Read CHAPTER III of The Faith of the Millions (2nd series), free online book, by George Tyrrell, on ReadCentral.com.

TWO ESTIMATES OF CATHOLIC LIFE.

Dealing as both do so largely with the inner life of English Catholic society, it is hardly possible to avoid comparing and contrasting One Poor Scruple with Helbeck of Bannisdale, one the work of a Catholic who knows the matter she is handling, almost experimentally; the other the work of a gifted outsider whose singular talent, careful observation, and studious endeavour to be fair-minded, fail to save her altogether from that unreality and a priori extravagance which experience alone can correct. To the non-Catholic, Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s book will appear a marvel of insight and acute analysis; for it will fit in with, and explain his outside observation of those Catholics with whom he has actually come in contact, far better than the preposterous notions that were in vogue fifty years ago. It represents them not as monstrously wicked and childishly idolatrous; but as narrow, extravagant, out-of-date, albeit, well-meaning folk more pitiable than dangerous.

Formerly when they lived secret and unknown, anything might safely be asserted about them; nothing was too wild or improbable. In those days “Father Clement” was the issue of a superhuman effort at charity and fairness; and the author almost seemed to think an apology was needed for such temerarious liberalism. But when Catholics began to breathe a little more freely and to creep out of their burrows somewhat less nervously; when, in fact, they were seen to be, at least in outward semblance, much as other men; some regard had to be paid to statements that could be checked by observation; and the Papist’s disappointing ordinariness had to be attributed to dissimulation or to be otherwise interpreted into accord with the preposterous principles by which their lives were thought to be governed.

Mrs. Humphrey Ward represents the furthest advance of this reform. She at least has spared no pains to acquaint herself with facts, to gather information, to verify statements. She is never guilty of the grotesque blunders that other high-class novelists fall into about Catholic beliefs, practices, and habits, simply because they are dealing with what is to their readers a terra incognita, and can, therefore, afford to be loose and inaccurate. An artistic conscientiousness which values truth and honesty in every detail, saves her from this too common snare. But it does not and cannot save her in the work of selection, synthesis, and interpretation of instances, which has to be guided, not by objective facts, but by subjective opinions and impressions. History written in a purely positivist spirit, ad narrandum, and in no sense ad docendum, is a chimerical notion by which Renan beguiled himself into thinking that his Vie de Jesus was a bundle of facts and nothing more. And Mrs. Humphrey Ward is no less beguiled, if she is unaware that in threading together, classifying and explaining the results of her conscientious observation and inquiry, she is governed by an a priori conception of Catholicism hardly different from that which inspired the author of “Father Clement.” Hence, to us Catholics, though her evident desire to be critical and impartial is gratifying, yet her failure is none the less conspicuous. Dr. Johnson once observed, that what might be wonderful dancing for a dog would be a very poor performance for a Christian; and so, to us, “Helbeck” as a presentment of Catholic life is wonderful as coming from an outsider, and, perhaps, especially from Mrs. Humphrey Ward, but in itself it is grotesque enough not through any culpable infidelity to facts, but through lack of the visual power, the guiding idea, whereby to read them aright.

In One Poor Scruple, Mrs. Wilfrid Ward brings to bear upon a somewhat similar task, an equal fidelity of observation supplemented by a first-hand, far wider, and more intimate experience of Catholics and their ways, and, above all, by that key which a share in their faith and beliefs alone furnishes to the right understanding of their conduct. Here too, no doubt, a contrary bias is to be suspected, nor is a purely, “positive” treatment of the subject conceivable or desirable. The view of an insider is as partial as the view of an outsider, though less viciously so; nor can we get at truth by the simple expedient of fitting the two together. The best witness is the rare individual who to an inside and experimental knowledge, adds the faculty of going outside and taking an objective and disinterested view. In truth this needs an amount of intellectual self-denial seldom realized to any great degree; but we venture to say that Mrs. Wilfrid Ward proves herself very worthy of confidence in this respect. There is certainly no artistic idealizing of Catholics, such as we are accustomed to in books written for the edification of the faithful. There is the same almost merciless realism which we find in “Helbeck” in dealing with certain trivialities and narrownesses of piety defects common to all whom circumstances confine to a little world, but more incongruous and conspicuous as contrasted with the dignity of Catholic ideals. Without conscious departure from truth, Mrs. Humphrey Ward is evidently influenced in her selection and manipulation of facts by the impression of Catholicism she already possesses and wants to illustrate and convey; but Mrs. Wilfrid Ward has, we think, risen above this weakness very notably, and should accordingly merit greater attention.

