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Consequences Foretold

( Originally Published 1870 )



I.

THE same argument in a different form is, however, reproduced without scruple in the same books and the same newspapers. This is when Catholicism is recommended in the name of fear, as alone capable of closing ` the abyss of revolutions,' and of restoring to human affairs the stability they no longer possess.

We smiled a moment ago when a Spaniard said this : we might smile just as much when it is said by an Italian, a Frenchman, an American Catholic, or any child of the Roman Church in a country where that Church has undertaken to preserve order.

We are told, 'But it is in those countries especially that revolution has made its greatest efforts.'

Perhaps ; but it was also there that your pretended safeguards were most firmly established. Not only had Catholicism power in its hand, it had a super-abundance of time to mould the minds, and hearts, and institutions everything. It had laboured during centuries to make the ground firm beneath it ; and, behold, it is chiefly there that the ground turns out to be shifting sand.

Yes, of course, if no earthquake had ever come to shake them, those old fortifications might have stood for an indefinite period. If you set yourselves to trace the ideal picture of a country where Rome holds sovereign sway, doubtless a profound ideal peace will reign there. There will be no differences between the State and the Church, for the Church will be paramount and rule over all ; no quarrels between the government and its subjects, for the Church has ordained that when once the government is under its thumb, the government must be obeyed like itself, like God ; no dangerous ideas, for those who might conceive them would submit them to the judgment of the Church, and if, to suppose an impossible case, they attempted to publish them, they would be stopped with a word. And, again, there would be no reason whatever why this admirable state of things should not last eternally.

In all this, two things are unfortunately forgotten.

First, that every absolute government, whether political or religious, might say as much. Give me unlimited power, and subjects who never discuss anything, and I will answer for peace and order to all time.

Secondly, that before giving us this ideal as a peremptory argument in favour of Catholicism, it ought to be shown that that same Catholicism, when struggles did arise, had really vanquished anarchy and restored peace.

That it did in every country, and after every revolution, proclaim that a return to itself was the only means of avoiding like troubles ; that it did find governments disposed to profit by its proposals, and to restore to it enough power to maintain order in its own way, that is not the question. After commotions, when every one is thirsting for peace and order, it is easy to contribute for a time to the apparent settlement and strengthening of all things. But the question is, Whether a settlement by Catholicism be now possible, and if possible, whether desirable ? It is a question, however, which is now put more clearly than ever, for it is especially with a view to this great re-establishment of the foundations of the social fabric that the Council, as we are told, has been convened. The Bull of Convocation, though speaking especially of the Church, of its ills, of its privileges, of the re-establishment of its power, also refers in several places to the other object, the salvation of civil society; and this was the point on which the explanatory pastoral letters of the bishops more particularly insisted. They had understood that this was the right way to recommend the Council to a generation whose minds are far more engrossed with the things of earth than those of heaven.

Is this great settlement possible, we ask, possible as promised that is to say, durable and real ?

Let one country, a single one, be pointed out to us where Catholicism has not been powerless against those evils and those dangers from which it pretends that it can save modern society. The point is not, we repeat, whether it has protested and struggled, but whether it has succeeded. Protest ! It spends its life in doing that. But that is the part of the weak; a part which may be glorious, but is scarcely so when the protest is mean in object and pretentious in form, as is often the case with Rome. What, then, can Catholicism do against revolutions, when left to its own resources ? It has compromised, in the eyes of the people, all governments that have placed their reliance upon it, and when the storm came, it has been powerless to do anything for them. A proceeding it has often employed, in order not to appear to have been conquered, is to pass at once without hesitation, without any out-ward show of regret, to the side of the victors. The victors are perfectly well aware that what it has done for them it would do to-morrow for their enemies if they were triumphant ; but, in the meanwhile, there is an outward appearance of cordiality. To palliate these shifting tactics, we are told that the Church soars above the mutable forms of human politics. Why, yes, you soar above all the powers that fall ; those that stand can, by serving you, have you at their feet if they so please. But when their hour comes, you will save them no more than you saved others.

This power of saving, which Catholicism has never really possessed, will necessarily grow weaker and weaker ; for the first condition of a war on equal terms is, that both parties should be equally armed. Would it be possible, in the nineteenth century, to hold an enemy in check with the weapons of the fifteenth ? And the world of thought has changed even more than the world of war. That Catholicism should still be something, is owing to the efforts it has made during the last twenty years to equip itself somewhat in the modern manner; and we have seen how futile in many cases these efforts are. But it is not thus, it is not with borrowed weapons, fashioned for other hands, that such a battle can be gained.

