ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





1. If there is one criticism which above all others springs to the lips of the non-Catholic observer, it is that the Catholic Church is too authoritative. We are told that human nature is a very variable and intricate thing; that one temperament can accept what another cannot; that what is true to one need not be true to another; that differences, whether of time or space, are sacred; that the fourteenth century cannot think as the twentieth; that the Neapolitan cannot believe as the German; in fact, that Truth, although one, has innumerable aspects and facets, and that any attempt to evade this fact, and to impose one set of dogmas on all men alike, must end either in failure or intellectual tyranny. The Catholic Church therefore is declared to he the enemy of Truth, for this is precisely what she attempts to do. She dares to proclaim one creed for all alike; to fetter free inquiry; to make no allowance for points of view; to be the bitter enemy of all progressive science, which, she fears, may overturn her own credibility; to silence and condemn those of her accredited ministers who show any independence of thought.

Certain other bodies then are held out to us as our examples. The Anglican Communion, for instance, is, by many of her adherents, proclaimed to be the most adequate exponent of real truth, since she makes allowances for these various points of view, and is content to drive her team with a comparatively loose rein. She permits, for example, some of her ministers to teach a creed practically indistinguishable from the Catholic, others a creed equally indistinguishable from a kind of moderate Calvinism, and a third party to hold elements of both with the extreme characteristics of neither. She herself then allows -- and is frequently commended for allowing -- this broad divergence on points of faith and practice, and refuses to decide them. It is of no use for the Ritualist to say on one side, or the Low Churchman on the other, that each, respectively, truly represents her and that the other is disloyal. Neither is it possible for even the Moderate Churchman to claim that he, as representing the golden mean, represents her to whom the "golden mean" is, notoriously, an ideal. For so long as she permits these various schools to represent her she permits all their views, and, simultaneously, implicitly denies that any one set of them is de fide. Her "Voice," then, is perfectly intelligible, in spite of what some controversialists have said; and its message is that there is no certainty on these matters. She may, justly, take on her lips Mr. Bernard Shaw's epigram, and repeat, "The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule." Others tell us that even the Anglican Church is too strict -- that the Articles of Religion, for example, impose an unjustifiable burden upon the clergy, and the Athanasian Creed upon the laity; they bid us look to more loosely knitted societies as the real patrons of truth. Others, again, tell us that all societies are too strict; that every man must have his own religion if he is to be loyal to his own conscience; that no dogmas can be final and no creed irreformable. We must continually be bringing our theology up-to-date, if it is to command the belief of thinking men. All, however, whatever their other differences, are united in this -- that the Catholic Church, from her rigidity, her formulae and her unchangingness, must obviously and evidently be wrong.

Now, all these criticisms are perfectly admirable from the non-Catholic standpoint. If Truth is a relative thing -- if the nearest approach we can make to Truth is to sift the opinions of those most competent to speak upon religion -- if, in a word, Truth is something merely arrived at by man's efforts, all those criticisms are just. In that case we do need, first, National Churches for those who are willing to class themselves loosely with their fellow-countrymen; we need Congregational bodies for those groups who desire something more exactly suited to their particular temperament; and we need Individualism in religion for those who go even further and wish to verify individually each single doctrine to which they give their assent.

As human societies only, these groups of believers are acting very prudently and justly in forming associations for the study of truth, for the worship of God, and for the propagation of their opinions; and they are prudent as well as charitable in allowing great latitude to independent thinkers who cannot exactly range themselves under any set of formularies. But if Truth is something different from all this -- if it is a body of facts revealed by God, then the entire position falls to the ground. If Truth is an objective reality, the same for all, parties and schools of thought become meaningless. We do not have schools of thought on the subject of the orbit of the earth, or the existence of the animal creation; and we put persons who doubt the existence of these things into the nearest lunatic asylum.

Now, when we turn to the Life of Christ in the Gospels, we find that authoritativeness and finality were the characteristics of His teaching which most impressed those who heard Him. The people of His day were accustomed to "schools of thought" and "aspects of truth," exactly as we are in our own. Each great doctor and Rabbi had his own set of pupils; the commonwealth of Jerusalem had, in spite of the original Revelation which, it was claimed, Moses had received at the beginning, passed into very much the same state as that in which our own commonwealth finds itself. There was developing amongst them (as indeed amongst all human religious societies, sooner or later), from the single premiss that men are individual, the conclusion that men's perceptions of Truth (and therefore ultimately Truth itself) are individual, too; or, in other words, that since men's perceptions of Truth are subjective, Truth is practically subjective also. There were the precisians for the Law, the Pharisees, the aristocratic separatists, men of the highest probity of life, who observed unfalteringly the whole Law of God, as they understood it, down to its minutest details. There were the Sadducees, also of the "high" mode of thought, with distinctive views upon eschatology; the Herodians -- the national or Erastian party -- the Zealots, the Essenes, and the rest. Each party had a right to exist, each was recognized in its own degree; and upon this exceedingly human state of affairs descended One who dared to say in the very Temple of God where the schools competed: "If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink " -- who stretched His hands to those burdened with disputings, with the distractions of labor, with the consciousness of failure, in short, with that whole intolerable weight which human nature, left to itself, sooner or later finds upon its shoulders; and to say: "Come unto Me all you that are weary and heavy-laden, and you shall find rest to your souls. For My yoke is sweet and My burden light." "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No man cometh unto My Father but by Me." "This or that was said unto you by them of old time; but I say unto you -- something else." This, then, was the comment passed upon Him by those who, after all, are the best qualified to judge -- the "common people" -- those heralded by the shepherds and captained by the fisher-apostles from the North. "The common people," we read, "heard Him gladly; for He taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes and Pharisees."

