Project Canterbury

The Second Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 12, 13, 14, 1926

New York: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

[64] The American Catholic Revival: Its Future
Yale University, New Haven

I THINK there can be no doubt that the Catholic cause is destined to triumph in the Episcopal Church —and that for the very simple, but sufficient reason, that the Catholics, though at present a minority, know exactly what they want, and are determined to have it. Other groups in our communion seem to have no such clear or permanent plan. The Evangelical group, for example, for whom we cherish an instinctive and abiding sympathy, certainly has no advantage over us in serving the peculiar needs and harsh demands of our day. The Protestant-minded among us inherit from the past a negativism which becomes more and more of a burden as their original "protest" is forgotten. The Modernists are always plagued by the fear that the Intelligentsia will not respect them. They are constantly making gestures towards the intellectuals outside the Church, and often seem willing to jettison the faith in order to preserve their reputation for being broad-minded. But the young Intelligentsia of America are too progressive to be much interested in preserving the rags of religion, and remain [64/65] indifferent to the existence of modernist theologians, whom they regard as horses regard mules, that is, as beings who have not been wholly successful in their attempts to progress. Meanwhile, the modernists grieve and bewilder the orthodox, as, no doubt, it is their intention to do. It is always exciting to disturb and alarm the entrenched party, and make them think that the whole citadel is going down; but after a time, we may be confident, this amusement will lose its zest. The sensation caused by their mere existence in our fold will decline, they will become ashamed of us, their old-fashioned associates, and in time will probably fall away from us entirely.

Within the Catholic group there are, it is true, differences of opinion, which are often distressing enough to individuals and to parishes; but our disagreements regarding usage and devotions are almost wholly negligible compared with that vast body of doctrine and worship about which we are unanimous. No serious student of our movement would, I suppose, deny that we are at one in the maintenance of the historic faith, the defence of three creeds and seven sacraments, the desire for the visible reunion of the Catholic world, and a belief in the peculiar value of the Catholic character, which may be seen as well in St. Stephen and Jeremy Taylor as in Joan of Arc and Dr. Pusey. We are not divided. Experience leads me to believe that the future of religion will be with the united, not with the individualists. Religion is a fellowship, and cannot flourish among individualists, each believing what seems good to himself. The Church offers to the world a faith which is essentially corporate and eternally enduring—an affair of the next world as well as of this. The vagueness and divisiveness of other schools of thought seem to point to their ultimate disaster. Catholics cannot be vague, and cannot be cut off from the [65/66] momentum of Christianity which has been gathering force through the ages. And, since you have conferred upon me the office of prophet, I exercise my function by announcing fearlessly that we shall triumph, and ere long.

But here optimism must, for the moment, lapse. I have spoken of a very limited subject, the destiny of Catholicism in our communion; but there is a much more serious aspect of the subject, the present position of Christianity in the world. Let us not take a provincial view of this matter. What have Catholics to do with provincialism? Let us not fall into the besetting sin of conventions such as this, which is to belittle the forces arrayed against our cause. We are prone to tell ourselves what fine fellows we are, congratulate one another on our prospects, and adjourn to witness the dawn of a new day. In short, like all poor mortals, we are prone to build and occupy a Fool's Paradise.

The powers, then, which I find arrayed against the historic faith are of a peculiarly noxious kind. The modern world is supposed to be specially tolerant, whereas, in fact, it is as intolerant as Calvin or Torquemada. It will tolerate only what is consistent with its own philosophy, which is that of monistic determinism, the unseen tyrant that governs modern thought. Mind, I do not say Science. In all that I utter this evening I wish it to be clearly understood that I am a friend to science. Religion has nothing to fear from pure science, for science is daily becoming more mystical. Physics has destroyed matter beneath our feet, and mathematics has made way with space and time. The true pioneers of science bring us face to face with the essential mystery of existence, without a realization of which no religion can long survive. Chemistry, physics and mathematics are merging into philosophy, and philosophy may at any moment meet and embrace religion. But when we assert all this, we are [66/67] dealing only with the advance guard of scientists, whose beliefs have not yet filtered down to the general public. There is nothing of all this in the popular conceptions of science in our midst, in the magazines and handbooks of science which inoculate the public with the notion that science has established the one and only, and, indeed, the final approach to eternal truth. Never in the long history of the Christian Church did it exercise such an authority as is claimed for science by its popularisers today. It is not the "higher critics" who menace Catholicism today, nor the younger generation, nor the Ku Klux Klan, but rather this prevailing faith in the omnipotence of mechanics, which is fostered by inventors and "practical men" in our midst, who minister to the comfort and amusement of the public with patent electrical appliances, and play upon its appetite for the marvelous by entertaining it with cinema and radio. We should enjoy all these new inventions; but our constantly increasing admiration for the genius that creates them should not capture us so completely as to beget a faith that science will ultimately explain and control all the mysteries of life.