Consider Catholicism now, if you will, not as in a state of war, but simply as existing in the midst of modern society. It dwells there like a man compelled to live in a country not his own, which he has neither the will nor the power to adopt, and in the affairs of which he is yet desirous of taking a part. Now pliant, now haughty, now fawning ; now defying those customs that he does not like ; one day obedient to the laws, another day in open rebellion ; either proclaiming or hiding, as circumstances may dictate, his regrets and his hopes, but always doing something he should not do if he wishes to be taken for a native of the country, such has been, during twenty years, the bearing of the old guide who offers to lead the modem generations. Is it possible he should I will not say lead them to the goal, but even persuade them that he is leading them there ? Is it possible that they should not perceive that the order and peace which he offers to them, have scarcely anything in common with the order and peace they require ? No, it is not by him that society can be re-established on a firm basis.

II.

But, as we asked further, even if this reestablishment by his means were not impossible, would it be desirable ? The answer to this question might depend entirely on facts. We should not say desirable ; we should ask, ` Do the very people who now declare that society can only thus be saved, do they all really desire to deliver society, including themselves, into the hands of Catholicism, into the hands of the Pope ?'

See, for instance, those bishops who have taken so much trouble to tone down the Syllabus. There are some of them, no doubt, whom we may consider as entirely agreeing with the Pope, and, consequently, as seeking only in such toning down to hide their real thoughts ; but there are some, also, whose words revealed, against their will, a very different manner of considering the authority of the Church, and its action on society. One feels that they have made a selection almost freely among the declarations of the Pope ; one feels that they have left a good many to one side, not only as having no chance of acceptance by the modern world, but as not being acceptable to themselves, Catholics, priests, and bishops though they are. Now the Syllabus is a whole ; the Syllabus, even independently of the authority it possesses as being the word of the Pope, is, as we have shown, Catholicism itself, the intimate conjunction of a principle and its consequences. If it be not this Catholicism that is to save society, which is it ? Every other is condemned by the Pope ; every other is the abandonment of a principle. And in this sense one might say that even the bishops do not desire to see modern society in the hands of Catholicism in the hands of the Pope. See with what anxiety many are expecting what the Council may ultimately proclaim on this subject ! If it leave the matter vague, it will in reality have done nothing ; if it determine, if it undertake bona fide to cure modern plagues, it can scarcely do more than prescribe remedies which the patient has already refused.

And if we looked beyond the clergy, then it would be easy to show how few people there are who really accept Catholicism, in its actual condition, as the guide and guardian of society.

We should eliminate, first, those who would maintain Catholicism for the people, without being willing in any way to retain it for themselves. To regard Catholicism thus is to have no confidence in it ; it is to consider it neither as divine nor true, but merely as a means of restraining within the bounds of order those who are foolish enough to believe it, or too weak to dare to cast it off ; it is to declare simply that there must be a religion for the people, and that this religion is quite good enough for them. Generally, too, we find that such men, while thinking it quite right that the clergy should help them to hold the people in leash, take many pre-cautions against the clergy itself. They do not consider more than a certain degree of submission as desirable ; they insist on measuring the dose of Catholicism that may be deemed necessary to keep the masses quiet. This, however, has always been done by sovereigns, even by those who were, so far as faith was concerned, true and good Catholics, and who had at the time no quarrel with Rome. Catholicism, as a social element, never inspired them with more than a very moderate degree of confidence. The same views are held now-a-days by many, whether sovereigns or not, who yet speak of Catholicism as a mentor required by the social body.

We should eliminate, next, all those who recommend it without knowing what it is a very numerous class. They have been told that this is the great remedy for present ills ; and as those ills frighten them, they re-peat it, often with the addition of some fine sentence from the authors we quoted a short time ago. But certainly those authors cannot have given them any clear ideas, else why the astonishment into which the Syllabus has thrown so many people who thought they knew Catholicism ? Even since the publication of the Syllabus, how many persons have fashioned for them-selves a Catholicism quite different from that which is there defined, and defined so clearly ! Those who have only looked at Catholicism through glasses coloured by the bishops, is it really in favour of Catholicism that they give their suffrage when they join with the bishops in recommending it ? They think they are recommending a system of liberty, or at least of moderate and paternal rule. Is that true ? They think the past is cast off, and the future open to all wisely liberal aspirations. Is that true ? Compel all such to read the Syllabus, to read it well with their own eyes, their reason, and their conscience ; compel them to consider what those rights which the Church arrogates to her-self, those duties imposed on the civil authority, would necessarily lead to in practice ; compel them to calculate what little might be left of intellectual, scientific, and even artistic life, when that ideal of oppression was realized in every point, when every one felt obliged never to be, never to run the risk of being, in disagreement with the Church, and you will then see whether there remain many who still wish to force society to be saved by Catholicism.

