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Monday, February 6, 2012

II.—The Youth Of The Church. The Catholic World, December 1922

When the Master-Builder spoke apprehensively of the younger generation knocking at the door, it certainly never occurred to him to apprehend that it might be the church door. And yet, even in the figure of Ibsen, might have been found signs of so strange a sequel. The very words, Master-Builder, are but a tradition from a mediaeval system, and it is that very system which some would now make a rough model for the modern system. And if the Master-Builder had been driven by his ruthless lady friend to make a tour of Europe, looking for the tallest towers to climb, he would soon have discovered what people of what period had the right to be called masters of building. He would have found himself in the tracks of many a master, who not only climbed his own tower, but carved his own angels or devils at the four corners of it, hanging as on wings above the void.

The artists and art critics of the rising generation had already begun knocking at the church door fifty years ago, in the time of Ruskin and William Morris. In our own time, a yet younger generation of art students are justifying their bold, or possibly bald, simplifications by yet severer doctrines drawn from the Primitives. The new artists may be, in a chronological sense, Post-Impressionists, but they are also, in a strict historical sense, Pre-Raphaelites. But this youngest generation knocks at the door of the Master-Builder, not only to ask about the church of which he was a builder, but also about the guild in which he was a master. Mediaevalism provokes a study, not merely artistic, like Morris and Ruskin, but as economic as that of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb. Let it be understood that I am not here discussing whether these views are accurate; I am only pointing out that, whatever they are, they are not merely antiquated. We may denounce or delight in the school of Mr. Eric Gill; but if we denounce it, it will not be merely for being too mediaeval; it is much more likely to be for being very much too modern. We may quarrel or sympathize with the Guild Socialists; but we cannot deny that they do, in fact, think they are advancing a modern thing like Socialism by adding to it an ancient word like guild. We cannot deny that these men would, in fact, be stared at, guyed or made game of merely as advanced and even anarchical innovators. The rising generation is not necessarily right; but this generation is certainly rising. Its enthusiasms cannot be dismissed as emotions of elderly regret.

I could give, of course, any number of other examples, but it is sufficient for this summary to say that there are now not only movements, but new movements on our side. I deliberately refrain from dwelling on that with which I have been rather more concerned, along with my brother and many of my friends; but which Mr. Belloc stood alone in England in preaching twenty years ago. Mr. Belloc and my brother were not exactly pallid aesthetic reactionaries seeking peace in the ruins of the past. The Distributism which they preached is now solidifying into a political party all over Europe. But in Europe, as distinct from England, the movement had older roots; and the glory of it, under God, goes without question to the great Pope, Leo XIII. Here I only note briefly the facts of the present, to show that they are part of a series that can as clearly be traced in the past. It is not true, as the rationalist histories imply, that through the ages orthodoxy has grown old slowly. It is rather heresy that has grown old quickly.

The Reformation grew old amazingly quickly. It was the Counter-Reformation that grew young. In England, it is strange to note how soon Puritanism turned into Paganism, or perhaps ultimately into Philistinism. It is strange to note how soon the Puritans degenerated into Whigs. By the end of the seventeenth century, English politics had dried up into a wrinkled cynicism that might have been as old as Chinese etiquette. It was the Counter-Reformation that was full of the fire and even of the impatience of youth. It was in the Catholic figures of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we find the spirit of energy and, in the only noble sense, of novelty. It was people like St. Teresa who reformed; people like Bossuet who challenged; people like Pascal who questioned; people like Suarez who speculated. The counter-attack was like a charge of the old spears of chivalry. And, indeed, the comparison is very relevant to the generalization. I believe that this renovation, which has certainly happened in our own time, and which certainly happened in a time so recent as the Reformation, has really happened again and again in the history of Christendom.

Working backwards on the same principle, I will mention at least two examples which I suspect to have been similar: the case of Islam and the case of Arianism. The Church had any number of opportunities of dying, and even of being respectfully interred. But the younger generation always began once again to knock at the door; and never louder than when it was knocking at the lid of the coffin, in which it had been prematurely buried. Islam and Arianism were both attempts to broaden the basis to a sane and simple Theism, the former supported by great military success and the latter, by great imperial prestige. They ought to have finally established a new system, but for the one perplexing fact, that the old system preserved the only seed and secret of novelty. Anyone reading between the lines of the twelfth century record, can see that the world was permeated by potential Pantheism and Paganism; we can see it in the dread of the Arabian version of Aristotle, in the rumors about great men being Moslems in secret. Old men, seeing the simple faith of the Dark Ages dissolving, might well have thought that the fading of Christendom into Islam would be the next thing to happen. If so, the old men would have been very much surprised at what did happen.

