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Chapter Seven


The last two chapters may have laid me open to the accusation of seeing the motes in my brother's eye; rather than the beam in my own. I will therefore begin this chapter by admitting that, in examining the shortcomings of the laity before the Council, I have often had myself in mind as much as my fellow Catholics as I then knew them.

Taking the laity as a whole, we can, I think, for the purposes of our inquiry, divide them into four groups. I will call them the happy, the frightened, the law-abiding and the discontented.

Again I am dealing with types and tendencies, not individuals, and again I am leaving out the outstandingly good and holy. They always exist in the Church. They are one of the marks by which men can recognise her for what she is. Though their numbers go up and down from period to period and place to place, it is largely by their prayers and selflessness that the rest of us are kept spiritually afloat.

Starting with type one, then, we can say that the happy laity, believing and devout, like the happy clergy, loved their religion and enjoyed it. They saw the Church as a family (which it is), they believed that all the Church's teachings were true (which they are), and they welcomed every authorised practice (as was fitting they should). All this was good.

Less good was the fact that in not a few of them happiness often seems to have bred a kind of cosy contentment. It is possible for people to get a purely natural enjoyment out of religion. When that is so, religion comes to be loved more for the comfort and satisfaction it gives than because it expresses the mind and will of God, which may require something different. The disturbance of spiritual comfort, I think, explains at least some of the opposition to liturgical and other change.

The Church was also seen too much as "ours", something for "us". It was delightful if outsiders asked to come in, and they were usually, though not always, warmly welcomed. But there was not much effort to take the initiative and personally invite them to come in. After all, if people felt attracted to the Church, they could always ring the presbytery doorbell.

This attitude, among priests, produced what could be called the "chaplain  mentality". The chaplain exists to satisfy the spiritual needs of a family. When he has fulfilled those duties, he can, with a quiet conscience (supposedly), put his feet up and read a thriller. The chaplain mentality, like cosy contentment, saps the missionary spirit and strangles the evangelist.

When cosy contentment went a stage further, the Church and the faith tended to become confined with something not quite identical — the local Catholic way of life This embraced a whole lot of things from the feasts and ceremonies of the Church to the way the parish fete had always been run. It was "what we are all accustomed to", and contained, in addition to essentials, elements that are changeable and others (like the Christmas tree) not necessarily Catholic.

In its aggravated form, attachment to the "Catholic way of life" turned into a kind of "Catholic nationalism" which bred belligerent priests and lay­men, who sometimes mistook belligerence for apostolic zeal, and confined attachment to the Catholic way of life with love of the Church. It is not always easy to see the difference. "They", the non-Catholics, from being regarded with benevolent unconcern, were then seen more as a threat. Catholics must keep up a united front in face of "them" — Protestants, Freemasons, Jews, or whoever "they" might be. Anyone who let down the side in front of "them" was a "dirty no-good Catholic".

Where this attitude took root, sins were graded less according to their seriousness than according to the amount of public attention they attracted. A Catholic who got his name in the papers by going off with another man's wife was automatically worse than a businessman who underpaid his staff or made money in dubious ways but gave handsomely to Catholic charities.

Belligerence had another aspect. The faithful know they possess the fullness of revealed truth. This knowledge sometimes generated an unconscious intellectual arrogance, especially in their manner of presenting their beliefs. The temptation was to present them as though their truth were self-evident, something even a fool ought instantly to see the force of, whose non­acceptance could only be accounted for by bad will.

All this is quite different from valuing the faith above all things and being resolute in defending and preserving it, or rejoicing in the Church's beauties, glories and spiritual triumphs. Belligerent Catholics of this kind tended to forget that they owed their knowledge of the truth first and foremost to grace, not to their intelligence or merits, and that whatever the reasons for non-Catholic disbelief it was not in the ordinary sense stupidity.