The mechanistic philosophy of the universe has, as is well known, captured our educational institutions. Every heresy, every crazy fad of so-called science, is given a hearing in school and university, but there is no place for dogmatic theology. Theology, the one "science" capable of drawing the whole mad welter of modern knowledge into order and significance, is brushed aside with contempt as the enemy, forsooth, of liberal thought. Our colleges, even the few that have remained nominally Christian, have surrendered to the modern spirit; with the result that there is no central philosophy or unifying bond in a college education. The student pursues a number of courses, but achieves no philosophy of life, other than the prevailing and ill-founded materialism of which I have spoken. [67/68] The result is that the Church, for the first time in many centuries, has no ally in the great seats of learning.

If this be true, it is not surprising that the general public should manifest a rather pointed indifference to Christianity. That indifference exhibits itself everywhere, in journalism, amusements, literature, the fine arts, club life, the domestic circle, and even in certain pulpits. I am speaking now not of what is called "religion" in magazines, but of revealed religion, theology, the historic faith. Ardent Christians are tolerated by the general public with the same patient boredom that is felt for ardent Red Men or ardent Colonial Dames. Such enthusiasms are all very well, no doubt, the public seems to feel, but why cannot their votaries keep their fad to themselves? One of our new and vigorous essayists, Mr. F. L. Lucas, from whom you can learn much about the modern spirit, writes, "Today religion is either accepted or ignored by a generation tired of arguing." The best living poets, such as Mr. Hardy and Mr. Housman in England, and Professor Leonard in this country, honestly regard Christianity as an exploded hypothesis; or, like Mr. De la Mare and Mr. Yeats, take refuge from the terrible mechanism of today in mysterious lands of their own vision. To quote Mr. Lucas again:

"Philosophy mopes and Religion mutters. This in itself need not so much matter to poetry; but it does matter to poetry, to all our creative literature, that the thinking section of society has largely lost its scale of values and is thence in danger of ceasing to have any values at all. It has come to see through so many things. It is astray in a Sahara of wind-blown, whirling dust, into which the rocks of ages have disintegrated at last."

[69] I need not tell you that what is true of poetry is true of the lesser literary arts. Mrs. Elizabeth Drew, the historian of contemporary fiction, writes of the new novel:

"The average man, having discarded the theory that the universe is a mighty maze, but not without a plan, is left with nothing but the mighty maze. . . Everywhere we see youth torturing itself about its own and other people's futility."

The younger novelists are, Mrs. Drew assures us, haunted by the stupidity, paltriness, vulgarity and meanness of life.

Thus, for the first time in many centuries, Christianity finds itself out of sympathy with the main forces and the great figures of the literary world. Add to this the ever-present temptations to a life of mere amusement and the rising tide of vulgarity and wealth, and it will be seen that the plight of Christianity is serious enough. It is illustrated in our thinning ranks, our empty churches, our poverty-stricken Sunday Schools and our lack of success in country districts.

In spite of my haste, I must cite one example of what I have referred to as the thinning of our ranks. I have resided for thirty years in the largest city in the oldest diocese of our communion. During that time no new parish has been opened up in the city, and no new parish has been needed, though the population has increased from about 97,000, in 1896, to over 180,000 today. Part of this growth is, of course, accounted for by the annexation of certain outlying towns, but the actual increase may be conservatively estimated as at least 50,000. This influx, as everywhere else, has been largely made up of the foreign-born; but the fact that the Church makes no appeal to them merely emphasizes its inertia or [69/70] provincialism. Houses of worship in New Haven are ludicrously inadequate to the population; but this does not greatly matter, because the majority of the people do not go to church, much less to the Episcopal Church. If we estimate our proportion to the population of the entire country, the result is fully as disquieting. Among the 110,000,000 people of the United States, we Anglo-Catholics are a corporal's guard, or shall we say a Gideon's army?

Gideon, I seem to remember, regarded the purgation of his forces as the first step necessary to the success of his plan; and as our numbers decline we may hope that our character and aims will become more conspicuous. We have everything to gain by the desertion of the timeservers, the unconvinced, and the lukewarm. When we have been purged as by fire, we may be again a "little flock" (such as was blessed by our Saviour), but we shall have a better chance of being taken seriously as a group of persons who do actually believe in a Trinity, an incarnate God born of a Virgin, who died and was buried and rose again for us, and who lives and gives Himself to us in the sacraments of a visible Church. That is to be our witness in future as it has been in the past. But our witness today is too often vitiated in the eyes of the world by compromise with the "intellectuals," desire for numbers, and worship of respectability. The cure for this is simple—to express ourselves so clearly and dogmatically that we shall no longer be commended chiefly for our inclusiveness.