It may well be that this judicial impartiality may meet with its usual reward of pleasing neither side altogether. Some will complain that she brings no idealizing love to her subject, and does little to bring out the greatness and glory of her religion. Yet this would be a hasty and ill-judging criticism; for our faith is no less to be commended for the restraint it exercises over the multitude of ordinary men and women, than for the effect it produces in souls of a naturally heroic type. That it should bring a certain largeness into the smallest life, that it should impart a strange stability to a naturally unstable and frivolous character; that it should check the worldly-minded with a sense of the superior claims of the other world all this impresses us, if not with the sublimity or mystic beauty, at least with the solid reality and penetrating power of the Catholic faith.

The most loyal and deep-seated love needs not to shut its eyes to all defects and limitations, but can face them unchilled; and similarly there is often more faith and reverence and quiet enthusiasm in this seemingly cold and critical attitude towards the cause or party we love, than in the extravagant idealism that depends for its maintenance on an ignoring of things as they are.

Nothing perhaps is more unintelligible to the Protestant critic of Catholicism, nothing more needs to be brought out prominently, than the firm hold our religion can exercise over souls that are naturally irreligious.

This very phrase “naturally irreligious” will fall with a shock on sensitive Protestant ears; yet we use it advisedly. While all men are capable of faith and of substantial fidelity to the law of God, it is undeniable that but few are by natural inclination “religious” in the common acceptation of the term. As there is a poetic or mystical temperament, so also there is a religious temperament not quite so rare, but still something exceptional.

We find it so in all ages, ancient and modern; in all religions, Christian and non-Christian nay, even amid agnostics and unbelievers we often detect the now aimless, unused faculty. But most men have, naturally, no ardent spiritual sympathy with holiness, or mysticism, or heroism; their interests are elsewhere; and even where there are latent capacities of that kind, they are not usually developed until life’s severest lessons have been learnt. Thus the young, who have just left the negative faith and innocence of the nursery behind them and stand inexperienced on the threshold of life, are not normally religious; whereas we naturally expect those who have passed through the ordeal, and been disillusioned, to begin to think about their souls, since there is nothing else left to think about.

Now, the Catholic religion clearly recognizes these facts of human nature, and accommodates herself to them. However frankly it may be acknowledged that a religious temperament a certain complexus of mental, moral, and even physical dispositions is a condition favourable to heroic sanctity, it must be emphatically denied that to be “religious,” in the Protestant sense of the word, is requisite for salvation. And this denial the Church enforces by her recognition of the “religious state” as an extraordinary vocation. The purpose of “orders” and “congregations” is to provide a suitable environment for people of a religious temperament whose circumstances permit them to attend to its development in a more exclusive and, as it were, professional way. Not, indeed, that all religious-minded persons do, or ought to, enter into that external state of life; nor that all who so enter are by temperament and sympathy fitted for it, but that the institution points to the Church’s recognition of what is technically called the “way of perfection” as something exceptional and super-normal.

But the Church has a wider vocation than to provide hot-houses for the forcing of these rare exotics, whom the rough climate of a worldly life would either stunt or kill. Her first thought is for the multitudes of average humanity, who are not, and cannot be, in intelligent sympathy with many of the commands she lays upon them. They are but as children in religious matters however cultivated they may chance to be in other concerns. From such souls God requires faith, and obedience to the commandments a due, which, in certain rare crises, may mean heroism and martyrdom; but He does not expect of them that refinement of sanctity, that sustained attention to divine things, which depends so largely on one’s natural cast of mind and disposition; and may even be found where the martyr’s temper is altogether wanting. We recognize that there is certain serviceable, fustian, every-day piety, where, together with a great deal of spiritual coarseness, insensibility to venial sin and imperfection, there exists a firm faith that would go cheerfully to the stake rather than deny God, or offend Him in any grave point that might be considered a casus belli. And on the other hand a certain nicety of ethical discernment and delicacy of devotion, an anxiety about points of perfection, is a guarantee rather of the quality of one’s piety than of its depth or strength. The saint is usually one whose piety excels both in quality and strength; the martyr is often enough a man of many imperfections and sins, veiling an unsuspected, deep-reaching faith. The day of persecution has ever been a day of revelation in this respect a day when the seemingly perfect have been scattered like chaff before the wind, while the once thoughtless and careless have stood stubborn before the blast.

Protestantism of the Calvinistic or Puritan type shows little consciousness of the distinction we are insisting upon. It is disposed to draw a hard-and-fast line between the “converted” and the reprobate. Those who are not religious-minded, or who do not take a serious turn, are scarcely recognized as “saved” although they may not be convicted of any very flagrant or definite breach of the divine law. Their morality or their “good works” go for little if they do not experience that sense of goodness, or of being saved, which is called faith. Much stress is laid on “feeling good” and little value allowed to what we might call an unsympathetic and grudging keeping of God’s law however much more it may cost, from the very fact that it is in some way unsympathetic, and against the grain. The service of fear and reverence, which Catholicism regards as the basis and back-bone of love, is held to be abject and unworthy almost sinful.