It is easy to poke fun at this belligerence, and I do not want to make more of it than is fair. To a great extent it was, as is so often the case, the reaction of  the weak in the face of the strong — of the socially, educationally and culturally weak in face of the socially, educationally and culturally strong. It flourished in countries where Catholics were in a minority or the surrounding non-Catholic culture was felt as a threat. Who today with an ounce of common sense left will say it was not?

In the once Catholic countries of Europe, belligerence was a side-effect of the battle going on since the French revolution between Catholics and the various kinds of organised unbelief, as Catholics tried to hold on to or recapture control of the state, and the forces of unbelief tried to outwit them.

The struggle, about which I shall be saying more later, has been a confused one in which differences about politics, economics and social change have been as important as the defence of religion or its overthrow. In the heat of it, Catholics sometimes forgot they could not always use the methods and language of their opponents; that returning abuse for abuse and giving way to vindictiveness or hate were forbidden. The struggle was hottest in France, where vitriolic classical rhetoric and revolutionary oratory are part of the national literary tradition. Unfortunately, Catholic writers elsewhere tended to copy the French polemical style. It does not always mean all that it seems to mean, but Pope Paid seemed to have had it in mind when he wrote: "the right-minded Catholic detests malicious and indiscriminate hostility and empty boastful speech".

The battle is now over, the Catholics having lost.

Happy Catholics, who were to be found in all classes and callings, were not as yet troubled by intellectual questionings. Though often well-informed about the faith, they did not read adventurously. Yet many uncatholic points of view had nevertheless begun to colour their religious outlook.

The much put-about idea that Catholics before the Council had not met the modern world does not bear examination.1 They were part of it. They earned their livings by it. Most of them thoroughly approved of it — in some ways too much. Pope Pius XI (1922-39) called this over-ready approval of existing things "social modernism", by which he did not mean flirting with socialism. He was referring in particular to the attempts by certain influential French Catholics to prevent one of his social encyclicals from being read from the pulpit. But he also had in mind any wrong conformity or falling-in by Catholics with standards and practices out of keeping with their beliefs.

The point is not that Catholics failed to appreciate the modern world, but that they did not bring a fully informed Catholic judgement to bear on its complex manifestations. They seemed to see only two alternatives; trying to hold the world at bay, or a close embrace. The usual result was an uneasy synthesis of both approaches. Religion was for church and home. Outside these two oases, they felt they could approve or take part without qualms in more or less anything that went on in society except sexual indecency and flagrant dishonesty. In fact they were simply accepting the classical 19th-century liberal position that religion is a purely private affair; it and the rest of life should exist in separate compartments.

By tacitly consenting to this division (by keeping their religion for Church and upstairs with their rosary beads), one could say that they prevented the modern world from meeting the Church in which it would find Jesus Christ living and reigning in the here and now. If they lived in a "ghetto", or had a "ghetto mentality", it was in this sense that they did so.

With the moneyed and employing classes, "social modernism" usually meant a too ready toleration of low wages and bad working conditions for the majority; in their social and economic attitudes most were unreflecting laissez-faire liberals. 2

Seeing a rising standard of living as God's greatest blessing was to be another form of social modernism. So was the largely unqualified welcome given to television when "the box" entered Catholic homes, presbyteries and convents in the late 1940s.

The part played by affluence and television in the collapse after the Council has yet to be assessed. Should bishops have forestalled their effects with penitential processions? How many of St. Paul's converts would have survived if they had been nightly exposed to the more sophisticated goings-on — cultural, social, theatrical — of Rome, Antioch and Alexandria?

These were the main forms of social modernism before the Council. In the middle and upper classes the result could be an unattractive blend of piety and worldliness or social selfishness, which is what the politically radicalised French clergy are talking about when they castigate "bourgeois Catholicism"? However, the French Catholic bourgeoisie being in other respects orthodox (the failure was one of charity rather than faith), the wholesale assault on "bourgeois Catholicism" in France has also involved an assault on essential Catholic beliefs and legitimate religious practices, which were equally part of the Catholic "bourgeois" way of life.

