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The Defects in Our Practical Catholicity
Five Letters to the Rt. Rev. Wm. R. Whittingham, D.D., LL.D.,
Considerations respectfully submitted to the members of the General Convention.

By the Reverend William Chauncy Langdon.

New York: American Church Press, 1871.

Letter I

FLORENCE, August 8, 1871.

MY DEAR BISHOP: I have now almost reached the period of my mission here in Italy, originally intrusted to me in the winter of 1866 and renewed in the fall of 1868; and before this letter can appear in print I shall probably be on my way back to the United States to render an account of the manner in which I have discharged my trust.

The position I have occupied, and the opportunities I have enjoyed here, have certainly been, in some respects, unique in the history of our Church. I have been enabled, as I suppose few, if any, have ever been before, to study the Roman Catholic Church nearest the centre of its own distinctive life--I may almost say from within, from the standpoint of a candid Roman Catholic--without becoming one myself or being even tempted to adopt its principles. I have, on the other hand, been enabled to look upon my own Church, as it were, from without, from the same Roman Catholic standpoint, without being tempted to doubt its principles. I have been admitted to share the confidence and hear the confessions of devout ecclesiastics and of eminent laymen, who loved and clung to their own Church, while they freely acknowledged its defects and its corruptions; and who sought to know more of ours, with equal frankness expressing their admiration of many of its characteristics, while they entertained no thought of uniting with it. I have thus had the opportunity, for a number of years, both in an extensive correspondence and in personal intercourse, and with steadily increasing frankness and earnestness, to discuss with some of the best representatives of Italian Roman Catholicism, the peculiarities of either Church and the divergencies between them, in the calm and simple spirit of truth-seeking for its own sake, free, on either side, from the biasing influence of a struggle for victory. Such an experience I cannot but think very unusual; and, in respect to the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps entirely unprecedented.

Of my observations and conclusions, my hopes and previsions of that Church, I have written often and at length, in the course of my residence in Italy: and, so far as I have felt at liberty to speak publicly of the results of these investigations, I have already laid them before the Church, again and again, in the form of stated or special reports.

But I do not feel that this better knowledge of the present internal state of the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, and especially in Italy, or of the elements of a Catholic reformation in that Church, is all that I have learned here. For myself, at least, I feel that I have gained not a little from the privilege of looking upon my own Church from without, as well as from that of studying another Church from within; and I am not willing to return home again without an attempt to lay before the Church, affectionately and respectfully, some statement of the lessons concerning our own defects which I have learned from my long residence among, and friendly intercourse with, the faithful children of a Christian system so very different from ours.

In doing this, my dear Bishop, I desire to address myself primarily to you, and to my Church under the shelter of your name. And this for several reasons. You have been, from the first, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Italian Reform Movement, under which I originally came out to Florence; you are also a member of that Committee on Church Unity, whose kindly attentions to much of what I shall have to say, I wish earnestly to ask; and you are, moreover, my own diocesan. But, permit me to add as & reason that comes even nearer home to me than these, that to you, who were the first to understand and encourage my earliest interest in the subjects to which I have since devoted the largest portion of my ministry, and to sympathize with my crude ideas concerning them; to you I know I can address myself freely without the slightest fear of being misunderstood, my Bishop, my father, and my friend.

Our Church is full of the spirit of pent-up Catholicity. It is laboring heavily under the pressure; its machinery is strained to its fullest endurance, if not beyond it, by a great power too mighty for it. It has sometimes found, and still finds vent, first in one direction and then in another, which, for a time at least, relieves the pressure; but at the same time not without injury to the Church's moral strength: and the thoughtful lover of his Church is saddened by the sight of such noble capabilities and Christian energies thus wasted, or suffered to go undirected and misdirected, because the Church has not known how to economize and turn them to their heaven-intended working purposes.

You, my dear Bishop, know that I have never, during the whole course of my ministry, allowed myself to be involved in either of the extreme policies which have lately given so much anxiety and perplexity to the Church. But I must add, frankly, that I have ever had the deepest, the intensest sympathy with what seemed to me, when divested of all adventitious circumstances, and considered entirely apart from the practical forms which it assumed, to be the great principle which was beneath them both, and which gave to both alike its life and energy. I say principle--not principles; for it is one and the same, laboring, not in antagonistic, but in complementary directions. It is to me, the great principle of Catholicity, which I solemnly believe the Holy Spirit is now evoking in every part of Christendom, to the fulfilment of the Master's promise, and to the preparation for His coming.

However sincerely I feel constrained to disapprove of tin; disloyal manner in which this pent-up Catholicity often seeks relief, I have, nevertheless, gravely questioned with myself whether the Church was herself altogether blameless, whether she, on her part, had not failed to comprehend the spirit and I he necessities of the age and of the mission to which GOD'S providence has called her; and so left stumbling blocks in the way of many of her sons, for whose special Christian energies and zeal she has utterly neglected to provide a field.

If this be true, is it not most important that the Church should rise to a larger, more comprehensive, more Catholic conception of the era, and of her own duties to that era, and that she should put forth all her wisdom and her strength, not in devising means to suppress a power which will not and which cannot be suppressed; but in directing it to purposes so far above the petty objects of its present wasted energies, that the contests which now divide the Church shall be abandoned on all sides as utterly unworthy of the solemnity of her mission, and the grandeur of the purposes for which GOD has called her.

