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Final Retrospect

( Originally Published 1870 )



I.

THE Papacy had undertaken the mission of preserving Christianity, and it affirms more loudly than ever that that mission has been fulfilled. We have therefore every right to judge the manner in which it has justified a responsibility so boldly assumed, and to inquire, point by point, what it has made of that holy religion whose existence, we are told, is indissolubly linked with its own. We will not accept the excuse, so often urged in our day, that it was good that Christianity should have a visible centre in the Middle Ages, as otherwise it might easily have flickered out in the prevailing tumult and darkness. If Christianity was in danger of such extinction, it was because it had lost nearly every trace of its divine character. And who had more contributed to this than the Popes ? Who had done so much to entangle it with things perishable and human? They guarded the treasure ; be it so, for we do not pretend to say that they did absolutely no good ; but they had first appropriated the treasure to their own use, and in doing so, how much had they not sacrificed that stood in their way ? how much had they not added that might further their schemes ?

Thus we have a right to consider the Papacy as responsible for all the changes it has ordered, permitted, or necessitated.

We may then, in the first place, question its very existence, which is in itself a great and radical corruption of the primitive constitution of the Church. This we have already done ; we need not now return to it.

But the Papacy was condemned by that first great change to modify or destroy all that was not in harmony therewith. And for centuries its history was nothing more than an incessant striving, not to place itself in harmony with Christianity, for to have done this, it must have abandoned its pretensions, but to fashion Christianity according to its own needs and ends. Organizations, dogmas, discipline, all were moulded accordingly.

Thus, in the first place, as the Church is to have, or already has a king, she must become a monarchy, an absolute monarchy indeed, for the sovereignty contemplated is not one of those that can suffer the existence of free institutions. The Bishop of Rome is not to be simply the head of the Church, but her master, and, in some sort, her owner. He will be so in fact to begin with, and afterwards his doctors will show that he is so of right.

But this king will require an army ; and the clergy shall supply the need. They shall be an army in organization and spirit, an army separated from the laity by the wide gulf of celibacy. For all the reasons that may induce a conqueror to wish for soldiers entirely devoted to his person, will be equally strong to induce the Pope to wish that the clergy may be essentially his. It will matter little to him, therefore, that celibacy will be, during centuries, a source of shame and disgrace. He looks to the end ; and the end, as usual, will justify the means.

Neither will he hesitate about the means in all that relates to public worship ; and here, again, his first care will be to erect a barrier between the clergy and the laity. The Master had said, `Drink ye all of it,' and the Pope will decree that the sacramental wine is to be drunk by the priest alone. The Scriptures had said that the people are to be taught in a language which they can understand, and the Pope will decree the use of a dead language, unknown to the majority of men. The Bible offers itself freely to all, and the Pope will decree that it is the property of the priests alone. The Scriptures had said that the sacrifice of Christ was one and perfect, and the Pope will decree that this one sacrifice is renewed daily. Is it not indispensable that the clergy should become a sacrificial body ?—that their head, who was already the successor of St. Peter, should become also the successor of the High Priest of the Jews ? It were well, indeed, had he borrowed only from the old law what he has added to the new. But little did he care whether the source from which he drew was pure ; and indeed he seemed only to be labouring to restore to Rome, still so full of heathen memories, all that she had lost by setting up the cross. Customs, ceremonies, festivals, gorgeous vestments, all that it was possible to adopt, was adopted, all even to the plurality of gods, for we have seen what a mere sophistry it is to contend that the saints are not gods in the eyes of the common people.

But what he has done for the hierarchy and public worship is not enough. Other bonds are wanted, bonds that shall entangle a man in all the circumstances of his life, and in all the needs of his soul. Here, then, we shall have numerous sacraments, declared to be indispensable by Rome ; so that a man will no longer be able to draw near to God, to receive anything from God, to pray, to believe, to belong to the Church, to live, or to die, without the intervention of a priest. In particular, we shall have confession, with its tyrannical claims, its lying pardons, its fatal securities ; and here, again, the Pope will claim the honour of being the centre of the system, the prime source of absolution. To him will belong the right of forgiving great crimes, of deriving a profit from that vast and fertile invention of purgatory, —of causing to flow through the Church that poisoned stream of indulgences at which the people will drink forgetfulness, not only of the laws of Christianity, but of those of the simplest morality also. To him will belong the right of opening heaven to the wicked, and of closing it even to the good ; for if the Papal excommunication be not an empty form, it must be held as condemning to hell whoever may have incurred it ; and we should like to be referred to a single case in which the Popes used this engine, which was once so powerful, to destroy an error that was useful to them, to arrest the development of an idea in which they had an interest. Wherever any germ appears from which it may expect to reap some fruit, the Papacy takes that germ under its protection, cultivates it, fosters it, and waters it, even, if need be, with streams of blood.

II.

After encouraging every kind of error, the Papacy rendered all return to primitive truth impossible. This was another necessary effect of the course it was pursuing, and of its very existence.

