A Letter on the Church (1946)
by Ida Friederike Görres
Trans. Anon. Dublin Review Vol. 223 (Winter 1949): 71 - 89.
Translation of Ida Friederike Görres. “Brief über die Kirche.” Frankfurter Hefte 1 (8) (1946): 716-733.
Note: This 1949 translation of "A Letter on the Church" skips several paragraphs, sometimes a page at a time, from the German edition. Jennifer Bryson plans either to add the missing passages or retranslate the whole document. If you would like to be notified when the new, complete translation is available, you may subscribe here.
‘P.S.-You must bear in mind that, if I speak strongly in various places in the Sermons against the existing state of things, it is not wantonly, but to show I feel the difficulties which certain minds are distressed with.’
NEWMAN to KEBLE, 6 September, 1843.
DEAR DR. N.,
I can't help feeling that our talk of Saturday night asks for a sequel-my answer to your final question was so abrupt and unsatisfactory- yet I must own I felt rather relieved when your hurried departure for your bus forced that sudden interruption on us.
Some things are easier written than said.
You remember: our argument began with your allusion to the Corpus Christi Procession, the first in the parish since the Nazi suppression of it. You of all people, a Protestant born and bred, actually an agnostic, mildly interested in religious phenomena of every kind, definitely averse to creeds, dogmas and denominations - you went into raptures about that festival. You thought it marvellous. It was not your first view of such a spectacle either; you stressed the fact that when public processions were still quite common in the Catholic regions of our country, you had rarely missed one, coming quite a long way by rail, if necessary, to be on the spot, even at the cost of early rising and other discomforts. You confessed to a weakness for the liturgy of our ancient monasteries. You praised the age-old wisdom of Mother Church. Though not her son, you thought it wonderful how she mastered every display of pomp and pageantry, popular with the populace, marvellously adapted to rivet the attention of the crowds, yet at the same time initiating the cultivated mind to the mystical heirloom of all ages, the common property of all higher religious development, to the inmost and esoteric core of those selfsame rites, which only the half-educated free-thinker taxed as crude and gaudy. What other weltanschauung, what religious system, you asked enthusiastically, dared in this way to join the most primitive relicts of heathen times to the remotest philosophy, feeding on the deposit of centuries, yet ever up to date and ever young, challenging and surviving every other civilization as in a strange confirmation of the allegorical Rock of Peter? Then you went on about your holiday in a Sanatorium run by nuns, and you extolled the good sisters to the skies....
How you had enjoyed the atmosphere of that house, its charm and sweetness, its air of dignity, purity and cheerful simplicity: just what you had expected from ‘spiritual’ ladies, nay, exceeding your most reckless expectations. Yet you were not even surprised, having met Catholic priests before; and here you went off again. You simply couldn’t understand the vulgar anticlericalism festering even among believing Catholics; you thought it must be merely the result of adroit political propaganda. The average Catholic priest was, to your mind, certainly as worthy of respect as of sympathy, a gentleman in every sense of the word, a highly-trained intellectual, a champion of the arts as well as a philanthropist; not to mention, of course, the hierarchy: the splendid stand the Bishops had made against the secular tyranny, Cardinal Count Galen for instance...
I seem to remember your stopping short at this point of your discourse, slightly disconcerted, perhaps, by a smile and a wink that passed between my husband and myself and you interrupted your eulogy to ask, with an almost imperceptible wavering in your assurance, whether we agreed to your assertions? Did we think it funny or forward of an outsider to urge upon us what we doubtlessly felt much more vividly, as though praising his own mother to a child-that admirable community which at any rate repays the sacrifice of intellect to those who manage to accept her odd metaphysics with lavish profusion of spiritual comfort, stimulation, edification -’
Well-and now it was my turn to try and discriminate very carefully between what seemed acceptable to the Catholic in your rhapsody and what might be but the fond illusion of one who had never approached the object of his infatuation near enough to get a good look at it. I found myself, rather to my surprise, in the slightly ludicrous rôle of the Devil's Advocate against a staunch but inexperienced admirer.
Of course we agreed to your assertions as a whole and in outline-and even in a much deeper sense than you could understand. You perceive, for instance, the beautiful and dignified tracery of the Roman ritual, but you might not even guess the silent current of invisible power flowing from the heart of the reality which these symbols veil and signify: the still, steady flow of Grace, transfusing and transforming many, many Catholics, simple, uninteresting people plodding about their everyday jobs, yet touched to the fibre of their being, permeated by this spiritual Life like the sponge with water, like the lungs with air: you could never guess it by the look of them. You were struck by the dignity and decorum of the vast worshipping crowd–but I wonder if you felt the slightest breath of that happiness, that exultation which throbbed inside the awkward and very unsatisfactory chanting and the always rather annoying mechanized monotony of congregational prayer, the joy of accompanying Our Lord Himself through the streets and lanes of our ungodly town.
