From Nadir to Zenith: A Response to a Roman Catholic Challenge
THE author of ‘The Nadir of Nothingness’1 has carried the war into the enemy’s country. In controversy, as in campaigning, it is often sound strategy to defend by attacking. ‘The Catholic Church and the Modern Mind’ was presumably intended to put Roman Catholicism on the defensive. Now comes Mr. MacManus with his offensive defense and drives the scattered forces of Protestantism into the sea. If Sydney Smith were alive he might add a touch of humor to the resulting situation. When a war between rival philosophies had been fiercely waged, his comment was this: ‘Bishop Berkeley destroyed this World in one volume octavo; and nothing remained, after his time, but Mind — which experienced a similar fate at the hands of Mr. Hume in 1737.’
But somehow or other it is hard to feel humorous in the presence of the pending religious controversy. It is well enough for Mr. MacManus to exhort Protestants to good temper. When they read his article they will need all of it they can summon; but not a whit more than is required of the devout Catholic when he sees the weaknesses of his loved Church exaggerated and its strength passed over in silence.
The simple truth is that religious antipathies in this country are at the present time deep and bitter. This is bad for America; and what is bad for America is bad for the world. There is danger in allowing a poison to permeate national life. The Atlantic Monthly has done an important service in affording to everybody an opportunity for self-expression. It is better to discuss such issues in the sunlight and with entire frankness. When possible, it should be done over the names of the disputants.
As a layman of the Protestant Episcopal Church, I am here making an adventurous attempt at a restatement of the issues involved in the pending controversy. An accurate definition of differences must always precede any serious attempt at reconciliation.
I begin by disclaiming any intention to charge my Roman Catholic friends with ‘mediævalism.’ When a philosophic or religious belief is under discussion, the question is not whether it is mediæval, but whether it is valid. I suppose nobody would discount Chaucer’s shrewd analysis of human character merely because he expressed himself in fourteenth-century English. On the other hand, I lay aside as unworthy, from every point of view except that of strategy, all oracular assertions that Protestantism is either the nadir or the zenith of nothingness. If it were, it would not have been worth while for Mr. MacManus to write. Intelligent people do not make so much ado about nothing. No: Catholicism and Protestantism are forces to be recognized and dealt with. Nothing is gained by magnifying or belittling the potency of either of them.
My starting point in a restatement of issues will be the obvious difference between the view that ultimate truth is to be found by those who search alone and the view that success is assured if the searchers hunt collectively. The individualist, as a solitary seeker after truth, searches for God, and, when found, establishes relations with Him in his own way. Nobody with any spiritual experience or with power of observation will be likely to deny that in multitudes of instances God’s self-revelation to such seekers comes as an exceeding great reward. Others, however, hold that the revelation of divine truth is reserved for those who seek in groups which in size may range all the way down from the blessed company of all faithful people to the intimate association of a few like-minded friends.
It is at this point that Mr. MacManus makes what seems to me to be his first serious mistake. He says that there are in the Western world to-day only two systems of religious thought: the authoritarian, or Catholic, and the sectarian, which is Protestant. Now the fact is that there are indeed two schools of Christian thought. One is pure individualism, which is neither Catholic nor Protestant, and the other is collectivism, which includes both Catholic and Protestant. ‘Collectivism’ usually has an economic and political significance. I use the term in this article to denote the antithesis of individualism in the field of religious thinking.
In the school of collectivism there are those who hold that ultimate religious truth can be found only in the common and persistent consciousness of all Christian people, and those who hold that the revelation of truth may come to groups of fellow seekers smaller than the whole number of the faithful. The determination whether you will be a solitary seeker or a seeker in fellowship must be made, as all other determinations are made, by an act in which your intelligence and will coöperate. In other words, you must use your judgment. If you decide that you will make your quest alone, this means that you are satisfied to find the source of authority within you. If you unite with other seekers, you are thereby conditioning your liberty of thought by striving to adjust your own thinking to the judgment of the group. In their corporate or collective judgment resides your authority.
