THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH
THE function of the Church is the culture of the ideal.
You ask why there should be a Church, and why its headquarters should be Rome.
Consisting, as does the Catholic Church, of all persons who recognise the ideal as the supreme object of human aspiration, especially in things spiritual, it is inevitable that there should be an intimate bond of union and fellowship between those who make such culture the main end of existence. Inevitable also, that, prevented as most are by the exigencies of the struggle for physical existence from devoting themselves to such culture with the assiduity and intelligence necessary to secure the highest results, a class should be formed and set apart for this express purpose. It is thus that we have the division of the Church into clergy and laity.
Catholic or universal as is the Church in respect of its principles both doctrinal and practical, it follows that all who refuse to acknowledge its jurisdiction
condemn themselves to an abrogation of that which is general in favour of that which is particular. Thus the essence of sectarianism consists in its preference of a part to the whole. The part may indeed be good and true so far as it goes; but by being severed from the whole and accepted as a whole in itself, it becomes distorted from its true relations and proportions, and converted into monstrosity and falsehood. As well take a fraction of a ladder and expect to mount as high as with the whole ladder, as hope to obtain in a sect the same perfection of culture for the soul as in the Church.
It is especially in virtue of its universality that the Church is infallible. Derived from no isolated place or period, its doctrines represent the collective intuitions of the human consciousness and the collective facts of human life in their highest development. It is only because the Christian aspect of these is the highest that the Church styles itself Christian. The Church’s infallibility thus resides, not in any specific corporation or individual, but in the universal human soul. For every man, as has been said, carries within him, consciously or unconsciously, the whole paraphernalia of dogmatic theology. And of that infallibility the chief officer of the Church for the time being is the final depositary and expression. It culminates in him. If, thus invested with the expression of the soul’s ultimate conclusions, he be
fallible and erring, it is then farewell to the intuitions of humanity as a criterion of truth in matters of faith in religion and of practice in morals; for then man is himself a failure, not in respect of his real merely, but of his highest ideas and aspirations.
But, being man, and endowed with a soul, or capacity for idealisation, he must have somewhere a guide and exponent for his aspirations towards the spiritual world; and if such exponent cannot be found in the head of the Catholic Church, who and where is he? Pontifex Maximus; Bridge-Maker between the real and the ideal; Vicar of Christ – the ideal realised and vanished into the skies – and main channel through which that ideal exercises its reflex influence on man’s real; – such are the titles and such the functions of him who occupies the position of spiritual father of the whole human race. For there is on earth no other claimant; and without such an one to hold in the flesh the place assigned to Christ in the spirit, the scheme of humanity would be incomplete, the divinest part of the divine work a failure.
‘But why Rome?’ Why not? True, there is no inherent necessity for any one locality above another; but a locality there must be for things appertaining to the real, and what place can show a prescriptive right to be accepted as such compared with that of Rome? The point was settled by Providence
and history long anterior to Christianity. Precisely as Christ, the ideal man was, as we have seen, the natural sequence and outcome of the character and history of the Jewish race, so was Catholic Rome the natural sequence and outcome of pagan Rome. For ages had Rome, dominating the world’s nationalities, given man law. Who, then, more fitted, under the new dispensation, to give it gospel; and abolishing nationality and its severing influences, to unite all men under one head in the bond of an identical spiritual sentiment? And here is another analogy between Roman and Jewish history. The law imposed by Rome pagan, like that of Moses, had referred solely to man’s real. The law imposed by Rome catholic, like the gospel of Christ, had for its subject man’s ideal. And if, in its unapproachable universality and loftiness of function, Christian Rome surpasses pagan Rome, as the Gospel does the Law, and attains a height and perfection unknown and unreached elsewhere, what better title can it have to the supremacy it claims?
Moreover, of all bodies claiming to be Churches, the Roman alone has exhibited the spiritual knowledge and vitality which mark the true Church. She alone is orthodox and catholic. She alone possesses the Keys which enable her to unlock successively in their due course of development the divine mysteries of religion. There is no other system that does not
fail in these essential respects. Protestantism, whose theology is but an arbitrary selection from the body of Catholic doctrine, represents a retrograde step in that it is an appeal from the spirit to the letter, from the ideal to the material. Putting the imperfect records of a single period in the soul’s history, above the universal consciousness of the soul in all places and ages, it seeks to interpret Scripture by itself and apart from its context in humanity, and thus makes catholic doctrine the result of Christ, instead of making Christ the result of catholic doctrine!
