ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





We have considered in previous chapters the Catholic claim that the same Character that is portrayed in the Gospel is the Character at work in her own organism -- that the Eternal Word of God who united Human Nature to Himself, and, through that Human Nature, as through an instrument; taught and redeemed the world, unites Human Nature still to Himself, and through that Body that is called the Catholic Church still teaches and redeems mankind. We have to consider now what proofs there are of this astounding claim -- and in particular, what may be called the psychological symptoms of His Presence as recorded in the Gospels and as reproduced in the Church. If we find that the identity is practically inexplicable on any other hypothesis, we may take it as at least strongly indicated that the claim is a just one; if, further, we find that such effects are eminently characteristic of what may be expected of the Divine action, we are thereby impelled to suspect that the Character at work is Divine.

1. I propose to begin by considering a piece of evidence, very slight indeed from one point of view, yet extraordinarily significant if analyzed -- I mean the character of the minds and temperaments most easily drawn towards Catholicism.

The present day is an exceedingly favorable period for the consideration of this point, since it is no longer fashionable, scarcely even traditional, to be a Catholic. Children of Catholic parents lapse from their religion with an ease hitherto unknown amongst her members; and conversions are usually made in the face of a kind of opposition that is seldom extended to those who would enter any other religious body. It is probably true that seldom if ever, except in the earliest times of the propagation of Christianity, or possibly at certain periods of persecution, has the standard of sincerity and thoughtfulness stood so high in the Catholic body as it stands to-day. Men do not drift today into Catholicism, and they drift out of it without much difficulty. There is no social influence at work in favor of Catholicism, and there is a good deal against it; and even amongst those who desire to be known as religious it is a good deal more fashionable, and considered a great deal more "spiritual," to stand outside creeds and churches than within them. It is always more pleasant to conceive of oneself as taught of God individually, as a mystically minded unit, than as a child who must go to school and form one of a crowd of other children. It is, then, an exceptionally favorable time to judge of the kinds of characters most deeply affected by the Church, whether attracted to or retained by her.

There is no question that, considered in general, two kinds of persons are drawn towards Catholicism and remain faithful to it -- the extremely simple and uneducated and the extremely shrewd and thoughtful. By "uneducated" I do not necessarily mean "unlettered"; by "shrewd" I do not necessarily mean "learned"; I mean rather the complete religious and philosophical amateur on one side, and the highly cultivated on the other. Neither do I mean that all the stupid people and all the clever are to be found amongst Catholics, and in no other company; but simply, that it is amongst these two classes, as a whole, that the characteristic Catholic is usually found. But the great mass of the tolerably thoughtful, the tolerably educated and intelligent, and more especially those who are content with their knowledge, and are unaware of its limitations -- in fact, what may be called without offense the bourgeois mind remains completely unaffected. That this is so I think may be verified fairly satisfactorily by the condition of such countries as France or even England, and by the testimony of priests who, after all, come directly into contact with statistics.

In France we have a remarkable state of affairs. On the one side there is a wide-spread defection from the Church; on the other hand, it is exactly these two classes of minds that have either remained in the fold or are returning to it. In the remote country districts both in north and south, in Brittany for example, and Lozère, fervor burns as brightly as ever, if not more ardently; many of the shrewdest intellects of the towns have remained entirely unaffected by "modern thought"; and the list of recent converts -- including such names as those of Brunetière, Coppée, Paul Bourget, Huysmans, Retté -- is surely a symptom of the same fact. "The deeper," says Pasteur, "I go into the mysteries of nature, the more simple becomes my faith. Already it is as the faith of the Breton peasant; and I have every reason to believe that if I am able to penetrate yet deeper, it will become as the faith of the Breton peasant's wife." Such testimony as this is surely a sufficient answer to those who say that "modern thought" has made it impossible for intelligent persons to be Catholics. It does not, of course, prove that the Catholic religion is true; but it shows that at any rate it is not as evidently false as the "bourgeois " intellect, which battens upon Haeckel and his school, desires to maintain. A man is perfectly at liberty to say that he does not believe the Catholic religion; but he cannot say, without very grave pride, in the face of such testimony as that of Pasteur, that it is obviously and evidently false, and that no intelligent person can believe it.

