The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


II -- Roman Catholic Characteristics


"I WILL begin," says John, "in studying the life of JESUS CHRIST as described in the Gospels. I cannot explain on what authority I receive these Gospels as trustworthy, but I must begin somewhere, and I will assume that they are true. At any rate they touch me more profoundly than anything I have ever read."

Here then are a few of the points that he notices in his course of reading.

First, his attention is arrested by the tone of authority in which CHRIST speaks.

Here was one who came as a teacher and prophet to a nation specially favoured by GOD -- a nation which had received a law at any rate far in advance of the law of any other nation in its high standard, its appeal to the heart, its sense of the Divine. CHRIST acknowledged all this; He spoke unmistakably of the salvation to be found among the Jews;{1} He conformed Himself to the requirements of that law.{2}

Yet He appears to have set Himself, with what must have appeared nothing less than brutality to some of those who heard Him, to trample deliberately on sacred traditions, holy prejudices, authorized interpretations, and even parts of the law itself.

It was said by them of old time," He said, "yet I say unto you. . ."{3} He denounced small pieties, ineffective aspirations -- "Not every one that saith... LORD, LORD shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."{4} When His disciples, thinking to please Him, pointed reverently to the glorious temple of the King of heaven, He cried out that not one stone of it should be left upon another.{5} While with one breath He indicated the Scribes and Pharisees as ruling with the authority of Moses,{6} with another He denounced woe to them, named them hypocrites and deceivers,{7} and bade His friends beware of their doctrine.{8} He, as it seemed almost parenthetically, struck with a biting sentence or two at the whole scheme of Sabbath-keeping,{9} matured through centuries, and all designed to the honour of GOD and repose of men.

His methods then were utterly dissimilar from those that had worked so well and for so long. He taught not as the Scribes.{10} Instead of appealing to this Rabbi or that, as was the custom of the schools, weighing the evidence of one commentator against another, showing what was of faith, what of opinion, and what for liberty, He spoke now serenely, now sternly, but always as with personal and final authority; and it was this characteristic of imperiousness that was especially marked by those who heard Him. "[They] were astonished at His doctrine; for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the Scribes."{11}

Such peremptory methods did not make for peace, anymore than the doctrine which He declared and He Himself confessed frankly that it was so. "I came," He said expressly, "not to send peace, but a sword."{12} I came," He said implicitly in a splendid paradox, "not to unite men but to divide them. The sword of My word shall come down between husband and wife, mother and child. Families shall be wrecked through My Gospel, friends estranged, love-ties severed. Not peace; but a sword."{13}

When John had arrived at this point in his meditations, the irresistible parallel struck him. Was not all this precisely what is alleged against the divine claims of the Church of Rome?

All other denominations with which he has come into contact lay claim to what is called charity and sweet reasonableness. The Wesleyan and the Baptist vie with one another in proclaiming that truth is not vital, that every man must follow his own conscience, that no man may either deliver or contradict his brother, the Church of England rejoices in her own comprehensiveness, cries out that she is National and therefore must truly represent the mind of the nation, holds out liberty of thought within wide limits as her glory and her pride. It is true, reflects John, that there are men within her who do not, but so long as others are permitted to contradict them, and to hold opposing views, the Church of England so far as she has a voice supports these and not those. It is her desire to support as far as may be the law of the land (in itself an estimable ambition); but she carries this so far as still to include among her bishops those who openly instruct their clergy that when the laws of Church and State clash, it is the latter that must be obeyed; for the Church of England is by law established.

John places in contrast with this wide spirit of liberty the accusations cast against the Church of Rome; and they are accusations undoubtedly true in substance.

She teaches "not as the scribes."

"I will have no schools of thought," she cries, "within my pale on matters that have come under my attention. Theologians may dispute and argue and deduce -- it is their function to do so; but when I speak, they must be silent or go out. It was said by them of old time -- this or that was allowed in the Primitive Church -- I dare say it was; but that was of old time. Now, I say unto you. I claim to be alive, not dead or entranced; I claim therefore the right to enlarge and amplify my statements on matters of doctrine, to reverse, if need be to elaborate, my decisions on discipline. More than this, the life that inspires me is divine; it is that same energy that burned in my LORD, and it is in His tones that I speak, and with His authority that I define. GOD has promulgated His commandments on Sinai and the Mount of Beatitudes; I add to those my precepts, and all alike bind the conscience of those that hear.