Such narrowness and exclusiveness constitute the defect of all sectarianism whatever. Through the omission from man of some essential element, is produced a representation of Deity scarcely less partial and distorted than those of the rudest paganism. Thus, the God of the Calvinists, the greatest of the rivals of the God of Catholicism, so far from representing in unlimited degree all the characteristics of man, according to the acknowledged principle of making God in man’s image, is restricted to an absolute Will, ruling on rigid mechanical principles, devoid of any emotion save that of anger; and though accepting, in its grossest and most repulsive sense the atonement made by Christ, as an expedient, reduces it to a mere mechanical adjustment. Catholicism, it is true, includes the same system;
but by completing the human element, and idealising it as a whole, exalts it to the divine. And this it does with every element of universality which it finds in any religious or philosophical system whatever. So that while every other system represents some special aspect of humanity, Catholicism alone, at once universal and eclectic, takes humanity in its totality, and by projecting it into the infinite, sets forth a God in whom every main can find the sympathetic counterpart of himself.
Not that even within the Church all who are Catholics in name are catholic in spirit. Just as their mental or bodily development must be meagre and unsatisfactory who cultivate but one portion of their faculties, so is the spiritual condition of those who, renouncing the manysidedness necessary to build up the perfect man, confine themselves to some one doctrine, worship the embodiment of some one ideal, or attach supreme importance to some one phase of life or faith, some solitary characteristic, and ignore the whole remaining portion of the vast body of divine truth.
But if this can occur within the Catholic Church, how inexpressibly petty and poverty-stricken must appear to a catholic mind the various sects into which Christendom has divided itself; each taking for its basis some point in theology, some practice in ecclesiasticism, and rearing thereon a structure
scarce recognisable as an attempt to build up a body for Christ. The sole redeeming consideration, when one beholds the crowds of worshippers flocking to their temples, is, that these people, narrow and stunted as are their spiritual perceptions, and grossly inadequate to the comprehension of the divine significance that may be in the phrases in which their parrot-like utterances are couched, – are still, yes, whether Jew, pagan, or Christian, in so far as in them lies, or rather in so far as their spiritual guides, blind and leading the blind, have shown them the way, cultivating the ideal side of their nature, still worshipping God, though God dwarfed and starved to dimensions in accordance with their own puny imaginations.
Worship, whether it take form in prayer or in praise, means nothing unless it consists in communion with the ideal. However low that ideal may be for any man, still, being his ideal, it is his best. Wherefore the poet’s injunction, –
Leave thou thy sister when she prays,
should ever be sacredly observed, no matter how mean the would-be intruder may deem the object of the suppliant’s faith. Even the possession of infallibility confers no right to enforce any other ideal.
THE CHURCH; ITS SECRET AND METHOD, IN THEOLOGY
SO I seem to you to show that no religion is true except the Catholic, and that even that is false; and you marvel that I can thus exalt a system which I admit to be mainly founded on and occupied with illusions.
Remember that I qualified the term, and said ‘what would ordinarily be regarded, as illusions.’ But it was not to deal with the ordinary that the Church came into existence. It is ‘ordinary’ to take for granted that things which are real are alone of consequence. Yet every one’s experience contradicts the assumption, inasmuch as the beliefs, feelings, or sentiments excited in us by things, affect us infinitely more than the things themselves, so that even according to common experience the imaginary is more important to us than the actual – in fact, is the more real of the two.
I ought not, probably, to wonder at some of your observations in this connection. But, habituated as
I am to see in the ideal, at once the cause and result of the real, the Alpha and Omega of all existence, the Absolute Perfection, or Nirvana as the Buddhists term it (pace your friends the professional Orientalists,) whence all things proceed and to which they finally return, and therefore as the sole Eternal in the universe, – I am liable to overlook the very different view which the world takes of it. It is, therefore, just possible that the information I have to give you on this head, will surprise you more than aught that I have yet said. Yet so indispensable to a true comprehension of our subject, is a distinct understanding of the respective functions of the real and ideal in the Catholic, or as you naturally prefer to call it, Christian scheme, that I am disposed to think I should have done well had I gone fully into the subject at an earlier period in our correspondence.
It is necessary to premise that the Church takes little notice of God as Creator of the world, beyond formally ascribing creation to him; but concerns itself with him as the ideal of humanity – ‘God in Christ’ – an ideal in which it is impossible to recognise aught in common with the principles on which animated nature has for the most part been constructed.
In other words, the Church is what the world would, if it were given to thinking, call atheistic. But atheism is necessarily the secret of every anthropomorphic religion. For it is through failing to find
in the world external to man aught that it can recognise as God, that the Church has sought to meet man’s want of such a Being by constructing a substitute or equivalent out of the inherent characteristics of the race.
To make such a process possible it was necessary to call into existence not only the Being himself, but a region in which he should have his abode, and that both should transcend all limitations as to space, time, and conditions. The faculty whereby alone this could be done is the soul, which I have already defined as the faculty of idealisation. Through the soul and its handmaid the conscience, we attain the infinite and behold perfection. And these constitute what is called the supernatural.