It matters here very little whether infallibility be regarded as belonging to the head or to the whole body : the Pope is its permanent representive, its organ and incarnation. It is through him that the dogma of infallibility stamps with an ineffaceable seal whatever has been once decided or decreed. It is he who has the guardianship of that enormous deposit of doctrine and discipline, of which nothing can be given up without all being given up ; for to confess to a mistake, however trivial, would be to abandon all claim to infallibility itself. If he were not there, that happy inconsistency might still be possible. He being there, it is not possible, and becomes less so as time advances. Many things were still unsettled ten or even five years ago, which the Syllabus has settled, or the present Council will settle for ever. The Pope is the cord that binds the great sheaf of Catholicism together ; he is at once the general and the sentinel of the army. He must keep his eyes constantly open on the smallest concessions, for any concession would be dangerous, and entail the ruin of his system and himself together. He must condemn and put an end to all thought of a return to evangelical Christianity. \What has once been consecrated must be consecrated for ever. But in dealing with his priests, he will not often have to exercise his power. They are too entirely under his dominion, too much entangled in his meshes, too much interested in pleasing their chief, too entirely convinced that his cause is their own, and that he is, in fine, only the first slave of the system.

Should we consider this as an excuse ? Should the fact that the Popes are slaves plead in their favour ?

We should be wrong to take no account of it; but this, at least, is certain, that they have not shown any great desire to deserve such forbearance. There are scarcely more than two or three who have seemed, in a few unaccustomed circumstances, to be distressed or frightened by the part they had to play. Have others been grieved in secret ? We cannot tell ; but all, with these two or three exceptions, have accepted that part, and played it without any outward sign of regret. Each has contributed a stone, whether great or small, to the huge edifice ; each has declared that it was being reared by the hand of God; each has had anathemas in store for whoever had dared, or should dare, to try and cast it down ; each, after having anathematized, had recourse to cruelty. Ah ! here indeed Papal unity is really displayed ! Thanks to them, persecution became in the Christian Church, what it had never been among the heathen, a settled system, a normal and permanent condition. I speak not only of the Inquisition proper, that ` daughter of the Popes,' as Paul iv. called it with pride. The Inquisition did not reign everywhere; but everywhere the Popes made superhuman efforts to establish it. They smiled at every wholesale sacrifice which kings offered up to them ; they lamented over every attempt to introduce toleration ; they always pleaded for the extermination of heretics, so far as the customs and feeling of the time would allow; and as long as war, torture, and the stake could be appealed to, no measures were deemed too harsh or cruel against those who dared to speak of taking Christ for their Master, instead of His Vicar. How can you wonder, then, that the blood of martyrs cried out specially against the Papacy ! How can you wonder that imagination, heated by the sorrows of exile, or the fever of tortures, or the long anguish of imprisonment, should have ac-cumulated against it all the fearful prophecies and gloomy maledictions of the Bible ?

III.

As for ourselves, we have no desire to launch anathemas. Let the judgment rest with God. He has judged already. All those men who had called them-selves His representatives on earth have appeared be-fore His throne ; they have 'met at the bar of that tribunal the souls they had led astray, and the martyrs they had made. Happy were those among them who could plead, at any rate, ` We were mistaken, we thought we were doing God's work.' How many were able to say this ? However, as we said, God has judged, and we must hold our peace. But there is one, nevertheless, whom God has not yet judged, and we have a right to ask him whether he sufficiently remembers, nay, whether he ever remembers, in the midst of the adulation and adoration by which he is surrounded, that God will judge him ? It is useless to tell us that the present Pope is neither a Boniface viii., nor a Gregory VII., nor a John nor an Alexander vi. It is useless to tell us of what he has done as a king, or perhaps we should rather say, of what he has not been able to do, for the temporal good of his people. If he has occasionally shown himself to be a friend to what is good, so much the better. But for all that he is still the Pope, and against the Papacy we are determined to do battle, as illegitimate in point of right, and pernicious in point of fact.

And, moreover, what right has he, as a Pope, to our consideration ? What part of his heritage has he repudiated ? Has not every one of his words been spoken to glorify the past or to trammel the future ? Has he not used all the power placed in his hands by the ambitious awakening of his Church to urge her on to fresh acts of forgetfulness towards the Gospel ? From the height of his infallible throne he has sanctioned all the sophistries required to make good her position before the age. It is he who has given the example to that double-faced policy which supports at the same time, and, if necessary, in the same country, both liberty and intolerance, according as his friends require the one or the other, according as Catholicism is in power or the reverse. It is he who has openly taken under his patronage those means of influence which a few Popes had rather neglected superstitions both old and new. He has, as we have already said, placed more saints on the altars than had been created for a long time previously ; he has given an immense impetus to the worship of the Virgin ; he has ever increasingly, year by year, thrown Christ, and salvation by Christ, into deeper shade ; he has given the signal for fresh attacks upon the Bible that ' poisonous reading' as he called it and for fresh calumnies against those who disseminate it those ' enemies of human society ;' and, finally, launched fresh anathemas against those who dare to adopt it as the only rule of life. All this was inevitable. You give up the Gospel ; in time you will be led, even if against your will, to deny it. One step out of the path of truth will lead to another, and then another. Every day will inevitably add to the weight of the crushing burden which your predecessors have laid upon your shoulders. You will in time have to anathematize not men only, but the Book of God ; not opinions only, but conscience and thought. You will have to tremble at every advance of the human intellect, at every emancipation of the heart, at every aspiration towards an ideal higher than your ephemeral erection of rites and practices. You must this is the ideal to which some of your teachers have confessed —you must end by reigning over corpses. Yes, you are the key-stone of the vault, but the vault is a sepulchre.