The conviction to which I am thus giving words has been gradually growing upon me for many years; and for many years, in proportion as I realized it--and as I had the opportunity of doing so--I have ventured to plead with such as would listen to me for some provision which would enable the Church to use this tremendous moral power growing yearly stronger within her, instead of leaving it to find such vent as it might, and then trying to suppress it. But mine, alas! was not a voice which could command a hearing. Yet I return to the subject of to-day, upon the eve of another General Convention of the Church, I scarce know why, save that the fire kindles, and I must speak with my tongue.

My study of the relations of my Church toward those who are unhappily separated from her has not been, as you know, wholly one-sided; nor have my Christian sympathies been drawn out only toward the Christian truth and the Christian principle to be found in the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church.

You will remember that when first you knew me, before my entrance on the ministry, the religious zeal and energies of my early manhood were enlisted in the effort to develop practical religious co-operation with our brethren upon the Protestant side of us. I was one of the earliest founders of Young Men's Christian Associations in the United States. I believe I may fairly claim to have been the organizer of united action between these associations, at first in this country, and then upon an international scale, and the first time I came to Europe, it was as a delegate from the confederated associations of America to visit those of Europe, and to concert with them some plan of united action. That institution--its prosperity and its Christian usefulness--were my devotion and my enthusiasm; but when it exacted of me the sacrifice of my allegiance to my Church--which it did at length--I stopped, and though it cost me a severe struggle with my interests and my affections, I withdrew from it from that hour.

And yet, I do not think any essential change has taken place in my feelings or in my principles since those days of attempted work with Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist and Lutheran brethren. I love now what I loved then; and I am now laboring--probably more wisely (for I am older now)--and in a field, it would seem, removed to the other pole from them; but with the self-same yearnings and under the guidance of the self-same fundamental principles as then.

Pardon this personal retrospect. I refer to it in this way only because it seems necessary to make fully clear what I am endeavoring to say.

The lessons of this early experience on the one side, and the results of my later experience on the other, have combined to impress me with the conviction, that while there is in the Church, gathering new strength year by year, a mighty yearning to heal the divisions--to close up the gaping wounds that have rent the Body of CHRIST--our Church has never yet, as a Church, been roused to a consciousness, much less to a comprehension of this yearning, while her sons, left to their own unregulated impulses have, too generally, fallen in practice into one of two errors, which have done harm to their own cause and provoked only repression, not Catholic provision, from the Church.

We have either turned to our brethren of other communions--Protestant or Roman Catholic--as if we had no fixed, distinctive principles of our own, upon which we were grounded, and which we could not renounce, and in an exaggerated devotion to Christian unity, gone over to them, and so taught them to undervalue our Church more than ever; or, in an exaggerated devotion to our Church, we have turned to them and demanded that they should acknowledge her to be in all things the standard of truth, of Godliness, of practical Christianity, and of Catholicity; and, therefore, to come over to us. We either surrender our principles, or we thrust them controversially upon others. Is there no medium between these courses?--between either acting as though we had no firm, reasonable, well-grounded confidence in the teachings and submissive reverence for the authority of our Church, or else practically claiming for her that infallibility which we so indignantly deny to the Church of Rome? Or, rather, is the only medium between these errors, to have nothing to do with these our Christian brethren at all? One would almost think such was the opinion of the Church. She has never really girded herself up in earnest, either to lead or to direct her sons in such intercourse.

My own experience, both in its failure and in its measure of success--both in dealings with our Christian brethren who largely share with us our faith, without our organic character, and with those who share with us our ecclesiastical heritage, without so strong a sympathy in spiritual things--has convinced me that there is "a more excellent way" than any which our Church has yet discovered. It has convinced me that when the Church, weary with her fruitless endeavors to check the detailed vagaries of this great Catholic yearning, shall recognize, under all its errors of manifestation, the truth and importance of the great pent up power beneath, and rising to the grandeur of her opportunities and of her mission in this age, shall become a Catholic Church indeed; when she shall open up truly Catholic channels and organize truly Catholic agencies for all these yearnings and these energies--then, and not before, will she put a stop to all the danger of the ecclesiastical and religious factions which now disturb her peace, by depriving the Catholic spirit, which alone gives them power, of the excuse for being factious, and by economizing it, instead of vainly striving to suppress it.

Let the Church, then, recognize and act upon the principle that she can no longer "live unto herself"--that "the body is not one member, but many"--that "the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again, the head to the feet, I have no need of you;" that "whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the member rejoice with it." For through the wide range of Christianity--from that which is almost purely subjective to that which is almost exclusively objective--from that which is in danger of being dissipated into a vague and dreamy spiritualism to that which hangs over the deadly abyss of materialism--wherever there is anything of Christian life, there must be something of GOD'S truth. And every principle of GOD'S truth, no matter where it may be found, and no matter how it may be alloyed, is a necessary clement of the one great, all-embracing, harmonious Catholicity of the future, to which the Church is steadily, and now, I believe, rapidly tending.

The great Catholic-work of to-day is, therefore, not the weak surrender of a single principle which we conscientiously believe to be divinely entrusted to us; nor a crusading controversy on behalf of our Church; but the search for, and the manly recognition of, truth, wherever it may be found; nay, more, the effort to bring ourselves into loving contact with that truth, and to co-operate, so far as we consistently can do so, with all those who are doing the same: for His blessed sake, Who alone is "the Way, the Truth, the Life.''

In another letter I will endeavor to come to some practical and detailed applications of these general principles, and in the meantime, I remain, my dear Bishop, faithfully yours,


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