Now, here is the point specially to be noted. The supernatural of the theologian is no other than the product of man’s faculty of idealisation. In exercising this faculty we transcend the limits of the real, or that which is appreciable by sense.
But this faculty, and of course also its product, are properties of the human mind. So that what theology has done is to divide human nature into two portions, and call that which appertains to and is cognisable by sense, the natural: and that which appertains to and is cognisable by spirit, the supernatural. It is to these two departments that I have so often referred as the real and the ideal.
The division of consciousness into God and self is a wrong division. Consciousness is self, and self is consciousness. For God and self, read, the ideal and the real, both of which exist in, or rather constitute, the same consciousness.
The supernatural, spiritual, or ideal, and the natural, material or real, are thus equally parts of nature. But the former, being so far as man is concerned dependent on the latter, is only reached by a process of translation, or transferring the real into the ideal, through the imagination, and regarding it as divested of limitations.
Not a single result has been attained by theology beyond those attainable on this principle. By following it we arrive in turn at every tenet and dogma of which the Church proclaims itself the recipient, originator, expositor, or guardian. In it we have, therefore, the master-key to the Creeds. Projecting man and the system of which he is a part, into the infinite existing in the imagination, we arrive successively at the ideas of God and the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, Immortality, Satan, Heaven, and Hell: a theology supernatural inasmuch as it has its source and habitat in a region transcending the physical or real; yet natural in that the ideal is as much a part or function of man as the real.
The divine for us is ever the highest and best
imaginable by us. How divine that highest and best may be, depends on our own rank in the scale of spiritual being, – depends therefore on the development and culture of our souls.
THE CHURCH; ITS SECRET AND METHOD, IN MORALS
ALTHOUGH there is no apparent connection between the Creeds and Morals, there is a real and essential one which in this ‘utilitarian’ age is rarely considered. It is, moreover, impossible to treat fully of religion without referring to the influences of the religious principle in conduct.
As by religion we signify the sense of our relation to the whole, by morals we mean the sense of our relation to the parts. The former involves our relation to God: the latter to each other. Catholicism, carrying into the real the same conscience, or sense of perfection which actuates it in regard to the ideal, necessarily refers morals and religion to an identical basis, inasmuch as there can be but one perfection in the universe, and that being God, the recognition and pursuit of it in whatever direction constitute a religious act.
The Utilitarian affects to ignore all reference to religion, or any transcendental standard in constructing his system of morals; but in so far as he
aims at what he deems a perfect system, and deems, therefore perfection, of some sort or in some degree, attainable, he is essentially religious. For him as well as for the religionist perfection has its home in the ideal: and the endeavour to translate the ideal into the real is, however unconsciously, a homage paid both to God absolute and to God made flesh. Thus saint and iconoclast alike acknowledge and reverence the Incarnation.
Where the Utilitarian, however, falls short of the highest, is in his accepting a lower standard than is consistent with the recognition of the most perfect ideal. He limits his aspirations by actual Humanity, instead of raising them to Humanity idealised, that is, God. Restricting his enthusiasm to the practical, material, or human, instead of exalting it to the divine; and placing the individual before the general, sense before spirit, he falls short of the Catholic standard. Utilitarianism, as I showed you in Letter XV, was no part of the secret and method of Jesus. Had it been so, he would have shown himself to be lacking in that element of infinity his possession of which makes him the fitting cornerstone of the Catholic Church.
Do not, however, suppose that the doctrine of perfection is not an utilitarian doctrine, even where Humanity is concerned. But its utilitarianism consists, not in limiting its aim to human convenience,
but in uniting man to the perfection which is God. Catholicism puts God first, but does not stop with that. It includes man also. Utilitarianism puts man first, or rather the convenience of individual men, and does not take God, or perfection, into the account.
At least, not consciously. The uncompromising opponent of compromise, no matter how utilitarian he may deem himself, does but tread in the steps of Christ when he exhorts to leave all and follow him, – the ideal perfection. The most pronounced infidel and radical, when seeking to overthrow altar and throne, and to bury the time honoured institutions of his country in ruins, is acting out the principle of religion if his object be, not self-advancement, but the realisation of an ideal of human life that seems to him nobler and better.
Admitting that the Church’s method in dividing the real from the ideal in human nature, and in relegating the latter to the region of the divine or supernatural, does afford apparent ground for the reproach that it treats all that appertains to the senses as fallen and base, and as requiring an exorcism at consecrated hands to redeem and sanctify it, – we must remember how potent is Sense, how unceasing its endeavours to make itself all in all, and to extinguish the divine spark of the ideal within us, and that unless dealt with as a foe whom there is no trusting,
and with whom therefore any peace must be hollow, it will ever be rising in arms against the soul.