We have the same kind of evidence in England. Any English priest who has had any experience of converts would, I think, give the same answer. It the absolutely simple and untechnical mind that produces one section of the converts; and the other section is drawn, for the most part, from markedly keen and able intellects. The mind most impervious to the Church's influence is that of the tolerably well educated -- the young man who has studied a little, but not much, and that chiefly from small handbooks; the young woman who attends University Extension lectures, but not too many of them. For just as in social things the essential bourgeois is one who, being tolerably well off, is completely complacent with his position -- unlike the lowest class which has no position to be complacent about, and the highest class which does not think about it at all either way; so in matters of mind. "How hardly shall they who trust in riches," says our Lord, "enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." Riches themselves are no obstacle; it is the bourgeois attitude towards them, whether riches of wealth or intellect, that is really hopeless. Complacency is the one obstacle to progress, in finance, in art, in intellect, and in the things of the spirit. To these may be added perhaps the "academic mind," viz., that which is so deeply immersed in one branch of knowledge that it is unaware that any other exists, that is so versed in one science that it has come to think that phenomena irreducible to the formulae of that branch, are of no value as phenomena. For this too is another kind of cosmic provincialism -- that of the "scribes and Pharisees" -- against which our Lord inveighs very bitterly.

Now, as we turn to the Gospels we find at the very outset -- (and I do not think one should dismiss this as fanciful, if one will but remember the hypothesis on which we are speaking) -- at the very outset we find that it is from those two classes that are drawn the first visitors to the cradle of the Incarnate Word. It is the shepherds of Bethlehem and the wise men from the East that kneel there, the simplest and the wisest -- the simplest, those who are accustomed to silence and stars and the elementary facts of birth and death, those who have none of that knowledge that may be so obscuring to clear vision; the wisest, those who have reached the confines of wisdom as it was then held -- who, no doubt objectively considered, knew infinitely less of the physical world than the smallest school child of to-day, but who, subjectively considered, were as highly trained and cultivated as the world could train and cultivate them, who were able to look back through the realms of knowledge they had penetrated and to understand how very little it all amounted to; these two classes, in fact, which, respectively, are not tempted to think that they know anything; and those who, by the acquiring of knowledge, have come to know that they do not know anything.

And I do not think that this illustration is fanciful; first, because on the Catholic hypothesis the Gospels, short as they are, contain what may be called a rough ground-plan of the Divine action on the world, and in a ground-plan negligible details find no room; and, secondly, because the ministry of Jesus Christ seems always to have been distinguished by the same characteristic. Those who followed Him seem to have been almost entirely drawn from these two classes. There were the fishermen on the one side -- men, like shepherds, accustomed to manual work -- that marvelous mind-cleanser -- to silence, to stars and night and great spaces; and certain great doctors on the other -- Joseph, Nicodemus, and the rest. And there stand out in that later band of apostles two great figures, as they stand in Rome to-day -- Peter and Paul. Peter, the scarred fisherman, talking with a Galilean accent; and Paul, fresh from a Greek-speaking university of a Roman town, soaked in aristocratic traditions of religion, a quoter of the Greek poets, accustomed to dialectics.

Now this characteristic, true as it seems to be of Catholicism, is markedly untrue of any other form of religion with which I am acquainted. Certain Indian religions, I believe, exhibit it to some extent; but it must be remembered that every Indian religion that is at all Catholic in its scope has an exoteric and an esoteric side -- Buddhism notably so. It has, that is to say, one appeal to the educated and another to the uneducated; and this is not the case with Catholicism. Pasteur and the Irish applewoman believe precisely and exactly the same doctrines. All modern developments of Protestantism, now that they have had their chance, exhibit exactly the opposite to this characteristic of Catholicism. Episcopalianism in Scotland, for instance, and, I am given to understand, in America, is more or less an aristocratic religion, appealing to lovers of beauty and refinement, but having little influence upon the very poor. The same is certainly true of England, generally speaking, except in the case of Ritualism (that form of Episcopalianism that has most in common with Rome), and where associations or family ties or customs kept it in vogue. But even here it has very little dominating influence as such upon the lives of its adherents. It cannot be said to unite in a common fervor and devotion these two classes of minds of which I am speaking. As for the Nonconforming bodies, in England at any rate, their influence is almost entirely confined to certain ranks of society which are not, for the most part, either the most highly educated or the least.