"I am here to declare GOD's truth to men, not to reassure them that there is no such thing, or to content them with a vague and shifting creed or a declaration that a lack of precise thinking is the highest mental liberty. But I am here to tell them truth for it is the truth and not doubt or hesitation or indifference that makes them free.{14}

"On matters that touch morality I am ready, if need be, to contradict with the utmost emphasis merely human enactments. It is said by them that sit in Parliament, A divorced man may marry a new wife. I say unto you, He may not: and I deny my sacraments to those who prefer man to me in the matter. You tell me that common sense demands that an innocent woman wedded to a brute should not be cut off from domestic happiness. I do not care what common sense says; I declare before GOD that (brute or saint) she is a wedded woman till death steps in to free her. You tell me that I am cruel; that I bring ruin into families wherever I go, that I divide mother and daughter, father and son, that I am authoritative, imperious and domineering. I answer that I come to bring not peace but a sword; that my children have found and always will find that their foes are those of their own household, that I am authoritative and imperious, as my LORD was; for I speak not as other men, not as human legislators and politicians who prefer peace to truth, not as scribes who weigh opinion against opinion, but as the organ of the Supreme Voice, and the authorized interpreter of the Divine Will."

It is too much for John, and he passes to a second point.

2. A train of thought has been suggested to him by CHRIST'S words that although He was going to the Father,{15} yet He would still be with His own until the end of the world.{16}

"Let us picture," says John, "what would have happened if these words were carnally fulfilled, and CHRIST were still on the earth in bodily form. We shall understand better so what is the effect of His spiritual presence; for His spiritual presence, unconfined by laws of space, cannot at any rate be less effectual than would have been His earthly presence in Jerusalem or Rome."

First then, with reference to truth, he meditates, how simple would have been the appeal! When disputes arose, on vital matters at any rate, they could have been settled within a few days.

"Tell us," he imagines a deputation saying, "tell us, LORD, what is the meaning of Thy words, 'This is My Body.'{17} There are some of us that are inclined to hold that the words are literal, and that in the holy Sacrament we have Thy Body actually and really present upon our altars. Others of us, who claim equal piety and learning, declare that such a thing is impossible, that the significance can be no more than a symbolical one; others again name the presence virtual, not real; others declare that the presence is real to the receiver, not in the bread. From this divergence there are countless quarrels, disputes and recriminations. We confess with shame that the sacrament of unity has been for many amongst us a sacrament of discord and hatred.

"Now can it be doubted," John asks himself, "that an answer would have been given?

"Well, it is only an imagination. JESUS CHRIST is not here to decide the matter and interpret His own dark saying. I go to this and that teacher, and each tells me the same; it is a mysterious saying; it is not right to go beyond the words of Scripture; it must be left as He left it; the truth is to be found not in theology, but in the loving spirit that tastes and finds that the Lord is gracious: I must be content -- yes, all teachers tell me this, but one. There is one who is not content so to leave it, and who claims with awful arrogance to define the LORD'S own words in the terms of a questionable human philosophy. She sweeps aside Zwinglians, Calvinists, Lutherans and the rest; and tells me expressly that the substance of the bread is changed into the substance of the Body of the LORD; she adds that where the Body is there must be the Blood, and since CHRIST is alive and undivided, where His Body is must be His Soul and His Divinity. She names for the theologians these two doctrines, Transubstantiation and Concomitance, and she bids me, who am a simple layman, worship GOD and Man, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity really actually and literally present upon her altars."

John turns to his Bible again, grieved at the audacity, and once more he reads: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world."{18}

He remains a moment staring at the page as the thought develops.