You professed yourself charmed by the grace and childlike serenity of the nuns–do you suspect the bedrock of irrevocable renunciation and steady continuous mortification which all this lovely flowering presupposes? Can you visualize the wordless, unacknowledged squandering of every ounce of self in toil and service, simply taken for granted, unsparing, unrewarded, which such communities demand (as far as they have kept their original spirit), not as choice deeds of spectacular heroism, but as an everyday achievement, without truce, without holiday, comparable only to the life of good mothers? And as to priests–I do wonder if you ever met a priest as we understand him-not just as a clever or interesting specimen of a rather singular caste, not as a kind of oddity with a most peculiar hobby. Did just the picturesque aspect of the monks in choir strike you, the flowing robes, the solemn gestures, the curious persistence of mediaeval customs and tradition, or did you ever catch a glimpse of the monastic idea, a glimpse of that radiant and armoured purity, that protective sweetness and lowly dignity which is figured in the ancient saying that monks should resemble the Angels?
Well-I expect you are quite familiar with the Abbé type, an immortal character, it would seem–the brilliant talker, the suave and ornamental habitué of pious ladies' drawing-rooms or of scholarly gatherings, you are acquainted with illustrious writers, clerical professors and politicians. But these are not even the froth of real priesthood. You ought to have a look at the other type, the average parish priest of the countryside, often enough of peasant extraction, clumsy of manners, rustic in speech, badly shaved and awkward in dress, ignorant of highbrow problems, and of appalling taste in the arts, as the decorations of their living-rooms and the interior of their churches testify: yet true servants of God and of their brothers and sisters, truly servants of all so as to win all for Christ. Here again literature has spoilt our perceptions. No, I do not mean the genial village pastor of Francis Jammes or Timmermans, half a poet himself, an idyll between vineyards and lilacs, leisurely and rotund: I am speaking of the tired-out, nervous fathers of their parishes, harassed and fagged, bored to death and out of temper, because the sheer unmanageable quantity of their task is getting more beyond them every day, overridden by the ‘daily care of the churches’, ever at the mercy of doorbell and telephone. They are, as the Blessed Henry Suso called himself, indeed the jaded navvies of the Kingdom of God, ‘stumbling through the deep and dirty puddles to drag men from the foul depth of sin to Everlasting Beauty’. That's why they cannot spare leisure for music and sport and ‘personal culture’ and all the rest of it.
You just know the brilliant and remarkable people-you don't know anything about those ‘fools’ whom even their own mates abuse for being such tiresome patterns, putting ideas into people’s heads about how priests ought to be and what you can expect from them-fools who don't know how to guard their own interests of rank and station, ridiculous in their plodding earnestness and singleminded devotion, with no sense at all for ‘taking it easy’, ever taxed beyond their strength and yet, and yet, in their presence you realize with a start and a gasp what it must have been like to meet Our Lord when He walked on earth.
How could I explain to you what Catholics really feel about their priests? A certain kind of psychology and science of religion and ethnology seem to have spoilt or at least overlaid and mixed up all notions-I am afraid you see a rather motley film of associations at the mere word of ‘priest’-subtle replicas of primitive magical belief, towering Ecclesiastical Power, awe which obligatory Confession imposes on cringing souls towards those who hold sway over our inmost Conscience and the real facts are so simple! and intimate, so much more serious and more easy. Our brothers, our fathers! How I do envy other nations their custom of addressing their priests in the only sensible and natural way to my mind; Father, mon Père! Our own flesh and blood, that's what they are - not shrouded in pseudomystical haze, not set on elaborate pedestals, impenetrable and aloof, but living in our midst as servants of God and dispensers of the Mysteries; and yet in all our easy and familiar intercourse we are aware, with intense reverence, of the indelible Seal of Consecration, and we tremble with a profound and tender anxiety for each one of them because of the almost unbearable task of living up to that claim.
This, indeed, was unfamiliar lore to you. You replied, very courteously, that you certainly saw no reason for such anxiety. Of course everyone knew that in earlier centuries the Vices and Abuses of the Clergy used to be a favourite topic with friends and foes of the Church; but that had utterly changed and to the modern Catholics such grievances could not mean more than a half-forgotten nightmare of the past and a most unfair argument in the hands of present opponents. Our clergy of today was really out-and-out above such attacks or suspicions, the most reputable body of men existing.
Now what was I to reply? simply to acquiesce without condition and limitation, stressing the fact that, as nowadays gross scandal had indeed become very rare, there really was no other cause for misgivings among believers? I seem to remember having said it was rather flattering that the friendly imagination of an outsider should credit the Church with nothing but distinctions and privileges. Still, after all, Catholics do not live in quite such an Utopia.
It might be difficult for one who only knew the doctrine of the Church from books to realize how very little of it has really filtered down to common property among the faithful: what dire starvation is possible amidst abundance; the stark ignorance in which whole populations are living of the real contents of the Creed into which they have been baptized-not unlike the indifference of the fellahin among the ruins of Karnak and Gizeh as to the glories of ancient Egypt.
