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Consequences As Regards The Past

( Originally Published 1870 )


IT is another great novelty, that the deification of the Church is not preached only on religious grounds, but also, and we might say specially, on social grounds. The same tactics are employed in the latter field that were employed in the former.

First, the past is arranged with a view to the ideas and the needs of the present. All, it is said, that we are seeking through turmoil and trials, had been be-stowed by the Church on the faithful and happy people of the Middle Ages. Those ages were, as we have seen, a golden age in religion ; they were no less a golden age in politics, in civilisation, and in everything.

Let us set to one side in this picture all that is mere extravagance, and blind rebellion against history and common sense ; let us see what has been said by a more serious historian, and since copied by many others. ` In those ages which are called barbarous,' wrote Lamennais in 1817, ` Christianity (Catholicism) had strengthened and tempered the government, established true social relations, purified morals, and often supplied the place of laws. . . . Thanks to the empire which it exercised over ideas, and yet more over hearts, man became sacred for man. . . . Subject to the immutable laws of duty, actions as well as thoughts tended as a whole to the common good. . . . The established beliefs acting simultaneously on governments and nations, society found itself ruled by an infinite power of love.'

One question a single one would perhaps be the best answer to make to this : How should you like to live in that earthly paradise ? How should you like to live under that 'infinite power of love,' instead of under the laws which the _Revolution, as you say, which means hell, has given to modern society ?

But let us look at the matter a little closer.

In the first place, we must not allow those things to be called benefits of Catholicism, of the Church, which spring directly and evidently from Christianity itself, from its doctrines, its spirit, its divine influence. The gates of hell never prevailed against the Church so entirely that she retained absolutely no trace of truth and holiness.

And having said this, instead of admiring what Catholicism did in those times as the depository of that great and holy power, the Gospel, we shall ask, Why did it do so little ? Why did society in the Middle Ages reflect so little of the superiority of Christianity over the heathen religions ? Why was civilisation in so many things, either scarcely equal, or inferior to the civilisation of pagan Rome ? To paint the latter, you show us all the abominations you can discover in the days of the decline ; to paint the Catholic ages, you represent as admirable advances all that rose a little above the common level of iniquity. And those advances, too, see how they are proved. If only some obscure council, some Pope, or bishop, or monk, ex-pressed a good and beautiful idea, it is immediately assumed that the idea was realized, took root, and became the law of the Church and of Europe. It is thus that people come to assert, like Lamennais, that ` man became sacred for man ;' when never, on the contrary, had human life been held more cheap ; when never had executions and massacres been ordered with less compunction, ordered frequently, as we must not forget, by the Church. We are told of a few measures adopted to mitigate particular cruelties of slavery ; but slavery as an institution remained, and the Church had her slaves as well as lords and kings. We are told of a few religious laws, having for their object to mitigate the fury of public or private wars ; but these very laws are the best proof of the wide-spread disorder which Catholicism had not prevented. All those lords whose lives consisted in fighting and rapine were Catholics, and often fervent Catholics ; and if' this were a controversial essay, we should certainly have a right to say that if the Church, on the one hand, made some efforts to civilise those terrible men, nothing, on the other hand, could be more calculated to keep them in their barbarism than the pardons so easily granted for all acts of violence and crime. We are referred to a few sparse cases in which long and heavy penances were inflicted, almost always for crimes committed against the Church, or against her ministers ; but, in the ordinary course of things, the pardon was certain, the expiation almost null ; and in this lamentable corruption of the con-science, what remained of Christianity as an element of civilisation ?


It needed, in order to regain its civilising power, that great shock which restored it among some nations to its primitive purity, and among others, maugre the Church, opened civil society at least to its beneficent influence. But here denials are showered upon us. All those authors we saw above condemning the sixteenth century for having arrested the splendid march of religion, we now find them again maintaining that that same century arrested a social progress no less advanced, and no less beautiful.

'What a spectacle Europe would have presented,' says M. Nicolas, ' if this civilisation had continued till our own day, and had received its accomplishment under the influence of that law ! But heaven, or rather hell, did not allow earth to enjoy this happiness. At the very moment when this Catholic civilisation was emerging, rich and fruitful, from the bosom of the Church, Protestantism appeared, and all was changed.' Elsewhere, in considering the consequences, he says : 'The Catholic Church struggled to win the world from the darkness in which Protestantism was re-enfolding it, and has only succeeded, by dint of learning and right reason, no less than of holiness, in steadying the march of civilisation.'

It is quite possible that we may find the solution of this enigma for it is an enigma to understand how paradox can have been pushed so far in the following dictum of Lamennais : ` The human race, in advancing towards perfection, was advancing also with great strides towards happiness, when suddenly the bloody spectre of the sovereignty of the people, called up by the Reformation, rose from the grave in which Christianity had laid it.' And the same idea reap-pears several times in the writings of M. De Maistre.

