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The System In Itself

( Originally Published 1870 )


What we have said respecting the author of the Symbolise, might be repeated as characterizing all the efforts macle to disguise the slavery of Catholicism. Long circuitous marches are undertaken so that men may not perceive that they are being brought back exactly to the spot where they do not want to be. On the way, words and things must lose their ordinary and natural sense : liberty must become synonymous with slavery, and slavery with liberty ; everything that is most antagonistic to the instincts and aspirations of man must be represented. as the necessary consequence of the laws of his nature ; the nineteenth century must seem to set the seal of reason and philosophy on a system which, for a long-time, did not trouble itself to be either reasonable or philosophic, but ruled by force and fear alone.

Another thing strikes us in this controversy : it is, the constant care taken to avoid all discussions on matters of detail, and to establish principles only, or rather the principle. There are two advantages in this : to keep in the region of high philosophic formulas, and to escape from difficulties of detail which might easily, it is felt, prove destructive to the principle. How many are there in those great congregations which you may see sitting attentive, and perhaps full of emotion, at the feet of an orator proving, in glowing terms, the divine authority of the Church how many are there who are ready to accept the consequences of the argument, and to believe what the same priest would have to command them to believe ? But he will be prudent, you may be sure. It is a prudence which did not exist formerly ; for then it was not considered that it was enough to establish theoretically the authority of the Church, and that you were thereby dispensed from stating and proving each of her doctrines. This is what the Abbé Gel-bet calls ` a radical defect' in the old Catholic polemics ; and, speaking in a Catholic sense, he is unquestionably right. Nevertheless, we can quite understand why this ` radical defect' had never till now struck the Catholic divines. The dogma of authority was far from being as well defined, as absolute, as it is now. It was not yet regarded as independent of the manner in which the authority was exercised, independent of what it might teach ; and, consequently, to strengthen its teachings by proofs was to strengthen the authority itself. There had, indeed, been a few instances of discussions turning exclusively on the authority of the Church, as, for example, the famous one between Bossuet and Claude ; but Bossuet never went so far as to say that, when once authority was established, he did not consider himself bound to prove any question of detail.

This, however, is the view now taken. One of the first who advocated it openly was Cardinal Wiseman, at the beginning of his lectures. When once, he says, you have established the authority of the Church, the truth of all her doctrines is established simultaneously. He adds, that not to admit this is to take no account of the logical linking of questions. He is astonished that the adversaries of the Church should pretend to treat this main point, on which all the rest depend, as if it were merely one of the minor points in debate. He does not understand how, when once this point is established, there can be any discussion respecting the others. This is a vicious circle. In the sciences a system is not considered as established until there are no facts that contradict it. Is not infallibility amenable to the same law ? And if errors are imputed to it, must it be content to repeat, ` I cannot be mistaken ?' No ; it will have to say, ` I was not mistaken,' and to prove it.

Generalizations cannot found a system ; their only value is what they derive from facts.


God, we are told, having given Christianity to man, must have established an infallible authority to guard and interpret it.

God must ! This is one of the generalizations to which we referred. What is it worth ? The question can only be answered by facts ; and the facts are, that there are a whole host of things of which we might say with quite as much appearance of reason, God must have done them, and yet He has not.

But it is said, Christ promised the Church that He would be with her to the end of time. Even if it were proved that the Church of which He spoke were the Roman Church, we should answer, that there are many other promises in the Scriptures of which the meaning can only be determined by the facts. ` Where two or three are gathered together in my name,' Christ said, ` there am I in the midst of them.' Shall you, there-fore, believe in the infallibility of those two or three ? ` Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do.' Shall you, therefore, believe that every prayer so made is answered ? Certainly not. Why ? Because the facts say no. And what should you think of a man who said, ` The promise is here ; I stick to that ; things must certainly come to pass accordingly ?' You would repeat, that he must look at the facts. Therefore the facts alone can determine the meaning of the promises made to the Church ; therefore her infallibility can only be proved by the truth of all her teachings ; therefore she cannot refuse to justify them ; and yet it is, on the contrary, in order that she may not have to justify them in order that she may cause to be accepted in the gross those that our age, no, not even the faithful in our age, would ever really accept if presented one at a time that the dogma of infallibility has lately been insisted upon with so much boldness and precision.


Thus we have, on the one hand, efforts of every kind, so that the Roman system may not startle freedom, and, on the other, an incessant labour to complete and strengthen that system, such is the present state of affairs.

Three classes of men are at work.

The first devote themselves to the former part of the task : reassuring and lulling the universal instinct of liberty.

The second undertake the latter part : establishing the system firmly, and presenting it to the world as a law at once logical and divine.

The third, who are very numerous, play the two parts alternately liberal or Ultramontane according to circumstances, preaching despotism in the name of liberty, and liberty as being only able to flourish under the protection of despotism, and so mixing up words and things, that one is sometimes tempted to ask whether it is all a dream.

All, at the same time, are agreed to make the most of the idea of the religious, moral, and social necessity of the system of authority a necessity, they say, which was never more evident than now. Do not object the superior religious and moral spirit of the Protestant nations, and their magnificent social development. M. Nicolas will tell you that Protestantism ` has abdicated all grand civilising influence.' He will even tell you whence this chiefly springs : it is because the Protest-ants do not believe in transubstantiation.