How large, do you think, is the average illiterate Catholic's real share of the consummate philosophy, of the illustrious ‘heirloom of Antiquity’ which, to your opinion, is the distinguishing note of the Church? not of course, as scholarly theology, but as a concrete power moulding his life from within? How far do they but feed on the stalest of husks of emotional devotions, dry morality, dwindled and shrivelled derivations from the great doctrinal truths, religious notions of dollhouse size? How many ever get beyond their schoolroom or even nursery concepts of God and the Soul? And that in spite of or because of the teaching of their clergy? And what about the tough resistance which opposes almost everywhere the efforts of those who really and truly endeavour to throw open the locked treasuries and to put their contents within reach of the masses? If you had but the faintest ideas of the struggles which accompanied the beginnings of the Liturgical Revival, the Biblical Revival in our country, you would know what I am talking about. Even today much of these most earnest and strenuous efforts to initiate the people to a deeper understanding of the Sacraments and many things akin are put down and ridiculed as mere whims and highfalutin fads, instead of recognizing them as missionary tasks of tremendous importance. What efforts does it take to bring home the social message of the Church to the conscience of her believers? How much real religion, do you think, is to be found in the so-called genuine Catholic regions, as distinct from the empty if colourful trappings of Catholic custom and folklore, mere ornaments for festive occasions, void of every real spiritual significance, just ‘Catholic superstitions to a pagan existence’, according to the startling formula of that great French apostle Abbé Godin? Superstitions shed as easily, without scruple nor regret, at the first change of environment, as the picturesque but uncomfortable apparel of local costume?
Did you really, during your visits to the Catholic countryside, meet with nothing but ‘impressive’ processions, shrines and Months of May? Did you never stray into one of the countless churches or chapels, in village or town, where the Holy Sacrifice was rattled away-certainly not 'celebrated'-with heartless and indecent hurry and negligence, Sunday and weekday, and you could not have told who was most bored by the performance, the priest or the congregation? Did you never chance upon an Easter Saturday where the most glorious and resplendent liturgy of the Christian Year was bungled and droned before almost-empty benches in the early morning, till nothing was left to its poignant and overwhelming beauty, as unknown to the average believer as the Mysteries of Mithras?
Again, your generous praise of our clergy makes me wonder how often you may have chanced upon a sermon. Was it – excuse that query – was it from pulpits you gathered your idea of the intense correspondence between pastor and flock? of the priests’
vivid and wide awareness of all the troubles, aches and problems of average men and women? Are you really convinced that our Catholic preachers make most of the stupendous and unique chance of talking every week to the most willing, trustful and patient audience, to people starving for a simple, clear and practical guidance on their way to God, ready to accept anything from that quarter? What do they ask for but a chunk of real wholesome substantial bread, not fancy stuff, a real message to feed upon, to digest, to carry home and live upon? Would they, do you think, shut their ears and spurn it, if duly offered? Why, then, are they presented, more often than not, with empty, flabby chatter, the Eternal Word watered down to flimsiest small-talk, worn-out stereotypes from outmoded homiletic manuals, weakly spiced with stories supposed to be funny or edifying, sermons neither serviceable nor intelligible (mark, I did not say brilliant nor learned!), just futile displays of the speaker's superficial 'culture', rather cheap facetiousness or repetitions of infantile catechism lessons without any relation to real adult life with its joys and fears and sorrows and worries.
It just rends your heart to hear what soldiers, prisoners, exiles record about wasted opportunities, precious unique God-sent, never to be repeated occasions of preaching the Gospel to shattered, puzzled men and women, racked with cruel unintelligible experience, thirsting like never in their lives for a Divine Answer and Message! Of course, there are exceptions, blessed and unforgettable-but how rare, how scant, compared with the occasions? Why must they be lucky exceptions? Why do they come upon us as surprises? Why is a decent sermon, after all, a rarity? Why is it a relief, on entering a Church on Sunday morning, to hear a proper sermon–mind you, I am not talking of clever, remarkable, scholarly lectures, not of eloquence or imagination, just of simple genuine talk on those things which are indeed life and death to us, ringing true, based on sound theology, touching the vital needs of the listeners’ soul, neither barren nor stilted, not artificial nor unctuous nor gushing-is it presumptuous to ask for such discourse? I am sorry to say it really is a risk to take an agnostic or a devout Protestant or even a raw convert at haphazard into a church at random; you run the risk of burdening him with a performance which can only puzzle and distress, if not shock and repel, a truly religious heart or a candid mind.
I wonder whether you could assess the number of Catholics who have lost not only their own faith, but almost every relation to religion because of the stolid, narrow, complacent and intolerably rigid Catholicism in which they grew up? Of course it is very flattering to hear your opinion on nuns and convents, and my own years at my convent school were the happiest of my childhood and youth, yet I am perfectly aware that such surroundings have been to many boarders and pupils, the severest taxation and even the shipwreck of their faith, at least of their loyalties towards the Church, and you could not in fairness assert, as is sometimes done that this only applies to irreligious natures, to girls from bad homes ‘when there was something wrong to start with’.