If the first issue to be stated is between those who seek truth alone and those who seek it collectively, the next issue concerns the internal contentions of the collectivists respecting the kind of group which may rightfully claim to be illuminated and guided by the Spirit of God. As a matter of history, there was only one group until, about 870 A.D., the Great Schism cut apart the Church in the East and the Church in the West. Until that time, therefore, it could be successfully asserted that Christian truth was synonymous with the accepted teachings of a universal and undivided fellowship. After the Schism, which continues to this day, each of the two resulting groups of fellow seekers still retained its belief that ultimate truth resides in the common consciousness of all Christians. Each group, however, claimed that its position in the great controversy was identical with the primitive Christian position. In other words, the Eastern Church and the Western Church each asserted itself to be the repository of Orthodoxy.
Thereafter the Western group retained its substantial integrity until affected by the series of sixteenth-century events which are called collectively the Reformation. As an incident of the Reformation came the assertion that Christian truth is to be sought not only in the common consciousness of all Christendom, but also in the illumination by the Holy Spirit of earnest and devout groups of like-minded men banded together in a determined quest of the Kingdom of God. Catholicism, with its insistence upon the wholeness of the Christian fellowship, thus stands in opposition to Protestantism, with its corresponding insistence that the true unit of fellowship is not a worldwide corporation, but the smaller group of like-minded fellow seekers.
The third issue to be stated is one which divides into two groups those who agree in the Catholic theory that truth resides in the consciousness of the whole Church. This issue is, for present purposes, the most important of all. On one side is the claim that the world-wide Christian body can express itself only through corporate meetings, called General Councils, and that the decrees of these Councils derive their ultimate authority from subsequent tacit acceptance by the whole body of the faithful. The first seven of these General Councils, by the way, from 325 A.D. to 787 A.D., are of undisputed authority. An exception is the Council of Chalcedon, which is repudiated by the ancient Armenian Church. Thirteen others, from 869 A.D. to 1869 A.D., are affirmed only by Roman Catholics to have had an œcumenical character. In derogation of conciliar authority is the Roman Catholic assertion that the pope is God’s sole and exclusive agent for the determination and proclamation of ultimate truth in matters of faith and morals, and that, if a General Council were to meet, its decrees would be of authority only in virtue of their confirmation by the pope as distinguished from their acceptance by the whole body of the faithful. This issue, then, is between those who hold that the voice of all the faithful is the voice of God and those who maintain that the Voice Divine is heard, if not exclusively, at least normally, only when the pope makes an ex-cathedra utterance.
It cannot be said with accuracy that this issue between Catholics and Roman Catholics is an issue between democracy and autocracy. The claim is not, on the one hand, that the people are the source of truth and, on the other, that its source is found in the pope. In both cases the truth is regarded as proceeding from God, and the only question concerns its channel of communication to man. This is true whether the non-Roman Catholics are in the Eastern Church or in certain separated national churches or inside the Anglican Communion. It would be nearer the truth to assert that it is Protestantism that corresponds to democracy and that Roman Catholicism is akin to imperialism; for the systems of church government which result from the Protestant theory are in fact democratic, while the essence of the Roman system is centralization carried to its last extremity.
An uninformed reader of ‘The Nadir of Nothingness’ would naturally infer that the faith of a devout Roman Catholic of to-day has actually been prescribed for him by the pope in virtue of papal infallibility. In point of fact, however, the dogma of papal infallibility dates only from July 18, 1870, the day upon which the decree of the Vatican Council was confirmed by Pope Pius IX. ‘During the proceedings,’ says a Roman Catholic writer, ‘a thunderstorm broke over the Vatican, and amid thunder and lightning the pope promulgated the new dogma, like a Moses promulgating the law on Mount Sinai.’ It is a curious historical coincidence that on the next day Napoleon III declared war on Prussia, and so began the conflict which eventually ended in the loss of the temporal possessions of the papacy. It is, however, more than a coincidence that no vital or even important part of Roman Catholic belief has been the subject of papal declaration since the Vatican Council assembled, saving only the dogma that the pope is infallible. The ‘authoritarian’ principle invoked by Mr. MacManus has therefore little to do with what the devout Roman Catholic actually believes, but a very great deal to do with the kind of organization that the Roman Catholic Church has now become.