I will end this section with a look at two notions current in the West which the faithful had begun to absorb on the semi-conscious level, their influence being quite out of proportion to their value as ideas. We can summarise them thus: "When people die, they all go to heaven — if there is a heaven", and "Everyone is basically good, provided they are clean and behave decently".

Of the first we can say that, leaving aside the question of whether we all get to heaven eventually (which one would certainly like to think), the idea that heaven is more or less a certainty hardly makes spreading the Gospel seem a matter of urgency.

The second, the idea that everyone is "basically nice" provided they are clean and reasonably well-behaved, inclined Catholics to equate decent behaviour and pleasant manners with supernatural goodness. Decent people, it was felt, cannot be guilty of serious sin. In fact these are natural virtues, good in themselves, which are very much a matter of upbringing. By the power of habit they can survive when a man has turned his back on God.

From here, if they practised their religion and behaved well, it was easy for Catholics to slide into thinking of themselves as "good" too. In this they were often unintentionally encouraged by priests who talked too unreflectingly about good Catholics and poor Catholics — the "good" being those who came often to Church and did what the parish priest wanted, while the "poor" were those who came rarely, even when they came as much as the Church's law required.

Strictly speaking, all Catholics in a state of grace are among those whom Scripture calls "the just". But Catholics, even in a state of grace — the first necessity  are still meant to think of themselves as sinners. When the great apostle of counter-reformation Rome, St. Philip Neri, was told by a tactless simpleton how holy he was, he retorted vehemently "I am a devil". He was not putting on a pious show. He meant that he knew what he was capable of being and doing if for an instant God withdrew his grace. St. Francis of Assisi gave a similar reply to a similar simpleton. So did Cardinal Newman.

Christians, heaven knows, should prize the state of grace above all things. But if they become unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as sinners and accustomed to valuing the feeling that they are nice and good, they will be tempted. Under these conditions, If they do fall into serious sin, instead of being sorry for having offended God they will be angry at no longer being able to think well of themselves.

This attitude of mind has, I think, not a little to do with today's drive by lay people to have the Church alter its moral teaching. It would also explain the anxiety of so many European and American bishops to accommodate them. The Church must allow contraception and divorce, one hears it argued, because "so many of our best Catholics want them.” As far as one can see, the only reason why the prelates in question regard these particular Catholics as the best is that they are well-off, well-educated and have the right table manners.

This is very much a middle-class phenomenon. When the poor decide to break a law of God, they don't normally expect the Church to alter her teaching so that they can continue to think well of themselves. They are not astonished at finding themselves sinners. In this they have more in common with the rich and the grand who, whatever their other failings, are not usually interested in a reputation for moral rectitude either.

Notes to Chapter Seven

1. What those who make the charge seem to mean is that Catholics as a whole had not read the non-Christian writers and thinkers who have increasingly been shaping the mind of Western society.

2. Pius XI called the loss of the European working class the great tragedy for the Church in recent times. There were two other tragedies. One was the departure of so many of the new middle class of industrial managers and business and professional men (converted in large numbers to scepticism and free-thinking during the 19th century) who thus fell outside the Church's influence. The other was the failure to instruct the bulk of those who remained in the Church in their duties as employers. The development of the Church's social teaching, the work of a minority of apostolic bishops, priests and lay people in collaboration with the Holy See, was an attempt to remedy the situation.

3. Francois Mauriac's novels Le Noeud de Vipères, Le Désert de l’Amour, and La Pharisienne give a good idea of what they had in mind. It wasn't confined to the bourgeoisie. However it is worth recalling that St.Thérèse of Lisieux, now a Doctor of the Church, was nourished on a piety that would have been classified as bourgeois.


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Copyright © Philip Trower 2003, 2017

Version: 21st March 2017

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