Unfortunately, among the men who wish to uphold it as a social power, there are many who do not want to be enlightened as to what it really is. ` Let it be,' these men seem to say, ` what it will. It suits us as a whole, and we accept it.' They stop, therefore, in their faith at the point where they can still be sincere ; they uphold and recommend, not the Catholic religion, but Catholicism, the powerful historical entity which the ages have seen reigning under that name.

Paganism in its last hours had many friends of this kind. They scarcely dared to support it as true ; but it was the tradition of the empire, its gods were the ancestral gods, its ideas and forms pervaded all things. Now, what was Christianity doing all the while ? It was persisting in remaining, above all things, a religion ; and, as such, in attacking Paganism as a religion, compelling it to do battle, not on the vague and uncertain ground of memories and ancient rights, but on that of truth, where alone legitimate rights can be acquired.

This is what the serious adversaries of Catholicism must now do, this is what they are doing. They do not admit that antiquity and possession are rights ; in religion they recognise no rights but those of truth ; they hold that everything should be judged at the bar of Christianity, the only legitimate arbiter between Churches and systems, the only judge of what is done in its name. The frivolous may regard them, if they will, as foolishly stirring the dry bones of forgotten controversies. Those controversies are as full of life today as they were three, twelve, or eighteen centuries ago ; for in reality there is only one question in debate, the question which every serious and devout spirit must perforce consider,' Where does the truth lie ?' After that, the social question sinks into its right position ; after that, before permitting a religion or a Church to influence the things of earth, we shall examine into its title to be considered as a messenger from heaven ; after that, we shall not think we are entitled to overlook certain errors, because they may have done some good, or, at least, if they are for-given as regards the past, it is on condition that they shall not claim, in the name of the past, to prolong their reign indefinitely. Thus the respect for man and the respect for truth are united together and mutually strengthened, for truth, inasmuch as no consideration of interest will avail to make us sacrifice its rights ; for man, inasmuch as we shall not wish to lead him even into the paths of order and right, by anything that deceives him and is not the truth.

Christianity conquered Paganism, because Christianity was of the spirit, and the spirit is life. All those old institutions, all those prescriptive rights, in the name of which Paganism pretended to rule the world for ever, were a great machine, but were not a living reality. What efforts were made by some of the best among the pagans to infuse something of life into it ! What a victory for Christianity when, even in the midst of persecution, the Neo-Platonists set themselves to spiritualize Paganism, seeking for pure and living elements under the old forms, and in the old divinities ! What a confession of weakness on the part of a religion once so proud, was the alacrity with which she suffered herself to be thus metamorphosed ; quite happy, at such a price, to find a few philosophers willing to infuse youth into her age, and adopt her name ! But is there not a similar movement going on to-day in the bosom of Catholicism ? You might, from the writings of Julian in favour of expiring Pagan-ism, compose a book singularly like many of those published in favour of Catholicism. While the official Church has daily less and less of spirit and life in her institutions and worship, there are people who set themselves to spiritualize, to poetize, surrounding her and even penetrating her, where they can, with the atmosphere of a purer Christianity. Is this not again a denial of real Catholicism ? And when these same men persist in attacking other Christians for taking a, shorter path, frankly abandoning forms and embracing the spirit, do they know what they are doing ?

We should wish to say this, not to these latter only, but to all those of whom we have spoken, to all who only remain in the Roman Church by fashioning for themselves a better Catholicism, better in faith, better in worship, better as spiritual food, better as a social power. If the age were more clear-sighted, if only it attached a little more real interest to religious questions, how soon would it compel all these men the sincere as well as the cunning to call things by their right names ! How soon the question would be raised, how clearly and imperatively, between despotism and liberty, stagnation and progress, matter and spirit, between Catholicism and the Gospel.

Is a time coming when matters will at last enter into this course ? Shall we see these questions flooded with light, or else, by the indifference of some, and the ignorance or cowardice of others, shall the darkness grow and become eternal ? God only knows. For our part we shall not cease to tear away all disguises. In so doing, the Pope has already helped us much ; the Pope will help us again.

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