Yes, in the eyes of the champions of Romanism, this is certainly the great wrong committed by the sixteenth century, by Protestantism, as they say ; but, regarded in this point of view, Protestantism itself was a result rather than a cause ; and when these writers accuse Protestantism alone, it is only a ruse to dissimulate that they are in antagonism with the very principle of modern civilisation, and not with Protestantism only. In their eyes, the darkness with which the sixteenth century has covered the face of the world is the eclipsing of that divine right in politics, which was so pleasing to the Church, as corresponding to her divine right in matters of religion, and as making of the throne and the altar two sisters,--and two sisters, be it well understood, of whom the one should be for all time the minister and the servant of the other. In the opinion of these men, therefore, winning the world from darkness is labouring with all one's might to bring back the old state of things ; and if they cannot bring it back such as it was, they bring back as much as they can, even by means of that same sovereignty of the people which they condemn and execrate. This is the key to many strange things that have been seen in our days ; this is the mysterious link that has so often bound together under our eyes contradictory ideas and incompatible tendencies. The simple were astonished ; the men of ability in the world sometimes allowed themselves to be deceived, and believed in a reconciliation between Catholicism and the age ; the men of ability in the Church pursued their course, blessing trees of liberty when required, but, as some one said, doing it with poisoned holy water, and hoping all the time to see perish, not the tree only a symbol unworthy of much regret but all that it was supposed to represent.

Thus, in speaking to the age, they utter the words progress and liberty more loudly than any one ; they say that the Church understands that her mission is to reign by the people, that her divine right extends its hand to the sovereignty of the people, another divine right, the sister of the divine right of the Church ; and then, when their tongue happens to be loosed, they speak like Lamennais of the 'bloody spectre of the sovereignty of the people.' They re-present the Church as accepting, as blessing all the social advances resulting from that great principle ; they turn history upside down to show that the Church has always desired, always blessed those advances, always assisted in the emancipation from which they proceed ; and when their tongue happens to be loosed, they tell you, like Lamennais, that the best thing which Christianity has done here below was laying that same spectre of the sovereignty of the people. A great calumny, undoubtedly, on Christianity, which has raised the dignity of man so high, so admirably established the foundations of true equality, so evidently meant to be not only the religion of all, but the religion, the birthright, the glory, and the life of each. But what does it matter to these advocates of the Church what Christianity is in itself ? It is, it shall be, it must be what the Church requires ; and as the Church requires, according to circumstances, that it should be this, that, and the other, the foundation of divine right, or the foundation of the sovereignty of the people, we may expect every possible definition ; but let us always remember that the only definition which is real, and in accordance with the mind of the Church, is the definition of Lamennais, of De Maistre, and of the Syllabus.

But to return.

Let us see by what feats of dexterity these people pretend to justify the singular assertion, that the Church at the beginning of the sixteenth century was ` on the point of pouring out all her benefits on the minds of men and on society.' We are quoting from the Bishop of Annecy.

First, they seize upon all that the general movement had already produced, and place it to the credit of the Church, making it fit as best they can into that grand Catholic unity which was about, as we are assured, to show of what it was capable. This is as if a prince, in reckoning up his forces, were to include among the number the rebels as well as those who remained loyal.

We do not mean, of course, that all those awakened intellects already entertained the thought of breaking down the walls of the Church. Luther himself at the beginning had no such idea. But when a powerful principle is at work, what does the intention signify ? Every one goes, even against his will, whither the principle leads him ; and the conclusion was to show pretty plainly whither led the Renaissance. But no. According to our authors, unity was complete and intact ; the army had but one heart, one soul ; the Church was at the head, ready to rush through modern times, and conquer them by the might of incalculable benefits. ` It was the time,' says Balmes, ' when the European nations, reaping at last the fruits of unspeakable efforts, presented themselves to the world full of energy and splendour.' . . . Then comes a picture of the discoveries made, a list of the eminent men, Vasco di Gama, Columbus, Cortes, Magellan, Don John of Austria, and Erasmus also, who must be rather surprised to see himself thus set among the pillars of the Church. And unity pervading everything unity among kings, unity among peoples, unity powerful, unity magnificently fruitful. This last, as we may observe in passing, is a point that requires demonstration, for fruitfulness is rather an attribute of strife.

But, fruitful or not, where was this magnificent political and social unity, ready, as we are told, to place itself at the service of the Church ? If all that is meant is that kings were ready, notwithstanding their endless wars, to persecute in one and the same spirit those whom the Church marked out for their hatred, why that is unquestionably true. The smoke of German, French, Spanish, English, and other fagots rose above the smoke of battles, and rejoiced the hearts of the Popes. But the battles went on. I see in 1525 the king of France at Madrid, a prisoner of the king of Spain. I see in 1527 Rome itself sacked by the troops of Charles v. I see the three great Catholic powers, Spain, France, and Austria, notwithstanding a peace twenty times sworn, have twenty times recourse to arms, always more or less at the instigation of the Popes. I see from 1545 to 1563 innumerable political rivalries round the Council of Trent, and the Council itself revealed, on a great many questions, a state of utter disagreement between the Church and nearly all the countries of Europe. You say that the Reformation broke up Catholic unity; say, rather, that it contributed powerfully to its formation, and that though it may have diminished its extent, inasmuch as several states withdrew altogether, yet it compelled it to concentrate itself, to grow more compact, and to be, in fine, much more real than before.