Now, confidence in claiming to be, or even to possess, the Truth, is not an absolute proof of the justice of the claim. Most founders of new schools of thought claim it usually sooner or later, though, as St. Augustine says in the passage previously quoted, none has ever claimed it so vehemently as did Jesus Christ. But, certainly, the other proposition is true, that if there is such a thing as a Divine Teacher anywhere, He must have this confidence in its most extreme form. Human societies, or merely human authorities of any kind, will always show from time to time a certain faltering in the face of the world's demand: sooner or later the note of hesitation will make its appearance. The Divine Teacher alone will make the claim consistently and always. The Divine Teacher alone will retain always the confidence with which He begins; for the Divine Teacher alone has the Divine Self-consciousness necessary for such a claim. It will be characteristic of the Divine Teacher always to teach as One having authority and not as Scribes and Pharisees. He will seem to the cautious world intolerably positive and imperious.

Now, when we cast a bird's-eye view back in perspective, as well as round us at the present day, we find but one such continuous claim made with the utmost confidence always, from the day when Jesus Christ first stepped out on the world's stage with that challenge to the world; and we find but one Society which has ever succeeded in eliciting such absolute and blind faith as must be expected from those who recognize a Divine Teacher; to one Society and one Society only is that pathetic cry of St. Peter in his bewilderment continually uttered, "To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of Eternal Life." And it is this same Society that alone is distinguished by the reproach of all other seekers after truth, that she teaches as if she herself had the sole prerogative of teaching, that she dares to say in face of the infinite varieties of human experience -- I have -- or rather I am -- the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth. Come unto Me, then, and find rest." It is this one Society which in face of the universal idol of broad-mindedness, and tentative hesitation, and "Modern Thought," and endless toleration, dares still to condemn as well as to justify; to cast those whom she considers faithless out of her pale, as well as to gather in the weary and self-burdened; to be fiercely exclusive, as well as singularly inclusive.

It is worth while, then, to consider whether this amazingly Divine Self-consciousness, this unique and unfaltering claim, this air of proclamation rather than the air of laborious research, is not precisely what we should expect from a Teacher truly come from God -- whether there is not evident in all this an unmistakable aroma of Divinity such as Peter himself detected when he cried, "Tu es Christus! Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

2. We have not time in these few pages to discuss at any length the identity of the dogmatic teaching of Jesus Christ and of the teaching of the Catholic Church. That alone, together with the necessary discussions on what is known as "development of doctrine" -- that aspect of the living truth to which Christ refers when He speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven resembling the elaborate growth and development of a tree from the seed -- all this, by itself, would occupy the whole of our space; but before passing on I would like to draw attention to four short points in this teaching by which we can gauge the astonishing identity of that doctrine then and now, as well as the equally astonishing identity of the world's attitude towards that teaching.

We have just seen the manner of His teaching to be unique and startling; but the substance of His doctrine was no less startling.

There are four occasions in our Lord's life when the objections of His critics take a sudden and almost dramatic form.

The first is the criticism of Nicodemus towards certain words of our Lord upon the Baptism by water; and it shapes itself in the exceedingly human phrase -- "How can -- ? How can a man be born when he is old?"

The second, in order of thought, was the criticism of the doctors towards His words concerning the forgiveness of sins; and again we recognize the human ring of the voice -- Who can forgive sins save God only?"

The third concerns His words upon a "Living Bread" that He will give from heaven; and again the phrase recurs -- "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"

Finally, all three are summed up in a criticism that takes the form of stones, since verbal objections are useless in the face of such an horror -- "Before Abraham was, I AM. . . . Then took they up stones to cast at Him."

Now, if the average critic of Catholicism selected in haste the first four most obvious objections in his mind against the substantial truth of the Catholic religion -- the first (as he would call them) "commonsense" objections -- I think that in ninety-nine cases out of an hundred they would correspond almost precisely with these objections recorded in the Gospels.

