Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Mgr RH Benson - The Paradox of the Church


Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona; because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but My Father Who is in heaven. . . . Go behind me, satan, for thou savourest not the things that are of God, but the things that are of men. -- MATT. XVI. 17, 23.

WE have seen how the only reconciliation of the paradoxes of the Gospel lies in the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation. It is only to him who believes that Jesus Christ is perfect God and perfect Man that the Gospel record is coherent and intelligible.
The heretics -- men who for the most part either rejected or added to the inspired record -- were those who, on the one side, accepted Christ's Divinity and rejected the proofs of His Humanity, or accepted His Humanity and rejected the proofs of His Divinity.
In the early ages, for the most part, these accepted His Divinity and, rejecting His Humanity, invented childish miracles which they thought appropriate to a God dwelling on earth in a phantom manhood; at the present day, rejecting His Divinity, they reject also those miracles for which His Divinity alone is an adequate explanation.
Now the Catholic Church is an extension of the Incarnation. She too (though, as we shall see, the parallel is not perfect) has her Divine and Human Nature, which alone can account for the paradoxes of her history; and these paradoxes are either predicted by Christ -- asserted, that is, as part of His spiritual teaching -- or actually manifested in His own life. (We may take them as symbolised, so to speak, in those words of our Lord to St. Peter in which He first commends him as a man inspired by God and then, almost simultaneously, rebukes him as one who can rise no further than an earthly ideal at the best.)

I. (i) Just as we have already imagined a well-disposed inquirer approaching for the first time the problems of the Gospel, so let us now again imagine such a man, in whom the dawn of faith has begun, encountering the record of Catholicism.
At first all seems to him Divine. He sees, for example, how singularly unique she is, how unlike to all other human societies. Other societies depend for their very existence upon a congenial human environment; she flourishes in the most uncongenial. Other societies have their day and pass down to dissolution and corruption; she alone knows no corruption. Other dynasties rise and fall; the dynasty of Peter the Fisherman remains unmoved. Other causes wax and wane with the worldly influence which they can command; she is usually most effective when her earthiy interest is at the lowest ebb.
Or again, he falls in love with her Divine beauty and perceives even in her meanest acts a grace which he cannot understand. He notices with wonder how she takes human mortal things -- a perishing pagan language, a debased architecture, an infant science or philosophy -and infuses into them her own immortality. She takes the superstitions of a country-side and, retaining their "accidents," transubstantiates them into truth; the customs or rites of a pagan society, and makes them the symbols of a living worship. And into all she infuses a spirit that is all her own -- a spirit of delicate grace and beauty of which she alone has the secret.
It is her Divinity, then, that he sees, and rightly. But, wrongly, he draws certain one-sided conclusions. If she is so perfect, he argues (at least subconsciously), she can be nothing else than perfect; if she is so Divine she can be in no sense human. Her pontiffs must all be saints, her priests shining lights, her people stars in her firmament. If she is Divine, her policy must be unerring, her acts all gracious, her lightest movements inspired. There must be no brutality anywhere, no self-seeking, no ambition, no instability. How should there be, since she is Divine?
Such are his first instincts. And then, little by little, his disillusionment begins.
For, as he studies her record more deeply, he begins to encounter evidences of her Humanity. He reads history, and he discovers here and there a pontiff who but little in his moral character resembles Him Whose Vicar he is. He meets an apostate priest; he hears of some savagery committed in Christ's name; he talks with a convert who has returned complacently to the City of Confusion; there is gleefully related to him the history of a family who has kept the faith all through the period of persecution and lost it in the era of toleration. And he is shaken and dismayed. "How can these be in a Society that is Divine? I had trusted that it had been She who should have redeemed Israel; and now -- !"