The Reformation, therefore, furnished Catholic unity with the means and the opportunity of signalizing. itself, in the countries that had remained faithful, by those social benefits which it had in reserve, as we are told, even before the sixteenth century. If it had only retained its empire in a few insignificant states, it might be urged that so great a power had no room to move freely, and that this was the cause of its sterility. But those countries that remained faithful, the fields which Catholicism had the opportunity of working and making fruitful, were, we will not, if you like, speak of France, where the bad seed sown by the Reformation has always sprung up more or less, were Italy, and Austria, and Spain, and beyond the seas all the Spanish empire tot only governed, but created by Catholicism. What has it done for those countries ? What progress has it we will not say made them, but —suffered them to accomplish ? In what position, after three centuries, were those in which modern life had not forced some slight entrance ? Who, in drawing up a statement of the condition of the various nations, could have helped placing these last, and have helped assigning the rearmost places to the most Catholic, including Rome ? Social development, material development, all were in a state of profound torpor ; and faith itself to the maintenance of which all had been sacrificed faith slumbered like everything else, in the midst of miserable practices that grieved and provoked all who, in other Catholic countries, possessed any enlightened or serious piety.


It is of such that we would now ask, whether the tree has not superabundantly shown by its fruits what it was and what it is. But, above all, we would ask them to judge for themselves, with their reason, their con-science, and their heart, as so many people used to do before the present fever. Then the decay of the Catholic states was admitted ; those who imagined they should find at Rome arguments in favour of Catholicism were dissuaded from undertaking the journey ; they were not taught the art of finding favourable arguments everywhere. Let not the men, therefore, to whom we appeal, go and seek counsel from the advocates to whom Catholicism has entrusted her cause in these latter times ; they would return with their mouths full of those affirmations, those denials, those sophistries, with which the new arsenal is ceaselessly supplied. They would be taught to repeat, and even, perhaps, to believe this has been seen that the countries of which we spoke were enlightened, well governed, rich, contented, happy, or that, if they were not so, they were none the less rich and happy in that they possessed the true faith. Material prosperity may be all very well for those unhappy heretics, who will pay for it in hell ; but as for the Church's children, what can they desire more than to sleep under her wings, bestowing their goods upon her, if they have any, and if they have none, begging at the doors of her convents ?

Does this mean that we pretend to measure the value of a religion by the material prosperity of those who profess it ? The value of a religion no ; but the value of a Church, the value of the social institutions which she maintains and perpetuates yes. Nevertheless, the value of the religion is as the value of the Church, and in substance it is always the religion itself that must be judged by its social as well as its moral results. Look, for instance, at mendicity, to which we have just alluded. The Catholic countries did nothing to suppress that plague ; their charitable institutions nearly all tended even to foster it. Why ?

First, because the mendicant orders imparted to poverty a kind of mystical consecration, making it not only a profession like any other, but a profession holier than any other, and an indispensable part of the religious organization ; then, because almsgiving had a very important part to play, not only as an act of charity, but as an expiation for sin, and, in some sort, as a purchasing of heaven. Catholicism and its doctrines must, therefore, unquestionably be held accountable for the fact that those fertile lands are covered with beggars, and, moreover, badly cultivated and badly worked by a population in whom everything conspires to foster idleness. Catholicism is also indirectly on its trial, when we see, on the other hand, in countries far less favoured by nature, a very different amount of wellbeing and happiness. And what we have just said respecting those two Catholic ideas the reputed holiness of mendicity, and the purchase of heaven by alms-giving might be repeated of many others. We might show, without any difficulty, how all that is politically or socially blameworthy in the Catholic states, is intimately bound up with something in the doctrine or morality of the Church : we have, indeed, in the course of our remarks, already come across many facts that might naturally be considered from this point of view.

Thus, within the limits just established, we say plainly : Yes, social prosperity is an argument of great weight in favour of a religion. This argument may not always retain its force ; a pure and holy Church may, in the first days of its existence, or in times of persecution, consist only of men poor and of low degree.

But of course we are now speaking of one that has had the time and the means of developing its influence, and of showing by earthly benefits what it is worth as the teacher of a people. That prosperity should be attended by dangers, and have a tendency to attach souls to earth, and to make them forget heaven of that there can be no doubt ; but this is a different question. Let us not wander from the first ; and I repeat, that a religion that has been found wanting socially, is open to grave suspicion.

We may observe, moreover, that in these latter years it is often Catholicism itself that has compelled its adversaries to join issue on this inferior ground. It affected not to fear the battle, and rushed into it, according to custom, with all the more boldness that it really felt itself to be weak. How was it possible to help replying ? When it drew those fantastic pictures, of which we have already given a few specimens above, how was it possible not to draw the true picture of what those nations who threw off its yoke have been, and now are ? When it set itself, on the contrary, to praise modern progress, claiming it at the same time for its own, how was it possible to help showing what was and is the condition of the countries that really belong to it ? It has persisted. Its books, its newspapers are full of such polemics ; and when we renew our denials, when our facts reappear in all their crushing power, then it shifts its ground, and we are described as men who dishonour religion, by judging it according to the amount of material prosperity which it bestows or promises.

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