First, he would say, the sacramental system generally is all wrong. No intelligent man, he would say, at the present day can possibly be expected to believe that any merely external rites can possibly affect that mysterious inner thing which we call spiritual life. Character, he would say, has its own laws of growth and development, its inevitable movements and energies and activities. Sacraments and the rest may be beautiful symbols and object lessons -- pictures, though comparatively coarse and inaccurate -- of the action of God upon the soul; but they cannot possibly be more. We go forward, he would say, from childhood to maturity, profiting by our good actions, losing by our evil actions, under the reign of a steady and verifiable law from beginning to end. There can be no sudden movement from without that can affect us essentially, no interruption to the orderly action of the universe. "How can a man be born again, when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb, and be born? How can a man begin all over again from the beginning, just because he has submitted to an external ceremony?"

If you press the critic a little further you would find that he particularly objected to the doctrine of absolution. Surely, he would say, the affairs of a man's soul are his own and God's, and no one else's. If we sin against God (and the malice of all sin, so called, is that it is against God), surely that is God's affair and the sinner's; the system of the confessional is absurd and contradictory of all solid truth, as well as morbid and enervating. In a word -- "Who can forgive sins save God alone?"

Press him a little further; and, as he warms to his work, he will presently lay his finger upon that which is the very heart of the Catholic system -- the belief of Catholics that Jesus Christ truly and indeed gives His disciples His flesh to eat. He could stand anything else, he says, perhaps, but not this. He has a great admiration for the Catholic Church in many ways; he admires her philanthropy, her zeal -- even her worship; but this doctrine is a final and insuperable obstacle. He can understand it as a symbol, he realizes its emotional appeal; but as sober fact it is too much. "Many therefore of His disciples hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? . . . How can this man give us His flesh to eat? . . . After this many of is disciples went back, and walked no more with Him."

Finally, our critic would probably sum up all his objections under the heading we have already discussed at full. It is the Divine Self-consciousness of the Church that he finds the final obstacle. He would tolerate her if she consented to be one among many, if she would take her place with the other religious bodies of the world and meet them as equals; but her supreme arrogance is her condemnation. For this arrogance, if considered carefully, is nothing less than a claim to be actually Divine. To teach with such confidence as this means, simply, that she who so teaches believes herself indwelt by Divinity: Infallibility asserts that; Excommunication implies it. It is to claim that she exists in the very mind of God; that she has access to His secret counsels; that she is older than the world; that she was before Abraham; that she is in a sense the very Eternal Himself; that what she binds on earth is bound in heaven; that what she looses on earth is loosed in heaven. . . "Then took they up stones to cast at Him."

Now, it is not my object in these papers to discourse on Catholic doctrine in detail, nor to answer the numerous and often very sensible objections that non-Catholics bring against what they conceive to be the belief of Catholics; and in any case there would not be time to discuss these particular doctrines in question. I have only quoted these passages in support of my thesis that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and forever; and that so is the world. What He taught then, His Church teaches now; what men said then, men say now, often in the same words. I remember a Protestant procession in England intended to demonstrate against the claims of Catholic doctrine to be Scriptural; and upon the banner of the procession was inscribed, with pathetic simplicity, the very sentence uttered by the Pharisees against one of these doctrines -"Who is this that speaketh blasphemy? Who can forgive sins save God alone?" So a murderer might shelter himself under the example of another Scriptural character, and write over his bed in the condemned cell -- "Am I my brother's keeper?" So an atheist might quote Scripture to the effect that "there is no God."{1}

Lastly, on this point I would like to draw attention to one more single consideration. It is a fact that our Lord said these things; it is a fact that the Catholic Church says them now. It is further a fact that the things in question are, to all appearances, clean against the human experience of the rest of the world. I would ask you to consider whether the very magnitude of these claims, and the astonishing unanimity of 250 millions of Catholics in believing them -- whether the consciousness that could utter such words, and the power that somehow or another has succeeded in making this uncountable multitude of souls of all centuries, temperaments, attainments, and nations, believe them, not only as academic formulae or philosophical statements, but as the very arteries and sinews of their spiritual life -- that has made so many not only die for the doctrines, but (what is much harder) live for them and by them -- is there not in all this the very strongest presumption for thinking that such a consciousness and such a Power cannot be less than divine? It seems impossible to make men of one nation agree even on political doctrines; but it has been found possible by the Catholic Church to make men of all nations agree on religious doctrines. When I was a student in the University of Cambridge I used often to find in one Iectureroom men of one nation and six religions. When I became a student in the University of Rome, I found in one room men of six nations and one religion. . . Is it conceivable that it is a merely human power that makes such a thing Possible?

{1} Ps. liii. 1. 94

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