(ii) Another man approaches the record of Catholicism from the opposite direction. To him she is a human society and nothing more; and he finds, indeed, a thousand corroborations of his theory. He views her amazing success in the first ages of Christianity -- the rapid propagation of her tenets and the growth of her influence -- and sees behind these things nothing more than the fortunate circumstance of the existence of the Roman Empire. Or he notices the sudden and rapid rise of the power of the Roman pontiff and explains this by the happy chance that moved the centre of empire to the east and left in Rome an old prestige and an empty throne. He sees how the Church has profited by the divisions in Europe; how she has inherited the old Latin genius for law and order; and he finds in these things an explanation of her unity and of her claim to rule princes and kings. She is to him just human, and no more. There is not, at first sight, a phenomenon of her life for which he cannot find a human explanation. She is interesting, as a result of innumerable complicated forces; she is venerable, as the oldest coherent society in Europe; she has the advantage of Italian diplomacy; she has been shrewd, unweary, and persevering. But she is no more.
And then, as he goes deeper, he begins to encounter phenomena which do not fall so easily under his compact little theories. If she is merely human, why do not the laws of all other human societies appear to affect her too? Why is it that she alone shows no incline towards dissolution and decay? Why has not she too split up into the component parts of which she is welded? How is it that she has preserved a unity of which all earthly unities are but shadows? Or he meets with the phenomena of her sanctity and begins to perceive that the difference between the character she produces in her saints and the character of the noblest of those who do not submit to her is one of kind and not merely of degree. If she is merely mediaeval, how is it that she commands such allegiance as that which is paid to her in modem America? If she is merely European, how is it that she alone can deal with the Oriental on his own terms? If she is merely the result of temporal circumstances, how is it that her spiritual influence shows no sign of waning when the forces that helped to build her are dispersed?

His theory too, then, becomes less confident. If she is Human, why is she so evidently Divine? If she is Divine, whence comes her obvious Humanity? So years ago men asked, If Christ be God, how could He be by the wayside and die upon the Cross? So men ask now, If Christ be Man, how could He cast out devils and rise from the dead?

II. We come back, then, to the Catholic answer. Treat the Catholic Church as Divine only and you will stumble over her scandals, her failures, and her shortcomings. Treat her as Human only and. you will be silenced by her miracles, her sanctity, and her eternal resurrections.

(i) Of course the Catholic Church is Human. She consists of fallible men, and her Humanity is not even safeguarded as was that of Christ against the incursions of sin. Always, therefore, there have been scandals, and always will be. Popes may betray their trust, in all human matters; priests their flocks; laymen their faith. No man is secure. And, again, since she is human it is perfectly true that she has profited by human circumstances for the increase of her power. Undoubtedly it was the existence of the Roman Empire, with its roads, its rapid means of transit, and its organization, that made possible the swift propagation of the Gospel in the first centuries. Undoubtedly it was the empty throne of Caesar and the prestige of Rome that developed the world's acceptance of the authority of Peter's Chair. Undoubtedly it was the divisions of Europe that cemented the Church's unity and led men to look to a Supreme Authority that might compose their differences. There is scarcely an opening in human affairs into which she has not plunged; hardly an opportunity she has missed. Human affairs, human sins and weaknesses as well as human virtues, have all contributed to her power. So grows a tree, even in uncongenial soil. The rocks that impede the roots later become their support; the rich soil, waiting for an occupant, has been drawn up into the life of the leaves; the very winds that imperilled the young sapling have developed too its power of resistance. Yet these things do not make the tree.

(ii) For her Humanity, though it is the body in which her Divinity dwells, does not create that Divinity. Certainly human circumstances have developed her, yet what but Divine Providence ordered and developed those human circumstances? What but that same power, which indwells in the Church, dwelt without her too and caused her to take root at that time and in that place which most favored her growth? Certainly she is Human. It may well be that her rulers have contradicted one another in human matters -- in science, in policy, and in discipline; but how is it, then, that they have not contradicted one another in matters that are Divine? Granted that one Pope has reversed the policy of his predecessor, then what has saved him from reversing his theology also? Certainly there have been appalling scandals, outrageous sinners, blaspheming apostates -- but what of her saints?
And, above all, she gives proof of her Divinity by that very sign to which Christ Himself pointed as a proof of His own. Granted that she dies daily -- that her cause fails in this century and in that country; that her science is discredited in this generation and her active morality in that and her ideals in a third -- how comes it that she also rises daily from the dead; that her old symbols rise again from their ruins; that her virtues are acclaimed by the children of the men who renounced her; that her bells and her music sound again where once her churches and houses were laid waste?

Here, then, is the Catholic answer and it is this alone that makes sense of history, as it is Catholic doctrine which alone makes sense of the Gospel record. The answer is identical in both cases alike, and it is this -- that the only explanation of the phenomena of the Gospels and of Church history is that the Life which produces them is both Human and Divine.

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