Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 13 August 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, Why I Am A Catholic


A LEADING article in a daily paper was recently devoted to the New Prayer Book; without having anything very new to say about it. For it mostly consisted in repeating for the nine-hundredth-and-ninety-nine-thousandth time that what the ordinary Englishman wants is a religion without dogma (whatever that may be), and that the disputes about Church matters were idle and barren on both sides. Only, suddenly remembering that this equalisation of both sides might possibly involve some slight concession or consideration for our side, the writer hastily corrected himself. He proceeded to suggest that though it is wrong to be dogmatic, it is essential to be dogmatically Protestant. He suggested that the ordinary Englishman (that useful character) was quite convinced, in spite of his aversion to all religious differences, that it was vital to religion to go on differing from Catholicism. He is convinced (we were told) that "Britain is as Protestant as the sea is salt." Gazing reverently at the profound Protestantism of Mr. Michael Arlen or Mr. Noel Coward, or the latest jazz dance inMayfair, we might be tempted to ask: If the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? But since we may rightly deduce from this passage that Lord Beaverbrook and Mr. James Douglas and Mr. Hannen Swaffer, and all their following, are indeed stern and unbending Protestants (and as we know that Protestants are famous for the close and passionate study of the Scriptures, unhindered by Pope or priest), we might even take the liberty of interpreting the saying in the light of a less familiar text. Is it possible that in comparing Protestantism to the salt of the sea they were haunted with some faint memory of another passage, in which the same Authority spoke of one single and sacred fountain that is of living water, because it is of life-giving water, and really quenches the thirst of men; while all other pools and puddles are distinguished from it by the fact that those who drink of them will thirst again. It is a thing that does occasionally happen to people who prefer to drink salt water.

This is perhaps a somewhat provocative way of opening the statement of my strongest conviction; but I would respectfully plead that the provocation came from the Protestant. When Protestantism calmly claims to rule all the souls in the tone of Britannia ruling all the seas, it is permissible to retort that the very quintessence of such salt can be found thickest in the stagnation of the Dead Sea. But it is still more permissible to retort that Protestantism is claiming what no religion at this moment can possibly claim. It is calmly claiming the allegiance of millions of agnostics, atheists, hedonistic pagans, independent mystics, psychic investigators, theists, theosophists, followers of Eastern cults and jolly fellows living like the beasts that perish. To pretend that all these are Protestants is considerably to lower the prestige and significance of Protestantism. It is to make it merely negative; and salt is not negative.

Taking this as a text and test of the present problem of religious choice, we find ourselves faced from the first with a dilemma about the traditional religion of our fathers. Protestantism as here named is either a negative or a positive thing. If Protestantism is a positive thing, there is no doubt whatever that it is dead. In so far as it really was a set of special spiritual beliefs it is no longer believed. The genuine Protestant creed is now hardly held by anybody--least of all by the Protestants. So completely have they lost faith in it, that they have mostly forgotten what it was. If almost any modern man be asked whether we save our souls solely through our theology, or whether doing good (to the poor, for instance) will help us on the road to God, he would answer without hesitation that good works are probably more pleasing to God than theology. It would probably come as quite a surprise to him to learn that, for three hundred years, the faith in faith alone was the badge of a Protestant, the faith in good works the rather shameful badge of a disreputable Papist. The ordinary Englishman (to bring in our old friend once more) would now be in no doubt whatever on the merits of the long quarrel between Catholicism and Calvinism. And that was the most important and intellectual quarrel between Catholicism and Protestantism. If he believes in a God at all, or even if he does not, he would quite certainly prefer a God who has made all men for joy, and desires to save them all, to a God who deliberately made some for involuntary sin and immortal misery. But that was the quarrel; and it was the Catholic who held the first and the Protestant who held the second. The modern man not only does not share, he does not even understand, the unnatural aversion of the Puritans to all art and beauty in relation to religion. Yet that was the real Protestant protest; and right into the Mid-Victorian time Protestant matrons were shocked at a white gown, let alone a coloured vestment. On practically every essential count on which the Reformation actually put Rome in the dock, Rome has since been acquitted by the jury of the whole world.

It Is perfectly true that we can find real wrongs, provoking rebellion, in the Roman Church just before the Reformation. What we cannot find is one ot those real wrongs that the Reformation reformed. For instance, it was an abominable abuse that the corruption of the monasteries sometimes permitted a rich noble to play the patron and even play at being the Abbot, or draw on the revenues supposed to belong to a brotherhood of poverty and charity. But all that the Reformation did was to allow the same rich noble to take over ALL the revenue, to seize the whole house and turn it into a palace or a pig-sty, and utterly stamp out the last legend of the poor brotherhood. The worst things in worldly Catholicism were made worse by Protestantism. But the best things remained somehow through the era of corruption; nay, they survived even the era of reform. They survive to-day in all Catholic countries, not only in the colour and poetry and popularity of religion, but in the deepest lessons of practical psychology. And so completely are they justified, after the judgment of four centuries, that every one of them is now being copied, even by those who condemned it; only it is often caricatured. Psycho-analysis is the Confessional without the safeguards of the Confessional; Communism is the Franciscan movement without the moderating balance of the Church; and American sects, having howled for three centuries at the Popish theatricality and mere appeal to the senses, now "brighten" their services by super-theatrical films and rays of rose-red light falling on the head of the minister. If we had a ray of light to throw about, we should not throw it on the minister.