"If then He is here, my imagination is no imagination, but a fact. He is here, to decide these questions, to give peace to troubled minds, to interpret His own dark sayings! Where then shall I find Him? In England where I am put off with an evasion -- amongst those who repudiate any power to lay upon men's consciences a greater burden than Scripture: in other words, who refuse to enlighten the intolerable burden of an obscure and vital text? Or shall I find Him among those who alone are not afraid to express the meaning of the text in intelligible language, who do not shrink from catching up a philosophy for the purpose of further illumination, who, in other words claim to speak on the authority of Him who first uttered the dark saying, and to answer men, after CHRIST'S own method, as they can understand it?

Is not, therefore, the denial of a power to amplify His words, a denial of the continuous presence that He promised?"


A reaction of course, or rather a series of them, is always to be found in every soul that is making any advance in the intellectual region; there are moments when the reason, exhausted, allows itself to be dominated once more by the imagination which surges up from the realm of prejudices, old faiths, old customs, ideas implanted in childhood or overheard and assimilated; and for a time asserts itself fiercely.

I propose to treat here of four such typical assaults which took place at various times in John's mind. The first was named "Universal Distrust."

1. "Why is it," he asked himself, "that the whole world is so leagued against the Roman Catholics? After all, the common sense of the world is a divine instinct, because it is so intensely human. I do not mean the common sense of notoriously bad people, of atheists, immoral outlaws; but the sober feeling of GOD-fearing nations. In England, for example, this distrust is no less obvious than it was in Elizabeth's reign, although it takes a less vivid form. A man applies for a situation; his testimonials are satisfactory, and all goes well until his religion is discovered to be of this denomination. After that he is told that he need not present himself again. A young man wins a scholarship, and the Fellows of the college on learning of his faith, strain every nerve to get rid of him. A Roman priest walking harmlessly down the street is pointed out and eyed as if he were carrying an infernal machine in his tail pocket.

A convert is treated among his friends as if he were newly come from a lunatic asylum; he is either humoured or contradicted on every possible occasion. In France there is no need to give illustrations beyond mentioning that that country has taken down the cross from the Pantheon for the third or fourth time, and the crucifix from her law-courts; she has been compelled to get rid of thousands of her citizens for no crime but that of their religion; she is contemplating making the wearing of the clerical or religious habit in public an act of rebellion. Spain, where the Roman Church still holds sway, is despised by the entire civilized world. Italy is full of confiscated monasteries, and the Pope is a sort of prisoner in his own house and grounds. Ireland, as is well known, is the one sore spot in the British Empire."

He turns once more to the Gospels and Acts, and is confronted by the following remarks: "Ye shall be hated of all men."{19}

That certainly cannot be applied to any denomination other than the Roman Catholic. And there is no exception made as to who shall hate. It is not the atheists, outlaws, adulterers who shall hate; on the contrary it is the reproach of the Roman Catholics as it was of CHRIST Himself, that she is the friend of sinners, and therefore presumably the abettor of sin. "All men" includes just those persons of whom John has been thinking -- the sober, GOD-fearing, civilized inhabitants of the world; in fact, CHRIST Himself, amplifying His warning, declares that the enemies of His friends shall bring them before religious and civil courts and shall believe their own hostility to be an act of service to GOD.

"If ye were of the world, the world should love its own; but because ye are not of the world, Therefore the world hateth you."{20}

The world -- that is to say once more, the embodiment of the common-sense, practicable, reasonable, civilized spirit. It was this that called the Apostles mad and drunk, that named them upsetters of the world, seditious, disloyal, godless; it was this that accused their children a century later of nameless crimes in the dark, of impiety and atheism. And it is precisely this spirit to-day that in England distrusts Roman priests, denounces the Roman system, despises converts; that in France has torn down the crucifix, that smiles pityingly at Spain and Ireland, and would it it could drown them in the meshes of its own broad liberty.

2. John revolts at his own reflections.

"This is very well," he cries, "but how useless to pretend that these papists are hated because of their piety -- because of their love for JESUS CHRIST! It is their sin, their inconsistency with their own standards, and not their holiness that brings them under suspicion. No amount of rhetoric can whitewash Xystus III, Innocent VIII, Julius II, Mary Tudor, Torquemada and the thousands of criminals known to history. 'Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles?'{21} It is useless for persecutors to pose as persecuted, for slanderers as calumniated. It is not persecution for society to defend herself against those who subvert the laws of her life. If any proof is wanting that the Roman Church is not the kingdom of heaven, it is found in the character of her citizens."

