Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Chesterton Knew The Importance of Ecumenical Dialogue

Saturday, 3 September 2011

GK's Weekly, The Thing, The Early Bird In History


ST. JOAN OF ARC, a star and a thunderbolt, strange as a meteoric stone whose very solidity is not of this earth, may be compared also to a diamond among pebbles; the one white stone of history. Like a diamond, she is clear but not simple, as some count simplicity; but having many facets or aspects. There is one aspect of the discussion on St. Joan which I have never seen specially noted, and it seems to be worth a note. It concerns that common and current charge against the Catholic Church that she is, as the phrase goes, always behind the times.

When I became a Catholic, I was quite prepared to find that in many respects she really was behind the times. I was very tolerant of the idea of being behind the times, having had long opportunities of studying the perfectly ghastly people who were abreast of the times; or the still more pestilent people who were in advance of the times. I was prepared to find Catholicism rather Conservative, and in that sense slow; and so, of course, in some aspects it is. I knew that being in the movement generally meant only being in the fashion. I knew that fashions had an extraordinary way of being first omnipresent and oppressive and then suddenly blank and forgotten. I knew how publicity seems fixed like a spotlight and vanishes like a lightning-flash. I had seen the whole public imagination filled with a succession of Krugers and Kaisers, who were to be hanged next week and about whom nobody cared a hang next month. I have lived through an overwhelming illusion that there was nobody in the world except General Gordon or Captain Dreyfus or the elephant Jumbo at the Zoo. If there is something in the world that takes no notice of these world-changes, I confess to finding a certain comfort in its indifference. I think it was just as well, from every point of view, that the ecclesiastical authorities delayed a decision about Darwinism or even Evolution; and declined altogether to be excited in that universal excitement. There were many, even among the sympathetic, who seemed to think that Catholics ought to put up an altar to the Missing Link, as Pagans did to the Unknown God. But Catholics prefer to wait until they know what they are doing; and would prefer to learn a little more about a thing besides the fact that nobody can find it. And of course it is true that in some matters, judged by the feverish pace of recent fashion, the Church has always been slow as well as sure. But there is another side of the truth, and one which is more commonly missed. As it happens, both sides are strikingly illustrated in the story of the status of St. Joan.

If we go back to the very beginning of a story, we very often find that the Church did actually do something which her foes ignored and even her friends forgot. Then other social tendencies set in, other questions occupied the world, the tides of time and change passed over the whole business; and when that business came again to the surface, the world had the impression that the Church was dealing with it after a very long delay. But the world itself had never dealt with it at all. The world, as a matter of fact, had never woken up to the fact at all, until it woke up with a start and began to abuse the Church for not having woken up before. During all those long intervening ages, the world had really been much more asleep than the Church. The Church, a very long time ago, had done something; and the world had done nothing. The case of St. Joan of Arc is one curious example.

The Canonisation of St. Joan came very slowly and very late. But the Rehabilitation of St. Joan came very promptly and very early. It is a very exceptional example of rapid reparation for a judicial crime or a miscarriage of justice. There have been any number of these judicial crimes in history. There have been any number of heroes and martyrs whom history regards as having suffered for their virtues. It has almost passed into a popular proverb, especially in modern times; as in the words of the American popular poet: "Right for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne." But I can hardly remember another example of the throne paying so prompt a salute to the scaffold. The condemnation of St. Joan was reversed by the Pope in the lifetime of her contemporaries, at the appeal of her brothers; about as soon as anybody could have expected anything of the sort to be reversed. I do not know if the Athenian Republic did as much for Socrates or the Florentine for Savonarola; but I am pretty certain that nobody could have got the Carthaginians to apologise thus to Regulus or the Antiochi to Maccabaeus. The only really fair way of considering the fashionable subject of the crimes of Christendom would be to compare them with the crimes of heathenism; and the normal human practice of the Pagan world. And while it may be a weakness of human beings, of every age and creed, to stone the prophets and then build their sepulchres, it is really very seldom that the sepulchre is built even as quickly as that. When those who build the sepulchre are really and truly the representatives or inheritors of those who threw the stones, it does not generally happen for hundreds of years. To take the parallel passions of the secular side of the Middle Ages, we should be considerably surprised to learn that when the head of William Wallace had been stuck on a spike by Edward the First, his remains had been respectfully interred and his character cleared by Edward the Third. We should be considerably surprised if the courts of Queen Elizabeth had gone out of their way to repudiate and quash the case against Thomas More. It is generally long afterwards, when the actual ambitions and rivalries are dead, when the feuds and family interests have long been forgotten, that a rather sentimental though sincere tenderness is shown to the dead enemy. In the nineteenth century the English do make a romance about Wallace and a statue of Washington. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the English do produce a fine enthusiasm and a number of excellent books about St. Joan. And I for one hope to see the day when this measure of magnanimity shall be filled up where it has been most wanting; and some such payment made for the deepest debt of all. I should like to see the day when the English put up a statue of Emmett beside the statue of Washington; and I wish that in the Centenary of Emancipation there were likely to be as much fuss in London about the figure of Daniel O'Connell as there was about that of Abraham Lincoln.