Next, Protestantism may be a negative thing. In other words, it may be a new and totally different list of charges against Rome; and only in continuity because it is still against Rome. That is very largely what it is; and that is presumably what the DAILY EXPRESS really meant, when it said that our country and our countrymen are soaked in Protestantism as in salt. In other words, the legend that Rome is wrong anyhow, is still a living thing, though all the features of the monster are now entirely altered in the caricature. Even this is an exaggeration, as applied to the England of to-day; but there is still a truth in it. Only the truth, when truly realised, can hardly be very satisfactory to honest and genuine Protestants. For, after all, what sort of a tradition is this, that tells a different story every day or every decade, and is content so long as all the contradictory tales are told against one man or one institution? What sort of holy cause is it to inherit from our ancestors, that we should go on hating something and being consistent only in hatred; being fickle and false in everything else, even in our reason for hating it? Are we really to settle down seriously to make up a new set of stories against the bulk of our fellow-Christians? Is that Protestantism; and is that worth comparing to patriotism or the sea?

Anyhow, that was the situation I found myself facing when I began to think of these things, the child of a purely Protestant ancestry and, in the ordinary sense, of a Protestant household. But as a fact my family, having become Liberal, was no longer Protestant. I was brought up a sort of Universalist and Unitarian; at the feet of that admirable man, Stopford Brooke. It was not Protestantism save in a very negative sense. Often it was the flat contrary of Protestantism, even in that sense. For instance, the Universalist did not believe in hell; and he was emphatic in saying that heaven was a happy state of mind--"a temper." But he had the sense to see that most men do not live or die in a state of mind so happy that it will alone ensure them a heaven. If heaven is a temper, it is certainly not a universal temper; and a good many people pass through this life in a devil of a temper. If all these were to have heaven, solely through happiness, it seemed clear that something must happen to them first. The Universalist therefore believed in a progress after death, at once punishment and enlightenment. In other words, he believed in Purgatory; though he did not believe in Hell. Right or wrong, he obviously and flatly contradicted the Protestant, who believed in Hell but not in Purgatory. Protestantism, through its whole history, had waged ceaseless war on this one idea of Purgatory or Progress beyond the grave. I have come to see in the complete Catholic view much deeper truths on all three ideas; truths concerned with will and creation and God's most glorious love of liberty. But even at the start, though I had no thought of Catholicism, I could not see why I should have any concern with Protestantism; which had always said the very opposite of what a Liberal is now expected to say.

I found, in plain words, that there was no longer any question of clinging to the Protestant faith. It was simply a question of whether I should cling to the Protestant feud. And to my enormous astonishment, I found a large number of my fellow Liberals eager to go on with the Protestant feud, though they no longer held the Protestant faith. I have no title to judge them; but to me, I confess, it seemed like a rather ugly breach of honour. To find out that you have been slandering somebody about something, to refuse to apologise, and to make up another more plausible story against him, so that you can carry on the spirit of the slander, seemed to me at the start a rather poor way of behaving. I resolved at least to consider the original slandered institution on its own merits and the first and most obvious question was: Why were Liberals so very illiberal about it? What was the meaning of the feud, so constant and so inconsistent? That question took a long time to answer and would now take much too long a time to record. But it led me at last to the only logical answer, which every fact of life now confirms; that the thing is hated, as nothing else is hated, simply because it is, in the exact sense of the popular phrase, like nothing on earth.

There is barely space here to indicate this one thing out of the thousand things that confirm the same fact and confirm each other. I would undertake to pick up any topic at random, from pork to pyrotechnics, and show that it illustrates the truth of the only true philosophy; so realistic is the remark that all roads lead to Rome. Out of all these I have here only taken one fact; that the thing is pursued age after age by an unreasonable hatred that is perpetually changing its reason. Now of nearly all the dead heresies it may be said that they are not only dead, but damned; that is, they are condemned or would be condemned by common sense, even outside the Church, when once the mood and mania of them is passed. Nobody now wants to revive the Divine Right of Kings which the first Anglicans advanced against the Pope. Nobody now wants to revive the Calvinism which the first Puritans advanced against the King. Nobody now is sorry that the Iconoclasts were prevented from smashing all the statues of Italy. Nobody now is sorry that the Jansenists failed to destroy all the dramas of France. Nobody who knows anything about the Albigensians regrets that they did not convert the world to pessimism and perversion. Nobody who really understands the logic of the Lollards (a much more sympathetic set of people) really wishes that they had succeeded in taking away all political rights and privileges from everybody who was not in a state of grace. "Dominion founded on Grace" was a devout ideal, but considered as a plan for disregarding an Irish policeman controlling the traffic in Piccadilly, until we have discovered whether he has confessed recently to his Irish priest, it is wanting in actuality. In nine cases out of ten the Church simply stood for sanity and social balance against heretics who were sometimes very like lunatics. Yet at each separate moment the pressure of the prevalent error was very strong; the exaggerated error of a whole generation, like the strength of the Manchester School in the 'fifties, or of Fabian Socialism as a fashion in my own youth. A study of the true historical cases commonly shows us the spirit of the age going wrong, and the Catholics at least relatively going right. It is a mind surviving a hundred moods.

As I say, this is only one aspect; but it was the first that affected me and it leads on to others. When a hammer has hit the right nail on the head a hundred times, there comes a time when we think it was not altogether by accident. But these historical proofs would be nothing without the human and personal proofs, which would need quite a different sort of description. It is enough to say that those who know the Catholic practice find it not only right, but always right when everything else is wrong; making the Confessional the very throne of candour where the world outside talks nonsense about it as a sort of conspiracy; upholding humility when everybody is praising pride; charged with sentimental charity when the world is talking a brutal utilitarianism charged with dogmatic harshness when the world is loud and loose with vulgar sentimentalism--as it is to-day. At the place where the roads meet there is no doubt of the convergence. A man may think all sorts of things, most of them honest and many of them true, about the right way to turn in the maze at Hampton Court. But he does not think he is in the centre; he knows.

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