesuit I ever knew in those days;
and as you could generally hear him half a mile away, he seemed
to be ill-selected for the duties of a curtain-glider. It has always
struck me as curious that this Jesuit raised a storm by refusing
to be Jesuitical (in the journalese sense I mean), by refusing to
substitute smooth equivocation and verbal evasion for a brute fact.
Because he talked about "killing Germans" when Germans had to be killed,
all our shifty and shamefaced morality was shocked at him.
And none of those protesting Protestants took thought for a moment
to realise that they were showing all the shuffling insincerity they
attributed to the Jesuits, and the Jesuit was showing all the plain
candour that they claimed for the Protestant.
I could give a great many other instances besides, these I
have given of the hidden Bible, the profligate priest or the
treacherous Jesuit. I could go steadily through the list of all these
more old-fashioned charges against Rome and show how they affected me,
or rather why they did not affect me. But my only purpose here is
to point out, as a preliminary, that they did not affect me at all.
I had all the difficulties that a heathen would have had in becoming
a Catholic in the fourth century. I had very few of the difficulties
that a Protestant had, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth.
And I owe this to men whose memories I shall always honour;
to my father and his circle and the literary tradition of men like
George Macdonald and the Universalists of the Victorian Age. If I
was born on the wrong side of the Roman wall, at least I was not born
on the wrong side of the No Popery quarrel; and if I did not inherit
a fully civilised faith, neither did I inherit a barbarian feud.
The people I was born amongst wished to be just to Catholics if they
did not always understand them; and I should be very thankless if I
did not record of them that (like a very much more valuable convert)
I can say I was born free.
I will add one example to illustrate this point, because it
leads us on to larger matters. After a long time--I might
almost say after a lifetime--I have at last begun to realise
what the worthy Liberal or Socialist of Balham or Battersea
really means when he says he is an Internationalist and that
humanity should be preferred to the narrowness of nations.
It dawned on me quite suddenly, after I had talked to such a man
for many hours, that of course he had really been brought up
to believe that God's Englishmen were the Chosen Race. Very likely
his father or uncle actually thought they were the lost
Ten Tribes. Anyhow, everything from his daily paper to his
weekly sermon assumed that they were the salt of the earth,
and especially that they were the salt of the sea.
His people had never thought outside their British nationality.
They lived in an Empire on which the sun never set, or possibly
never rose. Their Church was emphatically the Church of England--
even if it was a chapel. Their religion was the Bible that went
everywhere with the Union Jack. And when I realised that,
I realised the whole story. That was why they were excited
by the exceedingly dull theory of the Internationalist. That was
why the brotherhood of nations, which to me was a truism,
to them was a trumpet. That was why it seemed such
a thrilling paradox to say that we must love foreigners;
it had in it the divine paradox that we must love enemies.
That was why the Internationalist was always planning deputations
and visits to foreign capitals and heart-to-heart talks
and hands across the sea. It was the marvel of discovering
that foreigners had hands, let alone hearts. There was in that
excitement a sort of stifled cry: "Look! Frenchmen also have
two legs! See! Germans have noses in the same place as we!"
Now a Catholic, especially a born Catholic, can never understand
that attitude, because from the first his whole religion
is rooted in the unity of the race of Adam, the one and only
Chosen Race. He is loyal to his own country; indeed he is generally
ardently loyal to it, such local affections being in other ways
very natural to his religious life, with its shrines and relics.
But just as the relic follows upon the religion, so the local
loyalty follows on the universal brotherhood of all men.
The Catholic says, "Of course we must love all men:
but what do all men love? They love their lands,
their lawful boundaries, the memories of their fathers.
That is the justification of being national, that it is normal."
But the Protestant patriot really never thought of any patriotism
except his own. In that sense Protestantism is patriotism.
But unfortunately it is only patriotism. It starts with it
and never gets beyond it. We start with mankind and go
beyond it to all the varied loves and traditions of mankind.
There never was a more illuminating flash than that which lit up
the last moment of one of the most glorious of English Protestants;
one of the most Protestant and one of the most English. For that is
the meaning of that phrase of Nurse Cavell, herself the noblest
martyr of our modern religion of nationality, when the very shaft
of the white sun of death shone deep into her mind and she
cried aloud, like one who had just discovered something,
"I see now that patriotism is not enough."
There was this in common between the Catholics to whom I have come
and the Liberals among whom I was born: neither of them would
ever have imagined for a moment that patriotism was enough.
But that insular idealism by which that great lady lived really had
taught her unconsciously from childhood that patriotism was enough.
Not seldom has the English lady appeared in history as a heroine;
but generally as facing and defying strangers or savages, not specially
as feeling them as fellows and equals. Those last words of the English
martyr in Belgium have often been quoted by mere cosmopolitans;
but cosmopolitans are the last people really to understand them.
