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
Wednesday Evening, October 13th
The Christian Witness
 How to Make the Witness Real
THE RIGHT REVEREND IRVING P. JOHNSON, D.D.
Bishop of Colorado
WHAT is a witness? He is one who undertakes to set forth the facts in the life of one who is on trial in order that the jury may arrive at a true verdict.
There are other purposes for which one may be a witness, but this particular function of a witness is that with which we as Christians are concerned.
In this sense, Christ's final word to His Apostles was, "Be ye witnesses unto Me, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, unto the ends of the earth."
The final charge of a leader presumably concerns that which is most vital in the cause that he is striving to bring to a successful issue.
So Christ charges us all to be witnesses unto Him.
To be a satisfactory witness one must be conversant with the facts; he must not distort these facts, and he must present to the jury that kind of a character which will impress them with his sincerity and truth.
In presenting His cause to the world, Christ first of all selected a jury of twelve men, called the Apostles, whose chief business was to bear testimony to the facts of Christ's life, which they had seen and heard.
Christ had voluntarily been tried in the secular court of Pontius Pilate, and in the ecclesiastical court of Caiaphas. In neither case had He received a fair trial.
 The judges were prejudiced. Pilate, anxious to do the Jews a favor; Caiaphas, anxious to discredit one who had won the affection of the people. His condemnation before such courts was a travesty of justice.
So, in order that posterity might have the facts from those who for three years had been with Him, and had observed His life, heard His teaching and seen His power, He chose twelve men from among the common people, whose sincerity was transparent, whose temperaments were not academic, whose temporal interests were not advanced, in order that men might have a verdict other than that of prejudice or self-interest.
The twelve Apostles were not concerned with theories about Christ; they were content to bear witness to that which they had seen and heard.
This forms the basic foundation of the Gospel.
The Gospel was founded on a biological foundation, viz., that God had manifested Himself to man in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word had been made flesh and dwelt among them.
St. Philip went down to Samaria and preached Christ unto them. They testified from their observation that Christ was the Son of God and they testified by their subsequent acts that He had built His Church upon this rock; that its foundation was not in man's wisdom but in the power of God; that its structure was not their invention but His intention; that its mission was neither local nor temporal; that it was the pillar and ground of the truth; that it was endowed with the Holy Spirit; that it was purchased with His Blood; that it was the Body in which resided His grace and power; that He would some day present that Church which He had founded to the Father without spot or wrinkle or any such thing; that, therefore, the Church was His Bride and that there could be no loyalty to Him which began with a divorcing of that relationship.
 This incorporation of Christ's life in an institution ought to impress itself upon us, as an anticipation by some twenty centuries of the modern respect for institutions, whether those of constitutional governments, industrial corporations or fraternal societies.
Indeed, those who flout the value of the Church which Christ founded and its deathless character have no sooner deposed Him from its throne than they at once establish another corporation, of which they themselves assume the leadership, and to which they give as zealous a devotion as others had given to that from which they had previously dissented.
In other words, sectarianism, by creating great institutions which have been substituted for the Holy Catholic Church, testifies to the necessity of corporations in the same breath that they seek to dissolve the one which He founded.
Thus they establish the principle in the same action in which they discredit the power of their sovereign to have done that which they presume that they have the prescience to accomplish. And yet they have not succeeded in producing an institution at all commensurate in influence and power with the one that they have displaced.
We believe in the living Church as the historic one, and we feel that we can see ultimate purposes which will be achieved by pressing the integrity of the venerable institution which still is potent out of all proportion to its numerical strength.
Not only do we, but also do Roman Catholics and Methodists alike, bear witness to the great truth that the incarnate Christ must be embodied in an institution in order to form the tie which binds the individual to Him. We differ simply in this, that we are quite unwilling to substitute Roman for Holy, or sectarian for Catholic in [100/101] the phraseology of the ancient creed, and we further believe that these two limiting adjectives are the only two limitations which our devotion will permit.
And, furthermore, we are not impressed by the attitude of our Master in His sojourn on earth, with the force of a numerical referendum.
The earth is not flat just because four hundred million orientals assert that it is, nor do we believe that the Church ever ceased to be Holy or Catholic because four hundred million occidentals claim that it is something else.
Divine truth, thank God, is not to be determined at the polls; rather, it is the Faith once for all delivered to the saints and preserved from diminution or accretion by the power of the Holy Ghost.
This Church, whatever the other limitations of the poor mortals whom God has called to sustain it, is more concerned with an adherence to Apostolic faith and practice than it is with making more proselytes. This is our strength, and yet this particular kind of strength is necessary before zeal can be according to knowledge.
It makes no difference how important you may be as an individual, or how nice a family you may have, or how wonderful an automobile you possess. Unless you start from the right premise and follow the narrow way, the whole elegant combination will land disastrously in the ditch.
Our strength lies in this conviction, that whatever the Church does, it must be true to certain standards and faithful in its witness to certain constitutional principles. And, this is good law as well as good sense.
For in any court of law, whether American or British, the individual case must be decided with reference to a common standard, and that standard in the United States is a written constitution, plus the traditions of the Court, and in England a common law which is almost wholly tradition.
 The Church is not calling upon you to accept something in religion that you do not accept in business.
The dread of all prosperity is that the Constitution and the common tradition will be undermined by critics and anarchists, who will substitute their jejuine theories for the experience of the race.
It may be that the courts will sometimes depart from the law (for human instruments are never infallible or omnipotent), but the scrapping of constitutional safeguards because of local perversions will substitute a chaos of local prejudice for any standards of justice and truth.