But I mean the comment here in a rather larger sense; and in a larger sense it is an even stronger case. I mean that if we take the tale of St. Joan as a test, the really remarkable thing is not so much the slowness of the Church to appreciate her, as the slowness of everybody else. The world, especially the wisest men of the world, were extraordinarily late in realising what a remarkable thing had happened; very much later than the rather rigid religious officials of the fifteenth century. That rigidity of fifteenth century religion was very soon broken up, partly by good and partly by bad forces. Comparatively soon after St. Joan's ashes were thrown into the Seine, quite soon after the Rehabilitation, the Renaissance had really begun. Very soon after that the Reformation had begun. The Renaissance produced a number of large and liberal views on all sorts of things. The Reformation produced numberless narrow views, divided among all sorts of sects. But at least there were plenty of differences and varied points of view, many of them now loosened from anything that may have been restrictive in the medieval discipline. Human reason and imagination, left to themselves, might at least have made as much of Jeanne d'Arc as of John Huss. As a fact, human reason and imagination, left to themselves, made extraordinarily little of her. Humanism and Humanitarianism and, in a general sense, Humanity, did not really rehabilitate Joan until about five hundred years after the Church had done so.

The history of what great men have said about this great woman is a very dismal tale. The greatest man of all, Shakespeare, has an unfortunate pre-eminence by his insular insults in HENRY THE SIXTH. But the thing went on long after Shakespeare; and was far worse in people who had far less excuse than Shakespeare. Voltaire was a Frenchman; he was a great Frenchman; he professed an admiration for many French heroes; he certainly professed to be a reformer and a friend of freedom; he most certainly might have seized on any mediaeval miscarriage of justice that might be turned to anti-clerical account. What Voltaire wrote about St. Joan it will be most decent to pass over in silence. But it is the same all along the line; it is the same far later in rationalistic history than Voltaire. Byron had with all his faults a sensibility to the splendid and heroic, especially in the matter of nations struggling to be free. He was far less insular than any other English poet; he had far more comprehension of France and of the Continent; and he is still comprehended and admired there. He called St. Joan of Arc a fanatical strumpet. That was the general tone of human culture, of history as taught and talked in the age of reason. Mr. Belloc has noted that, so strong was this secular social pressure, that even a Catholic, when he wished to be moderate, like Lingard, was more or less sceptical, not indeed of the morality, but certainly of the miraculous mission of St. Joan. It is true that Schiller was sympathetic, though sentimental--and therefore out of touch. But it was not till nearly the end of the nineteenth century, not fully until the beginning of the twentieth century, that ordinary men of genius awoke to the recognition of one of the most wonderful women of genius in the history of the world. One of the first really popular attempts at a rationalist rehabilitation came, of all people in the world, from Mark Twain. His notion of the Middle Ages was as provincial as the Yankee at the Court of King Arthur; but it is to the credit of this rather crude genius, of the late culture of a new country, that he did catch the flame from the pyre of Rouen, which so many cultivated sceptics had found cold. Then came a patronising pamphlet by Anatole France; which I for one think rather more insulting than the ribald verse of Voltaire. Then came the last great attempt; wrong in many ways in its contention, but conspicuously spirited and sincere--the play of St. Joan. On the whole, nobody can say that humanists and rationalists have been very early in the field. This heroine had to wait about five centuries for Bernard Shaw.

Now, in that comparison, nobody can say that the Church comes off very badly in comparison with the world. The truth is that the ecclesiastical apology to the martyr came so early that everybody had forgotten all about it, long before the rest of the world began to consider the question at all. And though I have taken here the particular case of St. Joan of Arc, I believe that something of the same sort could be traced through a great many other affairs in human history.

It is true of those who gave the Jesuits a bad name and hanged them; and the hanging was not always metaphorical. The simplified version of it is to say that the Jesuits, especially in their capacity of Casuists, suffered almost entirely from being two hundred years before their time. They tried to start in a cautious way what is now surging up on every side of us in a chaotic way; all that is implied in talking about problem novels and problem plays. In other words, they recognised that there really are problems in moral conduct; not problems about whether the moral law should be obeyed, but problems about how in a particular case the moral law really applies. But they were not remembered as pioneers who had begun to ask the questions of Ibsen and Hardy and Shaw. They were remembered only as wicked conspirators who had not always believed in the Divine Right of Kings. They pioneered early enough to be execrated by an earlier generation; but too early to be thanked by a later generation. Protestants have eagerly supported Pascal against them, without taking the trouble to discover that any number of the things that Pascal denounced are things that any modern man would defend. For instance, Pascal blamed the infamous Jesuits for saying that a girl might in some conditions marry against the wish of her parents. The Jesuits would have had all modern novels, let alone problem novels, on their side. But they were too early in the field to have anybody on their side. Moreover, they wished to fit these exceptions into the moral rule; the Moderns who did it two centuries later have produced no rule, but a welter of exceptions.

Here, again, is yet another example that occurs to me at the moment. Many have given long histories of the laborious slowness with which the idea of justice to the aborigines, to Red Indians or such races, has advanced step by step with the progress of modern humanitarian ideas. In such a history Penn, the great Quaker, appears like a primeval founder and father of the republic; and he was undoubtedly very early in the field--in the Puritan field. But Las Casas, the Apostle of the Indians, actually sailed in a ship with Christopher Columbus. It would be difficult to be earlier in the American field than that. He spent his life pleading for the rights of the savages; but he did it at a time when nobody in the north would listen to such a story about a saint of Spain. In this and in many other examples, I believe that the real history of the Catholic pioneer has been the same; to be first and to be forgotten.

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