And now turn to our clergy. Please remember everything I said beforehand, agreeing to and stressing your eulogies and enlarging upon them. Of course, to say the very least, our clergy does keep to a good average level and leads, generally speaking, a correct life. Do you think this estimate too cautious and grudging? Well, if you have ever lived in one of our former Eastern provinces you would realize how important that prim little adjective can be. In the district where I was born and bred we certainly were not surfeited with examples of holiness nor even of decency. The clergy we grew up with! It seems like a marvel sometimes that we remained Christians at all. What to us was dry and daily matter-of-fact would seem, perhaps, to you as rather lurid and clerical fiction.
That is why anyone with even a vague idea of such shady aspects is very grateful to be living in a country where the broad average of the clergy really does keep to a good standard. Just as historians–and every Catholic ought to have some glimmering of historic sense–now and then state with huge relief what an immense progress such standards have made in the last centuries and what a blessing it is that we have had none but excellent Popes for a century and more. How should we have liked to live in a two- or even threeheaded Christendom, without the faintest notion as to who was the real Pope, with even Saints disagreeing violently on the point, and with the rivals banning the others with all their followers! I remember a grim old reverend friend of ours who was wont to grunt encouragingly every time one of us grumbled at tedious pastorals or at some choice and specially annoying bit of clerical bureaucracy: ‘I really can't understand why people fuss and fidget about such trifles instead of thanking God on their knees that bishops nowadays don't fight duels about dancers, as in the Renaissance!’ And his rather crusty remark came into my mind again when I saw, some time ago, in a castle in South Germany, a gallery of gorgeous and portly prelates from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries-splendid types of exuberant manhood, robust and lusty, proud, pampered and elegant, courtiers, statesmen, fighters, dandies, some even scholars-anything you like, save priests. Perhaps he was right, after all. Perhaps we ought just to recognize thankfully that simony, usury and luxury have ceased to be fashionable clerical pastimes.
(Of course every sensible person knows that even crude scandal can never be totally exterminated in the Church, but, if he is at all sensible, he knows as well how negligible this fact is in any judgement passed on the Church as a whole, how little ‘symptomatic’. Although, God help me, a square and candid scandal in the Bohemian or Hungarian style might sometimes be more sufferable than those mental oddities and self-deceptions which seem compatible with the ‘correct’ attitude!)
But granted all this–and remembering all the splendid and blessed types of good priests with which God ever and again favours us, despite our sins-do you think it very horrid and ungrateful if many of the Catholic faithful do feel some heartache, discussing their clergy? Are glaring crimes like cruelty, bloodfeuds, simony or lechery really the only things at which a believer might look askance in his priests? Were it not bad enough if a certain hardness of heart were something like a not too rare badge among them? Yes, hardness of heart, a profound lack of sympathy and understanding for human troubles and burdens–a painful and frightening deficiency in any man, any Christian, yet doubly disappointing in those for whom, above all others, it is written that men should know them as disciples of the Lord by the love they bear to one another. Was it always thus? Is it the special brand of our time? Is it the strange and almost weird participation in the besetting sin and fundamental evil of the present age, the secret infiltration inside the Church of just that complaint which she denounces and condemns in the World outside? I mean, could you account for this cold and passive loveless spirit by calling it a pale mirage of the sinister wave of black hate and cruelty which seems to flood the whole face of the earth? Or would this dearth of feeling, this insensibility of heart and callousness, be a lamentable but scarcely avoidable effect of a celibacy no more profoundly understood and realized, accepted merely as a negation and repression, immuring the individual in his frosty selfishness, instead of liberating him for brotherly, paternal encounter? Or would this hardness of heart be the dangerous symptom of a dearth of devotion not only towards human beings but, much more alarming, towards God? I don't want to bore you with details, but, believe me, these are not generalizations at random. Ask men and women fighting in the ranks of active charity, social workers, foremost in every campaign against human guilt and misery, pioneers and helpers, hoping against hope amid the deluge of distress and suffering: ask them where again and again they have found the least sympathy, the dullest and most indomitable resistance, the deaf ears and blank smiles of disapproval, saturated hearts sheathed with imperturbable sloth against their summons and appeals. Just you ask them who is cleverest in avoiding or turning down their prayers and importunities, readiest with offhand excuses, quickest at dubbing them fanatics or eccentrics. Of course you wouldn't get an answer out of them, faithful and unselfish hearts, least of all from the many wonderful priests among them. But amongst ourselves they do speak out, bruised with their disappointments, burning with the shame of them in face of unbelievers. That whole incredible chapter on refugees in ‘genuine Catholic regions’! Ask girls and women working in the parish-you might be amazed at their bitterness and despondency. It is certainly not glaring scandal which saps and undermines their trust, their reverence and their ardour–just coldness and smugness, selfish indolence and utter indifference is answerable for their breakdown and the ensuing lethargy.