So long as the standards remain, any generation may rectify the errors of their fathers, but when your standards are gone, then you become the victims of mob violence and partisan bigotry.
This is recognized in the defense of secular liberty, but is denied in the pursuit of spiritual freedom, with an inconsistency that is baffling.
In conversing some weeks ago with such a pronounced radical as Mr. Clarence Darrow, we tried to find a common platform upon which we could both stand, and we agreed that it lay in the sacred character of personal liberty. We might differ completely in the application of the principle, but I believe the fundamental right of the individual is that he shall not be deprived of liberty by any other tribunal than that which is necessary to conserve the liberty of other men.
What are the essential limitations of our personal liberty?
First, we may not transgress with impunity the laws of nature, for the body that so sinneth, it will die.
Second, we may not transgress the principles of the moral law, for the soul that sinneth, it shall die.
Third, we may not transgress the laws which we have made in the state to govern our relationships with one [102/103] another. The man that defies the laws of his country will be deprived of his freedom.
Fourth, we may not, as Christians, defy the law of Christ. "If ye love me shew it by keeping my commandments." If you refuse to obey these laws, you lose the fellowship of Christ.
And that is just what the religious world has lost today, "the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace"; the sense of fellowship in religion.
Spinoza correctly said, that we have a right to expect love, joy and peace as the pervading influence of the Church, for Charity is the fulfilment of the religious life, whereas the religion which calls Him Lord, Lord, manifests the elements of discord to a distracted world, which turns in vain to fraternal societies and luncheon clubs as a substitute for the communion of Saints.
This means, I take it, that those Christians whom God has called to be witnesses to their generation and also to posterity, shall manifest not only the technique of religion, but also the mind of Christ.
It is here that we are apt to fail and to fall into the zeitgeist which surrounds us. St. John seems to me to be the Apostle whose long life attests this principle. He was a mystic, he was a sacramentalist; he surely was a Catholic. He was not lacking in virile hostility to those who garbled truth for their own aggrandizement. Neither was the Master.
But he recognized the sacramental fellowship of the Church, and those who by Baptism had put on Christ. His Gospel, we are told, struck its final note in the words of his old age, "Little children, love one another." It is that note which we need to learn. I do not care to dilate upon it, but shall put in a few words those characteristics of the witness without which his testimony to the defendant is an embarrassment, and not an assistance, no matter [103/104] how correctly the witness recites the facts. If you are on trial for your life, do not call the witness who will prejudice the jury by his manner, so that they are in no mood to accept the testimony he gives.
I am not your judge but a weak sinner. So are you, I imagine. Try to remember that the effectiveness of your testimony is limited by the manner of its delivery. Whether you like it or not, humility is the basic virtue of a Christian, the humility of St. Peter, who was far from infallible, and of St. Paul, who was sometimes irascible.
This humility is never arrogant in tone or manner, for arrogance in a witness is deadly. It is, I fancy, as tender toward heretics who are without as Christ was toward the Samaritans; as impersonal toward wealth or poverty, culture or barbarianism, wisdom or foolishness, as the Master was; as patient in enduring the stupid, the dull and the passionate as He always was; as forbearing in enduring personal persecution and insults as was He; as considerate of all those who form the Body of Christ as you would want Him to be considerate of you; as tolerant toward pious opinions which do not infringe upon your liberty as you expect others to tolerate your peculiarities and eccentricities.
In the recent war, that modern knight, Thomas Edward Lawrence, who organized Arabia and the Arabs into a splendid fighting machine which humbled Turkey more than the fleets of England, had to spend most of his time in settling the private feuds between the various Arab tribes before Turkey was in the least worried over the situation. When he succeeded in this effort, the central powers offered $50,000 for his body, dead or alive.
Until the Body of Christ composes its feuds and seeks a mutual understanding of its pious differences, I fancy the devil would agree with the American general in the Revolution who said, "Why capture General Howe, when [104/105] we would probably get an abler and more active leader in his place."
The absurdities of our fellow churchmen are most annoying to us, but the feuds which spring out of our recriminations are most consoling to the enemy of Christ.
Why disturb us when we are so occupied with one another's disagreeable traits that we have little time for aggressive warfare?
Christ is the Head of His Church, as He has been for twenty centuries, and He is inspiring the sincere and the earnest to serve Him.
As Dr. Clayton, of Tabor College, in the unique position that he occupies, has most profoundly remarked: "It is much the same kind of a person who attends the week-night prayer meeting in the Congregational Church as attends the early service in our own, and each is conscientiously seeking the presence of Christ according to His promises."
This common ground of earnestness is the hope of Christendom. Let us recognize that we are to use the forces with which He supplies us in such a way that we will seek for the mutual understanding and sympathetic purpose, rather than to sit in Moses' seat without any special invitation so to do.
Some of you have pious opinions and practices which you hold dear and which I do not greatly esteem. I in turn have many habits of speech and action which I can see are highly irritating to some of you. But we have, or ought to have, one thing in common, and that is our blood relationship with Jesus Christ, whose service is perfect freedom.
If I repudiate the claim of infallibility in the See of Peter, I am neither going to set up a similar claim in Denver, nor am I going greatly to esteem papal bulls emanating from less accredited sources. If I do not infringe your legitimate liberty, I am not asking too much in exchange that you do not censor my practices, or lack of them, for as in the Republic, so in the Church, our personal liberty is limited by the Constitution and common tradition, as interpreted in the existing courts, and not in the forum of an individual imagination.