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a net."{22}

"It is not therefore," answers the second voice in his soul, "it is not a select society of perfected souls; it is rather a huge vessel that sweeps into itself good and bad, saints and sinners, ethereal souls and deformed monsters of carnality. To point to outcasts of society within the Church's borders is no more than to demonstrate that the charity of GOD is larger than the charity of man. To conceive of the Church as other than this is to deny her catholicity, her divinity, her adequacy to human needs, her bottomless love, her imperishable hope. It was this that was done by the Lollards, the Lutherans, the Independents, the Marcionites, and a hundred Gnostic sects whose names are almost forgotten in consequence. They were for ever crying, 'Come out of her, my people.'{23} But the kingdom of heaven is not an aristocracy of saintliness, or an exhibition of prize souls; it is not even a sieve which separates; it is a net which gathers and includes.

"Even if all historians' exaggerations were literally true, it would not affect the Church's claim by the weight of a hair; for it is frankly acknowledged that the higher the elevation, the deeper the fall. A bad Catholic is the worst of men; for his type and his leader is no other than Judas Iscariot. The corruption of a highly developed organism is infinitely fouler than the decaying remnant of a jellyfish. If truth is desired and not a verbal victory coram populo, you must set St Francis of Assisi beside Innocent VIII, St Catherine of Siena beside the papal court before whom she spoke; you must set the thousands of saints known and unknown beside the thousands of sinners whose names have been raked together for so many centuries and with such scrupulous zeal by the Accuser of the Brethren."

3. "That too is a pretty bit of pleading," says John. "But how then is it possible to defend, not the exceptional sinners, but the frauds daily and hourly carried on in the name of religion? We have heard of the Rood of Boxley and the priest who pulled the string to make the image of his SAVIOUR weep fraudulent tears of blood; of St Januarius, whose blood is still supposed to liquefy four times a year in the hands of the Archbishop of Naples; of the hysterical girls at Lourdes cured either by the violence of their emotions or by a possibly medicinal virtue in the water of the Virgin's Well.

"What of saints who rose three miles above the surface of the earth, of martyrs before whom the beasts crouched in adoration, of bishops who cure the sick, of priests who raise the dead, of ecstatice who bleed from hands and feet and side every Friday in the year from twelve to three, and rave in Hebrew and Greek; of lunatics who shrink and cry out at the touch of a little salt water over which a sinful man has murmured a few words of Latin!

"Is there any other body of Christians in Christendom which still believes in present-day miracles? The president of the Wesleyan Conference does not read out among his statistics a list of miracles wrought by local preachers. The entire common sense of the most reasonable and pious people of the time is unanimous on the fact that miracles were indeed necessary for the establishment of the Church on earth, but have now passed away with the demand for them from a world that has its eyes fixed on higher and more spiritual manifestations of GOD's power. 'Tis this one intolerable and intolerant body that calls itself the Catholic Church that persists in the face of reason, experience and science, in declaring that the age of miracles is not past. We must not blame her overmuch; she is still burdened by the dark heritage of the middle ages, and her claim to be identical with the credulous and priest-ridden institution that obscured men's minds and dominated them by a mixture of credulity and fraud.

"It is this one Church ---" and John paused in his declamation.

"'These signs shall follow them that believe: in My name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.'{24}

. . . . . .

"Is it conceivable, then," asked John of himself after a pause, "that I have been a little hasty in concluding that, because some knaves have been detected, therefore all men are dishonest; that I have been guilty of unjustifiable a priori reasoning, and have concluded against all miracles from the premisses that they did not happen?"

3. "We must take a larger view," he cried; "this by-lane warfare is useless. Look at the Roman body as a whole once more -- its iron system, its artificial uniformity; that crushes out individuality, that forces catch-words into men's mouths, the same holy expression on their faces, and the same barbaric vestments on their shoulders. It is a superb instance of human genius and patience; it is like the drill of an army, the movement of a vast machine: this crank turns this wheel and that lever. Of course it is imposing and terrifying, until one learns the secret. But how utterly unlike to the free, pure, spiritual union of CHRIST and His simple servants, the union of charity and hearts and wills the union that is divine because it is deep! Let me look again at the Gospels."