Ever and again you come up against the aching, secret question: why are there so few really spiritual priests? So few whose deportment seems to confirm the reality of their daily intercourse with God at the Altar? So few with whom a layman, yearning for religious guidance, could have a real serious talk, could find openminded loving patience with his doubts and failures? We call them 'the spiritual ones'. What a charge to live up to! The simple layman is not as modest as some think he ought to be, he will not be put off with a whiff of ‘culture’, with an impression of comfortable housekeeping or a large and cheerful family clan-these are not the things he seeks from his priest, he can find entertainment or highbrow conversation elsewhere. What he wants is definitely a spirit of prayer, a spirit of self-sacrifice, a convincing proof of the Presence of God, a ray of genuine love; he believes that such a house ought to attract people anxious for the things of God', inquirers and sufferers, and he feels it is very unsatisfactory if there is not more of all these ingredients to be found than in a business office or, at best, in a family of average decent standards.
Is it not a pity that some priests seem to fancy that it were a short cut to the layman's religious confidence to adopt a markedly 'worldly' demeanour (fatally mistaking it for naturalness and simplicity!). The layman hates the stiff and unctuous poise beloved of clerics in earlier days, stressing the abyss between their dignity and the profane. But I believe he loathes it yet more when the priest fawns upon his moods and fashions, plays upon his snobbery, social or artistic or any other, patronizes his foibles and feels flattered by flatteries on things which the layman in his heart of hearts feels the other ought to despise or at least to disregard, such as money or titles or success in the lighter modes of flirtation. They seem to think we must needs succumb to their naturalness', but why believe this gentle and noble virtue to be on the wrong side of good manners or true dignity? It is definitely the supernatural–in its simplest, most modest garb–that we seek in those whom we would love to approach with all the holy trust and veneration due to the 'vicar', that is literally the representative of God.
Why all this zeal and watchfulness for ecclesiastic position and the respect due to it, more than for the growth of godliness in the hearts of men? Why so much suspicious defiance and coldly strategic attitude against the causes and aims of laymen working in the Church? Why so much distrust and jealousy at the very hint of independence and initiative among them, in spite of all the slogans about Catholic Action and lay apostolate? Why such a staggering play of shrewd, consistent and unscrupulous tactics when he is to be put in his place and brought to heel? You can't help remembering sometimes the smarting irony of Newman's comment, that certain ecclesiastics seem to maintain that ‘the lay spirit is barbarous, wild and stupid, and that subtle cunning the special weapon of prelates.’
Well, that was that. When I stopped for breath, you were flabbergasted. ‘Why, if that's what you feel about your Church, then why on earth are you a Roman Catholic? Forty years ago such ideas would have led you straight to the Modernists, and four centuries ago doubtlessly to Luther or Calvin!’ At that moment the alarm clock went off, which we had taken the precaution to wind up and you had to hurry to your bus.
Dear Dr. N.-now at last I am at the heart of the matter, and your question really probes our whole problem to its core: Why am I, why are we Catholics? For, you see, I am speaking for many.
Because we love our Church. This our Church, as it is. Because we love her, as nothing on earth has ever been loved nor shall be, with a passion and a tenderness comparable to none other, not to be named in the same breath-as only he may say who knows what he is talking about, the man who realizes what love means, love of marriage, of friendship, of kinship, love of nation and country. For this love, without reservation, condition or restriction, irrevocable and final, is just a part or aspect of our love of God, so intimate and sacred a thing that one can scarcely bear to discuss it–but you have started the question, you have forced my hand, so be it, I must answer you and make a fool of myself.
Don't you realize that all our criticism, our seeming rebellion, is but the complaint and indignation of love, a love not blind or infatuated, knowing no fear of breaking under the strain of faced reality, sober steady love, sharp-eyed, thoroughly capable of insight and judgement, keen, comprehensive ample consideration, without shrinking and hedging, without excusing and evasions because it believeth all, hopeth all, beareth all, endureth all things.
Our grief and wrath over many details grow from our deep realization of what the Church really is, in spite of these wrongs and blemishes: the Church of Christ, sublime and glorious. That is why we measure her every visible trait against the background of her essence, not an abstract idea, not a flight-away pretension. We cannot, and we won't, take refuge in a fictitious notion of an Invisible Church before the discredit, blame, annoyance and scandal which the Visible One offers rather too copiously. To us there is none other than herself, the Church One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, visible and invisible withal, real in both, to accept, to honour, to love, to obey in both. She is the Supreme Trust confided to us to be carried across the ages in her mysterious ‘servants form’, till the Lord come again. Then He will call us to account for every stain on her robe, every spot and wrinkle on her face. Of course, we are perfectly aware that we too are part of her disgrace, as her loving, unruly, loyal, impatient and froward children, we are part of the aspect our expostulations are chiding, every one of us responsible in good measure that the Name of God is blasphemed among the heathen.