This can best be understood if it is borne in mind that the pope, in virtue of election to office, does not become a priest, if he was not one before. A layman may be elected pope. One of the greatest of the popes, Gregory VII, was only a deacon when elected. He was subsequently ordained priest and his consecration as pope followed. In such case his authority to celebrate Mass, administer the sacraments, and perform other sacerdotal functions results from his priesthood, not from his papacy.
In other words, the papacy is not an order at all. What the pope exercises in virtue of the papal office is jurisdiction. His jurisdiction is exercised, not over territory, but over people. It is true that at times there have been ‘States of the Church’ — territories over which the authority of civil government was exercised. But such temporal possessions are not of the essence of the papacy. The essential papal jurisdiction extends to the following exclusive functions of major importance: to make ex-cathedra declarations on questions of faith and morals, which decrees are irreformable; to set forth creeds; to prescribe books of instruction, to establish universities, to direct missions, to prohibit the reading of books injurious to the faith, to condemn specific propositions as heretical, to determine what is lawful in social relations and in family life, to prescribe liturgical services, to canonize saints, to legislate for the whole Church either directly or through a Council whose acts are subject to his confirmation, to modify or annul existing canons, to exercise supreme judicial authority, whether original or appellate, to nominate cardinals, to establish dioceses and nominate (or confirm the nomination of) bishops throughout the world, to approve new religious orders and subject them to his own direct authority by exempting them from local episcopal jurisdiction, and to lay upon the faithful taxes for ecclesiastical purposes.
If this incomplete catalogue of papal powers is carefully analyzed, its full significance will be realized. When it is likewise realized that the jurisdiction is what is technically known as ‘immediate,’ the scope of the papal power will be better appreciated. In virtue of the immediacy of his jurisdiction, the pope sustains a direct relation to each of the faithful, whether he be pastor or layman, and this relation results in a power of control which is not exercisable through the local bishop.
Anyone who has even a slight understanding of military or political organization will perceive that under such a system the laity, as such, are privates in the ranks, without access to headquarters. The Church, like a state dominated by a powerful political organization, is in theory composed of the masses of the people. Practically, however, the Church is the clergy, and every clergyman, be he pastor of a flock or bishop of a diocese or member of a religious order, is subject to a control which, according to the point of view, is either salutary or the opposite. If Protestantism is poor on the side of authority, Roman Catholicism is bankrupt in the matter of representation.
In order to state the issue presented by such a record, it is not necessary to use the language of violent controversy or even to discuss the relative merits of competing systems. The issue is obvious and inevitable. It is an inescapable fact that the vast majority of those who are subject to the Roman obedience must regard with something between amusement and contempt the decentralized systems of other Christian bodies. ‘The Nadir of Nothingness’ is merely an expression of this unhappy state of mind. On the other hand, it is similarly a fact that a like majority of those trained to revere democracy and representative government are restless and suspicious in the presence of a power which seems to them inconsistent with constitutional liberty. In the United States we are committed to the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial power, and we regard those in office as deriving their authority from the people. In the Roman Catholic Church the supreme executive, legislative, and judicial power is centred in one individual claiming to be divinely commissioned to speak in the name of Our Lord, and elected by cardinals who are themselves papal appointees. Mr. MacManus naturally resents the charge that Roman Catholics are deficient in loyalty to country. He must realize, however, that most popular judgments such as this are impervious to refined explanation. What will happen if Uncle Sam bids the devout Roman Catholic arise and do battle, while the pope by divine direction lays upon him a different injunction, is the kind of question which the man on the street is too impatient to debate. He settles it without hearing the other side.