Now the force of all this seems to lie in this direction. It seems to tend to show with tolerable power that all these other religions and forms of thought follow the exact lines which we should expect from human systems; each appeals, that is to say, to a particular kind of mind, and to be limited by natural boundaries. In the West, at least, each form of thought is attached almost irresistibly to a particular form of mind: the University man is, normally, an Anglican; the tradesman, normally, a Nonconformist; the member of the submerged tenth is occasionally a Salvationist, or he is nothing at all. There does not seem in non-Catholic Christianity to be any form of faith that appeals with equal force to all classes alike. Of course it is very difficult to prove this contention by accurate statistics, as it is difficult to prove anything at all by those means; but a rough estimate of its truth may be gained by quick bird's-eye views of average congregations. The ordinary Anglican congregation, when the purely conventional element has been removed, consists almost entirely of educated persons (except as has been noted in the case of Ritualism); the ordinary Nonconformist congregation, of the well-to-do tradesmen; and it is in Catholic churches alone that the scholar and the millionaire, and the well-born and the slum dwellers, sit side by side with mutual ease. There is one religion, and that the Catholic, that with every natural probability against it --since it is rigid in its uniformity and in its demands on faith, unflinching in its claims on bodily comfort, and transparently one under all circumstances -- somehow succeeds, in ignoring altogether the limits of any class or temperament, and appeals with equal force to the extremely cultivated and the extremely simple. When a Professor of Greek in one university, a Professor of Science in another -- both middle-aged men -- and a Judge on the Bench, famed for his keenness in sifting evidence, within the space of five years, after long thought, submit like little children to the Church, and kneel at the same altar-rail with their servants and the poorest Irish, you have reproduced a phenomenon practically unknown to other denominations -- a phenomenon illustrated only by that scene at Bethlehem to which I referred just now. It appears to me, if I may say so in parenthesis, simply astounding that seeming Christianly minded people will actually bring it as a reproach against the Church that it is, amongst other things, the Church of the poor -- of the Irish or the Bretons. Certainly it is that, thank God; though it also numbers among its adherents, as we have seen, some of the keenest intellects of the day. But to reproach the Church with being the one Christian body that really holds the poor, is to show an intellectual and spiritual snobbishness before which one stands aghast and amazed. It is to contradict in the most emphatic way some of the most characteristic words of Jesus Christ, "Blessed are the poor . . . . How hardly shall the rich enter into the Kingdom of Heaven." If there is one thing that marks the ministry of Christ, and that indicates the Divine nature of His teaching, it is His appeal to the poor. In fact, it might be said that unless His teaching did indeed appeal to the poor, it could not possibly claim to be the religion of Humanity, since Humanity consists chiefly of the poor and uneducated. It could not be the Sun shining from heaven on all alike, if it did not illuminate the slums as well as the parks. Light that is the prerogative of the rich must always be artificial. And at the same time, since it is certain that if there be Divine Truth anywhere in the world it cannot possibly conflict with human learning, it is a tremendous argument in favor of Catholicism that the Catholic creed is no less compatible with richness in knowledge than with poverty. An esoteric religion held only by the intellectual, an exoteric religion held only by the uneducated -- neither of these can possibly be universally true; but a religion held by both, and in the same sense, at least must be independent so far of a merely mental and human origin. The argument does not demonstrate that the Catholic religion is true; though it creates at least a presumption that it is more than human; and it does demonstrate that no religion can be true which does not pass its test. Is not all this, then, exactly characteristic of what Divine Truth must exhibit if it visits the earth? It knows no boundaries of knowledge except those that men impose upon themselves; it draws irresistibly those who have no temptation to intellectual complacency, and those who by their very knowledge have overcome it; it fails to affect only those who, having learnt a little, think that they know all. So, to-day, it is largely the bourgeois minds who sit at home, who see nothing in the Heavenly Stable but the birth of one more of the children of men, who discuss the census, the House of Lords, the speeches of traveling politicians, the last smart sect, or the wild dreams of Haeckel, and think that these kinds of things are the pivots on which the world is turned.

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