But knowing and realizing that-does it discharge us of the real, the heavy responsibility, of the duty to be wide awake, to watch, to sift, to search, to warn, playing our part in thought and action and suffering? Could anything allow us to wallow in cheap excuses, whitewashing and advocating things which definitely ought to disappear, because they wrong and disfigure the Church? Is not, on the contrary, the habit of brazen or timid denial of every charge, of hushing over every questionable feature – to many the very essence of Church-loyalty! – a most dangerous and even fatal attempt, and its attitude in no wise different from the gross collective vanity of clan, caste or race?
Now were your turn to ask: Why do you think your Church worth such a passion of devotion, seeing her, as you do, with such unsparing severity? I somehow shrink from trying to explain to you the Doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ-after all this is a letter, not a tract. But what I might say is this:
Because she carries Truth in herself. That makes our hearts thrill with the unutterable awe of encountering God. Because, exactly as Christ Himself, ‘she was born and came into the world to this end and for that cause, that she should bear witness unto the truth’. (John xviii. 37.)
This is our sole ground and reason. Were it not valid, were she but composed of the elements you and others like you perceive and value and admire in her, the pageantry of her history, her cultural and artistic treasury, the proud security of a marvellously ordered spiritual system–what would she mean to us? I assure you we wouldn't give two hoots for all of it, were it built on a dream, a delusion, a lie. I never could understand how outsiders, even yourself, could grant a smiling and generous patronage to our Church because of these and other assets, believing all the while that all this tremendous fecundity sprang at the root from a spurious claim, bluntly speaking, a fraud. You have heard people say: 'If the Catholic Church didn't exist, you'd have had to invent it.’ It's most emphatically the other way round. We really only care for the ultimate issue.
If this one prerogative were not sound, if she, as a Body, a Whole, an Institution were not the Shrine and Incarnation of the Revelation, that is of God's entire and undiluted Message, as far as He deigned to give it; so integral, so one in herself, that not a fragment might be curtailed or lost; provided with infallible, that is, unerring power to determine what is God's share in this immense conglomerate of doctrine, law, rite, and what is human matter, comment, philosophy, custom; what we must believe to our salvation and what we are free to believe; if the Church were not the Organ and Ark of that Message of God on Earth, bequeathed and founded by Jesus Christ–then indeed, he who cares for Truth cannot but meet her with the cruel watchword: crasez l'infame.
Then indeed she would be Antichrist, the Principle of Lie incarnate and the whole display of her benefits and merits but a gigantic array of seduction. That is why those Protestants who raise that cry (as Newman did for many years, and such a lover of Truth could not have done otherwise) are sure of my esteem and even sympathy because they, at least, take the immensity of her claim over Christian conscience seriously, and the monstrosity of it, were it deceit.
But we, having heard that claim and accepted it, believing that whoever listens to her listens to God Himself, and that if an angel from heaven preached any other gospel, let him be accursed -we seek from her neither culture nor wisdom nor statesmanship nor dispensation of peace and order to human Society, no, not even the prodigious power of rescuing Charity: we seek first all the Truth of God and the ‘Ministry of Reconciliation’ and is in these the Kingdom of God and the other things are but added unto.
Does it make you smile that a modern mind should so naïvely, so pathetically, accept the quaint vaunt of 'having' Truth in some special place or institution, absolutely, definitely, tangibly?
Now listen: just because we know and realize the unfathomable darkness of that mystery of mysteries: God, hidden indeed, in the Inaccessible Light, incommensurable to every human thought, query and image; because we are haunted by the conviction that every human term and word and notion must dissolve and break, which tries to catch and encompass Him; because the Ancients were perfectly right in forbidding men to utter even the Name of God, as exceeding man's capability and worthiness and due. The more you enter into this profound awareness of your limits, the more diffident and sceptical you become in face of all swaggering assertions of merely human truth and doctrine, the more you grasp the inaccuracy, the random groping and unsatisfactory guesswork of mere brain exertion on this plane, the more you surrender to the insight into the million possibilities and the inexhaustible intricacies of error and self-delusion: the less will you talk glibly about ‘possessing’ Truth like a bit of cash, the less you can take it simply for granted that any human group can pride itself on such ‘property’. But all the more, too, will you realize what Revelation means and the depositum fidei: Truth as a trust, as a gracious gift beyond every search and expectation, to be received on your knees, to be worshipped, something to keep and to guard and to protect, most keenly alive to the terrific peril such a gem must incur at our hands. Then only do you begin realizing what the Church really means to us, our reverence, our gratitude, our sensitive jealousy and anxious tenderness for her. How could this solemn awareness of the grace bestowed upon us through her stewardship degenerate into smug conceit about that privilege? Are we not aware too of the shameful story of how that trust has fared with us?
Like any other, this treasure can be smothered and cheapened and buried –the only thing Divine Intervention has prevented us from doing is actually losing or transmuting it. It is a sad and humbling meditation to reflect how much more others have made of the fragments yet left to them and what slight benefit many of us have reaped from the lavish bounty of our heritage.