Hence it befalls that no place is found in the Protestant heaven for the great majority of ordinary people who do not feel a bit good or religious, who rather dislike going to church and keeping the commandments, and yet who keep them all the same, because they believe in God and fear His judgments and honour His law, and even love Him in the solid, undemonstrative way in which a naughty and troublesome child loves its parents.

That such a character as Madge Riversdale’s should cover a small, firm core of faith and fear under a cortex of worldliness and frivolity; that religion should have such a hold on one so entirely irreligious by nature, is something quite inconceivable to a mind like, let us say, Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s; and yet absolutely intelligible to the ordinary Catholic.

The Church to us, is not what it is to the Protestant a sort of pasture land in which we are at liberty to browse if we are piously disposed. It is not merely a convenient environment for the development of the religious faculty. She stands to us in the relation of shepherd, with a more than parental authority to feed and train our souls through infancy to maturity; that is, from the time when we do not know or like what is good for us, to the time when we begin to appreciate and spontaneously follow her directions. Just then as a child, however naturally recalcitrant and ill-disposed, retains a certain fundamental goodness and root of recovery so long as it acknowledges and obeys the authority of its father and mother; so the ordinary unreligious Catholic, who has been brought up to believe in the divine authority of the Church, finds therein all the protection that obedience offers to those who are incapable of self-government. “In Madge’s eyes the woman who married an innocent divorcee was no more than his mistress.” Had Madge been a pious Protestant she naturally might have examined the question of divorce on its own merits; she might have weighed the pros and cons of the problem; she might have consulted God in prayer, and have listened to this clergyman on one side; and to that, on the other: but eventually she would have been thrown upon herself; she would have had no one whose decision she was bound to obey. But wild and lawless as she is, yet being a Catholic there is one voice on earth which she fears to disbelieve or disobey. Looked at even from a human standpoint, the consensus of a world-wide, ancient, organized society like the Roman Church cannot but exert a powerful pressure on the minds of its individual members. It would need no ordinary rebellion of the will for a thoughtless girl to shake her mind so free of that influence as to live happily in the state of revolt. But where in addition to this the Church is viewed as speaking in the name of God, and as so representing Him on earth that her ban or blessing is inseparable from His, it is obvious that such a belief in her claims will give her a power for good over the unreligious majority analogous to that possessed by a parent over an untrained child a power, that is, of discipline and external motive which serves to supplement or supply for the present defect of internal motive.

Thus it is that the Church reckons among her obedient children thousands of very imperfect and non-religious people for whom Protestantism can find no place among the elect.

Again, the solid faith of men with so little intellectual or emotional interest in religion as Squire Riversdale or Marmaduke Lemarchant is something very puzzling to the Protestant critic who, for the reasons just insisted on, can have nothing corresponding to it in his own experience. It is a psychological state of which his own religious system takes no account. Where there is no intermediating Church, the soul is either in direct and mystical union with God or else wholly estranged and indifferent. A man is either serious and religious-minded, or he is nothing. Like an untutored child, if he is not naturally good, there is no one to make him so. But when the Church is acknowledged as our tutor under God, as empowered by Him to lead us to Him; a middle condition is found of those who are not naturally disposed to religion, and yet who are submissive to that divine authority whose office it is to shape their souls to better sympathies. Riversdale is a far truer type of the Catholic country squire of the old school than the somewhat morbid and impossible Helbeck of Bannisdale. With her preconceived notions, Mrs. Humphrey Ward could not imagine any alternative between ‘religious’ and ‘irreligious’ in the Puritan sense. If Helbeck was to be a good Catholic at all he must of necessity be fanatically devoted to the propagation of the faith and offer his fortune and energies to the service of an unscrupulous clergy only too ready to play upon his credulous enthusiasm. His is represented as being naturally a religious and mystical soul, but blighted and narrowed through the influence of Catholicism. We are made to feel that the only thing the matter with him is his creed “all those stifling notions of sin, penance, absolution, direction, as they were conventionalized in Catholic practice and chattered about by stupid and mindless people.”

On the other hand, in Squire Riversdale and Marmaduke Lemarchant there is by nature nothing but healthy humanity, no mystic or religious strain whatever; they are not semi-ecclesiastics like Helbeck; and yet we feel that their prosaic lives are governed, restrained, and rectified by a deep-rooted faith in the authority of the Catholic Church. “The qualities most obvious are not those of the mystic, but of the manly out-of-door sportsman who may seem to be nothing more than a bluff Englishman who rides to the hounds and does his ordinary duties. Yet one of these red-coated cavaliers would, I have not the least doubt, if occasion called for it, show himself capable of the very highest heroism. Men of action, I should say, and not of reflection a race of few words but of brave deeds.”