Most thoughtful people will agree with Mr. MacManus that what a man believes has a determining effect upon his conduct. But it by no means follows that his conduct will be determined by what he says he believes. Belief, to be dynamic, must be the belief that one achieves or wholeheartedly assimilates. A man may repeat the Creed with intellectual assent to its authority, but the next minute may find him acting with willful disloyalty to his Master. It is perhaps because of this obvious fact that the weakest part of Mr. MacManus’s article is that in which he undertakes to show that a Roman Catholic ought to be the best of citizens and concludes that he therefore is. This is to revive the ancient issue respecting the actual effect upon a man of an overriding and final authority. A professional soldier of the ‘hard-boiled’ variety might easily deify discipline and ridicule civilian administration as the nadir of nothingness. But instantly his condemnation of the civilian could be matched by Bernard Shaw’s caricature of the professional soldier. ‘ His whole training,’ says Shaw, ‘tends to make him a weakling. He has the easiest of lives: he has no freedom and no responsibility. . . . The rules are plain and simple; the ceremonies of respect and submission are as easy and mechanical as a prayer wheel; the orders are always to be obeyed thoughtlessly, however inept or dishonorable they may be. As the late Laureate said in the two stinging lines in which he branded the British soldier with the dishonor of Esau, “theirs not to reason why: theirs but to do and die.” To the moral imbecile and political sluggard these conditions are as congenial and attractive as they are abhorrent and intolerable to the William Tell temperament.’ Mr. MacManus fails to appreciate Protestantism as Mr. Shaw fails to appreciate the soldier.
This perennial question respecting the effect of overwhelming a man with authority recurs when one attempts to estimate the Roman Catholic clergy as factors in the life of any nation. Discipline indeed rescues them from making oracular utterances on public questions to which they have given insufficient study. Some submit themselves to all manner of control with a humility that is altogether admirable. Others manifest that unlovely quality which looks like deference toward a superior but betrays itself in what savors of tyranny over a subordinate. It is a rare man who can serve as an officer in so compact and well-disciplined an organization without unduly emphasizing the power that he wields. When regard is had to the extensive jurisdiction which he is licensed to exercise, the true nature of the clergyman’s inward self becomes a matter of grave public concern.
A Protestant minister or group of ministers may talk big and claim to speak for the whole Protestant world. Such an empty claim does little harm, because in a representative system nobody has any such authority and few take the claim seriously. In an imperial system, clerical utterances, except where they are anonymous, must receive anxious consideration because they have behind them the backing of a great organization.
This comment upon the issue between authority and representation introduces a fact which seems not to have occurred to Mr. MacManus. The fact is that the fundamental differences between Christian groups of whatever size are differences in the field of political science rather than in the field of theology. From the Catholic point of view, a bishop, when consecrated, becomes a bishop of the whole Church of God, not of a subdivision thereof. This appears when you consult the Eastern Orthodox form of consecration, the Roman form, and the form set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. The sequence styled the Apostolic Succession is fundamentally a device by which authority to act for a world-wide group is perpetually transmitted through a selfperpetuating body of commissioning trustees. In the absence of such an institution there would have to be action by a meeting of the world-wide body of Christians, which is now an impossibility, or else an acceptance of the Protestant theory that valid ministerial authority is derivable from groups smaller than the whole. Almost every denominational difference that can be suggested corresponds to some difference between types of corporate organization familiar to lawyers. The papacy itself, founded on a claim which presupposes the sanctity of collectivism, has now become the most notable instance of individualism in the world. Mr. MacManus focuses not a little of his scorn on the right of exercise by Protestants of private judgment. He intimates that the sixty or seventy millions of unchurched in the United States were once Protestants, but have lapsed into religious nothingness through the exercise of this right. He seems to overlook the fact that it is only in virtue of an heroic exercise of this very faculty that a man can decide to surrender it. From the Roman Catholic point of view, it is only in this way that those outside the fold can climb into it. Once in, they must discredit the ladder by which alone they climbed.
