ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





The comment of every age pronounced against the Catholic Church is that she has failed (it is said) in every work to which she has set her hand, and from every point of view from which the world regards her. She is not political enough for Caiphas, but she is too political for Pilate; she is not sensational enough for Herod; she is too sensational for the Pharisees. She is too ugly for the Greeks; she is too beautiful for the Puritans. She is too dogmatic for the modern religious mystics; she is too mystical for the modern scientific dogmatists. She has either over-emphasized or underemphasized every element of truth which the world acknowledges her to possess. She is too ascetic in her teaching of celibacy; she is too imprudent and unphilosophical in her teaching on the married life; she is too leisurely and contemplative for the philanthropists; she is too active and zealous for the spiritually-minded. She is too rationalistic and precise in her theology for the sentimental; she is too sentimental for the rationalists. She is too hard on the heretics; she is too easy towards the sinners.

Listen to the comments of the world upon her in the earliest ages. "Look at this terrible people," writes Pliny, in effect, "called Christians -- a morose, depressed, miserable race of men who hate the sunlight; gloomy, dark and superstitious." "Look at the shocking gayety of these martyrs," complain the magistrates -- " Laurence jesting on his gridiron; girls and children smiling to meet the embrace of the panther." Listen to the same comments of the same world at the present day. "Look at the morbid, pain-loving superstition of these Catholics, with their fastings and scourgings and asceticism. And look at the un-Christian gayety of the Continental Sunday." "We have piped unto you," said Jesus Christ, "and you have not danced: we have mourned unto you and you have not lamented." We are all like children playing in the market-place. We have asked you to play at weddings -- we have preached the joy of life -- and you have refused: we have asked you to play at funerals -- we have preached the sorrow of life -- and you have refused. We have given you happy and contented monks, for example, and you have mocked and caricatured them in your comic papers. We have given you sorrowful ascetics, and you have said that long faces were not a good advertisement for any religion. "In fact," cries the world, "you are too extreme in every direction at once. You are too happy and too miserable, too keen and too contented, too mystical and too dogmatic, too objective and too subjective. You have had your chance, and you have failed to convert us: you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting."

Let us look at it all from another angle.

At certain great periods in history there come those moments at which what is called, at each such moment, "modern thought" is apparently victorious.

In one century it took the form of Orientalism and the rise of the Gnostics -- when there swept over large districts of Christendom schemes of belief that threatened altogether to overwhelm Catholicism. It seemed to observer after observer that the Faith of the Gospels was submerged -- never to rise again. In another century it was Arianism: "the world groaned to find itself Arian" -- the great defenders of the Nicene Faith vanished in exile, discredited and silenced. In another period it was the power of the Turk, who captured Jerusalem, regained Africa, and even established itself in Spain. At another time it was worldliness in the Church itself. The Popes disappeared from Rome; there seemed not one prophet any more, nor one that understood. The old gods came back; Paganism reasserted itself; the simplicity and the purity of the Gospel vanished in a storm of revelry. Then this enemy disappeared, to be succeeded by one far more dangerous and subtle, when the world rose up against the Church, actually in the name of God Himself, claiming to purify and restore that original truth which the Church had deformed and ruined.

Let us consider that a little more in detail.

It is almost impossible in these days to realize the immensity and the success of that movement known as the Reformation. Europe consisted more or less of two great divisions -- the southerners and the northerners; and there was no question that the virility of the continent, and its hope for the future, lay with the Saxons and the Teutons rather than with the Latins. Take England and Spain as representatives of the two. Spain was indeed a vast power in the world, wealthy beyond imagination, proud, aristocratic and overbearing -- yet it was the strength of maturity rather than of youth. England stood for adolescence and the future, rather than for maturity and the past. And it was at this moment of all others, when the Church was weakened by the Renaissance and assaulted by the "New Learning," that the younger and more vigorous nations of the world declared against her with one consent. That movement, which arose in Germany, spread to England, and, with the pilgrims to the New World, to America itself; and it must have seemed to every student of history that, if anything could be predicted as absolutely certain, it was that it could only be a matter of a very few years before the Latin nations finally crumbled away, and with them the prestige and influence of that Church which had ruled in them so long. Every precedent that history could show was against the Church. Every empire that the world had ever seen had gone through precisely the same stages down to death -- from the vigor and purity of youth, through the experience of maturity, down to the dissolution of old age. Each empire in turn had exhibited exactly the same symptoms, sharing always in its last stages that same kind of corrupt exuberance as the Church showed in the Renaissance. Was it any wonder, then, that Saxon and Teutonic Protestantism declared that the hour of God had struck at last, and that the Power which had ruled so long -- which had succeeded to the domination of Imperial Rome -- had finally and ultimately run its course, and that the Church of Rome was dead at last?