"'That they all may be one. . . that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me'{25} "'The world,'" repeats the second voice in his soul. "And you, John, in spite of your plain common sense, are perpetually thinking of the scholar and the saint. What have you to do with them? It was not to them that CHRIST made His vast appeal; but to the weary, the heavy-laden, the sinners, the dull, the unimaginative. His royal road is for the wayfarers and fools who walk there among the redeemed to Zion;{26} it is for you, John, and such as you, that He made that road and built His heavenly city, not for the scholar who spins webs and rejoices in his elaborateness, but for the man who can become little as a little child. It was for the simple that He set up His sign-posts and built His straight walls.

"In other words, this unity for which He prayed was exactly that which you have been condemning. It was to be a unity which the world might recognize -- which was to be obvious, plain, notorious, evident; not a unity visible only to the eyes of seers, still less a unity fashioned out of the, weaving of dreams and desires in a study-chair.

"Does the world acknowledge the unity of Baptists, Wesleyans and Plymouth Brethren; or the unity of the Church of England? Is not parliament at this moment seeking to remove the scandal of her disunity? Are not the divisions of Christendom -- apart from what you call the Church of Rome -- the one supreme stumbling-block to the evangelization of the world which CHRIST desired so passionately? And is it not to the Church of Rome (and because of her iron uniformity, at which you have just been sneering) that the anxious, puzzled wanderer looks with approval if not with hope? Can you, in fact, point to any unity but hers that arrests for an instant the attention of the irreligious, the careless, and the independtnt? The world may hate that unity -- it has taught you a number of phrases to throw at it -- it may explain it away, as you have done; but there is no sort of question but that it acknowledges it to be the most startling and arresting fact in Christendom.

"Look at that sentence again: That they may be one -- that the world may know? . . ."

John is silenced; but he is not convinced. There are fifty questions yet to be answered; his whole soul revolts against the conclusion. Yet for the present he is silenced.

For he has learnt that precisely those things which had served him hitherto against those intolerable claims of what he prefers to call the "Italian Mission" are the very points which she puts forward as her credentials.

She is authoritative? Yes; because her Master was.

She despises conventions, contradicts human laws, divides families? Yes; because her Master did.

She turns the accusation of supplanting CHRIST into a claim to possess Him in her heart, mind and mouth.

She welcomes the distrust of the world; because He said that it would be so.

She is not afraid to gather up sinners and keep them, even though they pervert her policy and misrepresent her spirit; because it is her function to sweep humanity -- dregs and all -- into her net.

She is not ashamed to count miracles among her jewels; because He said that His Bride should wear them.

She rejoices in her self-control, the rigidity of her attitude, the subordination of every member ot her being to her supreme will; because it is at His wish that it is so, that the world, whom He loves and for whom He gave Himself, may recognize her as His queen, and Himself as King.

John therefore is a little thoughtful as he closes the Gospels.

{1} John iv, 22.

{2} John v, 1; Matt. xvii, 27.

{3} Matt. v, 27, 28.

{4} Matt. vii, 21.

{5} Matt. xxiv, 1, 2.

{6} Matt. xxiii, 2.

{7} Matt. xxiii, 14.

{8} Matt. xvi, 11.

{9} Mark ii, 27.

{10} Mark i, 22.

{11} Matt. vii, 28, 29.

{12} Matt. x, 34.

{13} Matt. x, 35-37.

{14} Cf. John viii, 32.

{15} John xvi, 28.

{16} Matt. xxviii, 20.

{17} Matt. xxvi, 26.

{18} Matt. xxviii, 20.

{19} Mark xiii, 13.

{20} John xv, 19.

{21} Matt. vii, 16.

{22} Matt. xiii, 47.

{23} Rev. xviii, 4.

{24} Mark xvi, 17, 18.

{25} John xvii, 21.

{26} Cf. Isa. xxxv, 8-10.

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