It would be difficult to paint the outlook for civilization in colors more sombre than those which Mr. MacManus applies to his canvas. Having mistakenly identified sectarianism with unwillingness to accept papal authority, and after blaming upon Protestantism pretty much everything that is amiss in the world, this prophet of gloom proceeds as follows: —
If sectarianism ever has the courage to confront itself with its own colossal and tragic failures and admit that they involve the annihilation of existing civilization, only two courses are open. It must either maintain the sufficiency of churchlessness and creedlessness when properly administered for the salvation of society, or go over to Rome, en masse. It will never do the latter, and so, humanly speaking, there is no solution. If society is dependent for its salvation upon the Christian dispensation, and if the sectarian idea is to dominate and be carried to its last anarchic conclusion, then society is indubitably doomed.
It is difficult to understand, if the Roman Catholic position is sound, why there should be such black despair of its acceptance by the world. Mr. MacManus concedes that ‘fifty or sixty or seventy million’ of Americans are sufficiently ‘straight-thinking, more or less logical-minded, consistent human beings’ to have thought themselves out of the nothingness of Protestantism. They are not, then, invincibly ignorant. They are, presumably, in a state of mind hospitable to a valid revelation of divine truth. A mind emancipated from one extreme is usually ready to take refuge in the other. It would seem, therefore, to be the day of boundless opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church. Yet in the presence of such opportunity Mr. MacManus despairs — and well he may. The simple fact is that imperialism may satisfy some of the people some of the time, but it cannot satisfy all of the people all of the time. It may be that there is something wrong with most of us or something wrong with imperialism; but for practical purposes the result is the same. If it were really true that there is no salvation outside the Roman Church, then the ultimate failure of Christianity and civilization might be not merely feared but confidently predicted. There are, however, multitudes of Christians who cannot be persuaded that their one chance of salvation lies in the acceptance of an ecclesiastical system which to them seems at war with the best that is in them. Between imperialists and anti-imperialists there is no possibility of reconciliation.
Over against this great gulf is the fact that, if the Christian dispensation is God’s revelation of truth, it is not unreasonable to expect its ultimate acceptance by men of all temperaments and of the most diverse attitudes toward matters of organization and government. Protestantism, if emphasis were laid on faith rather than on mechanics, might well come to an acceptance of the rule of Saint Vincent of Lérins: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus. In the attempt to identify the faith of a man with the mechanism for compelling his faith, controversialists are apt to shut their eyes to the obvious and reassuring fact that there is a substantial unity of belief between Christians of many names. The chief obstacle to a realization of the Christian unity that actually exists is insistence upon the acceptance of an impossible method of preserving it. The substitution of uniformity for unity is a hopeless undertaking.
On the other hand, the Christian believer who longs for unity in the faith cannot but find ground for hope when he discovers that the obstacles in his path are rather matters of organization and government than of spiritual apprehension and belief. This hopeful fact is dim-descried amid the dust clouds of controversy. As far as belief is concerned, there are fixed stars in the Christian firmament. There is God, who in the drama of human history has disclosed Himself as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. There is the supreme act of Love which has as its motive the At-one-ment of God and man, and as its method the Incarnation. Around these are clustered many bright but lesser stars by which devout Catholics, Protestants, and Roman Catholics alike steer their course. These are the high lights of the Christian tradition. They awaken hope, evoke loyalty, quicken devotion, inspire art. Protestant astronomers cannot injure these stars any more than papal authority can multiply them. With such stars to steer by, the nadir becomes only a point of departure. The zenith in the firmament of Christianity is reached when the soul attains to a practical, thoroughgoing devotion to the Person of Jesus Christ.
When once this is conceded, there must inevitably subsist a fundamental unity between all those who are friends of the same great Friend. In such a relation it becomes possible to say of Protestant, Catholic, and Roman Catholic: —
One purpose hold where e’er they fare;
O bounding breeze, O rushing seas,
At last, at last, unite them there!
- See the Atlantic for May 1928↩