Now, this was precisely what was actually said again and again by the preachers of the New Religion. John Bunyan said it, in his classification of Pope and Pagan as the two discredited powers that still barked but could no longer bite: John Milton said it again and again. The judges and divines who taunted the captured seminary priests in England said it. Their whole attitude towards the supporters of the old Faith was one of contempt, rather than of fear. It was so obvious, as they looked round England, that the cause of Rome was dead and buried. There, all about them, lay the ruins of the Religious Houses and the monasteries; there in the quadrangles of Oxford blew about the pages of those old Catholic books of learning, discredited and found out at last: the mercers of Malvern corded their wares in them; grocers used them for the wrapping up of sugar and salt. Even the old vestments were gone, fashioned into stomachers and bedquilts for the wives of the new and enlightened clergy; the altar-stones paved the aisles of the churches in which they had been reverenced so long; the shrines were down -- the images were burned; and, with the exception of a few fanatics in the north and west, the whole country acquiesced in the change.

From over the seas came the same story. Everywhere, as the New Religion spread on the lips of preachers and the pages of new printed books, district after district caught fire. It seemed as if all the powers of the world fought in their courses against the priestly tyranny that had prevailed so long. It was the ships of the Protestants that fought best; the armies of the Protestants that were the more fervent and the more effective; the very printing-press itself, with its new and undreamed-of power of disseminating knowledge, seemed on the side of the new Faith and not of the old. Finally, the new energy of colonization was all on the Protestant side. If there was anything absolutely certain to those who knew what history and precedent meant, who understood the great laws of rise and fall, and energy and maturity and death, it was that since -- as they said -- Papal Rome was one of those great world-powers, like the empires of Persia or Assyria, like Greece and Imperial Rome, it must undergo the inevitable fate of all those world-powers, and pass away into dissolution. They went even further than that; they said that it had already happened, that Rome was gone as a world-power; that she reigned only as a ghost might reign over a sepulcher, where its body lay. They said that all her real influence was dead; that she had once ruled the courts of Kings, but that she no longer ruled them; that she had once controlled the destinies of Europe, but that she no longer controlled them; that she was already dead and buried; that the stone was on her tomb; and that the secular powers must see to it that that stone was not removed; in short, that she who had professed to save others, could not even save herself; that she failed wholly and entirely to justify her enormous claims; that she was an impostor found out at last.

We hear echoes of all this even at the present day.

"We have extinguished," said Viviani in France the other day, "with a magnificent gesture, and altogether, the lights that have burned in heaven so long." Mr. Joseph McCabe, an apostate Franciscan friar, has lately published an enormous book to prove that the Church of Rome is dead. The Rev. Alfred Fawkes, ex-Anglican, ex-Oratorian, and finally ex-priest and Anglican once again, in a picturesque little essay, compares the Papacy to an iceberg, whose disappearance is certain under the rays of the Sun of Modern Truth which has recently dawned. In practically every secular newspaper that is published, and in a good many religious newspapers as well, the same assertion is made again and again. We are told by some that National Churches are the only solution of the religious question; by others, that it lies only in congregational groups or societies, without any particular creeds or articles of faith; by others again -- for instance the Modernists -- that the modern religion must be completely unlike the old, that the old dogmas will no longer hold water, that the old idea that religion could be defined by an authority, and tested by references to a positive body of revelation, can no longer possibly be held by "thinking men." But, in whatever direction the solution may be thought to lie, it is assumed, almost as an axiom, that the Church of Rome is a completely dead and discredited body, that her day is over at last, and that there are left to weep round her tomb but a few feeble-minded or heartbroken mourners, to whom even the dead body of a religion that is past is more dear than all the promises and aspirations of a world that looks now in another direction for light and leading.

"And Joseph taking the body, wrapped it up in a new clean linen cloth. And laid it in his own new monument which he had hewn out in a rock. And he rolled a great stone to the door of the monument and went his way. And there were there Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulcher. . . .

"And (the chief priests and the Pharisees) departing, made the sepulcher sure, sealing the stone, and setting guards."{1}

{1} Matt. xxvii. 59-61, and 66.

<< ======= >>