They are generally trying to prove, not that patriotism is not enough,
but that it is a great deal too much. The point is here that
hundreds of the most heroic and high-minded people in Protestant
countries have really assumed that it is enough to be a patriot.
The most careless and cynical of Catholics knows better;
and so did the most vague and visionary of Universalists. Of all
the Protestant difficulties, which I here find it hard to imagine,
this is perhaps the most common and in many ways commendable:
the fact that the normal British subject begins by being so
very British. By accident I did not. The tradition I heard in
my youth, the simple, the too simple truths inherited from Priestly
and Martineau, had in them something of that grand generalisation
upon men as men which, in the first of those great figures,
faced the howling Jingoism of the French Wars and defied even
the legend of Trafalgar. It is to that tradition that I owe the fact,
whether it be an advantage or a disadvantage, that I cannot worthily
analyse the very heroic virtues of a Plymouth Brother whose only centre
is Plymouth. For that nationalism, defective as it was, began long ago
in the same central civilisation in which the Church herself began;
if it has ended in the Church it began long ago in the Republic:
in a world where all these flags and frontiers were unknown;
where all these state establishments and national sects were unthinkable;
a vast cosmopolitan cosmos that had never heard the name of England,
or conceived the image of a kingdom separate and at war;
in that vast pagan peace which was the matrix of all these mysteries,
which had forgotten the free cities and had not dreamed of the
small nationalities; which knew only humanity, the humanum genus,
and the name of Rome.
The Catholic Church loves nations as she loves men; because they
are her children. But they certainly are her children,
in the sense that they are secondary to her in time and process
of production. This is, as it happens, a very good example
of a fallacy that often confuses discussion about the convert.
The same people who call he convert a pervert, and especially
a traitor to patriotism, very often use the other catchword
to the effect that he is forced to believe this or that.
But it is not really a question of what a man is made to believe
but of what he must believe; what he cannot help believing.
He cannot disbelieve in an elephant when he has seen one; and he cannot
treat the Church as a child when he has discovered that she is
his mother. She is not only his mother but his country's mother
in being much older and more aboriginal than his country. She is
such a mother not in sentimental feeling but in historical fact.
He cannot think one thing when he knows the contrary thing.
He cannot think that Christianity was invented by Penda of Mercia,
who sent missionaries to the heathen Augustine and the rude
and barbarous Gregory. He cannot think that the Church
first rose in the middle of the British Empire, and not
of the Roman Empire. He cannot think that England existed,
with cricket and fox-hunting and the Jacobean translation
all complete, when Rome was founded or when Christ was born.
It is no good talking about his being "free" to believe these things.
He is exactly as free to believe them as he is to believe
that a horse has feathers or that the sun is pea green.
He cannot believe them when once he fully realises them;
and among such things is the notion that the national claim
upon a good patriot is in its nature more absolute, ancient and
authoritative than the claim of the whole religious culture
which first mapped out its territories and anointed its kings.
That religious culture does indeed encourage him to fight to
the last for his country, as for his family. But that is because
the religious culture is generous and imaginative and humane
and knows that men must have intimate and individual ties.
But those secondary loyalties are secondary in time and logic
to the law of universal morality which justifies them.
And if the patriot is such a fool as to force the issue against
that universal tradition from which his own patriotism descends,
if he presses his claim to priority over the primitive law
of the whole earth--then he will have brought it on himself
if he is answered with the pulverising plainness of the Book
of Job. As God said to the man, "Where were you when the foundations
of the world were laid?" We might well say to the nation,
"Where were you when the foundations of the Church were laid?"
And the nation will not know in the least what to answer--
if it should wish to answer--but will be forced to put its hand
upon its mouth, if only like one who yawns and falls asleep.
I have taken this particular case of patriotism because it concerns
at least an emotion in which I profoundly believe and happen to
feel strongly. I have always done my best to defend it; though I
have sometimes become suspect by sympathising with other people's
patriotism besides my own. But I cannot see how it can be defended
except as part of a larger morality; and the Catholic morality happens
to be one of the very few large moralities now ready to defend it.
But the Church defends it as one of the duties of men and not as the whole
duty of man; as it was in the Prussian theory of the State and too often
in the British theory of the Empire. And for this the Catholic rests,
exactly as the Universalist Unitarian rested, upon the actual fact of a
human unity anterior to all these healthy and natural human divisions.
But it is absurd to treat the Church as a novel conspiracy attacking
the State, when the State was only recently a novel experiment arising
within the Church. It is absurd to forget that the Church itself received
the first loyalties of men who had not yet even conceived the notion
of founding such a national and separate state; that the Faith really
was not only the faith of our fathers, but the faith of our fathers
before they had even named our fatherland.
Traditional Catholic living on a homestead with his 11 kids and wife. To learn why this lay person is running this blog rather than a priest, go here.