And yet, and yet, the treasure is confided to the Church.
That is why neither blunder nor mischief, neither failure nor injury, can shake our love and loyalty. Here, if anywhere, that famous saying of Newman must prevail, that ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. Even in the darkest ages of her history, in the realms of her worst corruption she has never quite betrayed her trust. She never left off being the Shrine of Truth and bearing the one irretrievable and supreme Boon across the stretch of time - even though her own members and even those responsible might not have understood more about it than the heifers which drew the Ark of the Covenant knew about that Sanctuary. And for the sake of that single achievement we are ready to forgive the Past a great deal and the Present too–as we hope to be forgiven by those who come after us, if we keep at least this trust.
From this knowledge springs the special, grim and yet tender sense of humour with which Catholics are apt to treat even crude deficiencies in their Church, a humour which serious-minded people beyond the pale are inclined to judge as frivolity. I suppose that the best funny stories about the clergy and all kinds of Catholic institutions are told amongst the faithful–but not in the same way as Party members used to crack the most devastating jokes about the Führer and his satellites. Neither the smothered spite of the oppressed nor the cynical wink of the augurs is at the bottom of this seeming levity. It is just real humour, so much akin to humility in the candid confession of its shortcomings and in the truly lighthearted laughter which ultimately leaves its troubles to the hands of God and makes play of what else might be blightening. As Chesterton insisted, every lover laughs at the beloved. Love with a laugh to it can bear strains which would be shattering to grim solemnity.
Yet it does not dissolve, it only assuages the passionate grief of the lover over the guilt and the sinful imperfections of the beloved and that is why there is a certain Christian and Catholic shade of sadness that you might almost call a hidden ingredient of our devotion to the Church, mellowed by inexhaustible indulgence and long-suffering tenderness towards what I might term the natural infirmities of the beloved. Of course we know that there are chronic diseases given with the very structure of the Church. For instance, all the difficulties implied in a human institution framed on authority and obedience. The popular Slogan of the ‘Church of Love' set up against the 'Church of Law' is just eyewash; you can as little extract legality from her being as bones from a living body.
Or take the long-lasting alliance of the Church with all ‘conservative Powers’ - a trait by no means essential to her, but a necessary part of her history; these powers having been, at least in periods, not only the champions of vested interests, but also of most sane and sacred and indispensable traditions and ideas, and from this combination grew, whilst European Society reeled and evolved and shifted, the much-discussed league with 'reactionary’ groups, which nowadays is laid to the charge of 'Religion' in general. It is rather difficult to explain such relations and interworkings to those who are sore about it, all the more when they pride themself on their disparagement of every real historic sense. The old dowager, very pious, who boasted that she had never shaken hands either with a Protestant nor with a commoner is as hard to enlighten as the sales-girls in the Park, telling each other that Catholic churches are so crammed because the clergy, favoured by Capital, promises to pay ten pounds in hard cash for every conversion.
As well state the fact that a 'genuine Catholic region' will never, as a whole, present an edifying appearance. (But honestly: do you really think an irreligious mob so much more creditable?) Because, as Newman elaborates to perfection in his Eighth and Ninth Lecture on the Difficulties of Anglicans, 'Nature tends to irreligion and vice' and 'that tendency is developed and fulfilled in any multitude of men ... and the state of the case is not altered when a nation has been baptized, nature getting the better of grace.' A mass of people is naturally the contrary of an élite and ‘the Social and Religious State of Catholic Countries is no Prejudice to the Sanctity of the Church'.
If this is so, what can you expect from those priests who are just selections and expressions and genuine specimens of that kind of popular religion, born and bred in homes that never knew any other stamp? It is not fair to expect that a few years of special and narrow training should transform the whole grain and stock of a given human being, even if our wildest dreams about perfect clerical education came true. And where the Orders still offer a large and multiform scope and stage to human activities, it would be very strange indeed if they would not extend a mighty attraction to the ambitious, the scheming, the adventurer, the social climber and even the impostor. That is why the 'Good Cause' has ever been, in its palmy days, such a hotbed for characters of that type.
If you are ready to accept an army of eighty thousand priests in a country (secular and regular clergy combined), and a perhaps yet larger host of women regulars thrown in (and they say that such numbers do not yet meet the actual pastoral demand) I suppose you must take it for granted that they cannot exist solely of genuine vocations; but after all why should we assume that the true Priest is rarer among clerical men than the true teacher among schoolmasters, the true physician among medical men, the true soldier among militarists?
