I. The Youth Of The Church.
-The Catholic World, Vol. CXVI. NOVEMBER, 1922. No. 692.
Until about the end of the nineteenth century, a man was expected to give his reasons for joining the Catholic Church. Today a man is really expected to give his reasons for not joining it. This may seem an exaggeration; but I believe it to stand for a subconscious truth in thousands of minds. As for the fundamental reasons for a man doing it, there are only two that are really fundamental. One is that he believes it to be the solid objective truth, which is true whether he likes it or not; and the other that he seeks liberation from his sins. If there be any man for whom these are not the main motives, it is idle to inquire what were his philosophical or historical or emotional reasons for joining the old religion; for he has not joined it at all.
But a preliminary word or two may well be said about the other matter; which may be called the challenge of the Church. I mean that the world has recently become aware of that challenge in a curious and almost creepy fashion. I am literally one of the least, because one of the latest, of a crowd of converts who have been thinking along the same lines as I. There has been a happy increase in the number of Catholics; but there has also been, if I may so express it, a happy increase in the number of non-Catholics; in the sense of conscious non-Catholics. The world has become conscious that it is not Catholic. Only lately it would have been about as likely to brood on the fact that it was not Confucian. And all the array of reasons for not joining the Church of Rome marked but the beginning of the ultimate reason for joining it.
At this stage, let it be understood, I am speaking of a reaction and rejection which was, as mine would once have been, honestly, if conventionally, convinced. I am not speaking now of the stage of mere self-deception or sulky excuses; though such a stage there may be before the end. I am remarking that even while we truly think that the reasons are reasonable, we tacitly assume that the reasons are required. Far back at the beginning of all our changes, if I may speak for many much better than myself, there was the idea that we must have reasons for not joining the Catholic Church. I never had any reasons for not joining the Greek Church, or the religion of Mahomet, or the Theosophical Society, or the Society of Friends. Doubtless, I could have discovered and defined the reasons, had they been demanded; just as I could have found the reasons for not going to live in Lithuania, or not being a chartered accountant, or not changing my name to Vortigern Brown, or not doing a thousand other things that it had never occurred to me to do. But the point is, that I never felt the presence or pressure of the possibility at all; I heard no distant and distracting voice calling me to Lithuania or to Islam; I had no itch to explain to myself why my name was not Vortigern, or why my religion was not Theosophy. That sort of presence and pressure of the Church I believe to be universal and ubiquitous today; not only among Anglicans, but among Agnostics. I repeat that I do not mean that they have no real objections; on the contrary, I mean that they have begun really to object; they have begun to kick and struggle.
One of the most famous modern masters of fiction and social philosophy, perhaps the most famous of all, was once listening to a discussion between a High Church curate and myself about the Catholic theory of Christianity. About half-way through it, the great novelist began to dance wildly about the room with characteristic and hilarious energy, calling out, "I'm not a Christian; I'm not a Christian!" flapping about like one escaped as from the net of the fowler. He had the sense of a huge vague army making an encircling movement, and heading him and herding him in the direction of Christianity, and ultimately Catholicism. He felt he had cut his way out of the encirclement, and was not caught yet. With all respect for his genius and sincerity, he had the air of one delightedly doing a bolt, before anybody could say to him: "Why do we not join the Catholic Church?"
Now, I have noted first this common consciousness of the challenge of the Church, because I believe it to be connected with something else. That something else is the strongest of all the purely intellectual forces that dragged me towards the truth. It is not merely the survival of the faith, but the singular nature of its survival. I have called it by a conventional phrase "the old religion." But it is not an old religion; it is a religion that refuses to grow old. At this moment of history, it is a very young religion; rather especially a religion of young men. It is much newer than the new religions; its young men are more fiery, more full of their subject, more eager to explain and argue than were the young Socialists of my own youth. It does not merely stand firm like an old guard; it has recaptured the initiative, and is conducting the counter-attack. In short, it is what youth always is rightly or wrongly; it is aggressive. It is this atmosphere of the aggressiveness of Catholicism that has thrown the old intellectuals on the defensive. It is this that has produced the almost morbid self-consciousness of which I have spoken. The converts are truly fighting, in those words which recur like a burden at the opening of the Mass, for a thing which giveth joy to their youth. I cannot understand how this unearthly freshness in something so old can possibly be explained, except on the supposition that it is indeed unearthly.