What did happen was a roar like thunder from thousands and thousands of young men, throwing all their youth into one exultant counter-charge: the Crusades. The actual effect of the danger from the younger religion was the renewal of our own youth. It was the sons of St. Francis, the Jugglers of God, wandering singing over all the roads of the world; it was the Gothic going up like a flight of arrows; it was the rejuvenation of Europe. And though I know less of the older period, I suspect that the same was true of Athanasian orthodoxy in revolt against Arian officialism. The older men had submitted to a compromise, and St. Athanasius led the younger like a divine demagogue. The persecuted carried into exile the sacred fire. It was a flaming torch that could be cast out, but could not be trampled out.

Whenever Catholicism is driven out as an old thing, it always returns as a new thing. It suggests some parable in which an old man should be driven forth from the fireside to wander in the storm like Lear, but should return as a young man at the head of a mob, to thunder at the door like Laertes. The parable could not merely be a human tragedy, even a Shakespearean tragedy. It would have to be, in the most exact sense of the words, a divine comedy. In other words, that tragedy could only be a miracle play. That particular state of things could not be rendered in any story except a supernatural story; or, as the skeptic would put it, a fairy story. It would be easy enough to make a human tragedy about the old man being right, or about the young man being wrong, or even about the young man being punished for being wrong. But, probably, the chief punishment of the young man would be the death of the old man. It would be that he had to weep with unavailing repentance beside a grave. It would not be that the old man would suddenly jump up out of the grave, and hit him a hearty thwack over the head. That sort of punishment is only possible in a divine comedy; but that sort of punishment is exactly the sort of poetical justice which has, age after age, marked the revivals of our religion. What the realists call real life does not exhibit anything so lively as that. That sort of story is something much livelier than a ghost story; it is not so much like any tales of ghosts as like the old tales of the gods; and that also is very much to the point.

It is not a survival. It is not impossible to imagine that some very old thing might manage to survive. The Druids, let us say, if the course of religious conflicts had been different, might conceivably have lingered through some local traditions for two thousand years to the present time. It is not easy to imagine even this; but it is not impossible. But if it were true, the Druids would look lingering; the Druids would look two thousand years old; in short, the Druids would look like Druids. The Catholic priests do not look in the least like Druids. It is not a question of how many stones of Stonehenge are still standing, and how many have fallen over, or been knocked over. The stones of the Catholic Stonehenge were knocked over; they always are knocked over; and they always are laboriously put up again. The point is that as many of the Druidic stones as fell, still lie where they fell, and will lie there forever. There has not been a Druidic revolution every two or three hundred years, with young Druids, crowned with fresh mistletoe, dancing in the sun on Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge has not been re-built in every style of architecture from the rude round Norman to the last rococo of the Renaissance. The sacred place of the Druids is safe from what is called the vandalism of restoration.

This, then, is the vital distinction, upon which I have dwelt before going further, because its comprehension concerns the argument later on. It is not endurance, but the kind of recovery. Doubtless, there are, in every such transition, groups of good, and even glorious, Catholics, who have held to their religion rather as a thing of the past; and I have far too much admiration for their religious loyalty to insist here on any regrets for their reactionary politics. It is possible to look back to the passing of the monk, merely as one looks back to the passing of the Stuarts; it is possible to look back to the passing of the Stuarts merely as one looks back to the passing of the Druids. But Catholicism is not a thing that faded with the final failure of the Jacobites; rather it is a thing that returned with a rush after the relative failure of the Jacobins. There may have been ecclesiastics surviving from the Dark Ages who did not understand the new movement of the Middle Ages; there certainly were good Catholics who did not see the need for the great raid of the Jesuits or the reforms of St. Teresa; and they were most probably much better people than we are.

But the rejuvenation does recur; and it is the first fact with which I have wished to start my argument. Its effect on the question of the seat of authority and the limits of communion I may proceed to consider at another time. But, for the moment, I am content to say that we live in one of these recurrent periods of Catholicism on the march; and to draw a more simple moral from it. The real honor is due to those who were with it when its cause seemed hopeless; and no credit, beyond that of common intelligence, really belongs to anyone who has joined it when it is so evidently the hope of the world.

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