Long experience has taught us: if you really will hazard dragging Ideas from their cloudy heights and kneading them into the coarse clay of tangible reality, you must face some uncouth and freakish varieties of materialization. Celibacy, of course, is all right as a principle, and seems indispensable, and even very sensible scruples and objections cannot disprove it; yet its embodiment will seldom be altogether satisfactory–though not in the way worldlings will sneer at it. If men have not mastered its real spiritual significance, who shall stop them from seeking compensation in will-to-power, cult of comfort, avarice or unreal gush, emotional deadlock or various manners of disguised sentimental life? Further, men who must eschew the usual way to virility, the encounter with women, and who fail to attain the more difficult goal of spiritual paternity will often remain fixed in a peculiar immaturity and want of stamina. Human nature stunted and narrowed instead of elevated and broadened does, more often than not, offer poor material for perfect Christian manhood. But then, do the hosts of men and women who fail to live up to wedlock, and who are maimed and thwarted in the process, present a valid plea against Catholic matrimony?
We mustn't expect obvious and essential laws of psychology to stop short before the sacred pale and simply to evaporate when tested upon religious experience. But that is what people will do and it is amazing with what a show of baby innocence they cry shame upon human beings if these prove to be such.
Am I now, in your eyes, recanting my own expostulations of yestereve? I don't dream of doing anything of that sort. I just tried to give you, even in outline, the context without which the rest remains vague and confusing. I wanted to show you how our love for our Church differs from a sort of spiritual Jingoism or an infantile need of security or an adolescent urge to blind infatuation. Of course you meet with all manner of Church loyalties, some of them very secular. Some feed upon demonstrations and propaganda and pragmatic cant about Victory and Conquests and Triumphs of the Church, on illustrious names and high figures - 'hundreds of scalps', as Newman says somewhere with unexpected sharpness. I wonder if you know those people who are most elated when a Catholic happens to win the Nobel Prize or a motor race, and who hug and hoard any perfunctory compliment or patronizing nod an infidel deigns to offer in some literary review or public speech, or who feel the Church flattered when a popular film shows a nice sporting chaplain in boxing-gloves.
Enough of this. Our relation to the Church grows solely from our relation to God. They rise and fall together. The first dialogue between the Priest and the infant on the arm of its sponsor states that solemn fact: 'What do you ask from the Church?' 'Faith.' 'What does Faith grant you?' 'Life Eternal.'
This conversation is really the whole topic of our life within the Church. She grants us Faith. She keeps and nurtures and forms it and we agree to accept every burden in return. It is literally the parable of the treasure hidden in the field and of the pearl of great price: nothing, definitely nothing, is too high a ransom.
That is why they are on a wrong scent, who fancy they might snatch all the tempting plums out of our cake, the interesting and the glamorous character, psychological niceties and artistic touches, liturgy and ritual, monasteries and saints, leaving us the stale and common dough, forbidding to fastidious palates–dogmatic constraint, compulsory morals and the ponderous and formidable machinery of clerical administration. They just miss the point, those clever eclectics, in spite of some dazzling successes in season. Blossoms plucked from the tree, however artfully strung on highbrow wires, do not make up a single living rosebush, with all its thorns and vermin and withered leaves, yet bursting into the glory of bud and flower after every winter and drought. Such lustiness of unquenchable life is not concocted in laboratories, nor can it be simulated on the long run, neither borrowed nor copied: it is just the primeval vigour of Truth believed, loved and lived.
How intensely does God's lavish wealth reveal itself to those who have resolved to pay the price for it – exceeding every effort, merit, overruling pettiness and cowardice and folly, bringing home to us, again and again, the marvellous story of the Multiplication of Loaves, that miracle that could not happen but in the throes of want and helplessness. And in one strange sense we love even the failures and gaps, for they ever remind us that we are but pilgrims on the way, that all the true splendour and grandeur of the Church is as yet only a hint, an outline, a foreboding of things to come and the veiled yet tremendously real Presence of God among us is but a shadow of the Kingdom of God which is, on the Day of Days, to supersede and to fulfil this earthly Church of ours. Inside Her we still live in the gloom of mystery from faith and hope and charity, not from sight, not from proof – and that is why we love her.
And now let me apologize for the length and the rambling awkwardness of this testimony. But then, who can speak duly of his love?
added by the translator
1. Indeed Graham Greene's Mexican hero would have seemed rather tame and commonplace among a great many of these worthies, who, to boot, could not plead to the exceptional circumstances of revolution, Civil war or religious persecution, living as they did, in safest pre-First-World-War days. And yet it is precisely from such material that, as the initiated know, in certain countries behind the Iron Curtain, the martyrs of today are gleaned and ‘the Power and the Glory’ actually walks incarnate.
2. ‘Die Geistlichen’, ‘ein Geistlicher’ is, as a colloquial term, used much more frequent to denote a member of the clergy than the word ‘Priester’, priest.
There's more to this story:
In 1947, Ida Friederike Görres published a short reply to the flurry of response that followed the publication "A Letter on the Church." Jennifer Bryson is currently translating this 1947 text into English. If you would like to be notified when it is published, you may subscribe to the occasional Ida Görres e-newsletter.
The German version of "A Letter on the Church" will be available on this website by the end of April. Stay tuned.