The Truth About His Conversion—
And His Falling Away
By W. J. BLYTON In that profound parable of the Sower, among the several kinds of mind where the seed of the Gospel does not come to harvest, there is the "stony ground " of the brilliant but worldly. As recipients of the truth, note this well, the educated arc not a bit less capricious than the unlearned. A full mind may mean a mind noisy with ambitions or fine-spun doubts, just as a vacant mind often lacks both grip and continuity of interest,
Fearless examination of historical data made the greatest of historians a Catholic; lack of spiritual insight forfeited what logic had brought him. Let us understand this astonishing case. For something not very unlike it might happen again in our century. Since his day, submissions have been made, by the hundred, and in the same place, Oxford. But what we may call his apostasy, but more fairly may call his lapsing, hardly could recur. For after his reception into the Church, in that worldly eighteenth century, as a lonely, taciturn student—neglected by tutors and university; in touch with not another living Catholic—there was hardly a soul to talk to, hardly a church to attend easily.
Just imagine the wide choke of societies and homes, of sound Catholic influence, which the shy, brilliant, bookish young man would have today— in London, Oxford or even at Winchester, within hail of his father's country seat.
I believe that they were (humanly speaking) mainly human reasons for the subsidence of his faith; that if in his day he could have taken his first doubt and incipient temptation to the university chaplain —say, the Mgr. Ronald Knox of his day —to Campion Hall, to the Dominican or Franciscan; or in London to Farm Street or the Cathedral, a mighty different chapter or two of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would have been given to the world (even though Cardinal Newman defended him against the extremer critics, as to his church history), and Byron would
not have had occasion to speak of him as " sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer."
Not "Spiritually-Minded " Gibbon was not a " spiritually-minded man ": his greatest admirer would not claim that for him. But interest in religion made him perform the one heroic deed of his industrious, humdrum, worldly life, and risk being cut off penniless by his rather, a typically conventional parent of the age. Cotter Morrison, Bagehot and Birrell have all referred with intense interest to Gibbon's silent reading himself into the Church, but none of them put his finger upon the weak spot which events found out; and perhaps none but a Catholic cotdd see where the trouble lay.
" From my childhood," Gibbon tells us, " I had been fond of religious disputation: my poor aunt has often been puzzled by the mysteries which she strove to believe." This taste for theology (which never left him) co-existing with a different temper towards religious feeling, recalls Pierre Bayle.
At Oxford, Gibbon's religious education, like everything else of culture, was almost nil. He went up at fifteen. Later he read an attack on miracles, which, instead of making him a sceptic, made him more of a believer. (It sometimes happens that controversialists produce the opposite of the intended result.)
This critic " could not destroy my implicit belief that the gift of miraculous powers was continued in the Church during the first four or five centuries of Christianity. I was unable also to resist the weight of historical evidence that within the same period most of the leading doctrines of Popery were already introduced in theory and practice. Nor was my conclusion absurd that miracles are the test of truth, and that the Church must be orthodox and pure which was so often approved by the visible interposition of the Deity,"
It was a logical and ideological conversion, from the intellect, and all done by the energy of his own mind—plus Bossuet and others.
" I read, I applauded, I believed, and surely I fell by a noble hand," he wrote. " Bossuet 'is indeed a master of all the weapons of controversy." He saw " the faults and follies, the changes and contradictions of our first Reformers " as Bossuet "dashed against each other the figurative half meanings of the Protestant sects," and, after repeating the Athanasian Creed, " I humbly acquiesced in the mystery of the Real Presence." On this, Cotter Morrison, of Lincoln College, his biographer, says it " shows the early and trenchant force of his intellect; he mastered the logical position in a moment; saw the necessity of a criterion of faith."
We shall sec. A deeper man would have moved more slowly (it took Newman, Manning and Faber longer). The root of spiritual life and experience did not exist in him. It never withered, because it never shot up. He looked at a religious issue with the coolness of a geometer or chess player—utterly unlike the converts from the Oxford Movement eighty years later.
" It now seems so natural," said Walter Bagehot, " that an Oxford man should become a Catholic, that one can hardly understand the astonishment it created. The Privy Council interfered, and examined a London bookseller—who had no concern in it. The consternation of Gibbon's relatives was enormous. From experience of Oxford, they thought it useless to have recourse to the Anglican clergy.
"So they took him to Mr. Mallet, a deist, but lie did nothing. So they sent him to Lausanne, to Pavillard, a Protestant minister; with small pocket-money, and to a sordid and uncleanly table.' The attention of the Holy See a hundred and sixty years ago was less directed to our English youth."
Birrell says the conversion " was perfectly genuine, and should never be spoken of otherwise than respectfully, but it was entirely a matter of books."
By contrast, Cardinal Newman, who suffered, as well as read in libraries, says: " Many a man will live and die upon a. dogma; no man will be a martyr for a conclusion." Gibbon tells us that a priest in London " after sou".4ing the motives and merits of my oon.w.csian, consorted to
admit me into the pale of the Church." And no blame to him. He could not test every fibre of Gibbon's mind and future. He knew the young man had shut against himself the doors of Magdalen College and was braving people who till now had not been faintly interested in his soul.
Poor Gibbon! Twenty days only after his reception, he was packed off to strangers in a foreign land; a severe ordeal, and his heart sank as Pavillard continually got at " him to wrest him from his Catholicism, and jealously watched him for long over a year abstaining on Fridays.
The collapse, long delayed, was sad when it came. And so unnecessary and irrelevant. We, who know our deep doctrinal hymns of S. Thomas Aquinas on the Blessed Sacrament, will be amazed at what shook him. Actually he thought it an argument against Transubstantiation " that the text of Scripture which inculcates the Real Presence is attested only by our sight; while it is disproved by our sight, touch, and taste." Why, it is the very distinction brought out joyfully in the hymn:
Sight, touch, and taste in Thee 'are each deceived;
The ear alone most safely is believed : I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
Than Truth's own word there is no truer
lines quoted by Queen Elizabeth to the end of her life.
Astounding that Gibbon never thought of that. His "difficulty" was an age-old commonplace: his " objection" was a happy boast of the saints and the Church's children!
It is not for us to criticise or denounce, but to learn. It seems fairly clear that Gibbon had bad no sacramental experience that his heart, and faith, and imagination had no part in his brief allegiance. Indifferent " logic " can undo what logic had previously imperfectly done. A dialectical point, which ought to have been met and overcome in the very midst of his entering the pomoerium of the city of God, stole behind him when unprepared, like a garroter, and robbed him of that intellectual structure he mistook for faith; " it smiled, and it was cold."
Never Had a Chance
It is true that he " never had a chance," and full allowance must be made for absence of opportunity to hear Mass and receive the Sacraments, amid paid hostile people; for his youth and horrible loneliness; and for the positive, pagan, prag Won:Wed is stext colum)
matic turn of his mind. But whatever else he received on that fine June morning in 1753, it was not the Gift of Faith. Can he therefore he called an " apostate "? A lonely dupe, rather, of a weak debating point.
It is all an argument in favour of emotional (as well as mental) struggle before conversion, for the gradual approach for continuous touch with the sources of Grace, for constant reference to Authority, for the Catechism, for keeping Catholic company and letting in light at once upon nascent worries and waverings. Somebody who could have smiled and quoted Adoro Te devote at the right moment might have kept Gibbon in the Church. The loss was Gibbon's.