Nevertheless, when looked at in its generality, the argument may seem attractive. When unbelief, immorality, and anarchy threaten to overwhelm every-thing, is it not necessary that some constantly visible authority should oppose a bulwark to the invasion ?

The first point requiring examination would be, whether Catholicism is that bulwark, and whether it has the means of being so. We shall return to this. But even if it were, the question of fact remains. This is still the God must of a few pages back. When you have satisfactorily proved that a visible authority is necessary to the maintenance of truth, and, through the truth, to the maintenance of moral order in all things, shall you have proved that God has actually so established it ? All that you say of error might be said of evil itself, considered independently of error. ` Man is prone to sin ; his conscience is at every moment power-less to prevent him from falling into it. He needs something besides, therefore. He needs an authority to restrain him ; an authority present, visible, and in-fallibly efficacious.' In the meantime that authority does not exist.

And observe, also, how easy it would be in this question of evil to find an argument against the pretended Biblical foundation of Roman authority.

The words of Jesus are often quoted against us : ` The gates of hell shall not prevail against it ; ' but see how arbitrarily the sense of the passage is restricted. Hell, the gates of hell, refers evidently to evil, to the kingdom of evil, of corruption, of crime, quite as much as to that of error. Now, all historians admit that there have been periods of fearful corruption in the Roman Church ; a whole library might be filled with what they have written on the subject. The gates of hell, therefore, did prevail very considerably against her morality. But if one half of the prophecy has thus proved inapplicable, how can any one pretend that the other half is applicable, and that that other half has been fulfilled, is fulfilled, and will be fulfilled to the end of time in a word, that the Church must have remained pure of error while she was impure in every other respect ? The prophecy is one. It should just as much have prevented an Alexander vi. from becoming a Pope, as prevented him from teaching error when he was one. It is a strange system. Drowned in iniquity and abuses, the Roman Church has remained the Church, the bride of Jesus Christ ; had she taught a single error, she would have forfeited her position. A Pope steeped in crime remains the representative of Jesus Christ ; a single error, and he ceases to be so. Do we judge thus, with the heart and simple common sense, in the ordinary matters of life ? Do we not forgive error most easily ? Do we not regard crime as sealed with the divine reprobation ? With the Church we are condemned to do exactly the reverse. The iniquity and abuses are admitted ; all possibility of error is indignantly denied. It was hell ; but then, hell was strictly orthodox.


We are" told, then, that there is now a greater necessity than ever for a visible authority in all matters of faith, because error possesses more means of seduction than of yore.

A greater necessity is not a greater proof of right. But let us leave the question of right to one side, and examine the fact.

The fact we often hear translated into these common-place words : ` It is the business of the priests ; so much the worse for them if they are mistaken, or lead us astray.'

It is the business of the priests is not this really, even among the most serious and devout Catholics, the exact translation of the system into words ?

The Church presents itself to the world as commissioned to resolve every question relating to faith, life, death, salvation, and eternity. Is such a declaration the best means of making those who care for none of these things take heed of them ? Is it the best means of making those who care for them somewhat more, study them seriously and fruitfully ?

To the one class as to the other the dangerous facility is offered of not appropriating explicitly, one by one, the great truths of the gospel ; but of accepting them implicitly, in the gross, by the admission of a single truth, the authority of the Church. This does not .mean, of course, that no Catholic ever will, by an intelligent faith, make those truths his own which are the salvation of souls ; but the greater number, the great mass, will go no further than the implicit faith, than that vague state of obedience which, when once you have willingly entered into it, becomes the most convenient and deepest of slumbers.

Now this slumber had never been so much recommended, so zealously preached by the Church, as at the present time. The great fear of the Church is lest that should be discussed which has no other foundation than her word ; and, to prevent this, she condemns you to accept the fundamental truths of Christianity merely as the silent consequences of' the central dogma of authority. See what was done in other days by the Bossuets and the Bourdaloues. They also, no doubt, preached the authority of the Church ; but how far they were from making of the doctrine what is made of it now ! How far they were from saying, ' Only believe in the Church, and you will derive from that faith alone the merit of believing in all the truths of the Gospel.' How they stirred up those who might be tempted to take this view, and to leave to the Church the care of believing for them ! What Protestant preacher has ever insisted more strongly on the necessity of a personal faith, that should be real, and make every truth its own ? It is a contradiction, no doubt, for it is evident that the labour to be undergone in order to acquire such a faith, is, whatever may be the term applied to it, inquiry ; but it is a contradiction that honours the preachers, for it shows them to us as superior to their Church, and as setting right, as Christians, the error they proclaimed as priests.

Their Church, moreover, was not then, even as represented by greatly inferior men, what it has since become. She said much less distinctly, ' Believe in me, and that will suffice.' If in her dealings with the Protestants she asserted herself harshly and pitilessly, she did not, in her dealings with her own people, assert herself as the principal object of faith. She certainly said to them, ' You must take me as your guide and sovereign mistress ;' but she did not seat herself, as she now does, on the altar, demanding obedience and homage, and just extending, when she happens to think of it, some of that obedience and homage to Christ and to God. To-day you may hear sermons everywhere, in which the word 'Church' would infallibly be taken by a heathen as the name of the chief divinity among the Christians. The last lectures of the Père Felix at Nôtre Dame were a striking instance, among many others, of this worship.

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