In all that I have said thus far, I have deliberately omitted any reference to the operations of the Holy Ghost, since in your appointment of me to the office of prophet, you have not endowed me with any power to look into the mind of God. If the Spirit shall at any moment breathe upon this poor deluded world of ours and waken [70/71] our hearts, all human guesses regarding the future will be nugatory. What we all need is the Spirit's fiery love and confident hope. Without these gifts, without burning love for one another and a measure of confidence and hope in one another, no reunion among Catholics is possible; for at present we are bound by our mutual fears and suspicions. Perhaps the most practical service that we can render the cause of reunion today is to get our Catholic position clear before the world.

And it is at this point that we may sound once more the note of optimism. I do not see how any reasonable and temperate person can be despondent regarding our very remarkable growth in grace and in knowledge of our own Catholic character. Moreover, the fact that we exist is being gradually made known to the world. The unique danger to which we have been exposed for the better part of a century is that of being ignored or preposterously misunderstood by the general public. You cannot very well preach repentance while people think you are chiefly interested in getting prayers sung by candlelight. But this prevailing ignorance of our mere existence is, happily, passing away. Such conventions as this do much to disperse it. We should be thankful not only for the people whom we convert, but for the many who have come to know that we exist.

When we feel that the way is hard, it is well to remember what our fathers have endured. An amusing chapter will one day be written on the Catholic movement as reflected in English fiction of the nineteenth century. The novelists were unanimously scornful; at best the faithful Catholic was regarded as an emotionalist who would soon recover from his delusion. It was an honest and wide-spread conviction that sturdy commonsense would one day triumph over the passing cult of prettiness. Britons never, never would be slaves. A general and [71/72] popular theme among Victorian story-tellers represented a brown-eyed maiden, with curls over her ears, as conquering the scruples of a High-Church vicar. It is a favorite topic of Anthony Trollope, who, in some respects, is a fairly indulgent critic of the Oxford Movement. But he was just incapable of taking seriously early Mass, confession and the celibacy of the priesthood. In Doctor Thorne, a novel published in 1858, fourteen years after Newman's departure to Rome, he could write in this wise, of Mr. Oriel, the High-Church vicar of Greshamsbury:

"He delighted in lecterns and credence-tables, in services at dark hours on winter mornings when no one would attend, in high waistcoats and narrow white neckties, in chanted services and intoned prayers, and in all the paraphernalia of Anglican formalities which have given such offence to those of our brethren who live in daily fear of the scarlet lady."

The story tells how this priest gradually recovers, under the influence of a pretty girl, from all his convictions, and sinks into slippered comfort, to the general satisfaction of all. When the vicar gets engaged to Beatrice Gresham, the novelist sincerely believes that his feet are back in the road of sturdy British sense. There is not a hint of satire as he writes:

""What Mr. Oriel's parishioners did in these halcyon days I will not ask. His morning services, however, had been altogether given up, and he had provided himself with a very excellent curate."

Well, my friends, the day when novelists could represent Anglican Catholicism as expressing itself in credence-tables and white lawn neckties has disappeared forever. If it be not yet safe to say that it is generally understood [72/73] that we stand for Mass and confession and the historic faith, it is at least safe to say that it is coming to be so. Certainly we are no longer associated in the public mind with Anglican chants and litany-desks.

In Mr. Oriel's day, "nice people" all went to church on Sunday. Vast numbers of people went through the motions of religion because they had inherited the habit or because they served thereby the "larger interests of the community," or just because it was done. Nowadays such gentlefolk are attending church less and less. Some of them have regretfully given up their faith; some are hostile, some have grown cold, some live in the country, and some prefer to play golf or read a newspaper. Their disappearance is not to be seriously deplored, for they were all really members of the great church of Laodicea. But their loss does show very clearly the great task that now confronts us all. We can no longer depend on people to come to us. We must go out and win our members from an indifferent or hostile world. The nineteenth century alliance between the Church and the upper classes is not, in our time, at any rate, to be renewed. But I do not know that our task is essentially different from that of Christians throughout the ages. Christianity is always engaged in a fight for life. We have the advantage of seeing the issue clear before us, we have the sword of the ancient faith firm in hand. Why should we despair? If we manifest sufficient Christian love of our fellows we shall win our converts easily enough, and if we learn to show forth the joy that we feel in our religion we shall find that it is infectious, for there is nothing of which the modern world is so eagerly in search as joy. Let us become, like Saint Francis, the Troubadours of God, rather notorious for our reckless gayety and good nature, and we shall not be without the blessing that is reserved for those who rejoice in the Lord.

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