A very distinguished and dignified example of this paganism at bay is Mr. W. B. Yeats. He is a man I never read or hear without stimulation; his prose is even better than his poetry, and his talk is even better than his prose. But exactly in this sense he is at bay; and indeed especially so; for, of course, the hunt is up in Ireland in much fuller cry than in England. And if I wanted an example of the pagan defense at its best, I could not ask for a clearer statement than the following passage from his delightful memoirs in the Mercury; it refers to the more mournful poems of Lionel Johnson and his other Catholic friends:
I think it (Christianity) but deepened despair and multiplied temptation. . . . Why are these strange souls born everywhere today, with hearts that Christianity, as shaped by history, cannot satisfy? Our love letters wear out our love; no school of painting outlasts its founders, every stroke of the brush exhausts the impulse; pre-Raphaelitism had some twenty years; Impressionism, thirty, perhaps. Why should we believe that religion can never bring round its antithesis? Is it true that our air is disturbed, as Mellarme said, "by the trembling of the veil of the temple," or "that our whole age is seeking to bring forth a sacred book?" Some of us thought that book near towards the end of last century, but the tide sank again.Of course, there are many minor criticisms of all this. The faith only multiplies temptation in the sense that it would multiply temptation to turn a dog into a man. And it certainly does not deepen despair, if only for two reasons; first, that despair to a Catholic is itself a spiritual sin and blasphemy; and, second, that the despair of many pagans, often including Mr. Yeats, could not possibly be deepened. But what concerns me in these introductory remarks, is his suggestion about the duration of movements. When he gently asks why Catholic Christianity should last longer than other movements, we may well answer even more gently: "Why, indeed?" He might gain some light on why it should, if he would begin by inquiring why it does. He seems curiously unconscious that the very contrast he gives is against the case he urges. If the proper duration of a movement is twenty years, what sort of a movement is it that lasts nearly two thousand? If a fashion should last no longer that Impressionism, what sort of a fashion is it that lasts about fifty times as long? Is it just barely conceivable that it is not a fashion?
But it is exactly here that the first vital consideration recurs; which is not merely the fact that the thing remains, but the manner in which it returns. By the poet's reckoning of the chronology of such things, it is amazing enough that one such thing has so survived. It is much more amazing that it should have not survival, but revival, and revival with that very vivacity for which the poet admits he has looked elsewhere, and admits being disappointed when he looked elsewhere. If he was expecting new things, surely he ought not to be indifferent to something that seems unaccountably to be as good as new. If the tide sank again, what about the other tide that obviously rose again? The truth is that, like many such pagan prophets, he expected to get something, but he certainly never expected to get what he got. He was expecting a trembling in the veil of the temple; but he never expected that the veil of the most ancient temple would be rent. He was expecting the whole age to bring forth a sacred book; but he certainly never expected it to be a Mass book.
Yet this is really what has happened, not as a fancy or a point of opinion, but as a fact of practical politics. The nation to which his genius is an ornament has been filled with a fury of fighting, of murder and of martyrdom. God knows it has been tragic enough; but it has certainly not been without that religious exaltation that has so often been the twin of tragedy. Everyone knows that the revolution has been full of religion, and of what religion? Nobody has more admiration than I for the imaginative resurrections which Mr. Yeats himself has effected, by the incantation of Celtic song. But I doubt if Deirdre was the woman on whom men called in battle; and it was not, I think, a portrait of Oisin that the Black-and-Tan turned in shame to the wall.
Editor's Note.—We know that the readers of THE CATHOLIC WORLD will rejoice with us in the fact that we commence, in this number, a series of articles by Mr. G. K. Chesterton, on his recent conversion. For many years, we have considered him as a near neighbor and a good friend. But now he has become "one of the family." In the Editorial Comment of last month, we said, among other things, that there are those "who think of the Catholic Church merely as the old Church.' But the miracle of the Church is that she is the oldest and the youngest." It gives us a particular joy to have Mr. Chesterton mention this "miracle" as one of the "strongest of all the purely intellectual forces that dragged him towards the truth." All Catholics will welcome him to the Fold, but we think that none can greet him more cordially than those who enjoy THE CATHOLIC WORLD. For we and he are of the same spirit. The articles will be published synchronously in America and in England. On the other side of the ocean they will run in Blackfriars