It was just men of this unromantic type, men of solid but unostentatious faith, given wholly to the business of this life save for one sovereign secret reserve, who in time of persecution stood fast “ready any day to be martyred for the faith and to regard it as the performance of a simple duty and nothing to boast of.” And if there is in the type a certain narrowness of sympathy and lack of intelligent interest which offends us, we may ask whether, with our human limitations, narrowness is not to some extent the price we pay for strength; whether where decision of judgment and energy of action is demanded, as in times of persecution, width of view and multiplicity of sympathies may not be a source of weakness. Contrast, for example, the character of Mark Fieldes with that of Marmaduke Lemarchant, and it will be clear that the strength and straightness of the latter is closely associated with the absence of that versatility of intellect and affection which make the former a more interesting but far less lovable and estimable personality. To see all sides and issues of a question, is a speculative, but not always a practical advantage; to have many diversified tastes and affections helps to enlarge our sympathies, but not to concentrate our energies.

Of course great minds and strong hearts can afford to be comprehensive without loss of depth and intensity; but our present interest is with ordinary mortals and average powers. A man who has all his life unreflectingly adopted the traditional principle that death is preferable to dishonour, that a lie is essentially dishonourable, will be far more likely to die for the truth, than one who has philosophized much about honour and veracity, and whose resolution is enfeebled by the consciousness of the weak and flimsy support which theory lends to these healthy and universally received maxims. And similarly those who have received the faith by tradition, who for years have assumed it in their daily conduct as a matter of course, in whom therefore it has become an ingrained psychological habit, who hold it, in what might be condemned as a narrow, unintellectual fashion, are just the very people who will fight and die for it, when its more cultivated and reflective professors waver, temporize, and fall away. Taking human nature as it is, who can doubt but that this is the way in which the majority are intended to hold their religious, moral, philosophical, and political convictions; that reflex thought is, must, and ought to be confined to a small minority whose function is slowly to shape and correct that great body of public doctrine by which the beliefs of the multitude are ruled? We do not mean to say that such prosaic “narrowness” as we speak of, is essential to strength; but only that a habit of theoretical speculation and a continual cultivation of delicate sensibility is a source of enervation which needs some compensating corrective. This corrective is found in the exalted idealism which characterizes the great saints and reformers, such as Augustine, or Francis, or Teresa, or Ignatius souls at once mystical and energetically practical to the highest degree. It is something of this temper which is parodied in Alan Helbeck. But the Church’s mission is not merely to those rare souls whose sympathy with her own mind and will is intelligent and spontaneous; but at least as much to the multitudes who have to be guided more or less blindly by obedience to tradition and authority, or else let wander as sheep having no shepherd. These considerations explain why One Poor Scruple seems to us so far truer a presentment of Catholic life than Helbeck of Bannisdale the difference lying in the incommunicable advantage which an insider possesses over an outsider in understanding the spirit and principles by which the members of any social body are governed. Of all religions, Catholicism which represents the accumulated results of two thousand years’ worldwide experience of human nature applied to the principles of the Gospel, is least likely to be comprehended by an outsider, however observant and fair-minded.

To those for whom the lawfulness of re-marriage for an innocent divorcee is, like the rest of their religious beliefs, a matter of opinion, the scruple of a character like Madge Riversdale is unthinkable and incredible. Such women do not trouble their heads about theological points; still less, make heroic sacrifices for their private and peculiar convictions. But those for whom the Church is a definite concrete reality almost a person governing and teaching with divine authority, will easily understand the firm grip she can and does exert on those who have no other internal principle of restraint; who would shake themselves free if they dared. Let those who despise the results of such a constraint be consistent and abolish all parental and tutorial control; all educative government of whatsoever description; nay, the imperious restraint of conscience itself, which is often obeyed but grudgingly.

While some features of this portrait of Catholic life are common to all its phases, others are peculiar to the aspect it presents in England, where Catholics being a small and weak minority are, so to say, self-conscious in their faith continually aware that they are not as the rest of men; disposed therefore to be apologetic or aggressive or defensive. Again, the circumstance of their long exclusion from the social and intellectual life of their country is accountable for other undesirable peculiarities which Mrs. Wilfrid Ward sees no reason to spare.

We have not, however, attempted anything like a literary estimate of this interesting, altogether readable work, but have only endeavoured to draw attention to an important point, which, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it illustrates very admirably.

May, 1899.