Rightly considered, however, so far from being liable to reproach on the score I have indicated, the Church does but take advantage of a fact actually existing. It is an universal truth that for all mankind the real is below the ideal, or in other words, that we all are able to imagine something better than we can be or do; and this in every department of life, be it art, morals, or theology. In art, for instance, no subject is too mean to be treated idealistically, and thus to be sublimated into a thing of beauty. And this is what the Church seeks to do with human life. As in the meanest flower that blows may, for the sentimentalist, lie thoughts too deep for tears, so for the truly Catholic the grossest parts of our nature, even those we share in common with the brute creation, are capable of being idealised and exalted into the pure and holy. The mistake and evil consist in denying that the latter are as much parts of nature as the former, and in requiring for their purification and sanctification a grace of which the source is external to nature.
Let us apply the Church’s method to a specific example, – the relations between the sexes. If any human sentiment be sufficiently important to be deemed divine, it is surely that of love. The impulse to yield oneself to its indulgence constitutes
the chief crisis of man’s existence. To love amiss is to hazard all, to love aright to gain all, that life offers worth having. At least, to me as a celibate, and especially one who has dared to indulge dreams which once seemed not incapable of realisation, such is the light in which love appears. Dear friend, I have much for which to ask your forgiveness. Is it any atonement that the bitter reflection has ofttimes thrust itself upon me to the destruction of my soul’s repose, that in obeying the call to leave all and follow what I deemed the highest ideal, I was not only yielding to an impulse wholly selfish, and sacrificing one whom I would gladly have died to save, but actually mistaking the lower for the higher? Confident, however, am I of one thing. No man ever abandoned a sweeter real to become a soldier of the ideal. Yet not upon the Church must the blame be cast; but upon my own failure to perceive that the kingdom of the ideal is to be realised on earth, and that if we fail to take it by force here, we fail to deserve it anywhere.
Sanctified by elevation to the ideal, nothing is common or unclean. By insisting that the vow once taken shall be irrefragable, the Church ordains that none but the one supreme love possible to man or woman, shall aspire to its recognition and sanction. Knowing no repentance, such love admits no wavering in fidelity. It thus constitutes a religion in
itself, inasmuch as, being conscious of no limitations, it belongs to the category of the ideal. With no love short of this, no bond that is soluble can the Church, the guardian and exponent of the ideal, for a moment concern itself. If any choose to invoke the sanction and rite of the Church for an union impelled by any impulse short of the supreme one I have described, and to degrade the sacrament by using it to procure the gratification of a sentiment that is merely animal and transient, they do so to their own cost. They have chosen to fasten in a sacred and lasting bond, hearts which are incapable of a sacred and lasting love. The Church cannot sink its ideal to the level of such as these. Ordinary and commonplace, let them be content with such ties as they may frame for themselves, or as the civil power, whose function is restricted to the real, can make and unmake at will. But the true marriage is made in that ideal world, where flowers never fade or fall, and souls are pure and unchanging as eternity itself. Wherefore the Church in its dealing with the relations of the sexes, remains true to its mission, and transmutes that which, if left to sense would be carnal and gross, into pure spirit worthy to partake of the lot of the saints in light.
Such use of marriage, however, is regarded by the Church as possible only, not as easy or probable; and it holds as more likely to attain the kingdom
of the ideal, those who renounce wholly all delights into which sense enters. And not from the pleasures only, but from the cares and anxieties of the married state, are they free who, devoting themselves wholly to a religious life, reserve for the service of God – or culture of the ideal side of their nature – all the faculties and energies wherewith they are endowed.
Zeal is the especial characteristic of the celibate. Into the subject of his devotion he throws all the force which has been detained from love; and this in imagination as well as in act. Arrested in the direction of the sexual feelings, the idealisations of the virgin far transcend in intensity those of the wedded. Nought human approaches to their ideal. They must have something to love and to worship, or they will become mad.
There is, too, another, and a far larger class for which the Church provides a refuge. Those whose vocation is neither celibacy nor any form of the ideal, but who through defect of circumstance fail to find legitimate satisfaction for their natural affections, and are liable to brood morbidly over their disappointment. For both of these classes the Church supplies a fitting object of regard in One whose perfections can never be exaggerated, never pall by familiarity. The persons and characters of its idealised man and woman, in the imagination of
the devotee and blighted take the place that would naturally have been occupied by a real object. On the Saviour and the Virgin respectively are lavished all their capacity of loving. They too were virgin, and the mystery of sex, that supreme mystery which for Object and Subject alike is veiled, constitutes a bridge of sympathy across the gulf that divides them.
Rising by means of such culture of the ideal humanity far beyond any heights attainable by the culture of the real, and unable to fall away from grace inasmuch as the ideal suffers no reaction or relapse, but ever retains its supremacy in the empyrean of the imagination, – they come at last to regard that side of nature which they have trodden under foot as but a poor sacrifice in comparison with the joys of the heaven they have won, or hope to win.