It is not we who refute all the reasons given to prove the necessity of a supreme head to guard the faith, and to maintain unity, it is history, it is the Papacy itself, if only people will dare to see what it has been, what it is, and what it will necessarily remain to the end. Even if Roman unity were not unity in error, could we wish to have it at the price of what it has cost, and still costs ? That which was only established by deceit and bloodshed ; which only force or craft was able to maintain ; which even now is only upheld by endless compromises, and by the strangling of all liberties ; which fears both the word of God and the word of man, can that be what God desired for His Church ? Can that be what Christ proclaimed when He said, ` My kingdom is not of this world ?'

IV.

This saying of our Lord cannot be other than a prophecy ; we shall read it some day inscribed over the ruins of the fallen Papacy. Still we are not of those who imagine that the Papacy will fall to-morrow, and Catholicism the day after. We shall not give our adversaries the easy triumph of being able to say, ` Behold, we are still standing ; what has become of your prognostications ?' We know only too well how closely the roots of the entire system still twine round the human heart ; we have seen but too clearly in our day by what means this result is secured. Religion is made increasingly easy ; by the development of the worship of the Virgin, religiosity takes the place of religion ; everything in the Gospel that was distasteful to the human heart is eliminated. Regarded as the seat of authority, the Church of Rome is the most convenient pillow of idleness offered to every one who wishes to obtain his faith and salvation ready made. Regarded as a party, it is the largest and most compact of coteries, offering an inexhaustible field to the spirit of party in every rank and under every form. Regarded as a government, it is a field open to every kind of ambition, offering simultaneously all the seductions of the most varied forms of polity. It is an absolute monarchy, for there are a court and a prince dispensing innumerable favours ; it is a feudal power, for there are a crowd of petty courts, of petty princes, each also powerful to raise and enrich ; it is a republic, for any one may reach to the highest dignities. Love, fear, confidence, distrust, all contribute to the consolidation of unity. Priests, laymen, men, women, great and small, governments and peoples, Catholicism holds them all by the closest fibres of that old heart, which it is by no means anxious to renew. It holds them as believers ; it holds them still even if they are infidels ; for, under such a system, though the link of faith be broken, there will remain a hundred more. Ah ! no, the Papacy is not destined to fall so soon ; and even if it be driven from Rome, it will still have a long future before it in which to issue Syllabuses and to convene Councils, if minded for such pastimes. Its death-throes may last for centuries.

But, after all, why need we trouble ourselves about the precise moment or hour ? God reigns, and usurpation must come sooner or later to an end. Is there no punishment in the mere prolongation of such an existence, when that prolongation can only be obtained at the expense of increased errors, eccentricities, and disgrace ? Is not such a life death ? There are sometimes corpses that walk the earth; Dante speaks of them in his dreadful lines. He tells us that he saw among the dead those who were still on earth, who were thought, and who thought themselves to be alive. A fearful picture of those lives which are life no longer, because they have ceased to fulfil God's intention. Yet God has been very patient. Long, long did He suffer the streams of true Christian life to circulate freely amid so much error and corruption. But now God is weary of mixing His leaven from above with this lump that will not rise. He abandons you to the merciless current of your principles and traditions. Our age has seen the last of those Christians who were also good Catholics. Bewildered and forlorn in a Church which was becoming daily more and more Papal and Ultramontane, they still only desired to place at its service their zeal, their lights, their faith, and their influence ; they only asked that the old ship of St. Peter should trim her sails a little less towards human passions, and a little more in the direction of the Spirit of God, and, for answer, they have been thrown overboard.

The time will come, believe me, when your Church will blush to have so far forgotten, at the feet of a man, her dignity as a great Church and the honour of her Invisible Master. The time will come when this page in the world's history, written amid such shouts of triumph by the enthusiastic soldiers who think they have attained, they and their chief, to universal dominion, when this page, I say, shall be no more for the Christian and the philosopher than a subject of study both sad and strange. The present Council can add but a few lines to that page, lines sad and strange likewise. Logic has its laws, and Providence its immutable decrees ; your logic is driving you onward for ever ; but God has fixed the hour when its chains shall be broken, and when His logic, which is that of truth, shall resume possession of the world.

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